1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Frank Sayers

Robert Southey, "Sayers's Works" Quarterly Review 35 (1827) 175-84, 219-20.



To many of our younger readers, in an age when every season brings with it its shoal of poets, the name of Sayers may, perhaps, be unknown, as being out of date; but it is known to their elders — it is known on the continent — and will be known by posterity. In the course of Fame, the race is not to the swift, but to the strong.

Few poets have, been so fortunate as Dr. Sayers in their biographer; seldom, indeed, if ever, have we seen the life of an author written with such intimate knowledge, such affectionate attachment; and, at the same time, with so much discrimination, and such perfect candour. But it is no advantage to the reviewer when every thing in the narrative which he has to follow is said so well, that he can neither compress it to advantage, nor translate it into his own words without injury. We may, however, in the present instance, allow ourselves a wider range, and, by connecting the life of Dr. Sayers with the literature of his time, contribute something towards the history of English poetry.

"Frank, the son of Francis Sayers, and Ann, his wife, was-born in London, on the 3d of March, 1763." His father was a native of Great Yarmouth, who had settled in London as an insurance-broker, and superintended shipping concerns for his Yarmouth connexions. His mother's name was Morris; she also was born at Great Yarmouth, but of Welsh extraction; and the son, who had the feelings of an antiquary, as well as of a poet, pleased himself with thinking that his pedigree might be traced to Rhys-ap-Tewdwr Mawr, prince of South Wales, and so up, through the heroes of Welsh history, into the age of fable and romance. Mr. Sayers was a man of fine person, wit, gaiety, and talent, "fond of singing a good song, and of prolonging to a late hour the pleasures of the evening table." His patrimony was slender, and he was supposed to have been a more welcome suitor to Miss Morris than to her parents. He died a few months after the birth of his only child; and the widow, not being left in easy circumstances, returned with her infant to Yarmouth, and there resided with her father, at his house in Friar's-lane. "It was a stately, old-fashioned mansion, surrounding three sides of a gloomy court; the hall was floored with chequered marble; the large parlour was wainscoted with cedar, and a spacious staircase of shallow steps led up to the drawing-room, which was a long narrow gallery, including seven windows. A Flemish folding-screen, covered with gilt leather, inclosed a private nook round the chimney, in which the family sat when by themselves, and here were given the first lessons in spelling and reading. Dr. Sayers always recollected affectionately the snug niche within this screen; and thirty years afterwards provided a similar apparatus in his Norwich sitting-room."

His first schoolmaster was a dissenting minister at Yarmouth, by name Whitesides, "a man of adequate learning and sense, but sadly given to hypochondriasis."

At the age of ten he was removed to a boarding-school at North Walsham, where Nelson was his school-fellow, but a disparity of five years between them prevented all intimacy. In the ensuing year he was removed to Palgrave, where the Rev. Rochemont Barbauld, having settled as the minister of one of those dissenting congregations which were at that time lapsing into Socinianism, had just opened a boarding-school, in the house previously occupied by the well-known antiquary, Thomas Martin. Sayers and his biographer were among the first eight scholars. "The same single-bedded room," says the latter, "was allotted to us both; we were disciplined in the same classes — we stayed together at Palgrave three years; and then began that early and uninterrupted friendship which has thrown into my way so many valuable and delightful moments. And the record of which (see the dedication to the poems) constitutes the dearest and proudest trophy of my life. Sayers was two years and a half older than myself; this is much at that age: he was my protector, my helper, my model — a feeling of gratitude, of deference, of admiration, accompanied my attachment from its commencement, and still, I hope, marks the attitude in which I bend over his urn." Mrs. Barbauld, who was then a bride, and who had already, as Laetitia Aikin, acquired her high reputation, took her part in the instruction of the pupils. Sayers used to say, in after-life, that he considered the lessons which he received from her in English composition as the most useful part of the instructions bestowed at Palgrave. Twice a week the boys were called, in classes, to her apartment; she read aloud to them a fable, a short story, or a moral essay of convenient length, then sent them back into the school-room, to write it, each in his own words, on a slate; these exercises she overlooked, pointing out the faults, and giving a distinct reason for every correction, so that the arts of inditing and of criticising were in some degree learnt together. Mr. Taylor remarks upon this, that "many a lad from the great schools, who excels in Greek and Latin, cannot write properly a vernacular letter, for want of some such discipline." But it may well be doubted, whether such a habit of early criticism would have the effect of producing a natural and easy style; whether it would not tend to banish colloquial and idiomatic English from composition; and whether pupils so trained would not, as they grew up, be likely to think less of what they had to say, than of how they should say it. The moral faculties cannot be accustomed to discipline too early, that they may receive their bent in time; but there is a danger of weakening or distorting the intellectual powers, if you interfere too soon with, their free growth. To make boys critical, is to make little men of them, which is the surest way to prevent them from ever becoming great ones.

