George Lyttelton

Edward S. Creasy, "George Lyttelton" Memoirs of Eminent Etonians (1850) 268-76.

GEORGE LYTTELTON, the son of Sir Thomas Lyttelton of Hagley in Worcestershire, gave nobility to a family that claimed to be one of the most ancient in the kingdom. His ancestors had possessions in the vale of Evesham, Worcestershire, in the reign of Henry III., particularly at South Lyttelton, from which place some antiquarians have asserted they took their name. The great Judge Lyttelton, in the reign of Henry IV., was one of this family; and from him descended Sir Thomas Lyttelton, who was appointed a Lord of the Admiralty in the year 1727. This gentleman married Christian, daughter of Sir Richard Temple, and maid of honour to Queen Anne, by whom he had six sons and six daughters, the eldest of whom, George, afterwards created Lord Lyttelton, was born at Hagley, in January, 1709.

He was educated at Eton together with Pitt, and others whose memoirs appear in this chapter. He is said to have been greatly distinguished for the beauty and elegance of his Latin exercises. And while he was at Eton, his taste for English poetry displayed itself in several pleasing compositions, which gave promise of higher poetical excellence than he can be said afterwards to have obtained. One of these, a supposed "Soliloquy of a Beauty in the Country," shows a sustained elegance and happy terseness, such as are seldom met with in boyish rhymes:—

'Twas night; and Flavia to her room retir'd,
With evening chat and sober reading tir'd;
There, melancholy, pensive, and alone,
She meditates o'er the forsaken town
On her rais'd arm reclin'd her drooping head
She sigh'd, and thus in plaintive accents said:
"Ah, what avails it to be young and fair;
To move with negligence, to dress with care?
What worth have all the charms our pride can boast,
If all in envious solitude are lost?
Where none admire, 'tis useless to excel;
Where none are beaux, 'tis vain to be a belle;
Beauty, like wit, to judges should be shown;
Both most are valued, where they best are known.
With every grace of nature or of art,
We cannot break one stubborn country heart:
The brutes, insensible, our power defy;
To love, exceeds a squire's capacity.
The town, the court, is Beauty's proper sphere;
That is our Heaven, and we are angels there
In that gay circle thousand Cupids rove,
The Court of Britain is the Court of Love.
How has my conscious heart with triumph glow'd,
How have my sparkling eyes their transport show'd,
At each distingnish'd birth-night ball, to see
The homage, due to Empire, paid to me?
When every eye was fix'd on me alone,
And dreaded mine more than the monarch's frown;
When rival statesmen for my favour strove,
Less jealous in their power than in their love.
Chang'd is the scene; and all my glories die,
Like flowers transplanted to a colder sky:
Lost is the dear delight of giving pain,
The tyrant joy of hearing slaves complain.
In stupid indolence my life is spent,
Supinely calm, and dully innocent:
Unblest I wear my useless time away,
Sleep (wretched maid!) all night, and dream all day;
Go at set hours to dinner and to prayer,
(For dullness ever must be regular.)
Now with mamma at tedious whist I play;
Now without scandal drink insipid tea;
Or in the garden breathe the country aft,
Secure from meeting any tempter there.
From books to work, from work to books,
I rove, And am, alas! at leisure to improve!—
Is this the life a beauty ought to lead?
Were eyes so radiant only made to read?
These fingers, at whose touch ev'n age would glow,
Are these of use for nothing but to sew?
Sure erring nature never could design
To form a housewife in a mould like mine!
O Venus, queen and guardian of the fair,
Attend propitious to thy votary's prayer:
Let me revisit the dear town again;
Let me be seen! — could I that wish obtain,
All other wishes my own power would gain!

From Eton, Lyttelton went to Christ-church, where he maintained the same reputation for scholarship and abilities which he had previously acquired.

In the year 1728 he set out on the tour of Europe. On his arrival in Paris he accidentally became acquainted with the Honourable Mr. Poyntz, then our minister at the Court of Versailles, who was so struck with the capacity displayed by young Lyttelton, that he invited him to his house, and employed him in many political negotiations, which he executed with great skill and discretion.

