We had proceeded but a short way in these volumes, before we found reason to felicitate ourselves on our good fortune. From the diffidence natural to a first appearance, we were solicitous to discover some golden compendium of criticism to which we might confidently trust in our perplexed and thorny progress; and such, if we may trust an author's impartial opinion of his own work, will prove the treasure before us. Our satisfaction is not a little increased by the patriotic consideration, that if unfortunately our critical labours be not destined to reach posterity, yet the manual from which we propose to enrich them, will assuredly survive, and extend its blessings to future ages. "I know," exclaims the author, "that this book will live and escape the havoc that has been made of my literary fame." Vol. i. p. 58.
As our career is merely opened, and consequently the good effects of our lucubrations have scarcely yet had time to manifest themselves, we hear, with some equanimity, that "literary taste, and therefore literary productions, are in a declining and degenerate state." Those, however, who are more interested in the melancholy fact than ourselves, may derive comfort from a subsequent discovery, that "there are still some privileged and distinguished authors whose writings dart through the general fog of our literary dullness." The number of them is, indeed, but small; but, as in the valued file we find the names of Mr. Pratt, Mr. Dallas, and the Earl of Carlisle, we willingly compound for its scantiness, and scarcely forbear to chide the unjustifiable querulousness of the writer.
But who is this new Stagyrite? O seri studiorum! We will, however, endeavour to delineate him; but for this purpose we must borrow the tints from his own pallet.
Self-knowledge has been usually described as of difficult attainment: Mr. Stockdale found it otherwise, and he begins his book with a most remarkable proof of it. "Every thing that constituted my nature, my acquirements, my habits, and my fortune, conspired to let in upon me a complete knowledge of human nature." — Vol. i. p. 2. Such, however, is the waywardness of mankind, that this invaluable acquisition, instead of ensuring universal respect, only tended, he tells us, to provoke "the most active and unrelenting malignity." p. 4. A different motive for this malignity may hereafter suggest itself. At present, we will take Mr. Stockdale on his own word, to be, what our old acquaintance, Blas of Santillane, conceived himself at setting out on his travels, "la huitieme merveille du monde."
It might be expected that the author's "complete knowledge of human nature" would have preserved him from many of the difficulties in which inexperience involved the stripling of Oviedo: such, however, is the prevalence of his ill stars, that, in the course of his whimsical and weary pilgrimage, he blunders from one pit-fall into another, with an alacrity, which, in minds inclined to scepticism, might almost excite a doubt of the justness of his unqualified pretensions to superior sagacity. These accidents he describes with such a face of rueful simplicity, and mixes up so much grave drollery and merry pathos with all he says or does, that we are perpetually at a loss whether to laugh or cry. Upon the whole, Mr. Stockdale gives us an idea of a character, of whose existence we had previously no conception, we mean that of a sentimental Harlequin. It is certainly a very entertaining one, and, in good hands, to adopt the language of the green room, cannot fail to tell.
There is nothing Mr. Stockdale labours so anxiously to impress upon the reader's mind, as that conviction of his "immortality," which has, it appears, already taken such full possession of his own. "Before I die," says he, "I think my literary fame may be fixed on an adamantine foundation." v. i. p. 40. While yet a child, some good-natured Pythian predicted that lie would be "a poet." This oracle is the basis of his hopes, and, after a lapse of more than half a century, is still repeated with fond credulity. "Notwithstanding," he exclaims, "all that is past, O thou god of my mind! (meaning, we presume, the aforesaid Pythian) I still hope that my future fame will decidedly warrant the prediction." p. 37.
