1796 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Thomas Russell

William Lisle Bowles (?) in Lounger's Common-Place Book (1796) 2:133-35.



Tom Russel, fellow of New College, Oxford, and author of a collection of sonnets, published since his death. Several of his juvenile compositions have been omitted by the editor of these "elegant trifles," which would have done poor Russel, no discredit.

This young man, who (to use his own words) brought cares on himself to drive ours away, gave early proofs of intellectual excellence, and poetic tendency: this latter disposition could not escape the keen eye of Dr. Warton, who has been accused to converting Winchester school, into a hot house of rhymers. His school exercises procured him considerable applause, and when he went to the university, he was considered as a youth of much hope.

The advantage of forming useful and splendid connections, is the hackneyed argument advanced in favour of a public system of education. But the views are so obvious, and the ridiculous failures of interested selfishness, so frequent, that a man who is observed insidiously to select for his acquaintance, the rich and great alone, is instantly described as "a dead shot at a yellow hammer;" from the circumstance of young noblemen having a golden tuft on their caps, with some other ornaments, and immunities, at once injurious to, and incompatible with, impartiality and good discipline.

Can we be surprized if a young ambitious mind, like that of Russel, was deluded from the rugged paths of study, by the fascination of elegant society, and the golden dream of a wealthy patron? If in some instances, he courted too assiduously the company of "particular circles," it ought to be observed, that one so able to communicate, as well as receive, was always welcome, and that few men came into company, better qualified to please, or to instruct. — but

Great men use a wit, as a rake does a whore,

When their end is obtain'd, they see him no more.

—and Russel with all his talents, endearing qualities, and correctness of taste, was "jostled" out of his friends memory, by horse-jockies, valets, and gamblers, before my Lord reached Dover, on his way to the Continent.

But the memories of Oxford tradesmen, the cellar-man, and the attendants of the junior common room, were more retentive, and my reader will hear with concern, that after much anxiety, and much trouble, this amiable man died of a broken heart. The writer of this article cannot but drop a tear to the memory of one, with whom he has passed many a useful, and many an agreeable hour, (hours, alas! to return no more) in the mutual, but unsuccessful effort, of alleviating anguish, which can cease only with life, palliating evils, and softening prospects, over which the strong hand of death alone, is able to throw a veil.

I cannot mention the university, without suggesting a wish, that parents would not be so eager to educate their sons in those seminaries, without a prefect knowledge of the necessary expence, and the dangerous situation of a young man on his first entering a college. And it were well, if heads of houses, unless they wish to see their walls deserted, it were well, if they would not leave the new comers, who have been long, and ardently panting for liberty, a prey to rapacious tradesmen, or to what is still worse, the licentious excesses of their own passions; surely it becomes them to enforce compliance, or reform abuse, and to guard the rising generation, for whose fate they are answerable, against the bewitching snares of vice and dissipation, which every where surround, and invite them. We may then venture to send our sons, without a certainty of their morals, health, and fortune, being irretrievably destroyed.

In a declamatory, but not ill-written pamphlet, which a disappointed candidate for a fellowship once shewed me in manuscript, called, Oxford dissected, or that university displayed in its proper colors, I remember his saying, that to a certain college, every member was a benefactor, for that he brought with him, money, good sense, learning, morals, and a constitution; but was sure to bring nothing away with him. As I could not with propriety subscribe to the assertion, I advised from friendship for the man, or from reverence to Alma Mater, to suppress the work, which, a few months after, with its author was swallowed up by a storm in crossing the Atlantic.

"I am aware," says a declaimer at my elbow, who defends well regulated stews; "I am aware of the prudent regulations, and cautious police established by proctors and vice-chancellors, but while they will not suffer iniquity, or carnal indulgence, to appear in any decent shape: they forget that Oxford is surrounded by the lowest and vilest sties of illicit passion, where filthy vulgarity robs sensuality of refinement, its only, its bad excuse, and where a loathsome disease, poisons the springs of life."

My satirical friend, with whom (however I may value his abilities) I do not always feel disposed to agree in opinion, concluded his harangue, by observing, that he divided the young men of the present day, into two classes; first, your pleasant, accomplished, sensible, undone bon-vivants, without morals, health or fortune, admired, pitied, and neglected by every body: — The second, your strange, eccentric, out-of-the-way mortals, who are dull and unfashionable enough to preserve their estates, characters, and constitutions unimpaired, but think themselves perfectly at liberty to indulge in odd whims, unaccountable fancies, and strange singularities; "to conclude, I prefer the latter with all his imperfections on his head."

To this sentence, from which many of my readers will dissent, he might have added, that the rare, the desirable character in the present age, is the man of plain good sense, and education, of uncorrupted manners, whose sensibility is not too delicate, or feelings too refined for the common, the useful, and the necessary duties of a son, a husband, a father, or a friend; who does not from affectation, or cowardice quit the post allotted to him by Providence, nor wander from the beaten turnpike road of life, through dread of the bustle of competition, or the snares of ill-design; dangers from which no man has a right to claim exemption, as most of us possess ability and resolution to oppose these chimeras of human life, if we chuse to call them forth. From the scarcity of such characters in the common transactions of mankind, the first and most sacred duties of society, too often fall into the hands of coxcombs, rascals, and fools.

"Take a knife with a common edge, and it will do your business better," said Swift to his friend Lewis the under secretary, who was attempting to divide paper in a very aukward manner, with a fine delicate edged expensive penknife.