On his return from the Continent he sought and obtained a seat in the House of Commons, as representative of the borough of Okehampton in Devonshire. Like his friend Pitt he joined the Opposition, and he made his first speech in the House on the same evening and on the same subject on which Pitt first spoke. Both the young orators attracted general notice, and many prophesied as high Parliamentary exploits from Lyttelton as from Pitt.

It has been mentioned in the memoir of Chatham, that Sir Robert Walpole deprived him of his Cornetcy of Horse in revenge for his first speech. On this occasion Lyttelton addressed his friend in an epigram which acquired considerable credit for, at least, the writer.

Long had thy virtues marked thee out for fame,
Far, far superior to a Cornet's name;
This generous Walpole saw, and grieved to find
So mean a post disgrace that noble mind.
The servile standard from thy freeborn hand
He took, and bid thee lead the patriot band. — 1736

Lyttelton was taken, not only into the service, but into the close friendship of Frederick Prince of Wales, who, in 1737, appointed him his secretary, and continued to treat him as his most confidential friend until the time of that Prince's death. This connexion with Prince Frederick made, of course, Lyttelton's opposition to Sir Robert Walpole more systematic and acrimonious. For many years he took part regularly in every debate in which that statesman's measures were opposed, or any personal attack was directed against him.

In 1744, Lyttelton was made one of the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. It must be recorded to his praise, that he availed himself of every opportunity given by his rank, his private fortune, and his influence with the Prince of Wales, to promote literature, and relieve the necessities of men of learning. He was the generous patron of Fielding, Thomson, Mallet, Young, Hammond, and West, and he was the intimate friend of Pope. Henry Fox, in the House of Commons, taxed Lyttelton with this last-mentioned intimacy, and expressed his indignation that any statesman should associate with a lampooner so unfair and so licentious in his abuse as Pope. Lyttelton on this occasion defended his friend with spirit and success, stating publicly "that he esteemed it an honour to be admitted to the familiarity of so great a poet."

In 1741 he married Miss Lucy Fortescue, sister to Matthew Lord Fortescue of Devonshire. After six years of domestic happiness he had to bear the heavy affliction of her death. Johnson says sarcastically that "he solaced himself by writing a Monody to her memory, without, however, condemning himself to perpetual solitude and sorrow, for he soon after sought to find the same happiness again in a second marriage with the daughter of Sir Robert Rich (1749); but the experiment was unsuccessful, and he was for some years before his death separated from this lady."

Chalmers, in his biographical notice of Lyttelton, has made some very fair remarks in Lyttelton's justification in answer to the sneers of Johnson. I quite concur with Chalmers, who, after quoting Johnson, says:—

"This notice of the Monody, which is given in Dr. Johnson's words, has been thought too scanty praise. In truth it is no praise at all, but an assertion and not a just one, that Lord Lyttelton 'solaced his grief' by writing the poem. The praise or blame was usually reserved by Johnson for the conclusion of his lives, but in this case the Monody is not mentioned at all. We have on record, however, an opinion of Gray, which the admirers of the poem will perhaps scarcely think more sympathetic than Johnson's silence. In a letter to Lord Orford, who had probably spoken with disrespect of the Monody, Gray says, 'I am not totally of your mind as to Mr. Lyttelton's elegy, though I love kids and fauns as little as you do. If it were all like the fourth stanza I should be excessively pleased. Nature and sorrow and tenderness are the true genius of such things; and something of these I find in several parts of it (not in the orange tree); poetical ornaments are foreign to the purpose, for they only show a man is not sorry — and devotion worse; for it teaches him that he ought not to be sorry, which is all the pleasure of the thing.' — Orford's Works, vol. v. p. 389. Dr. Johnson is undoubtedly ironical in saying that the author 'solaced his grief' in writing the Monody. The poet's grief must have abated, and his mind recovered its tone before he could write at all; and when this became Mr. Lyttelton's case, he felt it his duty to pay an affectionate tribute to the memory of his lady, who certainly was one of the best of women. His talents led him to do this in poetry, and he no more deserves the suspicion of hypocrisy, than if he had, as an artist, painted an apotheosis, or executed a monument."

