1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas James Mathias

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 1:166, 384-86.



Mr. Mathias presented his tract to me on the subject of the poems attributed to Rowley; and I think he has fairly and fully proved that, however they may have been interpolated by Chatterton, they were not his productions. Mr. Mathias's reasoning is perfectly satisfactory, at least to me. I understand that this gentleman resides at Naples in good health. I hope he will long enjoy it, for the sake of his friends as well as of himself; for his learning, talents, and urbanity must render him the subject of respect, esteem, and admiration, to all who have the pleasure of knowing him....

The same sort of mystery hangs over the origin of this work [Pursuits of Literature] as over the letters of Junius, and the heroic "Epistle to Sir William Chambers." The suspicion has generally fallen upon Mr. Mathias, a gentleman whom I have long known and esteemed. It seems to be very probable, that if he was not the sole author, he had some concern in the composition, for which he was well qualified by his knowledge, his abilities, and his determined attachment to the good old political constitution of this country. When I was one of the proprietors of a daily paper entitled "The True Briton," the late John Gifford, Esq., one of the police magistrates at a subsequent period, was the editor. Struck by the political rectitude and moral tendency, as well as with the high poetical merits of "The Pursuits of Literature," the four cantos of which were published successively, he entered into an elaborate criticism of the work, upon which he bestowed warm commendation. Soon after a letter was addressed to the editor of "The True Briton," pointing out the poem to the attention of the public at large.

Meeting Mr. Mathias at the King's Theatre one evening, and talking on the subject of the poem, I asked him if he had seen the letter in question. I observed that it was probably written by the author of the poem. He agreed with me, but said, "If you examine it well, you will find that it does not contain any panegyric on the intellectual powers displayed in the work, but confines itself to the beneficial tendency of particular passages, and the general soundness of its constitutional principles." Pursuing the subject, I observed that as he was supposed to be the author of it, it was natural to suppose he would strenuously recommend it to general attention. "Ay, ay," said he; "I have suffered much abuse upon the subject, but they will find out their mistake hereafter." Whoever was the author, I could not but feel highly gratified that I was complimented with two editions of it "from the author."

Becket, the publisher, who was faithful to his trust, and, like Junius, to use the words of the latter, suffered the secret "to perish with him," was a good-humoured man, and whenever I happened to see him, I always pretended to suppose he was the author, and that I felt myself indebted to him for the copies, adding that I hoped he would soon bring forward another edition of a work so honourable to his learning, talents, and principles. He, with his usual good humour, thanked me for entertaining so favourable an opinion of his powers, adding, "I think in my next edition I shall soften some passages and strengthen others." This served as a laughing joke between us, till death deprived me of a valued old friend. The allusions in the poem and notes to my late friends Mr. William Boscawen the translator of Horace, and Mr. Henry James Pye, the late Poet Laureate, a profound scholar, an able critic, a good poet, and an excellent man, induced them to vent their anger in two spirited poems, and occasional strictures in the newspapers; and even my mild friend Jerningham was roused into sportive resentment by some reference to him.

The late Mr. George Steevens, generally styled Commentator Steevens, from his annotations on Shakspeare, said of "The Pursuits of Literature," that "the poem was merely a peg to hang notes upon;" but, if I may presume to judge, it is a work of high poetical merit. The author says in a parody on Pope, alluding to my late friend Mr. William Gifford, "I sit and think I read my Pope anew." Much as I revere the talents of my friend Gifford, I cannot but think that there is much of poetical inspiration, and not less of vigour, in "The Pursuits of Literature," and I conceive that the character of the Bard in that poem, considering its extent, may be compared to some of the best productions in our language.