1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Lyttelton

John Nichols, in Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 6:457-67.



This excellent Nobleman, the eldest son of Sir Thomas Lyttelton of Hagley in Worcestershire, bart. was born in 1709; and educated at Eton; where he was so much distinguished, that his exercises were recommended as models to his school-fellows. From Eton he went to Christ Church; where he retained the same reputation of superiority, and displayed his abilities to the publick in a Poem on Blenheim. He was a very early Writer, both in Verse and Prose. His "Progress of Love," and his "Persian Letters," were both written when he was very young.

He stayed not long at Oxford; for in 1728 he began his travels, and visited France and Italy. When he returned, he obtained a seat in Parliament, for the borough of Oakhampton (on the death of Mr. Northmore), in 1735; and continued their Representative till he was made a Peer; and soon distinguished himself among the most eager opponents of Sir Robert Walpole, though his father, who was one of the Lords of the Admiralty, always voted with the Court. For many years the name of George Lyttelton was seen in every account of every debate in the House of Commons. He opposed the Standing Army; he opposed the Excise; he supported the motion for petitioning the King to remove Walpole.

The Prince of Wales, being (1737) driven from St. James's, kept a separate Court, and opened his arms to the Opponents of the Ministry. Mr. Lyttelton was made his Secretary, and was supposed to have great influence in the direction of his conduct. He persuaded his Master, whose business it was now to be popular, that he would advance his character by Patronage. Mallet was made undersecretary, and Thomson had a pension. For Thomson he always retained his kindness, and was able at last to place him at ease. Moore courted his favour by an apologetical poem, called "The Trial of Selim," for which he was paid with kind words, which, as is common, raised great hopes, that at last were disappointed. He now stood in the first rank of Opposition; and Pope, who was incited, it is not easy to say how, to increase the clamour against the Ministry, commended him among the other Patriots. This drew upon him the reproaches of Mr. Fox, who, in the House, imputed to him as a crime his intimacy with a Lampooner so unjust and licentious. Lyttelton supported his friend, and replied, "that he thought it an honour to be received into the familiarity of so great a Poet."

While he was thus conspicuous, he married (1741) Miss Lucy Fortescue, sister to Lord Fortescue, of Devonshire, by whom he had a son Thomas (afterwards the second Lord Lyttelton), and two daughters, and with whom he appears to have lived in the highest degree of connubial felicity. "But human pleasures are short; she died in childbed, about six years afterwards (1747), and he solaced his grief by writing a long Poem to her memory; without however condemning himself to perpetual solitude and sorrow; for soon after he sought to find the same happiness again, in a second marriage, with the daughter of Sir Robert Rich (1749); but the experiment was unsuccessful."

But to return to his political life. After a long struggle, Walpole gave way, and honour and profit were distributed among his conquerors. Lyttelton was made (1744) one of the Lords of the Treasury; and from that time was engaged in supporting the schemes of the Ministry. Politicks did not, however, so much engage him, as to withhold his thoughts from things of more importance. He had, in the pride of juvenile confidence, with the help of corrupt conversation, entertained doubts of the truth of Christianity; but he thought the time now come when it was no longer fit to doubt or believe by chance, and applied himself seriously to the great question. His studies, being honest, ended in conviction. He found that Religion was true; and what he had learned he endeavoured to teach (1747), by "Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul;" a treatise to which, as Dr. Johnson remarks, "Infidelity has never been able to fabricate a specious answer." This Book his Father had the happiness of seeing, and expressed his pleasure in a letter which deserves to be inserted, and must have given to such a Son a pleasure more easily conceived than described: "I have read your Religious Treatise with infinite pleasure and satisfaction. The style is fine and clear, the arguments close, cogent, and irresistible. May the King of Kings, whose glorious cause you have so well defended, reward your pious labours; and grant that I may be found worthy, through the merits of Jesus Christ, to be an eye-witness of that happiness which I don't doubt he will bountifully bestow upon you!

Her speech was the melodious voice of love,
Her song the warbling of the vernal grove.
Her eloquence was sweeter than her song,
Soft as her heart, and as her reason strong
Her form each beauty of her mind exprest,
Her mind was Virtue by the Graces drest.

In the mean time, I shall never cease glorifying God, for having endowed you with such useful talents, and given me so good a son.
Your affectionate Father,
THOMAS LYTTELTON."

