1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Brown

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 3:204-10.



This humorous poet was the son of a considerable Farmer of Shiffnall, in Shropshire, and educated at Newport-school in that county, under the reverend and learned Dr. Edwards, a gentleman who had the honour to qualify many persons of distinction for the university. Under the tuition of this master, he attained a knowledge of the Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish languages, and his exercises were generally so well performed, that the Dr. was filled with admiration of his parts. From Newport school he removed to Christ's-Church College in Oxford, and distinguished himself there for his easy attainments in literature; but some little irregularities of his life would no suffer him to continue long at the university. It is probable he became sick of that discipline, which they who spend their life in the recluseness of a college, are in some measure obliged to submit to. The father of Mr. Brown, who intended to have him educated to some profession, was not made acquainted with his design of quitting the university, and having remitted him a sum of money, to be appropriated for the promotion of his studies, his son thought proper to defeat his kind intentions.

With this money, our author plann'd a scheme of going to London, which he soon after executed, not very advantageously. — "My first business, says he, was to apply myself to those few friends I had there, who conjecturing I had left the university, exclusive of my father's knowledge, gave but slender encouragement to a young beginner. However, no whit daunted (my first resolution still standing by me) I launched forth into the world, committing myself to the mercy of fortune, and the uncertain temper of the town. I soon acquired a new sett of acquaintance; and began to have a relish of what I had only tasted before by hearsay; and indeed, every thing served to convince me, I had changed for the better, except that my slender subsistence began to waste extremely; and ruminating upon the difficulty of obtaining a supply, I was then laid under the necessity of thinking what course to steer. I knew how justly I had incurred the displeasure of an indulgent father, and how far I had put myself from retrieving his favour. Amidst this serious contemplation! I resolved to go through stitch with my enterprize, let what will come on't: However, that I might use discretion, to palliate an unforeseen event, I determined 'twere better to trust to the flexibility of a father's temper, than to lay too great a stress upon the humanity of fortune, who would let a man of morals starve if he depended on her favours. Therefore, without more ado (having taken my sorrowful leave of my last guinea, and reduced Carolus Secundus, from a whole number, to decimal fractions) I dispatched a letter into the country, full of excuse, and penitence, baited with all the submissive eloquence imaginable. In the mean time, I was no less sedulous to find out tome employment, that might suit with my genius, and with my dependancies at home, render my life easy."

Whether his father was touched by the epistle which our author in consequence of this resolution wrote to him, we cannot ascertain, as there is no mention made of it. Soon after this, we find him school master of Kingston upon Thames, and happy for him, had he continued in that more certain employment, and not have so soon exchanged it for beggary and reputation. Mr. Brown, impatient of a recluse life, quitted the school, and came again to London; and as he found his old companions more delighted with his wit, than ready to relieve his necessities, he had recourse to scribbling for bread, which he performed with various success. Dr. Drake, who has written a defence of our author's character, prefixed to his works, informs its, that the first piece which brought him into reputation, was an account of the conversion of Mr. Bays, in a Dialogue, which met with a reception suitable to the wit, spirit, and learning of it. But though this raised his fame, yet it added very little to his profit: For, though it made his company exceedingly coveted, and might have recommended him to the great, as well as to the ingenious, yet he was of a temper not to chafe his acquaintance by interest, and slighted such an opportunity of recommending himself to the powerful and opulent, as, if wisely improved, might have procured him dignities and preferments. The stile of this dialogue, was like that of his ordinary conversation, lively and facetious. It discovered no small erudition, but managed with a great deal of humour, in a burlesque way; which make both the reasoning and the extensive reading, which are abundantly shewn in it, extremely surprizing and agreeable. The same manner and humour runs through all his writings, whether Dialogues, Letters, or Poems.

The only considerable objection, which the critics have made to his works is, that they want delicacy. But in answer to this, it may be affirmed, that there is as much refinement in his works, as the nature of humorous satire, which is the chief beauty of his compositions, will admit; for, as satire requires strong ideas, the language will sometimes be less polished. But the delicacy so much demanded, by softening the colours weakens the drawing. Mr. Brown has been charged with inequality in his writings: which is inseparable from humanity.

Our author's letters, though written carelessly to private friends, bear the true stamp and image of a genius. The variety of his learning maybe seen in the Lacedaemonian Mercury, where abundance of critical questions of great nicety, are answered with much solidity and judgment, as well as wit, and humour. But that design exposing him too much to the scruples of the grave and reserved, as well as to the censure, and curiosity of the impertinent, he soon discontinued it. Besides, as this was a periodical work, he who was totally without steadiness, was very ill qualified for such an undertaking. When the press called upon him for immediate supply, he was often found debauching himself at a tavern, and by excessive drinking unable to perform his engagements with the public, by which no doubt the work considerably suffered.

