1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Percival Stockdale

Isaac D'Israeli, "Illusions of Writers in Verse" Calamities of Authors (1812); Works (1881) 5:218-24.



I have now to bring forward one of those unhappy men of rhyme, who, after many painful struggles, and a long querulous life, have died amid the ravings of their immortality — one of those miserable bards of mediocrity whom no beadle-critic, could ever whip out of the poetical parish.

There is a case in Mr. Haslam's Observations on Insanity, who assures us that the patient he describes was insane, which will appear strange to those who have watched more poets than lunatics!

"This patient, when admitted, was very noisy, and importunately talkative — reciting passages from the Greek and Roman poets, or talking of his own literary importance. He became so troublesome to the other madmen, who were sufficiently occupied with their own speculations, that they avoided and excluded him from the common room; so that he was at last reduced to the mortifying situation of being the sole auditor of his own compositions. He conceived himself very nearly related to Anacreon, and possessed of the peculiar vein of that poet."

Such is the very accurate case drawn up by a medical writer. I can conceive nothing in it to warrant the charge of insanity; Mr. Haslam, not being a poet, seems to have mistaken the common orgasm of poetry for insanity itself.

Of such poets, one was the late PERCIVAL STOCKDALE, who, with the most entertaining simplicity, has, in The Memoirs of his Life and Writings, presented us with a full-length figure of this class of poets; those whom the perpetual pursuits of poetry, however indifferent, involve in a perpetual illusion; they are only discovered in their profound obscurity by the piteous cries they sometimes utter; they live on querulously, which is an evil for themselves, and to no purpose of life, which is an evil to others.

I remember in my youth Percival Stockdale as a condemned poet of the times, of whom the bookseller Flexney complained that, whenever this poet came to town, it cost him twenty pounds. Flexney had been the publisher of Churchill's works; and, never forgetting the time when he published The Rosciad, which at first did not sell, and afterwards became the most popular poem, he was speculating all his life for another Churchill, and another quarto poem. Stockdale usually brought him what he wanted — and Flexney found the workman, but never the work.

Many a year had passed in silence, and Stockdale could hardly be considered alive, when, to the amazement of some curious observers of our literature, a venerable man, about his eightieth year, a vivacious spectre, with a cheerful voice, seemed as if throwing aside his shroud in gaiety — to come to assure us of the immortality of one of the worst poets of the time.

To have taken this portrait from the life would have been difficult; but the artist has painted himself, and manufactured his own colours; else had our ordinary ones but faintly copied this Chinese grotesque picture — the glare and the glow must be borrowed from his own palette.

Our self-biographer announces his "Life" with prospective rapture, at the moment he is turning a sad retrospect on his "Writings;" for this, was the chequered countenance of his character, a smile while he was writing, a tear when he had published! "I know," he exclaims, "that this book will live and escape the havoc that has been made of my literary fame." Again — "Before I die, I think my literary fame may be fixed on an adamantine foundation." Our old acquaintance, Blas of Santillane, at setting out on his travels, conceived himself to be "la huitieme merveille du monde;" but here is one, who, after the experience of a long life, is writing a large work to prove himself that very curious thing.

What were these mighty and unknown works? Stockdale confesses that all his verses have been received with negligence or contempt; yet their mediocrity, the absolute poverty of his genius, never once occurred to the poetical patriarch.

I have said that the frequent origin of bad poets is owing to bad critics; and it was the early friends of Stockdale, who, mistaking his animal spirits for genius, by directing them into the walks of poetry, bewildered him for ever. It was their hand that heedlessly fixed the bias in the rolling bowl of his restless mind.

He tells us that while yet a boy of twelve years old, one day talking with his father at Branxton, where the battle of Flodden was fought, the old gentleman said to him with great emphasis—

"You may make that place remarkable for your birth, if you take care of yourself. My father's understanding was clear and strong, and he could penetrate human nature. He already saw that I had natural advantages above those of common men."

