1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Wolcot

Richard Polwhele, in Traditions and Recollections (1826) 1:33-39.



With the Vicar of Gluvias Dr. Wolcot had, I believe, but a slight acquaintance. He was pleased, however, with Mr. Penrose's attention to my first poetical sallies; among which was a version of Rapin's Ode to the cicada.

To introduce the Doctor to my readers in due form, may be unnecessary; but here, if any where, I should state, that Dr. John W. was born at Dodbrooke in Devon, about the year 1710. It is commonly reported, that he received his school education at Kingsbridge, under a Quaker, and that he went from Kingsbridge to France to complete his studies. I am greatly mistaken if I have not heard him say, that he was placed in his childhood under the care of his uncle at Fawey in this county, and sent at a proper age to Leskeard school, when Hayden was its Master; and that he was afterwards removed to Bodmin school, where he owed part of his scholarship to the Rev. Mr. Fisher. His uncle was a surgeon-apothecary of character, and a single man; to whom young Wolcot returned, with the view of succeeding him in business. Such, at least, appears to have been his uncle's wish. But Wolcot was too early attached to the fine arts to submit to compound drugs in a little sea-port town. To the Muses he had already begun to sacrifice. I cannot fix the date of that plaintive song, one of the sweetest of Jackson's Melodies—

How long shall hapless Colin mourn
The cold regard of Delia's eye, &c.;

but I know that Wolcot's Delia was no imaginary mistress. His Delia was Miss Coryton, one of the Crocadon family, with whom he became acquainted during his residence at Fawey. There, also, he discovered his genius for drawing. In 1769, Sir William Trelawney, of Trelawney, Bart. was appointed Governor of Jamaica; when Wolcot, a distant relation of Trelawney, attended him to that island. On his voyage thither lie wrote some fine descriptive sonnets. At Jamaica he commenced Surgeon; but he was still disposed to cultivate the art of poetry more than the art of medicine. From his "Persian Love Elegies" of that period, I could extract many beautiful passages. "The Nymph of Tauris" (which may be found in the Annual Register for 1773) was Anne Trelawney, who died in Jamaica. The Elegies have more merit than Collins's Persian Eclogues, inasmuch as they characterize Eastern manners and moralities, and express passion and sentiment as an orientalist would express them. A valuable living in Jamaica now happening to fall vacant, drew Wolcot's attention to the church; and he came, we are told, to England for institution; but the Bishop of London refused "to admit him (it is said) on account of his premature assumption of the clerical office." He had begun "to act the parson" immediately as the living fell vacant. Thus disappointed, he resumed his original profession, was dubbed M.D. and stepped at once into good practice at Truro. As to his clerical pretensions, he was always reserved. He once, I remember, was asked to repeat grace before dinner, which he did with some hesitation, but in another company very soon after declined saying grace: so that at first he was a sort of amphibious being. Here, then, commenced my personal acquaintance with him. And I can say with truth (for I could wish to steer with impartiality between the reports of his censurers and admirers), that he had the credit not only of a skilful, but of a benevolent physician. In fevers, he was uncommonly successful. In some cases within my knowledge he suffered his patients to drink cold water, which other medical men would then have deemed fatal. From consumption many were rescued by his hand, who had been given up as irrecoverable. As a physician he prescribed medicines; but he did more: he examined them, not trusting to the apothecary; and sometimes detected with indignation a cheap medicine substituted for a costly one. He was thus no favourite with the apothecaries or druggists of the place; but his merit, bearing all before it, shewed the impotence of their resentment. And here I should not omit (as it is connected with his poetry) a visit to my grandmother Polwhele during her last illness, which had more of social pleasantry than of medical gravity. On the verge of 85, and reduced very low from weakness, she retained her natural cheerfulness and good humour. About a week before her death, whilst Wolcot sat by her bedside, "all is well (said she) but for the crumbs under me; they are so hard; boil them, and it would do," said she, smiling, "Come, I'll tell you a story." She then told the story of "the Pilgrim and the Peas." Wolcot seized the idea, and we all know with what felicity he afterwards turned it to his poetical advantage.

Wolcot disliked his profession. He was always a sensualist; but his chief luxury was music and painting. His market bills were very inconsiderable. A single domestic was, day after day, the solitary inhabitant of his house on the bowling-green; and (Mr. Daniell's tenant) he held the premises, I believe, rent free, through the liberality of that good old gentleman. When vacant from business, the wit and pleasantry of Wolcot's conversation would always render him a welcome visitor at the houses of all his acquaintance in Truro and the neighbourhood; and at that time there was a much more hospitable disposition, a much more social intercourse among the people of Truro, than at the present day. Mr. Daniell's, indeed, was the house to which our poet chiefly resorted. There he was usually to be found, and was never considered as an intruder; and in Mr. Daniell he saw with gratitude (for he had gratitude) a second Allen. To my father, too, he was not unacceptable, as an accidental visitor; though, tremblingly alive as that honoured parent was, to every insinuation of an irreligious tendency, there was oftentimes such a mutual distrust between both, as to check the Doctor's lively sallies, and, from the experience of former feelings, render my father fearful of what was to come, in proportion to the vivacity of wit, which was growing more and more familiar every moment, or taking a more licentious range. Yet Wolcot was fond of my father's company; from frequenting it was induced to think seriously; and, had he more frequented it, would have become, perhaps, not only almost, but altogether a Christian. But it were better to advert to his poetry. I remember my father's expressing his approbation of Wolcot's "Ode to the Genius of Great Britain." It was a beautiful ode, the stanza of which I soon after adopted in a little poem, entitled, "The Genius of Karnbre," — a mountain in Cornwall. Wolcot, indeed, had, a few days before, read to me some stanzas on Karnbre, of which I retained but a faint recollection. This was in 1776, when the Doctor was heard, half jestingly, to complain to my master, that I had assailed his mountain and carried it by storm; and, in language less sublime, he charged me with having committed a trespass on his grounds, and ludicrously threatened me with an action.