1848 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Cumberland

John Forster, in Life and Times of Oliver Goldsmith (1848; 1871) 2:259-61 &n.



On the fall of Hugh Kelly, however, there had arisen a more formidable antagonist in the person of Richard Cumberland. He came into the field with every social advantage. He was the son and great-grandson of a bishop; his mother was the celebrated Bentley's daughter; he had himself held a fellowship of Trinity; and, connected as private secretary with Lord Halifax, he had passed through the subordinate political offices, when weariness of waiting for promotion turned his thoughts to the stage. His first comedy, ushered in by a prologue in which he attacked all contemporary dramatists and complimented Garrick as "the immortal actor," was played at Covent-garden; and Garrick being present, and charmed with the unexpected compliment (for in earlier days he had rejected a tragedy by Cumberland), Fitzherbert, in whose box he was, made the author and actor known to each other, a sudden friendship was struck up, and Cumberland's second comedy was secured for Drury-lane. This was the West Indian; produced with decisive success in the present year, and an unquestionably strong reinforcement of the sentimental style. Cumberland thought himself, indeed, the creator of his own school, and ignored the existence of poor Kelly; but that was one of many weaknesses he afterwards more fully developed, and which Sheridan amusingly satirised in Sir Fretful Plagiary. He vouchsafed ridiculous airs of patronage to men who stood confessedly above him; professed a lofty indifference to criticism that tortured him; abused those dramatists most heartily whose notions he was readiest to borrow; and had a stock of conceit and self-complacency which was proof against every effort to diminish it. Goldsmith discovered all this, long before Sheridan; subtly insinuated it in those famous lines,

Here Cumberland lies having acted his parts,
The Terence of England, the mender of hearts;
A flattering painter, who made it his care,
To draw men as they ought to be, not as they are.
His gallants are all faultless, his women divine,
And Comedy wonders at being so fine!
Like a tragedy queen he has dizen'd her out,
Or rather like Tragedy giving a rout.
His fools have their follies so lost in a crowd
Of virtues and feelings, that Folly grows proud;
And coxcombs, alike in their failings alone,
Adopting his portraits, are pleased with their own.
Say, where has our poet this malady caught?
Or wherefore his characters thus without fault?
Say, was it that vainly directing his view
To find out men's virtues, and finding them few,
Quite sick of pursuing each troublesome elf,
He grew lazy at last — and drew from himself?

which were written in a spirit of exquisite persiflage at once detected by the lively Mrs. Thrale; and lived to receive amusing confirmation of its truth in Cumberland's grave gratitude for these very verses. He had not discovered their real meaning, even when he wrote his Memoirs five-and-thirty years later. He remained still grateful to Goldsmith for having laughed at him; and so cordial and pleasant is the laughter, that his mistake may perhaps fairly be forgiven.

* Mr. Boaden, in his Life of Kemble, tells us that "Mrs. Piozzi used to give as an instance of the danger of irony, the character of Cumberland, in Goldsmith's Retaliation, which had, by all who did not know the Doctor, been taken for serious commendation."