1803 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Mackenzie

Anonymous, "Mr. Henry Mackenzie, Author of the Man of Feeling, &c. &c." Port Folio [Philadelphia] 3 (11, 18 June 1803) 188-89, 195-96.



Henry Mackenzie, a man eminent by tenderness and elegance of genius, by his love of literature, by diligence and ability in business, and by the attractions of his conversation and manners, was born, as we have been informed, about the year 1746.

His father was Dr. Joshua Mackenzie, of distinguished branch of the ancient family of the Mackenzies of the North of Scotland. He was a gentleman of great worth and benevolence; and died last year, in Edinburgh, at the advanced age of eighty-one.

The gentleman, whose merits are the subject of this memoir, after receiving a liberal education, with the advantages usual in Scotland, chose for his profession to engage in a particular department of the practice of the law; and in the year 1766 became an attorney in the Scottish court of exchequer.

A taste for even the delicacies of the polite literature of France and England had, just about that time, become fashionable in the best society in Scotland. David Hume, Lord Kaimes, Dr. Robertson, and Dr. Adam Smith, had already cultivated history, philosophy, and eloquence, with a success which excited emulation, and in conditions of life from which the same praise might appear desirable to the gentleman, the man of business, and the man of the world, who would have disdained the pedantry of obscure erudition. Macpherson's translation of the remains of Ossian, Home's tragedy of Douglass, and a few other successful pieces in the literature of fancy, had been also produced, from which it began to be supposed, that natives of Scotland, even while permanently resident there, might occasionally excel, not merely in science, learning, and energy of sentiment, but in those compositions which required a skill in all the many changing colours of English phraseology, in the finer diversities of the texture of English style, in those modes of the superficial manners of English life, which form as it were, the colouring and the drapery of our lighter ethical literature, in the art of touching those keys, of giving vibration to those chords, of educing those sweetly wild, yet exquisitely artificial sounds, to which alone the native tones of English passion, and the peculiar energies of English imagination, are wont to awake responsive.

The classics, in particular, of the English and French literature of fiction, were, then, read in Scotland, with incredible fondness but, read as yet only or chiefly by people of fashion. It is with our taste in books, as with our fashions in dress. As the particular form of a headdress, or the particular cut of a coat, however in itself happily elegant and graceful, no sooner descends to the use of the shopkeeper's smart wife, or the beau behind a compter, than it becomes odious to the gay flutterers of high life so, let even a taste for literary amusement become general among the common people — and the great shall he seen, all, to contend with one another for the palm of ignorance but, let any one species of science or literature have just shewn itself in a country as a novelty, and be known as yet only as one of the pleasures or decorations of people in higher life — and you shall see them pursue it with a zeal the most ardent, and a diligence the most persevering. With this advantage in their favour, the works of Le Sage, of Fielding and of Smollett, could not fail to please: they had pleased much in Scotland but the first partiality for them among the more refined order of readers, had already somewhat abated. Comedy in tears, and sentimental novels were, now, the rage. The Tristram Shandy of Sterne, La Nouvelle Heloise by Rousseau, the comedies of Diderot, and still, to a certain degree, the novels of Richardson were the favourite volumes. These, even the unskilful affected highly to admire. Upon these, the public taste was formed. A young man, with a fondness for study, and feeling the first impulse of genius, might, indeed, happen not to have read them; but he could not listen to conversation on any subject related to taste in the literature of fancy, without being taught to think those excellencies for which they were distinguished, the best virtues and graces of whatever was elegant in literary composition.

Genius springs not up, like an Arabian palace of enchantment, in the desart, without the exercise of visible means in its creation. It is not born with that culture and those biasses to which we owe the particular efforts and productions which afterwards distinguish it in the world. One may, therefore, hope to be pardoned in this attempt to trace those circumstances in the state of the literature and taste of the time of Mr. Mackenzie's early youth, by which he was guided to try with such success, those species of writing, which delight to melt the heart with tenderness, to refine the soul to delicate generosity of sentiment, and to divert the fancy with the elegant poignancy of Attic wit.

His first attempts at composition were poetical. He wrote, while very young, many small pieces in verse. And, though of the gentlest and kindest of tempers, he was inticed, probably by desire of the praise of wit, sometimes to try his powers in satire.

