1799 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Merry

Anonymous, "Biographical Notice of Robert Merry" Monthly Magazine 7 (April 1799) 255-58.



Letters, both public and private, received from America, about a month ago, brought intelligence that Robert Merry died suddenly an the 24th of December, at Baltimore, in Maryland, of an apoplectic disorder, induced, as is apprehended, from a plethora and a want of due exercise.

The latter part of the life of this deservedly admired man, so far as it attracts the notice of the biographer, exhibits two colourings of nearly equal strength: viz. the poetical and political. The preceding, after his introduction into the world, was tinctured with extravagance and dissipation; vices too general and fashionable at that period, to allow a lively turn and pliant disposition to be secure from their infection.

His father had acquired more than a comptency by trade, and had a relish for its advantages and profits: but the aunt of our young hero, had sentiments of a loftier cast, and she prevailed on her brother to allow her to prescribe the regimen for her nephew's education. This proposal, which could not but be agreeable to puerile ambition, was no less readily acquiesced in by the father, from a well poised consideration of interest; and the first foundation of the gentleman, in young Merry, was laid by that great literary character Dr. Parr. From the Doctor he went to Christ College, Oxford, where he made an intimate acquaintance, which, at one time, was thought might have greatly aided his advancement in life. This acquaintance, however, did not ripen into the expected fruit; probably for want of cultivation.

The profession of divinity and law were canvassed by Mr. Merry's relations in order to make a choice for him. But as he was not grave enough in countenance for the parson, it was resolved, he should be a lawyer; and he accordingly entered a student of Lincoln's-Inn. Why this line was not pursued does not appear; as on the death of his father he purchased a commission in the horse-guards; and entered into that corps at a period when it was difficult to decide whether its devotion to the rosy god, and cyprian goddess, did not outdo its zeal in the service of Bellona. And gracefully

—to entwine,
The myrtle of Venus with Bacchus's vine,

was as favourable a recommendation to the officers of that mess, as any perfection in exercise could be to a martinet general. It is sufficient to say, that this young, this handsome recruit, was introduced to, and drilled by Captain Otgar and Co. and it must be acknowledged that a more "dashing squad" could not be found in any of the king's dominions.

A military life, however it might for awhile gratify the youthful vanity of our hero, did not long engage his heart.

To gain distinction as a soldier, a man must love the profession; he must give himself wholly up to it, as an art and science: this, cornet Merry could not do, and therefore he had no hope of ever attaining to an eminence in the career. A lieutenancy and adjutancy were the highest commissions he ever held in the army, and these he disposed of with the resolution to travel on the continent.

Like the bees on Hybla's banks our rover tasted of every sweet within his reach: but Florence chiefly engaged his attention, not to say his affection. The charms of a well known lady of quality fascinated his eyes, penetrated his heart, and for a time fixed him to the spot. Italy, in his mind, surpassed all countries under heaven for realising the pleasures of the imagination. And it might perhaps better become the vivid pen of an Ovid, than the cooler one of an historian, or writer of a memoir, to dwell on the voluptuous scenes in which he was so favoured an actor. As the lady was a married woman, delicacy forbids us to hint at what might be the probable consequences of those intimacies between the English Eneas and the Italian Dido. The discussion alone might lead, if not to the interruption of private happiness, at least to the suspicion, that the laws of primogeniture do not, in all cases, answer the intention of their framers. Let us therefore throw a veil over the picture which gives rise to such painful and scrutinising ideas. The inquisitive after records of gallantry may seek them on the spot. The waters of the gilded Po and white stream Tibris have often reflected the lovers images, and the banks of the swifter Arno, and all the haunts of voluptuousness with which that region of delights abounds, have heard their vows. Whither the first of these rivers, so famed of old for extinguishing the ambition of a Phaeton, contributed to quench the flame of our hero, or whether sober reason took its turn to reign, we find literature began to exercise its wonted ascendancy over his enlightened mind.

