1883 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alaric Alexander Watts

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 319-23.



I DON'T like that ALARIC ATTILA WATTS!
Whose verses are just like the pans and the pots,
Shining on shelves in a cottager's kitchen,
Polish'd and prim. Now a greyhound bitch in
The corner, — a cat, — and some empty bottles,
A chubby fac'd boy, and the Lord knows what else;
All taken together's a picture, which in
My humble opinion is just as rich in
Domestic detail, without the "what-nots,"
That smooth down the verses of ALARIC WATTS.

There humorous lines, which I am not desirous of being supposed necessarily to endorse, are supposed to be sung by Mr. Jesse Morgan, author of the Reproof of Brutus, at one of the Symposia in Fraser's memorable "back-room," No. 215, Regent Street. There was an old feud, — probably some newspaper quarrel, — between Watts and Maginn. The latter had assisted Watts in The Literary Souvenir, contributing his beautiful story, The City of the Demons, to the volume for 1828, and his Vision of Purgatory to that for 1829. Nothing from the "Doctor's" pen appears in the volumes for 1830 and 1831. In the preface to that of 1832, we find a sort of apology from the editor for the unusual introduction into such a work, of a "satirical squibb." He adds, "If the general reader be amused, and the culprit amended, the leading aim of the author will have been achieved. The only persons who are likely to take offence at any strictures, are those who, from the indifference they are accustomed to exhibit to the feelings of others, will have but little right to complain." The satire in question will be found at page 222; it is entitled The Conversazione: a Fragment, and extends to some five hundred and fifty lines. It touches upon the mutual puffery of Allan Cunningham and the Ettrick Shepherd; the lampoons of the "mock-Montgomery;" the novels of Patmore, the "Count Tims" of Blackwood; the boozing-matches of Crofton Croker and Maginn, at the "Pig and Whistle"; Hugh Fraser, and his connection with the Foreign Quarterly; Bulwer's satire, The Siamese Twins; the "Literary Union"; Churchill (a Fraserian), "one of the second-hand wits of the mock-Blackwood"; — cum multis aliis, — and concludes with the wish that his worst enemies could only see his "rural Tusculum," with its pictures, its books, and its busts, — embowered amid apple-blossoms and jasmine-tendrils. The lines on Maginn, which immediately follow those on Crofton Croker, may be cited:—

And, cheek-by-jowl, his brother twin,
In all but dulness, Pat Maginn
Who though he write the LLD.
After his name, will never be
A whit the graver than he is,—
Less fond of drunken "deevilries;"
Less ready for a vulgar hoax;
Addicted less to pot-house jokes
And all the rough plebeian horse-play,
He will so oft without remorse play!
Give him a glass or two of whiskey,
And in a trice he grows so frisky,
So full of frolic fun and satire,
So ready dirt around to scatter,
And so impartial in his blows,
They fall alike on friends and foes
Way rather than his humour balk,
His mother's son he'd tomahawk!
And so he can but set once more
His boon companions in a roar
Will scruple not good-natured elf,
To libel his illustrious self!
A task so difficult, I own,
It can be done by him alone!
And yet to give the devil his due,
He'd neither slander me nor you
From any abstract love of malice
But only in his humorous sallies,
For of his friends he'd lose the best,
Much rather than his vilest jest!

There are no bones broken here, it is true, but the sword is fairly drawn. The Literary Souvenir was commenced in 1824; Mr. Watts, then engaged at Leeds in the conduct of The Intelligencer, having been invited by Hurst, Robinson & Co., of London, to co-operate with them in the publication of an annual volume, as already introduced into this country by old Rudolph Ackermann, of the Strand, on the plan of the well-known German Literary Almanacks or Pocket-books. The editor certainly manifested great judgment in the selection of pictures by the first artists for the engravings, and the accompanying sketches, in prose and poetry, from the most popular writers of the day. The enterprise was eminently successful, the sale of some of the volumes amounting to 14,000 or 15,000 copies. Ten volumes of The Literary Souvenir were published between 1824 and 1834. In 1835 the Annual appeared in a slightly modified form, under the title of The Cabinet of Modern Art, of which three volumes only were published. If the illustrations and text of these and similar volumes were not, according to modern notions, of the most elevated character, they had at least a tendency to refine and instruct; and if Mr. Watts is correct in estimating the amount expended by him in bringing them out, during these fourteen years, at 50,000, it must be admitted that he has rendered important services to art and literature. It would appear that, in the latter part of its career, the sale of this annual had fallen off. Mr. Watts chose to attribute this to a quiz upon it in Fraser's Magazine, which purported to be written by an exiled Pole, who rejoiced in the name of "Quaffy-punchovics." He was, moreover, irate at the metamorphosis of his second Christian name from "Alexander" to "Attila;" but this was an old joke of Lockhart, who, perceiving that he always signed himself "Alaric A. Watts," thought that the second name should match the first, and supplied the picturesque agnomen, by which he was thenceforth always known. It appears that some years before this, some kind of controversy had arisen between "Alaric" Watts, and "Satan" Montgomery, in which, — according to a veridical statement in Fraser, — one of the objects of discussion "concerned the names of the distinguished disputants." Watts maintained that the author of the Omnipresence was the son of a clown at Bath named "Gomery;" in return, Montgomery, who, allowing that as Watts was the lawfully begotten son of a respectable nightman of the name of Joseph Watts, on the New Road, he had a fair title to the patronymic, denied that he had any claim to the Gothic appellation of "Alaric." "The man's name," said Montgomery, "is Andrew." In addition to all this, the irate poetaster chose to construe his portrait in The Gallery, into an attempt to imply that he had been guilty of the felonious abstraction of pictures; and the hints of a "mystification" in his matrimonial relations as an insinuation that his union with "Zillah Madonna" was not of a moral character. All this will not be very apparent to the reader, who may think, too, that Watts had provoked attack. But Jeremy Bentham defined a "libel" to be "anything which any man may think may, in any way, annoy him;" and so Mr. Watts thought he had grounds for an action. The case accordingly came on, December 5th, 1835, in the King's Bench, Westminster, before Lord Denman and a special jury. Fraser was ably defended by Mr. Erle, K.C., whose speech will be found in extenso in Fraser's Magazine for January, 1836, the result being a verdict for the defendants on the first count, — for the plaintiff on the second count: — Damages, one hundred and fifty pounds. The defendants, upon this, applied for a new trial, and obtained a rule nisi but upon the case being heard in banco, some five or six terms afterwards, the trial was refused on a technical point.

