1919 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Edward Jerningham

Lewis Bettany, in Edward Jerningham and his Friends (1919) 3-13.



EDWARD JERNINGHAM was born in 1737, the 3rd son of Sir George Jerningham, 5th Baronet, of Costessey Park, Norfolk, by his wife Mary, eldest daughter and heiress of Francis Plowden, of Plowden, Shropshire. In his boyhood his parents lived at Cambrai, in the North of France, and being devout Catholics, they sent their son at the age of ten to be educated at Catholic schools, first at the English College at Douai, founded by Cardinal Allen, and then at the University of Paris, under the tuition of Dr. Howard. Owing to this circumstance Edward Jerningham, besides picking up a fair amount of Latin and some Greek, became as familiar with the French and Italian languages as with his own. But he failed to cleave to his family's faith. Loving always to dabble in theological matters and to correspond with ministers of all denominations, he made early in life a study of the differences separating the Catholic and Reformed Churches, with the result that he became a convert to Protestantism, in which faith he remained till his death. He seems to have come to England in September, 1761, attracted by the coronation of King George III., and provided with a letter of introduction to Martha Blount, "the favourite of Pope." On the death of his father, January 21st, 1774, he set up house with his mother in Grosvenor Square, and lived with her there till her death in September, 1785. His time he seems to have spent in writing verse, in practising upon the harp, in frequenting the opera and the theatre, in conducting flirtations of a more or less Platonic character with various young women, and in corresponding with and visiting his aristocratic friends. These included the Earl of Chesterfield, the Earl of Carlisle, Earl Harcourt, the Countess of Ailesbury, the, Countess of Mount Edgcumbe, the Countess of Jersey, and Horace Walpole. In view, however, of the fact that Chesterfield was forty-three years older than Jerningham, and that a single letter only of his is included in the poet's correspondence, in view too of the deafness and other disorders which made the great letter writer's last years a torment to himself and a distress to his friends, I cannot think that the friendship subsisting between the Earl and Jerningham can be regarded as having ever ripened into intimacy. With the Prince of Wales, however, Jerningham seems to have been on intimate terms. At CarIton House, and at the Pavilion, Brighton, where he arranged the library, he saw a good deal of his Royal Highness about the time of the Prince's liaison with Lady Jersey and marriage to the Princess Caroline. And when he died at Green Street, Grosvenor Square, on November 17th, 1812, it was with the knowledge that the Regent had made constant enquiries about his health, and with the satisfaction of having received the Sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. All through his life Jerningham. dabbled in poetry. His earliest productions, The Magdalens, and The Nunnery, are both written in the metre of Gray's Elegy, and are not only slavish imitations of that poem, but such flagrant and line-for-line plagiarisms of it, that they cannot be said to exist as independent works. His first literary success was a poem on the Foundling Hospital, which, according to Jonas Hanway, greatly promoted the establishment of that institution. His best efforts, however, are to be found in Enthusiasm, a sort of didactic poem, which contains some vigorous verse, and in The Rise and Progress of the Scandinavian Poetry, an attempt at an epic which, dedicated to his friend the Earl of Orford, and showing painfully enough his incapacity for maintaining any prolonged poetical flight, surprises notwithstanding by exhibiting one or two really sonorous and imaginative lines. Of his plays little need be said. The Welsh Heiress, though inadequate to the requirements of the stage, is quite an amusing comedy for the closet. But his tragedies, Margaret of Anjou, and The Siege of Berwick, are more lifeless even than those of Mason, or than those of his friend Carlisle. Jerningham was no favourite with the critics or the satirists. Gifford, in The Baviad, depicted him as "Snivelling Jerningham," and as weeping, at the age of fifty, "o'er love-lorn oxen and deserted sheep." Mathias ridiculed him in The Pursuits of Literature, remarking, "I am told that Mr. Jerningham (poor man!) still continues sillier than his sheep." Byron, however, in return for kindnesses received from him as a boy, refrained from pillorying him in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. But Macaulay, in his review of Madame D'Arblay's Diary and Letters, said that Jerningham's verses were fit to be put into Lady Miller's Vase at Bath Easton, ignorant presumably of the fact that this dubious honour was one which they had often actually received. Of Jerningham's discussions of ecclesiastical topics, excursions into polemical theology, and translations from Bossuet's Oraisons Funebres, I shall say nothing; I have read none of them save his essay on Pulpit Eloquence, and his discourse on The Mild Tenour of Christianity. But of his relations with women and of his acquaintance with men I must make a brief mention. Edward Jerningham seems to have formed lasting attachments to two women, to Lady Beauchamp Proctor, wife of Sir Thomas, and to Henrietta Dillon, niece to Lady Jerningham, and natural daughter of Charles, 12th Viscount Dillon. Neither attachment came to anything. Lady Beauchamp Proctor rejected the advances made by the poet with indignation, but not with contempt. Miss Dillon, acting on her aunt's advice, declined to marry him; but she kept up an association with him, so the present Viscount Dillon says, for twenty years, from 1783 to 1803. Otherwise Edward Jerningham's love-affairs seem to have been those of a not seriously regarded philanderer. Content to take the role of tame cat, he loved squiring young women about, entering into correspondence with them, and spicing such correspondence with a touch of sentiment; but, apparently, he never looked upon himself and they never looked upon him as a genuine "pretendant." A couple of extracts from letters written to him by Miss Anne Beauclerk in 1789 will best illustrate the terms Jerningham kept with women twenty or thirty years his juniors. Writing on February 3rd, Miss Beauclerk says:—

