1788 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Julius Mickle

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 56 (November, December 1788) 1029, 1121-22.



25 November. At Wheatley, near Oxford; William Julius Mickle, esq. well known in the literary world as translator of The Lusiad of Camoens, of which the first book was published as a specimen in 1771 (see our vol. XLI. p. 323), and the whole in 1776, 4to, with valuable notes (XLVI. 367), and a second edition, much improved, in 1778 (XLVIII. 427). Mr. M. was also author of The Concubine, a Poem, in the manner of Spenser, 1767; republished under the title of Sir Martyn, 1777, 4to; and Almada Hill, a Poem, 1781. (Of Mr. M. a particular account will be given hereafter)....

The havock which Death has, within these few years, made among the children of Genius, leaves a very dreary retrospect for the inspection of those who are left behind. Hogarth, Mortimer, Garrick, Johnson, Gainsborough, are gone; and who is there left that can fill up their departments with equal ability? To this melancholy list we must now add Mr. Mickle, whose talents as a poet were not more eminent than was his simplicity of manners as a man. His father was a minister of the Church of Scotland, and a domestic chaplain in the family of the Duke of Buccleugh. He was a man of learning, and concerned in several translations, particularly in that of Bayle's Dictionary, for the booksellers. He lived to an advanced age, and was remarkable for an uniform serenity and chearfulness of temper. His benevolence of disposition was unbounded. He lived on the banks of the Tweed, not very distant from Kelso, but on the Cumberland side of the river, where Mr. M. was born, about the year 1734. He was bred to no profession; but, on the death of his father, resided some time with an uncle in Edinburgh, who was an eminent brewer; and, on finishing his school education, had a share in the house; but, not being well-adapted for business, having been very early seduced by the fascinating allurements of Muses, he soon failed, and supported himself a few years by being corrector to Mr. Jackson's press at Oxford.

Several of his effusions at a very early period evince a mind endowed with great poetical powers, and regulated by much simplicity and correctness of taste. In Mr. Pearch's Collection are several little poems of his writing; one on Mary Queen of Scots was much admired by Dr. Johnson, to whom Mickle was introduced, and by whom he was advised to undertake a translation of the only epic poem in the Portuguese language, The Lusiad of Camoens. "I have but one objection to it," replied Mickle, "which is, that I do not understand a single word of Portuguese. However, such is the respect with which I consider your advice, that I will give my whole attention to the attainment of that language, and then — I will translate the Lusiad." This promise he performed, and in a manner that would not be deemed unworthy of its great predecessors in this line of poetry, Dryden and Pope. His success in this work procured him the greatest respect from the present Queen, the first Nobility, and all the Literati, of Portugal. The description of a night-scene at sea, by moonlight, has been thought not inferior to Pope's celebrated lines, beginning with "As when the moon, refulgent lamp," &c. The reader may judge by comparing them:

The moon, full orb'd, forsakes her watery cave,
And lifts her lovely head above the wave;
The snowy splendours of her modest ray,
Streams o'er the liquid wave, and glittering play.
The peaceful winds an holy silence keep;
The watchman's carol echoed from the prows,
Alone, at times, disturbs the calm repose.

To the first edition of The Lusiad was subjoined a defence of commerce and civilization, intended as a reply to the misrepresentations of Rousseau, and some other visionary philosophers, who consider a savage state, or what they call a state of nature, the happiest state for man. This dissertation may perhaps be considered as the same completest refutation of those philosophic visions, and was a peculiarly proper introduction to the only commercial epic poem that ever was written. To the second edition was added, a dissertation on the religion of the ancient Bramins, the principal intention of which seems to be the detection of some errors in Mr. Dow's History of Hindostan. To this edition was also added a frontispiece, designed and etched by the late Mr. Mortimer, the historical painter. By the first and second editions of The Lusiad Mr. M. acquired very near 100.

In 1767 he published The Concubine, a poem written in the measure, and in imitation of Spenser. This passed through several editions; but as the title conveyed a very improper idea both of the subject and spirit of the whole, it was re-published in 1777, with some trifling alterations, under the title of Sir Martyn.

In 1781 he published Almada Hill, and Epistle from Lisbon. This poem, which was written in Portugal, has for its subject a circumstance that happened in the twelfth century, when Lisbon, and great part of Portugal and Spain, were in the possession of the Moors. Alphonso, King of Portugal, having gained several victories over that people, was laying siege to Lisbon, when Robert Duke of Gloucester, on his way to the Holy Land, appeared on the coast. As the cause was the same, Robert was easily persuaded to make his first crusade in the kingdom of Portugal. He demanded that the storming of the castle of Lisbon, situated on a considerable hill, and whose ruins shew it to have been of great strength, should be allotted to him, while Alphonso was to attack the walls of the city. Both leaders were successful; and Alphonso, among the rewards he bestowed upon the English, granted those who were wounded or unable to proceed to Palestine, the castle of Almada, and the adjoining lands. Though no subjects are more proper for poetry than those which are founded upon historical retrospect, the author lies under very particular disadvantages. Every one can conceive a work merely descriptive, fictitious, or sentimental; but a previous acquaintance with the history and characters upon which an historical poem is founded, is absolutely necessary to its being read with a proper relish. Without fresh previous knowledge, the ideas which he would convey pass unobserved, and the happiest allusion is very imperfectly felt or conceived. Under these disadvantages, Almada Hill, which the author considered as a kind of supplement to The Lusiad, was published, but it added little to his celebrity.

In the beginning of the year 1779, the late Governor Johnstone, to whom he was distantly related, appointed him his confidential secretary, and with him he took a voyage to the country of his favourite Camoens, to which place he sailed on board the Romney. As the Governor's agent, and on his own account, he became engaged in some law business relative to the Dutch prizes which were taken in that expedition, and which, from the failure and death of an eminent banker, who was concerned in these transactions, gave him a great deal of employment very unpropitious to his poetical pursuits, and he a short time since offered to give up very material claims, to put an end to some tedious and troublesome law-suits, which are still pending.

About the year 1783 he married a lady with whom he became acquainted at Forest-hill (the village in which the first wife of Milton was born), in the neighbourhood of Oxford, and soon afterwards went to reside at Wheatley, five miles on this side Oxford, where he died. He has left one son. — For several years before his death he had it in contemplation to collect and republish all his poems, with so many additional as to make one quarto volume at a guinea; and, from the specimens which the writer of this little memoir has seen, he ventures to say they would give additional honour to Mr. Mickle's name.

His manners were not of the obtrusive kind by which many men of the second or third order force themselves into notice. A very close observer might have passed many hours in Mickle's company without suspecting that he had ever written a line of poetry. A common physiognomist would have said that he had an unmasked face. Lavater would have said otherwise; but neither his countenance nor manners were such as attract the multitude. When his name was announced, he has been more than once asked if the translator of Camoens was any relation to him. To this he usually answered, with a good-natured smile, that they were of the same family. Simplicity, unaffected simplicity, was the leading feature in his character. The philosophy of Voltaire and David Hume was his detestation. He could not hear their names with temper. For the Bible he had the highest reverence, and never sat silent when the doctrines or precepts of the Gospel were either ridiculed or spoken of with contempt.