1803 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Owen Cambridge

Francis Jeffrey, Review of Richard Owen Cambridge, Works; Edinburgh Review 3 (October 1803) 56-60.



This is one of the many luxuries and superfluities of modern literature; a book which we are glad to have, but could have done very well without; containing nothing very new, or striking, or important; but innocent upon the whole, and respectable, and affording a very laudable recreation for those whose curiosity is rather the desire of amusement, than of knowledge.

Mr. Cambridge seems to have been one of those persons, of whom poverty would have made a very popular author; but, being unfortunately born to a considerable fortune, and having gained admission to a very large and distinguished circle of society, he found that he could pass his time more agreeably than in preparing volumes for the press; and lived a long time in perfect health and tranquility, without exercising his genius in any thing of greater magnitude than a few periodical papers, and some occasional little poems and dissertations. He was one of those characters, in short, that seem destined rather to delight their contemporaries, than to attract the admiration of posterity. With the happiest temper, and the most amiable manners, Mr. Cambridge appears to have been contented with the pleasure and the reputation that he derived from the colloquial display of his various talents and information. His biographer, indeed, has informed us, that "he was remarkably exempt from those passions which usually incline men to exchange domestic enjoyments for the toil of public business; that his love of fame was limited to a desire of being respected and beloved by those in whose society he wished to live; and that his natural disposition and talents were peculiarly adapted to the cultivation of polite literature, and the charms of familiar conversation."

Such men, though extremely respectable and praiseworthy, and though their multiplication may, indeed, be considered as the best indication of a refined and enlightened state of society, generally receive their whole portion of fame in their life, and but seldom obtain any reversion of posthumous celebrity. Few are so fortunate as to have their scattered pieces collected into a handsome quarto, and to have their lives and characters transmitted to posterity by a biographer who joins perfect candour and information to the amiable partiality of affection. The incidents of Mr. Cambridge's life are, as might have been expected, neither numerous nor extraordinary; and they are not commemorated as such by his biographer. The only thing that provoked a smile in the whole narrative, was to find it carefully recorded, that "when every necessary arrangement was made for Mr. Cambridge setting out on his travels, he was stopped by the hard frost of the year 1739, and his plan was never resumed." As to the rest of his history, it is very short and barren of incident. He was educated at Eton, where he acted plays in Latin and English; and at Oxford, which he left without a degree. He entered the Society of Lincolns Inn, but was never called to the Bar. After his marriage, he resided in Gloucestershire, where he wrote the Scribleriad, built boats upon the Severn, and adorned his estate with plantations. He afterwards removed to Twickenham, where he continued to reside, till death put a period to a life that extended through no less than eighty-six years of innocence and enjoyment. He rode a great deal on horseback, drank water, and was remarkable for uninterrupted and equal cheerfulness, great urbanity of manners, and the utmost tenderness and indulgence to his family. He lived in great intimacy with all the literary characters of the age, and seems to have been universally beloved and respected as a delightful companion, and a man entitled to distinction both for his talents and his virtues.

The pieces contained in this volume, are chiefly republications of those compositions which appeared in Mr. Cambridge's own life. His principal performances were, the Scribleriad, which was published in 1751, and "the history of the war on the coast of Coromandel;" which appeared in 1761. The former of these works is reprinted in this compilation, of which it occupies about one half: the other is omitted. The rest of the volume is made on of little poetical pieces, chiefly playful and satirical, and of about twenty papers published in the "World," and fully as remarkable for politeness and vivacity, as any that appeared in that popular publication.

It would be absurd in its to enter into any criticism upon works which have been published for more than half a century. The Scribleriad was read, at one time, by all the polite scholars in the country, but never found its way to popularity, and is now almost entirely forgotten. It is a continuation of the adventures of Scriblerus, in the form of a mock heroic poem, and is written throughout with great learning, elegance, and judgement. The subject, however, is by no means interesting; and the composition has a certain uniform mediocrity of merit, that is usually found to sink faster in the stream of time, than substances of a more unequal contexture. "The history of the Coromandel war" is simply and clearly written, though the subsequent publication of Mr. Dowe's work has, in a great degree, superseded the use of it. There is a pleasing anecdote with respect to this publication, in a note to the account of Mr. Cambridge's life.

"M. Lally Tolendal, the son of M. Lally who commanded the French force in India in the war of 1756, happening to meet my father at a friend's house, eagerly inquired if he was author of a work relative to India; and being answered in the affirmative, sprung forward and embraced him with great emotion, apologizing for this liberty, by assuring him, that he was under more obligation to him than to any man living; for that his work had been of greater service than all the other documents he could procure, towards redeeming his father's honour, and recovering his property; owing to the clear and intelligent detail it contained of the transactions on the coast of Coromandel, in which M. Lally bore so principal a share, and to the just representation it gave of the conduct of the French in that quarter." p. liii.

Of the smaller pieces, there are some imitations of Horace executed with a good deal of point and vivacity, and some elegies and epistles in a very pleasing style of composition. The rest are mere vers de societe. We add the two following parodies, which have the merit, we think, of being very ludicrous.

"Occasioned by the Author hearing of a Clergyman, who, in a violent fit of Anger, threw his Wig into the Fire, and turned his Son out of Doors."

Now by this sacred periwig I swear,
Which never more shall locks or ringlets bear,
Which never more shall form the smart toupee,
Forced from its parent head, — (as thou from me);
Once 'twas live hair; now form'd by th' artist's hand,
It aids the labours of the sacred band;
Adds to the Vicar's brow a decent grace,
And pours a glory round his rev'rend face.
By this I swear, when thou shalt ask again
My doors to enter, thou shalt ask in vain.

He spoke; and furious with indignant ire,
Hurl'd the vast hairy texture on the fire;
Then sternly silent sate — the active flame
Remorseless wastes the soft and tender frame:
Writhed to and fro consumes the tortured hair,
And, lost in smoke, attenuates to air. p. 332. 333.

"On meeting at Mr Garrick's an Author very shabbily drest in an old Velvet Waistcoat, on which he had sewed Embroidery of a later date."

Three waistcoats in three distant ages born,
The bard with faded lustre did adorn.
The first in velvet's figured pride surpast;
The next in 'broidery; in both the last.
His purse and fancy could no further go;
To make a third he joined the former two. p. 350.

Upon the whole, this is a book which the rich will do well to buy, and the poor may be very well contented to want. It is very handsomely printed, and is embellished with about a dozen portraits of the author's celebrated friends, and two views of his places of residence.