1791 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Mackenzie

Samuel Rogers, Journal entry, 21 April 1791; P. W. Clayden, The Early Life of Samuel Rogers (1887) 165-71.



April 21, 1791. — At Miss Williams's.

Mr. Mackenzie, a man of very mild and unassuming manners, was first announced, and began upon Edinburgh. "I believe," said he, "conversation is more cultivated there than here. In London the ardour of pursuit is greater. The merchant, the lawyer, and the physician are enveloped in their different professional engagements, but the Scotchman will retire early from the counter or the counting-house to lecture on Metaphysics, or make the grand tour of the arts and sciences. I believe we have a more contemplative turn than you, and it arises partly from a defect — the little commerce and agriculture we have among us. We are also more national, and there is not a labourer among us that is not versed in the history of his country. Local history is what we are particularly fond of."

"I had observed it," I said. "Not a Highlander I met but could give me the history of every pebble about his village."

Mr. Mackenzie: "I remember an innocent trick that was once played on an Englishman. When Dr. Roebuck was riding in Scotland, he was assured by a friend that every peasant knew Greek. 'Let us visit, for instance, that farmhouse!' Dr. Roebuck assented. It belonged to Wilkie, the celebrated author of the 'Epigoniad,' and he was at work as usual in the dress of a labourer. Dr. Roebuck made an observation on tillage. 'Yes, sir,' said Wilkie, 'but in Sicily there was once a different method,' and he quoted Theocritus. Dr. Roebuck was thunderstruck. Wilkie was an original character. He had conversed so long with the ancients that he had lost every trace of the modern in his composition. When he paid Edinburgh a visit at a time that party ran high on some particular subject, he attacked the leading wits of the day in a large circle with such spirit that he set them to flight, and when his hearers, who were struck with the uncouthness of his look and gesture, expressed their surprise at his courage: 'Shall I,' said he, 'who have kept company so long with Agamemnon, the king of men, shall I shrink from a contest with such a puny race?' But after all," said Mr. Mackenzie, returning to his subject, "Dr. Johnson was perhaps right when he said of us that every man had a taste, and no man a bellyful."

"And yet you will allow that there are many exceptions to the last part of the rule, sir?" said Miss Baillie, a very pretty woman with a very broad Scotch accent. "Mr. Adam Smith—"

"Yes, ma'am," Mr. Mackenzie interrupted with a warmth he seldom discovered, "Mr. Smith was an exception. He had twice Dr. Johnson's learning — who only knew one language well, the Latin — though he had none of his affectation of it. He was one of the mildest and most amiable of men, a good son, an affectionate brother, and a sincere friend. The last time we met was at a club which was held every Sunday evening at his own house. — I had once the pleasure to see you there, sir. — He was very cheerful, but we persuaded him not to sup with us, and he said, about half-past nine, as he left the room: 'I love your company, gentlemen, but I believe I must leave you — to go to another world.' He died a few hours after. Before I came that evening he had burnt, with the assistance of Dr. Black, sixteen volumes in manuscript on Jurisprudence — the sum of one course of his Lectures at Glasgow, as was the 'Wealth of Nations' of another; but these had not received his last corrections, and from what he had seen he had formed a mean opinion of posthumous publications in general. With a most retentive memory his conversation was solid beyond that of any man. I have often told him after half-an-hour's conversation — 'Sir, you have said enough to make a book.' Dr. Blair by these means introduced many of Adam Smith's thoughts on Jurisprudence into his lectures, but when I told him of it — 'He is very welcome,' said he, 'there is enough left.'"

I enquired after his old servant.

Mr. Mackenzie: "He was provided with a place in the Custom House at the request of everybody. Mr. Smith left the bulk of his fortune to his nephew, a very clever young man. But perhaps the Scotch cannot claim him entirely, for he received part of his education at Oxford."

During this conversation came Dr. Cadogan, Mr. Jerningham, Dr. Baillie, and Cadell with his daughter. Tea now walked in, and drew a disquisition on its merits from Dr. Cadogan. Dr. Johnson's immoderate love of it was mentioned, and the remark brought him again upon the carpet. Lord Monboddo's contempt of his Dictionary was mentioned. Mr. [William] Seward (who now introduced Mr. [Robert] Merry, a very genteel, handsome man) said he had silenced him with quoting James Harris's high opinion of it, and that when somebody had given Johnson a list of its imperfections — "Are those all?" said he; "I thought there had been a thousand more." Mr. Mackenzie said Johnson's greatest fault was in rejecting every word from the Saxon.

