From the meagre materials gleaned out of other men's biographies concerning George Ellis, the impression is clear that he was a singularly delightful and sympathetic man. The very briefness of the references goes to establish this. No one describes George Ellis, no one ever seems to meet him for the first time; he is everywhere taken for granted, a necessary intimate in every society that he frequented — and one may add that everywhere it is the best society, the wittiest, the most urbane, the most conversant with affairs.
In the society of the eighteenth century — slower than the nineteenth to open its arms to mere wealth — the "novi homines" were represented by East Indian nabobs and West Indian planters. The Eastern man of wealth purchased political place and influence, the Western devoted himself to fashion and pleasure.
The Ellises were a good West Indian family. Of George's youth and education we know nothing; one surmises that — like the sixteenth and seventeenth century poets whose biographies he touches in so happily in 'Specimens of English Poetry' — "he was entered at Christ's Church College, Oxford, and there made sufficient progress in classical learning." But in truth it is as an accepted wit and beau at Bath that we make his acquaintance in the 'Seventies.
A happy turn for versifying was part of the equipment of an eighteenth-century fine gentleman. The vogue of Ansty's New Bath Guide had made Bath a school of trifling "vers de societe." A certain Lady Millar, who established a claim on society by affecting wit and preciosity, had a classical urn in her drawing-room into which visitors were expected to drop verses, occasional, complimentary, facetious, or sentimental. Miss Burney has an entertaining page describing the blue-stockings and "beaux esprits" who crowded round the Bath Easton Vase. Miss Anna Seward, the Swan of Lichfield, speaks much more kindly of this "amiable and elegant institution, the Bath Easton Vase," but then she was herself one of the myrtle-crowned. Among these George Ellis was prominent. A very clever man, if young enough, may find it agreeable to shine in a very silly society. Facetious verses, written by a man of twenty-four to divert Bath society in the mid-eighteenth century, would have failed in their immediate object if we, in our time, found them tolerable. Ellis's contemporaries laughed at his little volumes of Tales, and men of sense like Sir Gilbert Elliot declared that he had never read "anything so light, so clever, and so lively."
Dean Milman, writing to Lady Minto in 1869, says: "It is not generally known that George Ellis originated both the very cleverest collections of political wit of different sides, Whig and Tory, the Rolliad and the Anti-Jacobin." One would have been grateful to the Dean if he had given the authority for what one would so gladly believe. Be that as it may, we find, in 1784, Ellis an acknowledged wit and the companion of the brilliant young men who gathered round Burke and Fox and buzzed like a swarm of hornets round Pitt, the immaculate young Prime Minister. It is worth while studying the political history of the period, — Fox's India Bill, the Fall of the Coalition Ministry, the Westminster Scrutiny, the first Ministry of Pitt, — merely to enjoy fully the humour of the Rolliad, a humour elaborate, personal, mischievous; coarse by our standards, but by all standards full of spirit and fun.
The form of the Rolliad is excellently contrived to avoid tediousness. An epic is imagined closely following the structure of the Aeneid, with the ancestor of a certain Mr. Rolle, member for Devonshire, for hero; and solemn criticisms of this poem and copious extracts were the work of various hands working with perfect freedom and independence. One qualification all contributors shared: these wits, men of the world and politicians, were as familiar with Virgil as we are with nothing but the multiplication-table. There must have gone infinite mirth to the making of the Rolliad, — ideas flying from brain to brain, eager talking, bursts of explosive laughter. The meetings probably took place at Brooks's Club. Sheridan would flash in making suggestions, though no actual lines have been attributed to him; Laurence, Burke's devoted echo, was the leading spirit, unwieldy in person, awkward in society, full of witty inventions; Fitzpatrick, Fox's "fidus Achates," was another, arbiter of waistcoats, mainstay of private theatricals, but a gallant officer and a Whig, staunch even in Anti-Jacobin days; Tickell, Sheridan's brother-in-law, was a fourth, famous for political squibs; a fifth was General Burgoyne, most ill-fated of commanding officers, but credited by his contemporaries with the only comedy that really reproduced genteel society; yet another was Richard Burke, of whom Goldsmith writes—
In short, so provoking a devil was Dick,
That we wished him full ten times a-day at Old Nick;
But missing his mirth and agreeable vein,
As often we wished to have Dick back again.
