This amiable man and agreeable writer was of a good family, which has for a long series of years been possessed of considerable property. By one of his works it appears that he was descended from Sir George Hungerford, his great grandfather, by Lady Frances Ducie, only daughter of Francis Lord Seymour, Baron of Trowbridge. He was born, as way be conjectured, about the year 1729 or 1730. and received his education at Kingston school, under the Rev. Mr. Woodeson. From thence he went to Geneva, where he resided some years; and, during his stay there, became acquainted with Voltaire, with whom he continued to correspond many years after he returned to England. After finishing the tour of Europe, he settled as a student in the Inner Temple, was called to the bar, and sometimes attended Westminster-hall; though he did not meet with encouragement enough to induce his perseverance in his profession, nor indeed does it seem probable that he had sufficient application for it. His first performance was Ancient and Modern Rome, a poem, written at Rome in the year 1755, printed in the year 1760, and received with considerable applause. The next year he published A Short Account of the Ancient History, present Government, and Laws of the Republic of Geneva, 8vo. This work was compiled during the Author's residence at Geneva; is a very useful one; and is dedicated to Monsieur de Voltaire; to whom he says, "When I reflect that it was in this Republic, whose government I have attempted to describe, that I was first introduced to your acquaintance; when memory renews the hours of social mirth and refined entertainment which your hospitality and conversation afforded me; I cannot but rejoice in this occasion of expressing my gratitude: proud that as your friendship distinguished the author of these pages in a foreign country, your name may at home adorn his labour." It was at one time the intention of Voltaire to translate this account into French, though he afterwards relinquished the design.
The next year, 1762, he produced an Epistle from Lady Jane Gray to Lord Guildford Dudley, and in 1763, The Alps a poem; the subject of which comprehends all that chain of mountains, known under the general name of the Alps, extending from Italy to Germany, and from France to Tyrol, by whatever denomination they are particularly distinguished. Of all the poetical works of Mr. Keate, this is entitled to the highest praise for truth of description, elegance of versification, and vigour of imagination.
Continuing to employ the press, he in 1764 published Netley Abbey, which he afterwards, in 1769, enlarged and reprinted, and, in 1765, produced The Temple Student, an Epistle to a Friend; humourously rallying his own want of application in the study of the law, his preference to the belles lettres, and his consequent want of success in the pursuit of it. The death of Mrs. Cibber in 1766, whose merits as an actress he entertained the highest opinion of, gave occasion to a poem to her memory, which celebrates her excellent performances on the stage, and laments the loss the Theatre would sustain by her death.
In February 1769, he married Miss Hudson; and about the same time published Ferney; an Epistle to Monsieur de Voltaire. In this poem, after praising with energy the various beauties of his friend's poetical works, he introduced the following panegyric on Shakspeare:
Yes! jealous wits may still for Empire strive,
Still keep the flames of critic rage alive:
Our SHAKSPEARE yet shall all his rights maintain,
And crown the triumphs of Eliza's reign.
Above controul, above each classic rule,
His tut'ress Nature, and the world his school,
On soaring pinions borne, to him was giv'n
Th' aerial range of Fancy's brightest Heav'n;
To bid wrapt thought o'er noblest heights aspire,
And wake each passion with a muse of fire.
Revere his genius. To the dead he just,
And spare the laurels that o'ershade the dust.
Low sleeps the Bard, in cold obstruction laid,
Nor asks the chaplet from a rival's head.
O'er the drear vault, ambition's utmost bound,
Unheard shall Fame her airy trumpet sound!
Unheard alike; nor grief nor transport raise,
The blast of censure, or the note of praise!
As Raphael's own creation grac'd his hearse,
And sham'd the pomp of ostentatious verse,
Shall Shakspeare's honours by himself be paid.
And Nature perish ere his pictures fade.
It is imagined, that in consequence of this eulogium, Mr. Keate, in June this year, was complimented by the Mayor and Burgesses of Stratford with a standish, mounted with silver, made out of the famous Mulberry tree planted by Shakspeare. In 1773, he published The Monument in Arcadia, a dramatic poem, built on the picture of Poussin, mentioned by Abbe du Bos, in his Critical Reflections on Poetry and Painting.
In 1779, Mr. Keate produced one of his most successful works, entitled, Sketches from Nature; taken and coloured in a Journey to, Margate; 2 vols. 12mo. This performance, allowing it to be, as it really is, an imitation of Sterne's Sentimental Journey; yet contains so many pleasing delineations of life, to many strokes of humour, and to much elegance of composition, that few will hesitate to give it the preference to any other of Sterne's imitators.