I will quote two of the stanzas of this Monody, which seem to me to possess much sweetness and grace, as well as to express natural and deep feeling:

Not only good and kind,
But strong and elevated was her mind:
A spirit that with noble pride
Could look superior down
On Fortune's smile or frown;
That could, without regret or pain,
To virtue's lowest duty sacrifice
Or interest, or ambition's highest prize;
That, injur'd or offended, never tried
Its dignity by vengeance to maintain,
But by magnanimous disdain.
A wit that, temperately bright,
With inoffensive light
All pleasing shone; nor ever past
The decent bounds that Wisdom's sober hand,
And sweet Benevolence's mild command,
And bashful Modesty, before it cast.
A prudence undeceiving, undeceiv'd,
That nor too little nor too much believ'd,
That scorned unjust suspicion's coward fear,
And without weakness knew to be sincere.
Such Lucy was, when, in her fairest days,
Amidst th' acclaim of universal praise,
In life's and glory's freshest bloom,
Death came remorseless on, and sunk her to the tomb.
In vain I look around
O'er all the well-known ground,
My Lucy's wonted footsteps to descry;
Where oft we us'd to walk,
Where oft in tender talk
We saw the summer sun go down the sky;
Nor by yon fountain's side,
Nor where its waters glide
Along the valley, can she now be found:
In all the wide-stretch'd prospect's ample bound.
No more my mournful eye
Can aught of her espy,
But the sad sacred earth where her dear relics lie.

Neither politics nor literature wholly absorbed Lyttelton's mind, and in his manhood he studied deeply and profitably subjects, which in his youth he had treated with levity and indifference. He had been led by the example of others while a young man to entertain, or at least to profess, sceptical opinions. Certainly he at that time had no sure and active faith. To employ the words of Johnson, who on this occasion does Lyttelton justice, "he thought the time now come when it was no longer fit to doubt or believe by chance, and applied himself seriously to the great question. His studies, being honest, ended in conviction. He found that religion was true, and what he had learned he endeavoured to teach, by 'Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul,' printed in 1757 a treatise to which infidelity has never been able to fabricate a specious answer. This book his father had the happiness of seeing, and expressed his pleasure in a letter which deserves to be inserted, and must have given to such a son a pleasure more easily conceived than described: — 'I have read your religious treatise with infinite pleasure and satisfaction. The style is fine and clear, the argument close, cogent, and irresistible. May the King of kings, whose glorious cause you have so well defended, reward your pious labours, through the merits of Jesus Christ, to be an eye-witness of that happiness, which I don't doubt He will bountifully bestow upon you! In the mean time I shall never cease to thank God for having endowed you with such useful talents, and given me so good a son. Your affectionate father, THOMAS LYTTELTON.'"

The writer of this letter died in 1751, and Sir George Lyttelton (as he then became) continued his exertions in Parliament, and gradually was raised to posts of higher distinction.

In 1754 he resigned his office of Lord of the Treasury, and was made Cofferer to his Majesty's household, and sworn of the Privy Council. After filling the offices of Chancellor and Under Treasurer of the Court of Exchequer, he was, by letters patent, dated 19th November, 1757, created a Peer of Great Britain, by the style and title of Lord Lyttelton, Baron of Frankley, in the county of Worcester.