In the early part of his life Mr. Stockdale undertook many poetical pilgrimages; he visited the house where Thomson was born, the coffee-room where Dryden presided among the wits, &c. Recollecting the influence of these local associations, he bursts forth: "Neither the unrelenting coldness, nor the repeated insolence of mankind, can prevent me from thinking that something like this enthusiastic devotion may hereafter be paid to ME." p. 103. To facilitate this expected homage, he very considerately particularizes all the spots where his works were composed. From the ambulatory manner in which the author has passed his life, we perceive, with dismay, that his votaries will have many shrines to visit, and many wearisome journeys to make — but enthusiasm knows no difficulties. We subjoin a small part of this interesting detail for the information of the world. "The Philosopher, a poem, was written in Warwick Court, Holborn, in 1769;" "The life of Waller, in Johnson's Court, Fleet Street, in 1771." He wrote something in "Round Court, in the Strand;" a good deal in "May's Buildings, St. Martin's Lane;" and, more than once, he made "Kentish Town" his Parnassus. "In my lodgings at Portsmouth, in St. Mary's Street, I wrote my elegy on the death of a lady's linnet. It will not be uninteresting to sensibility, to thinking and elegant minds! It deeply interested me, and therefore produced not one of my weakest and worst written poems!" As this spot will probably be the first to which the future worshippers of Mr. Stockdale will resort, it gives us singular pleasure to be enabled to point it out with the utmost precision. "It was," says the author, "directly opposite to a noted house, which at that time, was distinguished by the name of the green rails; where the riotous orgies of Naxus and Cythera contrasted my quiet and purer occupations." p. 109.
Mr. Stockdale was born as far back as the year 1736, at Branxton in Northumberland. His father, the vicar of the parish, was a man of quiet virtues, of moderate talents, and very slender means. This good old man, that the narrative may open, we presume, with some dramatic effect, is thrown at once into a blaze of the marvellous; and a vision, a ghost, and "a luminous glory," which encircled the head of a press-bed, "for five minutes," are all cited to prove that the father of such a son could not be in the roll of common men.
Branxton is, or rather was, famous in English history, as the scite of the battle usually known by the name of Flodden. Henceforth it will be principally distinguished for being the birthplace of Mr. Stockdale. He records a fact, "with pious reverence," which leaves no doubt on the subject. Talking with his father, one day, about Branxton, the old gentleman said to him, "with great emphasis, You may make that place remarkable for your birth, if you take care of yourself." — "My father's understanding," continues Mr. Stockdale, "was clear and strong, and he could penetrate human nature," — so indeed, can his son, — "He already saw that I had natural advantages above those of common men!" p. 18. Mr. Stockdale was, at this time, about twelve years old.
At the school of Alnwick his premature genius discovered itself in a spirited "barring-out," (the Saturnalia of school boys,) and other excesses not quite so creditable to him. Here too "he tasted wine, and liked its flavour, and its exhilarating effects" — indeed the liking appears to have grown into a passion, and to have materially influenced the events of his future life. "I was determined," he says, "to stimulate and exalt the olive of Minerva with the grape of Bacchus." p. 131. Soon after he very naturally catches at the myrtle of Venus, and becomes, as he phrases it, extremely enamoured. His first flame was a young lady of Berwick, who then lived "at the head of the wool market;" and he "celebrated her peerless beauty" in lines, of which, unluckily, at the distance of threescore years, he can only recollect the following triplet, which he says, he always loved.
Let those kind deities in pity share,
Let them endeavour to remove my care
Or they must make the cause of it less fair.
Mr. Stockdale fell in love with other young ladies, and wrote other triplets, while at school. He also composed "odes to cats;" but of these none appear in the present publication. The Berwick election, too, obtained a portion of his attention, and he sang the triumph of the successful candidate (Mr. Delaval) in no vulgar strains. For this, he naturally expected "credit and emolument;'" and we are pleased to find that he received both: the burgesses "saluted him with a shout of applause," and Mr. Delaval presented him with half-a-guinea. Divitiae mutant mores, says the proverb, and so it fell out with Mr. Stockdale; for he has scarcely pocketed the gold ere he discovers that he had "prostituted his muse to the purchaser of a borough"! Perhaps he expected a guinea.
But the poetical performance on which Mr. Stockdale dwells with most delight, is a translation of an ode ascribed to Cornelius Gallus, "the elegance and simplicity of which, he believes that he has given entirely!" there can be no doubt of it: e.g.
