1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Hugh Downman

Samuel Parr, "Memoir of Hugh Downman" Gentleman's Magazine 80 (January 1810) 81-84.



Dr. HUGH DOWNMAN (whose death we recorded in vol. LXXIX. p. 985) the son of Mr. Hugh Downman, a most respectable country gentleman, was born at Newton House in the village of Newton St. Cyres, near Exeter, in the year 1740. His school education was begun and completed under the care of the Rev. T. Hodgkinson, master of the Free Grammar school at Exeter. His earlier years seem to have attracted little notice; for the more solid intellectual distinctions are seldom rapid in their evolution, and the judgment which we admire in maturer life dazzles in a very few instances by early brilliancy. He was, however, nearly at the head of the school, among companions who have since been distinguished in the higher ranks of Literature. About the year 1758, he went to Oxford, and was entered at Baliol college, where he continued till he had taken his Batchelor's degree. About the year 1762, he was ordained, I believe by Bp. Lavington in the Cathedral of Exeter.

About this period his poetical genius began to expand, and its early blossoms were lively jeux d'esprits, and lighter pieces of fancy and mirth, rather than "strains of a higher mood." The study of Divinity seems to have had few attractions for him, and his prospects in the Church were not very alluring. His situation was more distressing, as his attachment to the second daughter of Dr. Andrew, an eminent physician in Exeter, and a near relation of Lord Courtenay, had then commenced, and a more lucrative profession was necessary. By the advice of his friends, he therefore diverted his attention to Medicine; and, in 1765, repaired to Edinburgh to prosecute his studies in that branch of science. Accident seems to have placed him in the house of Dr. Blacklock, with his countryman Dr. Penny, Dr. Warren of Taunton, and, I believe, Dr. Birdwood of Totnes. These gentlemen were at least his contemporaries, and the most intimate friendly communications were carried on between them to the end of their respective lives. Dr. Downman long survived them all.

Dr. Downman's poetical talents were early discovered at Edinburgh; and Dr. Blacklock, "himself a Muse," ardently embraced a brother of Arcadia. He was no admirer of Spenser, and in a familiar conversation, Spenser was once the subject. Dr. Penny remarked, that his dislike was unreasonable, and that one book, at least, of the Fairy Queen, was not less remarkable for its elegance and poetical beauties, than for the spirit and fancy of its descriptions; this was, he said, intituled, The Land of the Muses. Dr. Blacklock did not remember it, and the book was brought, not Spenser's, but Downman's, which Dr. Blacklock's infirmity prevented him from discovering. He admired it greatly, on Dr. Penny's reading it, and the next morning told his assistant to take down Spenser, and read to him the Land of the Muses. No such book was however to be found, and the pleasant imposition was soon explained. It is probable from the address to Dr. Blacklock, however, that the plan was designed, and the poem written for the purpose: "Which thee alone t' amuse first framed were." This poem was published at Edinburgh in 1768, and has never been reprinted.

After three years spent in Edinburgh, he repaired in 1769 to London, where he attended the hospitals and dissections during one winter. At this time he took his degree of Master of Arts at Cambridge, with which he received, as usual in the English Universities, a licence to practise. He settled in Exeter soon after.

No long period elapsed before his union with Miss F. Andrew took place; a conjugal connection peculiarly congenial; since they lived in an uninterrupted harmony for nearly 40 years, often in scenes of pain and sickness highly distressing. A physician seldom finds his earlier paths strewed with flowers; but Dr. Downman was so well known and so generally esteemed, that he was received with the greatest respect in his new character, and the death or removal of some of his colleagues soon left the field more open. Many years, however, had not elapsed before a chronic complaint, the effect, perhaps, of inactivity during the period of study in his earlier years, disabled him from pursuing his profession; and he was compelled, in 1776, to seek in milder situations, and by successive changes of place, that health which was denied him in the city. With an unexpected elasticity, however, his mind struggled through the languor of his corporeal frame, and its powers were exerted in poetical composition. The first public effort of his Muse, at this time, was the tragedy of LUCIUS JUNIUS BRUTUS, which I have reason to think was a more early attempt, revised or completed about this period. The Play, for it scarcely can be arranged with Comedy or Tragedy, is not conducted according to the rules of the Stagirite; but is a continued narrative, like the Historical Plays of Shakspeare, and contains an account of the last atrocious act of the last of the Tarquins, with the expulsion of that race by the patriotic efforts of Brutus. It was said, that he aimed at Shakspeare and hit Massinger. To those acquainted with Massinger, this will appear no common praise: but even cold Criticism must acknowledge, that he rises far superior to the latter Author, and that his animated, energetic language fixes the attention, and excites imperceptibly our approbation. The less ornamented style, which he has adopted, arose not from inability of soaring to a greater height, but from his contempt of the glittering ornaments of the more modern meretricious writers; of the Della Crusca school, before Anna Matilda and her associates were known. He has thus introduced an Officer describing in a circuitous, but highly poetical, style, where he had seen Collatinus, a description stigmatized by Aruns as "tedious dull prolixity," a "faint, fribbling, coxcomb-like minuteness." The speech is evidently introduced for the sake of the censure, as Claudius, in the remaining scenes, speaks in a more direct and pointed language. Lucius Junius Brutus was presented to the Managers of the London Theatres for representation, but rejected as not containing sufficient business to attract an audience. It wits published separately in 1779. EDITHA, his third tragedy, is less liable to this objection, and, as founded on a local event, was likely to be peculiarly attractive to an Exeter audience. Its success proved the justness of the supposition, for it was brought out at the theatre there in 1781, and, by a singularity new in the annals of a provincial stage, was represented 17 nights in one season. BELISARIUS, his second attempt in the dramatic line, appeared in the following year; but, as it wanted the local attraction, was less eagerly received. Dr. Downman's tragedies are apparently better adapted to the closet than the stage. The force and energy of his language are scarcely felt, when rapidly, perhaps imperfectly, pronounced by an actor. The judgment and good sense, which breathe in every line, cannot be properly appreciated in a noisy theatre, where the splendour of the scene dazzles the eyes, and each object necessarily attracts a portion of the attention.