Sensual pleasures had never so wholly possessed him as not to allow him leisure for intellectual improvement. By the engagingness of his manners, and the influence of the connexion spoken of, he had made on acquaintance with several persons, natives as well as foreigners, distinguished as literati in the circles of fashion. He was elected a member of the celebrated Academy Della Crusca, and was easily persuaded to engage with several of his country folks of both sexes in the Florentine Miscellany, printed under the eye and superintendence of the judicious and learned Mrs. Piozzi. While wit and taste were thus publicly diffused through the elegant part of the world, private scandal did not want for publishers. Tales were circulated, which, according to the late and learned Lord Mansfield's doctrine, could not fail to be deemed great libels. And these becoming every day more current, failed not to give great uneasiness to the enamorato as well as to his friends. Mr. Merry's indignation at the authors of these reports, which he found among his collaborators, urged him to take up the pen of satire in revenge. He employed it in ridiculing the greater part of the circle, and in some measure occasioned its breaking up. This incident hastened Mr. Merry's return to his native country, and gives a proper occasion to speak of his poetical taste and acquirements. That the subject of our memoir possessed a lively imagination, that he spoke the language of passion, every one who had the happiness to know him must bear witness; what is there then to wonder it that he afterwards appeared to capable of expressing himself in regular, in harmonious numbers? He had the qualities of a poet by nature. The company he had kept, the countries he had visited, the books he had read, all conspired to give those qualities every external aid. The approbation his first essays in the art experienced, fully justified the great expectation formed of his future productions. Many of his pieces have been rather impromptu flights to Parnassus, than studied compositions. They show, however, the author's powers, and while they give pleasure to the present age they will not fail so secure him the admiration of posterity. Of his beautiful verses and fugitive pieces published in the World, under the title Della Crusca, &c. it is unnecessary to speak; they are fresh in every one's memory. Of his satryrical and witty epigrams published in the Argus, under the signature of Tom Thorne it is equally needless to make mention. During the last months of that paper's existence, it might be truly said, a certain ROSE was never without a THORNE.

As a specimen of the keenness of our poet's epigrammatic wit, we give the few following instances.

THE LONDON ROSE.
The ROSE is called the first of flow'rs
In all the rural shades and bow'rs;
But O! in London 'tis decreed,
The ROSE is but a DIRTY WEED.
TOM THORNE.

ANOTHER.
THE HOT-HOUSE ROSE.
From genial heat, the HOT-HOUSE ROSE
Expands and blushes, thrives and blows,
But the poor ROSE will fade and rot
Whene'er the House becomes too HOT.

A THIRD,
ON ANOTHER SUBJECT.
When truth her rending scourge applies,
The HIRELINGS roar with streaming eyes;
They crowd together and complain,
They cannot bear so GREAT A PAINE.

Upon a ministerial newspaper affixing his adopted signature to some verses of a very different nature and tendency, he wrote the following

IMPROMPTU.
The SLAVISH PRINT, that's dead to shame,
In fury for departed fame,
Has even robb'd me of my name:
Alas! my nose is out of joint;
Yet what's a TH0RNE without a point?

But these brilliant effusions like the cutting epigrams of Horace (which author our's so much resembled in indolence, and the love of refined pleasures); or like the satires of the last of the Roman poets, must in time lose their value, when the occasions which gave them birth are forgotten, however animated and well directed they might have been at the period they were written.

These jeux d'esprits are offered as proofs of his fancy and ready wit only. For his judgement and skill in versification we refer the reader to the reviewers of his works as they appeared; as well as to "Literary Memoirs of living Authors." His connexion with several persons concerned in dramatic affairs, possessed him with the idea of writing for the stage. He was not superficial enough to succeed in this walk. He disdained to sacrifice judgment to perverted taste, and therefore was not calculated to please a vitiated palate. His tragedy of Lorenzo, represented at Covent Garden house, and his Magician no Conjuror; while they prove his various turn of mind equally manifest to those who knew the writer, that he was biassed to the undertaking without due consideration.

