1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Lyttelton

Anna Brownell Jameson, "Lord Lyttelton" Loves of the Poets (1829; 1857) 358-67.



LORD LYTTELTON has told us in a very sweet line, "How much the wife is dearer than the bride." But his Lucy Fortescue deserves more than a mere allusion, en passant. That Lord Lyttelton is still remembered and read as a poet, is solely for her sake: it is she who has made the shades of Hagley classic ground, and hallowed its precincts by the remembrance of the fair and gentle being, the tender woman, wife, and mother, who in the prime of youth and loveliness, melted like a creature of air and light from her husband's arms, "And left him on this earth disconsolate!" That the verses she inspired are still popular, is owing to the power of truth, which has here given lasting interest to what were otherwise mediocre. Lord Lyttelton was not much of a poet; but his love was real; its object was real, beautiful, and good: thus buoyed up, in spite of his own faults and the change of taste, he has survived the rest of the rhyming gentry of his time, who wrote epigrams on fans and shoe-buckles, — songs to the Duchess of this and Countess of that — and elegies to Miras, Delias, and Chloes.

Lucy Fortescue, daughter of Hugh Fortescue, Esq., of Devonshire, and grand-daughter of Lord Aylmer, was born in 1718. She was about two-and-twenty when Lord Lyttelton first became attached to her, and he was in his thirty-first year: in person and character, she realized all lie had imagined in his "Advice to Belinda."

Without, all beauty — and all peace within....
Blest is the maid, and worthy to be blest,
Whose soul, entire by him she loves possest,
Feels every vanity in fondness lost,
And asks no power, but that of pleasing most:
Hers is the bliss, in just return to prove
The honest warmth of undissembled love;
For her, inconstant man might cease to range,
And gratitude forbid desire to change.

To the more peculiar attributes of her sex,beauty and tenderness, — she united all the advantages of manner, — "Polite as she in courts had ever been;" and wit, — the only wit that becomes a woman,—

That temperately bright
With inoffensive light
All pleasing shone, nor ever past
The decent bounds that wisdom's sober hand
And sweet benevolence's mild command,
And bashful modesty before it cast.

Her education was uncommon for the time; for then, a woman, who to youth and elegance and beauty, united a familiar acquaintance with the literature of her own country, French, Italian, and the classics, was distinguished among her sex. She had many suitors, and her choice was equally to her own honor and that of her lover. Lord Lyttelton was not rich; his father, Sir Thomas Lyttelton, being still alive. He had, perhaps, never dreamed of the coronet which late in life descended on his brow: and far from possessing a captivating exterior, he was extremely plain in person, "of a feeble, ill-compacted figure, and a meagre sallow countenance." But talents, elegance of mind, and devoted affection, had the influence they ought to have, and generally do possess, in the mind of a woman. We are told that our sex's "earliest, latest care, — our heart's supreme ambition," is "to be fair." Even Madame de Stael would have given half her talents for half Madame Recamier's beauty! and why? because the passion of our sex is to please and to be loved; and men have taught us, that in nine cases out of ten we are valued merely for our personal advantages: they can scarce believe that women, generally speaking, are so indifferent to the mere exterior of a man; — that it has so little power to interest their vanity or affections. Let there be something for their hearts to honor, and their weakness to repose on, and feeling and imagination supply the rest. In this respect, the "gentle lady married to the Moor," who saw her lover's visage in his mind, is the type of our sex; — the instances are without number. The Frenchman triumphs a little too much en petit maitre, who sings,

Grands Dieux, combien elle est jolie!
Et moi, je suis, je suis si laid!

He might have spared his exultation: if he had sense, and spirit, and tenderness, he had all that is necessary to please a woman, who is worthy to be pleased.

Personal vanity in a woman, however misdirected, arises from the idea, that our power with those we wish to charm, is founded on beauty as a female attribute; it is never indulged but with a reference to another — it is a means, not an end. Personal vanity in a man is sheer unmingled egotism, and an unfailing subject of ridicule and contempt with all women — be they wise or foolish.

To return from this long tirade to Lucy Fortescue. — After the usual fears and hopes, the impatience and anxious suspense of a long courtship, Lord Lyttelton won his Lucy, and thought himself blest — and was so. Five revolving years of happiness seemed pledges of its continuance, and "the wheels of pleasure moved without the aid of hope:" it was at the conclusion of the fifth year, he wrote the lines on the anniversary of his marriage, in which he exults in his felicity, and in the possession of a treasure, which even then, though he knew it not, was fading in his arms.

Whence then this strange increase of joy?
He, only he can tell, who, matched like me,
(If such another happy man there be,)
Has by his own experience tried
How much the wife is dearer than the bride!

Six months afterwards, his Lucy was seized with the illness of which she died in her twenty-ninth year, leaving three infants, the eldest not four years old. As there are people who strangely unite, as inseparable, the ideas of fiction and rhyme, and doubt the sincerity of her husband's grief, because he wrote a monody on her memory, he shall speak for himself in prose. The following is an extract from his letter to his father, written two days before her death.