Conde, puella, conde papillulas,
Compresso lacte, quae modo pullulant;
Quae me sauciant!—
From human sight that chest remove,
So full, so fraught, so big with love;
The joy's too great for man!
At the age of eighteen Mr. Stockdale obtained a presentation to a bursary (or exhibition) in the university of St. Andrew's. He would have preferred Oxford or Cambridge; and he speculates, very feelingly, on what he lost and won by missing them both. Upon the whole he strikes the balance in his own favour.
At St. Andrew's, Mr. Stockdale allows that he was well received, and he makes his usual return for it. The distinguishing qualities of the regents, it seems, "were ignorance, bigotry, and brutality." In the evidence before us, we find no traces of them; but, on the contrary, much good sense and humanity, and a fund of patience, absolutely inexhaustible. Mr. Stockdale begins his academical studies with labouring to convince them of the absurdity of their attachment to the Kirk! and to the principles of Jacobitism. These, however, he imbibes in his turn, not, indeed, from the regents, but from the fair rebels of the town. "I always loved coffee and tea," he says, p. 182, "and I loved them the better when they were presented to me by women. I was honoured with much attention by the ladies of St. Andrew's; by the genteelest of them, and they were flaming Jacobites." So Mr. Stockdale renounced his allegiance, and drank the Restoration in whiskey punch every day. He does not, however, do justice to the strength of his former loyalty, for it is clear from his own narrative, that if the fair seducers had not, artfully, added "some excellent currant jelly and marmalade" to their tea and coffee, he would, in all human probability, have continued faithful to the House of Brunswick.
No bribe appears to have been held out for reconciling Mr. Stockdale to the Kirk, and he therefore chose to attend divine service at the house of a Mr. Lyndesay. Upon this, Mr. Wilson the Greek professor, "who had all the virulence of John Calvin lurking in his soul," and Mr. Gregorie, the professor of mathematics, who "wanted only authority to burn our author at the stake," informed him that it was highly improper that a young gentleman, who had the benefit of a foundation in the university, should, instead of frequenting the national worship, make one of a different and opposite church, and of a disaffected congregation; and they insisted on his punctual attendance at "the high-kirk every sabbath day." p. 198. "I never, says Mr. Stockdale, felt more indignation than at this unchristian and inquisitorial attack; it was so diametrically opposite to the sentiments and habits of my soul!" To the latter it undoubtedly was, for the habits of Mr. Stockdale's soul appear, about this time, to have been wholly licentious. He made, however, "an argumentative and eloquent defence," which reduced the tyrants to silence; and they were "as glad to dismiss him as Felix was to get rid of Paul." The part which more particularly overawed them was this, "the exhibition to which I was presented is by no means a fair plea for the reprehension, and it seems to me incompatible with liberality of mind. The old Romans were most indulgent to those whom they had most in their power!" — Upon a reference to his father, the good old man enjoins him to attend the kirk punctually; and Mr. Stockdale "obeys," — but still in his own way. "I sometimes slipped off from the young train who were following the master to divine service; and sometimes when I went to church, I put an agreeable author into my pocket to counteract the opium of a long and drowsy sermon." When it is considered that Mr. Stockdale was now educating for the church, of which he has long been a beneficed member, this conduct, and the bare-faced avowal of it, will appear somewhat extraordinary. This period of mortification be contrives to signalize by another agreeable adventure. At the head of a drunken party, he sallies, one morning, into the college kitchen, where he finds "Tommy Bond, the under cook, defenceless and alone;" and immediately proposes to bury him alive beneath a heap of coals. This is done; and the poor creature, who, as Mr. Stockdale informs us, was almost an idiot, is only saved from suffocation by the providential entrance of the head cook. The tyrannical inquisitors of the university, instead of consigning Mr. Stockdale to the whipping-post for this outrage on humanity, content themselves with a degree of expulsion; and even this, they soon after rescind. The glee with which the Rev. Mr. Stockdale, at the age of seventy-three, recounts this unprovoked attempt to commit murder, is truly edifying.
