1766 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Brown

Aeacus [Francis Blackburne?], "The History of Leucophaeus" St. James's Chronicle, 1766; Correspondence of Thomas Gray and William Mason, ed. John Mitford (1853) 470-76.



Thursday, October 16, 1766.

SIR,

There is a tribute of candid report due to the memory of men of genius and learning, how unfortunate soever they may have been in the application of their talents, or however they may have fallen short of that approbation which the publick has given to men of much inferior abilities, at the same time that it hath been denied to them. I would endeavour to apply this reflection to the case of the unhappy Leucophaeus, who has just finished his mortal course in a way which some people may think has fully justified the world in the unfavourable sentiments that were so generally entertained of his literary conduct. Leucophaeus is now out of the reach of every man's resentment, as well as of every man's envy; and I would willingly hope, that a few dispassionate reflections upon his fortunes and his fate, from a person who knew something of him at different times of his life, may not be offensive to those who have candour enough to make the requisite allowances for errors and frailties, which have been excused in others who had but a small portion of his merit to qualify them. Merit he certainly had, and merit will be allowed him by the capable readers, even of such of his writings as convey the most striking idea of the author's mental infirmities.

Few men have given earlier proofs of capacity and erudition than Leucophaeus. His rising genius was marked and distinguished by the tendered patronage of some who had gained, and of others who thought they were gaining, the summit of fame in the republic of letters. With certain of the latter Leucophaeus entered into the most intimate connection, upon the assurance of being conducted, in virtue of that alliance, to as much reputation, and as great a proportion of emolument, as he had reason to look for. A fatal step! which he never afterward could retrieve, when he most desired it. Had he preserved his independency, he had preserved his probity and honour; but he had parts, and he had ambition. The former might have eclipsed a jealous competition for fame; the latter laid him open to practices proper to prevent it. No arts or allurements were omitted to attach him to a party, which easily found the means to consign him to contempt the moment it was suspected that he was uneasy in his bonds, and that he was meditating expedients to break them.

An intimate friend spent a long evening with him, when he was literally on the road to his ruin; that is to say, when he was going to confirm and cultivate the affiance above-mentioned. Leucophaeus's prospects were then talked over. He was warned to be aware of consequences; but the connection was formed, and must he adhered to; and they who had heard Leucophaeus harangue on that occasion, concerning the world with which he was going to engage, and concerning what would become him in his commerce with it, would have sworn that nothing could surprise his prudence, nothing pervert his integrity.

Splendid and decorated guide-posts, promising straight and easy roads, often stand at the head of dirty, crooked lanes. These were pointed out to Leucophaeus at his first setting forwards. He soon found them fallacious indexes: he had the satisfaction, however, to have one example immediately before him, that shewed how well it might be worth the while of an aspirant to turn and wind about, and even to be a little "bemired," in order to come at a comfortable lodging, clean linen, and a complete change of raiment.

But these were blessings which were not intended for Leucophaeus. The tempter could have given the clue, which would have led his pupil through all difficulties; but that might have spoiled his own game. He contented himself therefore with escorting Leucophaeus to the thickest of the filth, and there he fairly left him to the scorn and derision of lookers-on; calmly observing, with a shrug, "If a man will expose himself, who can help it?" It happened, however, that out of this piteous condition Leucophaeus emerged, and with that vigour as in a great measure to recover his estimation. And here the tempter saw it necessary to strike in again. A little coaxing procured an act of oblivion for one of the cruelest insults that could be offered to an ingenuous mind; and to shew the sincerity of his reconciliation, the first thing Leucophaeus did was to disfigure one of his capital performances, by copying the ungracious manner of the Grand Examplar.

At what period Leucophaeus lost himself with the publick every one knows. At the same instant was he deserted by the alliance; and so apprehensive were they lest he should once more find such encouragement for his powers as might throw their importance into obscurity, that some pains were taken to have one door of preferment shut against him, even where the recommendation of the alliance would have been of no service to him had it been kept open. But they succeeded; and in that success added one more to the many instances upon record, of the power and proclivity of many a man to do mischief; where he has neither the power nor the inclination to do good. Certain fragments in the last thing Leucophaeus committed to the press, throw some faint light upon this part of his history.