In 1781, he collected his poetical works in 2 vols. 12mo. and added several new pieces not before printed. The principal of these was The Helvetiad, a fragment, written at Geneva in the year 1756. In the preface to this performance, he gives the following account of it: "During a long stay I many years since made at Geneva, I visited most of the principal places in Switzerland. The many sublime scenes with which Nature hath enriched this romantic country; the tranquillity and content with which every individual enjoys his property; and, above all, that independence of mind which is ever the result of liberty, animated me with such veneration for the first authors of that freedom, whose figures are recorded to posterity either by sculpture or painting in the public parts of the towns through those little states, that my enthusiasm betrayed me into a design of writing a poem on this singular revolution; the argument of which I had divided into ten cantos, beginning the work with the oppressions of the House of Austria, and closing it with the battle of MONGARTEN; by which those injured people finally renounced its usurpation, and formed among themselves those various confederacies that ended in the great union and alliance of the present thirteen Cantons. When I had settled the whole plan of this work, I occasionally, as I found a disposition in myself, took up any part the poem which at the moment most invited my thoughts: and enjoying at this time such an intercourse with Monsieur de Voltaire as afforded me a constant access to him, I acquainted him with my intention; shewing him the argument I had drawn out for the conduct of the whole design. He kept it a few days; and, in returning it, told me that he thought the great object of the piece, the episodes connected with the history, together with the scenery of the country, presented subject matter whereon to form a fine poem; but the time (added he) which such an undertaking will require, I would rather counsel you to employ on subjects that might more engage the public attention; for should you devote yourself to the completion of your present design, the Swiss would be much obliged to you, without being able to read you, and the rest of the world care little about the matter." Feeling the force and justness of the remark, Mr. Keate laid aside his plan, and probably never resumed it. In the same year, 1731, he published An Epistle to Angelica Kauffman.
A few years after he became engaged in a long and vexatious lawsuit, in consequence of the neglect (to say the least of it) of an architect who professed himself to he his friend; the particulars of which it is of no importance to detail. At the conclusion of the business he shewed that his good humour had not forsaken him: and in 1787 he gave to the public the principal circumstances of his case in a performance, entitled, The Distressed Poet, a serio-comic Poem, in three Cantos, 4to. with some pleasantry, and without any acrimony.
In the next year, 1788, the last of his productions appeared; and the composition was very honourable to his talents and his liberality. In 1782, the Antelope packet was shipwrecked on the Pelew Islands, where the Commander, Captain Wilson and his crew lived some time before they could get off. The circumstances attending this extraordinary deliverance having been communicated to Mr. Keate, he offered to draw up the narrative of them for the advantage of his friend Captain Wilson. This he executed in An Account of the Pelew Islands, situated in the Western Part of the Pacific Ocean: composed from the journals and Communications of Captain Henry Wilson and some of his officers, who in August 1783 were there shipwrecked, in the Antelope, a Packet belonging to the Honourable East India Company, 4to. a work written with great elegance, compiled with much care, and which, if embellished (as it has been insinuated) with facts better calculated to have found a place in a novel than a genuine narrative, must be ascribed to the misinformation of those who were actors in the scene, and must first have deceived before they obtained credit. We mention this report as it has come to us, without any attempt either to establish or refute it. We shall only add, that if the charge is well founded, Mr. Keate (who undertook the task on the most disinterested principle, and derived no advantage whatever from the work) was too sturdy a moralist to have had any hand in the imposition.
Besides the pieces already mentioned, Mr. Keate was the author of many Prologues and Epilogues, spoken at Mr. Newcomb's school at Hackney; and some complimentary verses by him are to be found in the preceding Volumes of our Magazine: these, however are not of sufficient importance to be enumerated. He had alto adapted his friend Voltaire's Semiramis to the stage; but this was superseded in 1777, at Drury Lane, by a worthless translation of as worthless an author, one Captain Ayscough; but neither this nor the author are deserving of my further notice.
We shall conclude by observing, that Mr. Keate, passed without any vicissitudes of fortune: he inherited an ample, estate, which he did not attempt to increase otherwise than by those attentions which prudence dictated in the management of it. He was hospitable and beneficent, and possessed the good will of mankind in a very eminent degree. For the last year or two, his health visibly declined; but on the day he died, he appeared to be somewhat mended. His death was sudden, on the 27th of June 1797. He left one daughter, married in 1796 to John Henderson, Esq. of the Adelphi. At the time of his death, Mr. Keate was a Bencher of the Temple, and a very old Member of the Royal and Antiquary Societies, of both which he had been frequently elected one of the Council.