1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Joseph Spence

Isaac D'Israeli, in Review of Spence's Anecdotes, Quarterly Review 23 (July 1820) 402-07.



It is evident that these "Anecdotes of Books and Men" were designed by Spence to belong to the numerous race of ANA, of which though we possess but few in our literature, yet those few are excellent. Our vivacious neighbours, more fond of talk, found a pleasure, when silent, in writing down the talk of others, even to their Arlequiniana, for Harlequin too must talk in France. Of their flock, the bell-wether is the Menagiana. Yet the four volumes, improved by the learned editor La Monnoye, are eclipsed by the singular splendour of Boswell's Johnson. — On this work we must make one observation. An Italian, a man of letters and of genius, compares Johnson "to some uncommon bear, and Boswell to the Savoyard who goes shewing him about." This sarcasm has been anticipated by some of our own wits; but wits are bad critics! All other Ana are usually confined to a single person, and chiefly run on the particular subject connected with that person; but Boswell's is the Ana of all mankind: nor can the world speedily hope to receive a similar gift; for it is scarcely more probable to find another Boswell than another Johnson.

It must not be concealed that such collections as this of Spence have frequently spread an alarm in their circles. It is a case of conscience whose solution we leave to some future Paley, how far may be practised the liberty of chronicling conversations, or perpetuating domestic incidents. Is friendship, placed under the rose, no longer to look up to that emblem of secrecy and silence? When our heart moves with our lips, or circulates with the warmth of wine, are our unpremeditated thoughts, our negligent assertions, and our playful deceptions, the mere odds and ends of our fancy, all our humours, good and evil, to be permanently recorded? Are love and hatred to be the short-hand writers of social life, and are men to be brought to a bar without even a suspicion that they are undergoing a trial? These observations extend to the writers of Diaries, — from Cole, the literary antiquary, to Bubb Dodington, the jobbing statesman. The very precaution which some of them used, (and Cole among the rest,) that their papers should not be opened till a given period, only served to protract the torture of the sufferers; while the calumny begins to live just when the calumniated had passed the power of vindication. We believe that these examples have occasioned the destruction of much of this kind of secret history by those who trembled at the imprudence of future editors, or dreaded the consequences of their own too faithful chronicle. The late Dean of Christ-Church, Cyril Jackson, an extraordinary character, who, if he did not feel the ambition, at least possessed the genius of governing, and who (after a reign of twenty years) retired, like the imperial philosopher of antiquity, into the uttermost solitude, appearing to forget all men and all things, and him, self as much forgotten as the greatness of the character he had left behind him allowed, had kept, it is said, a Diary of his life, which, in an unfortunate hour, he destroyed, — from an apprehension that his records, by the imprudence of friends, or the maliciousness of cynics, might be productive of some of the mischief which he had witnessed in those of others.

Even Spence had long raised similar alarms by his "Anecdotes." Not only had his own friends (as we have seen) protested against their publication, (for they were then treading on ashes whose fires were not extinct,) but even some of the editors of Pope have vented their outcries against opening this box of Pandora. Listen to Mr. Bowles, a sort of sentimental critic: — "I tremble for every character when I hear any thing of 'Spence's Anecdotes.' Neither friend nor foe are spared. He seems to have opened his mouth and his ears to every thing Pope told him; and it makes the heart sick to think how often Pope has altered his tone," &c. The book has at last appeared! and if the reverend gentleman still "trembles," it can be only to find that the Pope of "Spence's Anecdotes" is not the Pope of Mr. Bowles. Spence, who seems once to have wavered on the propriety of publishing them, has written on the leaf of one of the paper-books — "All the people well acquainted with Mr. Pope looked on him as a most friendly, open, charitable, and generous-hearted man; all the world, almost, that did not know him, were got into a mode of having very different ideas of him: how proper this makes it to publish these anecdotes after my death." The truth is, that Pope, alive to the most generous feelings, was excessively irritable in whatever touched his art. Poetry was the delightful craft of his life, and the craftsman had his mysteries. This great poet furnishes not the only instance where bland and tender dispositions may be associated with that keen searching spirit, so irritable and caustic: the habits of the mind are often distinct from the habits of the man.

Mr. Singer has furnished a copious life of Spence. The fresh materials which the writer has been enabled to bring to his work, and particularly some interesting evidence of the true character and feelings of Spciice, render it valuable; but though the hand of the artist is faithful in tracing the lines, it wants a delicacy of touch; and as a composition, we regret to add, it is often inelegant and incorrect: the narrative moves on with great caution, it is true, but it moves heavily, and frequently reminds us of those alphabetical lives which we consult as a sort of troublesome convenience. Of Dr. Birch, to whose zeal our literature owes more than can here be acknowledged, a critic of the day familiarly observed, "Tom was a dead hand at a Life;" the lineal descent has not been enlivened by any fortunate cross-breed,

And Tom the second reigns like Tom the first.

There was a moral loveliness in the character and the life of Spence, which could not fail to engage the affections of such an elegant scholar as Lowth, and those of many other men of genius. Cultivating literature and the arts with the ardour and the playfulness of a lover, it was fortunate that the vicissitudes of life rendered him a traveller. Having retired from college to a small living, he was invited at various times to accompany several distinguished persons in their tours through Europe; but the feelings of this pilgrim of taste were purely domestic; and amidst the interesting objects around him, nothing occupied his mind so entirely as his mother and his garden: — a mother, in whom all his affections were concentrated, and a garden, his ideal "Tempe;" a work, under which title he proposed to illustrate gardening in all ages, and which he was meditating and writing all his days! these, amidst his foreign enjoyments, his ardent patrons, and his literary amusements, were the real subjects of his reveries.

