1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Tobias Smollett

Samuel Weller Singer, in Chiswick British Poets (1822) 66:197-214



The immortal author of Roderic Random, Peregrine Pickle, and Humphry Clinker, finds a place in the list of unhappy authors by profession, recorded in The Calamities of Literature; yet he was of gentle birth, of an ancient and honourable family. Sir James Smollett, of Bonhill, had four sons, the youngest of whom, Archibald, was the father of the poet; his mother was the daughter of Mr. Cunningham, of Gilbertfield; and the marriage took place without the consent of Sir James, while Archibald, who had no profession, was entirely dependent on him; this naturally created displeasure on the part of a prudent father, who, notwithstanding, assigned him the house of Dalquhurn, near his own mansion, with its farm for his support.

Archibald Smollett died early, leaving two sons and a daughter dependent on the bounty of their grandfather; of these the eldest son embraced a military life, and perished in the shipwreck of a transport; the daughter married Mr. Telfer, and her descendants inherit the family patrimony; the second son is the subject of this memoir.

TOBIAS SMOLLETT was born in the old house of Dalquhurn in 1721, and received his first instruction in the elements of classical learning at the school of Dunbarton, under Mr. John Love, the learned antagonist of Ruddiman; from thence he went to Glasgow, where he appears to have pursued his studies with diligence; and was at length, somewhat against his own wish, apprenticed to Mr. John Gordon, a surgeon of eminence there. His inclinations led him to a military life, and not being allowed to follow them, he is said to have resented the supposed injury by satirizing his grandfather and his master, under the characters of the Old Judge and Mr. Potion, in his first novel of Roderick Random. He did Mr. Gordon justice at a subsequent period, by speaking handsomely of him by name in Humphry Clinker.

At school, and during his apprenticeship, Smollett evinced "that love of frolic, practical jest, and playful mischief," which characterize some of his most prominent heroes, and his satirical talent displayed itself while yet a boy. To some of Mr. Gordon's neighbours, who boasted the superior decorum and propriety of their young pupils, that gentleman is said to have answered, in homely but expressive terms, "It may be all very fine, but give me, before them all, my own bubbly-nosed callant with the stane in his pouch." He had the discrimination to see those latent talents in his pupil which led to Smollett's future eminence.

When Smollett had scarcely attained his eighteenth year, his grandfather, Sir James, died, neglecting to make any provision for the children of his youngest son; and this, operating with the circumstance before mentioned, gave him the "painful distinction" of being handed down to posterity in the unamiable character of the Old Judge in Roderick Random.

Thus thrown upon the world, without any thing to hope for but from his own exertions, Smollett, before he was nineteen, commenced his career of adventure by a journey to London, taking with him The Regicide, a tragedy, written during the course of his studies. What can he more romantic? Without friends or protection he launched upon the troubled sea of life, and during his voyage gained that experience and that insight into character which his admirable productions evince. He was some time flattered with the expectation of having his tragedy brought on the stage. Lord Lyttelton approved of it, and Garrick and Lacy had given him some encouragement; but his hopes were ultimately blighted. Of his fruitless attempts and bitter disappointment he has drawn a forcible picture in the story of Mr. Melopoyn; and at the end of ten years he printed his tragedy in vindication of his wrong, with a preface, in which he does not spare the managers or his patron; but the mediocrity of the drama almost exculpates their neglect.

While he was thus kept in suspense he found it expedient to accept the situation of surgeon's mate, on board a ship of the line; and he sailed soon after on the unfortunate expedition to Carthagena. Of this voyage he has left a short account in his Roderic Random, and a longer one in the Compendium of Voyages which he compiled and published in 1756. The disgust which a man of any sensibility and cultivation would have experienced in such a situation, degraded as it then was, must have been poignantly felt by one of Smollett's lofty and independent spirit. He abruptly quitted the navy in the West Indies, and resided some time in Jamaica, it is not known in what capacity; but returned to England in 1746. This short period of sea-service was enough to enable the quick and intuitive genius of Smollett to describe sailors in such a masterly manner as to afford models to all succeeding writers.

The Tears of Scotland, an effusion which came warm from the heart, was written at this period. One of his particular friends has recorded the enthusiastic manner in which it was poured forth. "Some gentlemen, having met at a tavern, were amusing themselves before supper with a game of cards; while Smollett, not choosing to play, sat down to write. One of the company (the late R. Graham, Esq. of Gartmore), who was afterwards nominated one of his trustees, observing his earnestness, and supposing he was writing verses, asked him if it was not so. He accordingly read them the first sketch of The Tears of Scotland, consisting of only six stanzas; and on their remarking that the termination of the poem, being too strongly expressed, might give offence to persons whose political opinions were different, he sat down, without reply, and with an air of great indignation subjoined the concluding stanza—

While the warm blood bedews my veins,
And unimpair'd remembrance reigns,
Resentment of my country's fate
Within my filial breast shall beat.
Yes, spite of thine insulting foe,
My sympathizing verse shall flow.
Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn
Thy banish'd peace, thy laurels torn!

