1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 217-23.



The name of this literary veteran is especially sweet to the ear of the bibliophile, not from the number of books he has written, but the small number he has printed, — not from the productions of his own intellect, but rather the "restitution" he has afforded to those of others, by his critical notices or his elegant reprints. Many of these were fifty years ago, black swans of the book-hunter. "Several," says Fraser, 'are already dear to the bibliomaniac, and, as years roll by, others will become so, in consequence of the very few copies he has allowed to be printed; and this remark is more particularly applicable to those published on the Continent."

Of one of his earlier, and, indeed, more valuable works, Lord Byron speaks, — "Redde the Ruminator, — a collection of essays by a strange, but able, old man." These volumes, which numbered among the contributors to their pages, R. P. Gillies, Archdeacon Wrangham, the Rev. Montague Pennington, and Capel Lofft, have always been favourites of my own, and I endorse the opinion of Dr. Nathan Drake, who says, "I am acquainted with no essays which display a more exquisite taste, and excite a higher relish for the productions of genius." Another early work is the tale, Mary de Clifford, first published, I think, in 1800, the mention of which, I confess, recalls little or none of the "pensive pleasure," spoken of by Maginn, as produced by its perusal in years gone by. The writer speaks in his preface of the "exquisite delight" which he has received from the "novels of Mrs. Smith," and as he attributes this to a "peculiar congeniality of all the ideas in which he has been habituated to indulge," I presume that he has taken those admired productions as a standard, and am not surprised that they, and his own sentimental story, are allowed to slumber together. There is an interesting essay on Sir Egerton Brydges in the Literary Leaves of David Lester Richardson. Here his struggles to obtain a permanent and conspicuous place in literature are contrasted with the small success he has obtained. This is the more remarkable, as he was always ready to swim with the stream of popular taste. During the rage for poetry, from the time of Cowper to Byron, he courted the Muses with toil and ardour; when Minerva-press novels were the rage, Sir Egerton was ready with a whole shelf-ful of sentimental fictions; when Charlotte Smith and W. L. Bowles had made the "sonnet" fashionable, our poet cultivated this form of poetic composition, and when Lord Byron died, our aspirant was soon ready with a bulky volume of Letters on the Character and Poetical Genius of the lamented bard, of which Moore says that "they contain many just and striking views." Among other causes of failure were haste and want of concentration. In the preface to one of his rarer books, he says, "he who cannot throw out his ideas at once must fail: with every retouch the spirit evaporates. No one, while correcting, can resume the same train of ideas, and he will therefore unconsciously break the natural associations. The right word is always that which rises with the idea." Now, this may be right in theory, but it is not found to answer in practice. Easy writing, as we know, is often very hard reading. Horace will always please, — whose rule for poetry was "nonum prematur in annum," before publication, and the Rime of Cardinal Bembo will never fail to be admired, which are said to have passed through forty divisions in their composer's desk, receiving correction at each transition before they were committed to the press. Again, a man with a grievance is always a bore: — "Curae leves loquuntur; ingentes stupent," — or, as a French writer, Bertaud, tersely puts it: — "Les grandes douleurs sont muettes," — both axioms on which the world acts, whether they express a truth or not, and gives little sympathy to those who are always grumbling. This was the case with Sir Egerton Brydges, who was ever complaining of his own "wrongs," the "malice and hard-heartedness of the world," his "struggles to court the balm and oblivion of literature," and the "innumerable arts to wrest this from him, or make him abandon it." Like Rousseau, he seems to have believed that all the world was in a conspiracy against him, and that just as the Lords had debarred his access to the House of Peers, the critics were striving to exclude him from the Temple of the Muses. To expose these machinations was the main object of his otherwise interesting Autobiography, Times, Opinions and Contemporaries of Sir Egerton Brydges, Bart., per legem terrae Baron Chandos of Sudeley (1834, 2 vols. 8vo). This had been preceded by a much more interesting book, which is hard to get hold of, as it appeared in Paris, and the few copies printed were all for presents. This is entitled A Note on the Suppression of Memoirs, announced by the Author in June, 1825, containing numerous Strictures on Contemporary Public Characters (Paris, September, 1825, 12mo, pp. 92). Sir Egerton had intended to publish a private autobiography, but, changing his plan, he determined to make it public in character: hence the smaller Note, and the larger subsequent work. With regard to the often-iterated charge of malice, persecution, and injustice, a few words may be said. In 1790, on the death of the last Duke of Chandos, the subject of these remarks induced his elder brother, the Rev. E. T. Brydges, to prefer a claim to the barony, alleging his descent from a younger son of the first Brydges who bore the title. The claim was considered at full length by the House of Peers, who, in 1803 pronounced its decision, "that the petitioner had not made out his claim to the title and dignity of Baron Chandos." That this decision was in accordance with right and justice is conclusively shown by Mr. G. F. Beltz, the Lancaster Herald, in his Review of the Chandos Peerage Case, adjudicated 1803, and of the Pretensions of Sir S. E. Brydges, Bart., to designate himself; per legem terrae, Baron Chandos of Sudeley (8vo. 1834). From this laborious and minute analysis, it appears that the claim was entirely groundless; that the connection between the Bridges of Harbledown, near Canterbury, yeoman, and the Brydges, Lords Chandos, was at once imaginary and fabricated; and that, moreover, John Bridges, the great-grandfather of Sir Egerton, was nothing more nor less than a grocer at Canterbury; that both his wives were grocers' daughters, and that all their kinsmen were of the same rank in life. It was on his mother's side alone that he had any cause for genealogical pride, that it was that directed his mind to the subject, and incited him to grasp at a peerage, which was just becoming extinct, on the failure of a family, whose name happened to be similar to his own. His elder brother died without issue in 1807, and on his death Sir Egerton began to sign himself, per legem terrae, B. C. of S., maintaining that although his claim had been negatived by Parliament, he could, when he chose it, assert his rights by common law.