"We lose much by not hearing daily from you the history of your transitory loves. Can you recollect how many you have had since last June? What is become of the little lady of the boat? Let us have some anecdotes of yourself, and some of the world."

Writing on November 23rd, she confesses:—

"Inured to your temporary neglects I was not much alarmed by your late silence, on your account indeed not at all. But, as I heard of you walking with a very pretty young lady, I did not know how far she might engage all your mind and attention; though I might guess for how long, and flattered myself that with the restoration of your reason would return the remembrance of your Banstead friends."

Whether among his numerous men acquaintances, drawn as they were from all ranks and professions, Edward Jerningham numbered an intimate friend is a point I have been unable to settle. This much, at least, is certain, that in the choice of his friends he went a course the very opposite to that which Boswell followed. He never deliberately tacked himself on to a great man; he felt no need of seeking the highest type, provided he could get one fairly high. For instance, he knew Norton Nicholls, W. J.Temple, William Mason, Dr. Beattie, Joseph Warton, Richard Owen Cambridge, and Horace Walpole, all members of Gray's circle; yet he seems never to have known Gray himself. Again he knew such intimate friends of Johnson as Garrick, Reynolds, Dr. Burney, Dr. Percy, Sheridan, Boswell, Burke, and Windham, the last two possibly after Johnson's death. He knew hostesses whose assemblies Johnson frequented, such as Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Vesey, Miss Elizabeth Harvey and Miss Monckton. He knew many of Johnson's women friends, Hannah More, Elizabeth Carter, Fanny Burney, and Helen Maria Williams. But Johnson himself he seems never to have met. And, if it be said that Horace Walpole, Chesterfield, Anna Seward, and three of his parson friends, Potter, Temple, and Stockdale, may have prejudiced him against Johnson, it may as fairly be urged that the only great man of letters he knew, Edmund Burke, would most assuredly have done his best to prejudice him in favour of the Doctor. The same reluctance against advancing from the circumference to the centre is shown by Jerningham in the case of Cowper. He knew Hayley and Romney, two of Cowper's intimate friends; but the acquaintance of the author of The Task he obviously never made. Probably he preferred being a little god himself to worshipping at the shrines of greater divinities. He was, in fact, regarded as patron by quite a number of self-constituted clients; and being seemingly a most good-natured and kind-hearted man, he was always prepared to strain his resources in order to do these clients good turns, a disposition which must have rendered his acquaintance with Lord Salisbury, the Chamberlain, and with four successive Viceroys of Ireland no small embarrassment to him. Jostling one another in Edward Jerningham's correspondence, these aspirants form a strange and a very mixed set. Young men wanting commissions in the Army; authors trying to get their books published; actresses seeking engagements from theatrical managers; vocalists craving the eclat of singing at the houses of fashionable women; hostesses asking him to call and to bring his harp with him; social climbers yearning for Royal patronage of their entertainments; clergymen, the most clamorous, persistent and versatile class of all, looking out for publishers, cadging for preferment, prepared to act as tutors, or desirous of being placed on the Commission of the Peace: these are the types of persons who seem to have made no small demands on the purse, the patience, and the influence of Edward Jerningham, the man of fashion. And other persons as unblushingly claimed his assistance as poet. Major Topham wanted him to write poems for The World. Lady Miller was always worrying him for contributions to the Vase at Bath Easton. Mr. and Mrs. Temple expected him to commemorate their eldest son in an Elegy. And the Rev. Jonathan Boucher, Vicar of Epsom, had no sooner become a father than he earnestly demanded from him a "Genethliacon." Mention of Boucher, a staunch loyalist, despite his friendship with General Washington, reminds me that in the American War of Independence Edward Jerningham, like his friends James Boswell and William Davies Shipley, Dean of St. Asaph, was an ardent pro-American. He was acquainted too with Lady Fawkener, who married Governor Pownall, and with Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, and President of the United States of America. Whether he ever came across Benjamin Franklin I cannot discover; but since he was known to Bishop Shipley's son he may well have met the Bishop's American friend.

