Thornton and Colman were the most distinguished of Cowper's associates when he began to reside in the Temple. The former was four years his senior, the latter two years his junior. With Thornton, therefore, who was elected from Westminster to Christ Church, when Cowper was twelve years old, he could have formed no intimacy at school; with Colman it was otherwise, Colman and Thornton had become bosom friends at Oxford, and all three were members of the Nonsense Club.
Bonnell Thornton was the son of an apothecary in Maiden Lane, London, and was intended by his father for the medical profession. His first attempts as an author appeared in "The Student, or Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany," printed at Oxford for Mr. Newberry of St. Paul's Churchyard; a name and address once as widely circulated with the histories of Goody Two Shoes and Giles Gingerbread, and other sixpenny books in gilt covers, as it has since been with Dr. James's powders and analeptic pills. Kit Smart was the principal conductor, and Warton and Johnson were occasional contributors. Thornton afterwards commenced a periodical work, entitled "Have at ye all, or the Drury Lane Journal," in rivalry, it is said, of Fielding's "Covent Garden Journal." Fielding's has been preserved, having been incorporated in his works; Thornton's remains have never been collected, and it is not known how long this Journal lasted: Mr. Alexander Chalmers had seen only twelve numbers. At the age of thirty he took the degree of Bachelor of Physic, and in the same year he and Colman began the "Connoisseur."
George Colman was born at Florence in 1733, when his father was British resident at the Grand Duke of Tuscany's court; a sister of his mother was married to the once well known Pulteney, Earl of Bath. Like Thornton, he was on the foundation at Westminster, though not elected into the College there till a year or two after Thornton had left it. That he was made an accomplished Latin scholar there, is certain, and not less so that he must have acquired a competent knowledge of Greek; but by his own account he worked in vain at Hebrew, and would have made little progress in any thing if the old Busbeian process had not been systematically applied. He was elected to Christ Church in 1751, and there, while yet an under graduate, commenced with Thornton, in January, 1754, the publication of the "Connoisseur."
It was then the age of periodical essays. The "Rambler," which revived the taste for them, had been immediately followed by the "Adventurer;" that paper had not yet closed its course, and during its publication the "World" had been started with all the advantages that could be given it by the aid of noble and fashionable contributors. By such aid it had reached a sale little short of two thousand five hundred; thus exceeding what the "Spectator" had obtained. Some reliance the two friends must have placed upon the demand for this kind of light literature, . . light it had now become almost to the total exclusion of grave, or even serious matter; but their main confidence was in each other and in themselves. Thornton had been one of the contributors to the "Adventurer," and Colman, at the age of twenty, had there made what was probably his first appearance in public as a prose writer. Their humour and their talents were well adapted to what they had undertaken; and Beaumont and Fletcher present what is probably the only parallel instance of literary cooperation so complete, that the portions written by the respective parties are undistinguishable. Upon taking leave of the public, in the concluding number, they say, "We have not only joined in the work, taken together, but almost every single paper is the joint product of both; and as we have laboured equally in erecting the fabric, we cannot pretend that any one particular part is the sole workmanship of either. A hint has perhaps been started by one of us, improved by the other, and still farther heightened by a happy coalition of sentiment in both; as fire is struck out by a mutual collision of flint and steel. Sometimes, like Strada's lovers conversing with the sympathetic needles, we have written papers together at fifty miles distance from each other; the first rough draught or loose minutes of an essay have often travelled in the stage-coach from town to country, and from country to town; and we have frequently waited for the postman, whom we expected to bring us the remainder of a Connoisseur, with the same anxiety as we should wait for the half of a bank note, without which the other half would be of no value. These our joint labours, it may easily be imagined, would have soon broke off abruptly, if either had been too fondly attached to his own little conceits; or if we had conversed together with the jealousy of a rival, or the complaisance of a formal acquaintance, who smiles at every word that is said by his companion. Nor could this work have been carried on with so much cheerfulness and good humour on both sides, if the Two had not been as closely united as the two students whom the "Spectator" mentions, as recorded by a Terrae Filius at Oxford, to have had but one mind, one purse, one chamber, and one hat. — For our own parts we cannot but be pleased with having raised this monument of our mutual friendship; and if these essays shall continue to be read, when they will no longer make their appearance as the fugitive pieces of the week, we shall be happy in considering that we are mentioned at the same time. We have all the while gone on, as it were, hand in hand together; and while we are both employed in furnishing matter for the paper now before us, we cannot help smiling at our thus making our exit together, like the Two Kings of Brentford, smelling at one nosegay."
Cowper contributed a few papers to the "Connoisseur." One of them is upon the subject of keeping secrets; and, though written in a strain of levity, it had so good an effect upon himself, that he says, "from that day he believed he had never divulged one." If he had not the same virtue of discretion before, (and so it may be inferred from such an acknowledgment,) this is a remarkable instance of the benefit that may be derived from calmly considering what our own opinions are upon any question of practical importance, before it happens directly to concern us.