But, amidst these revelries, he never lost sight of his "immortality;" to secure which, he favoured the world from time to time with "a copy of verses." One of them is happily preserved entire: it abounds, he owns, with rapturous and romantic extravagance: but, as he modestly adds, "it is an extravagance from which future poetical abilities might, perhaps, be inferred."
Homer in sounding numbers paints the dame
By Grecians kindled for the Spartan dame;
But for thy sake, an amorous spouse would tire
The fiercest troops, and set the world on fire!
The fortunate precaution of dating this novel and interesting compliment, proves, what had else been incredible, that the author was only in his twentieth year when he produced it.
But we must proceed somewhat more rapidly. About this time Mr. Stockdale, who had now lost his father, returns to Northumberland, and finds his "tender mother" in a state of distress, which is not much alleviated by his frequent visits to the tavern, where he is created perpetual toast-master. When his money was exhausted, he condescended to distribute his time among the neighbouring gentlemen: — "though their conversation was far from being congenial to his habits of thinking." "I do not mean to speak with contempt," he adds, "of the minds and objects of those men: our natural faculties must be such as God gave them." p. 228. Mr. Stockdale is generally original, but, in this place, we are compelled to pronounce him a decided plagiarist:
Dogberry. Well said, i'faith, neighbour Verges! well; an two men ride of a horse, one must ride behind: — an honest soul, i'faith, as ever broke bread: but God is to be worshipped: all men are not alike: alas good neighbour!
Leonato. Indeed, neighbour, he comes short of you.
Dogb. Gifts that God gives.
Mr. Stockdale now sighs to return to St. Andrew's; and to enable him to undertake the journey and prosecute his studies there, his friends and relations "contribute their little presents." Hardly has he received them, before his mind becomes interested in another object; — he catches, what he wittily terms," the scarlet fever," burns for military glory, and procures an ensigney in the Welsh Fusileers. Adieu to the bishop! the hero now takes his turn, and Mr. Stockdale can think of nothing but Zenophon, Alexander, Peter I., and Charles XII. Into the character of the last, he enters at great length, and draws a parallel, after the manner of Plutarch, of several pages, between the Swedish monarch and himself! It is done with no less modesty than impartiality, for he frankly confesses that there are some points in which he and Charles do not exactly resemble each other. He thinks, for instance, that the King of Sweden had a somewhat more fervid and original genius than himself, and was likewise a little more robust in his person: — but, subjoins Mr. Stockdale, "of our reciprocal fortune, achievements, and conduct, some parts will be to HIS advantage, and some to MINE." In regard to fame, that, Mr. Stockdale imagines, may be pretty equally shared between them: though he candidly admits at the same time, that his own "will not probably take its fixed and immoveable station, and shine with its expanded and permanent splendour till it consecrates his ashes, till it illumines his tomb." p. 272.
While his imagination was yet warm with the subject of arms, he wrote the POET. Mr. Stockdale confesses that the poem has "long been unknown to the world;" but then he trusts, (with a mode of expression highly decorous in a Christian priest,) "that, like Lazarus, it is not dead, but sleepeth;" and that his parental care may yet revive it. If it should fortunately occur to his mind, that Lazarus was not "revived" by human power, it might perhaps save him from the disgrace of an attempt that will most assuredly prove abortive.
Mr. Stockdale "always loved triplets" — there are several in the extract before us, of which this is by far the sublimest.
I see him brightest when in Bender's Fort
He fights the army of a powerful court;
A captive Swede alarming all the Porte.
A quotation from Juveual which immediately follows,
Sed quando munitam figulis intraverat urbem, &c.
and which Mr. Stockdale "presumes to be correct," seems to prove that this surprising genius is quite as great a master of Latin prosody as of English.
The last poem was the rhapsody of a hero; that of the lover succeeds; and though the author does not deny its bold "irregularity," he yet "hopes that the distinguishing reader will think it predicts a future and real poet."
Hail, heavenly nymph: and good as fair,
Accept this northern rhyme;
Inflamed with love of thee I'd soar
In Nova Zembla's clime.
