1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Richard Cumberland

Mary Russell Mitford, in "Autobiography of Dramatic Authors. Colley Cibber — Richard Cumberland" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 267-73.



Richard Cumberland is another vivacious specimen of dramatic authorship — more vivacious in his "Life" (I mean his printed life) than on the stage. Son of a popular and amiable bishop, grandson of the very learned but unpopular and unamiable scholar, Dr. Bentley, he competed successfully at Cambridge for the honors of the University, took a high degree, obtained a Fellowship of Trinity, and might, probably, have attained to his grandfather's station as head of that eminent College, had he not been tempted by Lord Halifax to accept the post of his private secretary, a career for which the eminently irritable and susceptible temper which Sheridan has devoted to a cruel immortality in his Sir Fretful Plagiary rendered him eminently unfit.

It was, however, a very good position for seeing the world, and becoming acquainted with men of high name and various character.

This is his first impression of Garrick as an actor. The play was "The Fair Penitent."

"Quin presented himself, upon the rising of the curtain, in a green velvet coat, embroidered down the seams, an enormous full-bottomed periwig, rolled stockings, and high-heeled, square-toed shoes; with very little variation of cadence, and in a deep, full tone, accompanied by a sawing kind of action, which had more of the senate than the stage in it, he rolled out his heroics with an air of dignified indifference that seemed to disdain the plaudits that were showered upon him — Mrs. Cibber, in a key high pitched, but sweet withal, sang, or rather recitatived, Rowe's harmonious strain. But when, after long and eager expectation, I first beheld little Garrick, then young and light, and alive in every muscle and in every feature, come bounding on the stage, and pointing at the wittol Altamont and the heavy-paced Horatio (Heavens, what a transition!) it seemed as if a whole century had been swept over in the space of a single scene; old things were done away, and a new order at once brought forward, bright and luminous, and clearly destined to dispel the barbarisms and bigotry of a tasteless age, too long attached to the prejudices of custom, and superstitiously devoted to the illusions of imposing declamation."

His first introduction to official life was little to his taste.

"The morning after my arrival, I waited on Mr. Pownall at his office in Whitehall, and was received by him with all possible politeness, but in a style of such ceremony and form as I was little used to, and not much delighted with. How many young men at my time of life would have embraced this situation with rapture. The whole town indeed was before me, but it had not for me either friend or relation to whom I could resort for comfort or for counsel. With a head filled with Greek and Latin, and a heart left behind me in my college, I was completely out of my element. I saw myself unlike the people about me, and was embarrassed in circles, which, according to the manners of those days, were not to be approached without a set of ceremonies and manoeuvers not very pleasant to perform, and when awkwardly performed not very edifying to behold. In these graces Lord Halifax was a model; his address was noble and imposing; he could never be mistaken for less than he was, while his official secretary, Pownall, who egregiously overacted his imitations of him, could as little be mistaken for more than he was."

One of his happiest characters is that of Bubb Dodington.

"His town house in Pall Mall, his villa at Hammersmith, and his mansion in the country, were such establishments as few nobles in the nation were possessed of. In either of these he was not to be approached but through a suite of apartments, and rarely seated but under painted ceilings and gilt entablatures. In his villa you were conducted through two rows of antique statues, ranged in a gallery floored with the rarest marbles, and enriched with columns of granite and lapis-lazuli; his saloon was hung with the finest Gobelin tapestry, and he slept in a bed encanopied with peacocks' feathers, in the style of Mrs. Montagu. When he passed from Pall Mall to La Trappe, it was always in a coach, which I could suspect had been his embassadorial equipage at Madrid, drawn by six fat, unwieldy black horses, short docked, and of colossal dignity. Neither was he less characteristic in apparel than in equipage. He had a wardrobe loaded with rich and glaring suits, each in itself a load to the wearer; and of these I have no doubt but many were coeval with his embassy above mentioned, and every birth-day had added to the stock. In doing this he so contrived as never to put his old dresses out of countenance by any variation in the fashion of the new. In the mean time his bulk and corpulence gave full display to a vast expanse and profusion of brocade and embroidery; and this, when set off with an enormous tie periwig and deep laced ruffles, gave the picture of an ancient courtier in his gala habit, or Quin in his stage dress. Nevertheless, it must be confessed this style, though out of date, was not out of character, but harmonized so well with the person of the wearer, that I remember when he made his first speech in the House of Peers as Lord Melcombe, all the flashes of his wit, all the studied phrases and well-timed periods of his rhetoric lost their effect, simply because the orator had laid aside his magisterial tie, and put on a modern bag wig, which was as much out of costume upon the broad expanse of his shoulders as a cue would have been upon the robes of the Lord Chief Justice.

