DAVID MALLET, a poet and miscellaneous writer, is said to have descended from the Macgregors, a clan which became in the early part of the last century, under the conduct of one Robin Roy, so formidable for violence and robbery, that the name was annulled by a legal prohibition; and when they were all to denominate themselves anew, the father, as is supposed, of our author called himself Malloch. This father, James Malloch, kept a public-house at Crieff, Co. Perth, in Scotland, where David was born, probably about 1700. Of his early years we have but scanty and discordant memorials, some accounts placing him at first in a menial situation in the university of Edinburgh; others informing us that he was educated at the university of Aberdeen. The latter seems most probable, as he wrote and even printed some lines on the repairs of that university, in which he could not have been interested, had he not studied there for some time. That he afterwards went to Edinburgh is not improbable, and it is almost certain that he had in some way distinguished himself at that university, for when the duke of Montrose applied to the professors for a tutor to educate his sons, they recommended Malloch; a mark of their high opinion of him; and the office was of importance enough to have excited the wishes of many candidates, there being no surer step to future advancement.
After making the usual tour of Europe with the duke's sons, he returned with them to London, and by the influence of the family, in which he resided, easily gained admission to many persons of the highest rank, to wits, nobles, and statesmen. "By degrees," says Dr. Johnson, "having cleared his tongue from his native pronunciation, so as to be no longer distinguished as a Scot, he seems inclined to disencumber himself from all adherences of his original, and took upon him to change his name from Scotch Malloch to English Mallet, without any imaginable reason of preference which the eye or ear can discover. What other proofs he gave of disrespect to his native country, I know not; but it was remarked of him that he was the only Scot whom Scotchmen did not commend." It seems unreasonable, however, to impute this change of awe to disrespect for his country; with his country men many of his most intimate connections were formed, and his friendship for Thomson is one of the most agreeable parts of his history; and almost the last character he sustained was that of an intrepid advocate for lord Bute, and what were then called the Scotch unto who ruled the king and kingdom. As to Scotchmen not commending him, he had at least one adherent in Smollet, who engaged him to write in the Critical Review, where all Mallet's works are highly praised, particularly his "Elvira." The late commentator, George Steevens, esq. hit upon the truth more exactly, when he wrote in a copy of Gascoigne's Works, purchased in 1766, at Mallet's sale, "that he was the only Scotchman who died, in his memory, unlamented by an individual of his own nation." Steevens probably made this remark to Johnson, who forgot the precise terms. The first time we meet with the name of David Mallet is in 1726, in a list of the subscribers to Savage's Miscellanies.
Mallet's first production in England was the celebrated and affecting ballad of "William and Margaret," which was printed in Aaron Hill's "Plain Dealer," No. 36, July 14, 1724, and which in its original state was very different from what it is in the last editions of his works. Of this, says Dr. Johnson, he has been envied the reputation; and plagiarism has been boldly charged, but never proved. In 1728 he published "The Excursion," a poem in two cantos, containing a desultory view of such scenes of nature as his fancy or his knowledge led him to describe, and which is not devoid of poetical spirit, and in respect to diction is a close imitation of Thomson, whose "Seasons" were then in their full blossom of reputation.
In 1731 his first tragedy, called "Eurydice," was performed at Drury-lane, and very unfavourably received; nor when revived thirty years after, and supported by Garrick and Mrs. Cibber, could the town endure it with patience. On this last occasion Davies informs us that the author would not take the blame upon himself; "he sat in the orchestra, and bestowed his execrations plentifully upon the players, to whom he attributed the cold reception of his tragedy." About this time we find him an inmate in Mr. Knight's family at Gosfield, probably as tutor to Mr. Newsham, Mrs. Knight's son by her first husband. Her third was the late earl Nugent. We shall soon have occasion to quote a very remarkable passage from a letter of Pope's to this lady, respecting Mallet.
Soon after the exhibition of "Eurydice," Mr. Mallet published his poem on "Verbal Criticism," a subject which he either did not understand, or willingly misrepresented. "There is in this poem," says Dr. Johnson, "more pertness than wit, and more confidence than knowledge. The versification is tolerable, nor can criticism allow it a higher praise." It was written to pay court to Pope, who soon after introduced him, we may add, "in an evil hour" to lord Bolingbroke. The ruin of Pope's reputation might have been dated from this hour, if the joint malignity of Bolingbroke and Mallet could have effected it. Mallet was now in the way to promotion. When the prince of Wales, at variance with his father, placed himself at the head of the opposition, and kept a separate court, he endeavoured to increase his popularity by the patronage of literature; and Mallet being recommended to him, his loyal highness appointed him his under-secretary, with a salary of £200 a year.