Should Pluto bear thee to some cell
Impervious to the day;
I'd pull the tyrant from his throne,
And snatch my prize away. &c. &c.
But Mr. Stockdale has now put on his regimentals, and the ideas of the late clerical student on the prospect before him, are quite exhilarating.
"As I advanced towards Berwick, I anticipated the honours of the tented field, and more joyous and softer campaigns. I had already formed for myself a fragrant, rich, and variegated crown; the laurels of Mars interwoven with the bays of Apollo; with the convivial flowers of Comus; with the vine of Naxus; and with the myrtle of Cythera." p. 287.
After this exordium, the reader, perhaps, will be somewhat surprised to learn that the first campaign of our new hero was passed in the purlieus of Drury Lane and Covent Garden: he seems, indeed, through life, to have been an unwearied frequenter of the theatres, and he has really contributed something to our amusement, by his lively descriptions of the actors and actresses who were then in possession of the stage.
In the spring of 1756, he receives orders to embark or the Mediterranean, and he takes leave of London in a very characteristic manner.
"I have often made a good, and often a bad use of London; there I have often sunk to the lowest propensities, and risen to the sublimest delights of my nature — it has wounded me, with the insolence of the great, and with the rudeness and injustice of the vulgar; but it has likewise administered remedies to me, which have healed my wounds; and which, I hope, have restored me to perpetual health; it has enlarged my knowledge; it hath stimulated my ambition; and thus, I trust in Providence, that I shall defeat malice, and obtain immortality."
Again, immortality! The reader, who recollects that Mr. Stockdale is a clergyman, (a circumstance which he himself appears to have forgotten in his title-page as well as elsewhere,) may possibly imagine that he alludes to the only true immortality which man can enjoy: he speaks, however, of that spurious and wretched kind, which he is eager to receive at the hands of every fool and flatterer who may be either weak, or malicious enough to dole it out to him! His poetry, in which he so fondly confides, is gone; and he has already long outlived his works. At the great age of seventy-three, these day-dreams are worse than ridiculous: another kind of immortality should now be his care; an immortality which, whether thought upon or not, he is sure to find, and which, we fervently hope, life will yet be spared him to make a happy one.
The author was in the action with Byng. It is now pretty generally understood that this unfortunate man was sacrificed to popular clamour: Mr. Stockdale's testimony, however, is decidedly against him. We have no wish to agitate the question. The execution of the admiral, whatever might be the motive, was of infinite advantage to the service; and; as Du Clos observes, in his Memoirs of Louis XV. "from the blood of Byng sprang up our subsequent victories."
Mr. Stockdale now appears as a recruiting officer at Biggleswade. There he writes verses which no one reads, makes love for which no one cares, and passes his time very agreeably. The camp at Chatham, to which he next removes, displeases him. The summer was hot, and the tents close; so, "about this time he began to be tired of the army;" resumed his clerical pursuits, and was ordained a deacon by the Bishop of Durham, in 1759.
As Mr. Stockdale was indebted to the benevolence of Mr. Sharp for the means of study and existence, he takes the earliest opportunity of decrying his benefactor's writings, and evincing his own attachment to the doctrine which he had just sworn, in the sight of Heaven, to maintain and defend. "The consequences of the most unchristian and fiery disputes which those mysteries (of the Trinity) have occasioned, are the greatest disgrace of human nature, and exhibit more detestable pictures of our species than are presented to us in the annals of the pagan world. Mr. Sharp has gone deep into the doctrine of the Trinity,
Mere curious pleasure, and ingenious pain!
What is the result of such idle speculations? We do not gain a particle of instruction, and we lose many of Christian charity." Vol. ii. p. 12.
By this good man Mr. Stockdale is presented to a curacy in London, for which he immediately proceeds. We hear not a syllable of his church, but a great deal of Barbarossa, Athelstan, &c. This was not precisely what Mr. Sharp wished to know, and he therefore seems to have dismissed his curate, who returned to Berwick, where he continued till the general feeling of the neighbourhood hinted to him the necessity of making a second trip to the Mediterranean.
