Attempts in Verse. By John Jones, an Old Servant. With some Account of the Writer, written by Himself; and an Introductory Essay on the Lives and Works of our Uneducated Poets. By Robert Southey, Esq. London. 1830.
In the autumn of 1827, Mr. Southey was spending a few weeks with his family at Harrowgate, when a letter reached him from John Jones, butler to a country gentleman in that district of Yorkshire, who, hearing that the poet laureate was so near him, had plucked up courage to submit to his notice some of his own "attempts in verse." He was touched by the modest address of this humble aspirant; and the inclosed specimen of his rhymes, however rude and imperfect, exhibited such simplicity of thought and kindliness of disposition, — such minute and intelligent observation of Nature, — such lively sensibility, — and, withal, such occasional felicities of diction, — that he was induced to make further inquiries into the history of the man. It turned out that Jones had maintained through a long life the character of a most faithful and exemplary domestic, having been no fewer than twenty-four years with the family, who, still retaining him in their service, had long since learned to regard and value him as a friend. The poet laureate encouraged him, therefore, to transmit more of his verses, and the result is the volume before us — not more than a third of which, however, is occupied with the "Attempts" of the good old butler of Kirby Hall, the rest being given to a chapter of our literary history from his editor's own pen, which, we venture to say, will be not less generally attractive than the "Life of John Bunyan," reviewed in our last Number.
"There were many," says Mr. Southey, "I thought, who would be pleased at seeing how much intellectual enjoyment had been attained in humble life, and in very unfavourable circumstances; and that this exercise of the mind, instead of rendering the individual discontented with his station, had conduced greatly to his happiness, and if it had not made him a good man, had contributed to keep him so. This pleasure should in itself, methought, be sufficient to content those subscribers who might kindly patronize a little volume of his verses."
John Jones's own account of the circumstances under which his "Attempts" have been produced, cannot fail to impress every mind with the moral lesson thus briefly pointed to by the editor. After a simple chronicle of his earlier life, he thus concludes:
"I entered into the family which I am now serving in January, 1804, and have continued in it, first with the father, and then with the son, only during an interval of eighteen months, up to the present hour; and during which period most of my trifles have been composed, and some of my former attempts brought (perhaps) a little nearer perfection: but I have seldom sat down to study anything; for in many instances when I have done so, a ring at the bell, or a knock at the door, or something or other, would disturb me; and not wishing to be seen, I frequently used to either crumple my paper up in my pocket, or take the trouble to lock it up, and before I could arrange it again, I was often, Sir, again disturbed; from this, Sir, I got into the habit of trusting entirely to my memory, and most of my little pieces have been completed and borne in mind for weeks before I have committed them to paper. From this I am led to believe that there are but few situations in life in which attempts of the kind may not be made under less discouraging circumstances. Having a wife and three children to support, Sir, I have had some little difficulties to contend with; but, thank God, I have encountered them pretty well. I have received many little helps from the family, for which I hope, Sir, I may be allowed to say that I have shown my gratitude, by a faithful discharge of my duty; but, within the last year, my children have all gone to service. Having been rather busy this last week, Sir, I have taken up but little time in the preparation of this, and I am fearful you will think it comes before you in a discreditable shape; but I hope you will be able to collect from it all that may be required for your benevolent purpose: but should you wish to be empowered to speak with greater confidence of my character, by having the testimony of others in support of my own, I believe, Sir, I should not find much difficulty in obtaining it; for it affords me some little gratification, Sir, to think that in the few families I have served, I have lived respected, for in none do I remember of ever being accused of an immoral action, nor with all my propensity to rhyme have I been charged with a neglect of duty. I therefore hope, Sir, that if some of the fruits of my humble muse be destined to see the light, and should not be thought worthy of commendation, no person of a beneficent disposition will regret any little encouragement given to an old servant under such circumstances." — pp. 179, 180.
The tranquil, affectionate, and contented spirit that shines out in the "Attempts" is in keeping with the tone of this letter; and if Burns was right when he told Dugald Stewart that no man could understand the pleasure he felt in seeing the smoke curling up from a cottage chimney, who had not been born and bred, like himself, in such abodes, and therefore knew how much worth and happiness they contain; and if the works of that great poet have, in spite of many licentious passages, been found, on the whole, productive of a wholesome effect in society, through their aim and power to awaken sympathy and respect between classes whom fortune has placed asunder, surely this old man's verses ought to meet with no cold reception among those who appreciate the value of kindly relations between masters and dependants. In them they will trace the natural influence of that old system of manners which was once general throughout England; under which the young domestic was looked after, by his master and mistress, with a sort of parental solicitude — admonished kindly for petty faults, commended for good conduct, advised, and encouraged — and which held out to him who should spend a series of years honestly and dutifully in one household, the sure hope of being considered and treated in old age as a humble friend. Persons who breathe habitually the air of a crowded city, where the habits of life are such that the man often knows little more of his master than that master does of his next-door neighbour, will gather instruction as well as pleasure from the glimpses which John Jones's history and lucubrations afford of the interior machinery of life in a yet unsophisticated region of the country. His little complimentary stanzas on the birth-days, and such other festivals of the family — his inscriptions to their neighbour Mrs. Laurence of Studley Park, and the like, are equally honourable to himself and his benevolent superiors; and the simple purity of his verses of love or gallantry, inspired by village beauties of his own station, may kindle a blush on the cheeks of most of those whose effusions are now warbled over fashionable pianofortes.
The stanzas which first claimed and won the favourable consideration of the Poet Laureate were these "To a Robin Red-Breast:"
Sweet social bird, with breast of red,
How prone's my heart to favour thee!
Thy look oblique, thy prying head,
Thy gentle affability;
Thy cheerful song in winter's cold,
And, when no other lay is heard,
Thy visits paid to young and old,
Where fear appals each other bird;
Thy friendly heart, thy nature mild,
Thy meekness and docility,
Creep to the love of man and child,
And win thine own felicity.
The gleanings of the sumptuous board,
Convey'd by some indulgent fair,
Are in a nook of safety stored,
And not dispensed till thou art there.
In stately hall and rustic dome,
The gaily robed and homely poor
Will watch the hour when thou shalt come,
And bid thee welcome to the door.
The Herdsman on the upland hill,
The Ploughman in the hamlet near,
Are prone thy little paunch to fill,
And pleased thy little psalm to hear.
The Woodman seated on a log
His meal divides atween the three,
And now himself, and now his dog,
And now he casts a crumb to thee.
For thee a feast the Schoolboy strews
At noontide, when the form's forsook;
A worm to thee the Delver throws,
And Angler when he baits his hook.
At tents where tawny Gipsies dwell,
In woods where Hunters chase the hind,
And at the Hermit's lonely cell,
Dost thou some crumbs of comfort find.
Nor are thy little wants forgot
In Beggar's hut or Crispin's stall;
The Miser only feeds thee not,
Who suffers ne'er a crumb to fall.
The Youth who strays, with dark design,
To make each well-stored nest a prey,
If dusky hues denote them thine,
Will draw his pilfering hand away.
The Finch a spangled robe may wear,
The Nightingale delightful sing,
The Lark ascend most high in air,
The Swallow fly most swift on wing,
The Peacock's plumes in pride may swell,
The Parrot prate eternally,
But yet no bird man loves so well,
As thou with thy simplicity. — p. 85.
Among many affectionate tributes to the kind family in whose service he has spent so many years, not the worst are some lines occasioned by the death of Miss Sadlier Bruere, Written a few months afterwards (Dec. 1826) at Tours.
Thou wert miss'd in the group when the eye look'd around,
And miss'd by the ear was thy voice in the sound;
Thy chamber was darksome, thy bell was unrung,
Thy footstep unheard, and thy lyre unstrung:
A stillness prevail'd at the mournful repast;
In tears was the eye on thy vacant seat cast;
Each scene wearing gloom, and each brow bearing care,
Too plainly denoted that death had been there.
To earth we consign'd thee, and made an advance,
The thought to beguile, to the vineyards of France.
But 'twould not be cheated; of all that was rare,
Fond nature kept whispering a wish thou could'st share:
No air softly swelling, no chord struck with glee,
But awoke in the bosom remembrance of thee.
Even now, as the cold winds adown the leaves bring,
We sigh that our flow'ret was blighted in spring. — p. 328.