While in this employment, he published in 1739, "Mustapha," a tragedy, dedicated to his royal patron. Thomson's "Edward and Eleonora" had been excluded the stage, because the licenser discovered in it a formidable attack on the minister, yet Mallet's "Mustapha," which was thought, and was no doubt intended, to glance both at the king and sir Robert Walpole, in the characters of Solyman the Magnificent, and Rustan his visier, was allowed to be acted, and was acted with great applause. The language of this tragedy is more easy and natural than that of "Eurydice," but its success was much owing to its political allusions. On the first night of its exhibition, the heads of the opposition were all assembled, and many speeches were applied by the audience to the supposed grievances of the times, and to persons and characters. In the following year, Thomson and Mallet were commanded by the prince of Wales to write the masque of "Alfred," in honour of the birth-day of lady Augusta, his eldest daughter (the late duchess of Brunswick), which was twice acted in the gardens of Clifden by some of the London performers. After the death of Thomson in 1748, Mallet re-wrote the Masque of Alfred, under the influence and by the encouragement of lord Bolingbroke; and with the assistance of music and gorgeous scenery, it was acted with some, but no great success.
In 1747 Mallet published his "Hermit, or Amyntor and Theodora," a poem in which Dr. Johnson allows that there is copiousness and elegance of language (which indeed appear in most of Mallet's works), vigour of sentiment, and imagery well adapted to take possession of the fancy. It abounds also with many excellent moral precepts, which receive weight and energy from the sanction of religion, a foundation on which Mallet did not always build. Dr. Warton was much censured for saying in his "Essay on the Life and Writings of Pope," that "the nauseous affectation of expressing every thing pompously and poetically, is nowhere more visible than in a poem lately published, called Amyntor and Theodora;" but Warton was not a rash critic, and retained the sentence in the subsequent editions of his "Essay."
Not long after this, Mallet was employed by lord Bolinghroke in an office which he executed with all the malignity that his employer could wish. This was no other than to defame the character of Pope — Pope, who by leaving the whole of his MSS to lord Bolingbroke, had made him in some respect the guardian of his character — Pope, on,whose death-bed lord Bolingbroke looking earnestly down, repeated several times, interrupted with sobs, "O great God, what is man? I never knew a person that had so tender a heart for his particular friends, or a warmer benevolence for all mankind!" who certainly had idolized this nobleman throughout his whole life, and who adhered to his lordship's cause through all the vicissitudes of popular odium and exile. What could have induced Bolingbroke to the malice of degrading Pope's character, and the cowardice of employing a hireling to do it? The simple fact is, that after Pope's death it was thought to be discovered that he had privately printed 1500 copies of one of lord Bolingbroke's works, "The Patriot King," the perusal of which his lordship wished to be confined to a select few. This offence, which Mallet only could have traced to a bad motive, if fairly examined, will probably seem disproportioned to the rage and resentment of Bolingbroke. A very acute examiner of evidence (Mr. D'Israeli) has therefore imputed that to the preference with which Pope had distinguished Warburton, and is of opinion that Warburton, much more than Pope, was the real object. Between Bolingbroke and Warburton there was, it is well known, a secret jealousy, which at length appeared in mutual and undisguised contempt. But much of this narrative belongs rather to them than to Mallet, who could feel no resentment, could plead no provocation. On the contrary, he had every inducement to reflect with tenderness on the memory and friendship of Pope, who speaks of him, in a letter we have already alluded to, in the following terms: "To prove to you how little essential to friendship I hold letter-writing — I have not yet written to Mr. Mallet, whom I love and esteem greatly, nay whom I know to have as tender a heart, and that feels a friendly remembrance as long as any man." Such was the man who gladly undertook what Bolingbroke was ashamed to perform, and in a preface to the "Patriot King" misrepresented the conduct of Pope in language the most malignant and conspicuous.
