1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Oldys

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 1:25-30.



WILLIAM OLDYS, ESQ. This gentleman, whose profound knowledge of English literature has raised his name into high estimation with literary antiquaries, and whose manuscripts are the subjects of frequent reference, was the intimate friend of my father, but, as I was then an infant, what I know of him was derived from the accounts of my parents. All that I could recollect from this source of information, I communicated to my friend Mr. D'Israeli, who has inserted it in the second series of his very amusing work intituled The Curiosities of Literature. Mr. Oldys was, I understood, the natural son of a gentleman named Harris, who lived in a respectable style in Kensington Square. How he came to adopt the name of Oldys, or where he received his education, I never heard. My father, who was well acquainted with the Latin and French languages, informed me that Mr. Oldys was a sound scholar, though he chiefly devoted himself to English literature. Mr. Oldys was of a very reserved character, and when he passed his evenings at my father's house in Hatton Garden, he always preferred the fire-side in the kitchen, that he might not be obliged to mingle with other visitors. He was so particular in his habits, that he could not smoke his pipe with ease till his chair was fixed close to a particular crack in the floor. He had suffered the vicissitudes of fortune before my father knew him, but was then easy in his circumstances, having been appointed Norroy King at Arms. I shall borrow from. Mr. D'Israeli's work, the account of this appointment as I related it to him, and as that gentleman has inserted it in the third volume of his new series.

"Oldys, as my father informed me, lived many years in quiet obscurity in the Fleet Prison, but at last was 'spirited up' to make his situation known to the Duke of Norfolk of that time, who received Oldys' letter while he was at dinner with some friends. The duke immediately communicated the contents to the company, observing that he had long been anxious to know what had become of an old, though an humble friend, and was happy, by that letter, to find that he was still alive. He then called for his gentleman (a kind of humble friend whom noblemen used to retain under that name in former days), and desired him to go immediately to the Fleet Prison with, money for the immediate need of Oldys, to procure an account of his debts, and to discharge them. Oldys was soon after, either by the duke's gift or interest, appointed Norroy King at Arms; and I remember that his official regalia came into my father's hands at his death." Mr. Oldys had been one of the librarians to the celebrated Harley, Earl of Oxford, and in that capacity had become known to the Duke of Norfolk. My father was appointed executor to Mr. Oldys, who had stood godfather to one of his sons.

Soon after the Duke of Norfolk had removed all pecuniary difficulties from Mr. Oldys, he procured for him, as I have said, the situation of Norroy King at Arms, a situation peculiarly suited to his turn for antiquities. On some occasion, when the King at Arms was obliged to ride on horseback in a public procession, the predecessor of Mr. Oldys in the cavalcade had a proclamation to read, but, confused by the noise of the surrounding multitude, he made many mistakes, and, anxious to be accurate, he turned back to every passage to correct himself, and therefore appeared to the people to be an ignorant blunderer. When Mr. Oldys had to recite the same proclamation, though he made, he said, more mistakes than his predecessor, he read on through thick and thin, never stopping a moment to correct his errors, and thereby excited the applause of the people, though he declared that the other gentleman had been much better qualified for the duty than himself.

The shyness of Mr. Oldys's disposition, and the simplicity of his manners, had induced him to decline an introduction to my grandfather, the Chevalier Taylor, who was always splendid in attire, and had been used to the chief societies in every court of Europe; but my grandfather had heard so much of Mr. Oldys, that he resolved to be acquainted with him, and therefore one evening when Oldys was enjoying his philosophical pipe by the kitchen-fire, the chevalier invaded his retreat, and without ceremony addressed him in the Latin language. Oldys, surprised and gratified to find a scholar in a fine gentleman, threw off his reserve, answered him in the same language, and the colloquy continued for at least two hours, Oldys suspending his pipe all the time, my father, not so good a scholar, only occasionally interposing an illustrative remark. This anecdote, upon which the reader may implicitly depend, is a full refutation of the insolent abuse of my grandfather by Dr. Johnson, as recorded in the life of that literary hippopotamus by Mr. Boswell. The truth is, that among the faults and virtues of that great moralist, he could not eradicate envy from his mind, as he indeed has confessed in his works; and in respect to colloquial latinity, he who was a "sloven" was no doubt mortified to be excelled by a beau, and this is probably the true cause of his illiberal and unjust description of my grandfather.