Horace Walpole was possibly the most intimate friend Jerningham had; but though the great gossip mentions "the charming man" constantly in his letters, he says very little about him that is either memorable or illuminating. All this mention comes to amounts to little more than a statement that Walpole accepted the dedication of a poem called The Swedish Curate in 1773, and, though an old man of seventy-six at the time, went to Covent Garden to see the first performance of Jerningham's tragedy, The Siege of Berwick, in 1793. A letter which Walpole wrote to Mary Berry on September 1st, 1795, is perhaps a little more informing. "At present [says the Earl of Orford] I have so little to say that I had better make my alphabet as tall as Jerningham's; though I have not his happy facility of making every sentence a double entendre. Mercy on us if he and Sophia were to correspond! They would have occasion, to use an expression of Lord Bacon's, 'to speak without fig-leaves.' Some say the 'Charming' will succeed Tommy Tyrrwhit. I wish with all my heart he may! He will not offend by leaving his old friend, Madame de Main-tenant, nor displease by his abrupt Sophisms, congenial enough to the climate."

The only portrait of Jerningham painted by a contemporary is that which we find in the pages of Fanny Burney's Diary and Letters. Considering that the painter was an awkward, shy, plain, near-sighted young woman, gifted with the clever schoolgirl's faculty for spotting eccentricities of manner and superficial traits of character, but endowed with nothing of the real insight into mind and motive possessed by a genuine observer like, say, Jane Austen, I hold that the portrait is probably a pretty good likeness, due allowance being made for the fact that youngish or middle-aged men were never much attracted to Fanny Burney, the young woman. Here then are the six extracts which compose "Fannikin's" sketch of Jerningham, the frequenter of assemblies:—

"Bath, Tuesday, April, 1780. — We all went to Mrs. Bowdler's.... Besides their own family we met Mr. Jerningham the poet. I have lately been reading his poems, if his they may be called. He seems a mighty delicate gentleman; looks to be painted, and is all daintitication in manner, speech, and dress.... He sings to his own accompaniment upon the harp. He has about as much voice as Sacchini, and very sweet-toned, though very English; and he sung and played with a fineness that somewhat resembled the man we looked at at Piozzi's benefit; for it required a painful attention to hear him. And, while he sings, he looked the gentlest of all dying Corydons!"

Oh, what must he have thought of Mrs. Bowdler! who, when he was trying to recollect an air from The Hermit, called out, 'Pray, Mr. Jerningham, can't you sing us some of your own poetry?' I really feared he would have fainted away at so gross a question; but, to my great relief, I observed he only looked down and smiled."

"Friday. — Mrs. Cholmly was so kind as to call this morning; and, as I happened to be alone, we had a very comfortable chat together. And then Mrs. Thrale came in, and I had the pleasure of introducing them to each other. She is a woman of as much real delicacy as Mr. Jerningham (whom Lord Mulgrave calls a pink-and-white poet; for not only his cheeks but his coat is pink) is a man of affected delicacy."

"Saturday. — In the evening we had a great deal more company, consisting of the Dean of Ossory ... my pretty new acquaintance, Miss Leigh, and Mr. Jerningham. Miss Leigh and I kept together very rigidly the whole evening, and talked a great deal of talk, and grew very intimate; but one time, when accidentally I took up a book from the table, merely to peep at the title-page, Mr. Jerningham approached me, and said in a gentle style of raillery, 'Why do you take up a book, Miss Burney? You know you can't read.' 'Oh,' answered I, in the same gentle style, 'I only do it to make believe.' And you can't think how prettily he laughed. He enquired, however, a great deal after my father, and wonders he does not come down here. Another time he said to me, 'Pray were not you the lady who used the glass the other night at the play?' Here I was quite shocked; but could only defend, not deny, protesting with great truth, that I only used it for the performers, and could not see at all without it. 'A lady in the box with me,' continued he, 'wanted sadly to know which was you; so indeed did all the company I was with. And I fancy I pointed right. Did not I point right?'"

