1817 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir James Bland Burges

William Beloe, in The Sexagenarian: or Recollections of a Literary Life (1817; 1818) 2:30-35.



This occurrence, and this individual, gave a decided bias to the future pursuits, studies, views, connections, and prospects of the Sexagenarian. The influence was like that of an ascendant star, nor ever did one dark cloud interpose between this star and the object, which with complacency and affection, contemplated its wild and benignant aspect. Two streams united, which together formed a river, gentle but far from dull, and full without overflowing. Quickness of conception on one side, was tempered by judicious deliberation on the other; luxuriance of expression was chastened by classical accuracy, and extreme facility of communicating ideas, was moderated and reined in, by a salutary sobriety and reserve.

At first, indeed there seemed something like an impassable gulf between the parties, formed by the undisguised exhibition of the qualities of mind by which they were severally distinguished. The first rencontre, for so it may be called, happened at the period, when the popularity of Mrs. Siddons, was at its height. The Sexagenarian, warm, impetuous and living in much intimacy with the family of Mr. and Mrs. Yates, of theatrical memory, contended for the superiority of his friend and favourite, and considered the excellence of Mrs. Siddons, as solely consisting in the knowledge of her art without exciting or displaying the great features and impressive emotions of nature. On the other hand, it was argued with equal pertinacity, that Mrs. Siddons had much higher and stronger claims to admiration, and that her popularity was the result of feeling, co-operating with judgment. As usual, neither party was convinced by the argument of his opponent, and they parted not very well with one another. But the this jarring of sentiments soon wore off, and disappeared altogether. Similar studies, and objects, induced an intimacy, which was never interrupted but by the cold hand of death.

Something more is to be said of this personage.

Born of highly respectable connections, he was educated at a public school, where his talents soon inspired respect, and his facetiousness and wit, rendered him exceedingly popular. This spirit never forsook him through life, for he invariably continued to animate the society of which he was a part, by incessant sallies of cheerfulness, good humour, and the very best sort of conversation. His talents, however, were of a still higher order, and perhaps, there was no situation within the scope of his ambition, which he was not qualified to fill with dignity, and to the public advantage. He was a sound and excellent scholar, as the term is generally understood, but he was, moreover, distinguished by very extensive general knowledge and acquirements.

He several times claimed the public attention as an author, and the characteristic features of whatever he wrote, was strong sense, sound judgment, and a perfect knowledge of his subject. These solid and sober qualities proved an admirable cheek upon the too great quickness, extreme vivacity, and rapidity of conception, which distinguished his friend, who, for a term of no very short continuance, was also his coadjutor.

In the progress of a somewhat extended life, he filled different stations, and he discharged the duties of them all, with the most exemplary fidelity and honour. Why was he not appointed to the exercise of functions still more elevated and more dignified? This is a question not very easy to be answered. He might if he had thought proper. If he had condescended to use the ordinary means, which individuals similarly circumstanced, practise, and generally with success, there was nothing in the line of his profession too lofty for his pretensions, and which the connections and friendships he had formed, might not easily have procured. But though not more proud than became a man so endowed, and so distinguished, he had not the flexibility, which in the present condition of society, they who have good things for barter, invariably require of those who want them. He scorned to flatter and bow the knee to those, with whom he had entered life on the level, and had continued to associate with on the same terms of manly equality, but whom better fortune, or greater address, not superior merit, or stronger claims, had raised to the height of worldly honours. Though not without ambition, he had a sort of proud and manly disregard of lucrative situations, merely considered as such, and was not at all inclined to remit his ordinary habits, or to deviate from his accustomed paths, in pursuit of them.

He did indeed attain, and by force of merit only, the means of passing through life, with great respect and honour, in possession of all its comforts, and with not a few of its best advantages. These, he enjoyed to the fullest extent, participating in them, with no very limited circle of old and long-tried friends. What has been said of his claims to worldly distinctions, is equally applicable to his mental endowments. His learning and his talents were equal to any undertaking. He would have been a good historian, if he had directed his mind to that branch of learning. A poet he was, and in the epigrammatic part of poetry was excelled by very few; he was well acquainted with the niceties and subtleties of grammar, and of his own language more particularly. He was by no means disputative, but, if occasion required, was an expert controversial writer. To finish all, he was a critic of no ordinary precision and acuteness.

That he had faults, it is not pretended to deny; but they inflicted no wounds. A sort of coldness and reserve of manner was frequently considered as the result of pride, and sometimes excited unfavourable impressions; but it was not pride, and very soon melted into familiarity. Among his intimate friends it was impossible to he more communicative, facetious, and agreeable. But it is time to have done.

The above tribute is paid from a full and warm heart. It is the result of long, very long attachment, esteem, and gratitude of a friendship never interrupted; of an intercourse which a continued series of years cemented. Can it be necessary to say more?