Lastly, there was our Mr. Ellis, with his hatchet-face and "sapient prominence of nose," a manner perfect in its urbanity, and a humour delicate and lambent in social intercourse but pointed and personal in satiric verse.
The lines on Pitt—
Pert without fire, without experience sage,
Young with more art than Shelburne gleaned from age.
Too proud from pilfered greatness to descend:
Too humble not to call Dundas a friend," &c.—
are certainly by Ellis. These were winged words that were destined to fly home rather awkwardly.
The year after the appearance of the Rolliad, the irrepressible Whig wits found a new field for their fooling. The laureateship was vacant, and at once, under the auspices of Brooks's, Tory statesmen, scholars, peers, poets, and Mrs. Hannah More, all rushed into the field with "Probationary Odes."
In days when the King was fighting for Prerogative he was exposed to personal attacks that would scandalise constitutional times. Here is George Ellis's portrait of George III.:—
Mighty sovereign, mighty master,
George is content with lath and plaster.
At his own palace gate,
In a poor porter's lodge by Chambers planned,
See him with Jenky hand-in-hand
Talking, talking, talking, talking,
Talking of affairs of State,
All for his country's good.
Oh, Europe's pride, Britannia's hope,
To view his turnips and potatoes,
Down his fair kitchen-garden's slope
The monarch stalks like Cincinnatus.
The Rolliad and the attendant torrent of odes and epigrams took the town; Horace Walpole pronounced "the poetry and wit superlative.... As good as the Dunciad, ... with more ease."
Mr. Ellis was now over thirty, and we find him soon more seriously occupied. He was in diplomacy, and in 1785 accompanied Sir James Harris (afterwards Lord Malmesbury) to The Hague, and later wrote a history of the Revolution in Holland, a book not easy to come by.
A bachelor of social habits and lively conversation, he lived in closest intimacy with the Malmesburys. And now, at last, we have a picture of George Ellis and of the tastes, sympathies, and accomplishments that made him an inimitable companion. Lady Malmesbury and her sister, Lady Minto, were equally active in mind and wielded equally expressive pens, but differed so completely in their plan of life that they might have been contrasted female types in a moral paper of The Spectator. Lady Malmesbury, the ambassadress, lived at Courts, was au courant with all that was agitating Europe, and discoursed gossip and politics with equal mastery. Lady Minto was a country lady who had taken her husband's Border home to her English heart, improved his estate, farmed and planted, superintended her children's education. The bond between these two busy women was so close that they wrote to each other every second day. Mr. Ellis was devoted to both, but more seriously admired Lady Minto: "Your soul" is Lady Malmesbury's name for him when writing to her sister. "I can't tell you," she writes again, "how much Mr. Ellis admires you for teaching your boys Latin." In the meantime the imperious little Ambassadress kept him busy ministering to her higher needs. When an educational wave swept, as it does at times, over the fashionable world, Mr. Ellis reads Newton's "Optics" aloud while Lady Malmesbury nets a purse, — "for sublime as I am, I still condescend to work." There again Mr. Ellis's talents are called in. She is enchanted with his designs for tapestried chairs. "One is periwinkle and a yellow rose — exquisite! Another crocuses and geraniums; border, geranium leaves — divine!" These embroidered chairs are probably still in existence, though perhaps "smoked in attics or in auction sold." In the June evenings of 1791, when they were sewn, the nightingales were singing in the woods round Grove Place, and some "pleasant men from town of our own set" sat up half the night with my lord and my lady, discussing the news from France.
