1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Wolcot

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:297-98.



DR. JOHN WOLCOT was a coarse but lively satirist, who, under the name of "Peter Pindar," published a variety of effusions on the topics and public men of his times, which were eagerly read and widely circulated. Many of them were in ridicule of the reigning sovereign, George III., who was a good subject for the poet; though the latter, as he himself acknowledged, was a bad subject to the king. Wolcot was born at Dodbrooke, a village in Devonshire, in the year 1738. His uncle, a respectable surgeon and apothecary at Fowey, took the charge of his education, intending that he should become his own assistant and successor in business. Wolcot was instructed in medicine, and "walked the hospitals" in London, after which he proceeded to Jamaica with Sir William Trelawney, governor of that island, who had engaged him as his medical attendant. The social habits of the doctor rendered him a favourite in Jamaica; but his time being only partly employed by his professional avocations, he solicited and obtained from his patron the gift of a living in the church, which happened to be then vacant. The bishop of London ordained the graceless neophyte, and Wolcot entered upon his sacred duties. His congregation consisted mostly of negroes, and Sunday being their principal holiday and market, the attendance at the church was very limited. Sometimes not a single person came, and Wolcot and his clerk (the latter being an excellent shot) used at such times, after waiting for ten minutes, to proceed to the sea-side, to enjoy the sport of shooting ring-tailed pigeons! The death of Sir William Trelawney cut off all further hopes of preferment, and every inducement to a longer residence in the island. Bidding adieu to Jamaica and the church, Wolcot accompanied Lady Trelawney to England, and established himself as a physician at Truro, in Cornwall. He inherited about £2000 by the death of his uncle. While resident at Truro, Wolcot discovered the talents of Opie — "The Cornish boy in tin mines bred" — whose genius as an artist afterwards became so distinguished. He also materially assisted to form his taste and procure him patronage; and when Opie's name was well established, the poet and his protege, forsaking the country, repaired to London, as affording a wider field for the exertions of both. Wolcot had already acquired some distinction by his satirical efforts; and he now poured forth a series of odes and epistles, commencing with the royal academicians, whom he ridiculed with great success and some justice. In 1785 he produced no less than twenty-three odes. In 1786 he published "The Lousiad, an Heroi-comic Poem," in five cantos, which had its foundation in the fact, that an obnoxious insect (either of the garden or the body) had been discovered on the king's plate among some green peas, which produced a solemn decree that all the servants in the royal kitchen were to have their heads shaved. In the hands of an unscrupulous satirist like Wolcot, this ridiculous Incident was an admirable theme. The publication of Boswell's "Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides" afforded another tempting opportunity, and he indited a humorous Poetical epistle to the biographer, commencing—

O Boswell, Bozzy, Bruce, whate'er thy name,
Thou mighty shark for anecdote and fame;
Thou jackal, leading lion Johnson forth
To eat Macpherson 'midst his native north;
To frighten grave professors with his roar,
And shake the Hebrides from shore to shore,
All hail!
Triumphant thou through Time's vast gulf shalt sail,
The pilot of our literary whale;
Close to the classic Rambler shalt thou cling,
Close as a supple courtier to a king;
Fate shall not shake thee off with all its power;
Stuck like a bat to some old ivied tower.
Nay, though thy Johnson ne'er had blessed thy eyes,
Paoli's deeds had raised thee to the skies
Yes, his broad wing had raised thee (no bad hack),
A Tom-tit twittering on an eagle's back.

In addition to this effusion, Wolcot levelled another attack on Boswell, entitled "Bozzy and Piozzi, or the British Biographers." The personal habits of the king were ridiculed in "Peeps at St. James's," "Royal Visits," "Lyric Odes," &c. Sir Joseph Banks was another subject of his satire—

A president, on butterflies profound,
Of whom all insect-mongers sing the praises,
Went on a day to catch the game profound
On violets, dunghills, violet-tops, and daisies, &c.

He had also "Instructions to a Celebrated Laureate," "Peter's Pension;" "Peter's Prophecy;" "Epistle to a Fallen Minister;" "Epistle to James Bruce, Esq., the Abyssinian Traveller;" "Odes to Mr Paine;" "Odes to Kien Long, Emperor of China;" "Ode to the Livery of London," and brochures of a kindred description on most of the celebrated events of the day. From 1778 to 1808 above sixty of these poetical pamphlets were issued by Wolcot. So formidable was he considered, that the ministry, as he alleged, endeavoured to bribe him to silence. He also boasted that his writings had been translated into six different languages. In 1795 he obtained from his booksellers an annuity of £250, payable half-yearly, for the copyright of his works. This handsome allowance he enjoyed, to the heavy loss of the other parties, for upwards of twenty years. Neither old age nor blindness could repress his witty vituperative attacks. He had recourse to an amanuensis, in whose absence, however, he continued to write himself, till within a short period of his death. "His method was to tear a sheet of paper into quarters, on each of which he wrote a stanza of four or six lines, according to the nature of the poem: the paper he placed on a book held in the left hand, and in this manner not only wrote legibly, but with great ease and celerity." In 1796 his poetical effusions were collected and published in four volumes 8vo., and subsequent editions have been issued; but most of the poems have sunk into oblivion. Few satirists can reckon on permanent popularity, and the poems of Wolcot were in their nature of an ephemeral description; while the recklessness of his censure and ridicule, and the want of decency, of principle, and moral feeling, that characterises nearly the whole, precipitated their downfall, He died at his house in Somers' Town on the 14th January 1819, and was buried in a vault in the churchyard of St Paul's, Covent Garden, close to the grave of Butler. Wolcot was equal to Churchill as a satirist, as ready and versatile in his powers, and possessed of a quick sense of the ludicrous, as well as a rich vein of fancy and humour. Some of his songs and serious effusions are tender and pleasing; but lie could not write long without sliding into the ludicrous and burlesque. His critical acuteness is evinced in his "Odes to the Royal Academicians," and in various passages scattered throughout his works; while his ease and felicity, both of expression and illustration, are remarkable. In the following terse and lively lines, we have a good caricature portrait of Dr. Johnson's style:—

I own I like not Johnson's turgid style,
That gives an inch the importance of a mile,
Casts of manure a wagon-load around,
To raise a simple daisy from the ground;
Uplifts the club of Hercules — for what?
To crush a butterfly or brain a gnat;
Creates a whirlwind from the earth, to draw
A goose's feather or exalt a straw;
Sets wheels on wheels in motion — such a clatter
To force up one poor nipperkin of water;
Bids ocean labour with tremendous roar,
To heave a cockle-shell upon the shore;
Alike in every theme his pompous art,
Heaven's awful thunder or a rumbling cart!