1858 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. John Wolcot

Cyrus Redding, in Fifty Years' Recollections (1858) 1:256-73.



I had called upon Dr. Wolcot (Peter Pindar), soon after my first arrival in town, but had comparatively seen little of him. I now spent half a day in the week with him. Blind Lord Coventry was among his visitors — two blind men together, and one or two other persons whom I cannot recollect. I have a perfect remembrance of some I met there at this time. Five years later. I found him little altered. His stories were told as racily as ever, though he must then have been seventy-seven years old. Upon mentioning my grandfather, whom he had professionally attended, thirty-four years antecedently, he recalled him at once, by describing the place where he lived, and the mention of a brook which ran near the house. When he wished to recal any thing to mind, as the name of a person or a place, Wolcot would begin to repeat the alphabet till he came to the first letter of the word he sought. Thus forming a species of artificial clue. He told me the date, it was many years before I was born. I mentioned that my mother had informed me that when he came to her father's house to see his patient he would go into the kitchen, and cook his own beefsteak, if too late for dinner, "because country servants never knew how to do a steak as it should be done." He said this was true, that he never eat a beefsteak properly done in the West of England in his life. Events long past would then seem to come rapidly into his mind. He would ask for people who were dust before I saw the light, though I had had hearsay knowledge of them. He was a man of great acuteness, in fact, the most shrewd I ever knew. He soon penetrated into character. Thus, in regard to his judgment on the fine arts, and his opinion of artists and their labours in his day, time has confirmed all he said of their works. He used to deal mercilessly with the coxcombry of the Royal Academy of Painting. That so keen a satirist as himself should have many enemies was natural, especially as his exposure of the foibles of George III., had made him be set down for a Jacobin, which he was not. Chatham and George II. were his themes.

When an old lady asked him if he did not think he was a very bad subject of our most pious king George, he replied,

"I do not know anything about that, Madam, but I do know that the king has been a devilish good subject for me."

Wolcot lodged in a house now built in among streets near Euston Square, but in his time standing alone in a gardener's ground, called "Montgomery's Nursery." Beyond its enclosure were the open fields. The poet loved the smell of flowers, and the fresh air of the place. No one can imagine either flowers or fresh air on that spot now. I never pass the house, but I stop and look at it. The front is unchanged, though completely built in. I cannot but think of the many pleasant hours I passed there. George Hanger used to drop in there occasionally when I first came to town. He died in 1824, an eccentric, genuine in his oddities, but he had no taste for the fine arts like Wolcot. Both were humorists, but of a different character. He would not be called Lord Coleraine when the title ultimately came to him, "plain George Hanger, Sir, if you please." He used to go and smoke a pipe occasionally at the Sols' Arms, in Tottenham Court Road, and might be seen in Pall Mall riding his grey pony without a servant; then dismounting at a bookseller's shop, he would get a boy to hold his horse, and sit upon the counter for an hour, talking to Burdett, Bosville, or Major James, who used to haunt that shop, Budd and Calkin's then or afterwards. He was a very rough subject, but honest to the backbone, and plain speaking. He carried a short, thick shillelagh, and now and then took his quid. A favourite of the Prince of Wales, he administered a well-merited reproof to the Prince, and the Duke of York, one day at Canton House, for their grossness of language. His name became no longer on the list of guests there. Upon this, as often related by others, he advertised himself as a coal merchant. Meeting the Prince one day on horseback afterwards, the former addressed him:

"Well, George, how go coals now?"
"Black as ever, please your Royal Highness."

There were several young artists whom I used to meet at Wolcot's. There was also a man somewhat notorious at that time, Colonel Thornton, of Thornville Royal, and Lincoln's Inn Fields. Wolcot did not like him, but having spent several days at his place in Yorkshire, he felt bound to he civil towards him. He was a sporting man of large fortune, and employed a parson to write a sporting book from a few notes of his own, and more of the writers, all passing for the genuine sporting tour of Colonel Thornton. Mean in character, and transcending Mendez Pinto in his mistakes about truth, he was, besides, a man of more conversation about nothing, with less mental integrity, than I ever met with. He was diverting from his outrageous untruths, though they were not deceptions, for nobody believed them. He used to send an insignificant present of game to the Doctor, when he happened to be in town, and say he would come and take a chop with him. When the game was delivered, the porter, Thornton's own servant, would ask for the porterage, which he took home to his master. Thornton paid himself that way, for the carriage of all his game to town, by presenting a little of the worst here and there. He had estates in Devonshire, as well as Yorkshire. One day, I found the Doctor in a great passion.

