Richard Owen Cambridge

Alexander Chalmers, in Works of the English Poets (1810) 18:227-33.

RICHARD CAMBRIDGE was born in London, Feb. 14, 1717, of ancestors belonging to the county of Gloucester. His father, who was a younger brother, had been bred to business as a Turkey merchant, and died in London not long after the birth of his son, the care of whom then devolved on his mother and his maternal uncle Thomas Owen, esq. who adopted him as his future representative. He was sent to Eton school, where quickness of parts supplied the place of diligence, and although he was averse to the routine of stated tasks, he stored his wind with classical knowledge, and amused it by an eager perusal of works addressed to the imagination. He became early attached to the best English poets, and to those miscellaneous writers who delineate human life and character. A taste likewise for the beauties of rural nature began to display itself at this period, which he afterwards exemplified at his seat in Gloucestershire, and that at Twickenham.

In 1734, he entered as a gentleman commoner of St. John's College, Oxford, and, without wishing to be thought a laborious scholar, omitted no opportunity of improving his mind in such studies as were suitable to his age and future prospects. His first, or one of his first poetical effusions was on the Marriage of the Prince of Wales, which was published with the other verses composed at Oxford on the same occasion. In 1737, he became a member of Lincoln's Inn, where he found many men of wit and congenial habits, but as he had formerly declined taking a degree at Oxford, he had now as little inclination to pursue the steps that lead to the bar, and in 1743, in his twenty-fourth year, he married Miss Trenchard, the second daughter of George Trenchard, esq. of Woolverton in Dorsetshire, a lady who contributed to his happiness for upwards of half a century, and by whom he had a family equally amiable and affectionate. She died Sept. 5, 1806, having survived her husband four years.

He now settled at his family seat of Whitminster in Gloucestershire, for seven or eight years, where his life, though easy and independent, was never idle or useless. While he continued to cultivate polite literature, his more active hours were employed in heightening the beauties of the scenery around his seat; for this purpose he made the little river Stroud navigable for some distance, and not only constructed boats for pleasure or carriage, but introduced some ingenious improvements in that branch of naval architecture, which were approved by the most competent judges. In one of these boats or barges, he had the honour to receive the prince and princess of Wales, and other distinguished visitors, who were delighted with the elegance of his taste, and the novelty and utility of his various plans. For the sports of the field he had little relish; not, however, from a motive of tenderness, for he practised the bow and arrow, and we read, but with no great pleasure, that "the head of a duck, swimming in the river, was a favourite mark, which he seldom missed." As he ever endeavoured to unite knowledge with amusement, he studied the history of archery, and became a connoisseur in its weapons as used by modern and ancient nations. The collection he formed while this pursuit occupied his attention, he afterwards sent to sir Ashton Lever's museum.

During his residence at Whitminster, he wrote his most celebrated poem, The Scribleriad. The design he imparted to some of his particular friends, and communicated his progress front time to time. He had naturally a rich fund of humour, which he could restrain within the bounds of delicacy, or expand to the burlesque, as his subject required, and the topics which he introduced had evidently been the result of a course of multifarious reading. But such was his diffidence in his own powers, or in the sincerity of his friends who praised his labours, that he laid his poem aside for many years after it was completed, until he could ascertain, by their impatience, that they consulted his reputation in advising him to publish it.

In consequence of the death of his uncle (in 1748) to whom he was heir, he added the name of Owen to his own. He now took a house in London, but after about two years residence, finding the air of London disagree with himself and with Mrs. Cambridge, he purchased a villa at Twickenham, immediately opposite Richmond hill. He quitted at the same time his seat in Gloucestershire, and with it all desire of farther change, for he resided at Twickenham during the remainder of his very long life. How much he improved this villa, cannot now be remembered by many: two generations have admired it only in its improved state. His mode of living has been affectionately yet justly described by his biographer. He was at once hospitable and economical, accessible and yet retired. By his knowledge and manners he was fitted to the highest company, yet although his circle was extensive, he soon learned to select his associates, and visiting became a pleasing relief, instead of a perpetual interruption.

The same year in which he commenced his establishment at Twickenham, he became known to the public, as the author of the Scribleriad, which was published in 1751. Some of his lesser poems succeeded. The Dialogue between a Member of Parliament and his Servant, in 1752; The Intruder, in 1754; and The Fakeer, in 1756. About the same time he appeared as a writer in The World, to which he contributed twenty-one papers, which are unquestionably among the best in that collection. Lord Chesterfield, who knew and respected him, drew the following character in one of his own excellent papers.

