1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Chalmers

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 1:188-90, 334-38.



MR. GEORGE CHALMERS. With this gentleman I had the pleasure of being acquainted many years. He was a native of Scotland, and his accent strongly indicated his country. He was one of the most indefatigable writers ever engaged in literature. He had been concerned in business in America, and had seen much of the world. Though no man was better qualified to examine evidence, and though so laborious in investigation, and anxious for truth, yet he seemed on particular occasions to have been some what too credulous. For instance, he conceived that a young Irishman, named Hugh Boyd, was the author of the celebrated Letters of Junius, though many reasons may be given which might be deemed conclusive against his opinion and apparently confident belief. The internal evidence of the letters may be deemed a satisfactory proof that they could not have been written by a young man; and the edition of Junius published by Mr. George Woodfall, the son of the original publisher, shows that Junius wrote to The Public Advertiser under a different signature, before he adopted and adhered to that of Junius, and consequently, as Hugh Boyd was then younger, he may reasonably be supposed to have been less qualified by his time of life for the composition of letters that are characterized by deep knowledge of mankind, learning, and extensive acquaintance with political subjects.

I have the pleasure of being acquainted with a daughter of Hugh Boyd, and from all she has informed me of the disposition of her father, it is difficult to suppose that a man of his mild, pacific, and benevolent character, could have written with so much vehemence, acrimony, and venom, as appear in those letters. Her brother, who is a profound scholar and a very elegant poet, as far as I could learn from Miss Boyd, did not appear to think his father was the author of "Junius." It is by no means improbable that had Mr. Chalmers seen this last edition of "Junius," with all the private letters to the elder Mr. Woodfall, from Junius, under various signatures, he would have relinquished his conviction that Hugh Boyd was the author, and with equal zeal have given another direction to his researches; as he would have been convinced that Hugh Boyd had neither experience nor opportunity to derive information sufficient for the composition of these letters.

Mr. Chalmers was at first a believer in Ireland's fabrications of the pretended "Shakspeare Papers," but was ensnared with many other learned and able men. However, on farther inquiry and reflection he recanted, and appeared to greater advantage than those who originally doubted: for some of the most hostile opponents would not even inspect the specious documents, displaying prejudice rather than caution; Mr. Chalmers, on the contrary, fairly stated his grounds for belief, and supported them by such arguments as justified those who had at first confided in the validity of the imposition.

Although so zealous and persevering an enquirer, Mr. Chalmers was, however, inclined to retain his opinion respecting Hugh Boyd; for he assured me, a gentleman who had met Boyd in the East Indies, positively told him that Boyd had acknowledged to him that he was really the author of "Junius," though he had reasons for not divulging the secret while he was in England. It is hardly possible to conceive that so shrewd and intelligent a man as Mr. Chalmers should have placed any confidence in such a testimony. How many persons are there in the world who would confess themselves to be Junius, if they thought any reliance would be placed on their declaration! The Rev. Mr. Rozenhagen was one of the rumoured candidates for that honour; and so wide and confident was the report, that my ingenious friend Mr. James Sayers, the author of "Elijah's Mantle," so erroneously attributed to Mr. Canning, published an etching of Mr. Rozenhagen with a paper half out of his pocket on which was inscribed the word Junius....

GEORGE CHALMERS, ESQ. With this gentleman I had many years the pleasure of being acquainted, and hold his memory in much respect. He was chiefly conversant with mercantile and political subjects, but also with works of general literature. He was one of the most indefatigable writers that perhaps ever existed, and subjects that were irksome and difficult to the world at large, might be said to be to him "familiar as his garters." The bullion question for instance, which was not only puzzling, unintelligible, and repulsive to others, was a subject which he satisfactorily explained, and rendered as easy to general comprehension, as general comprehension could admit. Even my late friend William Gifford, who was as sagacious a man as I ever knew, told me that he wished to understand the bullion question, but honestly declared, that the more he read and studied the subject, the less he understood it, his mind taking a retrograde direction.

Mr. Chalmers had been some years in America, but when I knew him he had a good appointment at the Board of Trade. As a proof of his love for, and knowledge of literary subjects, when young Ireland brought forward his pretended unpublished and unknown works of Shakspeare, he, like Dr. Parr and the elder Boswell, was deceived at first by the imposition. Boswell was so completely duped, that he dropped on his knees, and thanked God that he had lived to see so many indubitable reliques of the divine bard. But Mr. Chalmers, upon farther search, considered them as fabrications; yet in vindication of himself and others who had been deluded by the imposition, he published an apology for the believers in the supposed Shakspeare manuscripts, books, &c. in which he displayed great research, knowledge, and acumen. He was not a little severe on my friend Mr. Malone, who wrote against the imposition, without having looked at the pretended reliques, and who had ridiculed those who had been betrayed into credulity.