The pupils at Palgrave used to perform a play before the holidays; and Sayers figured in the parts of Prospero, Caled, Henry IV., and Mark Anthony, with great applause: his memory indeed never faultered, and his recitation had the charm which a fine flexible voice-produces, when it is regulated by a poet's feeling and a poet's ear. "Throughout life," says his biographer, "Dr. Sayers was one of the finest readers I ever heard; expression of every kind was, at his command; his own emotion was always transitive, yet given with that subdued grace which is the expedient distinction between lecture and declamation." He excelled his school-fellows (which rarely happens) in athletic sports, as well as in intellectual endowments. This little community was divided into rival factions of Norwichians and Yarmouthians — so natural is combination, and consequently faction; but Sayers, though of the latter party by denizenship, piqued himself on having been born in the metropolis — so much so, that, in his favourite books, he generally wrote his name, "F. Sayers, Londinensis." Formerly this was esteemed an honour, as we learn from Erasmus; but Sayers is probably the only person who has regarded it as such in latter times. To be born in London usually implies the consequence of being bred there; and the privation of all rural objects and rural enjoyments, in childhood and in youth, is justly considered a misfortune.

After Sayers had remained three years under the tuition of Mr. and Mrs. Barbauld, he was taken from school, and placed in a merchant's counting-house at Yarmouth. A few months afterwards his grandfather died, leaving him an estate, at Pakefield, of about one hundred and thirty acres — too little for independence, and yet enough to unsettle him. It is a pleasing and characteristic trait, that his first act of independence was to erect a monument to the grandfather and grandmother under whose roof his infancy had been past; and hardly less so, that, having at the time affixed his name at the foot of the epitaph, he gave direction in the latter part of his life for having it effaced. One habit, which is rare among literary men, he acquired in the counting-house, that of keeping his minutest accounts with mercantile punctuality; and this he adhered to so rigidly afterwards, as to make it a grievance, to him at last, when paralysis had shaken his hand, that he could no longer put down his marketings and post his household expenses. But the occupations of the counting-house were irksome to him; he indulged his growing love of literature, amused himself with electricity and chemistry, in which a new world had just been discovered for speculative experimentalists; and undervaluing the more liberal pursuits of commerce, failed to perceive the comparative leisure and freedom which they afford, and the opportunities of acquiring knowledge which they offer.

Sayers's future biographer was at this time on the continent, whither he had been sent on leaving school. When he returned to England, in 1782 after three years' absence, he found that his friend had relinquished all thoughts of commerce, and had placed himself with a skilful agriculturist at Oulton, in Suffolk, to learn farming with the intention of occupying his own estate at Pakefield. "Whether," says Mr. Taylor, "the scheme of farming had been adopted as the shortest cut to that practical independence which might facilitate the realization of some matrimonial project, is, now of little moment. Such rumours circulated, and such things happen at nineteen." This plan was soon abandoned. The British farmer is not a man who may pass his life — "ut prisca gens mortalium." It is not in Norfolk that the vine may be married to the poplar or the elm. Sayers could not hope to grace his Sabine board, with olives of his own growing, nor to gladden his heart with wine from his own vintage. The part of Horace's picture which he was more likely to realize would have been, to lie at ease under some ancient oak, and listen to the fall of waters, or, for the want of them, to the rustling of the leaves. Were the practical farmer to do this, it would not be long, "Till Davie Debit in his parlour stand." If he would thrive, it must be by following the homely precepts of old Tusser—

Good husband he trudgeth, to bring in the gains;
Good huswife she drudgeth, refusing no pains.