At Berwick, however, he commenced the unfortunate profession of an author, and, among many temporary pieces, which, he hopes, will, "at some time, not be without their glory," published "a poetical address to the Supreme Being." "It is distinguished throughout," he says, "with a rational and fervid piety; it is flowing and poetical; it is not without its pathos." p. 23. Notwithstanding all this condiment, the confection is good for nothing; for he has just discovered that this "flowing, fervid, and poetical address" is not animated with that vigour which gives dignity and impression to poetry.
During his residence in Italy, he employed himself in translating histories and novels, for which the booksellers would not pay. On his return, he settled in London, and undertook a translation of the Aminta. Of this version he speaks with great complacency. As we never heard of it before, we suspect that the feeling was confined to his own breast; notwithstanding he hurried Dr. Hawkesworth into a coffee-house, forced a specimen of it into his hand, and extorted from him an exclamation of high emphasis and warmth. p. 54.
By degrees, as the Aminta could do nothing better for him, he sunk into a writer for the Critical Review, at the rate (blushing we record it) of two guineas a sheet. This golden gleam of criticism was of short duration; it began in March, 1770, and closed in the April of the succeeding year, because the proprietors would not hear of an augmentation of pay. The Monthly Reviewers were requited, it seems, "for their dark and inhuman assassinations, with four guineas a sheet;" and Mr. Stockdale thought it a matter of conscience not to perform his "bloody business" for less.
Yet this seems to have been the bright period of our author's life, and his detail of it forms by far the most interesting part of his Memoirs. As he always hung loose on society, and had a day, a week, a month, at any one's command, it is not surprizing that he should have a pretty large acquaintance among the idle frequenters of the bookseller's shops and the theatres. He lived a good deal with Garrick, and was a visitor of Johnson; and he relates many entertaining anecdotes of both.
Garrick's first theatrical appearance was in 1741, not long before the death of Pope, who was then in a weak and declining state. The poet had, however, the satisfaction of seeing him in one of his principal characters; and Mr. Stockdale has given Garrick's interesting account of the awful moment of trial.
"'When I was told that Pope was in the house, I instantaneously felt a palpitation at my heart; a tumultuous, not a disagreeable, emotion in my mind. I was then in the prune of youth; and in the zenith of my theatrical ambition. It gave me a particular pleasure that Richard was my character, when Pope was to see and hear me. As I opened my part, I saw our little poetical hero, dressed in black, seated in a side box near the stage; and viewing me with a serious and earnest attention. His look shot, and thrilled like lightning through my frame; and I had some hesitation in proceeding, from anxiety and from joy. As RICHARD gradually blazed forth, the house was in a roar of applause, and the conspiring hand of Pope shadowed me with laurels.' Garrick was informed of Pope's opinion of his theatrical merit, and nothing could be more delightful than his praise. That young man, said POPE, never had his equal, as an actor; and he will never have a rival." Vol. ii. p. 153.
This is excellent. We have heard from our fathers that when Pope entered the theatre, the audience usually rose up out of respect to him. It is now the fashion to insult his memory. This may disgrace ourselves, but cannot injure him; and the coming age will assuredly do justice to both parties.
The foible of Garrick was his excessive jealousy even of the lowest talents, and his avidity of flattery even from the meanest retainer of the theatre: that of Johnson seems to have been an unreasonable grudging at those public honours and rewards which poured upon one with whom, in youth, he walked from Litchfield to London, and who had now so far out-stripped him in the pursuit of fortune. The following anecdotes, which blend what was little with what was truly great in the characters of these extraordinary men, are highly worth preserving.
"When Dr. Johnson and I were talking of Garrick, I observed, that he was a very moderate, fair, and pleasing companion; when we considered what a constant influx had flowed upon him, both of fortune and fame, to throw him off of his bias of moral and social self-government. Sir, (replied Johnson, in his usual emphatical and glowing manner) you are very right in your remark. Garrick has undoubtedly the merit of a temperate, and unassuming behaviour in society; for more pains have been taken to spoil that fellow, than if he had been heir apparent to the Empire of India."