"What do you think, Redding? Thornton has sent some game, and he will dine with me to-day. His servant has asked for the porterage again. Pray ring the bell."

I did as I was requested, and the Doctor's servant, Mary, came up. Wolcot kept two servants, Mary, and "Nance," as he styled the second.

"He is the greatest miser and liar alive," said Wolcot. "He has asked some friends to dinner today in Lincoln's Inn Fields. He repents it, has put them off, and comes to me, that he may say he was not able to be at home."

Mary, the Doctor's servant, came into the room.

"Mary, did you or Nance pay Colonel Thornton's servant anything for the carriage of the game today?"
"Yes, Sir, two-and-sixpence."
"Why, Mary, that is nearly as much as it's worth!" Not much short of it, Sir, I believe," said Mary, who disliked both master and servant.
"What was it?"
"Two partridges and a rabbit."
"A shilling a-piece for the carriage of the partridges, and sixpence for the rabbit — the last may cost the powder and shot, say one charge. Thornton has calculated that to a nicety."

Mary had orders in future not to take in the Colonel's presents of game; but that was no offence to him, who was not apt to be discomposed when he played off his shallow tricks, and missed his mark.

The man who fought the men in buckram, would have been tame in Thornton's hands, who had none of the humour of the Windsor knight to disguise or atone for the magnitude of the sin — if it be a sin to tell falsehoods so monstrous, no one can by any possibility be deceived by them; a Jesuit would pronounce them harmless on that account. Thornton told me he had bought Chambord, the celebrated French estate.

"Vast property, you know?"
"I know of it by hearsay, and its noble domain. I never saw it."
"Well, Sir, I am a French peer; holding that estate gives me the peerage."
Are you naturalised?"
"O, that is of no consequence, the possession of the estate does all that."
"You must buy it through trustees then, Colonel."
"Not at all — it gives the dukedom — it rides over all such trivial matters as you speak of."
"That is new to me it gives you a title, of course, in that case?"
"Yes, I am a prince in the right of the holding — I am, by —."

He told me he had a collection of game pieces by Rubens in his house in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and requested me to call and see them — he had the best the artist ever painted.

"You haven't one, and you know it, Thornton — you think they are so," said Wolcot.

I had half a mind to call and see them, but Wolcot advised me not to do so, and assured me it would be throwing away time, besides, he was no desirable acquaintance for any man who respected himself. He is as great a coward as he is a falsifier.

I did not call; for an incident of a distressing nature intervened, and through my agency relieved the Doctor of his society. One Sunday evening, passing by the Doctor's accidentally, I went in to ask how he did. I found the Doctor, Thornton, and a lady about twenty-four or five in the room. They had dined with Wolcot, and the lady was introduced as a Miss Dormer, a near relation of Thornton. The wine was upon the table. Soon after, I had taken my seat, the lady left the room. There was something about her which bore a resemblance to a young lady whom I had seen before. I could not conjecture her presence there by any possibility, and thought no more of it. She did not return, and in an hour Mary came in to tell the Colonel Miss Dormer had her things on, and was waiting for him. All were surprised, as Thornton was fond of conversation, and it was plain went away against his wish. Miss Dormer did not return to say good-night to the host.

When they were gone, I asked the Doctor if he knew who Miss Dormer was, and whether that was her real name. He replied, that being blind, he was wholly in the hands of other people, but that "Thornton had stated that she was a relation of his, who desired much to see me." I assured him he had been imposed upon; that her name was Harriet D—; seven or eight years before, she had sat by me at my father's table; that she knew me well enough, but that, as I could not dream of her being the same to whom I thought she bore a resemblance, I had doubted if my conjecture was correct. I now believed it was so.

"The scoundrel has been playing me more of his tricks — he said she was one of his nieces," observed Wolcot.

The servant reported that Miss Dormer gave, as a reason for going away, that she was not well. The mystery was cleared up. I make no allusion to her family. There were several brothers and sisters. I believe they fell into distressed circumstances. The Colonel had an estate in Devonshire, and in that county he most probably met with her. The circumstance gave me great pain. When she came to us it was with other girls, whose friends were known to my family, she was at a boarding-school, fifty miles from the residence of her parents in Devonshire. Thornton must have been approaching seventy years of age, an ill-looking man in person.

