1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Steevens

Thomas Frognall Dibdin, in Bibliomania, 1809; Nichols, Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 2:659-62n.



"The Library," says Mr. Dibdin, of this extraordinary Critic and Collector "was sold by auction in the year 1800; and, being formed rather after the model of Mason's , than of Farmer's, it was rich to an excess in choice and rare pieces. Nor is it an uninteresting occupation to observe, in looking among the prices, the enormous sums which were given for some volumes, that cost Steevens not a twentieth part of their produce: — but which, comparatively with their present worth, would bring considerably higher prices! What arduous contention, 'Renardine shifts,' and bold bidding; what triumph on the one part, and vexation on the other, were exhibited at the book sale! while the Auctioneer, like Jove looking calmly down upon the storm which he himself had raised, kept his even temper; and 'ever and anon' dealt out a gracious smile amidst all the turbulence that surrounded him! Memorable aera! — the veteran collector grows young again in thinking upon the valour he then exhibited, and the juvenile collector talks 'braggartly' of other times — which he calls the golden days of the Bibliomania, when he reflects upon his lusty efforts in securing an Exemplar Stevensianum!"

After filling nearly twelve pages with the prices of the rarer articles, Mr. Dibdin proceeds, "It remains to say a few words of the celebrated Collector of this very curious library. The wit, taste, and classical acquirements of George Steevens, are every where recorded and acknowledged. As an editor of his beloved Shakspeare, he stands unrivalled; for he combined, with much recondite learning and indefatigable research, a polish of style, and vigour of expression, which are rarely found united In the same person. His definitions are sometimes both happy and singular; and his illustrations of antient customs and manners such, as might have been expected from a head so completely furnished, and a hand so thoroughly practised. I will not say that George Steevens has evinced the learning of Selden upon Drayton, or of Bentley upon Phalaris; nor did his erudition, in truth, rise to the lofty and commanding pitch of these his predecessors: nor does there seem much sense or wit in hunting after every pencil-scrap which this renowned bibliomaniac committed to paper — as some sadly-bitten book collectors give evidence of. If I have not greatly misunderstood the characteristics of Steevens's writings, they are these: wit, elegance, gaiety, and satire, combined with almost perfect erudition in English dramatic antiquities. Let us give a specimen of his classical elegance in dignifying a subject which will be relished chiefly by Grangerites. Having learnt that a copy of Skelton's verses on Elinour Rummin, the famous Ale-wife of England, with her portrait in the title-page, was in the library of the Cathedral of Lincoln (perhaps formerly Captain Coxe's copy); he prevailed on the late Dean, Sir Richard Kaye, to bring the book to London; but as it was not suffered to go from the Dean's possession, Mr. Steevens was permitted to make a fac-simile drawing of the title, at the Dean's house in Harley-street. This drawing he gave to Richardson the printseller, who engraved and published it among the copies of scarce portraits to illustrate Granger. The acquisition of this rarity produced from him the following Jeu d' Esprit; the merit of which can only be truly appreciated by those who had the pleasure of knowing the eminent Portrait Collectors therein mentioned, and whose names are printed in capital letters.

ELEANORA REDIVIVA.
To seek this Nymph among the glorious dead,
Tir'd with his search on earth, is GULSTON fled:—
Still for these charms enamour'd MUSGRAVE sighs:
To clasp these beauties ardent BINDLEY dies:
For these (while yet unstaged to public view;)
Impatient BRAND o'er half the kingdom flew;
These, while their bright ideas round him play,
From Classic WESTON force the Roman lay:—
Oft too, my STORER, Heaven has heard thee swear:
Not Gallia's murdered Queen was half so fair:
"A new Europa!" cries the exulting BULL,
"My Granger now, I thank the gods, is full:"—
Even CRACHERODE'S self, whom passion rarely move,
At this soft shrine has deign'd to whisper love.—
Haste then, ye swains, who RUMMING'S form adore,
Possess our Eleanour, and sigh no more.