Yet, he, even then, appears to have delighted much rather in the tenderness, the simplicity, and the charming freshness of imagery, which belong to the pastoral. His verses took sometimes the form and plaintive tone of the elegy. And, he is known to have tried, also, to accommodate poetry to the ends of ethical disquisition.

From these juvenile attempts in poesy he was soon encouraged to aspire to rival the admired masters in the composition of the sentimental and pathetic novel. In 1768, or perhaps 1769, he wrote, in his hours of leisure from professional employment, that beautiful small piece, the Man of Feeling. It was not, at first, received with the favour due to its merit, by those sagacious booksellers to whom, without any demand of copy-money, he made offer of it for publication. But, this difficulty was, at last, overcome. The book was printed. It came out without the author's name. And it had been but a very short time before the public, when every voice was, to enthusiasm, eager in its praise. The fair, especially, and the young were its passionate admirers.. Never were the native sentiments of uncorrupted youth, represented in a light more enchantingly amiable. It seemed as if the work were by some disciple of Shaftesbury and Hutcheson, accustomed to refer the origin of all our moral ideas to unreasoning but delicately sensible internal feeling: and Harley, the hero of the tale was, as it were, moral sense all over. Rousseau relates, that, when his Nouvelle Heloise was published at Paris, the ladies of that capital supposed the adventures of St. Preux to have been those of the author himself; and were, to such a degree, enraptured with the charming man, that he might probably have succeeded in an intrigue with any one of them, to whom he should have chosen to offer his addresses. The virtue of the ladies of Edinburgh would be exceedingly disgraced by comparison with the amorous facility, ascribed to those of Paris. Nor was the virtuous sensibility of Harley to be compared with the ardent sensuality of St. Preux. But, we believe, the same fancy that the adventures of Harley were those of the author of the Man of Feeling himself; and a similar partiality to a being so tender of heart, endowed with moral sympathies so exquisitely fine, and so delicately good; were extremely common, for a while, among the female readers of Mr. Mackenzie's novel.

Since the names of La Nouvelle Heloise, and of St. Preux, have been here mentioned; one is naturally tempted to add, without meaning any insinuation adverse to the idea of the originality of Mackenzie's genius; that the character and adventures of Harley have been said to be imitated from those of the hero of Rousseau's novel, with a freedom and deviation, indeed, which almost create an original, yet with a resemblance sufficient to indicate what model the writer had in his eye. Harley is St. Preux in all but the fire of genius and of passion. Instead of the glowing sensuality of the hero of the French novel, he is refined to a sainted or angel purity of soul. He reasons little he needs not to be guided by the cold precepts of reason: he has moral sensibility to keep him ever amiably in the right: but then, his moral sensibility is alive even to degree of morbid delicacy and tremulous feebleness. His adventures are such as tend to shew his character in all the lights necessary to make us see it fully and distinctively. He is educated in retirement: he comes to town, and there visits some remarkable scenes, and has a part in some striking incidents: he returns to the country, and after languishing a while in love which he dares not tell, expires in a joy too great not to overpower his feebleness at the very moment when he learns that his love would not be unreturned. All the imagery and incidents of the piece accord with the cast and spirit of the principal character. They are delicately tender, and they are adapted to touch the springs of tenderness in the heart. The author delights in the detail of minute imagery; and he knows to make that exquisitely interesting which would be, in other hands, trivial and insipid. In a work with such beauties, one forgets all severity of judgment in regard of style. But, the style of the Man of Feeling might defy such severity. It is pure, more pure indeed from Scoticisms than from Gallicisms, sweet, and elegant with dignity, but without pomp.

The author's name remained, for a time, unknown beyond the circle of his private friends. But, in England as in Scotland, it was thought that he must, certainly, be the most amiable of men; and the ladies in particular, were anxiously desirous to learn — who in the world it might be? A Mr. Eccles, a young Irish clergyman, became, amidst these circumstances, ambitious to usurp the praise of it. For some purpose, whether of love, of interest, or of mere vanity, he was, it seems, capable of taking the pains to transcribe the whole work, and even of marking his manuscript with erasures and interlineations, to give it an air of being that copy, in which the author had wrought the last polish on his piece, before transcribing it for the press. The manuscript was found among that gentleman's papers, after his death; and had, for a time, the effect to excite among persons, who were not better informed, the persuasion for which he seems to have intended it.

