1887 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Robert Merry

P. W. Clayden, in The Early Life of Samuel Rogers (1887) 174-76.



Robert Merry is chiefly remembered as one of the writers attacked by Gifford in the "Baviad" and the "Maeviad." He was the Della Crusca of Gifford's preface. He had been educated at Harrow and Christ's College, Cambridge; had studied for the bar, and then joined the army as an officer in the Guards. Having gone to Florence, where a group of British poetasters were writing poems to one another in the Florence Miscellany, he entered into the scheme, and on his return to England became one of the leaders of a school. With curious appropriateness they took their name from the Della Cruscan Academy in Florence — a Society formed in 1582 to winnow the chaff from the Italian language and leave the pure wheat behind. The English Della Cruscans were chaff without grain, bran with the least possible admixture of flour: the mere refuse the signature Della Crusca implied. Yet, for a moment they met the public taste. Macaulay, in his "Essay on Byron," speaks of them as signs that a literary revolution was at hand — "There was a ferment" — he tells us — "in the minds of men, a vague craving for something new, a disposition to hail with delight anything that might at first sight wear the appearance of originality." Hence the temporary success of writers now utterly forgotten — "anything which could break the dull monotony of the correct school was acceptable." "Macpherson and Della Crusca were to the true reformers of English poetry what Knipperdoling was to Luther or Clootz to Turgot." The Della Cruscans were the Spasmodics of their time. Gifford in the "Baviad" speaks of "Merry's Moorfields whine," and rhymes it with "Greathead's idiot line." In the "Maeviad" he writes—

while Merry and his nurselings die,
Thrill'd with the liquid peril of an eye;
Gasp at a recollection, and drop down,
At the long streamy lightning of a frown.

Mr. Jerningham's criticism of Merry's play that his style was too artificial for tragedy was the gentle view of one of his friends. Mr. Jerningham was himself one of the Della Cruscans. Gifford writes:—

See snivelling Jerningham at fifty weep
O'er lovelorn oxen and deserted sheep,

and speaks of him as "a gentleman with the physiognomie d'un mouton qui reve." He pours worse contempt on Este and Topham, the parson and captain who between them edited The World; and who were literary arbiters in the days when Gifford was heating pieces of leather smooth, and working problems on them with a blunted awl. Rogers used to say that he felt great pleasure when told that Este had said of him: "A child of Goldsmith, sir;" and that, as reader at Whitehall, Este read the service so beautifully that Mrs. Siddons used to go to the Chapel Royal to listen to his elocution. Gifford's lash fell on this school in 1794 and 1796, and scattered it to the winds. Merry went to America, and Este died insane.