1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Wolcot

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 8:192-96.



JOHN WOLCOTT, better known by his soubriquet, Peter Pindar, was born at Dodbrooke in Devonshire, in the year 1788. His parents were not in affluent circumstances. He was, however, educated at the grammar school of the neighbouring town of Kingsbridge; and, if we may judge by his proficiency in those branches which are usually taught in a country school, his instructor must have been a man of considerable abilities. The knowledge of Latin and Greek which he acquired, though not profound, was extensive; and his classical attainments were altogether of a respectable order.

From Kingsbridge he went to a seminary at Bodmin, and finally he was sent to France, and remained in that country about a year to complete his studies. On his return he was taken apprentice for seven years by an unmarried uncle, who practised as a surgeon and apothecary at Rowey in Cornwall.

From his early years he cherished a taste for the sister-accomplishments of drawing and poetical composition. The pencil and pen now divided his leisure hours. "As my uncle was always averse to my shining," he says in one of his letters, "I used to steal away to an old ruined tower, situate on a rock close by the sea, where many an early and late hour was devoted to the muses." His studies from nature in painting are stated to have been done in a free and bold style; — displaying a thorough conception of what is great in the art.

On the expiration of his apprenticeship, Wolcott, as is customary, came to London, where he continued his medical studies in the hospitals, and under the direction of the ablest professors and lecturers of that day. In 1766 Sir William Trelawney, a friend and distant relation of his family, was appointed governor of Jamaica, and, in the following season he carried out young Wolcott with him as his physician. The brief memoir prefixed to Pindar's work alleges that the author obtained his degree of M.D. on his return from Jamaica; but the fact is, that it was conferred upon him by a northern university previous to his leaving England. Soon after his arrival in Jamaica, Dr. Wolcott was nominated by his patron physician-general of the island; but it does not appear that this sonorous title was accompanied by a corresponding revenue, or that his private practice as a physician was of a lucrative kind. This accounts for his turning his attention to the church. The illness of the rector of St. Anne's seems to have been the proximate cause of the Doctor's inclination towards divinity; the living was rich, and Sir William Trelawney was equally willing to promote his interests in the cure of souls as of bodies. It has been said that the bishop of London disappointed his expectations in this line, by refusing him ordination; this is not correct, for he actually took orders and returned to Jamaica, where he found the incumbent of St. Anne's restored to health, and where, soon after, his friend the governor died, having been able to do nothing more for our medical clerk than giving him the living of Vere, in which he placed a curate, residing himself at the Government house in Spanish Town. Of the unfitness of Wolcott for the Christian ministry there can be but one opinion. His conversation was stained with the vulgarity of frequent oaths, and he spoke not only lightly but contemptuously of religion.

On the decease of Trelawney he returned home, and established himself as a physician at Truro. The most memorable circumstance connected with his history at this period, is his having discovered the genius of young Opie, under circumstances already related in our notice of that artist. Such was his temper, unfortunately, that few or none of his friendships survived many years. When he broke with Opie, he took Mr. Paye, an artist of much promise, under his protection; lodged in his house, advised, and praised him in public. But Paye never rose to be a rival to the discarded Opie, and the connexion between him and Pindar was soon dissolved.

Great success and celebrity attended the first publication under the signature of Peter Pindar, viz. the Epistle to those Literary Colossuses the Reviewers, and the Lyric Odes to the Royal Academicians. The king had been incidentally assailed in these compositions; but the next step of the poet, who had now removed to London, was to assign an entire work to the loyal and laudable project of rendering his sovereign ridiculous. The Lousiad, a clever mock heroic, in four cantos, was the result. It was agitated in the privy-council, he observes in one of his letters, "to attack me for my writings, particularly the Lousiad; but 'Are you sure of a verdict?' said a lord high in the law, Chancellor Thurlow; 'if not so, we shall look like a parcel of fools.'" Bozzy and Piozzi, a burlesque on the biographers of Dr. Johnson, was his next publication. Ode upon Ode, or a Peep at St. James's; or New Year's Day, followed, and helped to carry on the scurrilous system for bringing the king and royal family into contempt. These various publications being got up at a very small expense, and sold in immense numbers, at from eighteen-pence to half-a-crown, must have brought large sums to the coffers of their author.