We now return to Mr. Southey's preface — which, after the sentences already quoted from it, thus proceeds:
"Moreover, I considered that as the age of reason had commenced, and we were advancing with quick step in the March of Intellect, Mr. Jones would in all likelihood be the last versifier of his class — something might properly be said of his predecessors, the poets in low life, who with more or less good fortune had obtained notice in their day; here would be matter for an introductory essay, not uninteresting in itself, and contributing something towards our literary history; and if I could thus render some little service to a man of more than ordinary worth, (for such, upon the best testimony, Mr. Jones appeared to be,) it would be something not to be repented of." — p. 12.
Every one will rejoice that Mr. Southey has been led to write the essay thus introduced; but we, at least, cannot agree with him in thinking it likely that John Jones will be the last versifier of his class. It will take, we suspect, a long while before the march of intellect can be productive of such sweeping effects — and we are quite sure, neither Mr. Southey nor we shall live to see the clay, in spite of the diligence with which the self-elected schoolmasters are now scattering abroad their dry husks, we do not consider it as at all probable that, among those in the humbler classes of society who acquire the power of reading, the great majority will ever be satisfied with such fare. Their shamefully crude and wofully dull compendiums of the "omne scibile," however gravely and even pompously lauded by authorities which ought to have been far above such condescensions, will soon run out their little hour and sleep with the trunk-maker. The solid wholesome literature of England will resume its rights; and, as the circle of cultivation widens, extend its influence, at once expanding the intellectual, and concentrating and purifying the moral energies of unborn readers. The great body of mankind must at all times continue, in the words of John Jones,
To earn, before they eat, their bread.
Say the diffusers of Useful Knowledge what they choose, the literature most serviceable, and most acceptable too, to hardworking men, will ever be that which tends to elevate and humanize the heart, through its appeals to the imagination; and the great poets who have ennobled our language will hardly possess more readers than they have hitherto done, without having their imitators increased in at least an equal proportion. The truth is, that several humble poets have very recently published volumes, which would have attracted more notice than Mr. Jones's — but that "carent vate sacro" — they have not been so fortunate as to come before the world with prefaces from pens such as Mr. Southey's. We allude in particular to the poor cobbler of Chichester, Charles Crocker, and John Wright, who describes himself as "illiterate in the largest sense, never having had but six months' schooling in very early life," and who has contrived, amidst the severest toils of a cotton manufactory at Glasgow, to embody images of rural scenery and trains of moral reflection, in stanzas, some of which would have done no discredit to more distinguished names.
In the "Introductory Essay on the lives and works of our uneducated Poets," which will float John Jones to posterity, the Editor has by no means exhausted his subject, but he has selected an interesting and multifarious bead-roll of specimens; for example, a Thames waterman — a farm-servant from Wiltshire — a village cobbler from the neighbourhood of Birmingham — a journeyman shoemaker of Woodstock — a milk-woman, and a maker of tobacco-pipes, both from his own native city of Bristol. The names of Duck, Woodhouse, Bennet, and even the more recent ones of Ann Yearsley and John Frederic Bryant, have probably never met the eye of many who will read Mr. Southey's account of them; but the name, at least, of John Taylor, must be sufficiently familiar to them all. "The water poet" enjoyed in his day greater celebrity than the whole of the rest put together; his talents were of a higher order than any of theirs — his life more picturesque, his experience and information much wider; his writings out of sight more numerous, various, and vigorous; — and he occupies a proportionate space in the Essay of the Poet Laureate, who thus introduces him:
"The distinction between the language of high and low life could not be broadly marked, till our language was fully formed, in the Elizabethan age: then the mother tongue of the lower classes ceased to be the language of composition; that of the peasantry was antiquated, that of the inferior citizens had become vulgar. It was not necessary that a poet should be learned in Greek and Latin, but it was that he should speak the language of polished society.
"Another change also, in like manner widening the intellectual distinctions of society, had by that time taken place. In barbarous ages the lord had as little advantage over his vassal in refinement of mind as of diction. War was his only business; and war, even in the brightest days of chivalry, tended as surely to brutalize the feelings of the chiefs, and render their hearts callous, as the occupations of husbandry did to case-harden and coarsen the hind and the herdsman; but when arts and luxuries (of that allowable kind for which a less equivocal term is to be desired) had found their way from cloisters into courts and castles, an improvement, as well of intellect as of manners, rapidly ensued. Then, also, the relations of states became more complicated, and courts in consequence more politic: the minds of the great grew at the same time more excursive and more reflecting; and in the relaxation which they sought in poetry, something more was required than the minstrels afforded in their lays, whether of ribaldry or romance. Learning being scarce, they who possessed a little were proud of exhibiting in their writings the extent of that small stock; and the patrons whom they courted, and who themselves were in the same stage of intellectual culture, were flattered at being addressed in a strain which must have been unintelligible to the multitude. When literature revived, the same kind of pleasure which had just before been given by a pedantic vocabulary, was produced by classical allusions, and imitations of ancient, or of Italian writers. The language then improved so suddenly, that it changed more in the course of one generation than it had done in the two preceding centuries; Elizabeth, who grew up while it was comparatively barbarous, lived to see it made capable of giving adequate expression to the loftiest conceptions of human imagination. Poets were then, perhaps, more abundant than they have been in any subsequent age until the present: and, as a necessary consequence of that abundance, all tricks of style were tried, and all fantasticalities of conceit abounded; they who were poets by imitative desire or endeavour, putting forth their strength in artificial and ambitious efforts, while the true poets held the true course, — though the best of them did not always escape from what had thus been made the vice of their age.
"The circumstances, therefore, of low breeding and defective education, were so unfavourable, that the first person who, in a certain degree overcame them, obtained great notoriety, and no inconsiderable share of patronage. This was John Taylor, the Water-Poet, a man who has long been more known by name than by his writings." — p. 13-15.
He was born somewhere in Gloucestershire, in the year 1580, and in due season put to the village school, where he proved, by his own account, no very hopeful scholar;—
And reading but from possum to posset,
There I was mired, and could no further get.
He was therefore taken from school and bound apprentice to a Thames waterman — as soon, probably, as he could handle a scull. This calling was most likely his own choice, for he was evidently a bold, hardy lad, fond of exertion and of sport, and nowise averse to danger; and in those days the waterman's life had enough of all these elements of excitement. It was, besides, a thriving occupation. Greenwich was the favourite residence of the court; at London, the river was bestridden by only one narrow and inconvenient bridge; there were no hackney coaches; the places of public amusement were almost all on the Surrey side; and, as Taylor says, "the number of watermen, and those that lived and were maintained by them, and by the only labour of the oar and scull, betwixt the bridge of Windsor and Gravesend, could not be fewer than forty thousand." There may be some exaggeration here, but we must remember, that in Elizabeth's time the Thames had always been looked to as the great nursery of the navy. Every summer during her wars, some two thousand of the watermen were employed in her ships; and in her service Taylor himself made not less than sixteen voyages, including the expeditions under Essex at Cadiz and the Azores. He might therefore have announced himself in his title-page as an old seaman, had that denomination sounded in those days more respectably than his own.
No other occupation could have furnished him with more opportunities of leisure for reading; and, idle as he had been at school, he soon became a very diligent reader.
"There are many in these days," says Mr. S., "who set up, not alone for simple authors in prose or rhyme, but as critics by profession, upon a much smaller stock of book-knowledge than Taylor the Water-Poet had laid in....
I care to get good books, and I take heed
And care what I do either write or read...
Godfrey of Bulloyne, well by Fairfax done;
Du Bartas, that much love hath rightly won;
Old Chaucer, Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, Nash,—
I dipt my finger where they used to wash....
Of histories I have perused some store,
As no man of my function hath done more.
The Golden Legend I did overtoss,
And found the gold mixt with a deal of dross.
I have read Plutarch's Morals and his Lives,
And like a bee suckt honey from those hives.
Josephus of the Jews, Knowles of the Turks,
Marcus Aurelius, and Guevara's works;
Lloyd, Grimstone, Montaigne, and Suetonius,
Agrippa, whom some call Cornelius,
Grave Seneca and Cambden, Purchas, Speed,
Old monumental Fox and Holinshed;
And that sole Book of Books which God hath given,
The blest eternal Testaments of Heaven,
That I have read, and I with care confess,
Myself unworthy of such happiness. — p. xxv.
