1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Colman the Younger

John Wilson Croker, Review of Colman, Poetical Vagaries; Quarterly Review 8 (September 1812) 144-49.



There may be persons so little read in the nugae canorae and farce-comedies of modern times, as to open this volume without any previous acquaintance with Mr. Colman, the Younger. Very young, indeed, will such readers judge Mr. Colman to be; and scarcely pardonable, even to the most extreme youth, will they pronounce his "vagaries:" but to those who know that Mr. Colman is not a giddy boy just escaped from school, and setting up for a poet and wit, on a small stock of facility and fancy, and a large one of puns, old jokes, and double entendres, to those, we say, this volume will afford any thing but amusement, and will appear any thing but excusable.

We are not, at best, great admirers of parody, burlesque, and such small wit. It is only tolerable when it is confined within very narrow limits, and adapted to light and momentary occasions; but, really, when trifling begins to grow ponderous, and swell into quartos, it is high time to relieve the slender stalk of light reading from the worthless pumpkin that threatens to overload it.

What has induced Mr. Colman to venture on the publication of such a volume as this, we are at a loss to guess. Not surely the hope of fame — he has, too much taste and experience to expect any such thing; nor vet the hope of profit — he cannot expect that the gentle readers, who are pleased with burlesque, will be induced to buy it either at so high a rate, or in so awful a form. Perhaps, however, the very shape and size of his work is a parody, and he means it as a ridicule on the quarto mania of the present tiers-etat race of poets. If this was his intention, we can only say, that never was burlesque more complete; but, we are obliged to add, that, for a practical joke, it is rather expensive.

The volume comprizes four several pieces of wit and humour, of each of which we shall, out of respect to Mr. Colman and to shew our impartiality, take some notice, though, injustice to our readers, that notice must be very short.

The first of these facetious labours is "An Ode to WE, an hackney'd Critic." To us, this ode on hackneyed critics appears to be rather on a hackneyed subject. We hardly recollect any small rhymester who has not his ode, or remonstrance, or appeal, or intercession, addressed to the Critical, Monthly, or British reviewers, sometimes abusive, frequently vulgar, often dull, but generally intelligible. Whether Mr. Colman's ode resembles those of his predecessors in the two former qualities, its deficiency in the latter disables us from judging. The character of dulness it certainly deserves in an eminent degree, but beyond this we dare not venture an opinion: as, however, we are "galled jades," who may be supposed to "wince" at this satirist's lash, we shall produce a specimen of the ode to our readers, and leave them to judge for themselves; to avoid also any suspicion of unfair dealing in a matter in which the critical character is so personally and deeply concerned, we shall, as Mr. Colman undoubtedly puts his best foot foremost, select the first two stanzas.

I.
Hail, plural unit! who would'st be
A junto o'er my muse and me,
With dogmas to controul us;
Hail, mystic We! grand next-to-none!
Large body corporate of one!
Important Omnes, Solus!

II.
First person singular! pray, why
Impregnate, thus, the pronoun I?
Of madness what a tissue!
To write as if, with passion wild,
Thou oft hadst got thyself with child,
And thou wert self and issue! — pp. 1, 2.

Mr. Colman has not taken to himself any merit for the more than Pindaric obscurity which pervades this ode; but we, in our candour, must confess that, to us, it has more of that source of the sublime than any poem, ancient or modern, except the Cassandra of Lycophron, and the "Portugal" of a noble contemporary noticed in a former number. In one stanza, however, there is a glimmering of light, and that glimmering seriously alarms us.

Be what thou wilt, when all is done,
To me thou'rt (like thyself) all one;
Thou'rt welcome still to flog on,
For till one addled egg's a brood,
Or twenty We's a multitude,
My muse and I will jog on.

This, if we quite comprehend it, intimates that Mr. Colman intends to write to all eternity; a determination which would give us great pain if it imposed a corresponding obligation upon us to remain alive for the purpose of reading or reviewing these eternal (we do not say immortal) writings.

The second effort of the eternal muse is entituled "Low Ambition," and we began it with some hopes that the low ambition of being a poetical jack-pudding would have been held up to the just ridicule of Mr. Colman's readers. This object is, indeed, indirectly pursued, inasmuch as the verses are just such as we should quote, for the purpose of deterring a young writer from this sort of humble authorship; but the professed object is to give a life of a certain Mr. Daw, whose trade was, we know not what, a candle-snuffer or scene-shifter at some theatre, and who is elegantly described by Mr. Colman as

Brisk as a flea, and ignorant as dirt.

The history of this worthy is not, it may be well supposed, very interesting as a piece of biography; and we need only say of it, that the language in which it is written, is admirably suited to the subject, and that the main incident of the story is stolen from a French jest-book, and is not worth stealing.