His native fire flames out in his odes. Some of these give room to think that had he employed himself chiefly in the lyric species of poetry, he might have filled a most honourable place between Pindar and Horace. In confirmation of which assertion reference may be had to the odaic song he wrote for the fourteenth of July, the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille, and which was repeated in full chorus, with to much applause, in the year 1791, at the Crown and Anchor tavern.

The Laurel of Liberty he wrote also, and presented it to the National Convention who did honour to the author by the manner in which it was received.

He had one of those susceptible minds, to which the genius of liberty instantaneously communicated all its enthusiasm, all its fire. He gazed with rapture on the sudden and promisingly beneficial change of condition in so many millions of his fellow creatures. He would be a spectator of the scene; and accordingly in the summer of 1792, he visited Paris. While in that city, and under the invitation given by the French legislature to all foreigners, to favour them with their sentiments on the erecting a free constitution; he wrote a short treatise in English, on the nature of free government. It was translated into French by Mr. Madget , and presented in the same manner as the Laurel of Liberty to the National Convention: "honourable mention" being made of it on their journals.

When Mr. Merry was making his tour in Italy, and especially while surveying that famous city, once the mistress of the world, and still the repertory of all the great models of the fine arts; he met with David the celebrated French painter, who had repaired there with the view of further improvement. He had now in Paris an opportunity of renewing this acquaintance with his old friend, who had laid aside the pallet and taken upon himself he duties of a legislator. By David he was introduced to several members of the Legislative Assembly and of the Convention, and it was to this friendship he was indebted for a passport to return home when so many Englishmen applied for them in vain.

R. Merry was in Paris on the memorable 10th of August, when the Parisians stormed the Royal Palace. He was there also on 3rd and 4th of September, of the same year, those "dies atri" of that season of the revolution. He had a ticket presented to him, and a seat reserved for him in one of the lodges of the convention, now erected into a national tribunal, had he chosen to be present at the trial of the king; but he declined the offer; and it may be said of him with great truth, that however he approved of the principles of the French revolution, he turned his face from all the violences with which it was attended in its progress. Revolution upon revolution greatly affected his sensibility; for though he was robust of frame, his nerves did not correspond with his muscular strength. Thus alarmed he quitted the scene of sanguinary contention, although there were many of both parties and those of high consideration, willing to shew him every civility in their power.

Mr. Merry had always been a bon vivant; he had also a turn for play, and this with other fashionable propensities kept him for several years in an embarrassed state; so that it is difficult to say whether at this period his inattention to money affairs had made him more the prey of unsatisfied creditors or of unprincipled lawyers.

Upon his marriage with the celebrated actress Miss Brunton, a prospect opened to him of living at his ease, by the joint production of that lady's talents and his own pen; but unfortunately the pride of those relations upon whom he had most dependence, was wounded by the alliance, and he was constrained much against Mrs. Merry's inclination to take her from the stage. This he did as soon as her engagement at the theatre expired, which was in the spring of 1792. They both returned from the continent in the summer of 1793 (for Mrs. Merry had accompanied him to France), and from that date they cannot be said to have formed any settled plan, unless their retiring to America in 1796 may be so considered. Occasionally in the above interval Mr. Merry wrote for a periodical paper; and some of the best poetry in the Telegraph was the production of his pen. His Signior Pittachio, written at this period, must ever be deemed a most happy production of keen satire, unsurpassed by any thing in ancient or modern times. No minister in any age had been so ridiculed before. But our author had seen that the thunder of reason and truth had been as ineffectually tried to change the state of affairs, as his squibs of satire and ridicule; he therefore began to think of seeking in a distant country what he despaired of ever finding in this. He was not long in resolving. He snatched up a pen and wrote partly in tears, partly in ink, an adieu to his native land. these affecting lines are in print, and the occasion and subject of them are fresh in the minds of his dearest friends to whom upon his taking leave he said, in the words of Oroonoko.

