1789 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Julius Mickle

Isaac Reed, "An Account of the Life and Writings of William Julius Mickle" European Magazine 16 (September, November 1789) 155-57, 317-21.



William Julius Mickle, an author of whom it may be predicted posterity will do more justice than his cotemporaries have done, was one of the sons of the Rev. Alexander Mickle, a Scotch clergyman, who at one period of his life was a dissenting minister in London, and assistant to the Rev. Dr. Watts. He was also one of the translators of Bailey's Dictionary. After a few years residence in London he was presented to the church of Langholm, near Kelso, on the borders of Scotland, but on the Cumberland side, where he married; and of this marriage our author was one of the younger sons.

He was born, we conjecture from circumstances, about the year 1735; and received his education from his father; but though his passion for poetry shewed itself early, he often declared that he was by no means attached to his books until the age of thirteen, when Spenser's Faery Queen accidentally falling in his way, he became passionately fond of that author, and began immediately to imitate his manner. On the death of his father he went to Edinburgh, and resided with an uncle who was a brewer there. By this relation he was admitted to a share of the business; but the event of it only served to add another instance to the many which prove that the pursuits of poetry and trade are incompatible with each other. On his failure in this his first scheme of life he endeavoured to obtain a commission in the marine service, and with that view came to London about the conclusion of the war which began in 1755. In this application he met with a disappointment; but in hopes of deriving some advantage, he introduced himself to the first Lord Lyttelton, to whom he sent some of his poems. By this nobleman he was received with kindness, and was admitted to several interviews, and encouraged not to abandon his poetical plans, but to persevere in them. He experienced, however, no other emolument from his lordship's notice of him.

After he became acquainted with Spenser's works he read and studied with the greatest avidity, and, as he often declared, before he was eighteen years old had written two tragedies and half an epic poem, all which he had the prudence to consign to the flames. His first performance appeared in one of the Edinburgh magazines, but cannot with truth be pointed out as any effort of genius, or in any respect worthy of its author. He always when he chose to mention it spoke of it in that light. From the time of his arrival in London to about the year 1765, when he engaged as corrector to the Clarendon press, we do not recollect how he was employed. In 1762 he was in his native country; but for much of this period, if we are not mistaken, he was in some branch of the printing business.

The time which was not engaged at the Clarendon press he devoted to study, and in the year 1765 published the poem which first brought him into notice, entitled "Pollio, an Elegiac Ode, written in the Wood near R— Castle," 4to. This was an elegy written on the death of his brother, and previous to his publication had been shewn in MS. to and received corrections from the hand of Lord Lyttelton, who, in a letter to the author, spoke of it as equal to any thing of the kind in our language. In 1767 he published "The Concubine, a Poem, in two Cantos, in the Manner of Spenser," 4to. In 1769 he produced "A Letter to Mr. Harwood, wherein some of his evasive Glosses, false Translations, and blundering Criticisms, in support of the Arian Heresy, contained in his Liberal Translation of the New Testament, are pointed out and confused," 8vo. and in the next year published "Mary Queen of Scots, an Elegy;" "Hengist and Mey, a Ballad;" and "Knowledge, an Ode;" in Pearch's Collection of Poems. The Elegy on Mary had been submitted to Lord Lyttelton, who declined to criticize it, not for its deficiency in poetical merit, but from thinking differently from the author with respect to her Majesty's character. At the end of his poem was inserted a note intended to obviate his Lordship's objections to the defence of her. In 1770 he published his "Voltaire in the Shades, or Dialogues on the Deistical Controversy," 8vo. and about this period was a frequent writer in the "Whitehall Evening Post."

He had very early in life, as early as the age of seventeen, read Castara's translation of the Lusiad of Camoens into French, and then conceived the design of giving an English version of it. Various avocations had, however, prevented him from proceeding to execute his intention, though he never lost sight of his plan. [Author's note: The story which is told in a magazine for last December asserting, that Mr. Mickle first undertook the translation of the Lusiad at the recommendation of Dr. Johnson, and the conversation which is said to have then passed, are circumstances entirely destitute of truth. When Mr. Mickle was introduced to Dr. Johnson, it was as the avowed intended translator of that work, of which the specimen was then printed, and had been seen and approved by the Doctor. All that Dr. Johnson said on the subject was, that about thirty years before he had conceived the design of translating the work himself, which he had also recommended to Goldsmith to undertake; and concluded by saying, "But I am glad, Sir, it has fallen into your hands." This account of the interview was repeatedly given by Mr. Mickle himself to many of his friends in his life-time.] At length, in 1771, he published the first book as a specimen, and having prepared himself by acquiring some knowledge of the Portuguese language, he determined to devote himself intirely to the work; which in order to carry on without interruption, he quitted his situation at Oxford, and went to reside at a farm-house at Forest hill, where he pursued his design with unremitting attention until the end of 1775, when the work, which had been printing as he proceeded on it, was intirely finished; a work which one of the finest English writers declared he esteemed equal to Pope's Homer, and inferior only to Dryden's Virgil; and which we may venture to prophesy will remain a monument to transmit the author's name with honour to the latest posterity.