Restless and wilful, neither nightingales nor hot English Junes nor pleasant men sufficed Lady Malmesbury, and she must needs carry off my lord and his secretary to Italy, though they "roared" at the project. The Italian tour was not a great success. The weather was wet, and we are forced to believe that travellers in those days had a veil over their eyes when we read the date "Venice" above the following sentence: "Lord Malmesbury and Mr. Ellis s'ennuyent a la mort, and in truth it is not gay." Views of Saturn through his fine new telescope and the lizards on his balcony at Naples, "which he loves of all things," were the chief delights Italy afforded Mr. Ellis.
If we had all her ladyship's letters instead of tantalisingly entertaining fragments, the case might not look so black against Mr. Ellis's aesthetic perceptions. In literature, at any rate, he had the delicate and decided taste that comes of devoted and disinterested study.
The year before the Italian journey (1790) he had brought out a selection of short poems of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This charming anthology has never been superseded. We, the general readers of this generation, hardly realise how deep a trench the Golden Treasury, by its excellence, has dug between us and much of our older literature, till we turn over George Ellis's Specimens and find a large proportion of names unfamiliar. Alone among anthologies, this selection courteously takes for granted that the greater poets are already familiar to the reader, and has the courage to "take Lycidas for read." It is doubtless due to Ellis's distinct preference for what is light, restrained, and of finished workmanship, that there is perfect continuity in these songs of two centuries. It is almost as if some magic flute had passed from one generation to another; the measures and melodies vary, the notes are the same. The explanation is partly to be found in the charming little bits of biography that accompany each poet. From first to last they record how this young gentleman or that was "entered at Wolsey's College of Christ Church," or "having been educated at the Charterhouse was for some time scholar at Pembroke College, Cambridge." The endings of these young poets are more varied: some are "promoted to a canonry and die archdeacons," some become "deputy lieutenants and justices of the peace"; more die prematurely, "too much addicted to pleasure and contempt of wealth."
When it was objected to this anthology that it consisted almost exclusively of love-songs, Mr. Ellis "can only lament with his readers that beautiful poetry is more frequently calculated to inflame imagination than to chasten morals, without being able to remedy such a perversion of talent."
Mr. Ellis's early alliance with the Whigs had been the natural attraction of wits and good-fellowship, but the French Revolution, which broke up so many older and more important alliances, shifted him definitely on to the Ministerial side.
It was sometime in 1797 that he was introduced to Pitt by Canning. The meeting was at the house of Mr. Dundas, who had been as roughly handled as his leader in the Rolliad. There were awkward recollections in the minds of all present. A bystander, incredibly ill-natured or more incredibly blundering, asked Ellis pointedly concerning his share in the satire. Then St. Virgil, who might well have resented the liberty taken with his poem, magnanimously protected his votary, prompting Pitt to the happiest and most generous of quotations:
Imo age, et a prima dic hospes origine nobis
Insidias . . .
With equal delicacy and humour he left the "erroresque tuos" of the following line to be inferred. Scott used to refer to this anecdote as the occasion on which "Pitt out-quizzed Ellis."
Ellis had been a young man among the wits of the Rolliad; he was now a man of forty-four, a diplomat and member of Parliament, but his grace of manner, his habit of listening, attracted brilliant young men to his society, while his quick spirit and reckless wit made him still prompt in audacious enterprise. Whether, as Dean Milman avers, he initiated the poetry of the Anti-Jacobin or not, he was from first to last at the very heart of the business. The confidential meetings of the contributors took place at Lady Malmesbury's house in Park Place, a house which was a second home to Ellis.
It was only twelve years since he had helped to launch personalities against the party in whose service he was now sharpening his pen, but it was a changed world and a new generation. Satire had need of keener weapons than personalities if it was to meet and scorch revolutionary views and sentiments in politics, literature, and morals.