A. A. WATTS was born in London, March 19th, 1797. Before he adopted literature as a profession, I believe that he was employed as a private tutor. In 1823 he published an elegant little volume of poetry, entitled Poetical Sketches, of which a private impression had been in circulation during the preceding year. This volume became very popular, and five editions, at least, were sold. In Leeds he lived for three years, as editor of The Intelligencer, proceeding thence to Manchester to establish The Manchester Courier. In 1827 he was invited to co-operate with Mr. Charles Baldwin and Dr. Giffard in the establishment of The Standard: and in 1833 set on foot The United Service Gazette. Quarrels with his partner in this led to Chancery suits, with ruinous results to both parties. He then resumed his relations with The Standard, and in 1847 gave up all connection with the newspaper press. I believe that it was with Mr. Watts that the system originated of printing parts of newspapers in the metropolis, and forwarding them to various parts of the country, according to order, to be filled up with local advertisements and news.

He is thus described in Fraser at the epoch (January, 1835) of the taking of his portrait: "He has some talent in writing verses on children dying of colic, and a skill in putting together fiddle-faddle fooleries which look pretty in print. In other respects, he is forty-one years old, of an unwashed appearance, no particular principles, with well-bitten nails, and a great genius for backbiting. There is not a man to whom he has been under an obligation, — from Jerdan to Lockhart, from Theodore Hook to Westmacott, from Andrews to Whittaker, from Crofton Croker to Carter Hall, from Wordsworth to Byron, from Scott to Southey, from Landseer to Wilkie — from the man who has fed him from charity to the man who has, from equal charity, supported his literary repute, whom he has not, in his poor way, libelled. We are sorry for it for his own sake such a course redounds to a man's mischief."

We get a glimpse of Watts in the home of which I have spoken from a letter written by Gerald Griffin to his sister, dated London, June 27th. 1829. "I have also," wrote the Irish Novelist," seen Mr. Alaric Watts reposing amid all the glorious litter of a literary lion-monger, — sofas, silk cushion, paintings, portfolios, etc. He is a little fellow, very smart and bustling, with about as much of sentiment as you have of bravery, — I mean bloody field of battle bravery."

In 1851 he published a very charming volume, worthy of a place by the side of the Italy and the Poems of Rogers. This was entitled Lyrics of the Heart, and other Poems. It contained forty-one line engravings, after Lawrence, Stothard, Leslie, etc., and was issued with "plain" and "proof" impressions, to suit the taste or pocket of purchasers. In this are reprinted the earlier poems, two of which — The Death of the Firstborn, and My Own Fireside, had excited the warm commendation of Sir Robert Peel, who wrote to the author that "to have written these would be an honourable distinction to any one." Eighteen years later, the recollection of these poems induced the great statesman to place at the disposal of the poet a Treasury appointment for his son, and to continue his interest till his lamented death. In 1853 a pension of 100 per annum was conferred upon Mr. Watts by her Majesty, "in consideration of services rendered by him to literature and the fine arts." This, together with an appointment in the Income-tax Department of Somerset House, rendered easy the latter years of his life. He died at Kensington, April 5th, 1864, in the sixty-eighth year of his age.

As I have mentioned Mrs. Zillah Madonna Watts, — herself a poetess, — it may be well to record that she was the youngest sister of J. H. Wiffen, the well-known translator of Tasso, and Garcillasso de la Vega, and for many years private secretary and librarian to the Duke of Bedford.