1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Merry

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 6:277-80.



Between the classical school of Gray and the school of nature founded by Cowper, there arose a set of poets in England who strove to introduce into the native literature a style of composition and sentiment singularly mawkish and affected. Of this new school — on which its own founders conferred the name of Della Cruscan — Robert Merry was accounted facile princeps.

"The first foundation of the gentleman, in young Merry" — to use the words of a biographer of his own school — "was laid by that great literary character, Dr. Parr." From the Doctor he went to Christ church, Oxford. It was at first intended that he should study law; and with that view, after leaving the university, he entered of Lincoln's inn; but he speedily forsook Coke and Littleton for a commission in the horse-guards. He joined that honourable corps at a period when, according to our Della Cruscan authority, "it was difficult to decide whether the devotion to the rosy god and Cyprian goddess did not outdo its zeal in the service of Bellona."

A military life, however, — even in such a gay corps as the horse-guards, — "did not long engage his heart." Our hero threw up his commission, and betook himself to Florence, where our 'English Eneas' was for a while captivated and entranced by the charms of an 'Italian Dido?' But even Dido's influence was as short-lived as that of Bellona. The "waters of the gilded Po," which had once "extinguished the ambition of a Phaeton," now "contributed to quench the flame of our hero." Literary ambition next took possession of our hero's heart; be applied himself to the study of Italian, and at last reached the summit of literary glory in being elected "a member of the celebrated academy Della Crusca."

"The judicious and learned Mrs. Piozzi" was also at this time in Florence, and exercising her literary gifts in a publication of her own, called The Florentine Miscellany. She had the good fortune to enlist the newly elected associate of the Della Crusca in her band of contributors; but alas! "while wit and taste," says our leading authority, "were thus publicly diffused through the elegant part of the world, private scandal did not want for publishers. Tales were circulated, which, according to the late and learned Lord Mansfield's doctrine, could not fail to be deemed great libels. And these becoming every day more current, failed not to give great uneasiness to the inamorato as well as to his friends. Mr. Merry's indignation at the authors of these reports urged him to take up the pen of satire in revenge. He employed it in ridiculing the greater part of the circle, and in some measure occasioned its breaking up. This incident hastened his return to his native country, and gives a proper occasion to speak of his poetical taste and acquirements."

Our Della Cruscan biographer goes on to tell us that as Mr. Merry "had the qualities of a poet by nature," it was nothing in the least wonderful that he should at last think of turning his attention to the composition of poetry; and that "the approbation his first essays in the art experienced fully justified the great expectation formed of his future productions. Many of his pieces," we are assured, "have been rather impromptu flights to Parnassus than studied compositions. They show, however, the author's powers; and while they give pleasure to the present age they will not fail to secure him the admiration of posterity. Of his beautiful verses and fugitive pieces published in The World, under the title Della Crusca, &c. it is unnecessary to speak; they are fresh in every one's memory. Of his satirical and witty epigrams published in The Argus, under the signature of Tom Thorne, it is equally needless to make mention. During the last months of that paper's existence, it might be truly said, a certain Rose was never without a Thorne. As a specimen of the keenness of our poet's epigrammatic wit, we give," continues our eulogist, "the few following instances:—

THE LONDON ROSE.
The Rose is called the first of flowers
In all the rural shades and bowers;
But O! in London 'tis decreed
The Rose is but a dirty weed.

THE HOT-HOUSE ROSE.
From genial heat, the hot-house Rose
Expands and blushes, thrives and blows;
But the poor Rose will fade and rot
Whene'er the House becomes too hot.

ON ANOTHER SUBJECT.
When Truth her rending scourge applies,
The hirelings roar with streaming eyes
They crowd together and complain,
They cannot bear so great a pain.

"Upon a ministerial newspaper affixing his adopted signature to some verses of a very different nature and tendency, he wrote the following

IMPROMPTU.
The slavish print, that's dead to shame,
In fury for departed fame,
Has even robb'd me of my name
Alas! my nose is out of joint;
Yet what's a Thorne without a point?"

Our epigrammatist next directed his brilliant talents to dramatic composition; but we are gravely told that "he was not superficial enough to succeed in this walk. He disdained to sacrifice judgment to perverted taste, and therefore was not calculated to please a vitiated palate. His tragedy of Lorenzo, represented at Covent Garden house, — and his Magician no Conjuror, — while they prove his various turn of mind, equally manifest to those who knew the writer, that he was biassed to the undertaking without due consideration. His native fire," we are next assured, "flames out in his odes. Some of these give room to think that had he employed himself chiefly in the lyric species of poetry, he might have filled a most honourable place between Pindar and Horace(!) In confirmation of which assertion reference may be had to the odaic song he wrote for the 14th of July, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastile, and which was repeated in full chorus, with so much applause, in the year 1791, at the Crown and Anchor tavern. The Laurel of Liberty he wrote also, and presented it to the National convention, who did honour to the author by the manner in which it was received."

The French revolution drew Merry to Paris, where, we are informed, he favoured the young legislature with a short treatise, in English, on the nature of free government, which also was graciously received by the convention; "honourable mention being made of it in their journals." Our poet and legislator, however, did not feel himself quite at ease in Paris: "Revolution upon revolution greatly affected his sensibility; for, although he was robust of frame, his nerves did not correspond with his muscular strength." For these excellent reasons, "he quitted the scene of sanguinary contention," and once more betook himself to England. His next adventure we must relate in the words of his Della Cruscan pupil.

"Upon his marriage with the celebrated actress Miss Brunton, a prospect opened to him of living at his ease by the joint production of that lady's talents and his own pen; but unfortunately the pride of those relations upon whom he had most dependence, was wounded by the alliance, and he was constrained, much against Mrs. Merry's inclination, to take her from the stage. This he did as soon as her engagement at the theatre expired, which was in the spring of 1792. They both returned from the continent in the summer of 1793 (for Mrs. Merry had accompanied him to France,) and from that date they cannot be said to have formed any settled plan, unless their retiring to America in 1796 may be so considered. Occasionally, in the above interval, Mr. Merry wrote for a periodical paper, and some of the best poetry in The Telegraph was the production of his pen. His Signior Pittachio, written at this period, must ever be deemed a most happy production of keen satire, unsurpassed by any thing in ancient or modern times(!) No minister in any age had been so ridiculed before. But our author had seen that the thunder of reason and truth had been as ineffectually tried to change the state of affairs as his squibs of satire and ridicule; he therefore began to think of seeking in a distant country what he despaired of ever finding in this. He was not long in resolving. He snatched up a pen, and wrote, partly in tears, partly in ink, an adieu to his native land. These affecting lines are in print, and the occasion and subject of them are fresh in the minds of his dearest friends, to whom upon his taking leave he said, in the words of Oroonoko:—

—This last farewell:
Be sure of one thing that will comfort us,—
Whatever world we are next thrown upon,
Cannot be worse than this.

Considering this a mere sketch of a life in what is called the grande monde, we have not touched upon any of the incidents of our hero's early age. Trifling as they may be thought by some persons, they will no doubt one day engage the pen of some abler hand, who shall undertake fully to satisfy public curiosity, by prefixing his whole life to a collection of his classical works."

Mr. Merry died suddenly at Baltimore in Maryland. The hopes of his biographer remain yet unfulfilled. No collection of his 'classical works' has yet been called for by an undiscerning public; and of his tremendous satires, unrivalled odes, and matchless epigrams, not one is now remembered; the memory of the founder of the Della Cruscan school of English poetry has, however, been embalmed for the admiration of future generations in Mr. Gifford's Baeviad and Maeviad.