Allusions to his titled ancestry and noble connections appear on nearly every page of the writings of Sir Egerton Brydges; and one is irresistibly led into the subject of pedigree when talking about him. I have referred above to the mother of Sir Egerton, as having claim to aristocratic descent. It may not be amiss therefore to state that she was daughter and co-heiress of the Rev. William Egerton, LL.D., Prebendary of Canterbury, who was grandson of John, second Earl of Bridgwater by Lady Elizabeth Cavendish, daughter of William, Duke of Newcastle. The younger brother of Sir Egerton was Sir John William Head Brydges, Knt., who married Lady Isabella Anne Beresford, daughter of George, first Marquis of Waterford and sister of the Lord Archbishop of Armagh. He resided at Wootton Court, Kent, where he died September 6th, in his seventy-fifth year.

Reverting from a subject, on which it is the most charitable conclusion that Sir Egerton had become a monomaniac, it would be agreeable, if space permitted, to speak at length of the services which he so disinterestedly rendered to literature through a long life, more especially by such serials as the Censura Literaria, and Restituta, and his charmingly tasteful reprints of our older and less known authors. I have a list before me which, including original works, amounts to no less than one hundred and twenty separate publications. A summary of the more important of these is given in the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. viii. (New Series) p. 537; in Martin's Catalogue of Privately Printed Books, pp. 370-544; and at the end of a poem by him, entitled Modern Aristocracy; or the Bard's Reception (Geneva, 8vo, 1831, pp. 52), where will also be found some genealogical details, and the "arms and quarterings of the author, amounting in number to thirty! It was in 1810 that he took up his residence at Lee Priory, in Kent; and here, in 1813, he established the PRIVATE PRESS, from which so many original productions and charming reprints were issued. A few details respecting this from one of the works which it produced, which, from its rarity, will not be accessible to many of my readers, may not inappropriately find a place here. After some egotistical matter on Continental travelling, etc., the writer proceeds:—

"The LEE PRESS was set up at the earnest and repeated desire, and for the exclusive benefit, of the two printers, originally engaged in it. As I would have disdained to have had any concern with the produce, so I deemed it prudent to take every precaution which I could suggest, to protect myself from every part of the expense.

