1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Wolcot

John Taylor Esq., in Records of my Life (1832) 2:228-44.



JOHN WOLCOT, M.D. I became acquainted with this extraordinary character in the year 1785, and, with some intervals, arising from suspicion and mistake on his part, I believe I was more intimate with him than any other of his numerous connexions. What chiefly promoted our intimacy, was my sincere admiration of his talents, and his persuasion that I understood his genius and general character better than most of his other friends. I believe I may venture to say that such was the fact. I confess, I think he possessed an original genius, which entitles him to a very high rank in the literary annals of the country.

He was generally understood to be a good Latin scholar, and had made a considerable progress in the Greek language. His chief passion was for poetry, which he discovered very early in life, and never relinquished. His tendency was chiefly to satire, but being a great admirer of the ladies, he very soon indulged himself in writing amatory verses. Yet, though many of them were marked by tenderness and elegance, his humour interposed, and they generally concluded with some epigrammatic point.

He was a great observer of Nature in every possible mode, and used to say, that, far from being exhausted, her works supplied an inexhaustible source of new imagery to an attentive observer. He often talked of the difference between the made poet and the poet of Nature. The former he said might produce very good poems, but their excellence was derivative, and they had nothing original in their composition; while the real poet studied Nature herself, and viewed fife rather than books. This opinion may appear common-place; it is however certain that there are more original thoughts to be found in his works than in any other author of modern times, nor, perhaps, in that respect would it be extravagant to compare him with some of the best of our former writers. What Melmoth, in his "Fitzosborn's Letters," says of "The Spleen," written by Matthew Green, may fairly be said of Wolcot's "Lousiad," viz. that there are more original ideas in that poem than are to be found in any other work of the same extent.

I have been often laughed at for my high opinion of Dr. Wolcot's genius, but console myself with the notion, that they who ridicule me had either not read his works, or wanted judgment and humour sufficient to understand them. That he frequently fell into low imagery, I readily admit, but it will always be found that it was still original, and not without a strong point.

There is a well written account of the doctor in the "Annual Biography and Obituary for the year 1820," but the author is mistaken in some instances, particularly as to the success of his first publication, his "Lyric Odes on the Painters," which, far from being profitable, were so little noticed, except by the artists, that the publication cost him forty pounds. Soon after these Odes were published, I was introduced to him accidentally by Mr. Penneck. I had read the "Lyric Odes," and when in the course of conversation I found that the doctor was the author of them, I was anxious to cultivate an acquaintance with so humorous and so original a writer. I then conducted a public journal, and by frequent extracts from his works, and the insertion of many of his unpublished poems, I brought the name of Peter Pindar into so much notice that Mr. Kearsley, then a popular bookseller, introduced himself to him, and was a ready and liberal purchaser of all his productions.

The doctor has often declared that he was indebted to my zeal to bring him into notice, for half of his fame and fortune. I must, however, do myself the justice to declare that I endeavoured to give notoriety to his name before he wrote such reprehensible attacks upon our late venerable sovereign; but as people are too apt to feel pleasure in attacks on their superiors, and as the doctor at that time did not abound in money, my exhortations and entreaties had no effect in opposition to his interest. He, however, hardly ever wrote anything that he did not submit to me in manuscript; and I may confidently say, that I induced him to make many alterations and suppressions, which not only rendered his works less exceptionable, but most probably saved him from legal consequences.

I have often been surprised, as he was really a timid man, how he could venture to take such freedoms, not only with the royal character, but with many of the upper ranks. With respect to our late excellent monarch George the Third, he used to say, that he reverenced the British constitution, and held its political head in due veneration; but that he felt justified in sporting with the peculiarities of the private character of the monarch. It was in vain that I opposed these opinions, and referred him to Blackstone, to show the punishment annexed to works that were calculated to bring the character of the monarch into contempt. In short, he found the topic too profitable to be abandoned, and therefore pursued it to such an extent as to render it wonderful that it should not have attracted the attention of the law officers of government. If legal notice had been taken of his muse, she would certainly have been silenced, at least upon that subject; and I can affirm that upon one occasion, as I have already stated, when he was in fear that he should draw upon himself the vengeance of government, he had actually prepared to set off for America, and determined never to revisit this country. The apprehension, however, subsided, and impunity made him bolder.

His lines addressed to the infamous Thomas Paine during the French revolution, afford a proof of his attachment to the constitution of the country; and, to use his own expression, due care should always be taken by wise statesmen to prevent "the unenlightened million" from having any share in political power.