"Having thus dilated more, perhaps, than I should have done upon this distinguished person's passion for magnificence and display, when I proceed to inquire into those principles of good taste which should naturally have been the accompaniments and directors of that magnificence, I fear I must be compelled by truth to admit that in these he was deficient. Of pictures he seemed to take his estimate only by their cost: in fact, he was not possessed of any; but I recollect his saying to me one day in his great saloon at Eastbury, that if he had half a score pictures of a thousand pounds a-piece, he would gladly decorate his walls with them; in place of which, I am sorry to say, he had stuck up immense patches of gilt leather, shaped into bugle-horns, upon hangings of rich crimson velvet; and round his state bed he displayed a carpeting of gold and silver embroidery which too glaringly betrayed its derivation from coat, waistcoat, and breeches, by the testimony of pockets, button-holes and loops, with other equally incontrovertible witnesses subpoenaed from the tailor's shopboard."

Lord Halifax is sent as Lord-Lieutenant to Ireland, to which we owe the following portrait of a great celebrity of Dublin.

"I had more than once the amusement of dining at the house of that most singular being George Faulkner, where I found myself in a company so miscellaneously and whimsically classed, that it looked more like a fortuitous concourse of oddities jumbled together from all ranks, orders and descriptions, than the effect of invitation and design. Description must fall short in the attempt to convey any sketch of that eccentric being to those who have not read him in the pages of Jephson, or seen him in the mimicry of Foote, who, in his portraits of Faulkner, found the only sitter whom his extravagant pencil could not caricature; for he had a solemn intrepidity of egotism and a daring contempt of absurdity that fairly outfaced imitation, and like Garrick's 'Ode on Shakspenre,' which Johnson said defied criticism, so did George, in the original spirit of his own perfect buffoonery, defy caricature. He never deigned to join in the laugh that he had raised, nor seemed to have a feeling of the ridicule he had provoked. At the same time that he was pre-eminently and by preference the butt and buffoon of the company, he could find openings for hits of retaliation which were such left-handed thrusts as few could parry. Nobody could foresee where they would fall, nobody, of course, was fore-armed; and as there was in his calculation but one super-eminent character in the kingdom of Ireland, and he, the printer of the 'Dublin Journal,' there was no shield against George's arrows, which flew where he listed, and hit or missed as chance directed, he cared not about consequences.

"He gave good meat and excellent claret in abundance; I sat at his table once from dinner till two in the morning, while George swallowed immense potations with one solitary sodden strawberry in the bottom of the glass, which he said was recommended to him for its cooling properties. He never lost his recollection or equilibrium the whole time, and was in excellent foolery; it was a singular coincidence, that there was a person in company who had received his reprieve at the gallows, and the very judge who had passed sentence of death upon him. This did not in the least disturb the harmony of the society nor embarrass any human creature present. All went off perfectly smooth, and George, adverting to an original portrait of Dean Swift, which hung in the room, told us abundance of excellent and interesting anecdotes of the Dean and himself, with minute precision and an importance irresistibly ludicrous. There was also a portrait of his late lady, Mrs. Faulkner, which either made the painter or George a liar, for it was frightfully ugly, while he swore she was the most divine object in creation. George prosecuted Foote for lampooning him on the stage of Dublin. His counsel, the Prime Serjeant, compared him to Socrates, and-his libeler to Aristophanes. This, I believe, was all that George got by his course of law, but he was told that he had the best of the bargain in the comparison, and sat contented under the shadow of his laurels."

