1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Barnes

Horace Smith, in "A Graybeard's Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance" New Monthly Magazine 81 (1847) 418-20.



My next brief notice will be devoted to Thomas Barnes, one of my literary acquaintance, whose name will probably be quite unknown to the reader, though his writings, I suspect, have been much more extensively read than those of any other author I have already mentioned, or may hereafter introduce, for he became for many years one of the editors of the Times newspaper, and may claim, I believe, the very questionable honour of being the old and original "Salmoneus," or Birmingham "thunderer" of that journal. Well educated, a good classical scholar, possessing a clear and vigorous intellect, with a ready command of nervous language, he would have been eminently qualified for his office, if his prejudices, his petulance, and his want of refinement, as well as of consistent political principle, had not betrayed him into tergiversations, which he endevoured to defend by vulgar and violent invective. It was said of Dr. Johnson, that when his pistol missed fire, he knocked you down with the butt-end; and it might have been urged against Barnes, that, when his arguments failed to make a hit, he betook himself to brickbats and bludgeons. Readers there are, how, when perusing such ruffian sallies, will sapiently exclaim, "What power, what strength, what command of language!" but they might always witness similar displays, and in a still higher perfection, by betaking themselves to Bilingsgate....

While I was part proprietor of the Champion weekly newspaper, he was engaged to write a series of critical essays on our leading poets and novelists, which he did, under the appropriate signature of STRADA, with whose Prolusiones the scholastic reader will not be unfamiliar. The series embraced most of the eminent bards, living and dead, from Campbell and Rogers back to Milton, Shakspeare, and Spencer: but of the novelists the list was scanty, beginning and ending, if I mistake not, with Mrs. Opie and Miss Edgeworth. These papers displayed great acumen as well as a delicate taste; and though the writer, entertaining very decided opinions as to the merits of the unfavourable authors, expressed very decided opinions as to the merits of the different authors, expressed them with a correspondent frankness, his unfavourable verdicts were free from the rude dogmatism and scurrility that disgraced his angry ebullitions when he became "the thunderer."

As these papers excited a good deal of attention, and were deemed highly advantageous to the paper, it became a matter of importance to secure their regular appearance, an object not easily attained with a writer whose habits were rarely temperate and never methodical. After several complaints of his irregularity, he himself suggested a scheme by which we might be guaranteed against future disappointment; and it proved perfectly successful, though it did not at first present a very promising appearance. Writing materials were placed upon a table by his bed-side, together with some volumes of the author whom he was to review, for the purpose of quotations, for he was already fully imbued with the characteristics, and conversant with the works of all our great writers. At his customary hour he retired to rest, sober or not, as the case might be, leaving orders to be called at four o'clock in the morning, when he arose with a bright, clear, and vigorous intellect, and, immediately applying himself to his task, achieved it with a completeness and rapidity that few could equal, and which none, perhaps, could have surpassed. Be it recorded, to his infinite praise, that in later life he must have totally conquered all the bad habits to which I have alluded, for perhaps there is no human occupation which requires more incessant industry and rigorous temperance than that of editor of the Times. Eventually he became one of the shareholders of that stupendous journal, and died, as I have heard, in the possession of a handsome fortune. If my memory fail me not, I first met him at a tenter-ground in Southwark, kept by a relation of Mr. Alsager, who subsequently became associated with him, as a contributor of the city article to the Times, and whose melancholy end will be fresh in the recollection of my readers.