1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Tobias Smollett

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:64-66.



Many who are familiar with Smollett as a novelist, scarcely recollect him as a poet, though he has scattered some fine verses amidst his prose fictions, and has written an "Ode to Independence," which possesses the masculine strength of Dryden, with an elevation of moral feeling and sentiment rarely attempted or felt by that great poet. TOBIAS GEORGE SMOLLETT was born in Dalquhurn-house, near the village of Renton, Dumbartonshire, in 1721. His father, a younger son of Sir James Smollett of Bonhill, having died early, the poet was educated by his grandfather. After the usual course of instruction in the grammar school of Dumbarton, and at the university of Glasgow, Tobias was placed apprentice to a medical practitioner, Mr. Gordon, Glasgow. He was nineteen when his term of apprenticeship expired, and, at this early age, his grandfather having died without making any provision for him, the young and sanguine adventurer proceeded to London, his chief dependence being a tragedy, called the Regicide, which he attempted to bring out at the theatres. Foiled in this effort of juvenile ambition, Smollett became surgeon's mate on board an eighty-gun ship, and was present at the ill planned and disastrous expedition against Carthagena, which he has described with much force in his Roderick Random. He returned to England in 1746, published two satires, "Advice" and "Reproof," and in 1748 gave to the world his novel of "Roderick Random." "Peregrine Pickle" appeared three years afterwards. Smollett next attempted to practise as a physician, but failed, and, taking a house at Chelsea, devoted himself to literature as a profession. Notwithstanding his facility of composition, his general information and talents, his life was one continual struggle for existence, embittered by personal quarrels, brought on partly by irritability of temper. In 1753, his romance of "Ferdinand Count Fathom" was published, and in 1755 his translation of Don Quixote. The version of Motteux is now generally preferred to that of our author, though the latter is marked by his characteristic humour and versatility of talent. After he had finished this task, Smollett paid a visit to his native country. His fame had gone before him, and his reception by the literati of Scotland was cordial and flattering. His filial tenderness and affection was also gratified by meeting with his surviving parent. "On Smollett's arrival," says Dr. Moore, "he was introduced to his mother, with the connivance of Mrs. Telfer (his sister) as a gentleman from the West Indies, who was intimately acquainted with her son. The better to support his assumed character, he endeavoured to preserve a serious countenance approaching to a frown; but, while his mother's eyes were rivetted on his countenance, he could not refrain from smiling. She immediately sprung from her chair, and throwing her arms around his neck, exclaimed, "Ah, my son! my son! I have found you at last." She afterwards told him that if he had kept his austere looks, and continued to gloom, he might have escaped detection some time longer; "but your old roguish smile," added she, "betrayed you at once." On this occasion Smollett visited his relations and native scenes in Dumbartonshire, and spent two days in Glasgow, amidst his boyish companions. Returning to England, he resumed his literary occupations. He unfortunately became editor of the Critical Review, and an attack in that journal on Admiral Knowles, one of the commanders at Carthagena (which Smollett acknowledged to be his composition), led to a trial for libel: and the author was sentenced to pay a fine of £100, and suffered three months imprisonment. He consoled himself by writing, in prison, his novel of "Launcelot Greaves." Another proof of his fertility and industry as an author was afforded by his "History of England," written, it is said, in fourteen months. He engaged in political discussion, for which he was ill qualified by temper, and, taking the unpopular side, he was completely vanquished by the truculent satire and abuse of Wilkes. His health was also shattered by close application to his studies, and by private misfortune. In his early days Smollett had married a young West Indian lady, Miss Lascelles, by whom he had a daughter. This only child died at the age of fifteen, and the disconsolate hither tried to fly from his grief by a tour through France and Italy. He was absent two years, and published an account of his travels, which amidst gleams of humour and genius, is disfigured by the coarsest prejudices. Sterne has successfully ridiculed this work in his "Sentimental Journey." Some of the critical dicta of Smollett are mere ebullitions of spleen. In the famous statue of the Venus de Medici, "which enchants the world," he could see so beauty of feature, and the attitude he considered awkward and out of character! The Pantheon at Rome — that "glorious combination of beauty and magnificence" — he said looked like a huge cock-pit, open at the top. Sterne said justly, that such declarations should have been reserved for his physician; they could only have sprung from bodily distemper. "Yet, be it said," remarks Sir Walter Scott, "without offence to the memory of the witty and elegant Sterne, it is more easy to assume, in composition, an air of alternate gaiety and sensibility, than to practise the virtues of generosity and benevolence, which Smollett exercised during his whole life, though often, like his own Matthew Bramble, under the disguise of peevishness and irritability. Sterne's writings show much flourish concerning virtues of which his life is understood to have produced little fruit; the temper of Smollett was

like a lusty winter,
Frosty, but kindly."

