1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Combe

Robert Carruthers, in Chambers's Cyclopaedia of English Literature, 3rd ed. (1876; 1879) 4:15.



WILLIAM COMBE (1741-1823) was an extensive miscellaneous writer both in prose and verse. To none of his works did he affix his name, but he had no reluctance in assuming the names of others. Among his literary frauds was a collection of Letters of the late Lord Lyttelton, 1780-82. Thomas, the second or "wicked Lord Lyttelton," was remarkable for his talents and profligacy, and for the romantic circumstances attending his death, which, he said, had been foretold by an apparition, but which it is now believed was an act of suicide. Combe personated the character of this dissolute nobleman — with whom he had been at school at Eton — and the spurious letters are marked by ease, elegance, and occasional force of style. An attempt was made in the Quarterly Review, 1852, to prove that these Letters were genuine, and that Lyttelton was the author of Junius's Letters. The proof was wholly inconclusive, and there seems no doubt that Comb wrote the pseudo-Lyttelton epistles. In the same way he manufactured a series of Letters supposed to have passed between Sterne and Eliza. He wrote a satirical work, The Diaboliad, and a continuation or imitation of Le Sage, entitled The Devil upon Two Sticks in England, 1790; but the most popular of all Combe's works was The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque, which was originally published in the Poetical Magazine, with humorous illustrations by Rowlandson, and afterwards (1812) printed separately in one volume. The Tour went through several editions; the descriptions, in lively verse, were attractive, and the coloured engravings — in which the appearance of Syntax was well preserved — formed an excellent comment on the text. Combe wrote other poems in the style of "Syntax" — as Johnny Quae Genus, The English Dance of Death, The Dance of Life, &c. None of these, though aided by humorous illustrations, had much success, and "Syntax" itself, once so popular, is now rarely seen. A voluminous History of Westminster Abbey, in two volumes quarto, was written by Combe, who, up to his eightieth year, and often in prison, continued to pour forth anonymous productions in almost every department of literature. He was well connected, and at one time rich, but a life of folly and extravagance kept him always in embarrassment.