"These precautions were vain: the expenses were heavy to me while in England, and have been heavy to my Son, since my absence.

"The publications which I have given to the world in thirty-seven years, are beyond my power of enumeration. Of all, which have been at my own risk (and they have been not a few), neither the expenses, nor probably one-half the expenses in printing and paper, have ever been returned to me. Of those undertaken by Booksellers, I have never received, nor asked, one shilling of copy-money. I am forced to make this declaration, because the base heart of mankind, thirsting only for lucre, thinks that I, like them, could only be actuated by mercenary motives in my multifarious labours.

"I have now completed my fifty-ninth year, and the pecuniary returns of literature have never, up to this hour, reached the value of a single sixpence, except in the voluntary presents of books, which the publishers made to me for the immense labour in editing the new edition of COLLINS'S PEERAGE.

"On the other hand, I have spent a little fortune amongst Printers, Stationers, and Engravers! This has been among the prime amusements of my life: and how could I have endured the gigantic injuries and oppressions by which I have been pursued, unless my mind had indulged itself in some favourite and oblivious recreation?

"The same passion adheres to me amid the inconveniences of a migratory life, and in the three last years I have equally sought occupation in the employment of Foreign Presses."

The operations of the Lee Priory Press were carried on till the year 1823, although its owner had quitted England for a Continental residence five years previously.

It was not the first time in this country that the art and mystery of typography had been carried on, in his own private residence, by a gentleman and a scholar. More than two centuries earlier, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, Archbishop Parker had a Press and a staff of artists, in his own Palace of Lambeth, and there he printed, in sumptuous form, a few copies of his celebrated work on Ecclesiastical History, with the lives of the Archbishops of the See which he so admirably filled, — a folio volume of equal beauty and rarity, a copy of which is in the British Museum. Sir Horace Walpole — afterwards Earl of Orford, had also set the example of such a Press, at his beautiful villa of Strawberry Hill; and thus gave an additional charm to his historic residence. This press continued in occasional employment for half a century, and produced a number of works distinguished for curiosity and typographic elegance. Later on, at his romantic seat of Hafod, in South Wales, was established by Colonel Johnes the Private Press, where, in 1816, he printed the first edition of his translations of the Chroniclers, Froissart, Joinville, Brocquiere and Monstrelet. Of the Private Press in more recent days, that of the late Beriah Botfield at Norton Hall, that of the late Charles Clarke at Great Totham, and others, I have not now to speak.

After his departure from England, Sir Egerton Brydges wandered over France and Italy; finding employment, with ever ready pen, for the Press of every city where he sojourned for a time. Thus I have before me a series of works, in various sizes and languages, original or reedited, with the imprints of Lee Priory, London, Paris, Rome, Naples, Florence, and Geneva. It was at the last mentioned city, at the Campagne de Watteville, near to "Les Delices," once the residence of Voltaire, that he took up his abode removing, later on, to the Campagne Gros Jean, where he died, September 8th, 1837, in the seventy-fifth year of his age.

