1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bonnell Thornton

Nathan Drake, in Essays Illustrative of the Rambler (1809-10) 2:323-28.



BONNEL THORNTON, the son of an apothecary, was born in London in the year 1724. Having passed with reputation through Westminster school, he was entered at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1743. Here he commenced his literary career, in the first number of the "Student," dated January 31st, 1750, by an Elegy in imitation of Tibullus, which he terms "The Comforts of a Retired Life." As a specimen of Mr. Thornton's poetry, I shall present the reader with a few lines:

O may I dying view that lovely face,
And seal my parting with a fond embrace!
Then shalt thou eager catch my fleeting breath,
Then grasp my faltering hand benumb'd in death.
And when the sable train of mourning friends
In dismal pomp my breathless corpse attends,
Wilt thou not then hang madly o'er my bier,
And wash my grave with many a gushing tear?
Yes, thou wilt weep:—

In the spring of 1750 Mr. Thornton took his degree of Master of Arts, and, being intended by his father for the profession of physic, he proceeded Batchelor of that faculty in 1754. Instead, however, of cultivating the art of medicine, our author was writing Connoisseurs, and a variety of other pieces of a light and humorous kind; and at length, relinquishing altogether his medical studies, he dedicated himself entirely to a literary life. To the Public Advertiser, to the St. James's Chronicle, &c. he communicated an immense number of essays and poems on the topics of the day, which, from their wit and eccentricity, excited much temporary applause. He was likewise the projector of a singular species of ridicule on the Exhibition of Pictures, which he advertised under the appellation of an "Exhibition of Sign Paintings," and, in short, carried the scheme into execution under his own roof in Bow-street, Covent Garden, with considerable success; an attempt which, probably, few beside himself would either have conceived or hazarded. Mr. Nichols, in his Biographical Anecdotes of Hogarth, noticing this odd species of satire, observes, that it is "the project of a well-known gentleman, who has in several instances displayed a most uncommon vein of humour. His Burlesque Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, his labours in the Drury-lane Journal, and other papers, all possess that singular turn of imagination, so peculiar to himself. This gentleman is perhaps the only person in England (Mr. Hogarth excepted) who could have projected, or have carried tolerably into execution, this scheme of a Grand Exhibition. There is a whimsical drollery in all his plans, and a comical originality in his manner, that never fail to distinguish and recommend all his undertakings. To exercise his wit and humour in an innocent laugh, and to raise that innocent laugh in others, seems to have been his chief aim in the present spectacle. The ridicule on Exhibitions, if it must be accounted so, is pleasant without malevolence; and the general strokes on the common topics of satire are given with the most apparent good-humour."

The Ode on St. Cecilia's Day, thus alluded to by Mr. Nichols, was long a favourite with the public, being adapted to those harmonious instruments, the salt-box, the jews-harp, the marrow bones and cleaver, the hum-strum, or hurdy-gurdy, the broom-stick, &c. Dr. Johnson was highly pleased with the humour of this production, and would frequently recite passages from it. Dr. Burney, who set it for Smart and Newbery, has, in a note to the third edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson, mentioned the following circumstances relative to its performance. "It was performed at Ranelagh in masks, to a very crowded audience, as I was told; for I then resided at Norfolk. Beard sung the salt-box song, which was admirably accompanied on that instrument by Brent, the Fencing-master, and father of Miss Brent, the celebrated singer; Skeggs on the broom-stick, as bassoon; and a remarkable performer on the Jews-harp — "Buzzing twangs the iron lyre." Cleavers were cast in bell-metal for this entertainment. All the performers of the Old Woman's Oratory, employed by Foote, were, I believe, employed at Ranelagh on this occasion."

The literary talents of Mr. Thornton were not, however, altogether wasted on light and temporary subjects; in 1766 he published, on the plan of his friend Colman, a translation in blank verse of seven of the plays of Plautus, in 2 vols. octavo; of these, five, namely, The Amphytrion, The Braggant Captain, The Treasure, The Miser, and The Shipwreck, were executed by himself; while The Captive was translated by Mr. Warner, who afterwards completed the version of Plautus, and The Mercator by Mr. Colman. This attempt to naturalize Plautus did not meet with the encouragement which the translation of Terence had experienced; it is, notwithstanding, highly respectable in its execution, and accompanied with a number of valuable notes from the best commentators. The entire version was finished by Mr. Warner in 1774, and occupies five volumes 8vo.

Mr. Thornton married in 1764 Miss Sylvia Brathwaite, youngest daughter of Colonel Brathwaite; his domestic felicity was, however, soon cut short by the hand of death; for in May 1768 he sunk under a broken constitution, leaving a widow and three children. He was an elegant scholar, an amiable man, and a companion singularly pleasant and entertaining.

In the last number of the Connoisseur Messrs. Colman and Thornton have, in conformity to the usual custom of Essayists, attempted to give the reader a slight sketch of their persons and employments; "but," they remark, "as they have all along appeared as a sort of Sosias in literature, they cannot now describe themselves any otherwise, than as one and the same person; and can only satisfy the curiosity of the public, by giving a short account of that respectable personage Mr. Town, considering him as of the plural, or rather (according to the Grecians) of the dual number.

"Mr. Town is a fair, black, middle-sized, very short man. He wears his own hair and a perriwig. He is about thirty years of age, and not more than four and twenty. He is a Student of the Law, and a Bachelor of Physic. He was bred at the University of Oxford; where having taken no less than three degrees, he looks down on many learned professors, his inferiors, &c."

In this mingled representation, the fair, short man, who wears his own hair, is four and twenty, and a Student of the Law, is meant for Colman.