1797 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Hugh Downman

Richard Polwhele, "R. P. to a College Friend" 1797; Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 2:472-83.



Manaccan, July 1797.

MY DEAR FRIEND,

As you are still attached to your old acquaintance Mr. Urban, you remember, I presume, two blank verse Sonnets which appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine for June 1795. And you cannot have forgotten the circumstance, that "the sun and moon shining in contrast," was the subject of both. These little poems were brought forward with the view of exhibiting the one as imitated from the other. "The imitation" (as it was termed) is my own; the other, the property of Dr. D. of Exeter.

But my sonnet was not a copy. It was sketched from nature during a winter's walk, on the evening of January 3, 1795, at no great distance from the vicarage; and it was written in blank verse, as I had been in the habit of writing little poems long before. That these things were so, the doctor seemed, at length, to be convinced; though not till the subject had been warmly discussed between us. The discussion, indeed, was temperate, on my part: to a gentleman, with whom I had lived many years in habits of the strictest intimacy, I was ready to concede every thing but the truth. On his side, however, there was much indignation and wrath; and even when I fondly deemed that "the tyranny was overpast," his anger ceased only to show itself in menacing expressions. It may be said to have been smothered up in his bosom, to blaze with new violence, on some future occasion; or rather to have subsided into a still and determined resentment, awaiting an opportunity for an open rupture with me. Such a process in an enlightened mind, I was sorry to observe for the sake of the "literae humaniores" — to, say nothing of the Doctor's friendship — a friendship founded, as he professed, on a long experience of my character.

The moment for breaking with me arrived. In 1796, were published the "Essays by a Society of Gentlemen at Exeter;" of which society the Doctor was a member. Some strictures on this publication appeared in the European Magazine, for September 1796; where the following passage excited a suspicion, that they were composed by myself. "All the remarks on the British monuments in Devon, from p. 106 to 130, might, in our opinion, have been spared; particularly those on the Cromlech, which is described already by Mr. Polwhele, in his Historical Views of Devonshire. If these remarks were written by Mr. P. (which, however, does not strike us as being the case) they are here out of place; and his subscribers have just reason to complain of him. If they were written by Mr. Swete (as the accompanying engravings seem to intimate), there is something of a hostile appearance in thus obtruding an account of Devonian monuments on the public, without a reference to the Historical Views, when the subject is already exhausted; or to the great work, the History of Devon, where a very ample description of those monuments, we apprehend, will be introduced." From the complexion of the passage before us, I was charged with being the London Reviewer in the European Magazine.

My reply was such as ought to have convinced the society, that though I had been much displeased with Mr. S. and was by no means gratified with the conduct of the editors, yet I was superior to those secret manoeuvres by which some people endeavour to detract from the reputation of their enemies. I acknowledged that under the impression of Mr. Swete's unhandsome interference with my Druidical Researches, I had written a letter to Dr. Watkins (a critic in the European Magazine), desiring him to notice the circumstance, but at the same time recommending to him "the Essays" as A CURIOUS AND VALUABLE PRODUCTION, WHICH REFLECTED HONOUR ON THE SOCIETY. This letter I dispatched to the post-office not an hour after it was written; but by the very next post entreated Dr. W. to suspend his critique, till he heard from me again. For, though from the period of the publication of the Essays I had determined to recede from the Club, even as an honorary member — which at this distance is no other than an ideal member of it — yet, I was urged only by the violence of a moment, to apply to the European critic for redress. The Society had themselves commended their book to my care, on the supposition that I was the writer in the English Review. But, conscious that my personal feelings might disqualify me for an impartial notice of it, I declined the task. I accordingly informed the editor of the English Review, that several of the society had used me ill; and that though I might now arbitrate, perhaps, in my own cause; yet I did not choose to take advantage of my situation, but referred the examination of the book to himself.

Under, such circumstances, my openness in disclosing to the society my correspondence with Dr. Watkins, ought surely to have operated on their minds, not greatly to my prejudice. Yet the consequence of my unreservedness was, that they at once imputed to me all the articles in the European Magazine under the signature, of W. — With persons of this description, whose passions shut up every avenue to conviction, it is vain to argue. To their jaundiced eyes, assertion, proof, and argument, are all alike. From these imputations, however, the following letter from Dr. Watkins, (the author of every article signed W.) must sufficiently clear me in the opinion of the unprejudiced.

