1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Wolcot

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 242.



JOHN WOLCOT, who achieved so much popularity, or rather, notoriety, under the assumed name of "PETER PINDAR," was born at Dodbrock, in the county of Devon, in 1738. He was educated at the free-school of Kingsbridge, and was articled to his uncle, an apothecary, at Fowey. In 1767, he accompanied Sir William Trelawney to Jamaica, as a physician, having previously procured his degree from Edinburgh; but finding his profession unprofitable, he was induced to take holy orders, and obtained a living in the island. The mind of his patron, under whose advice he acted, in thus changing the avowed object of his life, appears to have been as gross as that of the patronized; — it was understood between them that the one was "to get himself japanned," as an easy mode of obtaining "loaves and fishes" from the other. On the death of Trelawney, Wolcot returned to England, and, considering his former calling more likely to be profitable than his later, settled as a medical practitioner at Truro, in Cornwall. In 1780, he accompanied to London the painter, Opie, whose genius he had the merit of discovering, and whom he rescued from obscurity. In London he commenced his literary career, by a series of attacks on the Royal Academy. His skill as an artist was considerable; and he was, therefore, enabled to mingle so much truth and judgment with his criticisms, as to give point and effect to his coarse and bitter sarcasms. He was not, however, long satisfied to hunt such "small game;" but began a series of disgusting attacks upon the person and family of the king. The wit and humour which abounded in these compositions procured them to be relished; and the writer rapidly attained to an extent of popularity unparalleled in his age. He died at Somers-town, on the 14th of January, 1819, in the eighty- first year of his age; — for a long period he received an annuity from his publishers; and had contrived to amass a property by no means inconsiderable. It is said, that at one period his poems were. so galling to the highest powers in the realm, that an attempt was made to purchase his silence by a government annuity. It was, however; unsuccessful; and "Peter Pindar" continued to the last his system of ridicule and slander.

If we may judge the personal character of Dr. Wolcot from his writings, and the anecdotes that are told of him, his mind and his habits must have been gross and sensual to a degree. He felt no remorse at wounding — either to procure money, or to gratify uncalled-for spleen — the feelings of the highest and the most virtuous persons in the realm. He speaks in one of his satires of his "lean heart;" it was evidently incapable of sympathy with the better sensations of humanity. In all his writings he appears to have been actuated by that sentiment which a later wit describes as "the malice in a good thing, — being the barb that makes it stick." The satirist, in his old age, was afflicted with blindness; his winter was the opposite of that which has been described as " frosty but kindly:" still he continued to send forth his squibs; and grieved only that he had lost the power of making them. hurt. The objects of his enmity had been gradually removed out of his reach. One of his friends visited him on his death-bed; and, asking the worn-out sinner if he could do aught to gratify him, received this memorable reply, "Yes; give me back my youth!"

We owe some apology for introducing him into this volume. It would, perhaps, be wrong to omit a writer who obtained so large a share of public attention, and whose works were; at one period, circulated to an almost incredible extent. The subjects of which he treated were for the most part of temporary interest; and he is, consequently, even now very nearly forgotten. It is impossible to deny, that his poems abound in wit and humour, and occasionally exhibit proofs of a genius, which, if the man's mind had not been naturally gangrened, might have placed him high among the satirical Poets of his country. In selecting our specimens, we have thought it desirable to pass over the grosser productions of his pen, and to extract a few of his lyrics, — some of which are animated, elegant, and tender. Still his exceeding popularity will amaze modern readers; and is to be accounted for only by believing that which is humbling to humanity — those who pander to our vices are more eagerly accepted than those who inculcate virtue; and there, unhappily, prevails a disposition to encourage unprincipled persons who strive to render rank powerless, by making it contemptible. There are, however, few evils which time does not remove. The name of Peter Pindar is now seldom or never heard of; and if we find ourselves compelled to drag it from the obscurity to which it has been consigned, we trust that with the bane we have given the antidote,