Smollett was at this time settled in London, and tried his fortune in his profession, but failed of success. Whether his spirit was too haughty and unbending to submit to the usual courses of establishing a practice, or whether, as one account says, he had not the art of making himself agreeable to his female patients; certain it is that he hastily abandoned that course of life.

He now commenced his career as an author, renewed his attempts to get his tragedy acted, and sent forth, in 1746, Advice, and in the following year Reproof, both poetical satires of merit; but which served to increase the number of his personal enemies. He had written an opera named Alceste, which, in consequence of a quarrel with Rich, was not acted; and he avenged himself by introducing the manager in his Reproof.

About this time he married Miss Arm Lascelles, a lady of great beauty and accomplishments, with whom he became acquainted in the West Indies: he was to have received a fortune of 3000 with her; but of that sum he obtained only a very small portion, after an expensive lawsuit. Having established himself genteelly, the increased expense of housekeeping, which he was unable to meet, urged him to have recourse to his pen, and thus "Necessity, that fertile mother of invention," gave the impulse which developed his extraordinary talent as a novelist, and produced Roderic Random in 1748.

The success of this novel was equal to its very superior merit; it brought both profit and reputation to the author. The general opinion that it described his own adventures gave it additional zest, and almost every character was applied to some known individual. "There can be little doubt that he figured himself under the character of the hero. Mrs. Smollett was supposed to be Narcissa; a bookbinder and a barber, the early acquaintances of Smollett, contended for the character of Strap, and the naval officers under whom he had served were Oakum and Whittle. Marmozet and Sheerwit, in Mr. Melopoyn's story, were intended for Garrick and Lyttelton." The real merit of the work, independent of these personal allusions, would have secured its success; but those who know the keen appetite of the public for satire of the humorous kind, will not doubt that they increased its then unprecedented popularity.

In 1750 Smollett made a trip to Paris; but his imperfect knowledge of the French language threw him chiefly into the society of his own countrymen. Here, however, he accumulated new traits of character, and extended his views of life and manners. Peregrine Pickle was the fruit of this journey, and was probably written in Paris; it appeared in 1751. Dr. Akenside, who had offended Smollett by some reflections on his native country, and by some peculiarities of opinion and manners, found a niche in this production; and the author also introduced other public characters of his time with no sparing hand. Peregrine Pickle was received by the public with the utmost avidity. One circumstance which possibly contributed much to its extreme popularity was the introduction, by way of episode, of the memoirs of a lady of quality, which now seem to be only a tedious interruption or the principal story. The subject of these memoirs was then well known. It was the profligate and shameless Lady Vane, who not only furnished Smollett with the materials to blazon forth her infamy, but rewarded him handsomely for inserting them. The licentiousness of many of the scenes described in this novel was loudly and deservedly censured; and in the second edition he found it necessary to correct many of the most glaring, and to apologize for some of the satirical passages; but he might have blotted more with advantage to his work.

At this time he appears to have entertained a desire to resume the medical profession; and he consequently obtained the degree of Doctor of Medicine from some foreign university. Upon this occasion he published An Essay on the external Use of Water, with Remarks upon the present Method of using the Mineral Waters of Bath. In this work he enters into a vindication of a plan for remedying the inconveniences of the baths at that place, by his friend Mr. Cleland, whom he probably intended to serve by this publication; but if it was also intended as an introduction to practice for himself; it failed of its object. His character as a satirist, and the personal caricatures in his novels, were enough to deter many from taking him into their confidence as a medical guide and friend.

The Adventures of Ferdinand Count Fathom were published in 1753. A vivid but disgusting picture of the lowest depths of human depravity; and though Smollett may have purposed to convey a moral by "setting Fathom up as a beacon for the inexperienced and unwary, and showing his deplorable fate," the tendency of such works is rather to teach evil than the way to shun it. It is, however, an additional proof of his wonderful insight into the human heart, and his consummate knowledge of life. From this work Cumberland borrowed his idea of a benevolent Jew.

