1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Boyse

Richard Alfred Davenport, in Chiswick British Poets (1822) 59:149-60.



SAMUEL BOYSE, one of the most thoughtless and necessitous of poets, was born in the year 1708, and was the son of the Rev. Joseph Boyse, a dissenting minister, eminent for talent, benevolence, and piety. After having received, at a private school in Dublin, the rudiments of education, he was sent, at the age of eighteen, to the University of Glasgow, to finish his studies. It is supposed that his father intended him for the ministry. Before, however, Boyse had been twelve months at Glasgow, he became enamoured of a Miss Atchenson, the daughter of a tradesman in that city. Infatuated by his passion, and careless of consequences, he married her when he had not yet reached his twentieth year. It appears, too, that he committed this act of imprudence without consulting either her parents or his own; and that hers were either unwilling or unable to afford him any assistance. Yet of assistance he soon stood in need. He was naturally extravagant, and his expenses were now increased. A longer stay at the university was, therefore, speedily rendered impracticable, and he had no resource but to return to Dublin, to his father, taking with him not only his wife, but her sister, to whom Mrs. Boyse was strongly attached.

The income of his father was scanty. It consisted only of the voluntary subscriptions of those to whom he was the pastor, and of eighty pounds a year, the produce of a small estate in Yorkshire. The parent, however, gave to his prodigal son a fatherly reception. Boyse remained at home for some time; which, instead of employing in pursuits calculated to benefit his purse or his mind, he is said to have wasted in dissipation or in idleness. Nor is this the worst that is laid to his charge. He is accused of a species of baseness, which, were he fairly convicted of it, would brand him as one of the most degraded of the human race. It is affirmed that his wife was a profligate, who granted her favours to other men, and that her doing so was "not without the knowledge of her husband, who had either too abject a spirit to resent it, or was bribed by some lucrative advantage."

Such a story as this, unless it be supported by incontrovertible evidence, it is cruel, perhaps criminal, to believe; and still more so to contribute to give it currency. I am of opinion that it is a calumny. It rests entirely on the authority of the person who wrote the life of Boyse, in Cibber's Lives of the Poets, and he is manifestly an enemy, who drags forth and dwells on all the faults of Boyse, and they were but too many, with a malicious pleasure.

In relating this disgusting story, he adds, that "the two ladies wore such a mask of decency before the old gentleman that his fondness was never abated;" and also that, "as he was of an unsuspecting temper, he had not the least jealousy of the real conduct of his daughter in law, who grew every day in his favour, and continued to blind him, by the seeming decency of her behaviour, and a performance of those acts of piety he naturally expected from her."

This cool and consummate art does not accord well with the character of a woman of "a very volatile sprightly temper:" but, if we can suppose her to have been capable of such art, there seems no reason why she might not have exerted it as effectually to delude her husband as to delude his father. That Boyse really loved her admits of no dispute. He always spoke and wrote of her with tenderness; and, after a union of twenty years, he lamented his compulsory absence from her, and hoped that, in his last moments, he might "have the comfort of his poor dear girl to be near him, and to close his eyes." It is not probable, even had he tolerated her deviations from virtue, that he would have cherished for her such feelings as these. He might, perhaps, have borne with, but he must have despised her. If, however, we admit, to the utmost extent, his folly and meanness of spirit, we shall still be at a loss to reconcile with her presumed guilt the strange perseverance with which she shared his adverse fortune. It seems that she was, for years, the willing partaker of all his poverty and wretchedness, although he is represented to have been so devoid of humanity as often to spend his last half guinea on a tavern dinner, which he devoured in solitary gluttony, "while his wife and children were starving at home." Is it to be credited that she who, without the excuse of distress, could play the part of a prostitute, could also, for so long a period, persist in remaining linked to pinching want and a selfish husband; when necessity as well as inclination would have prompted her to break the fetters of marriage? But of her innocence there is something more than presumptive proof. For seventeen years Mr. Stewart, one of Dr. Johnson's amanuenses, was intimately acquainted with Boyse and his wife, and he testifies that he never saw in her conduct any thing which was deserving of censure.