But Taylor had had other helps besides reading. The old "license of wit" on the Thames, which lasted even as late as Dr. Johnson's time, was then in its most palmy state, and afforded an excellent school for the sort of ability which he possessed. His calling on the river brought him into constant intercourse with persons of all descriptions. He could hardly pursue it without being a habitual visiter of the theatres on the bank-side; and, an active mind being thus fed and stimulated, ere long the jolly waterman began to attract notice by his rhymes.
I that in quiet, in the days of yore,
Did get my living at the healthful oar,
And with content did live, and sweat, and row,
Where, like the tide, my purse did ebb and flow;
My fare was good, I thank my bounteous Fares,
And pleasure made me careless of my cares.
The watry element most plentiful,
Supplied me daily with the oar and scull;
And what the water yielded, I with mirth
Did spend upon the element of earth.
Until at length a strange poetic vein,
As strange a way possest my working brain. — p. xxiii.
The business of the waterman had much fallen off before Taylor became known for his verses. The peaceful policy of James had put an end to the annual drain for the sea service; and, as misfortunes seldom come single, several of the players' companies had removed to the Middlesex side of the river — so that there were more hands than before, and less work to be divided among them. Taylor therefore hoped, that, by occasional broadsides and pamphlets, he might eke out his means of subsistence; and, in effect, this subsidiary trade of his appears to have been crowned with very considerable success.
"The manner in which he published his books, which were separately of little bulk, was to print them at his own cost, make presents of them, and then hope for "sweet remuneration" from the persons whom he had thus delighted to honour. This mode of publication was not regarded in those days so close akin to mendicity as it would now be deemed; pecuniary gifts of trifling amount being then given and accepted, where it would now be deemed an insult to offer and a disgrace to receive them.... Ben Jonson is one of the persons to whom he declares himself 'much obliged for many undeserved courtesies received from him, and from others by his favour.' And in a Dedication to Charles I. he says, 'My gracious Sovereign, your Majesty's poor undeserved servant, having formerly oftentimes presented to your Highness many such pamphlets, the best fruits of my lean and steril invention, always your princely affability and bounty did express and manifest your royal and generous disposition; and your gracious father, of ever-blessed and famous memory, did not only like and encourage, but also more than reward the barren gleanings of my poetical inventions.'
"The Earl of Holdernsse was one of his good patrons, and moved King James to bestow a place upon him. What this place was does not appear in his writings, nor have his biographers stated: one office, which must have been much to his liking, he held at the Tower, by appointment of Sir William Wade; it was that of receiving for the lieutenant his perquisite of 'two black leathern bottles or bombards of wine,' (being in quantity six gallons,) from every ship that brought wine into the river Thames, a custom which had continued at that time more than 800 years. This was a prosperous part of Taylor's life, and if he did not write like Homer in those days, it was not for any failure in drinking like Agamemnon. He says—
Ten years almost the place I did retain,
And gleaned great Bacchus' blood from France and Spain;
Few ships my visitation did escape,
That brought the sprightful liquor of the grape:
My bottles and myself did oft agree,
Full to the top, all merry came we three!
Yet always 'twas my chance, in Bacchus' spite,
To come into the Tower unfox'd, upright.
But the spirit of reform was abroad: the merchants complained that the bottles were made bigger than they used to be, and 'waged law' with the lieutenant; and had it not been for the Wine-Poet's exertions, in finding and bringing into court those witnesses, who could swear to the size of the bottles for fifty years, they would have carried their cause. Poor Taylor was ill-rewarded for his services; no sooner had he established the right, than the office which he had held was put to sale, and he was discharged because he would not buy it. 'I would not,' he says, 'or durst not, venture upon so unhonest a novelty, it being sold indeed at so high a rate, that whoso bought it must pay thrice the value of it.'" — p. 28-32.
Mr. Southey's extracts are all from "The Works of J. Taylor, the Water-Poet; being Sixty-three in Number, collected into One Volume by the Author, 1630;" — a volume "of a nondescript size, which may be called sexto, the sheet being folded into six leaves," and containing 600 pages. But the author lived twenty-four years after 1630, and published a great deal more — some account of which we hope we may yet look for. The productions actually collected appear to be of the most heterogeneous sort — of all lengths and on all subjects: epitaph — epithalamium — song — ballad — serious, comic, serio-comic, didactic, narrative, descriptive, and downright rampant nonsense, of which last we have one specimen, in the Cambyses' vein truly:
Think'st thou a wolf thrust through a sheepskin glove,
Can make me take this goblin for a lamb?
Or that a crocodile in barley-broth
Is not a dish to feast Don Belzebub?
Give me a medlar in a field of blue
Wrapt up stigmatically in a dream,
And I will send him to the gates of Dis,
To cause him fetch a sword of massy chalk
With which he won the fatal Theban field
From Rome's great mitred metropolitan.
If any celebrated person died, he was ready with an elegy, and this sort of tribute always obtained the acknowledgment in expectation of which it was offered. But it is evident, that he delighted in acquiring knowledge, and took pleasure in composition for its own sake, as in the exercise of a talent which he was proud to possess. His Memorial of all the English monarchs, from Brute to King Charles, was probably composed as much for this motive as to impress upon his own memory the leading facts of English history; then a set of miserable portraits cut in wood, without the shadow of resemblance till we come to bluff King Henry VIII., fitted it for popular and perhaps for profitable sale. It is, probably, from this bald and meagre chronicle in rhyme, which, for the subject, is likely to have been more common than any other of his tracts, that the commonly expressed opinion of his writings has been drawn, as if they were wholly worthless, and not above the pitch of a bellman's verses. But a more injurious opinion has seldom been formed; for Taylor had always words at will, and wit also when the subject admitted of its display. His account of the Books in the Old and New Testament, is in the same creeping strain. The best specimen of his historical verses is entitled God's Manifold Mercies in the Miraculous Deliverance of our Church of England, from the year 1565 until this present 1630, particularly and briefly described. This is in a series of what some late writers have conveniently called quatorzains, to distinguish them from sonnets of proper structure: they are introduced thus:—
There was a Bull in Rome was long a breeding,
Which Bull proved little better than a Calf;
Was sent to England for some better feeding,
To fatten in his Holiness' behalf.
The virtues that this Beast of Babel had
In thundering manner was to bann and curse;
Rail at the Queen as it were raging mad;
Yet, God be thanked, she was ne'er the worse.
He goes through the series of treasons which the bull produced, down to the Gunpowder-plot, and concludes with this Thanksgiving.
And last of all, with heart and hands erected,
Thy Church doth magnify thy name,
O Lord! Thy Providence preserved, thy Power protected
Thy planted Vine, according to thy word.
My God! what shall I render unto Thee,
For all thy gifts bestowed on me always?
Love and unfeigned thankfulness shall be
Ascribed for thy mercies, all my days.
To Thee, my Priest, my Prophet, and my King,
My Love, my Counsellor and Comforter,
To Thee alone, I only praises sing,
For only Thou art my Deliverer.
All honour, glory, power, and praise, therefore,
Ascribed be to Thee for evermore.
"These are no mean verses. Indeed, in every General Collection of the British Poets there are authors to be found, whose pretensions to a place there are much feebler than what might be advanced on behalf of Taylor the Water Poet. Sometimes he has imitated the strongly-marked manner of Josuah Silvester: sometimes, George Wither's pedestrian strain; in admiring imitation of which latter poet, (and not with any hostile or envious feeling, as has somewhere been erroneously stated,) he composed a piece which he called Taylor's Motto, — the Motto, (which is his only opposition to Wither) being, 'Et habeo, et careo, et curo.' There is in Wither, when in his saner mind and better mood, a felicity of expression, a tenderness of feeling, and an elevation of mind, far above the Water Poet's pitch; nevertheless, Taylor's Motto is lively, curious, and characteristic, as well of the age as of the writer.... He has imitated Chaucer in a catalogue of birds, which though mostly a mere catalogue, has some sweet lines in it: and in other places he enumerates the names of rivers, the variety of diseases, and, more curiously and at greater length, the different trades and callings which were exercised in his days. Like poor Falconer, he made use also of his nautical vocabulary in verse.