He had now abandoned all hopes of establishing himself as a physician, and was settled at Chelsea in an establishment which was, according to Dr. Moore, "genteel and hospitable, without being extravagant." His mode of living he has himself described in Humphry Clinker, and has drawn a satirical picture of those poor literary drudges who partook of his hospitality without scruple, and abused his kindness by every species of ingratitude. It was perhaps rather vainglorious in Smollett to blazon forth his own good deeds; but his literary feuds had left him so few friends that he was driven "to say those handsome things of himself which others would not say for him."

His life was now devoted to literary occupation, and he soon published a new translation of Don Quixote, for which, under the patronage of Don Ricardo Wall, he had obtained a large subscription. Smollett's genius titled him peculiarly for the task which he had undertaken; but, for the sake of dispatch, he contented himself with an improvement upon the faithless translation of Jarvis; and Lord Woodhouslee has given a decided preference to the older and more correct translation of Motteux.

He found at this period a short respite from his labours to make a visit to his native country, and to see his mother. Dr Moore has related a delightful anecdote of what occurred upon this occasion. "On Smollett's arrival he was introduced to his mother, with the connivance of Mrs. Telfer, as a gentleman from the West Indies, who was intimately acquainted with her son. The better to support his assumed character he endeavoured to preserve a serious countenance, approaching to a frown; but, while his mother's eyes were riveted on his countenance, he could not refrain from smiling. She immediately sprung from her chair, and, throwing her arms around his neck, exclaimed, 'Ah, my son! my son! I have found you at last!' She afterwards told him, that if he had kept his austere look, and continued to gloom, he might have escaped detection some time longer; 'but your old roguish smile (added she) betrayed you at once!'"

Upon his return to London, Smollett was engaged to undertake the management of the Critical Review, then set up in opposition to the Monthly Review. His talents were very well calculated for the task he undertook, as he had a prompt and ready wit, and a good stock of general knowledge; hut he possessed that irritable temperament which often interfered with his better judgment, and made him deal out invective instead of fair and dispassionate criticism. His life was thus imbittered by perpetual squabbles, and he brought upon himself the whole "genus irritabile" of disappointed authors. The political quack Dr. Shebbeare, the satirist Churchill, and Dr. Grainger were among others of less note whom he provoked to retaliation; and an unlucky attack upon Admiral Knowles, who drew him into his toils by a stratagem unworthy of a gentleman and man of honour, terminated in a sentence of imprisonment for three months, and a fine of 100.

Is it then to be wondered at that he should, in the anguish of his mind, take that disgust at the trade of authorship which he has expressed on more than one occasion? "Had some of those (says he), who were pleased to call themselves my friends, been at any pains to discover the character, and told me ingenuously what I had to expect in the capacity of an author, when I first professed myself of that venerable fraternity, I should in all probability have spared myself the incredible labour and chagrin I have since undergone." And, upon another occasion, he says to Dr. Moore, "Indeed I am sick of both (praise and censure), and wish to God my circumstances would allow me to consign my pen to oblivion." He makes one of his correspondents, in Humphry Clinker, express his feelings at the close of life in the following pathetic passage; the truth of which his own experience had taught him. "I have dwelt so long upon authors that you will perhaps suspect I mean to enroll myself among the fraternity; but if I were actually qualified for the profession, it is at best but a desperate resource against starving, as it affords no provision for old age or infirmity. Salmon, at the age of fourscore, is now in a garret, compiling matter at a guinea a sheet for a modern historian, who, in point of age, might be his grandchild; and Psalmanazar, after having drudged half a century in the literary mill, in all the simplicity and abstinence of an Asiatic, subsists upon the charity of a few booksellers, just sufficient to keep him from the parish."

In 1757 he wrote a dramatic piece, called the Reprisals; or, the Tars of Old England, to animate the people against the French; but Smollett, like other distinguished novelists, evinced no particular excellence as a dramatic writer. Garrick's liberal conduct on this occasion did him honour; and Smollett expressed his gratitude in the warmest manner. In this year he published his amusing Compendium of authentic and entertaining Voyages, in 7 vols. 12mo.

At the commencement of 1758 was published his Complete History of England, from the Descent of Julius Caesar to the Peace of Aix la Chapelle, in 4 vols. 4to. "This work, which is written with uncommon spirit, is said to have been composed and finished for the press within fourteen months, one of the greatest exertions of facility of composition recorded in the history of literature." Smollett displayed his political principles in this work, which, though he was a Whig in early life, appear now to have been strongly inclined to Toryism. He seeing to have anticipated the censure and invective which he should have to meet; and, in a letter to his friend Dr. Moore, he says, "I desire you will divest yourself of prejudice, at least as much as you can, before you begin to peruse it, and consider well the facts before you pass judgment. Whatever may be its defect, I protest, before God, I have, as far as in me lay, adhered to truth, without espousing any faction, though I own I sat down to write with a warm side to those principles in which I was educated; but in the course of my inquiries some of the Whig ministers turned out such a set of sordid knaves that I could not help stigmatizing them for their want of integrity and sentiment." It could hardly be expected that a work got up in such haste should be free from error; the principal defect seems to be inaccurate statements, taken from superficial authorities, and adopted without inquiry: he did not give himself time to examine and compare.

