1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

David Mallet

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:40-41.



DAVID MALLET, author of some beautiful ballad stanzas, and some florid unimpassioned poems in blank verse, was a successful but unprincipled literary adventurer. He praised and courted Pope while living, and, after experiencing his kindness, traduced his memory when dead. He earned a disgraceful pension by contributing to the death of a brave naval officer, Admiral Byng, who fell a victim to the clamour of faction; and by various other acts of his life, he evinced that self-aggrandisement was his only steady and ruling passion. When Johnson, therefore, states that Mallet was the only Scot whom Scotchmen did not commend, he pays a compliment to the virtue and integrity of the natives of Scotland. The original name of the poet was Malloch, which, after his removal to London, and his intimacy with the great, he changed to Mallet, as more easily pronounced by the English. His father kept a small inn at Crieff, Perthshire, where David was born about the year 1700. He attended Aberdeen college, and was afterwards received, though without salary, as tutor in the family of Mr. Home of Dreghorn, near Edinburgh. He next obtained a similar situation, but with a salary of £30 per annum, in the family of the Duke of Montrose. In 1723, he went to London with the duke's family, and next year his ballad of William and Margaret appeared in Hill's periodical, "The Plain Dealer." He soon numbered among his friends Young, Pope, and other eminent persons, to whom his assiduous attentions, his agreeable manners, and literary taste, rendered his society acceptable. In 1733 he published a satire on Bentley, inscribed to Pope, entitled "Verbal Criticism," in which he characterises the venerable scholar as

In error obstinate, in wrangling loud,
For trifles eager, positive, and proud;
Deep in the darkness of dull authors bred,
With all their refuse lumbered in his head.

Mallet was appointed under secretary to the Prince of Wales, with a salary of £200 per annum; and, in conjunction with Thomson, he produced, in 1740, the "Masque of Alfred," in honour of the birth-day of time princess Augusta. A fortunate second marriage (nothing is known of his first) brought to the poet a fortune of £10,000. The lady was daughter of Lord Carlisle's steward. Both Mallet and his wife professed to be deists, and the lady is said to have surprised some of her friends by commencing her arguments with — "Sir, we deists." When Gibbon the historian was dismissed from his college at Oxford for embracing popery, he took refuge in Mallet's house, and was rather scandalised, he says, than reclaimed, by the philosophy of his host. Wilkes mentions that the vain and fantastic wife of Mallet one day lamented to a lady that her husband suffered in reputation by his name being so often confounded with that of Smollett; the lady wittily answered, "Madam, there is a short remedy; let your husband keep his own name." To gratify Lord Bolingbroke, Mallet, in his preface to the "Patriot King," heaped abuse on the memory of Pope, and Bolingbroke rewarded him by bequeathing to him the whole of his works and manuscripts. When the government became unpopular by the defeat at Minorca, he was employed to defend them, and under the signature of a Plain Man, he published an address imputing cowardice to the admiral of the fleet. He succeeded: Byng was shot, and Mallet was pensioned. On the death of the Duchess of Marlborough, it was found that she had left £1000 to Glover, author of "Leonidas," and Mallet, jointly, on condition that they should draw up from the family papers a life of the great duke. Glover, indignant at a stipulation in the will, that the memoir was to be submitted before publication to the Earl of Chesterfield, and being a high-spirited man, devolved the whole on Mallet, who also received a pension from the second Duke of Marlborough, to stimulate his industry. He pretended to be busy with the work, and in the dedication to a small collection of his poems published in 1762, he stated that he hoped soon to present his grace with something more solid in the life of the first Duke of Marlborough. Mallet had received the solid money, and cared for nothing else. On his death, it was found that not a single line of the memoir had been written. In his latter days the poet held the lucrative situation of Keeper of the Book of Entries for the port of London. He died April 21, 1765.

Mallet wrote some theatrical pieces, which, though partially successful on their representation, are now utterly forgotten. Gibbon anticipated, that, if ever his friend should attain poetic fame, it would be acquired by his poem of "Amyntor and Theodora."

This, the longest of his poetical works, is a tale in blank verse, the scene of which is laid in the solitary island of St. Kilda, whither one of his characters, Aurelius, had fled to avoid the religious persecutions under Charles II. Some highly-wrought descriptions of marine scenery, storms, and shipwreck, with a few touches of natural pathos and affection, constitute the chief characteristics of the poem. The whole, however, even the very names in such a locality, has an air of improbability and extravagance. Another work of the same kind, but inferior in execution, is his poem "The Excursion," written in imitation of the style of Thomson's "Seasons." The defects of Thomson's style are servilely copied; some of his epithets and expressions are also borrowed; but there is no approach to his redeeming graces and beauties. Contrary to the dictum of Gibbon the poetic fame of Mallet rests on his ballads, and chiefly on his "William and Margaret," which, written at the age of twenty-three, afforded high hopes of ultimate excellence. The simplicity, here remarkable, he seems to have thrown aside when he assumed the airs and dress of a mail of taste and fashion. All critics, from Dr. Percy downwards, have united in considering "William and Margaret" one of the finest compositions of the kind in our language. Sir Walter Scott conceived that Mallet had imitated an old Scottish tale to be found in Allan Ramsay's "Tea-Table Miscellany," beginning, "There came a ghost to Margaret's door." The resemblance is striking. Mallet confessed only (in a note to his ballad) to the following verse in Fletcher's "Knight of the Burning Pestle:"—

When it was grown to dark midnight,
And all were fast asleep,
In came Margaret's grimly ghost,
And stood at William's feet.

In the first printed copies of Mallet's ballad, the two first lines were nearly the same as the above—

When all was wrapt in dark midnight,
And all were fast asleep.

He improved the rhyme by the change; but beautiful as the idea is of night and morning meeting, it may be questioned whether there is not more of superstitious awe and affecting simplicity in the old words.