1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Percival Stockdale

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 28:429-32.



PERCIVAL STOCKDALE, a miscellaneous writer of some learning, was born Oct. 26, 1736, in the village of Branxton, of which parish his father, the Rev. Thomas Stockdale, was vicar, and also perpetual curate of Cornhill near the Tweed. He was educated for six years at the grammar-school of Alnwick, and afterwards at that of Berwick, where he studied the Greek and Latin classics, and acquired some taste, which it was his misfortune afterwards to consider as equivalent to a great genius for poetry. The world and he however were never agreed as to the merit of his poetical efforts; and this proved a constant subject for chagrin. He left school in his eighteenth year, and resided for some time with his father at Cornhill. He was then sent to the university of St. Andrews, but the year after, 1755, was recalled home, in consequence of the death of his father. Returning to St. Andrews, he pursued his studies for some time, until a friend procured him a second-lieutenancy in the army, in which he served at Gibraltar, and in the memorable expedition commanded by admirals Byng and West, for the relief of the besieged garrison of St. Philip, in the island of Minorca. In 1756, he returned to England, and about a year after quitted the army altogether, which produced what he calls "many rude interruptions, many wide and unideal intervals" in his literary pursuits.

In his way to Berwick, where he meant to pay his duty to his mother, and determine on some future plan of life, he visited Dr. Thomas Sharp, archdeacon of Northumberland, then at Durham, who invited him to a residence in his house, and encouraged him to enter into holy orders. Accordingly he was ordained deacon, at Michaelmas 1759, by Dr. Trevor, bishop of Durham, and went immediately to London, where he was to be one of Dr. Sharp's assistants in the curacy of Duke's-place, Aldgate. After this, he seems to have fallen into a rambling life, and in 1767, being without any church-employment, went to Italy, and resided for two years in the town of Villa Franca, where he says he read and wrote assiduously. In 1769, after his return to London, he published a translation of Tasso's Aminta; had afterwards some concern in the "Critical Review," and wrote a life of Waller the poet, which was prefixed to a new edition of his works. He also translated Bos's "Antiquities of Greece;" in 1771 was editor of the "Universal Magazine;" and in 1775 published three sermons, two against luxury and dissipation, and one on

universal benevolence. In the same year, appeared his poem entitled "The Poet," which had some temporary reputation; and soon after the publication of it, he obtained the office of chaplain to his majesty's ship the Resolution of 74 guns. This he retained for three years, and published "Six Sermons to Seamen;" translated Sabbatier's "Institutions of the Ancient Nations," and wrote an "Essay on the writings and genius of Pope," in answer to Dr. Warton's work on the same subject.

In the summer of 1779, he wrote several political letters, with the signature of Agricola, in the "Public Advertiser." At this period, when the principal booksellers of London determined to publish a new edition of the English Poets, with a previous account of the life of each poet, we are told that "Mr. Stockdale's Life of Waller had given them so high an idea of his ability to execute their plan, that they resolved, in this meeting, to apply to him to he its biographer and editor. The agreement was accordingly made; but, by some strange misunderstanding, Mr. Stockdale was deprived of this employment, and Dr. Johnson wrote the Lives of the Poets! Owing to this circumstance, a feud arose between our injured author and some of these booksellers, which has never subsided, and from which he may date not a few of the misfortunes and vexations of his life." We copy this story merely to contradict it, for no such agreement was ever entered into, and whatever resentment "our injured author" might have entertained against the booksellers, they could not have hesitated a moment had their choice been between Mr. Stockdale and Dr. Johnson. He now left his ship; and, being without any regular employment, was advised by his friends to accept a situation which now presented itself, that of tutor to the late lord Craven's eldest son, but this, it is said, he found a state of vassalage, "totally incompatible with his independent sentiments," and therefore quitted it the following spring.

In the summer of 1780, sir Adam Gordon, who had the living of Hincworth in Hertfordshire, offered Mr. Stockdale the curacy of that place. He accepted it with gratitude, and there wrote fifteen sermons. At this period at the distance of twenty-three years from his first ordination, he took priest's orders. In 1782, he wrote his "Treatise on Education;" and in the autumn of the succeeding year, lord Thurlow (the then lord Chancellor), in consequence, as we are gravely told, "of having read a volume of Mr. Stockdale's sermons, and without any other recommendation," presented him with the living of Lesbury, in Northumberland. To this the duke of Northumberland added that of Long-Houghton, in the same county. Here he wrote a tragedy called "Ximenes," which was never acted or printed; but still, in a restless pursuit of some imaginary happiness, he fancied that the bleakness of the climate injured his health; and accepted an invitation in 1787, from his friend Mr. Matra, British Consul at Tangier, to pass some time with him, under its more genial sky.

In 1790, he returned from the Mediterranean; and, from the researches he had made in Spain, and on the coast of Barbary, wrote a large account of Gibraltar, comprehending its natural and political history. It was composed we are informed with great attention and diligence, but, "when he had arrived within a day's work of its completion, in consequence of some recent and mortifying events, his literary adversity, and all his other misfortunes, took fast hold of his mind, oppressed it extremely, and reduced it to a stage of the deepest despondency." In this state, "he made a sudden resolution — never more to prosecute the profession of an author! to retire from the world; and read only for consolation and amusement. That he might have the less temptation to break his vow, in a desperate moment, he threw his History of Gibraltar into the flames!" He did not adhere much longer, however, to this, than to any former resolution; and after his chagrin had a little abated, resolved to write a course of "Lectures" upon the respective merits of the most eminent English poets, and about the same time composed two poems: "The Banks of the Wear," and "The Invincible Island." His "Lectures on the Poets" were completed, and published in the year 1807, and present a strange combination of good and bad sense, just and petulant criticism. His next publication was his own "Memoirs," and in 1808, when he paid his last visit to London, he published a selection of his "Poems," in one volume 8vo. From this period his health rapidly declined: and in the autumn of 1810, he returned to his vicarage in Northumberland, where he died Sept. 11, 1811. Mr. Stockdale was a man of very considerable talents, but his "Memoirs," in which he is uniformly his own panegyrist, are unfortunately calculated to give its a very unfavourable opinion of his temper and disposition. Having early accustomed himself to a very exalted idea of his own merit and importance, he was perpetually encountering disappointment for want of steadiness even in his most laudable pursuits. Although mixing much with the world, he never seems to have understood the terms on which it dispenses its favours, nor profited by the experience which the constant failure of his crude, romantic notions of his own genius and fame, might have contributed. His narrative affords a melancholy picture of a mind perpetually irritated by disappointed vanity, and never seeking solace where his profession might have pointed.