It must be admitted that this is at once elegant and happy.

"We will now say somewhat of the man himself. Mr. Steevens lived in a retired and eligibly situated house, just on the rise of Hampstead Heath. It was paled in, and had, immediately before it, a verdant lawn skirted with a variety of picturesque trees. Formerly, this house had been a tavern, which was known by the name of The Upper Flask; and which my fair readers, (if a single female can have the courage to peruse these bibliomaniacal pages) will recollect to have been the same to which Richardson sends Clarissa in one of her escapes from Lovelace. Here Steevens lived embosomed in books, shrubs, and trees: being either too coy, or too unsociable, to mingle with his neighbours. His habits were indeed peculiar; not much to be envied or imitated; as they sometimes betrayed the flights of a madman, and sometimes the asperities of a cynic. His attachments were warm, but fickle both in choice and duration. He would frequently part from one, with whom he had lived on terms of close intimacy, without any assignable cause; and his enmities, once fixed, were immovable. There was, indeed, a kind of venom in his antipathies; nor would he suffer his ears to be assailed, or his heart to relent, in favour of those against whom he entertained animosities, however capricious and unbounded. In one pursuit only was he consistent: one object only did he woo with an inflexible attachment; and that object was Dame Drama. I have sat behind him, within a few years of his death, and watched his sedulous attention to the performances of strolling players, who used to hire a public room in Hampstead; and towards whom his gallantry was something more substantial than mere admiration and applause: for he would make liberal presents of gloves, shoes, and stockings — especially to the female part of the company. His attention, and even delight, during some of the most wretched exhibitions of the, dramatic art, was truly surprizing; but he was then drooping under the pressure of age, and what passed before him might serve to remind him of former days, when his discernment was quick, and his judgment matured.

"It is, however, but justice to this distinguished bibliomaniac to add, that, in his literary attachments he was not influenced by merely splendid talents or exalted rank. To my predecessor Herbert (for whose memory I may be allowed, at all times, to express a respectful regard) Steevens seems to have shewn marked attention. I am in possession of more than a dozen original letters from him to this Typographical Antiquary, in which he not only evinces great friendliness of disposition, but betrays an unusual solicitude about the success of Herbert's labours; and, indeed, contributes towards it by nearly a hundred notices of rare and curious books which were unknown to, or imperfectly described by, Herbert himself:"—

Of these Mr. Dibdin gives several excellent specimens; after which he thus concludes. "It is now time to bid farewel to the subject of this tremendous note: and most sincerely do I wish I could 'draw the curtain' upon it, and say 'good night' with as much cheerfulness and satisfaction as Atterbury did upon the close of his professional labours. — But the latter moments of Steevens were moments of mental anguish. He grew not only irritable, but outrageous; and, in full possession of his faculties, he raved in a manner which could have been expected only from a creature bred up without notions of morality or religion. Neither complacency nor 'joyful hope' soothed his bed of death. His language was, too frequently, the language of imprecation; and his wishes and apprehensions such, as no rational Christian can think upon without agony of heart. Although I am not disposed to admit the whole of the testimony of the good woman who watched by his bed-side, and paid him, when dead, the last melancholy attentions of her office — although my prejudices (as they may be called) will not allow me to believe that the windows shook, and that strange noises and deep groans were heard at midnight in his room — yet no creature of common sense (and this woman possessed the quality in an eminent degree) could mistake oaths for prayers, or boisterous treatment for calm and gentle usage. If it be said — why 'draw his frailties from their drear abode?' the answer is obvious, and, I should hope, irrefragable. A duty, and a sacred one too, is due To THE LIVING. Past examples operate upon future ones: and posterity ought to know, in the instance of this accomplished scholar and literary antiquary, that neither the sharpest wit, nor the most delicate intellectual refinement, can, alone, afford a man 'PEACE AT THE LAST.' The vessel of human existence must be secured by other anchors than these, when the storm of Death approaches!"