But there is yet another reason why Mr. Brown has been charged with inequality in his writings, viz. that most of the anonymous pieces which happened to please the town, were fathered upon him. This, though in reality an injury to him, is yet a proof of the universality of his reputation, when whatever pleased from an unknown hand was ascribed to him; but by these means he was reputed the writer of many things unworthy of him. In poetry he was not the author of any long piece, for he was quite unambitious of reputation of that kind. They are generally Odes, Satires, and Epigrams, and are certainly not the best part of his works. His Translations in Prose are many, and of various kinds. His stile is strong and masculine; and if he was not so nice in the choice of his authors, as might be expected from a man of his taste, he must be excused; for he performed his translations as a task, prescribed him by the Booksellers, from whom he derived his chief support. It was the misfortune of our author to appear on the stage of the world, when fears, and jealousies had soured the tempers of men, and politics, and polemics, had almost driven mirth and good nature out of the nation: so that the careless gay humour, and negligent chearful wit, which in former days of tranquility, would have recommended him to the conversation of princes, was, in a gloomy period, lost upon a people incapable of relishing genuine humour.

An anonymous author who has given the world some account of Mr. Brown, observes, "that it was not his immorality that hindered him from climbing to the top of poetry, and preferment; but that he had a particular way of sinning to himself. To speak in plain English (says he) Tom Brown had less the spirit of a gentleman than the rest of the Wits, and more of a Scholar. Tom thought himself as happy with a retailer of damnation in an obscure hole, as another to have gone to the devil with all the splendour of a fine equipage. 'Twas not the brightness of Caelia's eyes, nor her gaudy trappings that attracted his heart. Cupid might keep his darts to himself; Tom always carried his fire about him. If she had but a mouth, two eyes, and a nose, he never enquired after the regularity of her dress, or features. He always brought a good stomach with him, and used but little ceremony in the preface. As of his mistresses, so he was very negligent in the choice of his companions, who were sometimes mean and despicable, a circumstance which never fails to ruin a man's reputation. He was of a lazy temper, and the Booksellers who gave him credit enough as to his capacity, had no confidence to put in his diligence." The same gentleman informs us, that though Tom Brown was a good-natured man, yet he had one pernicious quality, which eternally procured him enemies, and that was, rather to lose his friend, than his joke.

One of his lampoons had almost cost him a procession at the cart's tail; nor did he either spare friend or foe, if the megrim of abuse once seized him. He had a particular genius for scandal, and dealt it out liberally when he could find occasion. He is famed for being the author of a Libel, fixed one Sunday morning on the doors of Westminster-abbey, and many others, against the clergy and quality. As for religion, Brown never professed any, and used to say, that he understood the world better than to have the imputation of righteousness laid to his charge: and the world, to be even with him, really thought him an Atheist. But though Brown never made any professions of religion, yet it proceeded more from affectation than conviction. When he came upon his death-bed, he expressed remorse for his past life, and discovered at that period, sentiments which he had never before suffered to enter his mind. This penitential behaviour, in the opinion of some, was the occasion why all his brethren neglected him, and did not bestow on his memory one elegiac song, nor any of the rites of verse. We find no encomiums upon him, but what appeared in a Grubstreet journal, which, however, are much superior to what was usually to be found there.

—A mournful muse from Albion swains produce,
Sad as the song a gloomy genius chuse,
In artful numbers let his wit be shewn,
And as he sings of Doron's speak his own;
Such be the bard, for only such is fit,
To trace pale Doron thro' the fields of wit.

Towards the latter end of our author's life, we are informed by Mr. Jacob, that he was in favour with the earl of Dorset, who invited him to dinner on a Christmas-day, with Mr. Dryden, and some other gentlemen, celebrated for ingenuity, (according to his lordship's usual custom) when Mr. Brown, to his agreeable surprize, found a Bank Note of 50 under his plate, and Mr. Dryden at the same time was presented with another of 100. Acts of munificence of this kind were very common with that generous spirited nobleman.

Mr. Brown died in the year 1704, and was interred in the Cloyster of Westminster-abbey, near the remains of Mrs. Behn, with whom he was intimate in his life-time. His whole works consisting of Dialogues. Essays, Declamations, Satires, Letters from the Dead to the Living. Translations, Amusements, &c. were printed in 4 vol. 12mo, 1707. In order that the reader may conceive a true idea of the spirit and humour, as well as of the character of Tom Brown, we shall here insert an Imaginary Epistle, written from the Shades to his Friends among the Living; with a copy of Verses representing the Employment of his poetical Brethren in that fancied Region [omitted].