You brave Neptunians, you saltwater crew,
Sea-ploughing mariners, I speak to you:
From hemp you for yourselves and others gain
Your spritsail, foresail, topsail, and your main,
Top, and top-gallant, and your mizen abaft,
Your coursers, bonnets, drablers, fore and aft,
The sheets, tacks, boliens, braces, halliers, tyes,
Shrouds, ratlings, lanyards, tackles, lifts, and gies,
Your martlines, ropeyarns, gaskets, and your stays,
These for your use, small hemp-seed up doth raise:
The buoy-rope, boat-rope, quest-rope, cat-rope, portrope,
The bucket-rope, the boat-rope, long or short rope,
The entering-rope, the top-rope, and the rest,
Which you that are acquainted with know best. — p. 35.
"Among his exhibitions of metre are some sonnets, as he calls them, composed upon one rhyme: one little piece in which all the lines rhyme upon Coriat, and another in which 'crudities' is the keyword, — levelled against the same poor inoffensive humourist, who, ridiculous as he was, and liked to make himself, is nevertheless entitled to some respect for his enterprising spirit, his perseverance, and his acquirements; and to some compassion for his fate. It may be more worthy of notice, that Hudibrastic rhymes are to be found in the Water-Poet's works: there may be earlier specimens, and probably are, for Taylor possessed an imitative rather than inventive talent; but this is the earliest that I have seen." — p. 44.
We cannot but express some surprise at the concluding sentence of the above extract. Surely the species of jingle, which has won the name of Hudibrastic, forms the very staple of Skelton.
The Water-Poet was already an established favourite with the public, when, in 1616, his stirring spirit led him to engage its notice by another sort of adventure, which, during his subsequent life, he frequently repeated. In those days, the men of his order were, indeed, no fresh-water sailors; and, when there were no longer an Elizabeth and an Essex to carve out warlike work for them, they were at no loss to devise schemes of needless and profitless peril for themselves. Another versifier of the time, S. Rowlands, enumerates some of the most famous of these.
Ferris gave cause of vulgar wonderment,
When unto Bristow in a boat he went:
Another with his sculler ventured more,
That rowed to Flushing from our English shore
Another did devise a wooden whale
Which unto Calais did from Dover sail:
Another with his oars and slender wherry
From London unto Antwerp o'er did ferry:
Another, maugre fickle fortune's teeth,
Rowed hence to Scotland and arrived at Leith.
These were all, it seems, wagering adventures; and the Water-Poet soon became celebrated as the most audacious of such life-gamblers. His first cast was that of which he has published an account with this title — "Taylor's Travels; three weeks, three days, and three hours' observations from London to Hamburgh in Germany, amongst Jews and Gentiles; with descriptions of Towns and Towers, Castles and Citadels, artificial Gallowses and natural Hangmen." He performed a second wherry-trip of the same sort to the coast of Germany in 1617; and in 1618, some considerable excursion being now, we suppose, a regular part of his summer's work, he laid and won a wager attended with less of serious peril, namely, to walk afoot from London to Edinburgh, "not carrying any money to or fro; neither begging, borrowing, or asking meat, drink, or lodging." Of this expedition also he put forth an account, partly in verse and partly in prose, (like the more celebrated Voyaged of Bachaumont and La Chapelle,) entitled "The Pennyless Pilgrimage, or Moneyless Perambulation of the King's Majesty's Water-Poet."
"'This journey,' says he, 'was undertaken, neither in imitation or emulation of any man, but only devised by myself, on purpose to make trial of my friends, both in this kingdom of England and that of Scotland, and because I would be an eye-witness of divers things which I had heard of that country. And whereas many shallow-brained critics do lay an aspersion on me that I was set on by others, or that I did undergo this project either in malice or mockery of Master Benjamin Jonson, I vow, by the faith of a Christian, that their imaginations are all wild; for he is a gentleman to whom I am so much obliged, for many undeserved courtesies that I have received from him, and from others by his favour, that I durst never to be so impudent or ingrateful, as either to suffer any man's persuasions, or mine own instigation, to make me to make so bad a requital for so much goodness.'" — pp. 46, 47.
The undertaking, after all, was not a very arduous one. Taylor had friends on the road; his reputation was general — his wit was ready — and, moreover, he had his man, and a sumpter mule to accompany him.
There in my knapsack to pay hungers fees,
I had good bacon, bisket, neat's tongue, cheese,
With roses, barberries, of each conserves,
And mithridate that vigorous health preserves;
And, I intreat you take these words for no lies,
I had good aquavita, rosasolies,
With sweet ambrosia, the gods' own drink,
Most excellent gear for mortals, as I think;
"Thus provided he set forth, baiting and lodging as he went with friend or acquaintance, or at the cost or invitation of good-natured strangers. He says—
I made my legs my oars, and rowed by land.
But he, and probably his man too, had been more used to ply their arms than their legs, for they were poor pedestrians; and had nearly foundered by the time they reached Daventry. It had been a wet and windy day, and meeting with something like Tom Drum's entertainment from the hostess of the Horse-shoe in that town, who had "a great wart rampant on her snout," they were fain
—to hobble seven miles more,
The way to Dunchurch, foul with dirt and mire,
Able, I think, both man and horse to tire
On Dunsmore-heath, a hedge doth then enclose
Grounds on the right-hand, there I did repose.
Wit's whetstone, Want, then made us quickly learn,
With knives to cut down rushes and green fern,
Of which we made a field-bed in the field;
Which sleep and rest and much content did yield.
There with my mother Earth I thought it fit
My bed was curtained with good wholesome airs,
And being weary, I went up no stairs;
The sky my canopy; bright Phoebe shin'd;
Sweet bawling Zephyrus breath'd gentle wind;
In heaven's star-chamber I did lodge that night,
Ten thousand stars me to my bed did light.
There barricadoed with a bank lay we,
Below the lofty branches of a tree.
There my bedfellows and companions were,
My man, my horse, a bull, four cows, two steer;
But yet for all this most confused rout,
We had no bed-staves, yet we fell not out.
Thus Nature, like an ancient free upholster,
Did furnish us with bedstead, bed, and bolster;
And the kind skies (for which high Heaven be thanked!)
Allowed us a large covering, and a blanket." — p. 47.
At Coventry the Water Poet was entertained for three days by Philemon Holland, famous in his day, "who used, in translation, more paper and fewer pens than any other writer before or since;" and who "would not let Suetonius be Tranquillus." He encountered equal hospitality at Lichfield, and at Adlington, near Macclesfield, under the roof of Sir Urien Leigh, who disdained not to receive him at his own table, though he had not "shifted a shirt" since he left London. Sir Urien provided him with letters of recommendation onwards; and at Manchester, in particular, he seems to have been welcomed with a superabundance of "good provant."
Their loves they on the tenter-hooks did rack,
Roast, boiled, baked, too — too much, white, claret, sack;
Nothing they thought too heavy or too hot;
Cann followed cann, and pot succeeded pot.
Thus riotously he progressed until he reached the Scotch border, at which point, the inspiration of Ceres and Bacchus considerably failing him, he leaves off his rhyme, and continues the narrative in prose. He seems to have been "sore bested," as the ballads have it, between the Esk, and Edinburgh, which "wished, long-expected, and famous city" he reached on the 13th of August, having started from London on the 14th of July.
"I entered like Pierce Pennyless, altogether moneyless, but, I thank God, not friendless; for, being there, for the time of my stay, I might borrow — if any man would lend; spend — if I could get; beg — if I had the impudence; and steal — if I durst adventure the price of a hanging. But my purpose was to house my horse, and to suffer him and my apparel to lie in durance, or lavender, instead of litter, till such time as I could meet with some valiant friend that would desperately disburse. Walking thus down the street, (my body being tired with travel, and my mind attired with moody, muddy, Moor-ditch melancholy,) my contemplation did devoutly pray, that I might meet one or other to prey upon, being willing to take any slender acquaintance of any map whatsoever; viewing and circumviewing every man's face I met, as if I meant to draw his picture; but all my acquaintance was 'non est inventus:' (pardon me, reader, that Latin is none of my own; I swear by Priscian's pericranium, an oath which I have ignorantly broken many times!) At last I resolved that the next gentleman that I met withal, should be acquaintance whether he would or no: and presently fixing mine eyes upon a gentleman-like object, I looked on him as if I would survey something through him, and make him my perspective. And he much musing at my gazing, and I much gazing at his musing, at last he crossed the way and made toward me, and then I made down the street from him, leaving him to encounter with my man, who came after me, leading my horse; whom he thus accosted: 'My friend,' quoth he, doth yonder gentleman' (meaning me) 'know me, that he looks so wistly on me?' 'Truly Sir,' said my man, 'I think not: but my master is a stranger come from London, and would gladly meet some acquaintance to direct him where he may have lodging, and horse-meat.' Presently the gentleman (being of a generous disposition) overtook me, with unexpected and undeserved courtesy, brought me to a lodging, and caused my horse to be put into his own stable: whilst we, discoursing over a pint of Spanish, I related so much English to him, as made him lend me ten shillings: (his name was Master John Maxwell,) which money, I am sure, was the first that I handled after I came from out the walls of London." — p. 55.