When Mr. Mickle engaged in this translation, he had no other means of subsistence than what he derived from his employment as corrector of the press; and when he relinquished that situation, he had only the subscriptions which he received for the work to support him. Disadvantages like these might have discouraged meaner minds; but looking forwards with the enthusiasm of genius, he would not suffer small difficulties to obstruct his progress or damp his ardour. He steadily adhered to the plan he had laid down, and at the end of five years compleated it. That he might omit no prudential attentions to his future welfare, and with the hopes of reaping those advantages which usually attend so laborious a work, he applied to a person of great rank, with whom his family had been connected, for permission to dedicate it to him. "The manner," says the author, "in which — — took the English Lusiad under his patronage infinitely enhanced the honour of his acceptance of the Dedication." The manner, as the author frequently told his friends, was "by a very polite letter, written with his own hand." But let not indigent genius in future place too much expectation on the generosity of patrons. After receiving a coy, for which an extraordinary price was paid for the binding, days, weeks, and, at last, months escaped without the slightest notice. During this time, tho' the author had too much spirit to solicit or complain, it is to be feared that some of the misery so feelingly described by Spenser fell to his lot.

Full little knowest thou that hast no tried
What hell it is, in suing long to bide;
To lose good days, that might be better spent;
To waste long nights in pensive discontent;
To speed to-day, to be put back to-morrow,
To feed on hope, to pine with fear and sorrow;
To have the Princess' grace, yet want her peers;
To have thy asking, yet wait many years;
To fret thy soul with crosses and with cares;
To eat thy heart through comfortless despairs;
To fawn, to crouch, to wait, to ride, to run,
To spend, to give, to want, to be undone.

At length a gentleman of rank in the political world, a fast and firm friend to the author, and who afterwards took him under his protection, and by that means afforded him the independence he latterly enjoyed, waited on the patron, and heard with indignation and contempt it deserved, a declaration that the work was at that time unread, but had been represented not to have the merit it had been first said to possess, and therefore nothing could be then done on the subject of his mission. This paltry evasion the solicitor declared he believed arose from the malicious insinuations of a certain person about the patron, whose mistakes had received a proper correction in the preface to the Lusiad. We know not how true this suggestion may be, though, admitting the fact, it hardly alters the case. But enough of patrician manners!

[Author's note: Mr. Mickle's account of this interview, in a letter to a friend, dated Aug. 22, 1776, now lies before us, and we might probably do no disservice to the general interests of literature, were we to print it, as we once intended. But as we feel no satisfaction in contemplating human nature in a disgraceful attitude, though the object of it deserves no such favour, we suppress it. We cannot, however, omit to suggest a doubt, whether there is not some small violation of moral rectitude in a great man accepting from an indigent one that compliment which is offered him under, at least, an implied agreement to receive some acknowledgement in return for the honour done him. It ought not to be concealed, that when the second edition of the Lusiad was published in 1778, Mickle was strongly recommended by a friend to suppress the Dedication. His resentment at the unworthy treatment he had received had by this time been converted into contempt, and with great magnanimity he refused. He seemed to think, that having once given the pseudo-patron a chance of being known to posterity, it would be wrong to deprive him of it. Whoever will read the Life of Camoens cannot avoid observing a striking similarity in the fortunes of the author and his translator, and he will probably not be displeased at the concluding note to the translation of the Lusiad. "Similarity of condition, we have already observed, produced similarity of complaint and sentiment in Spenser and Camoens. Each was unworthily neglected by the Gothic grandees of his age; yet both their names will live when the remembrance of the courtiers who spurned them shall sink beneath their mountain tombs." Three beautiful stanzas from Phineas Fletcher's Purple Island, on the memory of Spenser, may also serve as an epitaph for Camoens. The unworthy neglect which was the lot of the Portuguese bard, but too well appropriates to him the elegy of Spenser. And every reader of taste who has perused the Lusiad, will think of the Cardinal Henrico, and feel the indignation of these manly lines.—

Witness our Colin, whom though all the Graces,
And all the Muses nurst; whose well-taught song
Parnassus self, and Glorian embraces,
And all the learn'd, and all the shepherds throng;
Yet all his hopes were crost, all suits deni'd;
Discourag'd, scorn'd, his writings vilifi'd:
Poorly (poor man) he liv'd; poorly (poor man) he di'd.