But the youth who had, at this time, the world before him, where, or rather how, to choose, neither contemplated trudging for himself, nor drudging for his wife in his scheme of happiness; and giving up this intention more speedily and more prudently than he had forsaken his commercial plans, he left the pursuits of practical agriculture to those who would not be degraded by having their thoughts engrossed with market-prices, and their conversation employed upon sheep and oxen.

Leaving Oulton, therefore, Sayers went to reside awhile with his mother, who, upon his giving up all thoughts of commerce, had sold the house at Yarmouth, with its extensive mercantile appurtenances, and fixed herself in the pleasant village of Thorpe near Norwich, in which city her two sisters were settled.

"It was now," says Mr. Taylor, "that our friendship became truly intense. In his society was always found both instruction and delight; at this time I first fancied my society was become of value to him. I could describe Paris, and, what he more delighted to hear about, Rome and Naples. The literature of Germany, then almost unknown in England, I had pervasively studied, and was eager to display; and frequently I translated for his amusement such passages as appeared to me remarkable for singularity or beauty. We read the same English books, in order to comment them when we met. My morning walk was commonly directed to Thorpe: we prolonged the stroll together on the then uninclosed heath, and he frequently returned with me to Norwich, dined at my father's table, and took me back to tea with his mother. During the winter season, he occupied at Pleasure a bedroom in our attic story, when he wished to attend the Norwich theatre, or some evening-party. Our family consisted of my father, my mother, myself, and of Mr. Casenave, my father's partner, a native of Bayonne,and a catholic. To him Sayers would sometimes read French, with a view to correct his pronunciation. In short, he was as dear to us all, as if he had been my brother, and was more familiarly at home with us, than in the statelier establishment of his uncle Alric." — vol. i. pp. xix. xx.

Mr. Alric, who had married an aunt of Sayers, was a Genevan; he came to Norwich as a foreign clerk, was taken into partnership by the merchant-manufacturers who had originally engaged him, had realized what was in those days a considerable fortune, and, having no children, had wisely retired from business, to live on the income of this capital. A brother of the Lord Chancellor Thurlow was one of his early friends, and being at this time raised to the bishopic of Lincoln, he wrote to Mr. Alric, and offered him a living of 300 a year for any relative or friend whom he might wish to serve. The result must be told in the characteristic words of Dr. Sayers's biographer.

"My friend would have liked the clerical profession, and was adapted for it; but he had been brought up among dissidents, was in the habit of accompanying his mother to the Octagon, an unitarian chapel in Norwich, and had at that time serious objections to the articles of faith, and liturgic services, of the Anglican church. He was not formed to hesitate between principle and prudence. He declined the proffered patronage. Bred among unitarians, factiously attached to the writings of Dr. Priestley, and not unread in those of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Lessing, I had still stronger prejudices than himself against the church; and my conversation, no doubt, uniformly tended to corroborate his disinterested decision. I have since lamented it. As his opinions were eventually to hitch into the rut of orthodoxy, it would have been fortunate if they had done so while in the road to preferment. The addition of three hundred a year to his then narrow income would have enabled him to marry conveniently, and would thus have surrounded his latter years with higher tendernesses of domestic comfort. The praise of principle must always remain to him; but when those opinions give way to which sacrifices have been made, virtue itself entails a something of remorse." — vol. i. pp. xxi. xxii.

In his twentieth year Sayers went to Edinburgh as a general student, and while there, determined upon following the profession of physic. He returned to Thorpe, and finding the income of his estate barely adequate to the expense of carrying on his studies, he sold it, and vested its proceeds, at a prudent season, in the funds.

"This," says his friend, "was a season of civic ferment. In our walks, indeed, Sayers and I seldom talked politics; but often at my father's table, who was active in elections, hospitable to partisans, and an adherent of the Coalition. We two, on the contrary, were agreed to contend for Pitt and parliamentary reform: yet in this our sympathy there was not entire concord; we had entered a common path from different quarters: a zealot of the rights of the people, I was content with any administration which would undertake to carry them into effect; Sayers was more attached to the crown, and though willing, under its shelter, to welcome every improvement which seemed a natural evolvement of the constitution, he was not friendly to any attempt at inserting the graft from without.