"January, 1784. — I went alone to Mrs. Vesey's, which was very disagreeable to me. There was a very full meeting too, and most of the company were already arrived; and, to add to the pleasure of my entree, Mrs. Vesey was in an inner room. So my name was spoke aloud at the door, and then nobody was ready to receive me. I stood so awkward, till at last Sir Joshua Reynolds smilingly called out, 'Miss Burney, you had better come and sit by me; for here's no Mrs. Vesey.' I instantly obeyed the droll summons. 'Why don't Dr. Burney come with you?' cried he good-naturedly. 'You should make him; for it is very distressing to you to come in alone.' I never will go alone again, unless I can go much earlier. I now soon saw folks enough that I knew. Mr. Jerningham first came up to me, and offered to fetch Mrs. Vesey, which, though I declined, he would do. She received me most kindly and told me I had a little party of friends in the boudoir who desired I would join them; but I had had enough of exhibiting myself, and begged leave to sit still. 'But you can't think, my dear Ma'am,' cried she, 'how happy you will make me, if you will be quite at your ease here, and run about just as you like.' How well she sees what would make me happy! To run about in rooms full of company! As soon as she was called off Mr. Jerningham took her place, civilly declaring he would not give it up, come who might.... Afterwards Miss Hamilton herself came, and, taking my hand, insisted upon carrying me back with her. The boudoir party was Mrs. Carter, Miss Gregory, Miss Hamilton, Lady Wake, Miss Ann Clarke, and Mr. Montagu.... I stayed with this party all the evening. Mrs. Carter talked more than anybody ever heard her talk before.... Her talk was all instruction. Were I to see much of her, I really think we should be exceedingly good friends. Mrs. Vesey, Dr. Warton, and Mr. Jerningham joined us occasionally. In the other rooms were Mrs. Montagu, Mrs. Buller, Sir William Hamilton, and crowds more, with dear, amiable, unaffected Sir Joshua."

"January 24th, 1789. — The Queen, in the morning, when I chanced to be alone with her, read to me a new Poem of Mr. Jerningham's, upon the death of his mother. It is very Pretty."

"May, 1790. — My dear Mrs. Ord was, so good as to come to me one morning at 9 o'clock to take me to the Exhibition, where I saw, I fear, the last works of the first of our painters, Sir Joshua Reynolds. The thought, and his unhappy loss of eyesight, made the view of his pictures very melancholy to me. I have been very much pleased with Mr. Jerningham's verses to him upon his visual misfortune."

John Taylor, grandson of that Chevalier Taylor, who attained considerable notoriety in his day as an itinerant eye-specialist and as oculist to King George II., gives an account of Edward Jerningham in his Records, of My Life, published in 1832. This Taylor was a correspondent of Jerningham's and the proprietor of The Sun newspaper. He tells us something of the poet's intercourse with Chesterfield in the closing years of the latter's life. How, while the Countess and a Roman Catholic priest would be wrangling over religion, utterly ignoring the rest of the company, Jerningham would be shouting into the ear-trumpet of the Earl and thereby maintaining a conversation with him. How Chesterfield told a story of Martha Blount's visiting at his house on the very day of Pope's death, of her concealing this important circumstance from him, and of her meeting with the utmost flippancy the indignant remonstrances which he made to her on discovering it. Taylor describes Jerningham as "a warm, sincere, and steady friend, one of the most amiable characters I ever knew;" and he seems to have proved his own friendship for the poet by bringing him and Gifford together and "exciting in them kind sentiments towards each other." But his praise, being quite general, and never dealing in little traits of manner or of character, leaves the psychology of his friend largely unexplored.

During the last dozen years of his life Edward Jerningham went less and less to assemblies and theatres and, devoting himself to theological studies, produced an essay on Pulpit Eloquence, and a discourse on The Mild Tenour of Christianity, works to which I have already alluded, together with a treatise called The Alexandrian School; or a Narrative of the First Christian Professors in Alexandria. The essay and the discourse I have read, and I may say that they are well worth reading, the latter being a very spirited attack on the practice of Asceticism and on the doctrine of Predestination; but neither quite convinces me that Jerningham had the true religious sense. I am inclined indeed to think that his interest in the Bible and in the Fathers was purely literary and humanistic; and I am confirmed in this impression by reading the character which Lady Bedingfeld gives of her uncle in her diary for 1809. (The Jerningham Letters.)