The success with which the "Man of Feeling" had been published, encouraged its real author to give, within no long time after, to the world, a poem, under the title of "Pursuits of Happiness," which the writer of this memoir has not happened to read, but which, though not often reprinted, has been much commended by persons well able to judge of its merits.

In the "Man of the World" Mr. Mackenzie next produced a sort of second part to the "Man Of Feeling." It breathes the same tone of exquisite moral delicacy, and of refined sensibility. In his former fiction, the author had imagined a hero who found all the pleasures said all the pains of his life, with all the amiable peculiarities of his character, in constant obedience to every emotion of his moral sense: In the "Man of the World," he exhibited, on the contrary, a person rushing headlong to misery and ruin, and, spreading misery all around him, by pursuing a happiness which he expected to obtain, in defiance of the moral sense. What other system of moral philosophy had ever the advantage of illustrations so elegant, as these volumes afford of that of Hutcheson, and his pupil, Smith? It was not ungraciously received by the public; yet not altogether with that enthusiasm of delight and admiration which the Man of Feeling had commanded. The Man of the World was but the common character of a person sacrificing all better considerations to the headlong pursuit of selfish and sensual pleasure. This character had been often before drawn, and often with a bolder hand, with happier dexterity, with deeper skill. The Man of Feeling though somewhat, perhaps, a-kin to the family of St. Preux and of Yorick, was, however, in many respects, a true original. This difference in nature between these two pieces, might, even alone, enable us so account for the inferiority of the success of the Man of the World. Beside this, however, the manner of the author was no longer new to his readers: and that which wants the charm of absolute novelty, wants what is by much the best of all recommendations to the favour of those at least who are deficient in judgment and taste.

When the late Dr. Samuel Johnson was at Edinburgh, in the excursion which he made to the isles on the west coast of Scotland; the "Man of the World" was, at the house of his friend Mr. Boswell, put in his hands. But Johnson, though his own writings afford indubitable proofs, that he possessed one of the tenderest of human hearts, was very far from being willing to acknowledge an unreasoning moral sense, as the true principle of discrimination between right and wrong, in the mind of man; and he despised or rather abhorred the fashionable whine of sensibility as commonly affected, and very often dangerous. Perceiving, therefore, in the "Man of the World," few original observations on the practice of human life, and nothing in the incidents and passions, that was, at once new and admirably faithful to the truth of nature; he soon threw down these volume with disgust, and spoke with severe and slighting censure of their merits.

Mr. Mackenzie had the fortune to meet Dr. Johnson during, his stay at Edinburgh, at breakfast, one morning in the house of the late amiable Dr. Blacklock. The gentle, modest, and unaffectedly elegant manners of Mr. Mackenzie, avoided all offence to the irritable English philosopher. But, unluckily, after Mr. Mackenzie had gone, Mrs. Blacklock spoke with a zeal in his praise, which excited a sort of conversation-quarrel between her and Johnson. She justly commended Mr. Mackenzie, as joining to tenderness and elegance of genius, the must amiable social virtues; and mentioned, its proof of his filial piety, that his father and he lived still together, in one house, in such harmony, that it were difficult to say, whether the father shewed greater esteem and kindliness for his son, or the son more of reverence and affectionate attachment to his father. "They ought not to live, thus, together, Madam," answered Johnson, roughly. Mrs. Blacklock, much astonished and even shocked, asked, how Dr. Johnson could think so?" — "The son, Madam, having attained the years of manhood and discretion ought to become the master of a family for himself: the order of nature and the uses of society require, that it should be so. If it were the intention of Providence, that parents and their grown-up children should continue to make one family; it would be less rare than we now see that it is, for them to live in harmony together." Even this observation could not reconcile the lady to the idea of making that a subject of reprehension in Mr. Mackenzie, which appeared to her, to be the most amiable quality any young man could possess. In her polite attention to her guest, she soon after asked Dr, Johnson to take another cup of tea; though he had before declined to have any more. "I tell thee, no! woman!" replied Johnson, with fierce rudeness. They parted with mutual irritation. Johnson afterwards remembered the Blacklocks with respect and kindness. But, their gentleness and benevolence had been so much shocked by the roughness of his manners and time harshness of his remarks, that it was at least with no common exercise of christian forbearance and charity, if they were able afterward to think of him with the same benignity of judgment and of wishes which they were accustomed to exercise toward every person else....

