1799 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Seward

Isaac Reed, Obituary in European Magazine 36 (October 1799) 219-20.



If, to have passed a life of active benevolence, and to have died with the regret of every good man to whom he was known: — if, to have been ever ready to assist indigence, to soothe affliction, to encourage merit, and to relieve distress, be sufficient claims for notice beyond that record,

—where, to be born and die,
Of rich and poor makes all the history:—

the name of SEWARD will not be lost in the undistinguished mass of those who, without any laudable exertion or praiseworthy endeavour to improve or benefit mankind, obscurely creep through life; leaving no trace of their existence in the memory of their surviving contemporaries, nor the remembrance of any action worthy to be held up as an example for the imitation of posterity.

WILLIAM SEWARD was the son of Mr. Seward, partner in the brewhouse under the firm of Calvert and Seward, and was born in January 1747. He first went to a small seminary in the neighbourhood of Cripplegate, and afterwards to the Charter-house school, where he was contemporary with Mr. Day, the Author of Sandford and Merton, and Mr. Bicknell, the Author of Joel Collyer's Travels. At the Charter-house he acquired a competent knowledge of Greek and Latin, which he improved at Oxford. Having no inclination to engage in business, he relinquished his concern in the brew-house at his father's death; and, being possessed of an easy fortune, he did not apply to any profession, but devoted his talents for his own amusement, and the entertainment and instruction of the public. This plan of life, though in many respects an eligible one, he sometimes doubted the wisdom of adopting; for, having no settled employment, he sometimes felt in a very severe manner what is understood by the French term "ennui." To divert, and relieve himself from this unpleasant sensation, he first amused himself with collecting the materials for what he called DROSSIANA in the present Magazine; which he began in October 1789, and continued without intermission to the end of his life. After he had published in this manner for some time, he was advised to make a selection, which in 1794 he began with two Volumes, and these were followed in the three succeeding years by three more, under the title of "Anecdotes of some Distinguished Persons, chiefly of the present and two preceding Centuries;" a work which met with general approbation, and has been since reprinted. In 1799 he published two Volumes more on the plan of the former work, which he entitled "Biographiana." These were finished a very short time before his death.

Mr. Seward was in every respect a desirable acquaintance; he had travelled abroad with great improvement, and was known to most of those who had distinguished themselves by genius or learning, by natural or acquired endowments, or even by eccentricity of character; and he had stored his memory and anecdotes which made his conversation extremely entertaining. To have distinguished himself from the common herd of mankind was motive sufficient with Mr. Seward to desire to see such a person; but though he wished to observe the manner of eminent or extraordinary men, he did not indiscriminately form friendships with them. He knew many, but was intimate with few. He was the friend of Dr. Johnson, had conversed with Mr. Howard, and condescended to know Tom Paine. Party distinctions appeared to have but little weight with him. He visited and received the visits of many whose opinions were directly opposite to each other, and equally to his own. In his presence, good-humour put controversy to flight, and it may be said with truth, that few men had the art more than himself of diverting to more pleasing objects the violence and acrimony of party disputations. He saw the contentions for power in the light they deserved to be viewed in, and thought himself at liberty to refuse joining either side. He however always professed an enmity towards those who attempted to bring into contempt the sacredness of Religion, or to overthrow the Government of the country.

He spent his time like an English Gentleman, with hospitality and without ostentation. In the winter he resided in London; and of late years, in the summer, he varied his place of abode. At one time he resided in Mr. Coxe's house, near Salisbury; at another, near Reading; and the summer preceding his death, he made Richmond his residence. At all these places, and indeed wherever he came, he found acquaintances who respected and valued him for his amiable qualities, and at each has left those who lament the loss of an agreeable companion.

The pleasantry of his conversation was often aided by sterling wit and genuine humour, though he did not disdain the assistance of a pun or quibble, where the occasion warranted such a liberty. It has been said, not without some degree of truth, that he was fond of his joke, and would sometimes indulge it at the expence of his good nature. This however happened but seldom; he was incapable of deliberately hurting any living creature, either by word or deed. His purse was open to every application, and to many person, especially artists, he was liberal beyond what might be expected from his fortune. Few of those with whom he was intimate, but at some period have had to acknowledge favours conferred in the most obliging manner.

He bore a tedious illness with fortitude and resignation. Without expressing any impatience, he viewed the progress of his disorder, which he early discovered was a dangerous one; and saw life recede from his grasp without any unmanly repining. He continued his literary pursuits, and received his friends, until a few hours of his dissolution, which took place the 24th April 1799; and, a few days later, his remains were interred in the family vault at Finchley.