Sir Launcelot Greaves was published in detached portions in the British Magazine for 1760-61. He is said to have written the portions of this work hastily, as they were wanted for the press, and not to have troubled himself much in correction. The plot, which was suggested by Don Quixote, is extravagant and improbable; but the characters of Crowe and Crabshaw, Ferret and Clarke, are worthy of the hand which drew them.

The success which attended his historical labours induced him to write a Continuation of the History of England, from 1748 to 1765, which was published in detached numbers; the sale was very extensive, and he obtained 2000 by both his histories, a large sum at that time, when literary labours were not generally overpaid: but it is said that his bookseller also gained 1000 by the mere transfer of the copyright to another. This Continuation is still appended to Hume's History of England, and upon the whole is not unworthy to rank with it. He also lent his aid to the completion of The Modern Universal History, in which the histories of France, Italy, and Germany are written by him.

When Lord Bute came into office Smollett employed his pen in the defence of government against popular clamour, in a weekly paper called The Briton. This was promptly answered and eventually written down by the celebrated North Briton of Wilkes. Smollett had been on the most friendly terms with his opponent, and had availed himself of his friendship upon several occasions; once for the kind purpose of procuring the release of Francis Barber, Dr. Johnson's negro servant, who had entered as a sailor; and sometimes where he himself was interested. But friendship gave way to political animosity, and Smollett forgot the obligations and gratitude he had so warmly expressed. The minister wanted spirit to sustain the contest. Smollett, however, was not deficient in courage or zeal, and was indignant that "Lord Bute should set himself up as a pillory, to be pelted at by all the blackguards of England, upon the supposition that they would grow tired and leave off."

In 1763 Smollett lent his name, if not his assistance, to a translation of Voltaire's Works, and to a compilation called The present State of all Nations. About this time he was visited by a calamity which deeply afflicted him. He lost his only child, Elizabeth, an amiable and accomplished young person, at the interesting age of fifteen. His health sunk under the effects of grief, and he found it necessary to endeavour to divert its progress by a continental tour. From June 1763 to 1766 he resided abroad; and on his return published his Travels through France and Italy, in 2 vols. 8vo. in the form of letters to his friends. They afford a melancholy picture of his mind, which seems to have been in a state to receive unfavourable impressions from objects which, under more happy circumstances, he would have contemplated with pleasure; yet his acute observation, his natural good sense, and pointed humour at times break through the splenetic gloom: he was "overwhelmed with the sense of domestic calamity," he thought himself traduced by malice and persecuted by faction," and his bodily suffering added to these put him out of humour with himself and with all the world.

Soon alter his return to England, his health still decaying, "he visited Scotland for the last time, and had the pleasure of receiving a parent's last embrace." He was now afflicted with constant rheumatic pains, and with an ulcer on his arm, which, having been neglected at first, caused him great suffering, and confined him to his chamber. It was but at short intervals that he could associate with his friends.

From Scotland he went to Bath; and by the spring of 1767 he seems in some degree to have recovered his health and spirits; the ulcer had given way to the application of some mercurial remedies; and he writes to Dr. Moore, in a letter which contains the process of his cure, thus — "Had I been as well in summer I should have exquisitely enjoyed my expedition to Scotland, which was productive of nothing to me but misery and disgust. Between friends, I am now convinced that my brain was in some measure affected; for I had a kind of 'coma vigil' upon me from the April to November without intermission. In consideration of these circumstances, I know you will forgive all my peevishness and discontent: and tell good Mrs. Moore, to whom I present my most cordial respects, that, with regard to me, she has as yet seen nothing but the wrong side of the tapestry."