Here it may be proper to give some account of what was called Peter's pension, of which no true statement has ever appeared, though many have been published. We were one day dining with a gentleman, intimately connected with a member of the government at that time, and in the course of conversation the doctor expressed himself with so much vehemence against, the French revolution, which was raging at that time, and the principles on which it was founded, that I jocularly said to our host, "The doctor seems to show symptoms of bribability." The gentleman encouraged the joke, and addressing the doctor, "Come, doctor," said he, "with these opinions you can have no objection to support the Government — shall I open a negotiation?" The doctor gave a doubtful, but not a discouraging answer, and then the subject dropped, but the next morning the doctor called on the gentleman, and knowing that he was in the confidence of Government, asked him if he was serious in what he had said the day before. The gentleman, not being without alarm at the progress of French principles, and their ensnaring nature; aware too of the power of ridicule, and how formidable a weapon it was in the hands of the doctor; told him seriously that if he was really inclined to afford the support of his pen to Government, he thought he could procure for him its patronage. The doctor said he had several works in preparation against ministers individually, which he would suppress if that would do, but was not disposed to be actively employed in favour of Government. The gentleman, with some compliment to his satirical talents, told him that he could not negotiate on such terms, for, if he published libels, the law might be put in force against him; remarking at the same time, that by supporting Government he would be acting upon his own declared principles, which were so hostile to those by which the French monarchy had been overthrown. After farther discussion, the doctor permitted him to open the negotiation. Though Government had not given the least intimation on the subject, yet when so powerful a pen was offered, it was too well acquainted with the doctor's powers to negative the proposal. At length it was settled that the doctor should have three hundred a year for active services. Wolcot stickled hard for five hundred a year, but, finding that he could not succeed, he consented to the measure. He, however, wrote nothing but a few epigrams against the Jacobins, which he sent to the editor of "The Sun" newspaper. This, however, not being deemed an adequate service, I frequently advised him to be more active, but a sort of shame hung about him for having engaged in support of a Government which he had so often abused, or rather its members, and I never could rouse him into action.

I should mention, that a difficulty had arisen as to the medium through which he was to receive the recompense. The gentleman who had opened the negotiation positively declined the office, and, as the doctor was prohibited from going himself to the quarter where it was to be received, matters seemed to be at a stand; however, as I was really an "alarmist," to use Mr. Sheridan's word, and thought highly of the advantage which might be derived from the doctor's talents, I offered to be the channel of remuneration. Wolcot, though he really did nothing more than what I have above mentioned, was constantly urging me "to bring the bag," as he styled it. Reluctant, however, to ask for money which he had done nothing to deserve, I delayed my application so long that he grew impatient, and asked me if he might go himself to the quarter in question. I answered that I thought it was the best way, for I had reason to believe he considered he was really to have five hundred a year, and that the gentleman who had negotiated the business and myself were to divide the other two. The doctor then angrily applied to the fountain-head, and on enquiring what sum he was to have, was told that it was to be three hundred a year, and that I had spoken of his talents in the highest terms, and of the advantages which might be expected from them. He then declared that he should decline the business altogether, and returned the ten pounds which he had taken of our host, as he said, to "bind the bargain." Disgusted with his suspicion, I reproached him on the occasion, and we separated in anger.

As I knew the doctor was too apt to give a favourable colouring to his own cause, and that he had represented the whole transaction as a trap to ensnare him, though the overture had actually come from himself, I addressed a letter to him, and faithfully and fully detailed the whole affair, telling him that I kept a copy of my letter to read wherever I heard that he had misrepresented the matter.

Many years of separation passed, but hearing he was blind, infirm, lame, and asthmatic, I resolved one Monday morning to begin the week with an extinction of all enmity between us, and went to his lodgings in Somers' Town on that day. I addressed him in the most friendly tone, but he did not recollect my voice, and when he understood who I was, he appeared delighted, pressed me to have a glass of brandy-and-water, though it was morning, and said that if I would stay, I should have a beef-steak or anything else I could desire. In short, we were reconciled in a moment, and I repeated my visits as often as convenient to me, promising that 1 would positively drink tea with him on every Saturday. I found his faculties as good as ever, and his poetical talents in full vigour.

I often wrote several of his compositions from his dictation, which were not published, but fell into the hands of his worthless executor. I derived so much pleasure and instruction from his conversation, that I was constant in my attendance upon him on the stipulated day. Having, however, unavoidably omitted one Saturday, he sent one of his female servants to desire me to come, and to tell me that he had something for me. I went, when he desired me to take up the pen, and dictated the following lines, which he said he should have sent to me if he had been able to write, and they were the very last he ever suggested.