Leueophaeus now found himself in a wide world, at enmity with him on every side. What was he to do? Should he return to the paths of truth and probity, to which he had been so long a stranger? Alas! his "credit," his "weight" was gone. His early connections had left a stain upon his character, which the after-conduct of an angel could hardly have discharged from the minds of honest men. It appeared by some very remarkable evidence that he was suspected to be the scout of the alliance, even to the very last. It has since appeared that his most zealous remonstrances against the imputation could not perfectly clear him of that suspicion. What remained then for him, but to do — what numbers (perhaps a majority) of his brethren had done before him — what his original patrons and conductors were then doing — what the dexterous part of mankind generally find their account in doing? — In one word, he temporized, but with this difference from the calmer speculators of the ground before them — he made his evolutions too quick and visible. Unhappily for him, the changes in the upper regions were frequent, sudden, and unforeseen. To these he accommodated himself without hesitation; and it was impossible that so immediate and so nimble transitions in so conspicuous a character, should not give the cue to the publick to mark him, rather than an hundred others, who really temporized no less than he, but who had the discretion not to notify it upon paper, or (if that was unavoidable in an occasional sermon or so) who had the art to balance so cleverly as to leave matters in that sort of see-saw way, which affords the publick no clear indications of their present attachments. — Common fame says, that the last effort of Leucopheaus's genius was a panegyric on the Earl of Chatham. This, probably, the sad catastrophe of the author broke off abruptly; otherwise the publick had been favoured with it ere this. What the brotherhood in general think of the noble Earl, we shall hardly be informed in print before the end of January. Such is the difference between impetuosity and discretion in committing the same sin.

The last province allotted to Leucophaeus was of a sort which implied a civil dismission from all his expectations at home. It is said to have been planned in a consultation of casuists, upon the same considerations which induce physicians to send their patients to Bath, when they chuse not to be longer troubled with their hypochondriacal complaints in town. Leucophaeus was evidently contemptuously, unaccountably neglected; and the publick was eternally asking Why? He was a temporizer. What then? is not temporizing the cardinal virtue of the age? is it not almost the singular merit of that class of men to which Leucophaeus belonged? To whomsoever his trimming character was obnoxious, it should not have been so to those who denounce utter exclusion against all who are inflexibly tenacious of unpolite truths. Is an obsequious blockhead a greater credit to the cause he espouses, or a greater ornament to the master who employs him, than an obsequious genius? No. But the former will be quiet, every way quiet; and geniuses are apt to speculate, and speculation is apt to run foul of system, and to do mischief, even where the meaning is good enough. Aye, there was the rub; Leucophaeus speculated once upon a time on his quiet brethren, in the midst of their repose; and for this he has ever since been called an impudent writer. But has it been duly considered in what respectable school he learned his impudence? Did he bring anything from that school but his impudence? And why should not impudence do as much for him as it has done for — others? So reasoned the publick. And they who perhaps would not have employed Leucophaeus, where an honester man was to be had, could suggest no reason to themselves why he should not be employed by those who were no honester than himself. At length the dispute is ended. An office was contrived which would answer the highest demands of his ambition. He was to be the Solomon to a Queen of Sheba. A little solemn grimace in the quarter where it was first proposed drew him in to act his part in this egregious farce. Of all men upon earth, Leucophaeus was the last to suspect design, when anything was said to his advantage. Compliments on this occasion were not spared; and as they came from the white-bearded fellow, no "gull" was suspected. Intoxicated with this prospect, he became, what his insidious coaxers wanted him — perfectly ridiculous. After some time the loudness of the laugh roused him from his reverie. The length of the nap had sobered him. He inquired seriously of those who knew the best where all this was to end, and — behold! it was all a dream. The reflection was too much for the feeling, indignant spirit of Leucophaeus. A speedy end was put to it by an act of desperation, for which perhaps, at the final day of account, not Leucophaeus alone shall be answerable.

I am, Sir, your humble servant,

AEACUS.