When Johnson praised Garrick, it was generally with an appearance of dislike, or rather of affected contempt. In their latter years there was very little communication between them. Garrick, indeed, bore, for some time, Johnson's rudeness with great good nature; but their coolness gradually terminated in a complete separation. There are times, however, when the better feelings triumph over the meaner passions. Garrick, after complaining to Mr. Stockdale one day, of Johnson's illiberal conduct, added, "I question whether, in his calmest and most dispassionate moments, he would allow me that theatrical merit which the world has been so generous as to attribute to me:" upon which Mr. Stockdale determined to make the trial; and we rejoice that he did so. Finding Johnson alone, and in good humour, he began a conversation on Garrick, and asked whether he deserved that high theatrical character, and that prodigious fame which he had acquired? "O, Sir," replied Johnson, "he deserves every thing that he has acquired; for having seized the very soul of Shakespeare; for having embodied it in himself; and for having expanded its glory over the world." I was not slow in communicating this to Garrick. The tear started in his eye. "Stockdale!" he exclaimed, "such a praise from such a man this atones for all that has passed." p. 185.
Retournons a nos moutons. About this time our author wrote a "Life of Waller," and a "Defence of Pope." When Johnson's Life of Waller appeared, though, in his biography, says Mr. Stockdale, "he paid a large tribute to the abilities of Goldsmith and Hawkesworth; yet he made no mention of my name!" It is evident that he did not care to remember it. When the Doctor was busied on the Life of Pope, Mr. Stockdale wrote "a pathetic letter" to him, earnestly imploring "a generous tribute from his authority!" Johnson was still silent, and Mr. Stockdale subjoins, with some degree of fretful naivete, "in his sentiments towards me he was divided between a benevolence to MY interests, and a coldness to my fame." We have always had a high sense of Johnson's humanity and critical acumen, and this little anecdote is by no means calculated to lessen it. To the needy author he would readily listen; to the importunate mendicant for undeserved fame, he never failed to turn a deaf ear.
When the booksellers determined to give a new edition of Chambers's Cyclopaedia, Mr. Stockdale who had been recommended to Strahan's notice by Dr. Johnson, was offered the supervisal of it. Upon communicating the circumstance to his friend, he declared his readiness to undertake the work himself, if Mr. Stockdale should decline it. This surprized our author, who expressed his astonishment that he "who at all times could pour such a rich and eloquent strain of prose, ardent sentiment, and striking imagery, should think of preparing for the press a voluminous, tedious, scientific dictionary. His answer surprised me as much as his proposal. "'Sir,' said he, 'I like that muddling work.' This was his very expression." The edition, however, was consigned to the care of Dr. Rees; and we see no reason to regret it. Mr. Stockdale was, by his own account, unequal to the task; and though Johnson would have muddled in it to an excellent purpose, yet, as we should in all probability have then lost the Lives of the Poets, "the collusion," as Goodman Dull has it, "would not have held in the exchange."
Among the innumerable productions of Mr. Stockdale was a history of Gibraltar. In a moment of despair he immolated his unfortunate offspring, the only one of his family in whose welfare we found ourselves at all interested. The agonies of a disappointed author cannot indeed be contemplated without pain: — but we write to instruct, and the following quotation may have its use.
"When I had arrived at within a day's work of its conclusion, in consequence of some immediate and mortifying accidents, my literary adversity, and all my other misfortunes took fast hold of my mind; oppressed it extremely; and reduced it to a stage of the deepest dejection and despondency. In this unhappy view of life, I made a sudden resolution — never more to prosecute the profession of an author; to retire altogether from the world; and read only for consolation and amusement. I committed to the flames my history of Gibraltar, and my translation of Marsollier's life of Cardinal Ximenes; for which the bookseller had refused to pay me the fifty guineas according to our agreement." — p. 256.
But the vows of authors are not more binding than those of lovers. — When the country was alarmed with the reports of a trench Invasion, "my poetical spirit" (says Mr. Stockdale) "excited me to write my poem of 'The Invincible Island.' I never found myself in a happier disposition to compose, nor ever wrote with more pleasure. I presumed warmly to hope, that unless inveterate prejudice and malice were as invincible as our island itself, it would have the diffusive circulation which I earnestly desired."
