1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Jackson Pratt

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 1:38-47.



MR. PRATT. — At the apartments of Mrs. [Clara] Brooke, I first became acquainted with this gentleman, who had been many years known to the public, and whose productions, under the assumed name of Courteney Melmoth, were deservedly popular and productive. Mr. Pratt supposed, when he wrote to Mrs. Brooke, soliciting the pleasure of waiting on her, that he had addressed Mrs. Brooke, the fair author of "Julia Mandeville," "Emily Montague," and the musical afterpiece of "Rosina:" the music of which was chiefly composed by my late friend Mr. Shield. On the first interview, at which I was present, he was informed of his mistake, but the good sense and pleasing manners of Mrs. Brooke induced him to cultivate the acquaintance, and I passed many instructive and pleasing hours in his company, till at length we became intimately connected. I afterwards met him frequently at the house of the celebrated Mrs. Robinson, whom I shall mention in the course of these records. Though his works in general are of a sentimental and pathetic description, yet in company he displayed great humour, and abounded in ludicrous anecdotes. I introduced him to Dr. Wolcot, whose original and peculiar genius he highly admired. They became intimate, and the collision of their powers furnished a very pleasant intellectual repast. Mr. Pratt was not born to fortune, and was, therefore, obliged to make his way in the world by his literary talents. Whether he was a classical scholar I know not, but from his intimacy with Mr. Potter, the translator of the "Grecian Drama," and with the present Dr. Mavor, in conjunction with whom he published some works, as well as with Mr. Gibbon the historian, it may be inferred that he had a competent knowledge of classical literature. It is certain that he possessed no ordinary talents as a poet, and as a novel-writer, of which there are abundant proofs in his various and numerous productions. His first dramatic piece was a tragedy, entitled "The Fair Circassian," the title of a poem written by Dr. Croxall, which was much admired. The plot of this tragedy is not, however, founded upon the poem, but on Dr. Hawkesworth's interesting romance of "Almoran and Hamet." Dr. Hawkesworth was another of Pratt's intimate friends. Mrs. Barry was to have been the heroine of the play, but one of those caprices to which great theatrical performers are peculiarly subject, occurred, and it was assigned to Miss Farren, the late Countess of Derby. It was, I believe, her first appearance on Drury Lane boards, at least in a tragic character; but her natural good temper, and her friendship for the author, induced her to undertake the part without hesitation. The play, as far as I recollect, was represented nine nights, and therefore produced a tolerable requital to the author....

But I must return to Mr. Pratt. I am convinced that his heart was kind, benevolent, and friendly, though, as he subsisted wholly by his literary talents, I am afraid he was often under pecuniary embarrassments. He had tried the stage, and performed the characters of Philaster and Hamlet, at Covent Garden Theatre; but though, no doubt, he supported both with "due emphasis and discretion," yet his walk was a kind of airy swing that rendered his acting at times rather ludicrous, as I have heard, for his performance took place long before I was acquainted with him.

I was sorry, and indeed shocked, to see a letter from Miss Seward, in the second volume of Mr. Polwhele's Memoirs, in which she gives a very severe account of the character and conduct of Mr. Pratt, after having been upon the most friendly terms with him for many years. When Mr. Pratt first published his poem entitled "Sympathy," a work characterised by benevolence and poetry, she wrote an elaborate and most favourable commentary upon it, though she afterwards thought proper to drop the connexion, and to revile its author in the grave. Even admitting that there might be some foundation for what she alleges against him, she must have been fully aware of it before she became his friendly commentator. Miss Seward, however, was one of the last persons who should have assumed the office of a severe and moral censor, as it is well known that she suffered the attentions of a public singer, a married man, who resided with his family at Lichfield, and was in the habit of receiving him almost daily. Admitting also that the connexion was innocent, and I have no reason to suppose that it was otherwise, surely it was acting in contempt of public opinion to withdraw a man from his duty to his wife and family.