But it seems that, at some earlier period even than his twelfth year, some good-natured Pythian had predicted that Stockdale would be "a poet." This ambiguous oracle was still listened to, after a lapse of more than half a century, and the decree is still repeated with fond credulity: — "Notwithstanding," he exclaims, "all that is past, O thou god of my mind! (meaning the aforesaid Pythian) I still hope that my future fame will decidedly warrant the prediction!"

Stockdale had, in truth, an excessive sensibility of temper, without any control over it — he had all the nervous contortions of the Sybil, without her inspiration; and shifting, in his many-shaped life, through all characters and all pursuits, "exalting the olive of Minerva with the grape of Bacchus," as he phrases it, he was a lover, a tutor, a recruiting officer, a reviewer, and, at length, a clergyman; but a poet eternally! His mind was so curved, that nothing could stand steadily upon it. The accidents of such a life he describes with such a face of rueful simplicity, and mixes up so much grave drollery and merry pathos with all he says or does, and his ubiquity is so wonderful, that he gives an idea of a character, of whose existence we had previously no conception, that of a sentimental harlequin.

In the early part of his life, Stockdale undertook many poetical pilgrimages; he visited the house where Thomson was born; the coffee-room where Dryden then presided among the wits, &c. Recollecting the influence of these local associations, he breaks forth, "Neither the unrelenting coldness, nor the repeated insolence of mankind, can prevent me from thinking that something like this enthusiastic devotion may hereafter be paid to ME."

Perhaps till this appeared it might not be suspected that any unlucky writer of verse could ever feel such a magical conviction of his poetical stability. Stockdale, to assist this pilgrimage to his various shrines, has particularised all the spots where his works were composed! Posterity has many shrines to visit, and will be glad to know (for perhaps it may excite a smile) that "The Philosopher, a poem, was written in Warwick Court, Holborn in 1769," — "The Life of Waller, in Round Court, in the Strand." — A good deal he wrote in "May's Buildings, St. Martin's Lane," &c., but "In my lodgings at Portsmouth, in St. Mary's Street, I wrote my Elegy on the Death of a Lady's Linnet. It will not be uninteresting to sensibility, to thinking and elegant minds. It deeply interested me, and therefore produced not one of my weakest and worst written poems. It was directly opposite to a noted house, which was distinguished by the name of the green rails; where the riotous orgies of Naxos and Cythera contrasted with my quiet and purer occupations."

I would not, however, take his own estimate of his own poems; because, after praising them outrageously, he seems at times to doubt if they are as exquisite as he thinks them! He has composed no one in which some poetical excellence does not appear — and yet in each nice decision he holds with difficulty the trepidations of the scales of criticism — for he tells us of An Address to the Supreme Being that "it is distinguished throughout with a natural and fervid piety; it is flowing and poetical; it is not without its pathos." And yet, notwithstanding all this condiment, the confection is evidently good for nothing; for he discovers that "this flowing, fervid, and poetical address" is "not animated with that vigour which gives dignity and impression to poetry." One feels for such unhappy and infected authors — they would think of themselves as they wish at the moment that truth and experience come in upon them and rack them with the most painful feelings.

Stockdale once wrote a declamatory life of Waller. When Johnson's appeared, though in his biography, says Stockdale, "he paid a large tribute to the abilities of Goldsmith and Hawkesworth, yet he made no mention of my name." It is evident that Johnson, who knew him well, did not care to remember it. When Johnson was busied on the Life of Pope, Stockdale wrote a pathetic letter to him earnestly imploring "a generous tribute from his authority." Johnson was, still obdurately silent; and Stockdale, who had received many acts of humane kindness from him, adds with fretful naievete,

"In his sentiments towards me he was divided between a benevolence to my interests, and a coldness to my fame."

Thus, in a moment, in the perverted heart of the scribbler, will ever be cancelled all human obligation for acts of benevolence, if we are cold to his fame!