INVITATION.
Taylor, why keep so long away
From one who hates a gloomy day?
Then let not laziness o'ercome ye,
Hasten with stories, wit, and rhyme,
To give a fillip to dull time,
And drive the d—n'd blue devils from me.

Ah! Taylor, "non sum qualis eram,"
For to the tomb I fear I near am,
But who can hope to live for ever?
One foot is in the grave, no doubt,
Then come and try to help it out,
An ode shall praise thy kind endeavour.

The ode, however, he did not live to write, which I sincerely regret, as I have reason to believe that it would have manifested at once, his favourable opinion of me, his genius, his humour, and his friendship.

A few days before his death he sent two landscapes to me painted by the old masters, for one of which I had many years before offered to give him five guineas, which he refused, saying in his strong manner, "No — I won't sell pleasure." Both of these pictures were so much injured by negligence and bad treatment, that they were not worth accepting otherwise than as memorials of friendship. From one of them, that which I had offered to purchase, my excellent friend Mr. Westall, R.A. kindly cut off the injured parts, and reduced it into a pleasing moonlight scene, which I now possess.

As far as I can presume to judge, Doctor Wolcot had a profound knowledge of painting, and a refined taste for that art. His objections were generally urged with original humour and ludicrous comparisons, which had all the force and accuracy of the most elaborate criticism. He said that his great aim was to make Opie a Michael Angelo Buonarroti, but that he must first have made him a gentleman, which he found impossible. This remark, however, was made during his variance with that original artist, of whose talents he thought highly and deservedly.

The raillery which frequently took place between him and Opie, was highly diverting. Wolcot's sallies were marked with vigour, with a classical point, and Opie's with all the energy of a mind naturally very powerful; their controversies always ended with laughter on both sides, and without the least ill will. The contest was what Johnson applies to the characters in Congreve's plays, an "intellectual gladiatorship," in which neither might be deemed the victor. The doctor and I used frequently to fall into contests of the same kind, but I found him generally too strong, and my only expedient was to make him laugh, by retorting some of his old sallies against me, which the company thought were my own, and he used to smile at my impudence in repeating them against him. Sometimes those in company who did not know us, were apprehensive that we should part in enmity, but we always went home arm in arm, as if nothing had happened.

My weekly visits continued many years, with unabated pleasure on my part, and I may presume much to the gratification of the doctor.

As a proof that he was a kind and considerate master, when one of his servants came to tell me that he had been taken ill, and was delirious when she left him, she wept all the time that she described his situation. I went as soon as I could in the afternoon, and then learned that he had recovered his faculties, but was asleep. I sat by his bedside, expecting he would awake, amusing myself with a volume of his works until ten o'clock. He then awoke, and I told him how long I had been there, observing that it was a dreary way home, and perhaps not quite safe, concluding with saying, "Is there any thing on earth that I can do for you?" His answer, delivered in a deep and strong tone, was, "Bring back my youth." He fell into a sleep again, and I left him. On calling on him the next day, I found he had died, as might be said, in his sleep, and that those words were the last he ever uttered.

Such was the end of a man who possessed extraordinary powers, great acquisitions, and an original genius. I cannot but consider him indeed as a man among those of the most distinguished talents that this country has produced, and whose works ought, and must be considered as compositions marked by extraordinary powers, inexhaustible humour, satire, and imagination.

There are reasonable doubts about the authenticity of his will. The person who possessed it was a very vulgar man, but very cunning, and well acquainted with the world. The doctor was disgusted with him, and only endured him because he hated solitude after he was blind. Wolcot, who thought him an honest man, told me that he had his will. I told him what the doctor had said, and he denied that he was entrusted with a will. After Wolcot's death, however, he said that he had found the will among some copper-plates, from drawings by the doctor, from which prints had been published. A very respectable person who is a clerk in one of the offices in Somerset House, who was entrusted by Wolcot, and who used to receive dividends for him at the Bank, assured me that it was impossible a will could be found in the alleged situation, as he had looked over the copper-plates a short time before; that no paper was among them; and that it was likewise impossible for the doctor, blind as he was, to have placed any paper there at a subsequent period , or to have found his way to the place where the copper-plates were deposited.

