1800 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Gregory Lewis Way

George Ellis, in Way, Fabliaux or Tales (1800) 292-96.



Having by some accident omitted in my various Literary Obituaries the death of this ingenious man, I am anxious to make slight amends to his memory by an account of him in this place, more especially as I have an opportunity of borrowing a sketch of his character by a writer, whose peculiarly simple and elegant style deserves every praise, which a critic can bestow on it.

Mr. Way was scarcely known in the literary world before he died. He published Fabliaux, or Tales, abridged from French Manuscripts of the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries, by M. Le Grand, selected and translated into English Verse. With a preface and notes. Vol. I. 8vo. pp. 280. Faulder. 1796. In this work he was assisted by his friend, Mr. George Ellis; who after his death published The Second Volume. With a preface, notes, and appendix. 8vo. Faulder. 1800. Mr. Ellis has here completed some of the Tales, which his friend had left unfinished, and added the short memoir which I am about to copy.

It is a trite observation, that the life of an author is seldom capable of affording much amusement to the reader; and that of Mr. Way was particularly barren of incident: for his biographer would have little to relate, except that he was educated at Eton, from whence he went to Oxford, and afterwards to the Temple; and that having married early in life, he retired almost immediately to a small country seat in Essex, where he died on the 26th of April, 1799, after a very short illness, in the forty-third year of his age. Finding himself possessed of a fortune which seemed to remove the absolute necessity of addicting himself to any profession, though insufficient without strict economy to meet the wants of a growing family, he voluntarily devoted himself to retirement, which was not much interrupted by an annual visit of a month to some near relations in the country, and by a fortnight usually allotted to an old friend in London. Under such circumstances, it was scarcely possible that he should fail to contract some peculiarities; because, being neither solicitous for wealth, nor power, and having no habitual occupations or amusements, which required the assistance of society, he was not likely to imitate, or even to notice the vicissitudes, which fashion is daily producing in the dress, and gestures, and manners, and language, and opinions of what is called the world. He conceived that happiness is the only rational object of pursuit; and he believed that the means of happiness are to be found in the practice of religion. The history of that religion therefore, the means by which it was established, the evidence on which it rests, the hopes it holds out, the duties it inculcates, and the opinions of its different sectaries, became the object of his constant studies and daily meditation. His principal amusement was literature, and particularly poetry: and from this choice of occupations and amusements, a choice dictated partly by reflection, and partly, perhaps, by the effects of a situation and early habit, he certainly acquired such a constant flow of chearfulness, as a life of more activity and a greater variety of resource, often fails to produce.

It has been remarked, that he had some peculiarities; but they were such as it is not easy to describe, because they were not the result of eccentricity, or of any marked deviation from general habits. There was nothing in them on which ridicule could fasten. His manners were easy and unembarrassed, and his address particularly attractive, from being marked with that best sort of politeness, which is the expression of benevolence. But that perfect simplicity of demeanour which borrows nothing from imitation, has certainly a singular appearance in the eyes of those who are only conversant with artificial society: perhaps, indeed, few particularities are more striking than a total absence of all affectation.

His conversation was very characteristic, and extremely amusing; particularly on those topics which seemed most remote from his usual pursuits, and in which he was led to take an interest only by that kindness of disposition which prevented him from viewing with indifference any amusement of his friends. There are probably few subjects less propitious to the display of literary acquirements than the discussion of a fox-chace, yet I have seen him voluntarily engage even with this untoward argument: and he applied with such taste and sagacity the learning he had acquired from Master Turberville and the book of St. Albans; his language was so picturesque; and he drew so comical a parallel between the opinions of practitioners in the science of in different ages, that the effect was scarcely less striking than if Sir Tristram, or King Arthur, had unexpectedly descended among a company of modern sportsmen. On all occasions the Cervantic turn of his humour was singularly heightened by his researches in antiquarian knowledge.

It is impossible to consider such a simple and amiable character without lamenting that he neglected to become his own biographer; because no species of writing, perhaps is more capable of uniting amusement with utility than the genuine unvarnished picture of private life; and certainly no species of writing is so uncommon. Many, indeed, have professed to lay the whole contents of their memory before the public, and to expose all their thoughts and actions to their inspection: but in these reports of their conscience, whether under the humble name of "confessions," or the more sincere title of "appeals to posterity," we generally find modes of acting and feeling more remote from common nature, than those of an Amadis or a Cassandra; and are unable to draw any practical lesson from such a delineation, unless it be that much real vice and folly may result from a sickly sensibility and an over-delicate organization.

An eminent French writer has observed, that even in novels, and other fictitious descriptions of human nature, where the hero and heroine are rewarded by the completion of all their wishes, their happiness is announced, indeed, but never particularized: and that no writer has yet been found, whose confidence in his imagination and powers of amusement was so sturdy as to cope with the monotony of domestic felicity. If this sarcastic remark be at all just, it must be because the painter of ideal life is in want of real models from which he may copy his delineations. In every other science we find authentic records of experiments, which have been made with caution, and described with minute and circumstantial accuracy; but in the great art of being happy, the experience of every man becomes useless to the rest of the world. Those who are most attached to life, and most desirous of protecting its duration, have probably passed some hours which they would willingly have retrenched from the sum of existence, and have endeavoured, with more or less success, to quicken their passage. It may be presumed, therefore, that the history of a practical moralist, who was forced to construct his scheme of happiness with common materials, and to fight the tediousness of life with weapons which are within every man's reach, would prove neither useless, nor unentertaining. Such a moralist was Mr. Way. He was not, like the imaginary Rasselas, a prince, or a traveller; but he found, in the affection of a wife, in the duty of his children, and the hopes afforded by religion, a compensation for all the disappointments and miseries to which life is subject.