1848 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Isaac D'Israeli

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 30 (July 1848) 97-99.



Jan. 19. At Bradenham House, Buckinghamshire, (of the influenza,) aged 82, Isaac D'Israeli, Esq. D.C.L. the far celebrated literary historian.

Mr. D'Israeli was born at Enfield near London, in the month of May, 1766, and was the only child of Benjamin D'Israeli, a Venetian merchant, who had been for many years settled in this country. He received some instruction at a school near the place of his nativity; but a considerable portion of his boyhood was spent in Amsterdam and Leyden, where he acquired a knowledge of several modern languages, and applied himself to classical studies with some attention, but with no very extraordinary success. He afterwards made a tour in France and Italy, and came back with a valuable collection of books, and a confirmed taste for French literature.

An interesting view of his literary aspirations in the year 1786 is presented in the two letters to Dr. Vicesimus Knox, with which we have been favoured, and which are printed in an earlier part of our present Magazine.

In the same year (before he had attained his majority) he displayed his predilection for that branch of literary criticism in which he afterwards acquired his chief reputation, in some "Remarks on the Biographical Accounts of the late Samuel Johnson, LL.D. with an attempt to vindicate his character from late misrepresentations." This essay will be found in the Gentleman's Magazine for Dec. 1786, occupying four pages, and signed I. D. I.

His principal ambition, however, at this period of his life was to shine as a poet, and there was a closer resemblance between his early literary aspirations and those of his son, "D'Israeli the Younger," than most readers of the present day are aware. We have seen some very indifferent verses which he addressed to his neighbour at Enfield "the modern Camden," which were published in the St. James's Chronicle, under the signature of Euterpe, Nov. 20, 1787. Mr. Gough soon after replied as Clio, — not in reference to what had been said of himself, but in defence of Enfield: and Mr. D'Israeli (disappointed that his intended compliment should have met with such a return,) declared to his friend Dr. Sherwen that he would never woo the muse again. But shortly after, we find him writing to the same friend as follows:—

"What a strange wretch am I! I forswore yesterday morning all Poetry; and last night I found myself again at my dirty work. I am heartily sick of writing complimentary verses, and imitating Boileau. I am now at the last desperate push. I will labour at a poem, which I intend to call Advice to a Poet. You laugh perhaps, perhaps you may sneer — 'tis what I even do at myself, but it shall be done, and than adieu to the Muses!"

We are not aware how far this idea was worked out; but the young aspirant was still unable to restrain his poetical inclinations: and his next production that we are aware of is "On the Abuse of Satire: an epistle addressed to the Poet Laureat, 1788," but first printed in the Gentleman's Magazine for July, 1789, p. 648.

It is stated in the next volume, p. 437, (by a reviewer who we are enabled to say was Mr. Gough,) that this Epistle was mistaken by Peter Pindar for Mr. Hayley's composition, and drew his foulest vengeance on that poet. It was soon after followed by "A Defence of Poetry; addressed to Henry James Pye, Esq., to which is added, a specimen of a new version of Telemachus," which we believe was Mr. D'Israeli's first distinct publication, in 4to, 1790. It should rather have been called " A Defence of Satirical Poetry." (See our vol. LX. p. 437.)

Mr. D'Israeli still pursued his poetical vein, at least as late as 1803, when he published "Narrative Poems," in 4to. but, though he had greatly improved upon his early efforts, his facility of versification and harmony of expression were never equal either to the flights of his fancy or the elegance of his taste.

But before we leave this field of his efforts we may remark that he was the author of verses written for the Literary Fund Society in 1791, and again in 1801. The latter were recited at the anniversary, and are printed in the Gentleman's Magazine, Vol. LXXI. p. 446, and also in the volume entitled "The Claims of Literature."

He attempted prose romance, and published anonymously "Vaurien, a Satirical Novel," in two vols. 1797, the Rabelaisian romance of "Flim Flams, or the Life of my Uncle," and "Mejnoun and Leila," (the Arabian Petrarch and Laura,) the earliest Oriental story in our literature which was composed with any reference to the propriety of costume. The author was, in this production, much assisted by Sir W. Ouseley, who first drew his attention to the riches of Persian poetry.