"Cantabrigius drinks nothing but and rides more miles in a year than the keenest sportsman: the former keeps his head clear, the latter his body in health: it is not from himself that he runs, but to his acquaintance, it synonimous term for his friends. Internally safe he seeks no sanctuary front himself, no intoxication for his mind. His penetration makes him discover and divert himself with the follies of mankind, which his wit enables him to expose with the truest ridicule, though always without personal offence. Cheerful abroad because happy at home, and thus happy because virtuous."

On the commencement of the war with France in 1756, in the events of which he appears to have taken a more lively interest than could have been expected from a man of his retired disposition, he was induced to undertake a History of the Rise and Progress of the British Power in India, in order to enlighten the public mind in the nature and importance of that acquisition. At first he intended that this work should be on a very large scale, but as recent events demanded such information as could he immediately procured, and promised to be useful, he produced his History of the War upon the Coast of Coromandel, which was published in 1761. He then resumed his original design, and obtained permission from the East India Company to inspect such of their papers as might he requisite. "He had also a promise of Mr. Orme's papers, but that gentleman happening to return from India at this juncture, with all intention to publish himself the history which afterwards appeared, Mr. Cambridge considered that his own work would now be in a great measure superfluous, and therefore relinquished the further prosecution of his plan." What he had published, however, was considered as an important memoir of the period it embraced, and as a fair and correct statement of the French proceedings in India; and it served to introduce him more into the study of India affairs, in which he ever afterwards delighted. It led him also to an intimate acquaintance with lord Clive, general Carnac, Mr. Scrafton, major Pearson, Mr. Vatelst, general Caliaud, Mr. Hastings, and others, who had gained distinguished reputation by their services in the East.

Mr. Cambridge survived the publication of this work above forty years, but appeared no more before the public as an author. Many of the smaller pieces now added to his works, were written as amusements for his friends, and circulated only in private. The long remainder of his life passed in the enjoyment of all that elegant and polished society could yield. Most of the friendships of his youth were those of his advanced age, and they were contracted with such men as are not often found within the reach of a stationary individual. At Eton, he became acquainted with Bryant, Gray, West, Walpole, Dr. Barnard, and Dr. Cooke; at Lincoln's Inn, he found Mr. Henry Bathurst, afterwards lord chancellor, the hon. Charles Yorke, Mr. Wray, and Mr. Edwards. To these he afterwards added lord Anson, Dr. Atwell, bishop Benson, sir Charles Williams, Mr. Henry Fox, Mr. William Whitehead, Villiers lord Clarendon, lord Granville, lord Lyttelton, Mr. Grenville, lord Chesterfield, Mr. Pitt, lord Bath, lord Egremont, Soame Jenyns, lord Hardwicke, admiral Boscawen, lord Barrington, James Harris, Andrew Stone, bishop Egerton, lord Camelford, Welbore Ellis, lord North, Garrick, Dr. Johnson, Dr. Porteus, now bishop of London, and the illustrious navigators Byron, Wallis, Carteret, Phipps, Cook, and Vancouver. In the company of these, some of whom were long his neighbours at Twickenham, he delighted to increase his knowledge by an interchange of sentiments on topics of literature and common life. His conversation was enriched by various reading, and embellished by wit of the most delicate and unobtrusive kind. His temper made him universally beloved. It was uniformly cheerful, mild, and benevolent.

The conclusion of his life is thus related by his biographer. "He was considerably advanced in his eighty-third year before he was sensible, to any considerable degree, of the infirmities of age: but a difficulty of hearing, which had for some time gradually increased, now rendered conversation troublesome and frequently disappointing to him. Against this evil, his books, for which his relish was not abated, had hitherto furnished an easy and acceptable resource; but, unfortunately, his sight also became so imperfect, that there were few books he could read with comfort to himself. His general health, however, remained the same, and his natural good spirits and cheerfulness of temper experienced no alteration. Having still the free use of his limbs, he continued to take his usual exercise, and to follow his customary habits of life, accepting of such amusement as conversation would afford, from those friends who had the kindness to adapt their voices to his prevailing infirmity: and that he still retained a lively concern in all those great and interesting events which were then taking place in Europe, may be seen in some of his latest productions. But as his deafness increased, he felt himself grow daily more unfit for the society of any but his own family, into whose care and protection he resigned himself with the most affectionate and endearing confidence, receiving those attentions which it was the first pleasure of his children to pay him, not as a debt due to a fond and indulgent parent, but as a free and voluntary tribute of their affection. In the contemplation of these tokens of esteem and love, he seemed to experience a constant and unabating pleasure, which supplied, in no small degree, the want of other interesting ideas.