I have heard he declared that, once, when hunting, he fell with his head on the edge of a scythe, which cut it in two, and the halves fell over his shoulders like a couple of epaulets. And what next, Colonel?

"Why, the huntsman came up, and, in a quarter of a second clapped the halves together before the blood was chilled; it all depended upon the nick of time; anybody might then do it with the same success."

He made his wife ride a race at York, and got horsewhipped by her antagonist, which he deserved. He then, being a magistrate, applied for a criminal information. It was refused him, and he was told by the judges to go to the Common Law Courts for redress. He died in France, where, I have heard, he lied extravagantly "in articulo mortis" — but enough of such a subject.

When Mrs. Boscawen of Richmond died, the widow of the celebrated Admiral, whom she survived forty-five years, her body was brought from thence to Tregothnan for interment, and a vault was opened which had been shut for many years, another having been made in a different place for the existing family. I descended to look at Admiral Boscawen's coffin, and those of his ancestry, one of whom, I believe the second Lord Falmouth, must have approached Daniel Lambert in size. On this lay a coffin of a strange form, from a small hole or crack in which a most offensive effluvia had issued. It was the coffin of a son of Admiral Boscawen, who was drowned while swimming. Mentioning this to Wolcot, he said: "Yes, I knew that young man; he was drowned at Port Royal, Jamaica. We brought his body to England with us, after the death of Governor Trelawney, more than forty years ago." This was a singular concatenation of circumstances.

Wolcot told me he was promised the Secretaryship to the island of Jamaica, if he would go out with the Governor, and it should fall vacant. It did fall vacant, but in lieu of it, the Governor put him off with a living, called Vera, I believe, worth 800 a-year. He was dissatisfied. It would subject him to the charge of hypocrisy. Such was not a failing in his natural character, but without it he would have been destitute. He came home, was ordained both deacon and priest by the Bishop of London, returned to Jamaica, and officiated for a short time. He was an excellent reader, and an emphatic speaker. The appointment, he declared, sat so ill upon him he could bear it no longer, and he resigned the living. There was a house recently standing on the island in which he is said to have resided, and in which, singular enough, Smollett is said for a short time to have taken up his abode. Wolcot came home with the lady of the Governor. A serious attachment took place, and, at last, their marriage was fixed upon, when Lady Trelawney died.

There were stories of his own and others about his residence in Jamaica, most of which I forget. He said he was once officiating in the church in a surplice too straight and long for him. An earthquake shook the edifice; the congregation ran out as fast as possible. He could not get quit of the surplice to run after them. The more he tried, the worse it was. He contrived, in the midst of all, to grapple his terrified clerk, and to hold him fast, telling him, as he shook with fear, that he should die with him if he did not help it off. The man lent his assistance, and they got clear. The church did not fall, "but by that time," said Wolcot, "we had the race all to ourselves."

Miss Anne Trelawney, the Governor's sister, was very credulous. She died in the island. Wolcot, on her asking the news one morning, told her that a cherub had been caught up in the Blue Mountains, and brought into the town.

"What did they do with it, my dear doctor?"
"Put it in a cage with a parrot."
"And what then, doctor?"
"In the morning the parrot had pecked out both its eyes."
"You don't say so!"

This lady had many natural good qualities. On her death, the doctor wrote an elegy upon her called "The Nymph of Tauris." It appeared in the Annual Register, for 1773. It was evidently suggested by Collins' Oriental Eclogues.

Wolcot lived at a house on the green at Truro after his return, and practised professionally. He was an able and benevolent physician; but he got into disgrace with the faculty around, because, in fevers, he permitted his patients to drink as much cold water as they pleased. The faculty complained of his being likely to kill his patients by this irregular treatment. He got into disrepute, too, with the apothecaries; for, to their great dismay he analyzed the medicines they put into his prescriptions, whenever he suspected they were not as genuine as they should be. Hence neither physician nor apothecary had much affection for him. One of the latter, of close pecuniary habits, was so abusive that Wolcot wrote verses in the way of an epistle, in which he recommended the apothecary-surgeon, to buy up the cast-off gloves at the Assembly Rooms on which to spread his blisters, and not to be too economical with his patients in bleeding, as he kept pigs, and blood was good diet. Mrs. Polwhele, the mother of the author of that name, being ill, complained to Wolcot of the crumbs getting under her as she lay in bed, saying it put her in mind of the Pilgrims and the Peas, when going to the Holy Land. She related the tale, and Wolcot made out of the story that of the "Pilgrims and the Peas," which has long been so popular.

