1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hayley

Anonymous, "Hayley's Memoirs" Blackwood's Magazine 14 (September 1823) 303-08.



Hayley drivelled away on to a good, dull, old age, like most annuitants; and his death, which could not be looked on by anybody as a national calamity, must have been most agreeable to Mr. Colburn. That distinguished bibliopole, we believe, paid the ancient gentleman some hundreds per annum, on condition of receiving his precious Memoirs, to be published on his decease. Year after year did the memorialist tenaciously cling to life, as if through mere spite; but we have now to congratulate Mr. Colburn on his release from the defunct, and to wish him a good bargain of those posthumous square yards of autobiography. He is a spirited publisher, and annually gives us many excellent and amusing things; and it pleases us beyond measure to see the two huge mill-stones taken from off his neck at last. They were more than enough to have drowned many "a strong swimmer in his agony;" but they met with an unimmergible buoyancy in this case, and the worthy publisher reached the bank in safety.

William Hayley was, beyond all rivalry, the most distinguished driveller of his age. Devoted to literature upwards of threescore years — constantly reading or writing, or talking with reading and writing people, ambitions of literary fame, not without a sort of dozing industry, and at all times inspired with an unsuspecting confidence in his own powers, flattered by a pretty extensive circle of personal friends, petted by the Blues, and generally in high odour with the gentlemen of the periodical press — it is certainly rather a little singular, that never once, on any occasion whatever, great or small, did one original idea, or the semblance of one, accidentally find its way for a single moment into his head. He had an eye for common-places; and in his hands Cicero himself prosed away like a moral essayist in the Lady's Magazine. Delighted, as he appears to have been, in perusing book after book in his well-selected library at Eastham, yet, in good truth, the finest spirits of ancient and modern times were little better than mere dolts — logs — like himself; for he was utterly incapable of seeing anything worth seeing in them; and he never quotes a good author, but either to shew that he misunderstood him, or that he had selected the passage on account of its inanity, or some felt resemblance to the character of his own thought. He is the most nerveless of all our English writers. Although a man of an extremely bad temper, he had not the slightest power of satire. No sooner died one of his friends, than he gave orders for a comfortable dinner — saw the fire well fed, and then, over his pint of port and filberts, he passed the evening in writing an elegy or epitaph on the deceased. Nothing could occur of the least notoriety that he did not forthwith turn into verse; and had London been destroyed utterly by fire or earthquake, he would have been at his octo-syllabics, and out with an Epistle to Lady A. before putting on his night-cap! His elegies, epitaphs, amatory verses, letters, comedies, tragedies, and epic poems, may be all read "promisky;" and by the alteration of a very few words here and there, be converted into each other sometimes with manifest advantage. There is a charade somewhere in these volumes, which we are positive we once read on a tombstone in a country church-yard.

It seems as if Mr. Hayley had been careful to preserve one temperature in his library, and that he always composed in a state of much bodily comfort. His mind has little or no part in the philosophical or poetical transactions of the day; and at the close of the poem, or letter, or essay, we exclaim, "There writes the well-dressed gentleman!" — It could not well have been otherwise. Had there been any wear and tear of mind, we should have been deprived of Hayley many years ago; but that system of continued and gentle bodily exercise which he took in his library, without any mental labour at all, no doubt conduced to the longevity of Mr. Colburn's annuitant. However, the most judicious rules for attaining extreme old age, can only carry a man a certain length. Even Hayley is dead at last; and a prodigious power of scribble is no more.

Mr. Hayley favours us with a short account of "his birth and infancy." He no doubt was present at the first, but could not have been in a situation to make any observations that might be depended upon. Of his infancy, he speaks thus: — "He happened to arrive in the world WHEN THE CITY THAT GAVE HIM BIRTH was full of terror and perturbation. It was in the famous year 45 — and his father raised a company of volunteers, called the Chichester Blues." — Mrs. Hayley, no way alarmed by the threats of a French invasion on the Sussex coast, refused to be taken to Portsmouth, and magnanimously produced our bantling bard in his — "native city." Captain H., however, unwilling to destroy the beauty of his lady's bosom, which we are assured he greatly admired, engaged a wet nurse; but, miserabile dictu! "by a fraud not uncommon among venal nurses, the person procured on this occasion was so deficient in the vital treasure in which she had pretended to abound, that her charge was nearly starved to death before the source of his decline was discovered." The anecdote is mentioned, as it may serve to enforce the eloquent admonitions which Rousseau, and Mr. Roscoe, in translating the Italian poem of Tansillo, have given to young mothers; and because it is also remarkable, "as the first of many hair-breadth escapes of life to which the infant William was destined in his mortal career."