"It is well known, that among the many painful and humiliating effects that attend the decline of life, and follow from a partial decay of the mental powers, we have often to lament the change it produces in the heart and affections: but from every consequence of this sort, my father was most happily exempt. This I allow myself to say upon the authority of the medical gentleman of considerable eminence, by whose skill and friendly attentions he was assisted through the progressive stages of his slow decline; and who has repeatedly assured me, that, in the whole course of his extensive practice, he had never seen a similar instance of equanimity and undeviating sweetness of temper.

"During this gradual increase of feebleness, and with the discouraging prospect of still greater suffering, which he saw before him, his exemplary patience and constant care to spare the feelings of his family were eminently conspicuous: nor did the distressing infirmities, inseparably attendant on extreme debility, ever produce a murmur of complaint, or even a hasty or unguarded expression. It is somewhat singular, and may be regarded as a proof of all unusually strong frame, that no symptom of disease took place: all the organs of life continued to execute their respective functions, until nature, being wholly exhausted, he expired without a sigh, on the 17th of September, 1802, leaving a widow, two sons, and a daughter."

It appears from the whole of his son's very interesting narrative, that few men have enjoyed a life of the same duration so little interrupted by vexation or calamity. His fortune, if not relatively great, was rendered ample by judicious management, and as he had been highly favoured by Providence in his person and in his family, he felt the importance of those blessings with the gratitude of a Christian. Such information as the following, so honourable to the subject of it, and to him who relates it, ought not to be suppressed.

"At an early age he attentively examined the evidences of Christianity, and was fully satisfied of its truth. His was, in the truest sense, the religion of the heart; and he always felt that a constant conformity to its precepts was the strongest and best proof he could give of the sincerity of his faith. Of its prescribed forms and exterior duties, he was no less a strict observer: whatever were his engagements, he constantly passed his Sundays at home with his family, at the head of whom he never failed to attend the public service of the day, until prevented by a bodily infirmity, for some years before his death; but he still continued his practice of reading prayers to them every evening: a usage of more than sixty years: these were taken from our liturgy, of which he was a great admirer.

"When no longer able to partake of the communion at church, he continued to receive it at home, on the festivals and other suitable occasions, to the latest period, and his manner of joining in this service, furnished an edifying example of the happy influence of a mind void of offence towards God and man.

"His devotional exercises were always expressed in so solemn a manner, and with such unaffected piety, as showed that his lips spoke the language of his heart; but his impressive tone of voice, when offering prayer and thanksgiving, marked that to be the branch of worship most suited to his feelings: and in conformity with this sentiment, he frequently remarked, that 'in our petitions we are liable to be misled, both as to their object and motive; but in expressing our thanksgivings to the Deity, we can never err, the least favoured among us having received sufficient tokens of the bounty of Providence, to excite emotions of the sincerest gratitude.

"This principle of piety led him also to bear afflictions in the most exemplary manner. Whatever trials or deprivations he experienced through life, he always met with fortitude, and his demeanour under the losses which he was ordained to suffer in his own family, was such, that those only who saw him near, and knew how sacred he held the duty of submission to the Divine Will, and the self command this produced, could form any idea how poignantly they were felt."—

Of his literary character, his son has formed a just estimate, when he says, that he is to be regarded rather as an elegant than a profound scholar. Yet where he chose to apply, his knowledge was far from being superficial, and if he had not at an early period of life indulged the prospect of filling the station of a retired country gentleman, it is probable that he might have made a distinguished figure in any of the learned professions. It is certain that the ablest works on every subject have been produced, with very few exceptions, by men who have been scholars by profession, to whom reputation was necessary as well as ornamental, and who could not expect to rise but in proportion to the abilities they discovered. Mr. Cambridge, without being insensible to the value of fame, had yet none of the worst perils of authorship to encounter. As a writer he was better known to the world, but he could not have been more highly respected by his friends.

About a year after his death his son, the rev. George Owen Cambridge, published a splendid edition of all his works (except his History of the War) to which he prefixed an account of his Life and Writings. To this very interesting narrative, the present sketch is indebted for all that is valuable in it; but from what is here borrowed the reader can have but a feeble conception of a composition which does so much honour to the moral and literary reputation of the father, and to the filial piety and chastened affection of the son.

The Scribleriad, which entitles Mr. Cambridge to a place in this collection, is one of those poems that, with great merits, yet make their way very slowly in the world. it was received so coolly, on the publication of the first two parts, that he found it necessary to write a preface to the second and complete edition, explaining his design.