"Physic," he said to me one day, "is half of it humbug — at best a very uncertain affair. People's pockets are often picked by it. I could not, in many idle cases, go away after a visit without leaving a prescription. I took care to leave what would do no harm. A physician can do little more than watch nature, and, if he sees her inclined to go right, give her a shove on the back." This was rough, shrewd, sound sense.

Wolcot's luxuries were verse, painting, and music. He was a good performer on the violin and piano. All his drawings that I ever saw were freely executed. He was plain and frugal in his living. "Take care of your stomach," he observed to me; "one dish will do for any man; take plain food; keep yourself from damp. I keep a fire every day throughout the year. I must have dry air. I wear a flannel shirt — it is needful, and I take a little brandy or rum. Fire, flannel and brandy are required in our climate."

I used to visit, when a youth, at a gentleman's seat called Croftwest, where the Doctor had left many reminiscences, having quitted the neighbourhood the best part of twenty years before. It was the residence of a Mr. Mitchel, a good-natured, hospitable little man, fond of hunting, who died at an advanced age. He was indisposed, and the usual surgeon-apothecary was called in. The physician was seldom the first medical adviser in the West in those days — the surgeon-apothecary preceded him. There was but one in the town for a long time, when the people said the profession was neutralized by a second practitioner, that the first had gone out of practice, and the second had not yet come in. The surgeon-apothecary, therefore, had the killing and curing all his own way. Wolcot, who had removed to a neighbouring town, was sent for in a hurry.

"I went," said he, "and found Mitchel very low and ill. As you know, he was naturally of a tough constitution. For some time, I was puzzled to know what was the matter with him. It struck me, at last, that he might have taken something which had driven in a species of eruption which he always had on one arm. 'Tom,' said I, 'let me see your arm;' and, showing it to me, I perceived at once that the eruption, constitutional with him, had been driven in by the blockhead, whom he had employed, and who, besides, had kept him miserably low in diet. I rang the bell for Mrs. Mitchel. 'What had you for dinner to-day — any thing well seasoned?'

"'Why, yes, Doctor, there was a highly seasoned beefsteak pie sent away untouched. Mr. Mitchel was to eat nothing seasoned.'

"'You will kill Tom. Let the cloth be laid again; bring up the pie. We'll cut it open, put a bottle of good Madeira by it, and let him eat and drink as much as he likes.' The patient was ready enough to sit down to it, and by this plan, in a day or two, I got the eruption out again, and Tom got as well as he ever was in his life without physic."

There was much hospitality exercised at Croftwest, as I experienced in my boyhood. In Wolcot's time, among the company, was a lady named Spencer, of a brilliant complexion, but her eyes were very indifferent. She had made a practice of teazing Wolcot wherever she saw him, to write verses upon her, a request he disliked. She renewed the request over the dessert.

Wolcot took out a pencil, scrawled these lines, and handed them to her.

O sweet Nancy Spencer those beautiful eyes
Were made for the downfall of man,
At the sight of their fire, thy true lover fries
And whizzes like fish in a pan:
O gemini father! how nature would quake
Were you gifted with every perfection,
I tremble to think what a havock you'd make,
Were you blest with my air and complexion.

The lady never pardoned the lines, nor spoke afterwards to their author. "His filthy complexion, too, only think what an insult," so she told her friends. Wolcot's was a good lasting mahogany colour. He observed, that she had been so importunate for lines upon herself that nothing but such as would affront her, would have answered the purpose of saving himself from her importunate vanity, light praise never would have answered the end.

There was a vulgar man, too, who front being the manager of a borough in the west, got at last into parliament, and was suddenly elevated to the companionship of peers and esquires, who a little time before paid him no regard. He fitted up a house handsomely, and the great people of his vicinity were ready enough, as usual, to visit, and sneer at him afterwards. Grand preparations were made on one occasion for a dinner, to which the upstart had invited several noblemen and others of his vicinity, and was vain enough to boast about it. The M.P. had a near relative in a condition scarcely above that of a laundress. Wolcot imitating the brother's hand, wrote her an invitation to dine with his company the same day, and to come in her best dress. The vulgar woman decked herself out accordingly in finery, some of which was two score years behind the fashion. Just as the guests were rising in the drawing-room to go to the dinner-table the lady made her appearance in her grotesque finery, part of which was borrowed for the occasion. The confusion, on the part of her brother, may be conceived, and the amusement of the guests. The stolidity of the lady who had received the invitation, was ludicrous. She took her place at the table, and assumed what she deemed a fashionable air for the occasion.