"July 27th. — I took a walk with my Uncle E. in the morning. He talked a good deal of Pulpit Eloquence, and says he will read me an essay he has written upon it. He seemed much elated with Mr. Fountaine's approbation of it. Poor man! He cannot help harping upon religion; and, tho' he has left us, appears always particularly flattered by the approbation of our clergy. He never talks to me of the particular dogmas of religion, but in general terms, as if we were both of the same. I wonder what a sharp illness would produce in him. I doubt much if he would think his Protestant Buckler a sufficient guard against the Arch-Fiend. He has many amiable points about him, and is good-natured in the extreme; but [he is] so thoughtless in conversation that he often makes as much mischief as an ill-natured man, unsteady in his resolutions, or rather making none, but acting according to the impulse of the moment. By this he is for ever drawn into pecuniary difficulties; from which he expects my Father to extricate him, without reflecting how many children and grandchildren my Father has, who would be glad of assistance, if there was any to be had. He has had his share of the family property over and over again; but he has never made this calculation; and, if he were rich, he would be very generous to us all. No man in society is so pleasant: he has a playfulness of mind that is delightful. Mirth is his element, and he avoids any scene or any thought that can molest it. My uncle talked to all the people he met, particularly the children, and gave them halfpence. This is the Jerningham way: I have it quite."

"Aug. 12th. — Last Thursday my Uncle Ed., who appears very light and thoughtless, considering the present circumstances of things, went up to my Father's room after dinner (he appeared a little elevated); but, when he saw my Mother sitting by the bedside suffering with the gout, and his Brother lying as he does, silent and weak, he was suddenly so struck with the melancholy of the scene that he burst into violent and loud weeping. Edward, who was in the outward room with Frederick, rushed in dreadfully alarmed, supposing my Father was gone, and that the screams came from my Mother. He dragged my Uncle out, who was in a perfect hysteric; but after a few minutes, and drinking a glass of water, he returned to the library quite recovered. Nor should I ever have guessed it by his manner."

"Aug. 14th [the day of Sir William Jerningham's death]. — I hoped in the midst of all my affliction that he, poor man, my Uncle, might be touched by the awefulness of the event and return to the Ancient Faith; but he did not."

There is a tradition in the Jerningham family that this hope was realised, and that Edward Jerningham was reconciled to the Catholic Church before he died. Such a tradition, however, is a case of the wish being father to the thought. The poet died as he had lived a sincere and convinced member of the Church of England. Writing to Lady Bedingfeld at Bath, in October, 1812, a month before his death, Edward Jerningham is very emphatic in stating his dissent from the dogmas of the Ancient Faith. He says:

"I do not entertain an idea that what I say should impress the mind of others. But I should wish they understood that my secession from the Catholick Doctrine is grounded not only upon the controversial parts, but on the system of terror which the Catholic appears to me to substitute instead of the system of mercy which the Christian doctrine so evidently displays. Every page, every line almost, of the Old Testament favours my opinion. Under this idea I wrote the little tract, The Mild Tenour of Christianity, in which I have advanced nothing of my own invention. The many passages that are perpetually occurring soothe and delight my mind. In fine I could talk and write upon this subject for ever. But I reject all correspondence upon these points; and therefore, my dear niece, if you ever write, do not touch this ground. There is no combating with your side: the Catholic comes with the axe of Infallibility."

On the day before he died John Taylor had a farewell interview with him. This is what Jerningham said to his friend:

"I know that when I am no more you will say something kind of my memory; but I am already dead to all the vanities of this world, and what I desire is that you will say I was consistent in my religious creed and conduct. I am besieged by some Roman Catholic priests, who are anxious I should return to their persuasion. And, if there were no likelihood of contradiction, they would certainly make no scruple of asserting that I had done so. They would even think it meritorious so to do, for the honour of their religion. All therefore that I require of you as the last testimony of friendship is to state in your newspaper that I took the Sacrament on Wednesday last according to the rites of the Church of England."

Edward Jerningham greatly admired Alexander Pope. He was well acquainted with Pope's villa at Twickenham, and he gathered some particulars of the celebrated poet's personal habits from an old boatman who used to convey Pope from Twickenham to Richmond. Truth to tell, if the small man may be compared with the great man, the two poets had two or three points in common. Both were Protestants who, out of consideration for their relatives, never formally abjured the Ancient Faith in which they had been brought up. Both proved dutiful and most affectionate sons to their mothers, to comfort whose declining age they devoted the best years of their lives. Both, as young men, formed close friendships with celebrated wits over forty years their seniors — Pope with Wycherley, Jerningham with Chesterfield. Jerningham, it will be allowed, is an admirable letter-writer. He excels alike as a Society gossip, as a rebuker of insolence, and as a describer of scenes of natural and of artificial beauty. The reason being that, in every case, he has his correspondent carefully in his view. Whatever he was, he cannot be called an egotist.