A few years afterwards (1751), by the death of his Father, he inherited a Baronet's title, with a large estate, which, though perhaps he did not augment, he was careful to adorn, by a house of great elegance and expence, and by great attention to the decoration of his park. As he continued his exertions in Parliament, he was gradually advancing his claim to profit and preferment; and accordingly was made, in 1754, Cofferer and Privy-counsellor. This place he exchanged next year for the great office of Chancellor of the Exchequer; an office, however, that required some qualifications which he soon perceived himself to want.

The year after, his curiosity led him into Wales; of which he has given an account, perhaps rather with too much affectation of delight, to Archibald Bower, a man of whom he had conceived an opinion more favourable than he seems to have deserved, and whom, having once espoused his interest and fame, he never was persuaded to disown.

About this time he published his "Dialogues of the Dead," which were very eagerly read, though the production rather, as it seems, of leisure than of study, rather effusions than compositions.

When, in the latter part of the last Reign, the inauspicious commencement of the war made the dissolution of the Ministry unavoidable, Sir George Lyttelton, losing his employment with the rest, was recompensed with a Peerage (1757); and rested from political turbulence in the House of Lords.

His last literary production was, "The History of Henry the Second, 1764," elaborated by the researches and deliberations of twenty years, and published with the greatest anxiety. The story of this publication is remarkable. The whole Work was printed twice over, a great part of it three times, and many sheets four or five times. The Booksellers paid for the first impression; but the charges and repeated operations of the press were at the expence of the Author, whose ambitious accuracy, to my knowledge, cost him at least a thousand pounds.

He began to print the Work in 1755. Three Volumes appeared in 1764, a second edition of them in 1767, a third edition in 1768, and the conclusion in 1771-2. Andrew Reid, a man not without considerable abilities, and not unacquainted with letters or with life, undertook to persuade the Noble Author, as he had persuaded himself, that he was master of the secret of punctuation; and, as fear begets credulity, he was employed, I know not at what price, to point the pages of "Henry the Second." The Book was at last pointed and printed, and sent into the world. His Lordship took money for his copy, of which, when he had paid the pointer, he probably gave the rest away; for he was very liberal to the indigent.

When Time brought the History to a third edition, Reid was either dead or discarded; and the superintendence of typography and punctuation was committed to a man originally a comb-maker, but then known by the style of Dr. Saunders [a Scotch LL.D.] Something uncommon was probably expected, and something uncommon was at last done; for to the edition of Dr. Saunders is appended, what the world had hardly seen before, a list of errors of nineteen pages.

But to Politicks and Literature there must be an end. Lord Lyttelton had never the appearance of a strong or of a healthy man; he had a slender uncompacted frame, and a meagre face: he lasted, however, above sixty years, and then was seized with his last illness. Of his death a very affecting and instructive account has been given by his Physician, Dr. Johnson of Kidderminster.

His Lordship was buried at Hagley; and the following inscription is cut on the side of his Lady's monument:

"This unadorned stone was placed here
by the particular desire and express directions
of the late Right Honourable GEORGE Lord LYTTELTON,
who died August 22, 1773, aged 64."

The Poetry of Lord Lyttelton, first published in the Quarto Volume of his "Miscellanies," was selected by a Friend of Mr. James Dodsley, from a Folio Volume of that Nobleman's MSS. which contained a considerable number more than have appeared in print.

His Lordship's Prose Writings consist of,

"Letters from a Persian in England to his Friend at Ispahan;" in imitation of Montesquieu, 1735, 8vo.

"Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul," 1747.

"Dialogues of the Dead. 1760," 8vo; of which a Fourth Edition, with "Two additional Dialogues," appeared in 1763.

"History of Henry the Second," 3 vols. 4to, 1767 and 1771-9.

"Observations on the Life of Cicero, and on the Roman History."

"Observations on the present State of Affairs at Home and Abroad."

"Letters to Sir Thomas Lyttelton."

"Two Letters to Mr. Bower, giving an Account of a Journey into Wales."

Two Letters to Mr. Boswell, in the London Chronicle, May 11, 1769.

Four Speeches in Parliament, in 1747, 1751, 1753, and 1763; and some of the Papers, it has been said, in "Common Sense."