1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

James Ralph

R. P. S., in "Progress of Literature in Pennsylvania" Philadelphia Monthly Magazine NS 1 (November 1828) 18-19.



A neatly turned line of sarcasm, from a reputed wit, will descend from father to son, for centuries, until it is received as a truth, as incontrovertible as holy writ. The ill-timed parody on a line in Thomson's Sophonisba, is remembered, while the beauties, profusely scattered through that drama, are forgotten; and Pope's distich upon James Ralph, has consigned the name of the latter to contempt, though he possessed considerable talent and industry, and his writings surpass, in positive merit, the works of many, who have been rewarded with honorable and permanent distinction. Ralph was an early friend of Franklin, and accompanied him to England in 1724, with the avowed purpose of becoming an author by profession, and commenced his career as an unsuccessful political writer. He then attempted dramatic writing, and between the years 1730 and 1744, produced four plays: "The Fashionable Lady," "Fall of the Earl of Essex," "Lawyer's Feast," and "The Astrologer," neither of which received much approbation. As a historian, he has been more fortunate. He published, in two folio volumes, "The History of England, during the reigns of William, Anne, and George I." Charles Fox pronounces him, "a historian of great acuteness, as well as diligence, but who falls sometimes into the common error of judging too much by the event." No slight praise, considering the source from which it emanates. He wrote many political pamphlets, some of which, we are told, were looked upon as master-pieces. The Dutchess of Marlborough having published, in 1742, the memoirs of her own life, Ralph wrote an answer to it, entitled "The other side of the Question," which attracted much public notice, and he became so formidable to the ministry, towards the end of Sir Robert Walpole's time, that it was deemed expedient to silence him with a pension. To this circumstance Churchill alludes in his "Conference"

"See men transform'd to brutes, and brutes to men,
See Whitehead take a place, Ralph change his pen.

This pension is stated to have been 600 pounds per annum, Franklin says 300, and that he enjoyed it until the time of his death, in 1762, which gives the lie direct to the remark of the annotator on the Dunciad, when he says: "He ended at last in the common sink of all such writers, a political newspaper, to which he was recommended by his friend Arnall, and received a small pittance for pay." In the same note, he is said to have been "wholly illiterate, and knew no language, not even French." In the Biographia Dramatica, we are told, that "he understood French and Latin, and was not altogether ignorant of Italian." But this has little bearing on the point. He might have been a powerful writer, though ignorant of either of these languages, and a profoundly dull one, with a perfect knowledge of all. To the writings already enumerated, we may add, "Sawney, a poem," which called forth the anger of Pope; "Night, a poem," the title of which is recorded in the Dunciad; and his last work, "The case of Authors stated, with regard to Booksellers, the Stage, and the Public." The only account of his early life, extant, is that given by Franklin; and, as he was a Philadelphian, we could not overlook him, though his literary distinction was acquired in another country.