By the death of his father, which took place in 1728, Boyse was thrown upon the world. He inherited nothing from his parent, the small estate having been sold, in consequence, it is said, of his own extravagance; though, as that extravagance must have been committed in less than two years, and his pleasures were not of the most expensive kind, it seems unlikely that so large a sum should have been squandered with so much rapidity. The estate was, perhaps, already mortgaged, He himself tells us, but without any particulars, that his father died "in very involved circumstances."

In 1730 he removed to Edinburgh, where he acquired many friends by his poetical talents. Among them were lords Stormont, Stair, and Tweedale, and the Countess of Eglinton. To Lady Eglinton he dedicated, in 1731, a volume of poems, to which was subjoined a translation of the Tablature of Cebes, and a Letter upon Liberty, the latter of which had been printed in the Dublin Journal. This was followed by an elegy, called The Tears of the Muses, on the death of Viscountess Stormont, who had been a patroness of literature, and especially of poetry. This tribute of respect to the memory of his lady was so gratifying to Lord Stormont, that he ordered his solicitor at Edinburgh to make a handsome present to the author. Boyse, however, was not easily to be found, his person and residence being less known than his verses; and the bounty of the peer would never have reached him, had not the agent inserted, in a newspaper, an advertisement, addressed to the author of The Tears of the Muses. Boyse, like Morland the painter, is said to have felt ill at ease in elegant society, which he, therefore, shunned, and habituated himself to the company of those with whom he could converse on a familiar footing. An unhappy failing which almost always leads to degradation, and from which genius ought to be protected by a proud consciousness of its own inherent worth.

Fortune, was now, for a moment, propitious to Boyse, and was disposed to afford him the means of future independence; but her fugitive kindness was frustrated by his procrastinating and inert disposition. Through Lady Eglinton and Lord Stormont, he obtained the notice of the Duchess of Gordon, who possessed a literary taste, and was so pleased with his talents that she determined to provide for him. With this view she procured the promise of a place, and gave to him a letter, which he was to deliver, on the following day, to one of the Commissioners of the Customs at Edinburgh. Boyse was then at some distance from the Scottish capital, the day proved to be rainy, and this was sufficient to discourage him from setting out on his journey. Having suffered the appointed time to pass over, be seems either to have thought that his application would be fruitless, or to have delayed it till it was so. After waiting for a while, the Commissioner bestowed the place on another, and Boyse was left in that needy obscurity the proffered opportunity of emerging from which he had madly thrown away.

The clamours of his creditors at length became so loud that he considered it to be no longer safe to remain at Edinburgh. He resolved, therefore, to try his fortune in London. Still desirous to contribute to his welfare, his noble friends furnished him with letters to Pope, to the Lord Chancellor King, and to the Solicitor General, Mr. Murray, afterwards Earl of Mansfield, the brother of Lord Stormont. But all this was unavailing. On Pope he once called, but, not finding him at home, he never repeated his visit; and though he is said to have been admitted to the table of the Loud Chancellor, he does not appear to have derived any advantage from his introduction to that eminent character.

His first known publication, after his arrival in the metropolis, was a volume of poems, which is believed to have come forth about the year 1738. I fear that it was not productive of much benefit to him. In 1740 he published The Deity, a poem; the most elaborate of his compositions. It was warmly praised by Harvey and Fielding; and Pope declared that there were lines in it which he should not be ashamed to have written. Not more, however, than two editions of it were sold during the life of the author.

Boyse had by this time sunk into a state of deplorable poverty. It appears that before the poem of The Deity was regularly published, he sent copies of it to persons of note, in the hope of obtaining donations. Sir Hans Sloane was one of those to whom he applied; and, in the British Museum, there is a letter extant, in which he returns a shilling to Sir Hans, it not being a good one. A melancholy proof how low he was reduced.

