Rev. Richard Polwhele

Robert Greville to Richard Polwhele, 8 November 1787; Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 1:193-97.

Nov. 8, 1787.


Harrison, the celebrated singer, has spent some weeks with us.

The character of Harrison, I have no doubt, you are acquainted with. He is in fact the most affecting singer I ever heard, and has the peculiar felicity of making music as interesting as Mrs. Siddons does tragedy. There is a scene in the Oratorio of Jephtha, in which Jephtha is represented as debating with himself concerning the fulfilling of his vow. He there reviews the amiable character of his daughter, dwells upon her obedience and filial affection, then adverts to the oath that he made to Jehovah, and at the last is seised with a species of madness. The effects he produced when he performed this scene are almost incredible. All were in tears. Some whose feelings were more susceptible than the rest, could not help starting from their seats, when he came to that part where he exclaims,

—'Tis this that racks my brain,
And pours into my breast a thousand pangs
That lash me into madness.

Others again could not help audibly sobbing, when they found him at last inflexibly determined, "on to-morrow's dawn," to sacrifice her to his vow. Yet these effects are produced without gesture or ostentation. The whole conduct of this scene I look upon to be one of Handel's finest compositions. 'Tis simply nothing but a continued recitative; but as recitative is nearer the irregular rythm of speech than air, there is greater probability of its making its way to the heart, and of its accomplishing its end.

Have you thought any more of your Essay on Music? I have been working for you, and have made many extracts from Sir George Hawkins' History of Music. The subject, however, I perceive is attended with many difficulties. So far as relates to the grammatical rules of joining sounds together, much has been written; but nothing has hitherto been said to the purpose on the rhetorical part of it. This, therefore, is breaking up new ground, and requires a discerning head to extract a code of musical laws, for the purpose of establishing the didactic part. Rousseau, in his Letter upon the French Music, may be made much use of. We must be upon our guard, however, in adopting his sentiments, even upon a subject of entertainment. From Avison on Musical Expression we may glean likewise something to our purpose; but the chief materials must be drawn from our own reflections. These (on my own part) I continue to accumulate, and am in hopes of delivering into your hands a prose essay, from which you may derive much advantage. If Dr. Burney's last volume of his Musical History should come out soon, more advantage may be extracted from his work than from all the works of his predecessors put together.

How goes on your English Orator? As you mentioned in your last that it was nearly ready for the press, I should suppose, before many days elapse, that I shall have the pleasure of seeing it announced in the public prints.

Have you seen the English Review for the last month? If you have not, procure it, and you will have the satisfaction of reading the best delineation of Miss Seward's powers that has ever been produced. I coincide most heartily in all the author's observations, and agree with him that she is only in possession of one part of the poet's character, that of combining metaphors. As vanity is peculiarly susceptible, and as pride is naturally vindictive, I am in daily expectation of meeting a flaming invective in some of the periodical productions, against the illiberality of the Critic's aspersions. When Pratt analyzed her Louisa, she there betrayed her deficiency in the necessary requisites of Authorship, by shewing to the world how much her feelings were irritated by his observations. You may depend upon it, that in this instance she will not shew herself superior. Her Litchfield admirers are now, I am informed, exciting her to arms; and as she thinks them superior to the rest of the kingdom in critical skill, she will not be able to resist the impetuosity of their remonstrances.

Her best productions are her Translations of the Odes of Horace. These, however, are not translated from the original. She understands not a word of Latin.

Your verses to the memory of Rack, in the Gentleman's Magazine, I have read, and much admire. The three last stanzas breathe the plaintive elegance of Collins in the happiest manner imaginable. There are parts too in the other poem which I equally applaud for its descriptive scenery.

Now I am conversing with you concerning poetry, you will be pleased when I tell you that I have received an invitation from Mr. Mason, the author of Caractacus, to spend a few days with him at Christmas.

He has sent word to me that he will shew me the music which he has adapted himself to his own chorusses.

Yours, affectionately,

R. G.