Here John soon found or made abundance of acquaintances, who seem to have been right liberal, not only of their vine and ale, but of "bullets of gold," wherewith they amply "replenished the vastity of an empty purse." He dwells with special delight on a dinner given to him at Burnt-Island, by Master Robert Flay, Groom of his Majesty's Chamber, and some other gentlemen, Scotch and English; and here he introduces an anecdote of his earlier life which well illustrates the utility and capacity of that piece of dress which served Hudibras for a commissariat-waggon.
"I know not upon what occasion they began to talk of being at sea in former times, and I (amongst the rest) said, I was at the taking of Cales: whereto an English gentleman replied, that he was the next good voyage after at the Islands. I answered him that I was there also. He demanded in what ship I was? I told him in the Rainbow of the Queen's: why (quoth he) do you not know me? I was in the same ship, and my name is Witherington. Sir, said I, I do remember the name well; but by reason that it is near two-and-twenty years since I saw you, I may well forget the knowledge of you. Well, said he, if you were in that ship, I pray you tell me some remarkable token that happened in the voyage; whereupon I told him two or three tokens, which he did know to be true. Nay, then, said I, I will tell you another, which (perhaps) you have not forgotten. As our ship and the rest of the fleet did ride at anchor at the Isle of Flores, (one of the isles of the Azores,) there were some fourteen men and boys of our ship that for novelty would go ashore, and see what fruit the island did bear, and what entertainment it would yield us: so being landed, we went up and down and could find nothing but stones, heath, and moss, and we expected oranges, lemons, figs, musk-millions, and potatoes: in the mean space the wind did blow so stiff, and the sea was so extreme rough, that our ship-boat could not come to the land to fetch us, for fear she should be beaten in pieces against the rocks; this continued five days, so that we were almost famished for want of food; but at the last, (I, squandering up and down,) by the providence of God, I happened into a cave or poor habitation, where I found fifteen loaves of bread, each of the quantity of a penny loaf in England; I, having a valiant stomach of the age of almost a hundred and twenty hours breeding, fell to, and ate two loaves and never said grace; and as I was about to make a horse-loaf of the third loaf, I did put twelve of them into my breeches, and my sleeves, and so went mumbling out of the cave, leaning my back against a tree, when upon the sudden a gentleman came to me, and said, friend, what are you eating? Bread (quoth I). For God's sake, said he, give me some! With that I put my hand into my breech, (being my best pantry,) and I gave him a loaf, which he received with many thanks, and said that if ever he could requite it he would. I had no sooner told this tale, but Sir Henry Witherington did acknowledge himself to be the man that I had given the loaf unto two-and-twenty years before; where I found the proverb true, that men have more privilege than mountains in meeting." — p. 59-61.
Taylor now proceeded to Stirling, designing to spend two or three days at the seats of the Earl of Marr and Sir William Murray of Abercairney; but as he went on, he learned that these "honourable friends" were gone to the great hunting on the Brae of Marr; and was told that, if he made haste, he might overtake them at Brechin. The Water-Poet's curiosity was roused, and he pursued them manfully "by strange ways, over mountains and rocks;" — "the way so uneven, stony, and full of bogs, quagmires, and long heath, that a dog with three legs would there outrun a horse with four! In short, he never came up with his friends until, "with extreme travail," he had reached their wild encampment on the Brae of Marr, "Which is a large country, all composed of such mountains, that Shooter's Hill, Gad's Hill, Highgate Hill, Hampstead Hill, Birdtop Hill, or Malvern Hills, are but mole-hills in comparison, or like a liver or gizzard upon a capon's wing, in respect of the altitude of their tops, or perpendicularity of their bottoms."
Here he found his friends "with lords and ladies, and hundreds of knights, esquires, and followers," all in the dress of the country, which he very quaintly describes, and adds—
"Any man of what degree soever, that comes amongst them, must not disdain to wear it; for if they do, then they will disdain to hunt, or willingly to bring on their dogs: but if men be kind unto them and be in their habit, then are they conquered with kindness, and the sport will be plentiful."
The Water-Poet was forthwith put into "this shape," and therein equipped, he remained twelve days, faring plentifully, and partaking heartily in the sport of the Tinchell-hunt, without seeing all the time "either house, corn-field, or habitation, or any creature but deer, wild horses, wolves (?), and the like."
"I thank my good Lord Erskin, he commanded that I should always be lodged in his lodging, the kitchen being always on the side of a bank, many kettles and pots boiling, and many spits turning and winding, with great variety of cheer: as venison baked, sodden, roast and stewed; beef, mutton, goats, kid, hares, fresh salmon, pidgeons, hens, capons, chickens, partridges, moorecoots, heathcocks, caperkellies, and termagants; good ale, sack, white, and claret, tent, (or allegant,) with most potent aquavitae. All these, and more than these we had continually, in superfluous abundance, caught by falconers, fowlers, fishers, and brought by my lord's tenants and purveyors to victual our camp, which consisteth of fourteen or fifteen hundred men and horses. The manner of the hunting is this: five or six hundred men do rise early in the morning, and they do disperse themselves divers ways, and seven, eight, or ten miles compass, they do bring or chase in the deer in many herds, (two, three, or four hundred in a herd,) to such and such a place, as the noblemen shall appoint them; then when day is come, the lords and gentlemen of their companies do ride or go to the said places, sometimes wading up to the middle through bournes and rivers: and then they being come to the place, do lie down on the ground till those foresaid scouts, which are called the Tinckhell, do bring down the deer. But as the proverb says of a bad cook, so these Tinckhell men do like their own fingers; for besides their bows and arrows, which they carry with them, we can hear now and then an arquebuss or a musket go off, which they do seldom discharge in vain: then after we had stayed there three hours or thereabouts, we might perceive the deer appear on the hills round about us, (their heads making a show like a wood,) which being followed close by the Tinckhell, are chased down into the valley where we lay; then all the valley on each side being waylaid with a hundred couple of strong Irish greyhounds, they are let loose as occasion serves upon the herd of deer, that with dogs, guns, arrows, dirks, and daggers, in the space of two hours, fourscore fat deer were slain; which after are disposed of, some one way and some another, twenty and thirty miles, and more than enough left for us to make merry withal at our rendezvous. I liked the sport so well, that I made these two sonnets following.
If sport like this can on the mountains be,
Where Phoebus' flames can never melt the snow,
Then let who list delight in vales below
Sky-kissing mountains pleasure are for me:
What braver object can man's eye-sight see,
Than noble, worshipful, and worthy wights,
As if they were prepared for sundry fights,
Yet all in sweet society agree?
Through heather, moss, 'mongst frogs and bogs and fogs,
'Mongst craggy cliffs and thunder-battered hills,
Hares, hinds, bucks, roes, are chased by men and dogs,
Where two hours' hunting fourscore fat deer kills.
Lowland, your sports are low as is your seat!
The highland games and minds are high and great.
"Being come to our lodgings, there was such baking, boiling, roasting, and stewing, as if Cook Ruffian had been there to have scalded the devil in his feathers: and after supper a fire of fir-wood as high as an indifferent may-pole; for I assure you, that the Earl of Marr will give any man that is his friend, for thanks, as many fir-trees (that are as good as any ship's masts in England) as are worth (if they were in any place near the Thames, or any other portable river) the best earldom in England or Scotland either; for I dare affirm, he hath as many growing there, as would serve for masts (from this time to the end of the world) for all the ships, caracks, hoyes, galleys, boats, drumlers, barks, and water-crafts, that are now or can be in the world these forty years." — pp. 64-67.