The third, the longest, and, we doubt not, in Mr. Colman's opinion, the most valuable, of this quaternion, is called "The Lady of the Wreck, or the Castle of Blarneygig." This, as its name, a dedication to Walter Scott, and sundry sly notes give us to understand, is a parody on the Lady of the Lake. Now, as parodies are, of all efforts after wit, perhaps the most easy, we anticipated some degree, at least, of amusement, from such a notorious wag as Mr. Colman; but we were most cruelly disappointed. Mr. Colman, besides a careful omission of wit or humour, has also committed the egregious blunder (by-the-bye his subject is Irish) of making the story of his parody grave and tragical, while that of the prototype is gay and elegant. A parody consists, generally, in the application of high-sounding poetry to familiar objects, but the kind of parody which degrades or destroys its own subject is new to us; and is as if the Clown in a pantomime, in parodying one of Harlequin's agile jumps, should pleasantry break his own neck upon the spot. Perhaps we may be told that our author meant not to parody, but to travestie the Lady of the Lake, and that travesty consists in degrading a subject by the vulgar manner in which it is treated. But we reply, that this is not, as we collect from his advertisement, Mr. Colman's intention, and that, if it were, he has not accomplished it; for he has not ridiculed Mr. Scott's subject. The City Shower is a parody, and the famous work of Scarron is a travesty. In the first, the pomp of language is imitated, and applied to a common subject; in the latter, the subject is still noble, but the language is mean. In short, the best account that we can give of Mr. Colman's strange production is, that he has travestied his own story, and made a burlesque upon himself. But whom or what he has burlesqued, if he amused us, we should not very much care. Mr. Scott's reputation is increased rather than diminished by the involuntary applause of imitators and parodists, and we dare say that he has no kind of objection that his works should afford the public double amusement, first in the original, and afterwards in the copy. He needs be satisfied to be travestied and burlesqued, as Virgil and even Homer have, been before him. [Greek characters].

Our lamentation on this occasion is, that we are any thing but amused, and we much doubt that our readers will be better pleased than ourselves with the following specimens, which we have chosen from what the author himself appears to consider as the most prominent parts of his POEM, as he, in serious prose, is modestly pleased to call such trash as this.

Harp of the Pats! that rotting long hast lain
On the soft bosom of St. Allen's bog,
And, when the wind had fits, wouldst twang a strain,
Till envious mud did all thy musick clog,
E'en just as too much pudding chokes a dog;
Oh Paddy's harp! still sleeps thine accent's pride
Will nobody be giving it a jog?
Still must thou silent be, as when espied
Upon an Irish, old, old halfpenny's back side? — pp. 40, 41.

O! Thady Rann! the Isle of Man
I left, and sail'd for you;
I am very ill luck'd all night to be duck'd,
For keeping my promise true!
O! Thady, your bride cannot sleep by your side,
Go to bed to another lady;
I must lie in the dark, with a whale, or a shark,
Instead of my darling Thady. — pp. 49, 50.

We shall not weary or disgust our readers with any samples of the historic part of the POEM. We have only to say, that to the quality of dulness already noticed, it also adds that of being most laboriously obscene. The author strives, in text and note, in poetry and prose, after indecency, and is the happiest man alive, when he hits upon some filthy — double-meaning, we were about to say — but, in truth, those passages have but one meaning, and that, a very bad one. We shall be excused, therefore, from taking any further notice of "the Lady of the Wreck," than to assure our readers, that the lady who has suffered wreck on this occasion, is no other than Mr. Colman's muse. The last three lines, however, being quite intelligible, not indecent, and tolerably expressive of our own feelings at concluding the poem, we shall subjoin them.

Harp of the Pats! farewell! for, truly, I
Am getting very sick of minstrelsy;—
So get thee to the bog again! Good bye! — p. 111.

The fourth and (heaven be praised!) last of these pieces is worthy of its predecessors, as the acute reader will not fail from its name to infer. — "The two Parsons; or, the Tale of a Shirt." The promise which this happy title gives, the story keeps; there are two parsons and but one shirt, and the humour of the thing is how one of these parsons is rogue enough to steal the other's shirt, and impudent enough to deny the larceny, while the other is fool enough to be duped out of his shirt.

The opportunities which this subject obviously affords, for that delicate kind of writing, in which Mr. Colman so much delights, are, of course, not thrown away upon him; and he has accordingly condescended (contrary to his former practice) to be so intelligible as to be quite unfit to be read. But besides the topics of this nature, Mr. Colman does not fail to introduce some others of equal truth, novelty, and interest; especially such as are calculated to extend that useful doctrine the contempt of the clergy. Observe how wittily he describes the Archbishop of Canterbury;

Great Britain's principal soul-mender
Liveth at Lambeth, in great splendor. — p. 117.

He adds, however, very feelingly,

A curate is another sort of man,
Very unlike the Metropolitan,
Living, without a living, as he can.

To these new and surprising discoveries, that archbishops and curates are not men of the same sort, and that curates have not livings, the ingenious author has added some observations on the professional duties of the latter, which our readers will judge to be singularly appropriate, when we confess that we do not quote them as flagrant instances of folly and dulness, only because they are also grossly and stupidly indecent.

We have expended more time on Mr. Colman than we had at first proposed; and yet we have not given him all the notice which he deserves. We hope, however, that we have said enough to prevent any of our readers from being misled into the purchase of his "Vagaries" as a book of amusement: — it is a book through which nothing but our duty could have enabled us to wade; and we cannot but rejoice that a work, which is so indelicate that no one ought to read it, is luckily so tiresome that nobody will read it.