1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Keate

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 19:274-77.



GEORGE KEATE, a very agreeable English writer, was descended from sir George Hungerford, his great grandfather, by lady Frances Ducie, only daughter of Francis lord Seymour, baron of Trowbridge. He was born, as may be conjectured, about 1729 or 1730, and received his education at Kingston school, under the rev. Mr. Woodeson. From thence he went to Geneva, where he resided some years; and during his stay there, became acquainted with Voltaire, with whom he continued to correspond many years after he returned to England. After finishing the tour of Europe, he settled as a student in the Inner Temple, was called to the bar, and sometimes attended Westminster-hall; though he did not meet with encouragement enough to induce his perseverance in his profession, nor indeed does it seem probable that he had sufficient application for it. His first performance was "Ancient and Modern Rome," a poem, written at Rome in 1755, and published in 1760, with merited applause. Soon after, he printed "A short Account of the Ancient History, present Government, and Laws of the Republic of Geneva." This work he dedicated to his friend Voltaire. In 1762 he produced an "Epistle from lady Jane Gray to lord Guildford Dudley;" and in 1763 "The Alps," a poem, which, for truth of description, elegance of versification, and vigour of imagination, greatly surpasses all his other poetical productions. In 1764 he produced "Netley Abbey;" and in 1765, the "Temple Student, an Epistle to a Friend," in which he agreeably rallies his own want of application in the study of the law, and intimates his irresistible penchant for the belles lettres. In 1769 he married miss Hudson, of Wanlip, Leicestershire. Some months before which, he had published "Ferney," an epistle to Mons. de Voltaire, in which he introduced a fine eulogium on Shakspeare, which procured him, soon after, the compliment, from the mayor and burgesses of Stratford, of a standish, mounted with silver, made out of the mulberry-tree planted by that illustrious bard. In 1773 he published "The Monument in Arcadia," a dramatic poem, founded on a well-known picture of Poussin; and in 1779, "Sketches from Nature, taken and coloured in a Journey to Margate," 2 vols. 12mo, an imitation of Sterne's "Sentimental Journey " — In 1781 he collected his poetical works in two volumes, with a dedication to Dr. Heberden, including a number of new pieces never before printed, and an excellent portrait of himself. Of these pieces, one was "The Helvetiad," a fragment, written at Geneva, in 1756. He had intended to compose a poem of some length, on the subject of the emancipation of Switzerland from the oppression of the house of Austria, and had even settled the plan of his work, when he acquainted M. Voltaire with his intention, who advised him rather to employ his time on subjects more likely to interest the public attention: "For," said he, "should you devote yourself to the completion of your present design, the Swiss would be much obliged to you, without being able to read you, and the rest of the world would care little about the matter." Whatever justice there was in this remark, Mr. K. relinquished his plan, and never resumed it afterwards. In 1781, he published an "Epistle to Angelica Kauffman."

A few years after he became engaged in a long and vexatious lawsuit, in consequence of the neglect (to say the least of it) of an architect who professed himself to be his friend; the particulars of which it is of no importance to detail. At the conclusion of the business he shewed that his good humour had not forsaken him and in 1787 he gave to the public the principal circumstances of his case in a performance entitled "The Distressed Poet, a seriocomic Poem, in three cantos," 4to, with some pleasantry, and without any acrimony.

In the next year, 1788, the last of his productions appeared; and the composition was very honourable to his talents and his liberality. In 1782, the Antelope packet was shipwrecked on the Pelew Islands, where the commander, captain Wilson, and his crew lived some time before they could get off. The circumstances attending this extraordinary deliverance having been communicated to Mr. Keate, he offered to draw up the narrative of them for the advantage of his friend captain Wilson. This he executed in "An Account of the Pelew Islands, situated in the western part of the Pacific ocean; composed from the journals and communications of captain Henry Wilson and some of his officers, who in August 1783 were there shipwrecked, in the Antelope, a packet belonging to the honourable East India Company," 4to, a work written with great elegance, compiled with much care, and which, if embellished (as it certainly appears to be) with facts better calculated to have found a place in a novel than a genuine narrative, must be ascribed to the mis-information of those who were actors in the scene, and must first have deceived before they obtained credit. Mr. Keate (who undertook the task on the most disinterested principle, and derived no advantage whatever from the work) was too sturdy a moralist to have had any hand in the imposition.

Besides the pieces already mentioned, Mr. Keate was the author of many prologues and epilogues, spoken at Mr. Newcomb's school at Hackney; and of other occasional verses in the literary journals, not, however, of sufficient importance to be enumerated. He had also adapted his friend Voltaire's "Semiramis" to the stage; but this was superseded, in 1777, at Drurylane, by cartam Ayscough's translation.

Mr. Keate's life passed without any vicissitudes of fortune; he inherited an ample estate, which he did not attempt to increase otherwise than by those attentions which prudence dictated in the management of it. He was hospitable and beneficent, and possessed the good will of mankind in a very eminent degree. For the last year or two, his health visibly declined; but on the day he died, he appeared to be somewhat mended. His death was sudden, on June 27, 1797. He left one daughter, married in 1796 to John Henderson, esq. of the Adelphi. His widow died in 1800. At the time of his death, Mr. Keate was a bencher of the Temple, and a very old member of the royal and antiquary societies, of both which he had been frequently elected one of the council.