1791 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Adam Smith

Amicus, Glasgow, in The Bee 3 (11 May 1791) 2-8.



In the year 1780, I had frequent occasion to he in company with the late well-known Dr. Adam Smith. When business ended, our conversation took a literary turn; I was then young, inquisitive, and full of respect for his abilities as an author. On his part, he was extremely communicative, and delivered himself, on every subject, with a freedom, and even boldness, quite opposite to the apparent reserve of his appearance. I took down notes of his conversation, and have here sent you an abstract of them. I have neither added, altered, nor diminished; but merely put them into such a shape as may fit them for the eye of your readers.

Of the late Dr. Samuel Johnson Dr. Smith had a very contemptuous opinion. "I have seen that creature," said he," bolt up in the midst of a mixed company, and, without any previous notice, fall upon his knees behind a chair, repeat the Lord's Prayer, and then resume his seat at table. — He has played this freak, over and over, perhaps five or six times, in the course of an evening. It is not hypocrisy, but madness. Though an honest sort of man himself, he is always patronizing scoundrels. Savage, for instance, whom he so loudly praises, was but a worthless fellow; his pension of fifty pounds never lasted him longer than a few days. As a sample of his oeconomy, you may take a circumstance that Johnson himself once told me. It was, at that period, fashionable to wear scarlet cloaks trimmed with gold lace; and the Doctor met him one day, just after he had got his pension, with one of these cloaks upon his back, while, at the same time his naked toes were sticking through his shoes."

He was no admirer of the Rambler or the Idler, and hinted, that he had never been able to read them. — He was averse to the contest with America, yet he spoke highly of Johnson's political pamphlets; but, above all, he was charmed with that respecting Falkland's Islands, as it displayed, in such forcible language, the madness of modern wars.

I inquired his opinion of the late Dr. Campbell, author of the Political Survey of Great Britain. He told me, that he never had been above once in his company; that the Doctor was a voluminous writer, and one of those authors who write from one end of the week to the other without interruption. A gentleman who happened to dine with Dr. Campbell in the house of a common acquaintance remarked, that he would be glad to possess a complete set of the Doctor's works. The hint was not lost; for next morning he was surprised at the appearance of a cart before his door. This cart was loaded with the books he had asked for; — the driver's bill amounted to seventy pounds! — As Dr. Campbell composed a part of the Universal History, and of the Biographia Britannica, we may suppose that these two ponderous Articles formed a great part of the cargo. The Doctor was in use to get a number of copies of his publications from the Printer, and keep them in his house for such an opportunity. A gentleman who came in one day exclaimed with surprise, "Have you ever read all these books?" — "Nay," replied Dr. Campbell, laughing, "I have written them."

Of Swift, Dr. Smith made frequent and honourable mention. He denied that the Dean could ever have written the Pindarics printed under his name. He affirmed, that he wanted nothing but inclination to have become one of the greatest of all Poets. "But in place of this, he is only a gossiper, writing merely for the entertainment of a private circle." He regarded Swift, both in style and sentiment, as a pattern of correctness. He read to me some of the short addesses to Stella, and was particularly pleased with one Couplet. — "Say, Stella, feel you no content, reflecting on a life well spent." — Though the Dean's verses are remarkable for ease and simplicity, yet the composition required an effort. To express this difficulty, Swift used to say, "that a verse came from him like a guinea." Dr. Smith considered the lines on his own death as the Dean's poetical master-piece. He thought that, upon the whole, his poetry was correct after he settled in Ireland, when he was, as he himself said, surrounded "only by humble friends."

The Doctor had some singular opinions. I was surprised at hearing him prefer Livy to all other historians, ancient and modern. He knew of no other who had even a pretence to rival him, if David Hume could not claim that honour. He regretted, in particular, the loss of his account of the civil wars in the age of Julius Caesar; and when I attempted to comfort him by the library at Fez, he cut me short. I would have expected Polybius to stand much higher in his esteem than Livy, as having a much nearer resemblance to Dr. Smith's own manner of writing. Besides his miracles, Livy contains an immense number of the most obvious and gross falsehoods.

He was no sanguine admirer of Shakespeare. "Voltaire, you know," says he, "calls Hamlet the dream of a drunken savage." — "He has good scenes, but not one good play." The Doctor, however, would not have permitted any body else to pass this verdict with impunity. For when I once afterwards, in order to sound him, hinted a disrespect for Hamlet, he gave a smile, as if he thought I would detect him in a contradiction, and replied, "Yes! but still Hamlet is full of fine passages."