It may be said of Miss Seward, as a writer of prose or poetry, that she "inclination fondly took for taste." Her poems are stiff and formal, and a great part of her literary reputation arose from the encomiums which Mr. Pratt bestowed on her, and on the kindness with which he brought her name forward to public notice. Her first production was a monody on the unfortunate Major Andre, who was executed as a spy in America during our lamentable contest with our former transatlantic colonies. It was not recommended by any original merit or poetical vigour, and the same may be said of all her subsequent productions, and her attempts at criticism are vain, weak, and affected. Mr. Pratt, who had really a sincere friendship for Miss Seward, deeply regretted the cessation of their amicable intercourse, and earnestly desired to know how he had offended her, but never could obtain a satisfactory answer. Little could he conceive it possible that in cold-blooded enmity she would have waited till his death to revile his memory.

I am convinced that if Pratt had been born to a fortune, a great part of it would have been devoted to benevolence. He had written a copious account of his own life in two large volumes, of which he had made an abstract, and this he gave me to read at his lodgings, while he was writing something for the press which waited for him.

In the early part of his life he had been in America, but in what employment I do not remember. I suppose he gave public recitations, as he afterwards did at Edinburgh, Bath, and Dublin. He was for some time a curate in Lincolnshire, but tired of that occupation, he devoted himself entirely to the profession of an author. He excelled in epistolary composition. His second dramatic work was intituled "The School for Vanity," which owed its failure chiefly to the great number of letters that passed between the several characters in the play addressed to each other, insomuch that when the last letter was presented, the audience burst into a general laugh, and the piece was hurried to a conclusion, and I believe never brought forward again. In fact, he lived amidst epistolary correspondents, and transferred his habits to the stage. This comedy he included in the four volumes of miscellanies, which he afterwards published. As he was once a popular writer, he must have derived great profits from his numerous works, but was sometimes in difficulties. Once, when he had just received twenty pounds unexpectedly, and had doubtless full occasion for that sum, having observed that I appeared grave, and, as he thought, melancholy, in company with three sisters whom we were frequently in the habit of visiting, and with whom I was generally in high spirits, he conceived that my apparent dejection resulted from some pecuniary pressure, and the next day he offered me his twenty pounds, telling me that all he requested was as early a return as convenient, his own situation exposing him to the mortification of pressing applications. He was totally mistaken as to the cause of my gravity. He was sometime in partnership with Mr. Clinch, a bookseller, at Bath, but preferring the writing to the vending of books, he relinquished the concern. When I first became acquainted with him, he was in the habit of gratifying the company with recitations from the poets, which he gave with impressive effect; but latterly the violent expression and energy of his delivery rendered it harsh and almost ludicrous. Poor Pratt! he was one of my earliest literary friends, and I cannot but feel much pleasure in the opportunity of rescuing his character from the relentless rancour of Miss Seward's posthumous defamation.

The celebrated Angelica Kauffman, who was a friend of Mr. Pratt, presented drawings to him for the illustrations of some of his works. This lady I never had the pleasure of seeing, but by all accounts her person was highly interesting, and her manners and accomplishments were peculiarly attractive. It is said that Sir Joshua Reynolds, who was thoroughly acquainted with human nature, and never likely to be deceived in his estimate of individuals, was so much attached to her that he solicited her hand. It appeared, however, that she refused him, as she was attached to the late Sir Nathaniel Holland, then Mr. Dance, an eminent painter, whose portrait of Garrick in the character of Richard the Third is the best and most spirited representation of that unrivalled actor that ever appeared, though all the most distinguished artists of the time employed themselves on the same admirable subject. The correspondence that had taken place between Mrs. Kauffman and Mr. Dance became known, and was thought to be of a very interesting description, insomuch that his Majesty George the Third, who generally heard of anything worth attention, requested Mr. Dance would permit him to peruse the letters that had passed between them during their courtship. What put a period to an intercourse which, being founded upon mutual attachment, held forth so favourable a prospect of mutual happiness, has never been developed, and is only matter of conjecture. Mrs. Kauffman, after the termination of this promising courtship, went abroad and was unfortunately deluded into a marriage with a common footman, in Germany, who had assumed a title and appeared to be a person of high rank and affluence. Mrs. Kauffman, it is said, by the intervention of friends had recourse to legal authorities, was enabled to separate from the impostor, but did not return to this country, and died a few years after, having never recovered her spirits after the shock of so degrading an alliance. It is not a little surprising that a lady so intelligent and accomplished should have been the victim of such a deception.

The end of Mr. Pratt was lamentable. He resided for a short time before his death at Birmingham, and was thrown from his horse. He suffered severe contusions by the fall. A fever ensued, which in a few days deprived him of life.