This was accompanied (in 12mo. 1799) by "Love and Humility, a Roman Romance," and "The Lovers, or the origin of the Fine Arts." Of these a second edition, corrected, appeared in 1801, with the addition of "The Daughter, or a Modern Romance." He was also the author of another novel, the date of which we do not know, called "Despotism, or the Fall of the Jesuits."

We now turn to that branch of literature in which Mr. D'Israeli was eminently successful, and of which the public favour encouraged the production in nearly continuous stream for more than forty years. In 1791 he published the first volume of his "Curiosities of Literature; consisting of Anecdotes, Characters, Sketches, and Observations, Literary, Critical, and Historical." We are not sure whether these were the precise terms of the first edition; but they are those of the second, in 1794. He had added a second volume in 1793, in which year he also distinctly published "A Dissertation on Anecdotes." The "Curiosities" were gradually increased to three volumes; and a Second Series was published in three volumes 1823. They were remodeled and improved in various editions, and reached their twelfth impression in the year 1841.

In 1795 Mr. D'Israeli published his "Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character;" in 1796 "Miscellanies, or Literary Recreations;" in 1812 and 1813, his "Calamities of Authors; including some inquiries respecting their Moral and Literary Characters," in two volumes; in 1814, "Quarrels of Authors; or, some Memoirs for our Literary History including Specimens of Controversy, to the reign of Elizabeth." 3 vols. In 1816 appeared his "Inquiry into the Literary and Political Character of King James the First."

On these works, and more particularly "The Curiosities of Literature," will rest Mr. D'Israeli's most enduring reputation; but for a while he derived a noisier fame from his "Commentaries on the Life and Reign of Charles I." For this production the University of Oxford conferred upon him the honorary degree of D.C.L. as a testimony of their respect — to use the language of their Public Orator — "optimi regis optimo defensori." He pursued in the mode of its publication his wonted plan; two volumes appeared first in 1828, and two more (much bulkier than the former) in 1830. There is a sequel bearing this title: "Eliot, Hampden, and Pym; or a Reply of the Author of a book entitled 'Commentaries on the Life and Reign of Charles the First,' to the Author of a book entitled 'Memorials of John Hampden, his Party and his Times:'" 1832, 8vo.

But he returned with renewed zest to his literary history, and, relying on his strong constitution, united with habits of unbroken study, he was sanguine enough, at the age of threescore and ten, to entertain a hope of completing a comprehensive review of this subject, which he had laid down on a scale of six volumes; but in the year 1839 he was stricken with blindness, and, although he submitted to the operation of couching, he could obtain no relief from a calamity most grievous to an historical author. Nevertheless he soon took heart, and with the aid of his daughter, whose services he has eloquently referred to in his preface, he gave the world some notices of the earlier period of our literary history, (which he had collected for the larger work,) under the title of "Amenities of Literature."

Here we must revert to an incident in his literary career which happened a year or two before. In 1837 Mr. D'Israeli received an unexpected mortification from a little critical volume entitled "Curiosities of Literature, Illustrated" by Mr. Bolton Corney. Our author had at this period been so long accustomed to the notes of universal praise and adulation, that he could scarcely believe the reality of this assault. At first he thought Mr. Corney, whose name was then unknown to him, was no more than some artist employed by his bookseller to "illustrate" a new edition of the "Curiosities" with vignettes: and he afterwards affected to consider him as an impertinent sciolist, whose cavils he might safely despise. The truth, however, was, that Mr. Bolton Corney had detected some remarkable oversights and ill-considered assertions which had hitherto escaped the author's correction; and, in order to sharpen the arrows of his criticism, he had very successfully availed himself of some of the weak points of Mr. D'Israeli's style, which occasionally retains marks of that flippant confidence which characterises self-taught genius, whilst he also frequently assumes undue merit for peculiar "discoveries" and "secret history." In his early days Mr. D'Israeli had been a diligent reader of the MS. stores of the British Museum when such readers were few, and, in order to appropriate the more effectually the results of his researches, he had adopted the disingenuous plan of concealing his authorities and was thus occasionally entrapped into claiming as a "discovery" a fact which had either been published long before, or was equally at the command of any other inquirer.