He was also an occasional contributor to the "St. James's Chronicle." Thornton and Colman were two of the original proprietors of that newspaper, which at once assumed a literary character far above that of its rivals. They had both been accustomed to write in newspapers and magazines, which in those days exercised more influence than the reviews, and to which indeed men of higher character and greater ability than were engaged in the critical journals, frequently sent communications. Both had thus, acquired habits of desultory industry; and this had led them to indulge a disposition for playful satire, and to regard things in a ludicrous point of view, . . satisfied if they could amuse themselves and others, without any worthier aim. No writer can pursue this course without injury to his own moral and intellectual nature. There was, however, nothing like malevolence in their satire; and they rendered themselves more obnoxious to the authors whom they eclipsed, than to those against whom their ridicule was directed; . . for they levelled it sometimes against men whose merit they could not but acknowledge in their heart, as indeed they bore testimony to it in their better mind.
This humour was fostered at the Nonsense Club. At those meetings of
Jest and youthful Jollity,
Sport that wrinkled Care derides,
And Laughter holding both his sides,
there can be little doubt that the two odes to Obscurity and Oblivion originated, joint compositions of Lloyd and Colman, in ridicule of Gray and Mason. They were published in a quarto pamphlet, with a vignette, in the title-page, of an ancient poet safely seated and playing on his harp; and at the end a tail-piece representing a modern poet in huge boots, flung from a mountain by his Pegasus, into the sea, and losing his tie-wig in the fall.
Little did the two wits think how small in comparison with Gray they would appear in the eyes of posterity; and that the "Bard," which was then neglected by the public, would, in the course of the next generation, become the most popular ode in the English language. The poet took this unprovoked attack in his quiet and playful way. "I have sent you," said he, in a letter to Mason, "a bloody satire, written against no less persons than you and I by name. I concluded at first it was Mr. ***, because he is your friend, and my humble servant; but then I thought he knew the world too well to call us the favourite minions of Taste and of Fashion, especially as to odes, for to them his ridicule is confined. So it is not he, but Mr. Colman, nephew to Lady Bath, author of the 'Connoisseur,' a member of one of the inns of court, and a particular acquaintance of Mr. Garrick. What have you done to him? for I never heard his name before. He makes very tolerable fun with me, when I understand him, which is not very often; but seems more angry with you. Lest people should not understand the humour of the thing, (which indeed to do they must have our lyricisms at their fingers' ends,) letters come out in Lloyd's Evening Post to tell them who and what it was that they meant, and that it is like to produce a combustion in the literary world. So if you have any mind to 'combustle' about it, well and good; for me, I am neither so literary, nor so combustible." Touching upon the subject in a letter to Dr. Wharton, about the same time, he says, "I believe his Odes sell no more than mine did; for I saw a heap of them lie in a bookseller's window, who recommended them to me as a very pretty thing."
Mason published the letter in which this passage occurs for the sake of showing how Gray felt on such occasions. "Had Mr. Pope," said he, "disregarded the sarcasms of the many writers that endeavoured to eclipse his poetical fame, as much as Mr. Gray here appears to have done, the world would not have been possessed of a Dunciad; but it would have been impressed with a more amiable idea of its author's temper." It was easy for Gray, in the consciousness of his own superiority, to smile at the cleverness with which his manner had been imitated in a mock-lyric strain; no disparagement is implied in such burlesque; and one of his temper could more easily forgive the personal ridicule, as unjust as it was unbecoming, than the authors would forgive themselves for it when they came to years of discretion. The personal attack upon Mason was equally reprehensible, and unfounded; but his stilted style and obtrusive alliteration were not unfairly satirized; and this perhaps he felt, for his later poems were not characterised by the same faults. But if it was an act of prudence on his part to follow his friend's example, and express no resentment at an unprovoked attack, it was an act of forbearance also in him, who had both the temper and the talents for satire. Lloyd and Colman would hardly have assailed him if they had known that he was the most efficient satirist of the age; for Mason it was who by an anonymous satire exploded that barbarous fashion of Chinese taste, which most of the contemporary essayists had attacked without effect.
What was personal and injurious in these mock lyrics is now so harmless, and what was always unexceptionable in them is so good. . . (for they are among the very best of their kind), that whenever the works of Gray and Mason are, as they ought to be, conjointly published, it is to be hoped these pieces will find a place in the appendix, as a trophy to their fame.