The author of the "Tales of the Genii," a work which, to a feeling mind, bears the most pathetic of all terminations, for, with its last page, the life of the author too closed, was one of the warm admirers of Spence; and has thrown into his charming fiction a beautiful sketch of his friend.

"The Dervise of the groves, (it is under this name that he describes him in his tenth tale,) with a fond generous affection, made the life of his dear mother smile in age, and happy in affliction; the chief glories of his youthful soul were to please her that gave him birth; and like the stork, he made the nest of comfort for his parent, and bore her into light and life on his industrious wings, then pleased alone with all mankind when they were pleased with her."

To his mother Spence addresses his happiest letters; and it is refreshing, amidst the formal monotonies of society, to be recalled to all those natural touches and minute particularities made up of pleasantry and affection; to see him preparing his little fop of a garden, "strutting, and pretending to be bigger than he is," to make some show, after inviting his mother and sister to take such a journey for a pippin." "From the little green plat at one end of it (he writes) we may stand like three statues on one pedestal, and look out on a prospect that is no inconsiderable one for Hertfordshire. By this word you may see the pride of my heart, for, to say the truth, I don't care to be thought in Essex here, and take all the advantage I can of my neighbourhood to a better county." With his mother, Spence kept up a constant intercourse; and the three letters which Mr. Singer has selected are fortunate in their subjects. In one of them he sets before us, with all the fidelity of a Flemish painter, a chattering gesticulating droll of "a mountaineer barber-surgeon, born amidst the Alps, and as learned as people generally are among wild mountains, who from father to son were so, without any interruption for twenty-eight generations." The family annals, it seems, did not reach up to Noah; but when asked if he had a history of the twenty-seven surgeons, his predecessors? he briskly replied — "Have I? yes, that I have; and I would rather lose my legs than lose it." Another letter gives an account of a Frenchman, one of the "adepts," who carry "the great elixir in their pockets," and look "very genteel and very grave," and "as fresh as forty," at two centuries old, and who can make gold, yet are always wanting some from those who cannot. A third gives a minute and spirited description of the representation of a Mystery, called "the Damned Soul," which Spence, lounging one evening at Turin, saw performed under the portico of an hospital by a set of Italian strollers; the plot, the scenery, and the actresses, for they were all women except the devils, are inimitably described.

The mother whom Spence was so solicitous to delight was a dependant on his kindness. This warm filial fondness seems very distinguishable from the "Storge," or the instinct of parental affection. It is a love in the very next degree to wedded love, and perhaps is often its substitute. Men of the good-nature and the good temper of Spence, — under the influence of constitutional languor, are alive to all those endearments which can only come from a female — from her eyes, from her voice. It has been by adopting a mother, a sister, or a humbler friend, that such men have reflected back a tender image of themselves. Such domestic emotions were experienced by Cowper, they were sought after by Pope; but they enlivened the studies of Spence, and inspired that unvarying cheerfulness which induced him to write letters to his mother, as if he felt an ambition to please her.

Had it been our happiness to live with SPENCE, such as we have portrayed him we are confident that we should have found him. Johnson has spoken indifferently well of him; Gray with his usual fastidiousness; Walpole has commemorated himself more than Spence by this exquisite description! — "As I knew Mr. J. Spence, I do not think I should have been so much delighted as Dr. Kippis with reading his letters. He was a good-natured harmless little soul, but more like a silver penny than a genius. It was a neat fiddle-faddle bit of sterling, that had read good books and kept good company; but was too trifling for use, and only fit to please a child." This is no bad specimen of the sort of affection which this vivacious Momus ever bore towards literary men: — but

Ii vostro topo e tutto Fra Pasquali!

this "fiddle-faddle bit of sterling" was himself.

Spence indulged a singular delight in bringing out men whose genius was clouded by the obscurity of their situations. It was he who first took by the hand "The Muse in Livery," of Dodsley; who secured patronage for the self-taught Thresher, and the blind poet Blacklock; who introduced to the world the erudite tailor, Robert Hill, by his ingenious parallel with his old friend Magliabechi. Spence was the first writer who noticed Thomson, in his "Essay on Pope's Odyssey," which being a popular book, contributed to make the poem more known, and Thomson always acknowledged the value of this recommendation. The "Essay," though it necessarily contained many free strictures, was so far from irritating the bard, that it served as the foundation of their friendship; and opened that intercourse which produced the accounts Spence has delivered to us of Pope's habits, studies, and conversations, which, as Mr. Singer well observes, exhibit "a complete, though brief, auto-biography" of the great poet.

Spence had a turn for dialogue-writing; all his works are composed in this manner, and it seems to have served his purpose on the present occasion much better than on the others. We believe that he has given all the words he recollected, for, in some places, be expresses a doubt whether he had retained the precise language: assuredly it has received no embellishments from his careless, ungrammatical, slip-slop pen: but we must not transfer our notions of style to the days of Spence, when they were more occupied by simple impressions than by abstract generalities; in a word, when the study of effect in writing was an artifice not yet practised.