We must pass over the circumstances of his return from this ultima Thule to London, as also the details of many succeeding perambulations, in the course of which he seems to have been munificently treated by many of the most eminent persons of his time. He visited the unfortunate Queen of Bohemia at Prague, when she had Prince Rupert in her arms; Tobias Mathew, the good old Archbishop of York, made him dine with him another summer at his own table; — in a word, these various progresses all abound in anecdotes of remarkable persons and manners now forgotten; so that it is to be wished Mr. Southey might be induced to make larger use of them than his present limits have permitted. Of all his adventures, the most desperate was that of going from London to Queenborough in a paper boat, with two stockfish tied to two walking-canes for oars. Roger Bird, a vintner, and probably not his own worst customer, was Taylor's associate in this precious enterprise.
"They took with them eight large and well-blown bladders, which were found necessary in the course of half an hour; for before they had got three miles, the paper bottom fell to pieces, and they had only the skeleton of the boat to trust to, and their bladders, four on each side. There they sat, 'within six inches of the brim.'
Thousands of people all the shores did hide,
And thousands more did meet us on the tide,
With scullers, oars, with ship-boats and with barges,
To gaze on us they put themselves to charges.
Thus did we drive, and drive the time away,
Till pitchy night had driven away the day.
The sun unto the under world was fled,
The moon was loth to rise, and kept her bed;
The stars did twinkle, but the ebon clouds
Their light, our sight, obscures and overshrouds.
The tossing billows made our boat to caper,
Our paper form scarce being form of paper;
The water four miles broad, no oars to row;
Night dark, and where we were we did not know:
And thus 'twixt doubt and fear, hope and despair,
I fell to work, and Roger Bird to prayer;
And as the surges up and down did heave us,
He cried most fervently, good Lord, receive us!
"Taylor tells us, honestly, that he prayed as much, but he worked at the same time, which the poor wineman was not waterman enough to do: and having been on the water from Saturday, "at evening tide," till Monday morning, they reached Queenborough; and he says, being
I took my fellow Roger by the hand,
And both of us, ere we two steps did go,
Gave thanks to God that had preserved us so;
Confessing that his mercy us protected,
When as we least deserved, and less expected.
"They arrived on the fair day, when the mayor entertained all comers with bread, beer, and oysters. They presented him with the skeleton of their boat, which
—to glorify that town of Kent,
He meant to hang up for a monument;
but while he was feasting them, the country people tore it piecemeal, every man wishing to carry away a scrap as a memorial of this mad adventure." — p. 77.
When the civil war broke out, the loyal water-poet retired to Oxford, where he supported himself by keeping an eating-house, employed his pen valiantly against the Roundheads, and made himself, it is said, "much esteemed for his facetious company." Some humble humorist may commonly be found hanging on the skirts of an English university, half butt, half pet to the "young bloods;" but neither Oxford nor Cambridge records such another non-graduate of this class as Taylor. When the royal cause was ruined, he returned to Westminster, and kept a public-house in Phoenix Alley, near Long Acre. Here, after the king's death, he set up a mourning crown for his sign; but this he soon found necessary to take down, and hung his own effigies in its stead. His old age was healthful and merry; he died in 1654, in his seventy-fourth year, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Paul's, Covent Garden, with an epitaph somewhat in his own style:—
Here lies the Water Poet, honest John,
Who rowed in the streams of Helicon;
Where having many rocks and dangers past,
He at the haven of Heaven arrived at last.
"There is a portrait of him bearing date 1655, by his nephew, who was a painter at Oxford, and presented it to the Bodleian, where it was thought not unworthy of a place. He is represented in a black scull-cap, and black gown or rather cloak. The countenance is described to me as one of 'well-fed rotundity; the eyes small, with an expression of cunning, into which their natural shrewdness had probably been deteriorated by the painter; their colour seems to have been hazel: there is scarcely any appearance of eye-brows; the lips have a slight cast of playfulness or satire. The brow is wrinkled, and he is in the fashion of mustachios with a tuft of beard under the lip. The portrait now is, like the building in which it has thus long been preserved, in a state of rapid decay:' 'I hope,' says the friend to whom I am obliged for this account of it, 'his verse is of a more durable quality: — for 'ut pictura poesis' would annihilate him altogether.'
All making, marring, never-turning Time,
To all that is, is period and is prime;
Time wears out Fortune, Love, and Death, and Fame.
So sung the Water Poet; — it wore out him, and is now wearing out his picture and his works; and he is not one of those writers for whom a palingenesia can be expected from their dust. Yet we have lately seen the whole of Herrick's poems republished, a coarse-minded and beastly writer, whose dunghill, when the few flowers that grew therein had been transplanted, ought never to have been disturbed. Those flowers indeed are beautiful and perennial; but they should have been removed from the filth and ordure in which they are embedded. There is nothing of John Taylor's which deserves preservation for its intrinsic merit alone, but in the collection of his pieces which I have perused there is a great deal to illustrate the manners of his age; and as he lived more than twenty years after this collection was printed, and continued publishing till the last, there is probably much in his uncollected works also which for the same reason ought to be preserved.
"If the Water Poet had been in a higher grade of society, and bred to some regular profession, he would probably have been a much less distinguished person in his generation. No spoon could have suited his mouth so well as the wooden one to which he was born. His way of life was best suited to his character, nor could any regular education so fully have brought out the sort of talent which he possessed. Fortunately, also, he came into the world at the right time, and lived in an age when Kings and Queens condescended to notice him, nobles and archbishops admitted him to their table, and mayors and corporations received him with civic honours." — p. 83-84.
We have dwelt so long on the Water-poet, that we must hurry over his successors; of whom, however, it is pleasing to find, notwithstanding the reflection with which Mr. Southey concludes the life of Taylor, that hardly one failed to receive, in his day, a toleable share of notice and assistance from his superiors in station.
Stephen Duck (now hardly remembered but by Swift's malicious epigram) attracted by his verses, while a poor hardworking farm-servant, the notice of a young Oxonian, by name Stanley, who gave him such encouragement, and such advice, that he at last deserved and obtained the patronage of Queen Caroline. Her Majesty settled £30 a-year on him (which was then no poor provision), made him a yeoman of the guard, and soon afterwards keeper of her private library at Richmond, where he had apartments given him, and was encouraged to pursue his studies with a view to holy orders. His poems being published by subscription, under the care of Mr. Spence, met with very considerable success; and he himself was at length preferred to the living of Byfleet in Surrey, where he maintained the character of an exemplary parish priest; and long after his first celebrity had worn itself out, was much followed as a preacher. Stephen united keen susceptibility of temperament with patience, modesty, and all those household virtues, which it has been the cant to proclaim hardly reconcileable with the impulses of the "mens divinior." But his end was unhappy: the sensibilities which originally drew him from obscurity, and for which, when his mind had been opened by instruction, he discovered himself to be gifted with no such powers of expression as could hold out the prospect of lasting distinction in literature, seem to have turned inwards with fatal violence. Placed in a situation of external comfort and respectability far beyond the warmest dreams of his youth — surrounded with honourable duties, which he discharged not only blamelessly, but with general applause — the one darling hope, on which his boyish heart had fastened its ambition, had withered, exactly as his reading and intercourse with the upper world had extended — he went mad, and drowned himself, near Reading, in 1756. The best of his verses are among the earliest of them; and no one can read some of the descriptions of rural life, so unlike the effusions of the pastoral-mongers, which they contain, without admitting that his original patrons had some reason to expect from his maturer pen "things that the world would not willingly let die." A small specimen must suffice here:—
The birds salute us as to work we go,
And with new life our bosoms seem to glow.
On our right shoulder hangs the crooked blade,
The weapon destined to uncloath the mead:
Our left supports the whetstone, scrip, and beer,
This for our scythes, and these ourselves to cheer.
And now the field designed to try our might
At length appears and meets our longing sight.
The grass and ground we view with careful eyes,
To see which way the best advantage lies;
And, hero-like, each claims the foremost place.
At first our labour seems a sportive race:
With rapid force our sharpen'd blades we drive,
Strain every nerve, and blow for blow we give.
