Henry James Pye

Walter Hamilton, in The Poets Laureate (1879) 203-14.

The monarch, mute till then, exclaimed, What, what?
Pye come again! No more — no more of that!"

PYE succeeded Warton as Laureate; but for that fact his name would be forgotten. He wrote several second-rate books on uninteresting topics, composed a quantity of tedious rhyme which he meant for poetry, was Member for Berks, and spoke in the House of Commons on three several occasions.

"But hold!" exclaims a friend, "here's some neglect;
This, that, and t' other line seem incorrect,"
What then? the self same blunder Pope has got,
And careless Dryden. Aye, but Pye has not.
Indeed, 'tis granted, faith! but what care I?
Better to err with Pope, than shine with Pye.

Byron said of him that he was eminently respectable in everything but his poetry. This, indeed, appears to have been the case, but certainly affords no reasonable explanation of his appointment to the office of Laureate.

Pye was descended from an ancient family, and one of his ancestors, Sir Robert Pye, was immortalised by Ben Jonson. He was auditor of the Exchequer in 1618, and in that capacity should have paid Ben his Salary as Laureate. This duty was very irregularly performed; and at a time when poor Jonson was more than usually pressed by his creditors, he wrote a long petition, or, as he called it,

My woful cry
To Sir Robert Pye
And that he will venture
To send my debenture.
Tell him his Ben
Knew the time when
He loved the Muses;
Though now he refuses
To take apprehension
Of a year's pension,
And more, is behind;
Put him in mind
Christmas is near.

The son of this Sir Robert Pye married a daughter of the patriot, Hampden, from which union was descended the subject of this notice, who was born in London, on the 10th July, 1745, and was educated at Magdalen College, Oxford. He was made a D.C.L. in 1772.

On succeeding to his paternal estates, he found them overwhelmed with debts, which he was, however, under no legal obligation to discharge, but he honourably sold much of the property to satisfy his father's creditors, and shortly afterwards suffered a still further loss from a fire. He held a commission in the Berks-Militia, and in 1784 engaged in a contested election for the representation of that county in the House of Commons.

He was made Laureate in 1790, and two years afterwards was appointed one of the police magistrates of London. He was the author of The Democrat, The Aristocrat, The Progress of Refinement, an epic poem entitled Alfred, and some translations from Homer, Aristotle, and Pindar; but his most interesting book is doubtless the Comments on the Commentators on Shakespeare. This work is dated from Queen Square, Westminster, and is dedicated to John Penn, Esq., of Stoke Park.

In this he deals somewhat severely with the Editors of Shakespeare, more especially with Malone and Steevens. The rage for everything Shakespearean was at its height about this time, partly from Garrick's intelligent efforts to make him popular on the stage, and partly no doubt from the rapidly increasing class of readers who could obtain access to good editions of his works.

Since Nicholas Rowe had first edited Shakespeare in 1709, numerous other editions had appeared, and Pope, Dr. Johnson, Warburton, Steevens, Malone, and others had given the world the benefit of their opinions and notes on the great dramatist, whose text frequently suffered from the over zeal of the editors.

In the Westminster Magazine for October, 1773, appeared an amusing list of the Shakespeare restorers who had succeeded each other up to that period, and it gives a tolerably correct idea of the manner in which each author had dealt with the Subject:

Old Shakespeare was sick; for a doctor he sent;
But 'twas long before any one came;
Yet at length, his assistance Nic Rowe did present:
Sure all men have heard of his name.

As he found that the poet had tumbled the bed,
He smooth'd it as well as he could;
He gave him an anodyne, comb'd out his head,
But did his complaint little good.

Dr. Pope to incision at once did proceed,
And the bard for the simples he cut;
For his regular practice was always to bleed,
Ere the fees in his pocket he put.

Next Tibbald advanced, who at best was a quack,
And dealt but in old woman's stuff;
Yet he caused the physician of Twick'nham to pack,
And the patient grew cheerful enough.

One Warburton then, though allied to the Church,
Produced his alterative stores;
But his med'cines so oft left the case in the lurch,
That Edwards kicked him out of doors.

Next Johnson arrived to the patient's relief,
And ten years he had him in hand;
But, tired of his task, 'tis the general belief
He left him before he could stand.

Now Steevens came loaded with black-letter books,
Of fame more desirous than pelf;
Such reading, observers might read in his looks,
As no one e'er read but himself.

Then Warner, by Plautus and Glossary known,
And Hawkins, historian of sound;
Then Warton and Collins together came on,
For Greek and potations renown'd.