In 1769 he resumed his literary labours, and published The Adventures of an Atom, in which, with some degree of political tergiversation created by disappointment, he satirized the political leaders from the year 1754. The characters of Lord Bute and Lord Chatham, which he had given in his History, he retracts, and sees every thing through a new medium in this political satire. His health now again relapsed, and, change of climate being deemed essentially necessary, attempts were made in vain to obtain for him the office of consul in some port of the Mediterranean. His political sins could not be forgiven, and he was obliged to take his departure and depend upon his own precarious resources for support. His friend Dr. Armstrong procured him a house at Monte Novo, near Leghorn, "a village romantically situated on the side or a mountain overlooking the sea." It was here that he prepared for the press The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, which he had begun to write while upon his journey. "This was his last, and, like music, 'sweetest in the close,' the most pleasing of his compositions." Who has not been delighted with that original and masterly character Matthew Bramble? Smollett drew from the life, he delineated his own virtues and his own foibles without favour or affection. Mrs. Tabitha Bramble and Lismahago, Winifred Jenkins and Humphry Clinker, are worthy of each other, and are unrivaled in the world of fiction. The plan of the work is not one of its least merits, though it was suggested by Anstey's recently published Bath Guide, Smollett has so much improved upon the slight hint as to give to his creation all the merit of original conception. Humphry Clinker was published in 1771, and was very favourably received, notwithstanding the popular odium against the Scotch, which was then at its height. His undue partiality for Scotland was objected to him by his personal enemies; it was observed, "that Matthew Bramble's cynicism becomes gradually softened as it journeys northward, and that he, who equally detested Bath and London, becomes wonderfully reconciled to walled cities and the hum of men when he finds himself an inhabitant of the northern metropolis. It is not worth defending so excellent a work against so weak an objection. The author was a dying man, and his thoughts were turned towards the scenes of youthful gaiety and abode of early friends with a fond partiality, which, had they been even less deserving of his attachment, would have been not only pardonable but praiseworthy. "Moritur, et moriens dulces reminiscitur Argos." Beside the sketch of his own character in that of Matthew Bramble, he records the ingratitude of a worthless wretch to him, under the fictitious names of Paunceford and Serle; the circumstances are almost literally true. He speaks of himself more openly in a letter toward the close of the work, already cited, wherein he describes his mode of life at Chelsea.

Smollett lingered through the summer, and, after much suffering, died on the twenty-first of October, 1771, at the untimely age of fifty-one years. It is much to be feared that his end was hastened by grief for the loss of his much loved child, and by chagrin at unmerited neglect. His widow long continued to reside in the neighbourhood of Leghorn, supporting herself in obscurity and with difficulty upon the small remnant of fortune which he had been able to bequeath to her; and she diminished her slender means by erecting a plain monument to his memory, on which was engraved an inscription written by his friend Dr. Armstrong.

Dr. Moore describes the person of Smollett as "stout and well proportioned, his countenance engaging, his manner reserved, with a certain air of dignity which seemed to indicate that he was not unconscious of his own powers." In the relations of son, husband, and father, he was eminently distinguished for kindness and affection; and the manner in which he was mentioned by his surviving friends plainly shows that he had qualities which were capable of producing the strongest attachment. His disposition was generous and humane, and his benevolence sometimes even exceeded the strict line of prudence: he has been represented as "more disposed to cultivate the acquaintance of those he could serve than of those who could serve him." With great sensibility he had no inconsiderable share of pride, his passions were easily moved, and impetuous when once roused; but he was ready to atone for and acknowledge any unjust reflections which his intemperance might have led him into.

Smollett's verses are few, but they are excellent; they breathe inspiration. Who does not regret that he should be so entirely occupied in literary drudgery as to leave him no leisure to give us more? The Ode to Independence, The Tears of Scotland, and the beautiful little pastoral ode To Leven Water are, however, enough to give him no mean rank among the lyrical poets of Britain.

His literary character has been drawn by Sir Walter Scott, with the felicity and the enthusiasm of kindred genius, in an elegant memoir prefixed to his novels, which I have frequently availed myself of in this slight sketch: it would have given me pleasure to have quoted it at length here; but I must content myself with that portion which relates to the poetry of Smollett.

"Every successful novelist must be more or less A POET, even though he may never have written a line of verse. The quality of imagination is absolutely indispensable to him: his accurate powers of examining and embodying human character and human passion, as well as the external face of nature, is not less essential; and the talent of describing well what be feels with acuteness, added to the above requisites, goes far to complete the poetic character. Smollett was, even in the ordinary sense which limits the name to those who write verses, a poet of distinction; and in this particular superior to Fielding, who seldom aims at more than a slight translation from the classics." — In a note upon this passage Mr. Campbell's opinion of Smollett's poems is cited, in which he says, "They have a portion of delicacy, not to be found in his novels; but they have not, like those prose fictions, the strength of a master's hand." "The truth is (adds Sir Walter Scott) that in these very novels are expended many of the ingredients both of grave and humorous poetry."