Mr. Chalmers wrote many pamphlets on political subjects, chiefly in defence of government and Mr. Pitt's administration; and in all he wrote on those subjects, I am fully persuaded that he acted from the most perfect conviction, and was entirely exempt from any interested bias of gratitude or expectation. His "Caledonia" was his great work; three large volumes in quarto have been published, and I believe he had far advanced in the fourth, which would have concluded his labours on that subject. The work, though not finished, must be highly gratifying to the natives of Scotland, and to every admirer of antiquity, as the author had collected and recorded every thing which could illustrate the history, and contribute to the glory of that ancient kingdom.

The various works of Mr. Chalmers are innumerable, and I believe, his most intimate connexions would not be able to trace even a small part of them. But with all his sagacity, judgment. and perseverance, I cannot help thinking he was on some subjects too credulous and hasty in his conclusions. He conceived that Mr. Hugh Boyd, a young Irishman, was the author of "Junius's Letters," though not only Boyd's age and condition in life were "strong against the deed," but his avowed works were so different from the style of Junius, as to preclude the supposition, though he studied and copied the manner of the great anonymous original. In his comments, however, on the language of Junius, Mr. Chalmers discovered many grammatical errors in those celebrated letters, and gave many strong reasons for believing that the author was an Irishman.

The arguments and citations in a work published by Mr. Taylor, the bookseller, are so strong in favour of Sir Philip Francis as the author, that an eminent law authority is said to have declared, they ought to be admitted in a court of Justice; and I heard Mr. Godwin once say, that he should have been convinced by that work, only that he knew Sir Philip Francis had not sufficient ability for such compositions as those celebrated letters.

Among the many reputed authors of that great anonymous work, Burke seems still to hold the ascendancy, and to be the mark of general suspicion. But independently of other reasons, there is, as I have before observed, such an essential character in the expansive and flowery style of Burke in his avowed publications, admitting. all his literary merit and political knowledge, as seems to render it impossible for him to have supported one so unlike his own, to such an extent as to maintain it through the whole progress of the "Letters of Junius." As to Burke's voluntary denial to Dr. Johnson, that he was the author of "Junius," I should place no dependence on that declaration, relying on what I have heard of Burke's character, from those who were likely to understand it much better than the multitude.

Another proof of my friend Chalmers's hasty convictions was, his confident belief that Mr. Mathias was the author of The Pursuits of Literature, insomuch that he actually put an advertisement in the newspapers, positively charging him with being the author, though there was only a rumour that he had been known to have had some hand in it as it passed through the press.

Mr. Chalmers told me that he intended to write a life of Thomson; but he did not live to fulfil his design — a subject of regret, as his inquiring and indefatigable mind would doubtless have produced an interesting biography of one of our greatest poets. Having mentioned to Dr. Wolcot that I had dined with Mr. Chalmers, and also the articles which he possessed that had belonged to Thomson, the doctor, who, like Thomson, saw everything with a poetical eye, asked me if I had not written something on this subject, and hence I was induced to write the following trifle.

TO GEORGE CHALMERS, ESQ.
The Possessor of a Table and Wine-Glasses which belonged to Thomson the Poet.

Friend Chalmers, 'tis a noble treat
At Thomson's hallow'd board to meet—
The bard of Nature's sphere—
The bard whom, long as ages roll,
And Nature animates the whole,
Taste, Virtue, will revere.

'Tis surely form`d of Britain's oak,
That bears her thunder's dreadful stroke
O'er all her subject main.
For, lo! Britannia's sacred laws,
And Liberty's congenial cause,
Inspired his patriot strain.

Not Arthur's, with his knights around,
By fond tradition long renown'd,
Should equal thine in fame;
Nor that where plates the Trojans ate,
Portentous of a happier fate,
Though graced with Virgil's name.

The Poet's goblets, too, are thine,—
With votive bumpers let them shine,
In Thomson's praise to ring,
Whose works through Summer's parching glow,
Sear'd Autumn, Winter's blighting snow,
Will bloom in endless Spring.

The nephew and namesake of this gentleman paid me the melancholy compliment of inviting me to the funeral of his uncle, which I accepted, willing to show my respect for the memory of a man, who, with all his zeal for literature and good government, was chiefly anxious to discover truth, and to promote the happiness of mankind.