The account of Soame Jenyns is no less happy.

"A disagreement about a name or a date will mar the best story that ever was put together. Sir Joshua Reynolds luckily would not hear an interrupter of this sort; Johnson would not hear, or if he heard, would not heed him. Soame Jenyns heard him, heeded him, set him right, and took up his tale where he had left it without any diminution of its humor, adding only a few more twists to his snuff-box, a few more taps upon the lid of it, with a preparatory grunt or two, the invariable forerunner of the amenity that was at the heels of them. He was the man who bore his part in all societies with the most even temper and undisturbed hilarity of any man I ever knew. He came into your house at the very moment you had put upon your card; he dressed himself, to do your party honor, in all the colors of the jay; his lace, indeed, had long since lost its luster, but his coat had faithfully retained its cut since the days when gentlemen wore embroidered figured velvets, with short sleeves, high cuffs, and buckram skirts. As Nature had cast him in the exact mold of an ill-made pair of stiff stays, he followed her so close in the fashion of his coat, that it was doubted if he did not wear them; because he had a protuberant wen just under his poll, he wore a wig that did not cover above half his head. His eyes were protruded like the eyes of the lobster, who wears them at the end of his feelers, and yet there was room between one of these and his nose for another wen, that added nothing to his beauty. Yet I heard this good man very innocently remark, when Gibbon published his history, that he wondered any body so ugly could write a book.

"Such was the exterior of a man who was the charm of the circle, and gave a zest to every company he came into. His pleasantry was of a sort peculiar to himself; it harmonized with every thing; it was like the bread to your dinner; you did not perhaps make it the whole or principal part of your meal, but it was an admirable and wholesome auxiliary to your other viands. Soame Jenyns told you no long stories, engrossed not much of your attention, and was not angry with those who did. His thoughts were original, and were apt to have a very whimsical affinity to the paradox in them. There was a terseness in his repartees that had a play of words as well as of thought, as when speaking of the difference of laying out money upon land, or purchasing into the funds, he said 'One was principal without interest, and the other interest without principal.'"

Although the serious part of "The Wheel of Fortune," that is to say, the whole character of Penruddock is admirably conceived and admirably written (the recollection of John Kemble in that play can never be erased), Mr. Cumberland's power seemed to desert him whenever he attempted tragedy or verse of any sort. His lines on "Affectation," which have great merit, form the only exception that I remember to this assertion; certainly his epic of "Calvary" does not; neither does his share in the "Richard Coeur de Lion, of Sir James Bland Burges."

AFFECTATION.
Why, Affectation, why this mock grimace?
Go, silly thing, and hide that simpering face!
Thy lisping prattle, and thy mincing gait,
All thy false mimic fooleries I hate;
For those art Folly's counterfeit, and she
Who is right foolish, hath the better plea:
Nature's true idiot I prefer to thee.

Why that soft languish? Why that drawling tone?
Art sick? art sleepy? — Get thee hence: begone!
I laugh at all those pretty baby tears,
Those flutterings, faintings, and unreal fears.

Can they deceive us! Can such mummeries move,
Touch us with pity, or inspire with love?
No, Affectation, vain is all thy art,
Those eyes may wander over every part,
They'll never find their passage to the heart.

A great part of Mr. Cumberland's amusing work is taken up by an account of his disastrous mission in Spain, which, undefined in its object, and unsuccessful in its result, brought nothing but disappointment to the Government or the negotiator. After his return from Madrid, he fell back upon literature, and closed a long and varied life in an advanced age at Tunbridge Wells.