He had an invincible contempt and aversion for blank verse, Milton's always excepted. "They do well," said he, "to call it blank, for blank it is; I myself, even I, who never could find a single rhyme in my life, could make blank verse as fast as I could speak. Nothing but laziness hinders our Tragic Poets from writing, like the French, in rhyme. Dryden, had he possessed but a tenth part of Shakespeare's dramatic genius, would have brought rhyming tragedies into fashion here, as well as they are in France, and then the mob would have admired them just as much as they now pretend to despise them."

Beattie's Minstrel he would not allow to be called a poem; for it had, he said, no plan, no beginning, middle, or end. He thought it only a series of verses, but a few of them very happy. As for the translation of the Iliad, "They do well," he said, "to call it Pope's Homer, for it is not Homer's Homer. It has no resemblance to the majesty and simplicity of the Greek." He read over to me L'Allegro and Il Penseroso, and explained the respective beauties of each; but added, that all the rest of Milton's short poems were trash. He could not imagine what had made Johnson praise the poem on the Death of Mrs. Killigrew, and compare it with Alexander's Feast. The criticism had induced him to read it over, and with attention, twice, and he could not discover even a spark of merit. At the same time he mentioned Gray's Odes, which Johnson has damned so completely, and, in my humble opinion, with so much justice, as the standard of lyric excellence. He did not much admire The Gentle Shepherd. He preferred the Pastor Fido, of which he spoke with rapture, and the Eclogues of Virgil. I pled as well as I could for Allan Ramsay, because I regarded him as the single unaffected Poet whom we have had since Buchanan — "Proximus huic longo sed proximus intervallo." He answered: "It the duty of a poet to write like a gentleman. I dislike that homely style which some think fit to call the language of nature and simplicity, and so forth. In Percy's Reliques too, a few tolerable pieces buried under a heap of rubbish. You have read perhaps Adam Bell Clym of the Cleugh, and William of Clourleslie?" I answered yes. "Well then," said he, "do you think that was worth printing?" He reflected with some harshness on Dr. Goldsmith; and repeated a variety of anecdotes to support his censure.

They amounted to prove that Goldsmith loved a wench and a bottle; and that a lie, when to serve a special end, was not excluded from his system of morality. To commit these stories to print would be very much in the modern taste; but such proceedings appear to me as an absolute disgrace to typography.

He never spoke but with ridicule and detestation of the reviews. He said that it was not easy to conceive in what contempt they wore held in London. I mentioned a story I had read of Mr. Burke having seduced and dishonoured a young lady, under promise of marriage. "I imagine," said he, "that you have got that fine story out of some of the magazines. If any thing can he lower than the reviews, they are so. They once had the impudence to publish a story of a gentleman's having debauched his own sister; and upon enquiry, it came out that the gentleman never had a sister. As to Mr. Burke, he is a worthy honest man. "He married an accomplished girl, without a shilling of fortune." I wanted to get the Gentleman's Magazine excepted from his general censure; but he would not hear me. He never, he said, looked at a Review, nor even know the names of the publishers.

He was fond of Pope, and had by heart many favourite passages; but he disliked the private character of the man. He was, he said, all affectation; and mentioned his Letter to Arbuthnot, when the latter was dying, as a consummate specimen of canting; which to be sure it is. He had also a very high opinion of Dryden, and loudly extolled his Fables. I mentioned Mr. Hume's objections; he replied, "You will learn more as to poetry by reading one good poem, than by a thousand volumes of criticism." He quoted some passages in Defoe, which breathed, as he thought, the true spirit of English verse.

He disliked Meickle's translation of the Lusiad, and esteemed the French version of that work as far superior. Meickle, in his presence, has contradicted, with great frankness, some of the positions advanced in the Doctor's Inquiry, which may perhaps have disgusted him; but, in truth, Mickle is only an indifferent rhymer. You have lately quoted largely from Lord Gardenstoun's Remarks on English Plays; and I observe, that this lively and venrable critic, damns by far the greatest part of them. In this sentiment, Dr. Smith agreed most heartily with his Lordship; he regarded the French theatre as the standard of dramatic excellence.

He said, that at the beginning of the present reign, the Dissenting Ministers had been in use to recover two thousand pounds a year from government; that the Earl of Bute had, as he thought, most improperly deprived them of this allowance; and that he supposed this to be the real motive of their virulent opposition to government.