"I believe God supports me above my own strength, for the sake of my friends who are concerned for me, and in return for the resignation with which I endeavor to submit to his will. If it please Him, in his infinite mercy, to restore my dear wife to me, I shall most thankfully acknowledge his goodness; if not, I shall most humbly endure his chastisement, which I have too much deserved. These are the sentiments with which my mind is replete; but as it is still a most bitter cup, how my body will bear it, if it must not pass from me, it is impossible for me to foretell; but I hope the best. — Jan. 17th, 1742."

I imagine Dr. Johnson meant a sneer at Lord Lyttelton, when he says laconically, — "his wife died, and he solaced himself by writing a long monody on her memory." — In these days we might naturally exclaim against a widowed husband who should solace himself by apostrophes to the Muses and Graces, and bring in the whole Aonian choir, — Pindus and Castalia, Aganippe's fount, and Thespian vales; the Clitumnus and the Illissus, and such Pagan and classical embroidery. — What should we have thought of Lord Byron's famous "Fare thee well," if conceived in this style? — but such was the poetical vocabulary of Lord Lyttelton's day: and that he had not sufficient genius and originality to rise above it is no argument against the sincerity of his grief. Petrarch and his Laura (apropos to all that has ever been sung or said of love for five hundred years) are called in a very commonplace strain, from their "Elysian bowers;" and then follow some lines of real and touching beauty, because they owe nothing to art or effort, but are the immediate result of truth and feeling. He is still apostrophizing Petrarch.

What were, alas! thy woes compar'd to mine?
To thee thy mistress in the blissful band
Of Hymen never gave her hand;
The joys of wedded love were never thine!
In thy domestic care
She never bore a share;
Nor with endearing art
Would heal thy wounded heart
Of every secret grief that fester'd there:
Nor did her fond affection on the bed
Of sickness watch thee, and thy languid head
Whole nights on her unwearied arm sustain,
And charm away the sense of pain:
Nor did she crown your mutual flame
With pledges dear, and with a father's tender name....

How in the world, to me a desert grown,
Abandon'd and alone,
Without my sweet companion can I live?
Without her lovely smile,
The dear reward of every virtuous toil,
What pleasures now can pall'd Ambition give?

One would wish to think that Lord Lyttelton was faithful to the memory of his Lucy: but he was neither more nor less than man; and in the impatience of grief, or unable to live without that domestic happiness to which his charming wife had accustomed him, he married again, about two years after her death, and too precipitately. His second choice was Elizabeth Rich, eldest daughter of Sir Robert Rich. Perhaps he expected too much; and how few women could have replaced Lucy Fortescue! The experiment proved a most unfortunate one, and added bitterness to his regrets. He devoted the rest of his life to politics and literature.

About ten years after his second marriage, Lord Lyttelton made a tour into Wales with a gay party. On some occasion, while they stood contemplating a scene of uncommon picturesque beauty, he turned to a friend, and asked him, with enthusiasm, whether it was possible to behold a more pleasing sight? Yes, answered the other — the countenance of the woman one loves! Lord Lyttelton shrunk, as if probed to the quick; and after a moment's silence, replied pensively — "Once, I thought so!"

Lord Lyttelton brings to mind his friend and patron, Frederick, Prince of Wales, (grandfather of the present King.) From the impression which history has given of his character, no one, I believe, would suspect him of being a poet, though he was known as the patron of poets. He sometimes amused himself with writing French and English songs, &c., in imitation of the Regent Due d'Orleans. But, assuredly, it was not in imitation of the Regent he chose his own wife for the principal subject of his ditties. In the same manner, and in the same worthy spirit of imitation of the same worthy person he tried hard to be a libertine, and laid siege to the virtue of sundry maids of honor; perferring all the time, in his inmost soul, his own wife to the handsomest among her attendants. His flirtations with Lady Archibald Hamilton and Miss Vane had not half the grace or sincerity of some of his effusions to the Princess, whom he tenderly loved, and used to call, with a sort of pastoral gallantry, "ma Sylvie." One of his songs has been preserved by that delicious retailer of court-gossip, Horace Walpole; and I copy it from the Appendix to his Memoirs, without agreeing in his flippant censure.

SONG.
'Tis not the languid brightness of thine eyes,
That swim with pleasure and delight,
Nor those fair heavenly arches which arise
O'er each of them, to shade their light:—
'Tis not that hair which plays with every wind,
And loves to wanton o'er thy face,
Now straying o'er thy forehead, now behind
Retiring with insidious grace:—
'Tis not the living colors over each,
By nature's finest pencil wrought,
To shame the fresh-blown rose and blooming peach,
And mock the happiest painter's thought;
But 'tis that gentle mind, that ardent love
So kindly answering my desire,—
That grace with which you look, and speak, and move!
That thus have set my soul on fire.