Of the same genius was Peter's Prophecy, an Epistle to Sir Joseph Banks, in which the president of the Royal society is very roughly handled; and Peter's Pension, a solemn Epistle to a Sublime Personage, in which, between jest and earnest, the poet expresses his willingness to be pensioned. This partly jocular and facetious, partly abusive, and partly serious proposition, was likely enough to be received like those sayings in which more is meant than meets the ear. Dr. Wolcott asserted, that "he was solicited by the administration to fall into their ranks. That his answer was, he had no praise to bestow, but if silence would content them, he would muzzle his muse. That the offer was accepted, but it was sometime after hinted to him, having been paid two quarters' pension, that active co-operation was expected. That he, in consequence, waited upon Mr. Charles Long, the secretary of the treasury, who, after some general conversation, informed the doctor that there was money floating in that mine for such as deserved well of the government. This, of course, startled the virtuous and independent satirist, who, snatching his hat, hastily withdrew, and refused to take the pension, of which one half year, amounting to 100, was then due."

The Poetical Epistle to a Falling Minister, was succeeded by Subjects for Painters, in which a multitude of stories are versified, most of them humorous, and some vulgar and profane; and this work was in turn succeeded by Expostulatory Odes to a Great Duke and a Little Lord, Benevolent Epistle to John Nichols, Advice to the Laureat, Epistle to Bruce the Abyssinian Traveller, The Rights of Kings, &c. &c.

Although he had thus realized property by means tending very much to revolutionize, Peter Pindar was no friend to revolutionizing in other hands and in another way. About 1792 he attacked Tom Paine in a series of odes commencing thus:

O Paine! thy vast endeavour I admire!
How brave the hope to set a realm on fire!
Ambition, smiling, praised thy giant wish:
Compared to thee, the man, to gain a name,
Who to Diana's temple put the flame,
A simple minnow to the king of fish.
Say, didst thou fear that Britain was too blest
Of peace thou most delicious pest?
How shameful that this pin's head of an isle,
While half the globe's in grief, should wear a smile!

Some of the lashing is very forcible. After ironically praising the design, the poet exclaims,—

What pity thy Combustibles were bad!
How death had grinn'd delight and hell been glad
To see our liberties o'erturning.

Veering from the abuse of reformers to the abuse of ministers, Peter Pindar pursued his profitable course, publishing annually a number of odes, epistles, satires, in which politics, personalities, the arts, literature science, tales, humour and love, were oddly blended, and often finely treated. An edition of Pilkington's Dictionary of Painters, in which he wrote the life of Richard Wilson, was the only work of magnitude, independent of his poems, which we have heard of his having executed.