The cooks the more numerous, the worse is the broth,
Says a proverb I well can believe;
And yet to condemn them untried I am loth,
So at present shall laugh in my sleeve.

The Shakespeare mania culminated in Ireland's impudent but clever forgeries, which deceived many learned and acute critics of the day; and when Ireland prevailed upon Sheridan to produce Vortigern at Drury Lane, in 1796, Mr. Pye wrote a prologue to the tragedy, but as it expressed a doubt about the authenticity, it was laid aside to make place for one written by Sir James Bland Burgess. This commenced with a bold assertion that the piece about to be performed was the work of Shakespeare, and demanded the respectful attention of the audience to it on that account.

The piece utterly broke down the first night, and when the imposition was discovered, there were some bitter caricatures and satires published at Ireland's expense; one of these was a portrait of the forger, grasping a volume of Shakespeare, with a motto, taken from the Maid of the Mill:—

Such cursed assurance
Is past all endurance,

and the following parody of Dryden's Epigram on Milton [by George Steevens], supposed to have been written by William Mason:—

Four forgers, born in one prolific age,
Much critical acumen did engage;
The first was soon by Doughty Douglas scar'd,
Tho' Johnson would have screen'd him had he dar'd.
The next had all the cunning of a Scot
The third invention, genius — nay, what not?
Fraud now exhausted, only could dispense
To her fourth son, their threefold impudence.

It is said that Ireland was so enraged at the publication of this caricature, that he broke the shop windows where it was exposed for sale.

After Vortigern and Rowena had been once played, and the audience had shown in the most unmistakable manner their disbelief in its authenticity, and contempt for its merits, Ireland yet had the audacity to urge Sheridan and Kemble to have a second performance, but Sheridan dismissed him with a very emphatic negative. After Ireland had left the room, Kemble said, "Well, sir, you cannot now doubt that the play is a forgery." "Damn the fellow replied Sheridan, "I believe his face is a forgery; he is the most specious man I ever saw!"

Ireland afterwards wrote a book, admitting that he was the author of Vortigern and other imitations of Shakespeare with which he had deceived many literary men, and describing in a bold, almost exulting tone, the numerous ingenious devices he adopted to carry out the deception, particularly in the selection of ink, paper, writing, and orthography, to resemble old manuscripts.

Pye laboured diligently to produce the required official odes; they are "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing;" patriotism and loyalty are dimly shadowed forth in such lines as

To arms! your ensigns straight display!
Now set the battle in array,
The oracle for war declares,
Success depends upon our hearts and spears!

Indeed, he made a virtue of necessity by claiming more credit for his patriotism than for his poetry:—

"I am glad to have it observed that there appears throughout my verses a zeal for the honour of my country; and I had rather be thought a good Englishman than the best poet, or the greatest scholar that ever wrote."

But his contemporaries looked for something beyond amiable platitudes, patriotic aspirations, and loyal flattery. Pye's muse was, however, a very small bird, whose feeble crow was imitated by a rival in the following:

Hail, all hail, thou natal day,
Hail the very half hour I say,
On which great GEORGE was born!
The' scarcely fledg'd, I'll try my wing,—
And tho' alas, I cannot sing,
I'll crow on this illustrious morn!

Sweet bird, that chirp'st the note of folly,
So pleasantly, so drolly!—
Thee oft, the stable yards among,
I woo, and emulate thy song!
Thee, for my emblem still I choose!
Oh! with thy voice inspire a Chicken of the Muse!

The odes, as composed by the Laureate, were set to music by the Court composer, and performed at the State Drawing Rooms, when the words were happily drowned by the instruments. At one time the public were admitted to the antechamber on these occasions, but an abuse of the privilege led to its abolition. Gibbon refers to this custom in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire:—

"The title of Poet Laureate, which custom rather than vanity perpetuates in the English Court, was first invented by the Caesars of Germany. From Augustus to Louis the muse has been too often false and venal, but I much doubt whether any age or court can produce a similar establishment of a stipendiary poet, who in every reign, and at all events is bound to furnish twice a year, a measure of praise and verse, such as I believe may be sung in the chapel, and in the presence of the Sovereign."

Indeed the odes were becoming more and more the butt of every humorous writer, and it was pretty evident their end was approaching. Pye's mediocrity as a poet hastened their fate, and at the same time drew down ridicule upon the ancient office he held.

Of all the Poets of our Isle
Who rhyme for fame or fee,
Methinks our gracious Sovereign's smile
Was wisely fixed on thee.