Julia de Roubigne, a novel, in letters, is the last work larger in extent than a tale of a few pages, which Mr. Mackenzie has been known to attempt in this way. The fable is not uninteresting: the letters are written with great elegance and propriety of style. But, the sentiments and characters are out of nature; and yet not among those felicities of imagination, for which we are well content to see the limits of nature overleaped. The events are romantically tragic, and not of pleasing example. This piece has been less frequently reprinted than either the "Man of Feeling," or the "Man of the World." Yet, there is in it, much to give delight to a tender and elegant mind, much that might even transport a youthful fancy to a delirium of wild melancholy and love.

He produced a tragedy, under the title of the "Prince of Tunis," which was acted at the Edinburgh Theatre. The representation was repeated with applause for six nights. Mrs. Yates, then at Edinburgh, appeared in the principal female character. — It has never been performed at any of the theatres in London.

In the year 1776, Mr. Mackenzie married Miss Penuel Grant, sister to Sir James Grant, of Grant.

Some years after, he and a few of his friends, who used to meet occasionally, for convivial conversation, at a tavern kept by one Bayll, a Frenchman, projected the publication of a series of papers similar to the Spectator, on morals, manners, taste, and literature. They were united in a club, which had the name of Tabernacle, and were all, or almost all, lawyers. Mr. Mackenzie was at the head of the project. Mr. Craig, Mr. Cullen, Mr. Bannatyne-Macleod, now judges in the supreme courts of Scotland, the late Mr. Abercrombie who died a Judge, Mr. Solicitor-general Blair, and Mr. George Home, clerk of session, agreed to become his coadjutors. The papers were to be published in weekly numbers; and in allusion to the representations which they were to exhibit of human life, sentiments, and manners, it was settled to give them the common title of "The Mirror."

This scheme was carried into effect. The papers were published in weekly numbers, each filling a sheet in folio. The succession was continued for more than two years. The price of a single copy of each number was threepence. About three or four hundred only were sold, in single papers; but this sale, though inconsiderable, served at least to make the whole very advantageously known. The succession of the numbers was no sooner closed, than the whole were republished in three duodecimo volumes. In England, especially, they were now read with great applause. The approbation they received in London, which for such a species of compositions in particular, is the very Athens of modern Europe, seemed to stamp an authority on the praises of those by whom they were commended in Scotland, sufficient to put all censure to silence. As the authors mingled in the highest circles of fashionable and literary life, they wanted not opportunity, while their names remained unknown, to promote the reputation of their work, by many little artifices, which, though perfectly honourable and disingenuous — for, of none else was any of them capable — could not have been equalled used, if they had, from the first, openly avowed it to be theirs. They had the discretion to hide their names from being at all mentioned in relation to it, till its success was complete; and then, the appropriation of the different papers, in a new edition, to those by whom they had been respectively written, served but to renew and augment the public curiosity respecting the whole. They took money for the copy-right; out of which they, first, bestowed an hundred pounds in charity to the Orphan Hospital; and with the rest, purchased all hogshead of claret for the use of the club.

Some years afterwards, conceiving that they had still materials sufficiently fresh and original among them, to furnish out another series of similar papers, they produced, in the same manner, the numbers of the Lounger, which were equally received with favour, at their first appearance; were collected in subsequent editions in duodecimo and octavo; were at last avowed by the authors; and continue still to be read with pleasure wherever the English language is known. Mr. Frazer-Tytler, now Lord Woodhouslie of the court of session, the late Dr. Henry, the historian, Dr. Currie of Liverpool, and some few other correspondents, had furnished contributions, not in great quantity, which were inserted, in the Mirror and Lounger, among the writings of the club.