The writers of the Rolliad had been like daws, chattering, scolding, filching straws, doing mischief; the satirists of the Anti-Jacobin were like young hawks in their sharpness of vision, force of flight, swiftness of onslaught. Canning and Frere — the two moving spirits — had left Eton with nothing to learn in literary form; for them at least classical training had done her perfect work. Of the poetry of the Anti-Jacobin we need not speak here; it is still with us, moving fresh generations to laughter, still arresting our pulses with pleasure in its point and force, still making its appeal to commonsense, patriotism, tradition, and prejudice.
Ellis would seem to have been sole author of only a few of the lighter pieces, but he added lines here and there in the poems of Canning and Frere. It is pleasant to believe that he shared with Pitt the honourable suspicion of having added a verse to Rogero's song, "The U-niversity of Gottingen." There is a touch of inspiration that one would eagerly claim for Ellis if Frere's fine literary instinct and Canning's quality of imagination were only out of the way. After the Anti-Jacobin had run its sparkling course for a year, Pitt's prudence caused its sudden cessation. On Monday, 9th July 1798, the tricksy spirit which had laboured and rioted a twelvemonth long was dismissed:
We shall miss thee—
And yet thou shalt have freedom.
So, to the elements! Be free and fare thee well.
So happy a quotation has the force of an original stroke of genius with the added beauty of the echoes it awakens.
It was Ellis's amiable characteristic that all his pursuits, diplomacy, politics, satire, literature, led him into new friendships. In 1800 he had carried his literary researches farther back, was engaged on an earlier volume of Specimens and on a volume of Metrical Romances. Frere, though classical as much by instinct as by training, shared the reviving interest in Early English studies, and produced some good imitations; but Canning, certainly the dearer of the two to Ellis, made no pretence of sharing his tastes. When Ellis referred to his studies in Romance as his "hobby-horse," Canning had answered, "Hobby-horse! Yours is an elephant!" It was to this sagacious elephant that Ellis was to owe the latest, dearest, and most romantic friendship of his life.
But here the story must leave Ellis for a little and introduce the man who, more than any of his generation, made it his office to bring the right kind of people together. Richard Heber was exactly Scott's contemporary. He was one of the scholars who amaze their contemporaries by omnivorous acquisition of knowledge, but add nothing to it as a testimony to posterity. Oxford had equipped him for the editing of the obscurest Latin authors; then the recently aroused interest in mediaeval literature got hold of him, and he might have done good work in this field had not a still more enthralling pursuit captivated his fancy.
Richard Heber was a very rich man. Sumptuousness is, indeed, the idea one naturally associates with both the Hebers; "gold from the mine" runs through Reginald's hymns and glitters in the calf and gilt bindings of the superb books that were — in Lockhart's phrase — "the Delilahs of Richard's imagination." He was still at Oxford when he fell under the spell. A copy of Peacham's Valley of Varieties was acquired at a sale. "A rare book?" he asked an authority. "Yes; not very — but rather curious." And the deed was done, and Heber started on the pursuit that combines the joys of the chase, of learning, and of shopping. To these he added the more original and troubled joy of magnificent lending.
In the last years of the eighteenth century, when the Continent was closed to English travellers, Edinburgh was the resort of many intellectual young Englishmen. Heber, like many another, may have been originally drawn to Edinburgh by the fame of Dugald Stewart. But it is not in the lecture-hall that we find him, but in a modest book-shop in the High Street, where Constable, the handsome young bookseller, advertised "Scarce old books." There, in the back-shop, hanging on a ladder, a folio in his hand, he had discovered John Leyden.
Scott was already an intimate, and Heber, who shared his friends as generously as his books, brought the two Borderers together. Heber threw himself heartily into the society of Edinburgh, not eschewing the conviviality of its clubs. One night he and Scott had left a party just before dawn. The moon was still up, and by her romantic light the two friends had climbed up Arthur's Seat, returning with rare appetites for breakfast. They had probably talked ballads and romances all the way.