I will not attempt a cold criticism of the original work of this strange, wayward, sensitive and disappointed old man. To me, as an early lover of books, I must confess that his very name has a charm which hardly depends upon the abstract merit of his writings, and when, years back I took up my abode for a time in the city of the lake, I thought more of him, I am afraid, than of Milton and Diodati, Voltaire and Rousseau, Calvin and Beza, Lord Byron and Madame de Stael. I sought the acquaintance of Vignier, his printer, and Cherbuliez, his publisher, and obtained from them, and the bookstalls of the place, many a rare memorial, in the shape of book, pamphlet, and autograph letter. Many of these it is impossible now to lay hold of. Of the Res Literariae only seventy-five copies were printed, and the three volumes into which it is divided, were issued respectively at Naples, Rome and Geneva. The Anti-Critic, 50 copies only, printed at Geneva, is as scarce. Of the Libellus Gebensis. Poemata Selecta Latine Mediae et Infimae Aetatis (Gebenis, 1822), there were "37 exemplaria sola." And of the Lamento di Pietro Strozzi (Geneva, 1821), only twelve copies were struck off. Others I have already alluded to, all more or less scarce. But one volume penes me, I may place on record, as it is of the most absolute rarity, and among the most interesting and valuable of my Brydgesiana. It is of folio size, containing forty double columns, and is privately printed, without indication of place, date, or title-page. I believe, however, that it issued from the Genevan press, and that the year of its appearance was 1831. The title, as gained from the heading of chapter i., is The Green Book; or Register of the Order of the Emerald Star; and it purports to be an examination of the claims of nearly all the literary characters of the day to be admitted into this Chapteral Order, with the reasons for their acceptance or rejection. A list of some forty successful claimants enrolled at a previous meeting is given, among which are many members of our "Gallery," — Wordsworth, Bowles, Roscoe, Hogg, Hallam, Godwin, and Brougham. Sir John Sinclair is rejected as a mere statistician; Ricardo, although he insisted that he was the first genius in Europe, because the Order would have nothing to do with the Stock Exchange; Samuel Butler, of Shrewsbury, on account of pedantry and self-conceit; Pinkerton, because he talked of the "tinsel of Virgil," and as an unveracious writer; Mitford, for the harsh and barbarous style of his History of Greece; Archdeacon Nares, for his conduct as editor of the British Critic; and Dr. Rees, in spite of his Encyclopedia, which he brings with him as a voucher. On the other hand, the claims of several men of letters are heard with favour; and John Nichols, Warren Hastings, John Henry Todd, and Samuel Parr, are elected without opposition.

Among the poems of this writer is one which, in delicacy of conception and beauty of imagery, is superior to any other of his original productions. This is his Sonnet on Echo and Silence, in which his muse is so far 'impar sibi'; that we are not astonished at the author's desire to vindicate his claim to its composition, especially as it had been attributed to Henry Brooke, in a collection of sonnets edited by Coleridge, at Bristol, some time afterwards, and spoken of by Wordsworth and Southey in the highest terms of praise. "It ought," said the author, "to be original, for it cost me intensity of thought to bring it into so narrow a shape." It was first published as one of his juvenile poems in 1785, and had then been "corrected over and over again," under the advice of Lord Chief Justice Abbott (Lord Tenterden), till, by repeated labour, it was brought as near perfection as its author could carry it. Having, perchance, raised the curiosity of the reader, I here present this little gem, accompanied by the exquisite Latin version of Archdeacon Wrangham [omitted].

It only remains to be added that Sir Egerton Brydges was born at Wootton Court, in Kent, November 30th, 1762; entered at Queen's College, Cambridge, 1780, which he left without obtaining a degree; was called to the Bar in 1787, elected F.A.S., 1795, removed to Lee Priory in 1810, where he established his private press in 1813; received the Knighthood of the foreign Order of St. Joachim in 1808; became M.P. for Maidstone in 1812; obtained patent for baronetcy in 1814; quitted England for Continental residence in 1818 (the press at Lee Priory being finally discontinued in 1823); and that he died at Campagne Gros Jean, near Geneva, in his seventy-fifth year, September 8th, 1837. He was married twice, and had fifteen children, the fourth of whom, by the first marriage, became the wife of Edward Quillinan, the well-known poet.

It is probable that Maclise had no opportunity of making his sketch "ad vivum." In the Forster collection, in the South Kensington Museum is a carefully executed water-colour drawing of Sir Egerton Brydges, by F. Danby, which is the prototype of this in our "Gallery."