Some singular displays of practical humour proceeded from the same Club. Thornton opened an exhibition of sign-paintings in Bow Street, Covent Garden. The hint for this inoffensive drollery was taken from the annual exhibition of pictures made by the Society for the promoting of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, previous to the institution of the Royal Academy; and materials for it were easily collected at a time when, upon every improvement in the city, the sign-posts were removed as nuisances. Thornton, who had always an eye for the humours and follies of the day, had been amused by the absurd combinations which appeared in many of these street-pictures, and had made them the subject of a paper in the Adventurer two years before. Following now the vein upon which he had then struck, he advertised for the same day on which the Society were to open their exhibition, an "Exhibition by the Society of Sign Painters of all the curious signs to be met with in town or country, together with such original designs as might be transmitted to them as specimens of the native genius of the nation."
Unpromising as an exhibition of daubings might now seem, "most of which had actually been hung in irons, and were nearly worn out in the service," it had no inconsiderable success, though the humour must have appeared to more advantage in the catalogue than in the collection itself. Some friendly hand announced it as the project of a well-known gentleman, who had in several instances displayed a most uncommon vein of humour, and who was perhaps the only person in England, (Mr. Hogarth excepted,) who could have projected or carried tolerably into execution such a scheme. "There is a whimsical drollery in all his pieces," it was said, "and a comical originality in his manner that never fail to distinguish and recommend all his undertakings. To exercise his wit and humour in an innocent laugh, and to raise that innocent laugh in others, seems to have been his chief aim in the present spectacle. The ridicule on exhibitions, if it must be accounted so, is pleasant without malevolence; and the general strokes on the common topics of satire are given with the most apparent good humour."
Hogarth, in fact, had entered into the humour of the adventure, and gave a few touches in chalk where effect could be added by it: thus in the portraits of the King of Prussia and the Empress Maria Teresa, he changed the cast of their eyes so as to make them leer significantly at each other. Every pot-house politician could understand this. But the wit was altogether of the most popular kind. A pair of thick legs, in white stockings and black garters, were described in the catalogue as No. 9 . . . the Irishman's Arms, by Patrick O'Blaney. N.B. Captain Terence O'Cutter stood for them. — No. 12. The Scotch Fiddle. By M'Pherson; done from himself. — No. 16. A Man: — nine tailors at work. — No. 27. The Spirit of Contradiction: . . two brewers bearing a cask, the men going different ways. — No. 85. A Man in his Element: . . a cook roasted on a spit at a kitchen-fire, and the devil basting him. — No. 36. A Man out of his Element: . . a sailor thrown from his horse, and his head striking against the ten-mile stone from Portsmouth. — No. 64. View of the Road to Paddington, with a Representation of the Deadly Never-Green, that bears fruit all the year round; the fruit at full length: . . three felons on the gallows at Tyburn. — 73. A Man loaded with Mischief:.. a fellow with a woman, a magpie, and a monkey on his back. — "It was one of those schemes," Mr. Chalmers says, "which could not be expected to last, or to be repeated, and which the public, at a less good-humoured period, might in all probability be disposed to consider as an insult." The public, however, took it in good humour, as it was meant.
When a pamphlet was published in France to ridicule the writings of Rousseau, a French critic well observed, "il est fort aise de le faire, rien ne pretant plus a la parodie que le sublime, soit en style, soit en action, soit en morale." Burlesque and parody are indeed easy; and the more famous the original, . . the more sublime, it may be added, and even the more sacred, . . the easier is the unworthy, or base, or blasphemous attempt to place it in a ridiculous point of view. But burlesque is not so easy when it appeals only to the sense of humour, without any admixture of malice or wickeder ingredients. In this respect no writer had ever less reason than Bonnell Thornton to regret the indulgence of a dangerous taste for the ludicrous. Having made free with one of the arts in his Sign-post Exhibition, he took a liberty of the same inoffensive kind with the other two, in an Ode for St. Cecilia's Day, adapted to the ancient British music of the salt-box, jew's-harp, marrow-bones and cleavers, and humdrum, or hurdy-gurdy. This mock-lyric was so good in its kind, that Johnson used to praise it and repeat some of the lines in the annexed specimen, which will show the humour of this metrical performance.
The meaner melody we scorn
Which vulgar instruments afford,
Shrill flute, sharp fiddle, bellowing horn,
Rumbling bassoon, or tinkling harpsichord.
AIR, to the Salt-Box.
In strains more exalted the Salt-box shall join,
And clattering and battering and clapping combine;
With a rap and a tap while the hollow side sounds,
Up and down leaps the flap, and with rattling rebounds.
RECITATIVE, to the Jew's-Harp.
Strike, strike the soft Judaic harp;
Soft and sharp,
By teeth coercive in firm durance kept,
And lightly by the volant finger swept.
Buzzing twangs the iron lyre,
Whizzing with the wavering wire.
AIR, after a grand Symphony accompanied with Marrow-bones and Cleavers.