In attempting to judge of the merits of these two publications, one must begin with owning, that they are but imitations. The imitation of the plan of the Tatlers, Spectators, and Guardians, is, indeed, common to the Mirrors and Loungers, with many other papers of a similar nature. But, I doubt, whether there be any other similar set of papers, that has less than these of originality to boast, in the two great provinces of ethical observations penetrating beyond the mere surface of life, to the general nature of man, and of light airy fictions, illustrative of the familiar manners of society. Of serious morality, they have nothing of which the elements may not be found in the papers of Steele, Addison, Johnson, and Hawkesworth. Their dreams have been dreamed, told, and interpreted before: their visions have been seen by former seers: their letters from feigned characters, are merely echoes their allegorical ironies scarce ever present Humour otherwise than in old clothes which she had before worn threadbare.

It is remarkable, too, that though writing in Scotland, they have written rather of English than of Scottish manners. They probably feared, that, if they should boldly venture to mark the leading features of the manners peculiar to Scottish society; they might by this both excite the offence of that narrow provincial circle in which they moved, and at the time produce a work that would have too much of Scottish in it, to find favour in England. Besides, the spirit in which they wrote, seems to have been too much a merely imitative one, to take full advantage of those circumstances favourable to originality, in which their design was executed.

A few of the papers of the Mirror and Lounger, are on topics of metaphysical criticism, and metaphysical disquisition, on subjects in the law of nature and nations, such as was then much studied in the Scottish universities. In these, the authors are seldom happy. These essays want precision, from the attempt to give them popular ease and looseness: they are obscure, from the impossibility of rendering ideas so abstract and refined, at once popular and familiar: they are incomplete, because the limits of the papers did not permit them to be extended to the requisite length: and they are often even otherwise of little value, because the opinions in them seem to have been hastily taken up, slightly considered, and often not very clearly and definitely apprehended, even by the writers themselves. From this censure are, however, to be excepted, the papers on Dreaming, by Dr. Beattie of Aberdeen, which seem, indeed, to be the pride of that philosopher's writings.

In the pathetic, and in delicate Addisonian humour, consists the chief power of these papers: and, in these two species, they cannot he denied to present many instances of uncommon excellence. The tale of the death of La Roche, which aims to convert the deist by the mere force of sensibility, is certainly one of the most tender and affecting which man can reach. The letters signed Homespun, are equal in merit, to perhaps the best of Addison's similar papers in the "Spectator," or of those by Chesterfield in the "World." Hawkesworth's tales in the "Adventurer," may perhaps be thought to excel those of the Mirror and Lounger, in the pathos of general effect, resulting from the common power of character, incidents, sentiments, and general design. But, in that pathetic, which depends on the minute display of tender and picturesque imagery, the writers of the Mirror and Lounger are unrivalled by those of any other collection of periodical papers. Nor, though there be a greater profusion of wit, and that more poignant, in the papers of the "World" and the "Connoisseur," should we think of comparing even these papers with those of the Scottish writers, in respect to that delicacy, that elegant felicity of wit and humour, which is the most envied praise of Horace and of Addison.

It must, indeed, be owned, of the Mirror and Lounger that they wear very much the air of having been written by men of fashion. The colloquial phraseology which occurs in them, is not only, in general, pure, but is also that of elegant, rather than of mean or pedantic society. The allusions are to things familiar to the mode of life, which belongs rather to the great and fashionable, than to the laborious and humble. It is to the amusement and amelioration of high life, or life comparatively high, that the scope of almost all these papers is directed. They affect, too, a tone of superiority, a polish of address and manners, a nicety and even caprice of approbation and censure, which seem not very indirectly to bespeak the condition of the authors to have been above the level of tasteless vulgarity.

The style of these papers, seems to have been formed chiefly on the models of Addison, Johnson, Hume, and a few French writers. It is never coarse, mean, nor spiritless; but it is often debased by an intermixture of Scoticisms, of Gallicisms, and of the peculiar slang language of Scottish metaphysics. It scarcely ever attains to the ease and felicity of genuine and delicate Anglicism. The sense is sometimes enfeebled or lost amid the multiplicity and the elaborate prettiness of the words employed to express it.

Of the Mirror and Lounger, it may be, with truth, observed, that, as has been said of the Tatlers, Spectators, and Guardians, they sensibly improved the conversation of the best company in Edinburgh and other parts of Scotland, within a few years after their publication. They refined and corrected the public taste in regard to amusements; and, they contributed to connect elegant literature with the diversions and harmless levities of the gay.