While thus resident at Truro, it was that Wolcot met with Opie in a hamlet, a few miles in the country. The Doctor assured me it was wholly untrue that he was struck with anything the youth had attempted in the way of art, such as a farm-yard and a lady's cat. There were such attempts, but they were without the mark of anything like genius, or even the objects they purported to represent. He said what struck him first in Opie was the invincible desire to master the art, shewn with an earnestness he could never have expected from one so situated. The boy's parents, too, discouraged the lad. Wolcot loved everything like genius, and took Opie to Truro, gave him careful instructions, and his merit soon became apparent. Nothing could be more kind and considerate than Wolcot's treatment of the artist. When he became able to paint a portrait, Wolcot gave him letters to some gentlemen of the county, to aid him in a tour for portrait painting, stipulating that he had a right to be a parlour guest.

"I want to polish him, he is an unlicked cub yet, want to make him learn to respect himself. Therefore, wherever he has visited, he has been treated as a gentleman," thus Wolcot wrote to a friend. He was uniformly so treated except in one instance, that of a clergyman who could not tolerate an affront to his own apostolic dignity by suffering a son of genius to sit at the same board with him, though nobles did: Although unpolished, Opie exhibited no coarse vulgarity. He first painted heads at five shillings, and then raised his price to ten and sixpence. After his first expedition, he brought back twenty guineas, clear of all expenses, so wonderful a sum in his unaccustomed eyes, that he first flung the money on the doctor's table in a sort of rapture, and then sweeping the coin all off upon the carpet, rolled himself over it exclaiming, "Here I be rolling in gold." His early works exhibited little judgment, but were remarkable for great boldness and truth of colour. His drawing was poor, and deficient in that delicacy which is so desirable in art. "He plaistered on his colours," said Wolcot, "but few could plaister like him." Except Reynolds, he had no living superior in colouring, among the artists of his time, it was magical. Of his subsequent style and tact little was traceable during his early career in Wolcot's house in the west. The doctor's lessons were generally given in crayons. "No better representation of earth can be given than with the earth itself," was one of his remarks. Scenes about Fowey and Plymouth executed by himself hung in his sitting-room.

Wolcot lashed some of the corporation of the town for their had management of civic affairs. They revenged themselves by putting a parish apprentice upon his establishment. He appealed in vain to the sessions against the order. This was only appealing to Paul against Peter. He then removed his furniture to Helston, for he would not be beaten, and sent them a billet

"Gentlemen,
Your blunderbuss has missed fire.
Yours,
JOHN WOLCOT."

I expressed my surprise his satire did not get him into serious scrapes. He replied that he got into one, and only one of any moment, and that was with General Macarmick, an old friend. "Something I said more severe than just, led to a retort, I was yet more caustic. A challenge came to me to meet on the Green at six in the morning. There were to be no seconds, it was to be a desperate affair. My window, as you may remember, knowing the house, looked over the Green. I got up at day dawn, and was dressing; the morning was chill, and I saw Macarmick walking up and down near the water. The time fixed had not yet arrived. He had a brace of pistols in his hand, altogether a sight not calculated to add to a man's personal courage in a cold morning. My anger had been but momentary, and I began to think it would be great folly for two old friends to pop away each other's lives. I rang for my servant, ordered a fire to be instantly made, and breakfast and toast to be got ready. It yet wanted something of the time, and when the hour was up, I opened the door that looked upon the green, crossed it with the aspect of a lion, and went up to Macarmick. He did not utter a syllable.

'Good morning, general.'

The general bowed stiffly.

'This is too chilly a morning for fighting.'

'That is the alternative, sir, in case I have no other satisfaction.'

'What you soldiers call an apology, I suppose? My dear general I would rather make twenty, when I was so much in the wrong as I was last night. I will apologise, but on one condition alone.'

'I cannot talk of conditions," said the general gravely, but evidently with less stiffness than before.

'Why then I will consider the conditions accepted. They are that you will come in and take a hearty breakfast with me — it is ready. I own myself exceedingly sorry if I hurt your feelings yesterday. I did not intend it, and no one was privy to our difference.'

He gave me his hand, and we settled the rest of our difference over tea and toast. The pistols that cold morning looked uncomfortable enough. We were going to fight about nothing of moment. How many duels might have ended with as little mischief, if one side or the other had the courage to do as I did on that occasion."