And had not that great heart, (whose honour'd head
Ah lies full low) piti'd thy woful plight;
There hadst thou lien unwept, unburied,
Unblest, nor grac't with any common rite:
Yet shalt thou live, when thy great foe shall sink
Beneath his mountain tombe, whose fame shall stink;
And time his blacker name shall blurre with blackest ink.

O let th' Iambic Muse revenge that wrong,
Which cannot slumber in thy sheets of lead:
Let thy abused honour crie as long
As there be quills to write, or eyes to read:
On his rank name let thine own votes be turn'd,
Oh may that man that hath the Muses scorn'd,
Alive, nor dead, be ever of a Muse adorn'd!]...

Before the publication of the Lusiad, Mr. Mickle had been tempted to try his powers in what Dryden calls the most profitable species of composition. Adopting therefore a story from the French History, during the Reign of Francis the First, he formed it into a Tragedy, which he called The Siege of Marseilles. This was transmitted to Mr. Garrick with the recommendations of some of his literary friends. Whether from ignorance of Stage effect, or that the Author's talents were not adapted to the Theatre, we shall not decide. Certain it is the performance was rejected by the Manager, as not calculated to succeed in the representation. It contained, he acknowledged in a letter, many beautiful passages; but fine writing, he added, was not of itself sufficient to constitute a Drama fit for public exhibition. Unwilling that the pains employed upon this work should be entirely lost, Governor Johnstone solicited the aid of the Author of Douglas to make some alterations. This was very obligingly complied with, and the piece was a second time submitted to the Manager, and a second time rejected. It was then proposed to the Author to try its fate on the Theatre at Edinburgh, which he appeared at one time not averse to; but his friend and real patron the Governor, apprehending that his attention to this work might probably interfere with the completion of the Lusiad, recommended him to lay it entirely aside until the translation was finished. To the propriety of this recommendation the Author acceded. — When the Lusiad was completed, it was again proposed by another friend, that The Siege of Marseilles should be revised, and offered to Mr. Harris. This was accordingly done, but it was still unsuccessful. After this repulse Mr. Mickle relinquished all expectations of advantages from the Theatre, though he permitted a person to shew the unfortunate play to Mr. Sheridan, from whom he never again received it. This Tragedy he intended to print in a collection of his works.

In 1777 he published a new Edition of the Concubine, with improvements, under the title of Sir Martyn; the former conveying a very improper idea both of the subject and spirit of the Poem. Of the many imitations of Spenser, this, in the opinion of some readers of taste, will suffer the least, in comparing it with the original.

The applause of the Public followed the appearance of the Lusiad in so high a degree, as soon to banish from the Author's mind the momentary chagrin, which a few circumstances attending to the publication had given birth to. In a letter to a friend, dated January 22d, 1776, he says, "Though my work is well received in Oxford, I will honestly own to you some things have hurt me. A few grammatical slips in the Introduction, some of them errors of the press, have been mentioned, till some, who know little of the matter, have got hold of them; and some things in the notes about Virgil, Milton, and Homer, have been called the arrogance of criticism; yet certain I am I have not made one unjust comparison between them and my Author. I hint modestly that Milton seems to have borrowed some things from the Lusiad, and the fact is self-evident; but even this has been called Warburtonian arrogance. But the greatest offence of all is what I say of blank verse. Blank verse is in great repute here, and an intimate friend of my own, a gownsman of acknowledged taste, denies that Milton is prosaic, and tells me that though my versification is good, my ear is on this occasion to be questioned. My versification however, to comfort me, receives a most general approbation."

The first Edition being soon sold, he immediately prepared a second, with improvements, which was published in June 1778. To this Edition the admirers of Mortimer's works should be informed, that the plate prefixed was executed by that excellent Artist. On his death on the 4th of February 1779, Mr. Mickle wrote the following Epitaph for him:

O'er Angelo's proud tomb no tear was shed;
Pleas'd was each Muse, for full his honours spread;
To bear his genius to its utmost shore,
The length of human days could give no more.

Oh Mortimer, o'er thy untimely urn,
The Arts and all the gentle Muses mourn;
And shades of English heroes gliding by,
Heave o'er thy shrine the languid hopeless sigh.
Thine all the breathing rage of bold design,
And all the poetry of painting thine.
Oh! long had thy meridian sun to blaze,
And onward hov'ring in its magic rays.
What visions rose! — Fair England's patriots old,
Monarchs of proudest fame, and Barons bold,
In the fir'd monuments of their bravest strife,
Bursting beneath thy hand again to life!
So shone thy noon — when one dim void profound
Rush'd on, and shapeless darkness clos'd around.
Alas! while ghosts of heroes round thy tomb,
Robb'd of their hope, bewail the artist's doom;
Thy friend, oh Mortimer, in grief sincere,
Pours o'er the man sad memory's silent tear;
And in the fond remembrance of thy heart,
Forgets the honours of thy wond'rous art.