"Mr. Windham at this time came frequently to Norwich, and, when his visits had electioneering purposes, slept occasionally at our house, where he saw and argued with Sayers, inquired his destination, and observed to my father that, with so fine a person, and so fine an intellect, that young man would, in any professional line, become speedily an ornament to his country." — vol. i. p. xxiii. xxiv.

He now entered regularly upon his professional studies, and pursued them, first in London, under Cruikshank, Baillie, and John Hunter, afterwards at Edinburgh under Monro, Black, and Cullen. There he was visited by his friend.

"Sayers soon imparted to me his own warm admiration of the place: he compared its site with the ground-plan of Athens; called its castle the Acropolis; its great church the Parthenon; and its port the Piraeus. He pointed out to me in turn the sublime, the beautiful, and the romantic features of this magnificent city — the High-street, the long and the broad, which, with the width of a market-place, is darkened into the likeness of a lane, by the colossal elevation of the bordering buildings, piled seemingly by a people of giants — the New Town, with its white and trim elegant modern edifices — the bridges, which, like aqueducts of antiquity, carry from hill to hill an endless stream of people — and that vast magical prospect of mingled edifice, wood and water, which bursts at so many stations on the wanderer. We together examined, in Holyrood House, the apartments which had witnessed the adventures of Mary, Queen of Scots; we attended the lecture-room of science; and walked in a pilgrimage, then sympathetic, to the sepulchre of Hume. Our evenings were divided between the play-house, where we saw Mrs. Siddons in Lady Randolph, and supper-parties of the students, who sometimes received us at their lodgings, and sometimes met us at Scrimgeour's oyster-cellar.

"Among the companions of Mr. Sayers, I especially recollect our Palgrave schoolfellow, William Lord Daer; Mr. Joseph Cappe, afterwards Dr. Cappe, of York; Mr. Davy, now Dr. Davy, and Master of Caius College, Cambridge; and Mr. Mackintosh, now, with the title of Sir James Mackintosh, the brightest ornament of the British House of Commons." — vol. i. pp. xxvi-xxviii.

The two friends performed what is now called the short tour of the Highlands together. To have undertaken this was some proof of enterprise at that time, for the age of tourists had not yet commenced. They took with them a copy of Ossian, both believing then the poems to be genuine, that they might have the pleasure of comparing his descriptions with the lake and highland scenery, and so of feeling and enjoying the truth of the poetry. But though they tried it in mist and in moonshine, and gave it especially the advantage of a drizzly morning at Loch Lomond, even their willing faith was foiled. They did not as yet distrust the imposture, but Sayers observed, that though it was difficult to become persuaded that Homer could have been blind when he wrote, it was not difficult to believe so of Ossian. His friend went home deeply struck with what he calls the "palmary" state of mind which Sayers was attaining. Sayers was, indeed, a most extensive and assiduous student during his residence at Edinburgh: he not only pursued his professional studies, in all their collateral branches, but he applied himself also to the arduous task of attaining a critical knowledge of Greek, and devoted to this object hours which should have been appropriated to exercise and relaxation or sleep. His health was seriously injured by this intemperance in study. Of the English psychological writers, we are told that Hume was at this time his guide and philosopher, Berkeley and Hartley were lastingly his favourites; that he was not familiar with Hobbes, and valued Locke lower than is usual; and that Lord Monboddo's book assisted in preparing him for that change of opinions which was to settle in a fixed and conscientious conformity with the doctrines of the Church of England.