Captain Hayley caught a cold on a field-day, which settled on his lungs, and carried him off prematurely; and so much for one whom our bard calls "the first of the Hayleys." His earliest school was a school of young ladies in Chichester; and "he often related with pleasure, that he received from the youngest of the three, a bright silver penny, as a reward of reading well; and it is a singular fact, that, in his sixty-third year, he had the pleasure of presenting to this lady, still conducting the school with cheerful health and perfect faculties, a recent edition of his Triumphs of Temper, printed at Chichester, as a memorial of his gratitude and regard towards the venerable teacher of his infancy." Soon afterwards he was removed to an academy at Kingston, where he had nearly kicked the bucket, and escaped with a shattered constitution, and, as it would seem, a debilitated intellect. He recovered, he says, from both; and before going to Eton, had a private tutor at Teddington. Here "a philosophic divine once amused him with a sight of Epsom Races through his telescope, and once displayed to him the circulation of blood in a frog." At twelve years of age he is sent to Eton, and gets such an infernal flogging, that he plans "an extensive moral and satirical poem, in several cantos, which he meant to entitle the Expulsion of the Rod." — He remained at Eton five years, and acquired the knack of writing Latin verses indifferently; and produced an Ode on the Birth of the Prince of Wales, which was inserted in the Cambridge Collection, and also in the Gentleman's Magazine. So much for the birth, infancy, and boyhood, of William Hayley, Esq.

He now entered himself of Trinity-Hall, Cambridge, where he resided pretty constantly for three years. "In the only two lecturers in Trinity-Hall, there was nothing to inspire awe or apprehension. The one lectured in civil law, and the other in Longinus." "As the Students of Trinity-Hall, under the plea of devoting themselves to the civil law, are-exempted from the public exercises of the university, and as Hayley left college without taking any degree, he never appeared as a disputant in the schools, but he often frequented them as a favourite amusement; for he had great pleasure in hearing the Latin language eloquently spoken by two moderators of his time, John Jebb and Richard Watson." — And so finished his university education.

On leaving Cambridge, he goes to live with his mother in Great Queen-street, Lincoln's-Inn-Fields. The house "had the advantage of a few trees in the little area behind it, which gave to the windows of the young poet's library, on the first floor, a pleasing appearance of verdure and retirement, as the house was lofty and commodious." He then makes a trip to Edinburgh, and studies fencing, horsemanship, and mathematics, in Auld Reekie; for the Modern Athens was at that time but a small concern. He sees Dr. Robertson, Dr. Cullen, Angelo, the Falls of the Clyde, and enjoys the humours of a Berwick smack — And of Scotland that is all he remembers, or had noticed, during a visit of several months.

We had forgot to mention, that, before going to Cambridge, the "Poet of Sussex" had fallen in love with a pretty girl named Fanny Page. They were in fact betrothed, and we were every moment expecting a wedding — when, all of a sudden, the bardling takes flight, and is off at a tangent. A most provoking mystification hangs over this affair. To be sure it is no business of ours to pry into the loves of Mr. Hayley's youth; but since he chooses to be communicative, and to make the public his confidante, he has no right to stop short, sport mum, and baulk a curiosity which he had himself excited and indulged. There is some talk about anonymous letters, and it is hard to know which party was jilted; but there is gross indelicacy in saying anything about the matter at all; and if there was to be an account of it, it should have been full and particular. If Hayley, at the age of twenty-one, was frightened out of his attachment by anonymous letters, nothing could be more despicable — But we presume his passion had evaporated in verse.

Meanwhile, the Poet of Sussex very dexterously transfers his affections from sweet Fanny Page to sweeter Eliza Ball, who had been the confidante in the former affair. "When Hayley first mentioned this new idea to his mother, the tenderness of maternal affection caught a severe alarm, concerning the deranged parent of the hapless but lovely Eliza. 'You know,' said Mrs. H. to her son, 'that this sweet girl is almost as dear to me as she can be to you, for I have loved her and her parents for many years; but, my dear William, before you resolve to marry, let me ask you one question. You know the mental calamity of her poor mother — what should you think of your own conduct, if, after you had made this delicate and charming creature your wife, you should ever see her sink into her mother's most afflicting disorder?' — 'My dear madam,' the fervent lover replied, 'I have asked my own heart the very question you have proposed to me so kindly; and I will tell you its immediate answer. In that case, I shall bless my God for having given me courage sufficient to make myself the legal guardian of the most amiable and most pitiable woman on earth.'" It will he seen afterwards how the selfish and heartless versifier adhered to his virtuous resolutions.

