1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Combe

Henry Crabb Robinson, 1809; Diary, Reminiscences, and Correspondence (1870; 1872) 153-54.



There is another person belonging to this period, who is a character certainly worth writing about; indeed, I have known few to be compared with him. It was on my first acquaintance with [John] Walter [of The Times] that I used to notice in his parlour a remarkably fine old gentleman. He was tall, with a stately figure and handsome face. He did not appear to work much with the pen, but was chiefly a gentleman. He was tall, and with a stately figure and handsome face. He did not appear to work much with the pen, but was chiefly a consulting man. When Walter was away he used to be more at the office, and to decide in the "dernier ressort." His name was W. Combe. It was not till after I had left the office that I learned what I shall now relate. At this time and until the end of his life he was an inhabitant of the King's Bench Prison, and when he came to Printing-House Square it was only by virtue of a day rule. I believe that Walter offered to release him from prison by paying his debts. This he would not permit, as he did not acknowledge the equity of the claim for which he suffered imprisonment. He preferred living on an allowance from Walter, and was, he said, perfectly happy. He used to be attended by a young man who was a sort of half-servant, half-companion. Combe had been for many years of his life a man of letters, and wrote books anonymously. One at least, utterly worthless, was for a time, by the aid of prints as worthless as the text, to be seen everywhere, — now only in old circulating libraries. This is The Travels of Dr. Syntax in search of the Picturesque. It is a long poem in eight-line verse; in external form something between Prior and Hudibras, but in merit with no real affinity to either. Combe wrote novels; one I recollect reading with amusement, — the German Gil Blas. He was also the author of the famous Letters of a Nobleman to his Son, generally ascribed to Lord Lyttelton. Amyot told me that he heard Wyndham speak of him. "I shall always have a kindness for old Combe," said Wyndham, for he was the first man that ever praised me, and when praise was therefore worth having." That was in Lord Lyttelton's Letters. Combe had, as I have said, the exterior of a gentleman. I understand that he was a man of fortune when young, and travelled in Europe, and even made a journey with Sterne; that he ran through his fortune, and took to literature, "when house and land were gone and spent," and when his high connections ceased to be of service. Of these connections, and of the adventures of his youth, he was very fond of talking, and I used to enjoy the anecdotes he told after dinner, until one day, when he had been very communicative, and I had sucked in all he related with greedy year, Fraser said, laughing, to Walter, "Robinson, you see, is quite a flat; he believes all old Combe says." — "I believe whatever a gentleman says till I have some reason to believe the contrary." — "Well, then," said Fraser, "you must believe nothing he says that is about himself. What he relates is often true, except that he makes himself the doer. He gives us well-known anecdotes, and only transfers the action to himself."

This, of course, was a sad interruption to my pleasure. I might otherwise have enriched these reminiscences with valuable facts about Sterne, Johnson, Garrick, Mrs. Siddons, and other worthies of the last generation.

This infirmity of old Combe was quite notorious. Amyot related to me a curious story which he heard from Dr. Parr. The Doctor was at a large dinner-party when Combe gave a very pleasant and interesting account of his building a well-known house on Keswick Lake; he went very much into details, till at last he cried out, "Why, what an impudent fellow you are! You have given a very true and capital account of the house, and I wonder how you learned it; but that house was built by my father; it was never out of the family, and is in my own possession at this moment." Combe was not in the least abashed, but answered, with the greatest nonchalance, "I am obliged to you for doing justice to the fidelity of my descriptions; I have no doubt it is your property, and I hope you will live long to enjoy it."