In this year, 1779, he published a pamphlet entitled, "A Candid Examination of the Reasons for depriving the East India Company of its Charter, contained in The History and Management of the East India Company from its Commencement to the present Time; together with Strictures on some of the Self-Contradictions and historical Errors of Dr. Adam Smith, in his Reasons for the Abolition of the said Company," 4to. and at the same time, some of his friends had it in contemplation to endeavour to recommend him to the notice of his Sovereign, as worthy of a pension. The excellent Bishop of London, Dr. Lowth, from a knowledge of Mr. Mickle's virtues and talents, had more than once intimated his readiness to give him ordination, with a promise of some provision in the Church, which however was a scheme of life not agreeable to our Author's disposition. At this juncture he was meditating to publish a Collection of all his Poems by subscription, in which he had every reason to hope for success, from the exertion of his friends. Fortune, however, at this period was more favourable to him than she had hitherto been. His real friend and patron, Governor Johnstone, in the month of May was appointed to the command of the Romney man of war, and immediately sent to Mr. Mickle an offer to appoint him his Secretary, in order that he might partake of any good fortune which might happen during the cruize. This offer Mr. Mickle accepted, and fulfilled his appointment during the remainder of the year. In November he arrived at Lisbon, and was named by his friend and patron joint agent for the prizes which were taken. At this place he was received with every mark of politeness and attention; and here and in the neighbourhood he remained for more than six months. During his residence he composed his Poem called Almada Hill, published in quarto in 1781, and collected many particulars concerning the history, manners, and customs of the Portuguese, which he intended in due time to give to the Public. While he was at Lisbon the Royal Academy was opened, and Mr. Mickle, who was present at the ceremony of its commencement, had the honour to be admitted a Member, under the presidency of one of the most illustrious characters of the age, Prince Don John of Braganza, Duke of Lafoens. On his return to England, his presence was thought necessary there in order to attend to the proceedings in the Courts of Law, respecting the condemnation of some of the Prizes. On this account he did not accompany the Governor, now called Commodore, during his last expedition, nor did he go any more to sea. In 1782 he published "The Prophecy of Queen Emma, an ancient ballad lately discovered, written by Johannes Turgottus, Prior of Durham in the Reign of William Rufus. To which is added, by the Editor, an Account of the Discovery and Hints towards a Vindication of the authenticity of the Poems of Ossian and Rowley," 8vo. and about June in the same year he married Miss Tomkins, daughter of the person with whom he resided at Forest-hill, while he was engaged in translating the Lusiad. By the fortune he obtained with this lady, added to what he acquired under Commodore Johnstone, he found himself possessed of that competence which enabled him to retire to literary leisure and independence. He accordingly took a house at Wheatley, in Oxfordshire, and devoted his vacant time to the revision of his poetical works, which he was about publishing by subscription; and which plan we hope, with the assistance of his literary friends, will still be carried into execution. During the last seven years of his life he occasionally afforded the European Magazine some assistance. The Fragments of Leo, and some of the Reviews of Books which have been most applauded, came from his pen. After a short illness he died the 25th of October 1788 at Wheatley, where he was buried, leaving behind him one son.

To those who are acquainted with Mr. Mickle's writings, we need not point out the beauty, the strength, or the variety of his versification, the harmony of his numbers, or the vigour of his imagination. These are so apparent, that we risk nothing in declaring our opinion that they must, sooner or later, force themselves into the notice of those who at present are strangers to them. Leaving his literary character to find its own value, we shall confine ourselves to speak of him as a Member of Society. He was in every point of view a man of the utmost integrity, warm in his friendships, and indignant only against vice, irreligion, or meanness. The compliment paid by Lord Lyttelton to Thomson might be applied to him with the strictest truth; not a line is to be found in his works which dying he would wish to blot. During the greatest part of his life he endured the pressures of a narrow fortune without repining, never relaxing his industry to acquire, by honest exertion, that independence which at length he enjoyed. He did not shine in conversation; nor would any person from his appearance have been able to form a favourable judgment of his talents. In every situation in which fortune placed him he displayed an independent spirit, undebased by any meanness; and when his pecuniary circumstances made him on one occasion feel a disappointment with some force, he even then appeared more ashamed at his want of discernment of character than concerned for his loss. He seemed to entertain with reluctance an opinion, that high birth could be united with a sordid mind. He had however the satisfaction of reflecting, that no extravagant panegyrick had disgraced his pen. Contempt certainly came to his aid, though not soon: he wished to forget his credulity, and never afterwards conversed on the subject by choice. To conclude: his foibles were but few, and those inoffensive; his virtues many, and his genius very considerable; he lived without reproach, and his memory will always be cherished by those who were acquainted with him.