He speedily escorted her to the Deanery at Chichester, where they were both received as most welcome guests; and on the 23d October, 1769, the lovers were married in the Cathedral by the Bishop. That prelate, Sir William Ashburnham, had a voice and elocution peculiarly suited to sacred language. The poet civilly said to him, with great truth, on the close of the ceremony, 'It is really a high pleasure, my lord, to hear any part of the Prayer Book read by your lordship.' To which compliment he oddly answered, 'This is the worst service its the church.' He meant the worst for recital; but his conjugal vexations gave to his speech all the poignancy of an ambiguous expression."

"The Poet" goes to London with his young wife, and "determines to apply himself chiefly to dramatic composition." He waits upon Garrick with a tragedy, entitled the "Afflicted Father;" and an amusing enough account is given of the manager's efforts to get rid of the trash. "The manager assumed a face in which politeness vainly endeavoured to disguise his perplexity; and, with much embarrassment, he said, 'Why, faith, I have not been able to fix a day. I have been reconsidering the tragedy — it is most elegantly written — it is a charming composition to recite to a small circle — but I am afraid it is not calculated for stage effect. However, it shall certainly be played, if you desire it.' — 'O no! by no means,' mildly said the poet, with suppressed indignation at the duplicity of the manager; 'I shall instantly put it into my pocket; and I am very sorry, sir, that it has given you so much trouble.' Garrick burst again into a profusion of new civilities, and offers of the kindest good offices upon any future occasion. Mrs. Garrick seemed desirous of soothing the spirit of the poet by personal flattery; and the first hopes of this tragedy thus ended in a farce of adulation. It was a bitter disappointment to lose the fair prospect of seeing a favourite drama well played; but the mortification was felt much more severely by the wife and mother of the poet than by himself. During the hubble-bubble rejection of the tragedy by Garrick, the poet had felt a little like Ariosto, when scolded by his father, and instead of lamenting his own defects, he was struck with the idea, what a fine comic scene he could make of the important personage who was giving him a lecture. Indeed, a disappointed poet, with his deluded and angry friend, and a shuffling manager, and the manager's meddling wife, afforded ample materials for a comedy. But although the laughable group struck the fancy of Hayley in that point of view, he wrote nothing on the occasion, but employed his vivacity in soothing and cheering the vexed and irritated spirit of his Eliza, whose indignation had been peculiarly excited against Mrs. Garrick, as the manager had incautiously betrayed what ought to have been a secret of his wife, and was weak enough to say, that she thought the tragedy not pathetic. This appeared such an insult against the talents of her husband, as the feeling Eliza found it hardly possible to forgive; but a vexation of a more serious and important nature soon occupied the thoughts, and most grievously agitated the tender nerves, of that most pitiable sufferer. She was overwhelmed by a sudden discovery, that her father, though in good health, had ceased to be Dean of Chichester! The Dean had been prevailed upon to resign (rather in a dishonest way, we think) by his son-in-law and the surprise wounded the too vulnerable Eliza so deeply, that she passed the three first nights, after the intelligence had reached her, in tears, incessant tears! Her husband, though he felt also much indignation against the secrecy of the transaction, endeavoured to tranquillize her spirits; and their excellent friend Mr. Steele contributed much to this desirable effect, by some kind, judicious, and admirable letters." — Soon after the worthy ex-Dean died, and Hayley returned to his tragedies.

The "Syrian Queen," however, met with no better reception from Colman than the "Afflicted Father" from Garrick, and the Poet of Sussex was once more on a bed of nettles. "Feeling some degree of indignation that the doors of both theatres seemed to be shut against him, and persuaded by his own sensations that he had a considerable portion of poetic fire in his mind, he resolved to display it in a composition not subject to the caprice of managers, yet more arduous in its execution — in short, he intended to begin an Epic Poem." He intended that his Epic should be "a national work;" and his passion for freedom led him to choose for his heroes the Barons, and their venerable director the Archbishop Langton, "who, by a happy union of valour and wisdom, established the great charter." But he fell through his Epic, and England lost a "national work," by the Poet of Sussex. He, however, presented his country with a poetical Epistle "to the mild and elegant Stanislaus, King of Poland," and an "Ode to befriend the society of decayed musicians." The Ode, we are told, was "written in the little farm of Dandelion, near Margate, which has since been converted into a scene of public entertainment."