"MR. URBAN,

It was with no little uneasiness that I read Mr. Swete's strictures (p. 296) on some late critiques on the volume of Essays just published by the Exeter Society; as from the tenour of his letter it is pretty evident he considers Mr. P. to be the author of the offensive remarks in the European Magazine. NOW IN JUSTICE TO MR. P. IT IS CERTAINLY INCUMBENT ON ME TO SET THE DEVONSHIRE GENTLEMEN (PARTICULARLY MR. S.) RIGHT IN THE MATTER, BY ACKNOWLEDGING MYSELF THE AUTHOR OF THE CRITIQUE IN QUESTION, AND OF EVERY ARTICLE THAT HAS APPEARED IN THE EUROPEAN MAGAZINE UNDER THE SIGNATURE OF W. It is true, Mr. P. did send me an abstract of the contents of the volume previous to its publication, accompanied with a request, that an early and handsome notice might be taken of it. Of this, however, I made no use. And, as to the few strictures upon some of the Essays and selections from others, I acted solely from my own judgment, nor is any other person whatever responsible for them."

For the remainder of the letter relating to the History of Devon, and the Historical Views, where Dr. W. observes, that "he drew up without the privity of Mr. P. what he conceived to be a just statement of the contents and merits of the book," I refer my readers to the Gentleman's Magazine for December 1796.

Of the critiques under the signature of W. I knew nothing — not even of those which related to the History of Devon, or the Historical Views, till Dr. W. by letter informed me, that he was the author of them. A great part of those critiques I have not read at this hour: and I solemnly protest, that even the articles in which I was particularly interested, had been sometime in print, before I was acquainted with their existence in any shape. My correspondence commenced with Dr. W. in consequence of one of my circular addresses, in which he (as well as other gentlemen of Devon) was requested to assist me in collecting materials for the History; and his kind attention to my concerns, during his residence at Bideford, I shall always remember with gratitude. I never saw him: I am totally unacquainted, in short, with his connexions or pursuits.

But to the false and daring accusations of the Exeter Club there is no end. I am this moment surprised and shocked at the contents of a reply to a correspondent, at the end of the British Critic for the last month; from which I collect, that "the Essayist on the Population of Europe" suspects me to be the Reviewer of his essay. In an swer to which, I can only declare, that I never yet had the honour of writing a single line for the British Critic.

Is it uncandid, then, to view all this conduct so unworthy of literary men-so unbecoming the character of gentlemen, as originating in a consciousness, that they themselves have treated me in a similar manner? Nay, I have good reason for suspecting "the author of the Essay on the Population of Europe," to be the writer of those very strictures on the Historical Views, which a leading member of the society has styled "a most ferocious attack on my reputation, the product of malevolence and vulgarity." Yet, with every cause for suspicion, I have not indulged a wish to retaliate. I have always shrunk, indeed, from the painful office of unmasking a literary hypocrite, or of exhibiting in its proper colours the jesuitical speciousness of a reviewer. And though I deem the judgment which the essayist may have pronounced against me extremely severe, yet no one can assert that I have discovered any symptoms of resentment, or that

—manet alta mente repostum
Judicium PARidis!

The conclusion of the whole matter is this — that, influenced by unworthy passions, several members of the society have done me great injustice as a brother-author. They are conscious of having done so. And with this consciousness on their minds, together with the experience of their own irritability, they imagine that I must feel the injury and resent it. They, therefore, treat me as an enemy, and insult me with charges which they do not themselves believe, and I look forward to nothing but fresh indignities — nothing but an accumulation of insults upon injuries.

Surely the world will make every allowance for an individual whose lot it is to contend, from the remote and solitary shores of the Lizard, with a combination of incensed authors amidst a populous city. In one, to fight against so many, it is truly a hazardous enterprise! If, indeed, to meet my various antagonists, I multiply myself, and come forth under designations as various, what have I to expect but discomfiture — a vicar of a little parish in Meneage, against a prebendary of the cathedral church of Exeter; "a poet" against "a man of fortune;" a person drooping with indisposition, against the vivacity of spirits that kindle from collision; "a man," perhaps, "of parts," against genius, wit, and science? — Alas! if dignities still triumph over "conditions cast in obscurity" riches overt necessitous poetry, and first-rate powers of mind over moderate abilities — if such be so, my friend! — then must I fall!—

But when the competition of station and of talents shall cease — if TRUTH must finally prevail — I shall not "fall like Lucifer, never to rise again!"

I remain, yours, &c. &c.