About the year 1777, a design was entertained of publishing a translation of Voltaire's works, and the poetical department was entrusted to Dr. Downman. The plan was too extensive, and those who undertook it failed. The publication was consequently discontinued; but a volume of the tragedies, containing Oedipus, Mariainne, Brutus, and The Death of Caesar, was printed in 1781. It might be suspected, that the expressive energy of our Author's language was little suitable to the expanded tinsel of a French Dramatist. Voltaire, however, in his tragedies, is concise, forcible, and even abrupt. While we therefore admire the freedom and energy of Dr. Downman's version, a freedom which would never suggest that it represented the thoughts of another, we found, with some surprize, that the sentiments could not always, without incurring the imputation of harshness, he expressed with the same conciseness in the English, as in the French language! With very little alteration, the tragedies might, we think, be represented as original Dramas on the English stage with advantage, and with little apprehension of detection. They are now scarcely known, for they have apparently perished in the wreck of the whole undertaking.

When Mr. Polwhele, in the year 1792, collected the original miscellaneous poetry of this county and of Cornwall, Dr. Downman, at that time his intimate friend, was a large contributor. His pen indeed was seldom from his hand, and his poetical stock was almost inexhaustible; so that, while many poems were distinguished by his signature, he could claim, we know, many others marked with single initials. These it is not in our power, at present, to discriminate, nor is the object of importance.

About the same period a Literary Society was established at Exeter, consisting at first of nine, afterwards augmented to 19 members. The design of this meeting was to unite talents of different descriptions, and genius directed to different pursuits. In a society thus formed, conversation would probably rise superior to the usual discussion of the topics of the day, and by talents thus combined or contrasted each might improve with the assistance of another. An Essay on any subject, except a strictly professional one, was read by every member in his turn, which might suggest a subject of discussion, if no more interesting one occurred. This Society for nearly 12 years was conducted with equal spirit and good humour. A volume of its Essays has been published, and materials for another have been preserved; but, in a later period, the communications were less numerous, though the Society was supported with equal harmony till the year 1808, when the impaired health of Dr. Downman, its first founder and chief promoter, damped its spirit, and the meetings were discontinued. In the collections of this Society, are the few prose compositions of the subject of this Memoir, though generally united with Poetry. The very judicious address to the members, on their first meeting, was from his pen; and the defence of Pindar from the imputation of writing for hire, supposed to he countenanced by passages in the 11th Pythian, and the 2d Isthmean odes, accompanied by a new translation of each, displays equally his learning and the acuteness of his critical talents. In the same volume is an Essay "on the origin and mythology of the Serpent Worship," tracing this superstition to its earliest periods, in Judea, Egypt, and Greece, a subject which he afterwards pursued with respect to the worship of the Sun and Fire, in an exclusive Essay, not published, in which, pursuing the track of Mr. Bryant, he chiefly rests on the insecure and delusive basis of etymology.

Another Essay on the Shields of Hercules and Achilles, the respective works, as is supposed, of Hesiod and Homer, was written by Dr. Downman. He thinks the former the most antient, as it abounds in those masterly touches, which mark an original, and is less minutely particular than is usual in a copy. The description of Achilles' shield is more luxuriously adorned, more polished and refined; but the objects could not, he thinks, be properly represented in either with distinction, or a due regard to proportion. The imagination of the Poet speaks to that of the reader, and gives to airy nothings "a local habitation." It is hinted, that each might have been an improved copy of some former work, for "vixere fortes ante Agamemnona," and the recurrence of whole lines in both, shows that they could not have been furnished for a mutual contention, and that the resemblance is not fortuitous only. Mr. Cowper's version he thinks too harsh; Mr. Pope's too flowery; and he has therefore added a new translation of each.

In this volume we find also various poetical communications; an Address to the Gods of India on the departure of Sir John Shore (Lord Teignmouth); Sonnets in blank verse; three Sonnets of a more legitimate kind; the Genius of Danmonium, a highly spirited and poetical Ode; and an Ode to Victory. Some other poetical productions have been printed separately, but I believe not advertised for sale.