He had some reason to apprehend that it had been mistaken, and that the poem was in danger of being neglected. In this preface, he lays down certain rules for the mock heroic, by which, if his own production he tried, it must be confessed he has executed all that he intended, with spirit and taste. As an imitator of the true heroic, he is in general faithful, and his parodies on the ancients show that he had studied their writings with somewhat different from the ardour of an admirer of poetry, or the acuteness of a critical linguist. But it may be doubted whether the rules he wishes to establish are sufficiently comprehensive, whether he has not been too faithful to his models, and whether a greater and more original portion of the burlesque would not have conferred more popularity on his performance.

His preference of Don Quixote, as a true mock heroic, is less a matter of dispute. In all the attributes of that species of composition, it is unquestionably superior to any attempt ever made, and probably will ever remain without a rival, for what subject can the wit of man devise so happily adapted to the intention of the writer? Its great excellence, too, appears from its continuing to please every class of readers, although the folly ridiculed no longer exists, and can with some difficulty be supposed to have ever existed. But Cervantes is in nothing so superior, as in the delineation of his hero, who throughout the whole narrative creates a powerful interest in his favour, and who excites ridicule and compassion in such nice proportions as never to be undeserving of sympathy, or overpowered by contempt.

Mr. Cambridge was not so fortunate in a hero. He was content to take up Scriblerus, where Pope and Swift, or rather Arbuthnot, left him; a motley, ideal being, without an exemplar, combining, in one individual, all that is found ridiculous in forgotten volumes, or among the pretenders to science and the believers of absurdities. Mr. Cambridge's hero, therefore, without any qualities to secure our esteem, is an antiquary, a pedant, an alchymist, and what seldom is found among such characters, a poet. In conducting him through a series of adventures, upon the plan sketched by the triumvirate above mentioned, it is with great difficulty that he is able to avoid the errour they fell into, either of inventing nonsense for the sake of laughing at it, or of glancing their ridicule at the enthusiasm of useful research, and the ardour of real science, and justifiable curiosity.

False science, like every thing else that is false, may be a legitimate object of ridicule, but to distinguish true from false science is not the business of a single decision, but the result of the experience of ages. By the illiterate all remarkable improvements are at once condemned as impossible and therefore absurd. By the learned all remarkable improvements are effected by supposing them possible. There is a speculation in science as well as in commerce, and he who has hazarded much and lost much, does not thereby prove that his design was fundamentally wrong.

Mr. Cambridge had too much sense and too much learning to follow the steps of his predecessors in the history of Scriblerus; but yet it may be presumed that his poem was unsuccessful with the public at large, either from its making sport of what had ceased to engage the attention of philosophers, or from its treating popular superstitions and historical credulity in a vein of ridicule, too delicate for common readers.

The composition of the Scribleriad is in general so regular, spirited and poetical, that we cannot but wish the author had chosen a subject of more permanent interest. Many striking passages may be pointed out to justify this wish, and perhaps there are few descriptions so happily imagined as the approach of the army of rebusses and acrostics. The versification is elegant, and the epithets chosen with singular propriety. The events, although without much connexion, all add something to the character of the hero; and the conversations most gravely ironical, while they remind us of the serious epics, are never unnecessarily protracted.

It is to he regretted, and perhaps it may be mentioned as another hindrance to the popularity of the Scribleriad, that the author determined to avoid moral reflections, — reflections which he could have easily furnished. His periodical papers exhibit a happy union of wit and sentiment, and few men were better acquainted with local manners, and the humours and whims of interest and passion. If such reflections arise naturally from the subject, they are surely not only useful, but lead to many of the most striking beauties of imagery. No zealous admirer of the flights of imagination is unwilling to be sometimes relieved by those reflections which recal his judgment. In the ardour of youth, poets are too apt to undervalue reason, but in advanced age they more readily admit its alliance with genius. Let it also be remembered how much Hudibras, the first of all English mock heroics, owes to the frequency of those reflexions and maxims, which, having become proverbial, serve to perpetuate the fame of their author. — The Scribleriad, however, will ever he considered by impartial judges, with whom popularity is not an indispensable qualification, as a poem that does honour to the taste and imagination of Mr. Cambridge, and as deserving a place with the most favourite attempts of the satirical muse.

Of the lesser pieces in this collection, the Dialogue between a Member of Parliament and his Servant, The Fakeer, and The Intruder are to be distinguished for sprightliness of wit, and felicity of diction. Public degeneracy, impertinence, and superstitious cunning are no where more elegantly satirized. These have been repeatedly printed in Dodsley's and other collections. His other occasional pieces discover the same observation of human conduct and manners, keen and shrewd, and expressed in easy and polished verse.