Hark, how the banging marrow-bones
Make clanging cleavers ring,
With a ding dong, ding dong,
Ding dong, ding dong,
Ding dong, ding dong, ding dong ding.
Raise your uplifted arms on high!
In long prolonged tones,
Let Cleavers sound
A merry merry round,
By banging Marrow-bones.
RECITATIVE, to the Humstrum, or Hurdy-gurdy.
Cease lighter numbers; hither bring
The undulating string
Stretch'd out, and to the tumid bladder,
In amity harmonious bound;
Then deeper swell the notes and sadder,
And let the hoarse base slowly solemn sound.
With dead, dull, doleful, heavy hums,
With mournful moans
And grievous groans
The sober hurdy-gurdy thrums.
Thornton went through with the jest, as he did in the exhibition. The ode was set by Dr. Burney, and actually performed at Ranelagh to a crowded audience. But then the execution in some degree clashed with the design, for the singing was good; the performers were excellent musicians; the cleavers had been cast in bell-metal for the occasion, and sweet tones were produced from the jew's-harp by a person who had acquired the art of playing it with perfect skill.
Whether or not these frolics of wanton but inoffensive humour originated in the Nonsense Club cannot now be ascertained; but there can be no doubt that they were discussed and matured in that "noble institution," which fell to pieces about the time that Cowper was withdrawn from it. He had his full share in its merriment, and would never have alluded to it, as he has done with evident pleasure in the recollection, if he had seen any reason in his sadder mind to regret his connexion with it. The whole tenour of his correspondence shows that his disposition was remarkably playful, and that his playfulness never transgressed the bounds of strict propriety. If he seldom spoke of those members who were cut off early in life, it was because it was painful on that account alone to think of them. Of the survivors Colman was often in his mind, and always remembered with kindness, except when he thought himself treated by him with a neglect which, because of that very kindness, he felt keenly; and Hill continued to be his intimate and faithful friend through life.
The friends who amused themselves in this club with banter and burlesque had, however, bonds of worthier sympathy. Cowper was born for better things; and Thornton and Colman, though they took the lead in every thing ludicrous, gave another proof of coincidence in their literary taste and occupations, not less remarkable than their joint authorship of the Connoisseur.
Colman translated Terence with admirable skill; and Thornton, when the intention was imparted to him, conceived the design of translating Plautus in like manner, into what he called the old English measure, by which he meant the dramatic blank verse of Shakespeare and his immediate followers. He published a specimen in his friend Lloyd's magazine, and that specimen was followed by some able essays, "concerning the advantages of measure in modern comedies, or in translations from those of the ancients." Colman assisted him by translating one play; and it is probable that he would have lent him farther aid, if he had not at that time been much engaged in theatrical business and in composing pieces for the stage. When Thornton published two volumes of his intended version, he dedicated them to Colman, and the dedication is a pleasing memorial of that friendship which seems never to have been interrupted.
"I can never forget the time," he says, "when our literary amusements were so intimately blended, that we seemed to have one invention, one sentiment, one expression. The regularity of a periodical publication led us to a constant intercourse and communication of ideas; and whatever may be the fate of this present undertaking, I shall never repent my having dipt in ink, since it gave me an opportunity of cultivating a social as well as literary connexion with you.
"Instead of prefixing your name to this work, with the distant air of a dedication, I wished to have had it coupled along with mine in the title-page: I wanted you as a 'comes jucundus,' an agreeable companion, in this new unbeaten track of translation, which you have so happily struck out before me. — I own, indeed, I shall feel a more than ordinary disappointment if I should be judged unworthy to rank with you in this humbler branch of literature; for I confess, in the pride of my heart, that one great inducement to my engaging in this task was the hope that our names would be mentioned together as the translators of Terence and Plautus; though I cannot aspire to an equal share of reputation with the author of 'The Jealous Wife,' or the joint author of 'The Clandestine Marriage.'"
Thornton only lived to publish seven of the plays, one of which was translated by Colman, and another by Mr. Warner, who continued the undertaking, and completed it in five volumes. His part is respectably executed; but Thornton's is, as far as it goes, one of the best versions in our language from any ancient author. The skill with which he has compensated, by correspondent playfulness of wit, for what it was impossible to translate, is perhaps unrivalled.
Both Thornton and Colman were men of the world, in whose society Cowper's moral and religious feelings were not likely to be strengthened; but his principles were in no danger of being corrupted or shaken by them. However little the religion in which they had been trained up may have influenced the general tenour of their lives, it retained its hold on their belief. Their writings never conveyed any thing offensive to public morals or public faith; and there is every reason to suppose that they were perfectly sincere in the contempt which they expressed for the infidelity which was at that time in vogue, and in their abhorrence of the consequences to which they clearly saw its prevalence must inevitably lead. Poor Lloyd, who was also a member of the Nonsense Club, was a much more dangerous companion.