The native air of the great novelist was more cheering and exhilarating than the genial gales of the south. On his return from Italy he repaired to Scotland, saw once more his affectionate mother, and sojourned a short time with his cousin, Mr. Smollett of Bonhill, on the banks of the Leven. "The water of Leven," he observes in his "Humphry Clinker," "though nothing near so considerable as the Clyde, is much more transparent, pastoral, and delightful. This charming stream is the outlet of Loch Lomond, and through a track of four miles pursues its winding course over abed of pebbles, till it joins the Firth of Clyde at Dumbarton. On this spot stands the castle formerly called Alcluyd, and washed by these two rivers on all sides except a narrow isthmus, winds at every spring .tide is overflowed; the whole is a great curiosity, from the quality and form of the rock, as from the nature of its situation. A very little above the source of the Leven, on the lake, stands the house of Cameron, belonging to Mr. Smollett (the late commissary), so embosomed in oak wood, that we did not perceive it till we were within fifty yards of the door. The lake approaches on one side to within six or seven yards of the windows. It might have been placed on a higher site, which would have afforded a more extensive prospect, and a drier atmosphere; but this imperfection is not chargeable on the present proprietor, who purchased it ready built, rather than be at the trouble of repairing his own family house of Bonhill, which stands two miles hence, on the Leven, so surrounded with plantations, that it used to be known by the name of the Mavis (or Thrush) Nest. Above the house is a romantic glen, or cleft of a mountain, covered with hanging woods, having at the bottom a stream of fine water, that forms a number of cascades in its descent to join the Leven, so that the scene is quite enchanting.

"I have seen the Lago di Gardi, Albano di Vico, Bolsena and Geneva, and I prefer Loch Lomond to them all — a preference which is certainly owing to the verdant islands that seem to float upon its surface, affording the most enchanting objects of repose to the excursive view. Nor are the banks destitute of beauties which can partake of the sublime. On this side they display, a sweet variety of woodland, corn field, and pasture, with several agreeable villas, emerging as it were out of the lake, till at some distance the prospect terminates in huge mountains, covered with heath, which, being in the bloom, affords a very rich covering of purple. Everything here is romantic beyond imagination. This country is justly styled the Arcadia of Scotland; I do not doubt but it may vie with Arcadia in everything but climate. I am sure it excels it in verdure, wood, and water."

All who have traversed the banks of the Leven, or sailed along the shores of Loch Lomond, in a calm clear summer day, when the rocks and islands are reflected with magical brightness and fidelity in its waters, will acknowledge the truth of this description, and can readily account for Smollett's preference, independently of the early recollections which must have endeared the whole to his feelings and imagination. The extension of manufactures in Scotland has destroyed some of the pastoral charms and seclusion of the Leven, but the course of the river is still eminently rich and beautiful in sylvan scenery. Smollett's health was now completely gone. His pen, however, was his only resource, and on his return to England he published a political satire, "The Adventures of on Atom," in which he attacks his former patron, Lord Bute, and also the Earl of Chatham. As a politician, Smollett was far from consistent. His conduct in this respect was guided more by personal feelings than public principles, and any seeming neglect or ingratitude at once roused his constitutional irritability and indignation. He was no longer able, however, to contend with the "sea of troubles" that encompassed him. In 1770, he again went abroad in quest of health. His friends endeavoured, but in vain, to procure him an appointment as consul in some port in the Mediterranean; and he took up his residence in a cottage which Dr. Armstrong, then abroad, engaged for him in the neighbourhood of Leghorn. The warm and genial climate seems to have awakened his fancy, and breathed a temporary animation into his debilitated frame. He here wrote his "Humphry Clinker," the most rich, varied, and agreeable of all his novels. Like Fielding, Smollett was destined to die in a foreign country. He had just committed his novel to the public, when he expired, on the 21st of October 1771, aged 51. Had he lived a few years longer, be would have inherited, as heir of entail, the estate of Bonhill, worth about £1000 a-year. His widow erected a plain monument over his remains at Leghorn, and his relations, who had neglected him in his days of suffering and distress, raised a cenotaph to his memory on the banks of the Leven. The prose works of Smollett will hereafter be noticed. He wrote no poem of any length; but it is evident he could have excelled in verse had he cultivated his talents, and enjoyed a life, of greater ease and competence. Sir Walter Scott has praised the fine mythological commencement of his Ode; and few readers of taste or feeling are unacquainted with his lines on Leven Water, the picturesque scene of his early days. The latter were first published in "Humphrry Clinker," after the above prose description of the same landscape, scarcely less poetical. When soured by misfortune, by party conflicts, and the wasting effects of disease, the generous heart and warm sensibilities of Smollett seem to have kindled at the recollection of his youth, and at the rural life and manners of his native country.