And yet let us not too hastily condemn these unhappy men, even for the violation of the lesser moral feelings — it is often but a fatal effect from a melancholy cause; that hallucination of the intellect, in which, if their genius, as they call it, sometimes appears to sparkle like a painted bubble in the buoyancy of their vanity, they are also condemned to see it sinking in the dark horrors of a disappointed author, who has risked his life and his happiness on the miserable productions of his pen. The agonies of a disappointed author cannot, indeed, be contemplated without pain. If they can instruct, the following quotation will have its use.

Among the innumerable productions of Stockdale, was a History of Gibraltar, which might have been interesting, from his having resided there: in a moment of despair, like Medea, he immolated his unfortunate offspring.

"When I had arrived at within a day's work of its conclusion, in consequence of some immediate and mortifying accidents, my literary adversity, and all my other misfortunes, took fast hold of my mind; oppressed it extremely; and reduced it to a stage of the deepest dejection and despondency. In this unhappy view of life, I made a sudden resolution — never more to prosecute the profession of an author; to retire altogether from the world, and read only for consolation and, amusement. I committed to the flames my History of Gibraltar and my translation of Marsollier's Life of Cardinal Ximenes; for which the bookseller had refused to pay me the fifty guineas, according to agreement."

This claims a tear! Never were the agonies of literary disappointment more pathetically told.

But as it is impossible to have known poor deluded Stockdale, and not to have laughed at him more than to have wept for him — so the catastrophe of this author's literary life is as finely in character as all the acts. That catastrophe, of course, is his last poem.

After many years his poetical demon having been chained from the world, suddenly broke forth on the reports of a French invasion. The narrative shall proceed in his own inimitable manner.

"My poetical spirit excited me to write my poem of The Invincible Island. I never found myself in a happier disposition to compose, nor ever wrote with more pleasure. I presumed warmly to hope that unless inveterate prejudice and malice were as invincible as our island itself, it would have the diffuse circulation which I earnestly desired.

"Flushed with. this idea — borne impetuously along by ambition and by hope, though they had often deluded me, I set off in the mail-coach from Durham for London, on the 9th of December, 1797, at midnight, and in a severe storm. On my arrival in town my poem was advertised, printed, and published with great expedition. It was printed for Clarke in New Bond-street. For several days the sale was very promising; and my bookseller as well as myself entertained sanguine hopes; but the demand for the poem relaxed gradually! From this last of many literary misfortunes, I inferred that prejudice and malignity, in my fate as an author, seemed, indeed, to be invincible."

The catastrophe of the poet is much better told than anything in the poem, which had not merit enough to support that interest which the temporary subject had excited.

Let the fate of Stockdale instruct some, and he will not have written in vain the Memoirs of his Life and Writings. I have only turned the literary feature to our eye; it was combined with others, equally striking, from the same mould in which that was cast. Stockdale imagined he possessed an intuitive knowledge of human nature. He says, "everything that constituted my nature, my acquirements, my habits, and my fortune, conspired to let in upon me a complete knowledge of human nature." A most striking proof of this knowledge is his parallel, after the manner of Plutarch, between Charles XII. and himself! He frankly confesses there were some points in which he and the Swedish monarch did not exactly resemble each other. He thinks, for instance, that the King of Sweden had a somewhat more fervid and original genius than himself, and was likewise a little more robust in his person — but, subjoins Stockdale,

"Of our reciprocal fortune, achievements, and conduct, some parts will be to his advantage, and some to mine."

Yet in regard to Fame, the main object between him and Charles XII., Stockdale imagined that his own

"Will not probably take its fixed and immoveable station, and shine with its expanded and permanent splendour, till it consecrates his ashes, till it illumines his tomb!"

POPE hesitated at deciding on the durability of his poetry. PRIOR congratulates himself that he had not devoted all his days to rhymes. STOCKDALE imagines his fame is to commence at the very point (the tomb) where genius trembles its own may nearly terminate!