As the tea went round the sugar suggested the slave trade and the late debate.

Dr. Cadogan thought it the most disgraceful evening ever spent by the House of Commons.

Mr. Mackenzie thought the immediate abolition dangerous in its consequences in the islands. So did Dr. Baillie and Mr. Cadell. Mr. Cadell said a whole people was not chargeable with any solitary acts of cruelty, and instanced a late case of a chimney-sweeper's apprentice.

Mr. Mackenzie: "You should consider not the act itself, but its impression on the minds of the people. An English mob would, I doubt not, massacre the chimney-sweeper in a moment; but I fear the Jamaica people view barbarity with unconcern."

Mr. Merry said he believed it indeed, and he blushed for his country.

The company then rose up to read a small poem of Mr. Day's, of which Mr. Seward proposed an emendation—

Turns on his hunters and then valiant falls.

There were different opinions; and different groups were formed. Mr. Jerningham asked me concerning the fate of Mr. Merry's play. I fear, said he, that his style is too artificial for tragedy.

In another place stood Dr. Moore, Mr. Merry, and Cadell on Boswell and Johnson and Piozzi; and in another stood Seward and Mackenzie and Dr. Kippis in judgment on the poem. Mr. Mackenzie said that Robert Burns had lately written a beautiful poem in Scotch, called the "Kirk of Alloa." It fell flat towards the conclusion [author's note: This is "Tam o' Shanter." It was written for Captain Grose in return for a drawing of Alloway Kirk, and published in Grose's Antiquities of Scotland].

Mr. Mackenzie: "The same young man who wrote the German tragedy mentioned in the Edinburgh Transactions, has since published another, full of uncommon merit and more regular, the last scene particularly striking. A nobleman's son in love with a musician's daughter is induced by his father, who is an enemy to the match, to think her false, and in a frenzy he stabs her. Her innocence then appears, and he stabs his father and himself. The German works appear to great disadvantage here, as they are translated from the French only, which is very bad, the translators gliding over every difficulty. I have learnt a little German since that paper of mine appeared, and I am now struck with their tragedies particularly, though the unities are not observed."

I said, only one of those was of consequence — unity of character.

Mr. Mackenzie: "Mr. Smith wrote a charming piece on that subject in a periodical paper at Glasgow, in which Lord Loughborough engaged, but which was soon dropt, the parties being discovered."

Mr. Jerningham inquired after Dr. Beattie.

Mr. Mackenzie said his spirits were naturally low, and were now still lower from family affliction, the confinement of his wife, and the death of his son. He then adverted to Lord Monboddo. He is a friend of the slave trade because the ancients encouraged it. He bathes every morning in a cold and a hot bath, and afterwards anoints himself because they did so.

"Aye," said Mr. Seward, "I remember that circumstance drew a pun from Johnson, notwithstanding his aversion to puns. 'That man of Grease,' said he. I laughed at it, and he affected to be angry, and said he did not intend a pun."

Mr. Mackenzie: "When I congratulated him (Lord Monboddo) on his recovery from a fever, he assured me it was not one of your modern nervous fevers but a true Roman fever, a burning fever. He complains that the present race have no voice now he grows deaf and often desires the barristers to speak up."

Mr. Seward: "He is come to town partly to buy an ourang-outang, that he may take him to Edinburgh and teach him to talk and think."

Mr. Mackenzie: "He has been often imposed upon with baboons which have passed for that species, particularly with one which had been taught to walk with a stick and was afterwards shown in Edinburgh."

I observed that Lord Monboddo had that day se'enight asserted that no man in the House of Commons could make or deliver a period but Mr. Pitt, and no man recite Milton but the Lord Chancellor.

Dr. Kippis: "He is a great enemy to short sentences, but he is wrong in his notion of the sentence of the ancients."

Mr. Mackenzie: His admiration of Milton is now so high, that he begins to think it unintelligible to the vulgar. He once set Macklin to read it, but found so much fault with him, that he threw the book to his lordship saying: 'Do read it yourself.' He admires Mrs. Siddons, but does not think she does justice to Milton. He once saw her act the lady in Comus."

The circle now contracted to Mr. Jerningham, Mr. Merry, Mr. Seward, Dr. Moore, the ladies, and myself.