1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Pinkerton

Robert Pearse Gillies, in Memoirs of a Literary Veteran (1851) 2:123-25.



Perhaps the less that I say of John Pinkerton the better, inasmuch as my notice of him cannot be very favourable. He became afterwards my frequent guest, and in the autumn of that year [1813] spent three months with us in the country. He had figured in the world as a poet, a bibliographer, historian, archaeologist, geographer, and geologist. It was by his two vols. of early Scottish poems, published from MSS. in the library of Magdalene College, Cambridge, that he was best known to me; and for the merits of this production alone I should have been willing to bear with or overlook his overweening egoism and numberless eccentricities, in consequence of which, when he left Edinburgh in 1814, there were but three individuals in the whole community with whom he remained on speaking terms, namely, Sir Walter Scott, Mr. Thomas Thomson, and my obscure self. He had ample worldly shrewdness (in pecuniary matters at least), great perseverance and power of research, was a fierce and uncompromising critic of all works, either in prose or verse, excepting his own; and for one who did not feel disposed to quarrel with his dictatorial manner and bizarre notions, his conversation, from its variety, afforded an inexhaustible stock of amusement.

In his capacity of critic sometimes he did not spare even himself, as when he remarked that at one period of his youth he had wished only to live so long as to complete and publish his volume entitled Rhymes, by Mr. Pinkerton, which he then thought a grand poetical achievement, but which he now regarded with contempt or pity. He had special notions about the perfection of art, and the duty which devolves on a poet in that particular. According to him, it was quite enough, in order to merit immortal honour, if an author, during his whole life-time, produced only one solitary sonnet deserving to be called good and perfect of its kind. As such, it must be moulded strictly on the Petrarchian model as to rhymes; for otherwise it was no sonnet at all, but merely a "quatuorzain."

"Pinkie Winkie" and I had differences of opinion, and arguments grounded thereon every day, yet we never quarrelled. Our mode of life in the country was regularly and pleasantly arranged. In the mornings we seldom met at all, his hour of breakfast being later than mine; but usually about twelve or one o'clock, at his suggestion, the carriage was brought to the door for an excursion to pay visits, or search after antiquities and geologistic specimens. I often found time to compose a sonnet whilst my venerable Mentor's thoughts were engrossed with Roman camps, Caledonian stations, green earth, plumb-pudding, agate, jasper, quartz, and hornblend. Some few of these sonnets he thought tolerable; but I cannot refer to any one, for they have all perished.