In pursuing Dr. Downman's miscellaneous productions, we have omitted his very excellent didactic poem, INFANCY, first published in 1771, a work received with great avidity, and of which he lived to see the 7th edition. A Physician cannot have a more interesting task than that of superintending the helpless state of our earlier years; the Poet cannot have a more delightful employment than pleading the cause of innocence, which can only express its wants by indistinct lamentations. If, in rejecting the superstitious ideas and injurious practices of less enlightened periods, the present age has contributed more successfully to rear the tender plant, the success is, in part at least, to he attributed to Dr. Downman. Virtue is said to be recommended by a beautiful form; so Truth is peculiarly captivating when conveyed in elegant and ornamented language. We need not be surprized them at the success of this poem, and can only join in the applause of the world. Previous to this publication, he received a degree of Doctor of Medicine from the University of Aberdeen.

Soon after Dr. Downman was sufficiently recovered front his chronic complaint to commence practice, a violent fever, caught apparently from infection, checked hit career; but, after a slow tedious recovery, he resumed it, and soon obtained the confidence of the city and neighbourhood. His practice was for some years peculiarly extensive, and the success of his plans proved the sagacity of his views, and the soundness of his judgment.

In the practice of his profession he continued some years. His life, spent in doing good, was marked with few striking or splendid events, except the publication of some Poetical Addresses to his friends, an occasional collection of Poems addressed to Thespia, the accumulated annual offering at the shrine of conjugal affection, of which the first appeared in 1781. In the year 1803, increasing infirmities warned him to retire to a less agitated, less interrupted mode of life, and, weaning himself front business by a visit to his friends in Hampshire and London, he declared his intention of resigning it entirely. This determination met with a strenuous opposition. He was urged to contract his limits; to give occasional assistance in consultation, at the least inconvenient hours; in short, to continue his useful labours in the way most easy to himself; but every solicitation was in vain, and he retired to private life with the eulogies and blessings of all around him.

In his retirement, he made few original efforts. He reviewed his former labours, and a selection of those which he preferred is preserved in MS. The Poems sacred to Love and Beauty, appear to be some of these early efforts; and he published with his last corrections, the 7th edition of Infancy. Numerous poems remain in MS. which will probably never see the light, and among these a translation of a great part of the boasted Epic of the Spaniards, "Arancana," which Mr. Hayley seems first to have introduced to the English reader. His prose compositions are less numerous; but many of these are highly interesting, and display very acute critical acumen.

In form, Dr. Downman, in the earlier periods of his life, was strong and athletic, nor, till his health was undermined by indulgence and inactivity, did he appear an invalid. Notwithstanding the influence of these destructive habits, his constitution appeared firm and vigorous; and he struggled against disease, with a force little to be expected from his appearance. He seemed to have been built for a life much longer than that which he enjoyed, or perhaps more properly, if the whole be considered, he endured. His mind was equally vigorous with his body. Strong sound sense; judgment most firm and unerring; sagacity, which traced at once effects to their causes, characterized his intellectual exertions. All his poetical attempts were therefore distinguished by their expressive energy; and it may, at times, be observed that, in pursuit of this object he has neglected the graces, those pleasing ornaments which add to the interest of the work, and the gratification of the reader. His attainments were consequently of the more solid kind, and though much of his attention was directed to the Belles Lettres, he pursued them rather as a Philosopher than the petit-maitre catching at the Cynthia of the minute. Generous, charitable, and hospitable, he was surrounded by friends, and the objects of his bounty; nor did any one leave him without the fullest impression of his benevolence and philanthropy.

In conversation he was reserved, except with a few particular and valued friends; but his reserve was not accompanied with the cynical sneer which lies in ambush to detect errors in the moment when the heart is open, but a wish to join in the discussion or the jest. His eyes beamed with benevolence, and his countenance appeared to coincide with every advantageous impression which his more volatile companion wished to convey. He was seldom anxious to lead the discourse, except to give an opportunity for such a display, and was too commonly inclined to be the hearer only. We shall add a character given of him by a warm, but a judicious and discriminating friend. We do not think it too partial.

"He was distinguished by every moral virtue, by humanity which melts at every distress, by charity which thinks no evil, and suspects none. He exercised his profession with skill and integrity, unequalled but by the disinterested motive which animated his labours, or the amiable modesty which accompanied his other virtues. He employed his industry, not to gratify his own desires, for no one indulged himself less; not to accumulate wealth, for no one disdained in a greater degree such an unworthy pursuit; but for the decent advancement of his family, for the assistance it enabled him to offer to his friends, for the relief which it might afford to the indigent. Often did he exert his distinguished abilities, yet refuse the reward. In defence of the widow and the fatherless, and hint that has none to help, his exertions were zealous and animated. In a word, few ever passed a more useful, no one a more blameless life; as his whole time was employed in doing, or meditating to do, good."

Exeter, Nov. 30, 1809.