The pursuits of Wolcott were not those which are calculated to secure an easy and quiet life. Earning his bread by the continual publication of satire, as it is called, but in truth of much professional invective and personal slander, the world rewarded him neither with public honours nor private friendships. His wit indeed was relished by the multitude, and the better parts of his genius applauded even by the wise and good, who, while they praised the talent, detested the principles of the writer; but his existence was one of warfare, — "his hand was against every man, and the hand of every man was against him." His furious assault upon the author of the Baviad, in the shop of Mr. Wright, then a bookseller in Piccadilly, was a memorable affair. The man who had with his pen so bitterly attacked all ranks of society could not endure a similar infliction upon himself, but resorted to ruffianly violence in revenge. The editor of the Monthly Magazine says: "The doctor's assault on W. Gifford the poet, is well-remembered; but, in truth, as he has often confessed since, he mistook his man, and intended that chastisement for J. Gifford, editor of the Anti-jacobin. He used, however, pleasantly to say, that they both deserved it; and therefore 'it was all one.' In reply to a civil note from the editor on the subject, be sent the following: 'Dear Sir, — I am much obliged by your friendly intentions. It was but a fair piece of justice due to my character as a man to attack at any disadvantages such a calumniating ruffian as Gifford, the instant he came within the reach of my vengeance. Had not Wright and his customers, and his Frenchman and his shopmen, hustled me and wrestled the cane from my hand and then confined my arms, I should have done complete justice to my cause. As it was, he had a smart taste of what he will experience in future, wherever I find him. Such a pest of society ought to be driven from its bosom — such is Gifford, lately a poor despicable cobbler of Ashburton! such is one of the literary pillars of Pitt's administration! Perhaps you do not know that this fellow is a magistrate, and possesses an annual income of nearly one thousand pounds a year under government, to support its dignity by defamation.'"

The outraged "cobbler" took severe revenge on his assailant in an Epistle to Peter Pindar, in which the following lines occur:

Thou may'st toil and strain,
Ransack, for filth, thy heart; for lies, thy brain;
Rave, storm; — 'tis fruitless all. Of this be sure,
Abuse of me will ne'er 'one sprat procure;
Bribe one night cellar to invite thee in
Purchase one draught of gunpowder and gin;
Seduce one brothel to display its charms,
Nor lure one bobbling strumpet to thy arms.

False fugitive! back to thy vomit flee—
Troll the lascivious song, the fulsome glee;
Truck praise for lust, hunt infant genius down,
Strip modest merit of its last half-crown;
Blow from thy mildewed lips, on virtue blow,
And blight the goodness thou canst never know.
———*———*———*———*———
But what is he, that, with a Mohawk's air,
"Cries havock, and lets slip the dogs of war?"
A blotted mass, a gross, blood-boltered clod,
A foe to man, a renegade from God,
From noxious childhood to pernicious age,
Separate to infamy, in every stage.

Lo! here the reptile! who from some dark cell,
Where all his veins with native poison swell,
Crawls forth, a slimy toad, and spits and spues
The crude abortions of his loathsome muse
On all that genius, all that worth holds dear,
Unsullied rank, and piety sincere;
While idiot mirth the base defilement lauds,
And malice, with averted face, applauds.

Lo, here the brutal sot! who drenched with gin,
Lashes his withered nerves to tasteless sin;
Squeals out, with oaths and blasphemies between,
The impious song, the tale, the jest obscene;
And careless views amidst the barbarous roar,
His few grey hairs strew, one by one, the floor!
Lo! here the wrinkled profligate! who stands
On nature's verge, and from his leprous hands
Shakes tainted verse; who bids us, with the price
Of rancorous falsehoods, pander to his vice;
Give him to live the future as the past,
And in pollution wallow to the last!

Wolcott was a man of vigorous constitution, and tasked that blessing to the uttermost in the gratification of sensual appetites. In 1807 an action was brought against him for crim. con., but he was acquitted. In 1812 the whole of his works appeared in five volumes, octavo; after this time he wrote but little, having completely lost his eyesight, which the operation of couching in 1814 failed to restore. His last work was An Epistle to the Emperor of China, occasioned by the unfavourable result of Lord Amherst's embassy, which appeared in 1817. He lived for some years in Gooch-street, where he once narrowly escaped being burnt to death, together with the old woman who attended him in his blindness: the bed-curtains of his domestic having caught fire, the blaze was luckily seen by a hackney-coachman on the stand opposite the house, who rushed in, in time to save Pindar and his housekeeper. From Gooch-street he removed for country air to Somer's-town, where he died on the 13th of January, 1819, after a lingering, but not painful illness, in his 81st year. It is said that he dictated verses within a few days of his death: he had contributed slight productions to the periodical press within a year or two preceding.