He thought favourably of Dr. Brown's theory of medicine, which was then in season — not of its practice; and he observed to his biographer, that there was great merit in thus banishing jargon, and mystical language from the schools, and in accustoming young men to understand what they talked about. There is some truth in the remark, and some error in the application; and no person could have been more sensible than Sayers, in his maturer age, how much evil arises from the error common among young men, of supposing that they understand difficult subjects, because they have learnt to talk about them in that sort of fluent language which, as Hobbes says, "with many words makes nothing understood." Sayers could pursue the theory of medicine with the interest of an active and inquisitive mind; but he seems to have been physically incapable of the practice. He had overcome not without difficult and exertion, the disgust which may well be excited by a London dissecting-room; but the sight of an operation on the living subject was more than he could bear; and when he attempted to go through a course of clinical lectures at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, more than once he fainted by the bedside of the patient to whom he should have administered relief. God had given him a tender heart; and the strength of body and mind which should have subdued its sensibilities, when an exertion of painful duty was required, had been shaken by intemperate application to his studies. He now began to think himself unfit for the profession which he had chosen; he became uneasy respecting his future circumstances in life; the hopes which he, had formed seemed blighted; the state of his mind approached almost to that of hypochondriac disease, and his letters were of so melancholy a character, that they alarmed his mother, and she determined to go to him: Mr. Taylor accompanied her. For a mind so diseased, there is no medicine like the society of a true friend: Sayers was persuaded to leave Edinburgh, and return with them to Norwich, taking the English lakes in the way. Change of air and circumstances, and the presence of those whom he loved, soon produced a beneficial effect; the cloud which had threatened to settle upon his mind passed off, and the enjoyment that he manifested during a day which they spent on Keswick Lake indicated unequivocally a return of healthful feeling.

Having recovered his health in the course of the summer, Sayers went to Leyden in the latter end of the year, intending there to graduate; but the rules of that once flourishing and still respectable university required a longer residence, previous to graduation, than he was disposed to allot, and therefore he obtained a diploma from Harderwyk, a town in Gelderland, situated on the Zuyder-Zee, where a provincial academy had been established in the middle of the seventeenth century. It was hardly possible that it should flourish between Franeker and Leyden, and with Utrecht also at hand. William III., as hereditary stadtholder of Gelderland, rescued it from dissolution; and the professors were privileged with an exemption from the excise duties for two hogsheads of wine and fifteen barrels of beer — the students for one hogshead of the generous, and six barrels of the vulgar, beverage. But notwithstanding this singular means for the promotion of sound and orthodox learning, the academy merely lingered on. Sayers would, probably, never have known that diplomas were to be had there upon the easiest terms, unless he had travelled to Holland; and he is, perhaps, the only distinguished person whose name was ever enrolled in its books.

Having travelled through the Low Countries, and passed a few months at Paris, he returned to Norwich, where his mother had then settled, and where he had determined upon settling, but rather in a literary than a professional capacity. For the profession which he had studied he seems to have been actually unfitted by a constitutional sensibility; commerce he had forsaken; agriculture he had tried, and liked it not; his opinions were at that time too vague for the clerical profession; and legal studies he considered as to be classed among the "literae inhumaniores." Fortune had exempted him from the necessity of providing for himself, and he thought, or rather felt, that

—sure it is of vanities most vain
To toil for what you here untoiling may obtain.

The truth is, that Dr. Sayers was, by nature and education, eminently qualified to be an inhabitant of that pleasant castle, where

—there was but one great rule for all,
To wit, that each should work his own desire,
And eat, drink, study, sleep, as it may fall—
—or wake the lyre,
And carol what unbid the Muses might inspire.

Thomson has, indeed, admirably described both the gayer and graver parts of his character:—

Certes he was a most engaging wight,
Of social glee, and wit humane, though keen,
Turning the night to day, and day to night;
For him the merry bells had rung, I ween,
If in that nook of quiet bells had ever been.

And as certainly he was a man

—of sense refined,
Who felt each worth, for every worth he had,
Serene yet warm, humane yet firm his mind,
As little touched as any man's with bad.

Having set his heart at rest as to the pursuit of fortune, there remained the pursuit of fame; and this, his biographer tells us, was now his darling care: he used to repeat Cowley's aspiration after an earthly immortality, and ask, with him, what he should do to make himself for ever known? His deliberations ended in a resolution to compose some lyrical dramas; "a perusal of the Greek tragedians — which he went through with agitated feeling — determined the form of his outline; Percy's Northern Antiquities supplied the costume and the colouring." It may be added, that he had been impressed by the Runic Mythology as exhibited in Gray's spirited versions of some of the Scandinavian remains; and that the perusal of Klopstock's choral dramas, which he read with his friend Mr. Taylor, strengthened the predilection for that form of drama which the ancients had taught him to admire....