All strive to vanquish, tho' the victor gains
No other glory but the greatest pains.
But when the scorching sun is mounted high,
And no kind barns with friendly shade are nigh,
Our weary scythes entangle in the grass,
While streams of sweat run trickling down apace
Our sportive labour we too late lament,
And wish that strength again we vainly spent.
With heat and labour tir'd, our scythes we quit,
Search out a shady tree, and down we sit;
From scrip and bottle hope new strength to gain;
But scrip and bottle too are tried in vain.
Down our parch'd throats we scarce the bread can get,
And, quite o'erspent with toil, but faintly eat;
Nor can the bottle only answer all;
The bottle and the beer are both too small.
Time flows: again we rise from off the grass;
Again each mower takes his proper place;
Not eager now, as late, our strength to prove,
But all contented regular to move.
We often whet, and often view the sun;
As often wish his tedious race was run.
At length he veils his purple face from sight,
And bids the weary labourer good night.
Homewards we move, but spent so much with toil,
We slowly walk and rest at every stile.
Our good expecting wives, who think we stay.
Got to the door, soon eye us in the way.
Then from the pot the dumpling's catch'd in haste,
And homely by its side the bacon placed;
Supper and sleep by morn new strength supply,
And out we set again, our work to try;
But not so early quite, nor quite so fast,
As to our cost we did the morning past.
Soon as the rising sun has drank the dew,
Another scene is open to our view:
Our master comes, and at his heels a throng
Of prattling females, arm'd with rake and prong;
Prepar'd, whilst he is here, to make his hay,
Or, if he turns his back, prepared to play;
But here, or gone, sure of this comfort still,—
Here's company, so they may chat their fill.
Ah were their hands so active as their tongues,
How nimbly then would move the rakes and prongs! — p. 99-101.
"At one time," says Mr. Southey, "he was in such reputation, that Lord Palmerston appropriated the rent of an acre of land, for ever, to provide a dinner and strong beer for the threshers of Chariton at a public-house in that valley, in honour of their former comrade. The dinner is given on the 30th of June. The poet himself was present at one of these anniversaries, probably the first, and speaks thus of it in a pleasing poem addressed to that nobleman.
Oft as this day returns shall Threshers claim
Some hours of rest, sacred to Temple's name;
Oft as this day returns shall Temple cheer
The Threshers' hearts with mutton, beef, and beer.
Hence, when their children's children shall admire
This holiday, and whence derived inquire,
Some grateful father, partial to my fame,
Shall thus describe from whence and how it came:—
"Here, child, a Thresher liv'd in ancient days
Quaint songs he sung and pleasing roundelays.
A gracious Queen his sonnets did commend,
And some great Lord, one Temple, was his friend.
That Lord was pleased this holiday to make,
And feast the Threshers for that Thresher's sake.'"
Thus shall tradition keep my fame alive;
The bard may die — the Thresher still survive. — p. 110.
Passing over Robert Dodsley, because "the muse in livery" is sufficiently recorded in the general collection of our poets, Mr. Southey proceeds to the cobbler of Rowley, James Woodhouse, who had the good fortune to have the benevolent Shenstone for his neighbour, and therefore wanted neither advice nor assistance, so soon as his turn for ballad-inditing had made him known beyond his stall. This too was a good, honest, sober, humble-minded man; and, being judiciously patronized in his own calling, so as to improve his condition, but not subjected to the hazardous experiment of a forcible elevation out of his natural sphere and method of life, his days were passed and ended in more comfort than has fallen to the lot of most of the masters in the art. The sedentary occupation which he followed leaves abundant opportunity for meditation; and if, as has been alleged, more than their just proportion of the murders recorded in our Newgate Calendars belongs to this brooding fraternity, it may serve to balance the account, that it has also produced more rhymers than any other of the handicrafts.
Have, from uncounted time, with ale and buns,
Cherish'd the gift of song, which sorrow quells;
And, working single in their low-built cells,
Oft cheat the tedium of a winter's night
[Author's note: Charles Lamb — Album Verses (1830), p. 57.]
Two of these ultra-crepidarians are included in Mr. Southey's present chapter of chronicles; — we have already incidentally alluded to another, now flourishing at Chichester — a man who is described to us as not less estimable in character than his predecessor of Woodstock; — and there remains a name (we hope still a living one), worth all these put together — that of Mr. John Struthers, of Glasgow, author of "The Sabbath;" a poem of which unaffected piety is not the only inspiration; and which, but for its unfortunate coincidence of subject with the nearly contemporary one of the late amiable James Grahame, would probably have attracted a considerable share of favour, even in these hypercritical days.
"Shenstone found that the poor applicant (Woodhouse) used to work with a pen and ink at his side, while the last was in his lap; — the head at one employ, the hands at another; and when he had composed a couplet or a stanza, he wrote it on his knee. In one of the pieces thus composed, and entitled Spring, there are these affecting stanzas:—
But now domestic cares employ
And busy every sense,
Nor leave one hour of grief or joy
But's furnish'd out from thence:
Save what my little babes afford,
Whom I behold with glee,
When smiling at my humble board,
Or prattling at my knee.
Not that my Daphne's charms are flown,
These still new pleasures bring,
'Tis these inspire content alone
'Tis all I've left of spring.
I wish not, dear connubial state,
To break thy silken bands;
I only blame relentless fate,
That every hour demands.
Nor mourn I much my task austere,
Which endless wants impose
But oh! it wounds my soul to hear
My Daphne's melting woes!
For oft she sighs and oft she weeps,
And hangs her pensive head,
While blood her furrowed finger sleeps,
And stains the passing thread.
When orient hills the sun behold,
Our labours are begun:
And when he streaks the west with gold,
The task is still undone.
"In 1803, the author was living near Norbury Park, where he seems to have found a generous friend in Mr. Locke. He was then above sixty-eight years of age; I do not know when he died. In his case, as in Stephen Duck's, the persons who befriended him had the satisfaction of knowing that their kindness was well bestowed. And if the talents which they brought into notice were not of a kind in either case to produce, under cultivation, extraordinary fruits, in both a deserving man was raised from poverty, and placed in circumstances favourable to his moral and intellectual nature." — p. 115, 120.
The next on Mr. Southey's list is John Bennet, of Woodstock, a shoemaker also, who was patronised by Thomas Warton in the same wise manner in which Woodhouse was by Shenstone and Mr. Locke. The account of him is brief, and contains nothing on which we can afford to dwell. The once familiar name of Anne Yearsley, the milk-woman of Bristol, follows; and Mr. Southey, being himself by birth a Bristol man, tells her story with lively interest and mournful effect. She was first heard of in 1784, when some verses were shown to Miss Hannah More as the production of a poor illiterate female who gained her living by selling milk from door to door.
"The story," says Miss More, "did not engage my faith, but the verses excited my attention; for, though incorrect, they breathed the genuine spirit of poetry, and were rendered still more interesting by a certain natural and strong expression of misery, which seemed to fill the head and mind of the author. On making diligent inquiry into her history and character, I found that she had been born and bred in her present humble station, and had never received the least education, except that her brother had taught her to write. Her mother, who was also a milk-woman, appears to have had sense and piety, and to have given an early tincture of religion to this poor woman's mind. She is about eight-and-twenty, and was married very young to a man who is said to be honest and sober, but of a turn of mind very different from her own. Repeated losses and a numerous family, for they had six children in seven years, reduced them very low; and the rigour of the last severe winter sunk them to the extremity of distress. Her aged mother, her six little infants, and herself (expecting every hour to lie in) were actually on the point of perishing, when the gentleman (Mr. Vaughan), so gratefully mentioned in her poems, providentially heard of their distress, which, I am afraid, she had too carefully concealed, and hastened to their relief. The poor woman and her children were preserved; but for the unhappy mother all assistance came too late; she had the joy to see it arrive, but it was a joy she was no longer able to bear, and it was more fatal to her than famine had been." This "left a settled impression of sorrow on Mrs. Yearsley's mind."