Heber left Scott and Leyden in the Advocates' Library keenly excited over an old version of Sir Tristrem discovered in the Auchinleck MS.; he found on his return south George Ellis engaged on the Metrical Romances of Marie de France. Here was an opportunity for Heber's special art. The introduction was made, and one of Scott's warmest friendships was preluded by months of courteous and stimulating correspondence, — correspondence that is found formally in Lockhart's Life and essentially in the fascinating notes and appendices to Sir Tristrem.
The correspondents were attracted as much by their differences as their sympathy. Ellis's treatment of mediaeval Romance is quite eighteenth-century. He never affects archaic language nor attempts to reproduce atmosphere. The excellent lucidity of his style allows the lively quality of the tales to have their due effect, while a delicate, pervasive irony points their absurdity or unreality. No quotation could give any idea of the peculiar humour woven into the stuff of this work. It has been characterised as Voltairean, but Chaucer had also touches of sly enjoyment and ironical criticism of his own creations, not unlike Ellis's. Scott has most happily described this humour in the fifth Epistle in Marmion:—
Thou, who canst give to lightest lay
An unpedantic moral gay,
Nor less the dullest theme bid flit
On wings of unexpected wit
In letters as in life approved,
Example honoured, and beloved.
The older man, the man of taste and social experience and critical habit, found himself carried away by his correspondent into the very region of Romance. Scott and Leyden were labouring to prove that their MS. Sir Tristrem was indisputably the work of Thomas of Ercildoune, a Border man, practically a neighbour on Tweedside, though at a distance of six centuries. They tried to identify the mysterious kingdom of Reged, whither the romanised Britons, retreating from the Saxons, had carried the Arthurian tradition, with their own Border country. Scott used playfully to date his Ashestiel letters from "Reged."
We have to remember that in those early, obscure days Scott and Leyden were bracketed together in the minds of Southern antiquaries and men of letters. Both breathed the same romantic air, both treated their favourite studies with the same enthusiasm, — only one was Sir Valentine, the courtly knight, the other Sir Orson, the child of nature. And George Ellis, the eighteenth-century wit, had a heart for both.
He and Scott met in 1801. Ellis was newly married, and was living at Sunning Hill, on the confines of Windsor Park. Scott was captivated by his host's conversation; "he had more wit, learning, and knowledge of the world than would fit out twenty literati." In retrospect Scott was almost abashed by the older man's habit of sympathetic listening. "George Ellis was the best converser I ever knew. His patience and good-breeding made me often ashamed of myself, going off at score upon some favourite topic." Scott alone among his contemporaries was unaware of the spell that fell upon his listeners when he went "off at score upon some favourite topic."
No one put higher value on fine manners than Walter Scott; no one could be more diverted by the total absence of them, especially in those whose qualities of heart and head he knew and valued. We have seen how highly he rated the courtesy of Ellis; we know too how, half amused, half aghast, and wholly affectionately, he had watched Leyden's good-humoured but eccentric appearances in Edinburgh society. Most of us have friends of both orders. If we keep our affection for each carefully separated, it is because we do not sufficiently trust our Ellises. Scott made no such mistake. He credited Ellis with having, no less than himself, intuition into characters at the opposite pole from himself. Ellis justified the confidence. When Leyden came to stay at Sunning Hill his demeanour was a constant feast to host and hostess alike. There is such a tender humour in Ellis's account of the visit that those familiar with Lockhart must forgive its being quoted again at length.
Scott had sent his poem, "Cadyow Castle," by Leyden. "Let me thank you," writes Ellis, "for your poem, which Mrs. Ellis has not received, and which, indeed, I could not help feeling glad, in the first instance, that she did not receive. Leyden would not have been your Leyden if he had arrived like a careful citizen with all his packages carefully docketed in his portmanteau ... if he had not arrived with all his ideas perfectly bewildered — and tired to death and sick — and without any settled plans for futurity or any accurate recollection of the past — we should have felt more disappointed than by the non-arrival of your poem.... In short, his whole air and countenance told us, 'I am come to be one of your friends,' and we immediately took him at his word."