No man was ever better qualified to embellish and enjoy society: his manners were singularly pleasing, his countenance animated and yet gentle, his voice sweet, his eye mirthful, his mind richly stored with wit as well as knowledge at command, so that whether the subject of conversation were light or serious, he was alike able to instruct and to amuse; passing from grave to gay, or from gay to grave, with an ease and gracefulness peculiar to himself. At different times he had inherited from various relations enough to place him in what, for a single man, was affluence. It might have been happier for him if this had come earlier, so as to have saved him from what surely is not to be called single blessedness; or if he had had no such probable contingencies in view, so that he must have engaged in active life: in that case, his days might possibly have been prolonged. If he had had more duties to perform, more calls for exertion, more to occupy and rouse him, he would have had more enjoyment than he found from having his whole time at his own absolute disposal. After all the vacillations of his youth, there was an opportunity of taking a determinate course in life, when his religious opinions settled in a conscientious and fixed conformity with the Church of England. The rise and growth of that change is related in an interesting manner by Mr. Taylor. He was present during the last illness of Mrs. Sayers, when Moina was read to her from the manuscript. These lines occurred:—

Thou unseen power, when deep despair surrounds us,
When the dark night of woe o'ershades the soul,
Sudden thou shinest, amid surrounding horrors,
The cloud is gone, and keenest joy bursts in
Upon the darkened mind.

The passage was immediately applied by the mother, and not by her alone, to that recovery of her son from a state of despondence which had been witnessed not long before at Keswick; she sobbed aloud at the thoughts and feelings which were thus induced; the emotion was partaken both by her son and his friend: it was the last time these three persons ever met, and the circumstance left a deep impression upon Sayers: indeed, a memorandum relating to it was found among his papers. "If," says Mr. Taylor, "religion is so natural to man, that even in a work of fiction the theopathetic affections must be ascribed to the rudest barbarian, it is indeed a revelation from heaven. Some such conviction I think was flashing across him, and he adopted it as a kind of engagement to a dying mother, thenceforth unremittingly to cultivate piety, and on his part never to unfit himself for their meeting again."

From that time Sayers ceased to discuss, as he had formerly done, the fundamental doctrines of faith. He began to regard, with merited and increasing aversion, a philosophy as injurious to the hopes as it is destructive to the happiness of man, false in itself, and fatal in its consequences; and he betook himself to the study of the English divines, in whose works sounder philosophy, truer wisdom, stronger reasoning, and more enlarged views of all the momentous concerns of human life are to be found, than in any other language, or in any other class of writers. There he found arguments which convinced his judgement, and truth which satisfied his heart. It is only to be wished that he had then shaken off a constitutional disposition to inaction, and entered into sacred orders, for which he was not more eminently qualified by his learning and his powers of mind, than by habitual piety and constant benevolence. But he was contented to float down the stream of years, amusing himself sometimes with architectural and antiquarian pursuits, with minute historical inquiries, with correcting and re-correcting his poems and essays, and re-considering his corrections, — sometimes, but rarely, with composing occasional verses, and sometimes with sending a paper to the Quarterly Review. The only thing in which he was active, was in doing good. Nothing of pith and moment was executed or undertaken; and in this easy course of life he reached the age of fifty, when his constitution began sensibly to fail. It had been weakened by the indulgence of inactive habits; no medical care could avert a paralytic stroke, which for some time was foreseen, and after its occurrence he lingered three years in a declining and hopeless state, the wreck of what he had formerly been. "His latter months were grievously afflicted with hypochondriasis: the form which this disease assumed in him was an excessive anxiety about the future condition of his soul. He, so much superior in every Christian virtue, not merely to the average bulk of mankind but to most of the excellently wise and good, was prepared to approach the throne of grace, but with trembling hope and fearful humility." He died August 16, 1817, bequeathing several sums to charitable uses, his books to the library belonging to the Dean and Chapter of Norwich, and his papers to his true and constant friend, Mr. Taylor, from whom in life he had never been divided.

A good portrait, from a picture by Opie, is prefixed to his collective works; it is one of Opie's happiest likenesses. There is a monument to his memory in Norwich cathedral, where he was interred. Mr. Hudson Gurney wished to have had the honour of erecting it, but this was a privilege upon which his nearest kinsman, Mr. Sayers, insisted as his own right. "If learning, genius, intellect," says his affectionate biographer, "are to confer immortality on earth, it is his; if virtue, faith, suffering are to confer it in heaven, it is his also."