The picture which is drawn of his situation, by his biographer in Cibber's Lives, exhibits human nature in its most fallen and humiliating aspect. "He had not (says the writer) a shirt, a coat, or any kind of apparel to put on: the sheets in which he lay were carried to the pawnbrokers," and he was obliged to be confined to bed, with no other covering than a blanket. He had little support but what he got by writing letters to his friends in the most abject style. He was perhaps ashamed to let this instance of his distress be known to his friends, which might be the reason of his remaining so for six weeks. During that time, he had some employment in writing verses for the magazines; and whoever had seen him in his study, must have thought the object singular enough. He sat up in bed with the blanket wrapped about him, through which he had cut a hole large enough to admit his arm, and placing the paper upon his knee, scribbled in the best manner he could the verses be was obliged to make: whatever he got by these, or any of his begging letters, was but just sufficient for the preservation of life. And perhaps he would have remained much longer in this distressed state, had not a compassionate gentleman, upon hearing this circumstance related, ordered his clothes to be taken out of pawn, and enabled him to appear again abroad. This six weeks penance one would imagine to be sufficient to deter him, for the future, from suffering himself to be exposed to such distresses; but by a long habit of want it grew familiar to him, and, as he had less delicacy than other men, he was perhaps less afflicted with his exterior meanness. For, the future, whenever his distresses so pressed upon him as to induce him to dispose of his shirt, he fell upon an artificial method of supplying one, he cut some white paper in slips, which he tied round his wrists, and in the same manner supplied his neck. In this plight he frequently appeared abroad, with the additional inconvenience of want of breeches." His kind and candid biographer adds, that Boyse "sometimes ordered his wife to inform people that he was just expiring, and by this artifice worked upon their compassion; and many of his friends were frequently surprised to meet the man in the street to-day, to whom they had yesterday sent relief as to a person on the verge of death. At other times he would propose subscriptions for poems, of which only the beginning and conclusion were written; and by this expedient would relieve some present necessity. But as he seldom was able to put any of his poems to the press, his veracity its this case suffered a diminution; and indeed in almost every other particular he might justly be suspected; for if he could but gratify an immediate appetite, he cared not at what expense, whether of the reputation or purse of another."

The poverty of Boyse is here, perhaps, too truly depicted; but his motives and his conduct we may believe the writer to have in some measure darkened and distorted. There is no evidence that Boyse was a man who would injure the "reputation of another," and it is manifest that the account given by the biographer is, in parts, not consistent; and that he writes with an unfeeling if not with a vindictive spirit.

The friend alluded to, as having redeemed the clothes of Boyse, was probably Dr. Johnson, who certainly did him that kindness on one occasion. "The sum (said he to Boswell) was collected by sixpences, at a time when to me sixpence was a serious object." The intimacy of Johnson with Boyse arose from their being both engaged in The Gentleman's Magazine. To that magazine Boyse supplied, between the years 1741 and 1743, a variety of translations and of pieces of poetry. His contributions were generally signed "Y." or Alcaeus, and, in all likelihood, his labours were but poorly recompensed. Of the liberality of Cave, his task master, a tolerable judgment may be formed from one circumstance. It was his custom to pay by the hundred lines; and after a while he wished to make Boyse extend the number to what is termed the long hundred. Boyse might, therefore, well complain, in writing to Dr. Birch, that Cave "had not used him so kindly as the sense which he expressed of his services gave him reason to expect." About three months before he thus complained, he had been confined in a spunging house, in Grocers' Alley, in the Poultry, where, as we learn from some Latin lines and a letter to Cave, he was "without bread or money," had tasted nothing "since Tuesday evening," and was in danger of being stripped for the payment of his lodging, and sent naked into prison.

Among his schemes was a translation of Voltaire's poems, and a life of Sir Francis Drake. In 1743 he published, without his name, an Ode on the Battle of Dettingen. By Ogle he was employed to modernize some of the Canterbury Tales of Chaucer, for which work he was paid at the late of three pence a line.

In 1745 he resided at Reading, where he was engaged by David Henry, to compile, in two volumes, An Historical Review of the Transactions of Europe, from 1739 to 1745. This work came from the press in 1747; and, though it has many defects, of which he was fully sensible, it is not a contemptible production. There are parts of it which show that, had he possessed leisure and ease of mind, he was capable of occupying a respectable place among annalists. It is no small merit in him that he had a dislike of writing history without sufficient documents, and would fain have waited till tie could procure a larger supply of them. The bookseller, however, seems to have thought that historical truth was of trifling importance, and the luckless drudge of an author was, therefore, compelled to push forward with a toil from which, as he declared, he could not hope for either profit or reputation. His profit was indeed such that the stating of it can hardly fail to excite the incredulity of the reader. For the task of writing and of correcting the press, he was remunerated by the Maecenas of Reading with the enormous sum of half-a-guinea a week. If his labours were generally rewarded in so liberal a manner, he could have no excuse for being guilty of the sin of beggary.