From Leyden, of the grateful heart, Scott had a description of this same visit in such "quaint English as Thomas of Ercildoune might have used. To this poem we owe our knowledge of Ellis's appearance:
His eyen gray as glass been,
And his looks been all so keen
Lovely to paramour:
Brown as an acorn is his faxe,
His face as thin as battle-axe
That dealeth dintis dour.
Loud-voiced, excitable, and always "going off at score upon some favourite topic," yet Leyden always found favour with well-bred women. His single-mindedness appealed to them. Mrs. Ellis's kindness and pretty ways won the warm heart of Sir Orson:—
Her wit is full keen and queynt,
And her stature small and gent,
Seemly to be seen.
Armes, hands, and fingers small,
A pearl beth each finger-nail:
She might be Fairy Queen.
The material for a portrait of Ellis is so meagre and at the same time so attractive that one is inclined to linger over it as he did over the Minstrelsy — like a schoolboy with a bit of ginger-bread, endeavouring to "look it into larger dimensions."
Recently a copy of Ellis's Specimens was sold which had belonged to Heber. Stuck into it, haphazard, was a note in Ellis's small, distinct handwriting, short, but containing all one would like to find there:—
"MY DEAR HEBER, — I have received a large parcel of 'that series of dots and scratches that Heber expects one to accept for written characters,' as Walter Scott says, and now return it with a few glossarial notes.... Upon the whole — but for my anxiety that you should not have wasted so much trouble to no purpose, I should be disposed to hesitate about printing this extract at all, because it seems to have little merit. If you think otherwise, perhaps the introduction could run thus.... I am sorry to hear that you are going to steal Leyden even for a few days, but trust to your coming here again before his departure. Lady-fair sends her love."
Good gifts had showered upon Ellis in his old age. His marriage, though late, was singularly happy. "Lady-fair" had won Leyden's heart by kindness; her love of dogs, and especially her appreciation of Camp, gave her a place of her own in Scott's esteem. She had a generous toleration of her husband's "hobby-horse." On their very wedding-day he spent the evening reading aloud to her Scott's MS. play, The House of Aspen. It was just such an act of romantic friendship as Amil in the romance would have done for Amis, but Amil's bride would never have shown the complacence of Ellis's kind Lady-fair! Ways and means in the Ellis's household were ample. Lady Malmesbury tells a story of Ellis's nephew, Charles Ellis, good enough for a romance. "Charles Ellis, on receiving his fortune on coming of age, wrote a most charming letter to George Ellis, enclosing ten notes of £1000 each: this is a sort of Bel-cour trait that Sir Gilbert will admire."
The pleasant house at Sunning Hill was the meeting-place for the best wits of the age. There Scott wrote two cantos of Marmion; there under the oak-trees he read the Lay of the Last Minstrel aloud; there, after 1808, Canning came down to collaborate in articles for the Quarterly. By 1807 the shadow of ill-health had fallen on the kind master of the house. With all his amenity he could not comply with the affectionate exhortation that closes the Epistle in Marmion:—
No more by thy example teach,
—What few can practise, all can preach,—
With even patience to endure
Lingering disease, and painful cure,
And boast affliction's pangs subdued
By mild and manly fortitude.
Enough, the lesson has been given:
Forbid the repetition, Heaven!
In 1815 George Ellis died. With his death ended much of Scott's best happiness in his visits south. Henceforth these were chiefly confined to London, and were a whirl of parties, introductions, and compliments, to all of which the lion submitted good-humouredly: but the best thing was lacking. In 1820, when at the height of success, he wrote to Morritt: "London I thought incredibly tiresome; I wanted my sheet-anchors, — you and poor George Ellis, — by whom I could ride at quiet moorings without mixing entirely with the great vortex."