Thou, who of poetry or Pitt
The merits canst rehearse,
Prepared alike to show thy wit
By venal vote or verse.

Or he, the Patron of thy lays,
To trumpet right or wrong,
On vice itself to lavish praise
The triumph of thy song.

I see the mercenary fit
Of tuneful madness rise,
The caitiff wretch for earth unfit
Exalted to the skies.

Methinks with rage at every line
A British Breast should glow,
And British hands disdain to twine
The laurel round thy brow.

This satire is too long to quote entire, it concludes

So shalt thou wade through thick and thin
To pour a mortal lay,
And plunge in falsehood to the chin
Thy Dullness to display.

So shall thy unpoetic eye
In a vile phrenzy roll;
So shall the names of George and Pye
BE BLESSED from Pole to Pole.

But Pye was the last Laureate who regularly wrote official odes, and, as literary curiosities, a New Year's Day Ode, and a Birthday Ode are inserted:


When from the bosom of the mine
The magnet first to light was thrown,
Fair commerce hail'd the gift divine,
And, smiling, claim'd it for her own.
"My bark (she said) this gem shall guide
Thro' paths of ocean yet untry'd,
While as my daring sons explore
Each rude inhospitable shore,
'Mid desert lands and ruthless skies,
New seats of industry shall rise,
And culture wide extend its genial reign,
Free as the ambient gale, and boundless as the wain."

But Tyranny soon learn'd to seize,
The art improving Science taught,
The white sail courts the distant breeze,
With horror and destruction fraught;
From the tall mast fell War unfurl'd
His banners to a new-found world;
Oppression, arm'd with giant pride,
And bigot Fury by her side;
Dire Desolation bath'd in blood,
Pale Av'rice, and her harpy brood,
To each affrighted shore in thunder spoke,
And bow'd the wretched race to Slav'ry's iron yoke.

Not such the gentler views that urge
Britannia's sons to dare the surge;
Not such the gifts her Drake, her Raleigh bore
To the wild inmates of th' Atlantic shore,
Teaching each drear wood's pathless scene
The glories of their virgin queen.
Nor such her later chiefs who try,
Impell'd by soft humanity,
The boist'rous wave, the rugged coast,
The burning zone, the polar frost,
That climes remote, and regions yet unknown,
May share a GEORGE'S sway, and bless his patriot throne.

Warm Fancy, kindling with delight,
Anticipates the lapse of age,
And as she throws her eagle's flight
O'er Time's yet undiscovered page,
Vast continents, now dark with shade,
She sees in verdure's robe array'd,
Sees o'er each island's fertile steep
That frequent studs the southern deep,
His fleecy charge the shepherd lead,
The harvest wave, the vintage bleed:
See Commerce springs of guiltless wealth explore,
Where frowns the western world on Asia's neighbouring shore.

But, lo! across the blackening skies,
What swarthy daemon wings his flight?
At once the transient landscape flies,
The splendid vision sets in night.—
And see Britannia's awful form,
With breast undaunted, brave the storm:
Awful, as when her angry tide
O'erwhelm'd the wreck'd Armada's pride.
Awful, as when the avenging blow
Suspending o'er a prostrate foe,
She snatch'd in vict'ry's moment, prompt to save,
Iberia's sinking sons from Calpe's glowing wave.

Ere yet the tempest's mingled sound
Burst dreadful o'er the nations round,
What angel shape, in beaming radiance dight,
Pours through the severing clouds celestial light!
'Tis Peace — before her seraph eye
The fiends of Devastation fly.
Auspicious, round our monarch's brow
She twines her olive's sacred bough;
This victory, she cries, is mine,
Not torn from War's terrific shrine;
Mine the pure trophies of the wise and good,
Unstained of woe, and undefil'd with blood.

God of our fathers rise,
And through the thund'ring skies
Thy vengeance urge
In awful justice red,
Be thy dread arrows sped,
But guard our Monarch's head,
God save great George.

Still on our Albion smile,
Still o'er this favor'd isle,
O, spread thy wing!
To make each blessing sure,
To make our fame endure,
To make our rights secure,
God save our King!

To the loud trumpet's throat,
To the shrill clarion's note,
Now jocund sing.
From every open foe,
From every traitor's blow,
Virtue defend his brow,
God guard our King!"

As Pye was a pleasant, convivial man, it was somewhat peculiar that the Laureate's annual perquisite of a tierce of canary from the Royal cellar, should, during his tenure of the office, have been commuted for an annual payment of 27.

Mr. Pye died at Pinner, on August 13, 1813, when the title of Laureate was conferred upon Robert Southey.