Mr. Corney's book is reviewed in our vol. IX. p. 61. Mr. D'Israeli replied in a pamphlet entitled "The Illustrator Illustrated;" and "the illustrator" made a rejoinder in the same volume of our Magazine, p. 369.

Mr. D'Israeli was for many years the intimate friend and principal literary adviser of the late Mr. John Murray, of Albemarle Street, whose father was the publisher, in Fleet Street, of some of Mr. D'Israeli's earliest productions. Many of Mr. Murray's most fortunate speculations were directed by the aid and advice of Mr. D'Israeli: and this connection was maintained in some measure until a coolness and alienation ensued upon Mr. Murray's unfortunate attempt to establish "The Representative" newspaper, for which Mr. Benjamin D'Israeli, without consulting his father, had engaged himself as an editor.

As may be supposed, from this connection, Mr. D'Israeli was a contributor to the early numbers of the "Quarterly Review." His review of Spence's Anecdotes, in 1820, and a vindication both of the moral and poetical character of Pope, produced the famous Pope controversy, in which Mr. Bowles, Lord Byron, and others took part.

Mr. D'Israeli was an occasional correspondent of the Gentleman's Magazine, both at the beginning and towards the close of his literary character. The occurrence of some of his early writings in our volumes has been already mentioned. For some years he had recourse to other periodicals, and particularly the Monthly Magazine. After the death of his friend Dr. Downman, of Exeter, (to whom his "Narrative Poems" were dedicated in 1803,) he communicated to Mr. Urban A Poetical Epistle addressed to him by that gentleman, written in 1791, "on his (Mr. D'Israeli's) partiality for French writers:" see Gent. Mag. 1809, vol. LXXIX. p. 959. In 1812 we have traced a brief communication on Sheridan's Aristaenetus (p. 132: answered in p. 343). In the Magazine for 1814 occurs a controversy with Mr. John Sydney Hawkins, respecting his father Sir John, who had been noticed in the "Quarrels of Authors." In the number for Dec. 1831 is a pleasant communication of the history of the Bottle Conjurer; in that for Jan. 1840 a letter expressing his opinion respecting the orthography of Shakspeare's name: which led to an extended controversy, which our readers will not have forgotten.

To the late Mr. Nichols, when engaged on his Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century, Mr. D'Israeli's communications were frequent: as may be seen by reference to the Index of that work, vol. VII. pp. 111, 552.

Mr. D'Israeli was for many years a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries; but we are not aware that he had ever made any communications to it, and he retired from it some years before his death.

Mr. D'Israeli married, Feb. 10, 1802, Miss Basevi, sister to George Basevi, esq. of Brighton (a magistrate for Sussex,) and aunt to the late Mr. George Basevi the architect, whose melancholy death at Ely cathedral in 1845 will be long remembered and regretted.

He lost his wife in the spring of 1847; and has left one daughter and three sons, the eldest of whom, now member for Buckinghamshire, has made himself well known both in his literary and his political character. Having been introduced into Parliament for Maidstone by the late Wyndham Lewis, esq. M.P., of Greenmeadow, co. Glamorgan, who formerly represented that borough, Mr. Benjamin D'Israeli was afterwards left executor to that gentleman, and married his widow. With this lady, who was the only daughter of John Evans, esq. of Branceford Park, Devonshire, Mr. Benjamin D'Israeli acquired an independent fortune.

The second son of Mr. D'Israeli is a clerk in the Register Office in Chancery; and the youngest an agriculturist in Buckinghamshire. His only daughter, — who had been betrothed to Mr. Meredith, who died when travelling with Mr. Benjamin D'Israeli in the East, was the devoted attendant and amanuensis of her blind and aged father.

A portrait of Mr. D'Israeli by Drummond was published in the Monthly Mirror, Jan. 1797; a whole-length by Alfred Crowquill some years ago in Fraser's Magazine; and a very good likeness of him by Denning was published in a late number of Bentley's Miscellany. A recent sketch by Count D'Orsay was engraved in the Illustrated London News of Jan. 29, 1848.