The catastrophe of the poet is, perhaps, much better told than any thing in the poem.
"Flushed with this idea — borne impetuously along, by ambition and by hope; though they had often deluded me; I set off in the mail-coach from Durham for London, on the 9th of December, 1797, at midnight, and in a severe storm. On my arrival in town, my poem was advertised, printed and published with great expedition. It was printed for Clarke in New Bond Street. For several days the sale was very promising: and my bookseller, as well as myself entertained sanguine hopes. — But the demand for the poem relaxed gradually! — From this last of many literary misfortunes, I inferred, that PREJUDICE and MALIGNITY, in my fate as an author, seemed indeed to be invincible!" — vol. ii. p. 310.
We must now dismiss Mr. Stockdale, and we are sorry that we cannot do it in better humour. His Memoirs are, perhaps, the most valuable part of his works: — but this is not saying much. They contain some sensible observations, and not a few amusing anecdotes of his contemporaries, delivered in a stile, frequently incorrect, indeed, but always sprightly and vivacious, and distinguished by a wildness of idea peculiar to himself. The author seems to have led rather a busy than an industrious life, and, in his desultory course, to "have flown over more occupations" than Autolycus. From his own statements, he appears to be of a most untoward nature; he scarcely mentions an acquaintance whose memory he does not insult; and he proves his "forgiving disposition" by the most splenetic attacks upon his relations, his benefactors, his masters, nay, his dames, at the distance of threescore years. In all his disputes, and his memoirs are full of them, he appears decidedly in the wrong; and in his contests with ins spiritual superiors, outrageous and irreverent in the highest degree. He is not ashamed to avow that, in his examination for priests orders, he was guilty of deliberate falsehood; infected, as he adds, "by the air of Lambeth." These aberrations we willingly attribute to a disordered imagination, rather than to a want of moral feeling: — but Mr. Stockdale gives himself no concern about the matter: In every case, he appeals to some interior rule of right, which supersedes all written obligation, and easily convinces him that his worst actions are the effect of "disinterested, persevering, and sublime virtue!" — p. 227.
Much of the misery of his life has arisen from a fatal error concerning his talents: his friends unfortunately mistook his animal spirits for genius, and, by directing them into the walk of poetry, bewildered him for ever. Though he never wrote a line beyond the powers of the bellman, or the stone-cutter; though he confesses that all his verses have been received with negligence or contempt; yet the mediocrity, the absolute poverty of his genius, has not once occurred to him. While he is forgotten faster than he writes, he still dreams of "immortality," and confidently predicts that his ephemeral trifles, which passed unnoticed at their birth, will vet force attention, and descend with "glory" to futurity! It is enough to give wisdom to the foolish, and seriousness to the giddy, to contemplate the afflicting picture of self-delusion so warm in the colouring, and so true to the life. Mr. Stockdale has embittered his days by a restless and tormenting thirst after waters which nature placed far beyond his reach; and which those who have tasted of them, have seldom found to be the purest draught of human felicity.
We cannot close this article without observing that if the populace of writers become thus querulous after fame, (to which they have no pretensions,) we shall expect to see an epidemical rage for auto-biography break out, more wide in its influence, and more pernicious in its tendency than the strange madness of the Abderites, so accurately described by Lucian. London, like Abdera, will be peopled solely by "men of genius;" and as the frosty season, the grand specific for such evils, is over, we tremble for the consequences. — Symptoms of this dreadful malady (though somewhat less violent) have appeared amongst us before; and the ease of one of the poor infected creatures (a maternal ancestor of Mr. Stockdale) is thus technically described by honest Anthony Wood. "This Edward Waterhouse wrote a rhapsodical, indigested, and whimsical work; and not in the least to be taken into the hand of any sober scholar, unless it be to make him laugh, or wonder at the simplicity of some people. He was a cock-brained man, and afterwards took Orders."