While he was at Reading, his wife died, and was buried by the parish. On this occasion, Boyse, if we may credit his biographer, acted in such a way as to demonstrate that his intellects were disordered. Unable to procure mourning for himself, he stepped into a little shop, and purchased half a yard of black ribbon, to tie round the neck of a lapdog, which he always carried about in his arms. "But this (continues the writer) was not the only ridiculous instance of his behaviour on the death of his wife. Such was the sottishness of this man, that when be was in liquor he always indulged a dream of his wife's being still alive, and would talk very spitefully of those by whom he suspected she was entertained. This he newer mentioned, however, except in his cups, which was only as often as he had money to spend. The manner of his becoming intoxicated was very particular. As he had no spirit to keep good company, so he retired to some obscure alehouse, and regaled himself with hot twopenny, which though he drank in very great quantities, yet he had never more than a pennyworth at a time. Such a practice rendered him so completely sottish that even his abilities, as an author, became sensibly impaired."

From Reading Boyse returned to London, where, in the summer of 1748, he married a cutler's widow, a native of Dublin, who had no money, but who proved to be a tender hearted and faithful companion. The biographer, with his usual bitterness, calls her "a woman in low circumstances, but well enough adapted to his taste." Boyse seemed at length determined to retrieve his character. He left off drinking fermented liquors, and grew more regular in his habits, and more decent in his appearance. From the booksellers he obtained some employment as a translator. He would, perhaps, have atoned for his errors, and filled an honourable place in society, had he not been cut off by an untimely death. Of the cause of his death various accounts are given. The true one seems to be, that he lingered, for many months, under a consumption, brought on or aggravated by the barbarous usage which he received from two or three soldiers who robbed him. He is said to have been found dead in his bed, with the pen in his hand. He died in the month of May, 1749, in obscure lodgings near Shoe Lane, and was buried at the expense of the parish.

Boyse had a taste for painting and music, and is said to have been well acquainted with heraldry. That such powers as he was gifted with should have been so lamentably wasted must call forth a sigh from every person of proper feeling. His faults seem to have been the offspring rather of weakness than of wickedness. He was improvident, he was deficient in strength of mind, and in that just self respect which preserves its possessor from being stained by acts of meanness, and overawed by the minions of fortune; but there is no reason for believing that he was malignant and depraved at heart; he venerated virtue even while he deviated from it; in his writings he teaches no lessons of profligacy, on the contrary, he is invariably chaste and moral, and he displays a generous hatred of cruelty to animals, which testifies strongly to the benevolence of his disposition. His timidity excluded him from polished circles; his miseries, perhaps, drove him to seek the delusive amid ruinous aid of intoxicating stimulants; and, when he had once sunk into degradation, his want of mental energy effectually prevented him from ever again emerging. The fate of Boyse has been made the text of a somniferous sermon on the misconduct of men of genius; yet, blamable as he really was, it may be doubted whether he was as much so as those insolent Pharisees who thank their Creator that they are not like others, and who "pay tithe of mint, and cummin and anise," while they forget that "mercy" is among "the weightier matters of the law."

The poetry of Boyse, were the whole of it collected, would form six volumes of moderate size. Much of it bears the marks of haste and compulsory toil; but much of it is above mediocrity. The poem of The Deity would alone be sufficient to assert for him the title of poet. Though in some places turgid and obscure, and in others incorrect, yet it glows with the genuine fervour of the Muse. Fielding scarcely did it more than justice when he called it "a noble poem." The smaller pieces of Boyse are often ingenious, elegant, and animated. In reading his works our wonder is, not that he at times wrote badly, but that he was ever able to write so well, oppressed as he incessantly was by misfortune, by sorrow, and by the terrors or the actual miseries of hunger and a jail.