About this time, he made one of a party of pleasure, to visit the ship that had carried Cooke; and "he had found a bitter easterly wind blowing full on his face; but as his eyes had ever been remarkably strong, and had never suffered in any manner from long exertion in miniature painting, or in nightly reading, he was not aware how doubly they might suffer from that insidious enemy to organs so delicate, the east wind!" We accordingly have several pages about his "ocular sufferings." In the vicinity of Lyme, he meets with a boy of some distinction. "The youngest, afterwards the great William Pitt, was now a wonderful boy of 14, who eclipsed his brother in conversation, and endeared himself not a little to the Poet, by admiring a favourite horse which he then rode, of singular excellence," &c. "Hayley often reflected on the singular pleasure he had derived from his young acquaintance, regretting, however, that his own poetical reserve had prevented him imparting to the wonderful youth the epic poem he had begun on the liberty of the country."

Hayley now quitted London for good and all, and settled himself at his villa at Eastham. His mother died about this time, and he seized the opportunity of constructing two epitaphs, one in English verse, and the other in Latin prose. For a year or two (or to 1777-8) he visits and versifies away as usual, and doctors his eyes, still weak and inflamed. He next attempted Harris the manager, but he too rejected the offered play of the "Viceroy." He did from page 170 to page 209, in a disturbed and feverish sleep; but we think he informs us that he wrote an Epistle to Howard, another to Gibbon, Epistles on History, and the Triumphs of Temper, by the end of the year 1780.

But now comes matter of a somewhat graver cast; and we shall let Mr. Hayley speak for himself. — "Perhaps no man, on the point of removing from him a wife, with whom he felt it impossible to live, ever shewed more tender or more sincere anxiety to promote her ease, comfort, and welfare, to the utmost of his power, than Hayley manifested in conducting all this painful business.

"What he felt, and what his countenance proved him to have felt on the occasion, may be conjectured from some striking expressions of his intellectual and affectionate valet, Harry, which shall be reserved for the closing words of this chapter.

"The Poet, after receiving his Eliza in London, and remaining there with her a week, escorted her, on the 27th of April, to the house of their benevolent friend, Mrs. Beridge, in Derby. He remained in that town a few days, to provide its new inhabitant with a residence to her liking. — After bidding her adieu with much tenderness and anguish of heart, he threw himself into a post-chaise with his attendant Harry, who exclaimed to his master, as soon as they were off the stones: 'I thank God, sir, you are now got safe out of that town, for I have for many hours been afraid, that I should see you drop down dead in the midst of it.'"

Now, what have we to do with Hayley's domestic concerns, it may perhaps be asked by some consistent hater of personality, and lover of the Edinburgh Review — Nothing. But then he has thought proper to intersperse, throughout two enormous quarto volumes, ex-parte statements of what ought to have been held in sacred and inviolable silence for evermore. He has meanly, basely, and falsely striven to build up for himself a reputation for the finest feeling and most thoughtful humanity, at the expense of the most shameful violation of natural duties to the injured dead. The poor devil keeps incessantly drivelling and blubbering about his "pitiable Eliza," with whom he had not the love and the virtue to live, that he might sooth her sorrows; and does all he can to shew, that her caprices were such as not only to justify his living apart from her, but to demand it; and that for her sake he submitted to the painful sacrifice. But the heartless hypocrite cants confessed in every page; and every man, with a common human soul, will despise the impotent struggles which he makes to libel the character of his dead wife. Several of her letters are published, that he might have an opportunity of giving, we think, his own cold, conceited, epistolary effusions to the mother of his beloved child, at the time when he had shut his doors against her, and left her a prey to the disturbing thoughts that too often agitated her keenly affectionate, and most disinterested and forgiving heart. We had marked for quotation a number of passages fitted to expose the wretched creature, but they are too loathsome for the present Number. And pray, what right had Hayley to abandon his amiable and elegant wife to her misfortunes, whatever was their deplorable kind or degree, and to trundle maudlin along to Cowper, who was afflicted with a similar visitation? He had no right to whine and wail about the "Bard of Olney," for he had other sacred duties to perform, which he wickedly left unperformed; and there is no want of charity in affirming that mere vanity and egotism drew him to the couch of Cowper. He did not sit there as a Christian, but as a literary man; and all the while continued slavering forth his mawkish verses, till he seems occasionally to have made even himself sick. The truth is, that we have been seized with such a loathing disgust with this heartless, brainless versifier, that we must stop short with this very imperfect notice of his memorable Memoirs; but in a month or two, when the two millstones are sunk into the dam of oblivion, we shall probably give such extracts (accompanied with a few comments) as will justify us in the little we have said, and give us a still better opportunity for exposing the real worthlessness of this pretender, who certainly will henceforth rank at the very bottom of the scale of English drivellers.