1848 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. Hugh Downman

Benjamin Disraeli, in Life of Isaac D'Israeli (1848); D'Israeli, Works (1881) 1:xxi-xxii.



When my father communicated this impending change in his life to Wolcot, the modern Skelton shook his head. He did not believe that his friend was in a consumption, but being a Devonshire man, and loving very much his native province, he highly approved of the remedy. He gave my father several letters of introduction to persons of consideration at Exeter; among others, one whom he justly described as a poet and a physician, and the best of men, the late Dr. Hugh Downman. Provincial cities very often enjoy a transient term of intellectual distinction. An eminent man often collects around him congenial spirits, and the power of association sometimes produces distant effects which even an individual, however gifted, could scarcely have anticipated. A combination of circumstances had made at this time Exeter a literary metropolis. A number of distinguished men flourished there at the same moment: some of their names are even now remembered. Jackson of Exeter still survives as a native composer of original genius. He was also an author of high aesthetical speculation. The heroic poems of Hole are forgotten, but his essay on the Arabian Nights is still a cherished volume of elegant and learned criticism. Hayter was the classic antiquary who first discovered the art of unrolling the MSS. of Herculaneum. There were many others, noisier and more bustling, who are now forgotten, though they in some degree influenced the literary opinion of their time. It was said, and I believe truly, that the two principal, if not sole, organs of periodical criticism at that time, I think the Critical Review and the Monthly Review, were principally supported by Exeter contributions. No doubt this circumstance may account for a great deal of mutual praise and sympathetic opinion on literary subjects, which, by a convenient arrangement, appeared in the pages of publications otherwise professing contrary opinions on all others. Exeter had then even a learned society which published its Transactions.

With such companions, by whom he was received with a kindness and hospitality which to the last he often dwelt on, it may easily be supposed that the banishment of my father from the delights of literary London was not as productive a source of gloom as the exile of Ovid to the savage Pontus, even if it had not been his happy fortune to have been received on terms of intimate friendship by the accomplished family of Mr. Baring, who was then member for Exeter, and beneath whose roof he passed a great portion of the period of nearly three years during which he remained in Devonshire.

The illness of my father was relieved, but not removed, by this change of life. Dr. Downman was his physician, whose only remedies were port wine, horse-exercise, rowing on the neighbouring river, and the distraction of agreeable society. This wise physician recognised the temperament of his patient, and perceived that his physical derangement was an effect instead of a cause. My father instead of being in a consumption, was endowed with a frame of almost superhuman strength, and which was destined for half a century of continuous labour and sedentary life. The vital principle in him, indeed, was so strong that when he left us at eighty-two, it was only as the victim of a violent epidemic, against whose virulence he struggled with so much power, that it was clear, but for this casualty, he might have been spared to this world even for several years.