What strengthens the suspicion that the will was not genuine, is, that it was witnessed by two persons, whose names were wholly unknown to the servants, and whom they never remembered as visitors to their master. The servants were sisters, and the elder was a shrewd, intelligent, and attentive young woman. Their master had often mentioned the sums that he should respectively leave to them, and which the executor ultimately paid. He also paid the clerk whom I have mentioned fifty pounds, and me the same sum, which the doctor had desired him to specify in writing, and which he signed as well as he could in his helpless situation. Wolcot's then surviving sister, knowing my intimacy with him, wrote to me enquiring the particulars respecting his death, and expressing her surprise that he had not left her any thing, as he had signified to her in a letter which he had dictated and sent to her, that he hoped he should be able to leave her a few hundreds. I made a profile drawing of him, which his friend the elder Mr. Heath engraved, and which, with a biography that I wrote of him, was inserted in the Lady's Magazine, of which Mr. Heath was then the proprietor. I sent the Magazine to the doctor's sister, who wrote a letter to me, thanking me for my attention, and requesting my acceptance of the second folio of Shakspeare's Works, published by Hemings and Condell, which I received from the executor on producing her letter. The doctor left many boxes full of unpublished manuscripts of his own writing, for which the bookseller, it is said, offered a thousand pounds, but for which the executor demanded double the sum; and as he also is dead, they will probably be disposed of as waste-paper, though perhaps, if properly selected, they might prove a valuable addition to the poetical treasures of the country.

The doctor's love of life was intense. He has often said that he would take a lease of five hundred years from nature. "What! said I, " with all your infirmities?" "Yes," said he; for while here you are something, but when dead you are nothing;" yet he firmly believed in the existence of a Supreme Being. I remember once mentioning the doctor's love of life to Mr. Sheridan, expressing my surprise. Mr. Sheridan said, that he would not only take a lease for five hundred years, but for ever, provided he was in health, in good circumstances, and with such friends as he then possessed; yet if he had taken due care of his health, and prudently managed his fortune, he might still be alive and an ornament to the country.

Dr. Wolcot had been in various parts of the world, and had mixed with all the different classes of mankind, the result of which intercourse was, a very unfavourable opinion of human nature. He had a dire hatred of all foreign courts, and of politicians in all countries. He thought that foreign potentates in all states were capable of the utmost tyranny and oppression, and that they would employ the worst means to effect their purposes. Though he held the nobility in great contempt, as proud, insolent, ignorant, and unfeeling, yet he confessed that he always felt awe in their presence.

I have been a frequent witness of the awe which he felt before great persons. Once I remember being in a private room of the old Opera House, where His Majesty George the Fourth, then Prince of Wales, condescended to permit Dr. Wolcot to be introduced to him. The prince received him in the most gracious manner, and in a short conversation observed, with dignified affability, that he admired his genius, but sometimes thought it ill-directed. The doctor seemed to sink with humility and self-reproach, and made a mumbling, inaudible apology. The prince maintained the same dignified ease and affability, and Wolcot recovered his spirits enough to express his hopes that his royal highness would have less reason hereafter to find fault with his humble muse. Nothing could be more graceful than the manner in which his royal highness took leave of the doctor, who, from that time, never resumed an attack upon the royal family, but transferred all his satirical hostility to the ministers. It was understood that the prince was aware of this meeting, and it was inferred that he thought a courteous rebuke would have a better effect upon the doctor in checking the licence of his pen, than all the severity of the law, if it should be called into action against him; and the expedient succeeded.

Another time I was going up the stairs at the same Opera House with the doctor, when we met the late Duke of Cumberland, who with perfect good-humour said, "How do you do, Pindaricus?" Wolcot felt abashed, but not to the same degree as when before the prince.

I learned from the late Duke of Leeds, with whom I had the honour to be acquainted, that meeting Dr. Wolcot in the green-room of Covent Garden Theatre, who had attacked him in one of his poems, the duke addressed him with great courtesy, and desired him to accompany him to his box, and he would introduce him to the duchess. Wolcot could not resist the overture, but went with timid hesitation, and was introduced to the duchess. The duke told me, that in the course of conversation he adverted to the doctor's attack upon him, and said, "But, doctor, if you disapproved of my politics, why did you ridicule my nose — I could not help that?" Wolcot attempted to excuse himself, saying he had heard that his grace had, with other ministers, advised a prosecution against him for the freedom of his pen. The duke assured him he was misinformed, and that he revered the freedom of the press. The doctor was received by the duke and duchess with great courtesy, and they parted in the most amicable manner.