1852 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Taylor Esq.

William Jerdan, In Autobiography of William Jerdan (1852-53) 2:70-75.



The fact is not to be concealed that Mr. Herriot the original editor and principal proprietor of the journal [The Sun], Mr. Robert Clarke, my precursor, and a considerable proprietor, did attribute the decline of the paper to Mr. Taylor's unfitness to take a lead in such a publication, and were anxious to change the system. For this I was sought and brought in and, always faithful to my own determined independence, I became a partner, receiving one-tenth share, and taking an allowance of between five and six hundred pounds a-year for editing, with uncontrolled and uncontrollable authority; Mr. Herriot retaining five shares, Mr. Clarke three, and Mr. Taylor one, like myself. Thus we went on harmoniously for awhile, till in an unlucky — as far as I was concerned, an injurious moment — Messrs. Herriot and Clarke thought fit to sell their shares to Mr. Taylor, forgetting that but for their first intention to supersede his deteriorating writings, I would not have been there — and thus making him, to an immense extent, the chief proprietor, and me in that sense, an underling, yet in all else a political and literary despot.

When this apple of discord was thrown in, it may readily be conceived what it must lead to. Taylor, proprietor of nine-tenths of a rising journal, for it had risen several hundreds under my management, presumed that he had a right, at once, to annul my contract, insert what he thought fit, and abolish the Dictator!

Such was the origin of our contention. Taylor would write friendly, or what are called puff, notices of parties, so objectionable to my notions of (to say the least) public propriety, that I would not publish them. Whether the immoralities were lofty, dramatic, or peculiar, I resisted, and — let me make a clean breast so far — whatever my own fallings-off might be, I never consented to the promulgation of an opinion or sentiment in the press under any direction, that could deprave the moral obligations of society, or sully the purity of innocence. But before I go on, I must beg leave to sketch a portrait of John Taylor, who was a remarkable individual in his day, and has left behind him memorials, not only of curious, but of lasting interest.

John Taylor was the son, or it may be grandson, of (temporally) a yet more celebrated sire, the Chevalier Taylor, of whom, notwithstanding his fame, I will venture to guess, not one in a thousand of my readers ever heard. Yet he was in his time a glorious quack oculist, or "Opthalmiater," as he styled himself, though—

Fickle fame
Has blotted from her rolls his name,
And twined round some new minion's head
The faded wreath for which he bled.

His three volumes in one, 8vo, 1761, is so curious, that I will give a brief notice of it [in an appendix].

John Taylor, of The Sun, was a singular character, and known to "all the world:" that is to say, the London world of quidnuncs, playgoers, performers, artists, literati, and the, moving ranks of every-day society. He was a very amusing companion, exceedingly facetious, full of anecdote, and endless in witticisms and puns. Yet mixing, as he did, with men of great information, and hearing, of necessity, much of solid intelligence and instructive observation, his mind was of such a cast that he either wanted perception to appreciate the value of such intercourse, or it made too slight an impression upon him to he remembered. In fact, his whole being was entranced upon the stage, in the theatre and theatrical doings and gossip, and in the actors and actresses, with nearly all of whom he lived in intimacy. Even the foremost of these, it is well understood, are not unsusceptible of flattery, and Taylor knew how to fool them to the top of their bent, and be a mighty favourite in consequence. Of prologues and epilogues he was a most prolific writer, and for versification on all sorts of subjects, he might have said with Linnaeus, "Nulla dies sine linea;" only for "line" reading ''stanza'' or "verse." His facility of composition was enormous. Tell him what you would, and suggest that it was a nice thing for a poem, and off he would rush to his room, get out his rhyming dictionary, and in a very short space of time, present you with the work done, cut and dry, generally, tolerably neat, and occasionally a successful hit. In this way was the clever and justly popular story of Monsieur Tonson written, and other tales, such as Frank Hayman and the Lion, hardly less entertaining, which will make his name known to succeeding generations. A volume of these effusions was published by John Murray in 1812, and would, in my opinion, be well worthy of a reprint. In person, my co-partner was as peculiar as in intellect. His features were of a form which resembled an animated death's heal covered with thin muscles and skin; his body rather tapered from the haunch to the shoulder in the sugar leaf fashion; and below, his limbs were muscular and well built, as his casing in knee-breeches and silk stockings was properly calculated to display. This embodiment, his frequent associate, the humorous George Colman, described in his own laughable manner by nicknaming Taylor, "Merry-death" (Meredith, most appropriate to his physiognomy,) and declaring that "Taylor's body would do for any legs, and his legs for any body!"

It is difficult to portray the mental structure contained in this casket; for it was a congeries of contradictions; which I can only account for by re-stating that Mr. Taylor was a being of the artificial stage, not of the actual living world. He was acute, yet trifling; experienced, yet foolish; knowing in one sense, yet absurdly plotting as in a play; and looking for surprises and denouements, as if the game of life were a comedy or a farce. Over his passions he had no control, and though habitually good humoured, his recurrent phrensies were at once ludicrous and afflicting. At the wildest time of our differences he would cast himself down upon his knees, clasp his hands, gnash his teeth, and imprecate curses on my head for five minutes together, till some one humanely lifted him up and led him away to privacy. This incongenial merriment and outrageous outbreaks of temper alternated, and actions and effects, as in everything else, were redolent of the theatrical element, and had nothing in common with the common sense of mankind. In my case his disorder became a complete monomania. He thought of nothing, he talked of nothing, he wrote of nothing, he dreamed of nothing but my villainy and oppression; he worried ministers with them, he distressed friends, he bored the town, he disturbed the office, and he ruined the paper. I know not if I have succeeded in conveying an intelligible idea of the individual with whom it was my luckless lot to be so closely connected. I have truly represented his smartness, his talents, and his ability; nature had not been niggardly towards him; but his perversion behind the footlights and in the coulisses, had sadly defeated nature, and made him the extraordinary compound I have tried to depict. It will hardly be believed, and I would scarcely dare to state it, but there are many living witnesses to the fact, that Mr. Taylor's ignorance of matters familiar even to uneducated persons and children was utterly astonishing, and could hardly be believed possible to exist in unison with such faculties as he was ha reality blessed with. It was a psychological enigma. On one occasion when we were disputing about some political article, in the presence of Mr. Clarke (all whose efforts, as well as those of other friends, were employed in vain to reason with Taylor, and procure a temperate compromise), I seriously offered to resign to him the exposition of the Sun politics if he could, at the moment, and without reference to a book on geography, repeat the names of the capitals of the principal nations in Europe. He could no more have done this, as I was quite aware, than he could have flown to them and, of course, he did not accept the challenge. Another instance of this remarkable discrepancy occurs to me. Mrs. Taylor, an amiable and excellent lady of good family in Scotland, went on a visit to that country, by the usual mode of conveyance, a Leith smack upon which Mr. Taylor, who be-rhymed almost every incident, wrote as usual a short poem. It commenced — "Hail, Sister Isles!" And it was with much argument in reference to the map he could be persuaded that England and Scotland were but one island, and that Mrs. Taylor might have gone by land, although she chose to go by sea.

I beg readers to credit me when I declare on my veracity and honour, that I have drawn this curious sketch of character, and recorded these circumstances, with no design to caricature or disparage the original. His idiosyncrasy was, as I have said, a perplexing study and whilst I have attempted to illustrate it, I have not failed, I trust, to preserve a memorial of time superior and laudable qualities with which the irrational and extravagant of his temperament and disposition were (for both our interests) unhappily combined.