—This last farewel,
Be sure of one thing that will comfort us,
Whatever world we are next thrown upon,
Cannot be worse than this.

Considering this a mere sketch of a life in what is called the "grande monde;" we have not touched upon any of the incidents of our hero's early age. Trifling as they may be thought by some persons, they will no doubt one day engage the pen of some abler hand, who shall undertake fully to satisfy public curiosity, by prefixing his whole life to a collection of his classical works.

Having been born in London, his fond aunt was afraid the country air might be too severe for the young cockney's tender frame, he was therefore never carried abroad unless wrapt in furs or other equally warm clothing. Notwithstanding all which, he appeared luckily to have escaped the dangers which J. J. Rousseau describes the children of great personages to undergo from too much parental fondness.

In a letter to a friend after his arrival in the new world, he speaks of the sublime emotions with which his soul was filled by the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. He said he had thoughts of beginning an epic poem on the French revolution. Perhaps he waited for its happy termination ere he could finally resolve on the plan of so great a work. His residence in America, is said to have considerably changed his disposition which was naturally lively. He found neither the politics, nor the people of the United States, to be what he had expected. He however derived all the comforts he could desire from the society of an affectionate wife, whom he dearly loved. Her good sense and regard for his welfare, made her not hesitate to accept of the offers made to her in the way of her profession, and she acquitted herself in America as in England, to universal admiration. Upon the melancholy death of her husband, she resolved to return to Europe, and her arrival in London is hourly expected.

Mr. Merry was in his forty first year when he died. He was of a genteel figure, inclined to corpulency, his height about five feet ten inches. His countenance expressed uncommon amenity and animation — the true index to his mind. He was a most agreeable companion, and although he enjoyed the glass, it was for the sake of company. His excess at table, if any, is more chargeable to the score of eating than of drinking, though after all, it is to be presumed his constitutional or habitual disinclination to bodily exercise, is the thing to be most regretted as the cause of his premature death.

In America, his loss is greatly deplored by many of the most enlightened inhabitants. In England, it is more so by a numerous acquaintance, who have long admired his talents, and esteemed his virtues. He was a cheerful and entertaining companion; his mind was as well stored with poetical images as his judgment was prompt to call them forth; on which account he was never at a loss for an elegant and apt simile, no more than for a pun or a jest. He had his moments of gravity also, and it might be said of him, as it has been of another literary character gone before him, that "no man ever uttered a moral sentiment with more dignity, or dressed gay one in more happy colouring."

He could reason or trifle just as it suited the occasion or the company. He was always generous, though never rich, and his compassion for the distresses of others, has often been manifest to a great degree, by sharing with them what was scarcely sufficient for his own wants. He had many excellent and enviable qualities, and though resentful to a high degree, that resentment was unaccompanied by malice. His irascible temper was most discernible when he beheld the vicious in splendour, and rapacious in security. Against such characters, his shafts could never be sufficiently pointed and envenomed: and it may be said of him on such occasions, as Scaliger said of the Roman satyrist, "Ardet, instat, jugulat."

On the score of religion, Mr. Merry has been taunted at by the bigots of the age. This is a matter which wholly concerned himself; we have nothing to do with it. That he had singular opinions cannot be denied; and if he did not shew the same abhorrence many do, to the doctrines of Diagoras, Pythagoras and other heathens, it may be said for him as the first of those philosophers said for himself, that his want of faith was chiefly caused by the evidence of the successes of so many perjured men.

Whether the new world inspired him with new notions concerning religion, we are not able to say; but with regard to politics, his sentiments were stabile as the foundation of the universe: for upon a learned friend asking him on his arrival, whether his opinions were the same as when he saw him last in England, he replied — "Coelum non animum mutant, qui trans mare currunt."