On the death of Oldys, my father, who was his executor, became possessed of what property he left, which was very small, including his regalia as King at Arms. Mr. Oldys had engaged to furnish a bookseller in the Strand, whose name was Walker, with ten years of the life of Shakspeare unknown to the biographers and commentators, but he died, and "made no sign" of the projected work. The bookseller made a demand of twenty guineas on my father, alleging that he had advanced that sum to Mr. Oldys, who had promised to provide the matter in question. My father paid this sum to the bookseller soon after he had attended the remains of his departed friend to the grave. The manuscripts of Oldys, consisting of a few books written in a small hand, and abundantly interlined, remained long in my father's possession, but by desire of Dr. Percy, afterwards Bishop of Dromore, were submitted to his inspection, through the medium of Dr. Monsey, who was an intimate friend of Dr. Percy. They continued in Dr. Percy's hands some years. He had known Mr. Oldys in the early part of his life, and spoke respectfully of his character. The last volume of Oldys's manuscripts that I ever saw, was at my friend the late Mr. William Gifford's house, in James Street, Westminster, while he was preparing a new edition of the works of Shirley; and I learned from him that it was lent to him by Mr. Heber. Mr. Oldys told my father, that he was the author of the little song which was once admired, and which Mr. D'Israeli has introduced in his new series, relying upon the known veracity of Oldys from other sources besides the testimony of my parents. There is no great merit in the composition, but as it shows the benevolent and philosophic temper of the author, I shall submit it to the reader as an old family relique.

Busy, curious, thirsty fly,
Drink with me, and drink as I!
Freely welcome to my cup,
Couldst thou sip and sip it up:
Make the most of life you may;
Life is short and wears away.

Both alike are mine and thine,
Hastening quick to their decline!
Thine's a summer, mine no more,
Though repeated to threescore!
Threescore summers when they're gone,
Will appear as short as one!

Tilburina says, "an oyster may be crossed in love," and so, perhaps, may a cold literary antiquary. Mr. Oldys frequently indulged his spleen in sarcasms against female inconstancy, and often concluded his remarks with the following couplet, but I know not whether it was composed by himself.

If women were little as they are good,
A peascod would make them a gown and a hood.

My friend Mr. D'Israeli is mistaken in saying that, "on the death of Oldys, Dr. Kippis, editor of the Biographia Britannica, looked over the manuscripts." It was not till near thirty years after the death of Oldys, that they were submitted to his inspection, and at his recommendation were purchased by the late Mr. Cadell. The funeral expenses had been paid by my father immediately after the interment of Oldys, and not, as Mr. D'Israeli says, by the "twenty guineas, which, perhaps, served to bury the writer."

My friend Mr. Alexander Chalmers, to whom the literary world is indebted for many valuable works, chiefly biographical, has, I find, written a life of Mr. Oldys, which I have not seen, and I doubt not that it is marked by his usual candour, research, and fidelity. I must not, however, mention Mr. Chalmers merely as a biographer, great as his merits are in that character, as he is the author of innumerable fugitive pieces, remarkable for fancy, humour, wit, and satire, which have been published anonymously, and have been always justly admired. But I ought particularly to mention a work, in three octavo volumes, entitled "The Projector," which appeared in successive numbers through the Gentleman's Magazine, one of the oldest, indeed the oldest, and indisputably the most valuable of our periodical productions of a similar description, and which since its origin, a hundred years ago, has always maintained an undiminished reputation. Mr. Chalmers himself collected these numbers into three volumes, and, in point of ironical humour and sound moral tendency, they deserve a place in every library.

Mr. D'Israeli mentions a caricature of the person of Mr. Oldys, drawn by the well-known Major Grose, with whom I had the pleasure of being acquainted, and who mentioned Mr. Oldys to me with great respect. The Major was a man of great humour and learning. I shall, perhaps, have occasion to mention him hereafter.