He was a frequent and successful speaker in Parliament. His speech on the Repeal of the Jews' Naturalisation Bill is considered the best ever made by him in the Commons. (26th November, 1753.) The peroration of this is remarkable both for the sentiments which it embodies, and for the grace with which they are expressed. Sir George Lyttelton said, "The more zealous we are to support Christianity, the more vigilant should we be in maintaining toleration. If we bring back persecution, we bring back the anti-Christian spirit of Popery; and when the spirit is here, the whole system will soon follow. Toleration is the basis of all public quiet. It is a charter of freedom given to the mind, more valuable, I think, than that which secures our persons and estates: indeed they are inseparably connected together; for where the mind is not free, where the conscience is enthralled, there is no freedom. Spiritual tyranny puts on the galling chains, but civil tyranny is called in to rivet and fix them. We see it in Spain and many other countries: we have formerly both seen and felt it in England. By the blessing of God, we are now delivered from all kinds of oppression: let us take care that they may never return."

The speech in the House of Lords which added most to his reputation was delivered in the session of 1763, upon a debate concerning the privileges of Parliament, in which he supported the dignity of the Peerage with a depth of knowledge that is said to have surprised the oldest Peers present.

Lord Lyttelton's principal publications are his "Dialogues of the Dead," and his "History of England during the reign of Henry the Second." The idea of the first of these two works was probably suggested by the author's studies of Lucian while an Eton boy. Lord Lyttelton's "Dialogues" were very popular. The characters are well selected, and the conversations are conducted with spirit, and with due regard to the age and national habits of each imaginary interlocutor. The "History" is a very erudite and elaborate composition. Lord Lyttelton commences it by a preliminary view of the state of England from the death of Edward the Confessor down to Henry the Second's coronation; and the numerous subjects of constitutional interest connected with this monarch's reign, and also with the general state of Christendom at that period, are fully and philosophically investigated. Much new light has been thrown of late years on the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman periods of our history by the researches of Hallam, Palgrave, Kemble, Lappenfeldt, Guizot, Thierry, and others; so that a book which only gives the opinions entertained before the time of these writers has now little chance of finding a reader. But Lyttelton's "History" deserves a better fate than that of becoming thus obsolete. The subject of it is well chosen, the arrangement is good, and the style clear. The great bulk of it is still useful; and an edition which should retrench some superfluities, correct some inaccuracies, and embody the pith of the best recent works on the same subjects, would be a standard book for every student of English or general mediaeval history.

Lord Lyttelton died in July, 1773. The physician who attended him drew up a very interesting account of Lyttelton's last days, which, as Johnson truly observes, is the best commentary on his character. Part of it is as follows:—

"On Sunday, about eleven in the forenoon, his Lordship sent for me, and said he felt a great hurry, and wished to have a little conversation with me in order to divert it. He then proceeded to open the fountain of that heart, from whence goodness had so long flowed as from a copious spring. 'Doctor,' said he, 'you shall be my confessor. When I first set out in the world, I had friends who endeavoured to shake my belief in the Christian religion. I saw difficulties which staggered me; but I kept my mind open to conviction. The evidences and doctrines of Christianity, studied with attention, made me a most firm and persuaded believer of the Christian religion. I have made it the rule of my life, and it is the ground of my future hopes. I have erred and sinned, but have repented, and never indulged any vicious habit. In politics and public life, I have made public good the rule of my conduct. I never gave counsels which I did not at the time think the best. I have seen that I was sometimes in the wrong, but I did not err designedly. I have endeavoured, in private life, to do all the good in my power, and never for a moment could indulge malicious or unjust designs upon any person whatsoever.'

"At another time he said, 'I must leave my soul in the same state it was in before this illness: I find this a very inconvenient time for solicitude about anything.'

"On the evening, when the symptoms of death came on, he said, 'I shall die; but it will not be your fault.' When Lord and Lady Valentia came to see his Lordship, he gave them his solemn benediction, and said, 'Be good, be virtuous, my Lord; you must come to this.' Thus he continued giving his dying benediction to all around him. On Monday morning a lucid interval gave some small hopes, but these vanished in the evening; and he continued dying, but with very little uneasiness, till Tuesday morning, August 22, when between seven and eight o'clock he expired, almost without a groan."

(Johnson's Lives of the Poets. — Chalmers's Biog. Dict.)