"When I went to see her," Miss More continues, "I observed a perfect simplicity in her manners, without the least affectation or pretension of any kind; she neither attempted to raise my compassion by her distress, nor my admiration by her parts. But on a more familiar acquaintance, I have had reason to be surprised at the justness of her taste, the faculty I least expected to find in her. In truth, her remarks on the books she had read are so accurate, and so consonant to the opinions of the best critics, that from this very circumstance they would appear trite and common-place to any one who had been in habits of society; for without having ever conversed with any body above her own level, she seems to possess the general principles of sound taste and just thinking." — p. 125.
Under this good lady's patronage Ann Yearsley now read, and studied, and composed; and presently a small volume of poems was published with such success that the sum of three hundred and fifty pounds was placed in the funds under the names of Miss More and Mrs. Montague, as trustees, for the benefit of the authoress and her children. Mrs. Yearsley fancied that she ought to have had the management of the money herself, — disputes arose, — and the result was a lasting breach between her and the person who had been her first, and would have continued to he her best, friend. She set up a circulating library, which she did not know how to manage; her affairs became sorely embarrassed; she tried a tragedy, and a novel, — things obviously beyond her reach, — and, it is said, sunk from despondency into insanity some time before she died, in 1806, at Melksham. Her disposition had, from the beginning, been a melancholy one.
"The culture which she received, such as it was, came too late nor does she appear to have derived any other advantage from it than that it enabled her to write with common grammatical accuracy. With extraordinary talents, strong feelings, and an ardent mind, she never produced a poem which found its way into any popular collection; and very few passages can be extracted from her writings which would have any other value than as indicating powers which the possessor knew not how to employ. But it ought to be observed here, that I have never seen either her novel or her tragedy. The best lines which I have noticed are in her second publication.
—Cruel the hand
Which tears the veil of time from black dishonour;
Or, with the iron pen of Justice, cuts
Her cypher on the scars of early shame.
"There is a like felicity of expression in these lines on the remembrance of her mother:
How oft with thee, when life's keen tempest howl'd
Around our heads, did I contented sit,
Drinking the wiser accents of thy tongue,
Listless of threatening ill. My tender eye
Was fix'd on thine, inquisitively sad,
Whilst thine was dim with sorrow: yet thy soul
Betray'd no innate weakness, but resolv'd
To tread thy sojourn calm and undismay'd.
"Flourishing reputations (of the gourd tribe) have been made by writers of much less feeling and less capability than are evident in these lines. Ann Yearsley, though gifted with voice, had no strain of her own whereby to be remembered, but she was no mocking-bird." — pp. 132, 133.
The history of Bryant, the tobacco-pipe maker, who went through many strange changes and chances of life with a buoyant heart, and died at last in the reputable station of a bookbinder, in London (in 1791), is, after that of Taylor, the most interesting of these sketches; but we have already exhausted our limits, and must leave it untouched. Mr. Southey thus concludes:
"I do not introduce Robert Bloomfield here, because his poems are worthy of preservation separately, and in general collections; and because it is my intention one day to manifest at more length my respect for one whose talents were of no common standard, and whose character was in all respects exemplary. It is little to the credit of the age, that the latter days of a man whose name was at one time so deservedly popular, should have been past in poverty, and perhaps shortened by distress, that distress having been brought on by no misconduct or imprudence of his own.
"A newspaper paragraph, which has been inserted in one of the volumes before me, quotes from Sheridan the elder an ill-natured passage in allusion to the writers who have here been noticed. 'Wonder,' he says, 'usually accompanied by a bad taste, looks only for what is uncommon; and if a work comes out under the name of a thresher, a bricklayer, a milkwoman, or — a lord, it is sure to be eagerly sought after by the million.'
"'Persons of quality' require no defence when they appear as authors in these days: and, indeed, as mean a spirit may he shown in traducing a book because it is written by a lord, as in extolling it beyond its deserts for the same reason. But when we are told that the thresher, the milkwoman, and the tobacco-pipe-maker did not deserve the patronage they found, — when it is laid down as a maxim of philosophical criticism that poetry ought never to he encouraged unless it is excellent in its kind, — that it is an art in which inferior execution is not to be tolerated, — a luxury, and must therefore be rejected unless it is of the very best, — such reasoning may be addressed with success to cockered and sickly intellects, but it will never impose upon a healthy understanding, a generous spirit, or a good heart.
"Bad poetry — (if it be harmless in its intent and tendency) — can do no harm, unless it passes for good, becomes fashionable, and so tends to deprave still further a vitiated public taste, and still further to debase a corrupted language. Bad criticism is a much worse thing, because a much more injurious one, both to the self-satisfied writer and the assentient reader; not to mention that without the assistance of bad criticism, bad poetry would but seldom make its way.
"The mediocres have long been a numerous and an increasing race, and they must necessarily multiply with the progress of civilization. But it would be difficult to say wherefore it should be treated as an offence against the public, to publish verses which no one is obliged either to purchase or to read. Booksellers are not likely to speculate at their own cost in such wares; there is a direct gain to other branches of trade; employment is given where it is wanted; and if pecuniary loss be a matter of indifference to the author, there is then no injury to himself, and he could not have indulged himself in a more innocent folly, if folly it should deserve to he called. But if he is a good and amiable man, he will be both the better and the happier for writing verses. 'Poetry,' says Landor, 'opens many sources of tenderness, that lie for ever in the rock without it.'
"If, indeed, a poet feels in himself a constant craving for reputation, and a desire of depreciating those who have been more successful than himself, — if he looks upon them as his competitors and rivals, not as his brethren in the art, — then verily it is unfortunate for such a man that he possesses the talent of versifying. And in that case he will soon betake himself to criticism, as a more congenial calling; for bad poets become malevolent critics, just as weak wine turns to vinegar.
"The benevolent persons who patronised Stephen Duck, did it not with the hope of rearing a great poet, — but for the sake of placing a worthy man in a station more suited to his intellectual endowments than that in which he was born. Bryant was befriended in a manner not dissimilar, for the same reason. In the cases of Woodhouse and Ann Yearsley, the intention was to better their condition in their own way of life. The Woodstock shoemaker was chiefly indebted for the patronage which he received, to Thomas Warton's good-nature, for my predecessor Warton was the best-natured man that ever wore a great wig. My motives for bringing forward the present 'attempts in verse' have already been explained." — p. 163-166.
The proud name of Robert Burns does not occur in this Essay; Mr. Southey estimates him too justly to class him, on any pretext, with uneducated poets. That extraordinary man, before he produced any of the pieces on which his fame is built, had educated himself abundantly; and when he died, at the age of thirty-seven, knew more of books, as well as of men, than fifty out of a hundred in any of the learned professions in any country of the world are ever likely to do. We might speak in nearly the same way of Burns' two popular successors in Scottish minstrelsy. When the Ettrick Shepherd was first heard of, he had indeed but just learned to write by copying the letters of a printed ballad, as he lay watching his flock on the mountains; but thirty years or more have passed since then, and his acquirements are now such, that the Royal Society of Literature, in patronizing him, might be justly said to honour a laborious and successful student, as well as a masculine and fertile genius. We may take the liberty of adding, in this place, what may not perhaps be known to the excellent managers of that excellent institution, that a more worthy, modest, sober and loyal man does not exist in his Majesty's dominions than this distinguished poet, whom some of his waggish friends have taken up the absurd fancy of exhibiting in print as a sort of boozing buffoon; and who is now, instead of revelling in the licence of tavern-suppers and party politics, bearing up, as he may, against severe and unmerited misfortunes, in as dreary a solitude as ever nursed the melancholy of a poetical temperament. Mr. Allan Cunningham needs no testimony either to his intellectual accomplishments or his moral worth; nor, thanks to his own virtuous diligence, does he need any patronage. He has been fortunate enough to secure a respectable establishment in the studio of a great artist, who is not less good than great, and would thus be sufficiently in the eye of the world, even were his literary talents less industriously exercised than they have hitherto been. His recent Lives of the British Painters and Sculptors form one of the most agreeable books in the language; and it will always remain one of the most remarkable and delightful facts in the history of letters, that such a work — one conveying so much valuable knowledge in a style so unaffectedly attractive — so imbued throughout, not only with lively sensibility, amiable feelings, honesty and candour, but mature and liberal taste, was produced by a man who, some twenty years before, earned his daily bread as a common stone-mason in the wilds of Nithsdale. Examples like these will plead the cause of struggling genius, wherever it may be found, more powerfully than all the arguments in the world.