For these and whatever other benefits may have been derived to society from those papers, the chief thanks are unquestionably due to Mr. Mackenzie. He acted as editor of the whole. His papers are considerably more numerous than those of any of his coadjutors, more various in regard to the nature of their subjects, and oh superior merit. He easily appears among so many men of distinguished talents, as Addison among the other writers of the Spectator, or Dryden among the other authors of the poetical miscellanies of which he was the editor. Though we had no other test, by which to judge of the abilities of the principal writer in the Mirror and Lounger; we should not fail to rank them high upon this consideration solely, that in a knot of men so eminent, he stands unquestionably the first. When the Royal Society of Edinburgh was instituted, Mr. Mackenzie became one of its members. Among the papers, with which he has enriched the volumes of its transactions, are, an elegant tribute to the memory of his friend Judge Abercrombie, and a memoir on German tragedy, which bestows great praise on the "Emilia Galotti" of Lessing, and on the "Robbers" by Schiller.

He had procured the materials for that memoir through the medium of a French work. But, desiring afterwards to enjoy the native beauties of German poetry, he took some lessons in the language of Germany from a Dr. Okely, then studying medicine at Edinburgh. The fruits of his attention to German literature, appeared farther in the year 1791, in a small volume containing translations of the "Set of Horses" by Lessing, and of two or three other dramatic pieces, executed partly, we believe, by Mr. Mackenzie, and in part by Dr. Okely.

A comedy written by Mr. Mackenzie, under the name of the White Hypocrite, was unsuccessfully brought forward in representation of Covent-garden theatre, in, we believe, the winter 1788-89. He produced also a tragedy, founded upon the "Fatal Curiosity" of Lillo, which met in representation no better fate. For the English drama of the present time, we think it singularly unfortunate, that powers of wit, pathos, and classical elegance, like those of Mr. Mackenzie, should have been thus hooted from the stage.

A "Review of the Proceedings of the Parliament which met first in the Year 1784," and a series of "Letters, under the signature of Brutus," are political productions which, by their spirit, elegance, and tendency to support the order of government, have done great honour to this gentleman's talents.

He has approved himself an example of every domestic virtue. He has never weakly suffered his attachment to literary pursuits to divert him from the diligent and zealous discharge of his duty as a man of business. He has lived in friendship with many of the most eminent of his contemporaries; the Right Honourable Henry Dundas, his nephew the Lord Chief Baron of the Scottish Exchequer, those eminent Judges who were his coadjutors in the Mirror and Lounger, and many other persons of high distinction whom we might enumerate. By the people of Edinburgh, as to their public amusements, he has long been regarded as the very "arbiter elegantiarum." Of any sort of merit in those literary arts in which he himself excels, he has ever been to others a kind and zealous patron. He is one of the directors of a subscription-concert which his long been maintained at Edinburgh, upon a plan highly agreeable to the public. He is extremely fond of the rural diversions of fowling, hunting, and fishing. In all those exertions which have been found necessary, since the year 1791, to support the government, and preserve the peace of the country, there has been no person more honourably nor more usefully zealous and active than he.

His fortune, never uncomfortably small, is not even now invidiously great. His business in the Exchequer yields probably all income of £80 a year: he is comptroller-general of taxes for Scotland, with a salary of £600 a year: and his other emoluments may perhaps raise the whole amount of his annual income to somewhat more than £2000. He has a family of eleven amiable and promising children.

He is an eminent member of a "Literary Club," in which a few of the most eminent members of the Royal Society of Edinburgh occasionally meet for literary and friendly converse at a convivial meal in a tavern. His conversation is ever the charm and the pride of every society which he enters.

It is peculiarly pleasing to contemplate a life in which the praise of literature is so happily, so elegantly, so gracefully associated with the best virtues of social and domestic life, and with the steady and judicious exercise of the most respectable talents for business: — it is peculiarly pleasing — for, alas! the example is singularly rare.

The readers of this memoir may be assured, that it is not the eulogy of a friend to him whose merits it commemorates. Its writer has endeavoured only to mention without prejudice, facts of which he had authentic information. But if, in spite of this care, any prejudices may have influenced him in relating what he knew, those prejudices have certainly not been in favour a the subject of this memoir.