That he had an eye to his own interest in all this, it would be a miserable affectation of liberality to doubt. No other motive can account for his conduct, and this conduct will he found to correspond with his general character. Bolingbroke accordingly rewarded him by bequeathing to him all his writings published and unpublished, and Mallet immediately began to prepare them for the press. His conduct at the very outset of this business affords another illustration of his character. Francklin, the printer, to whom many of the political pieces written during the opposition to Walpole, had been given, as he supposed, in perpetuity, laid claim to some compensation for those. Mallet allowed his claim, and the question was referred to arbitrators, who were empowered to decide upon it, by an instrument signed by the parties; but when they decided unfavourably to Mr. Mallet, he refused to yield to the decision, and the printer was thus deprived of the benefit of the award, by not having insisted upon bonds of arbitration, to which Mallet had objected as degrading to a man of honour! He then proceeded, with the help of Millar, the bookseller, to publish all he could find; and so sanguine was he in his expectations, that he rejected the offer of £3000 which Millar offered him for the copyright, although he was at this time so distressed for money that he was forced to borrow some of Millar to pay the stationer and printer. The work at last appeared, in 5 vols. 4to, and Mallet had soon reason to repent his refusal of the bookseller's offer, as this edition was not sold off in twenty years. As these volumes contained many bold attacks on revealed religion, they brought much obloquy on the editor, and even a presentment was made of them by the grand-jury of Westminster. His memory, however, will he thought to suffer yet more by his next appearance in print. When the nation was exasperated by the ill success of the war, and the ministry wished to divert public indignation from themselves, Mallet was employed to turn it upon admiral Byng. In this he entered as heartily as into the defamation of Pope, and wrote a letter of accusation under the character of a "Plain Man," a large sheet, which was circulated with great industry, and probably was found to answer its purpose. The price of blood, on this occasion, was a pension which he retained till his death.
From this time (1757) until 1763, we hear nothing of Mr. Mallet, except a dedication of his poems to the late duke of Marlborough, in which he promises himself speedily the honour of dedicating to him the life of his illustrious predecessor. The cause of this promise is another of those charges which have been brought against Mallet, and which it will be difficult to repell. When the celebrated John duke of Marlborough died, it was determined, that the history of his life should be transmitted to posterity, and the papers supposed to contain the necessary information were delivered to lord Molesworth, who had been his favourite in Flanders. When Molesworth died, the same papers were transferred with the same design to sir Richard Steele, who in some of his exigences put them to pawn. They then remained with the old duchess, who in her will assigned the task to Mr. Glover, the author of "Leonidas," and Mr. Mallet, with a reward of £1000 and a curious prohibition against inserting any verses. There were other prohibitions and conditions, however, which induced Glover, a man of spirit and virtue, to decline the legacy. Mallet had no such scruples, and besides the legacy, had a pension from the late duke of Marlborough to quicken his industry. He then began, and continued to talk much and often of the progress he had made, but on his death, not a scrap could be discovered of the history.
In the political disputes which commenced at the beginning of the present reign, Mallet espoused the cause of his countryman lord Bute, and is said to have written his tragedy of "Elvira," with a view to serve his lordship. This play was performed at Drury-lane in 1763; its object was to recommend pacific sentiments, but the public was dissatisfied with the late peace, and "Elvira," though well performed, was easily rendered unpopular by the opponents of the ministry. Davies gives us an amusing anecdote of his tricking Garrick into the performance of this piece, by making him believe that he had introduced the mention of him in his life of Marlborough, a bait which Mallet's principles suggested, and which Garrick's vanity readily swallowed. Garrick got little by the play, but Mallet was rewarded with the office of keeping the book of entries for ships in the port of London.
Towards the end of his life, Mallet went with his wife to France, but after a while finding his health declining, returned alone to England, and died April 21, 1765. He was twice married. Of his first wife we find no mention, but by her he had several children. One daughter, who married an Italian of rank, named Cilesia, wrote a tragedy called "Almida," which was acted at Drury-lane. This lady died at Genoa in 1790. His second wife, whom he married in October 1742, was miss Lucy Elstob, daughter to lord Carlisle's steward. She had a fortune of £10,000 all of which she took care to settle upon herself; but she was equally careful that Mallet should appear like a gentleman of distinction, and from her great kindness, always chose herself to purchase every thing that he wore, and to let her friends know that she did so. This lady's sentiments were congenial to those of her husband, who was a professed free-thinker. They kept a good table (at which Gibbon appears to have been frequently a guest), and the lady, proud of her opinions, would often, we are told, in the warmth of argument, say, "Sir, we deists."
Mr. Mallet's stature, says Dr. Johnson, "was diminutive, but he was regularly formed. His appearance, till he grew corpulent, was agreeable, and he suffered it to want no recommendation that dress could give it. His conversation was elegant and easy." Of his character in other respects, it would be unnecessary to add any thing to the preceding facts. As a writer he cannot be placed in any high class, nor is there any species of composition in which he is eminent; yet his poetry surely entities him to a place in every collection of English bards. In his poems as well as his prose compositions, elegance of style predominates, and he appears to have written with ease. His "Life of Lord Bacon," prefixed to an edition of that illustrious philosopher's works in 1740, has been censured as touching too little on the philosophical part of the character. The writing it, however, was probably a matter of necessity rather than choice, and while he could not afford to refuse the employment, he was too conscious of his inability to attempt any other than what he has accomplished, an elegant narrative of the events of lord Bacon's life. Of Mallet's works, prose and verse, an edition was published in 1769, 3 vols. small 8vo.