1830 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

George Colman the Younger

John Wilson, Review of Colman, Random Records; Blackwood's Magazine 28 (August 1830) 362-64.



We know not whether we are glad or sorry to find proved, beyond all contradiction or doubt, by these Random Records, a fact which we had all along shrewdly suspected, to wit, that George Colman the Younger is, "intus et in cute," one of the very poorest of all possible creatures. We suppose we must some where and some when or other, have either read, or seen acted, some of his trashy plays; but we cannot just now, by any effort of recollection, charge our memory with the names of any one of them, except it be Octavian, a farce, which it was the whim of John Kemble, Black John, the well-beloved, to get up as a tragedy, wherein he enacted the principal character with a certain grave humour, to our minds far more amusing than the drollest face-fun of the Cockney idol, Liston. For John, in his own way, was a sad wag. We have frequently heard old George Colman, junior, (for he was always younger than his father,) spoken of in town as an almost insupportably funny fellow, nay as a fellow "of rare mirth, and most excellent fancy," quite a Yorick; and Byron thought, or at least said, something to this effect, that at the genial board, as it is called, Colman was the wit of all wits, and that he scattered his pearls, we shall not say before whom, so profusely, that the multitude became oblivious to vulgar viands, in the divine enjoyment of that celestial food. Byron's authority in such matters is, we presume, a high one; and we wish the ancient buffoon to have the full benefit of it. But, then, Byron, when in a good humour, which fell upon him in fits, seemed, from some amiable constitutional weakness or another, to have been liable to be charmed by the most commonplace conversational powers that ever were suffered to drivel; and so indiscriminate, at such seasons, was his relish, that he swallowed alternately, with equal zest, the impertinencies of Leigh Hunt and the genialities of Scrope Davies. His Lordship, too, at such times, was much taken with certain sorts of wit in which the aged "Junior" is, we believe, esteemed a proficient, among the most obscene "facile princeps" — such, for example, as are displayed in those somewhat filthy facetiae, which, in his own coterie, were the glory of his manhood, and out of it one of the bugbears of the Society for the Suppression of Vice — BROAD-GRINS. We do not mean to insinuate that the table-talk of this indecent scoffer, now notoriously in his table-dotage, was equally distinguished by its grossness with the writings in which he wallowed, or that the poetry (poetry!!!) of his ripe, may not be beastlier than the prose of his rotten, age; but we mean to assert, if on no other foundation, even on the sole ground of these wretched "Random Records," that he is now, and always must have been, a low, vulgar, coarse, and shallow person, with some small chaff; perhaps, of the birth, but not one single grain of the breeding, of a gentleman. Indeed we are altogether at a loss to conjecture how he should ever have contrived to acquire, even in the company he kept, the fame of being so much as low-farcical; for his humour lies solely in a few pustulated expressions, which do not seem even to have been native to his constitution, but to have been inoculated into him skin-deep by a series of quacks with whom, from his boyish days, he had been familiar, "even to the very moment that they bade him tell it." There is something unhealthily fetid in all his jokes; in their nastiness his jeers absolutely stink in the nostrils; his sneers have all a rankest smell; and in reading his lucubrations — we know not how it may be with his body corporate in a room — we instinctively — though not given to be squeamish — rise and open the window, that the fresh air may be let in upon our sickness. Such company is far from being pleasant to the senses; and one is entitled to complain of it, we think, without any violation of good manners. It is not that we are disgusted, in the "Records" with much that is very immoral, but with all that is most mean. We cannot, perhaps, except in a grave mood, hate, but in every mood we must despise, the diseased driveller; — remember, we speak of him throughout as the author of Broad Grins, — and being, as it is well known, exceedingly humane, we should often pity him, did he not always claim our contempt. The only thing about him that occasionally wins our momentary liking, is an appearance of an easy and unfretful temper; but it does not seem ever to have been much tried, while it does seem to have been constantly coddled by a nursing and old-womanish vanity, and fed perpetually on pap. Still such a temper is not discreditable to him, though bordering on the silly; and we are satisfied with a shallow puddle, however foul it may be, for not presuming to be ruffled. Such a person might have been a fit hero for Hayley's Triumphs of Temper, if written on a somewhat different scheme. As a man, he is difficult to swallow, and impossible to stomach; but as a manager he was easy, and as a play-wright, he went down with gaping audiences, whose digestion is proverbial, and who sweetly swallow camels without sourly straining at gnats. He speaks, from the first page to the last, like a creature born, and bred, and buried, on the boards — the theatre of the world is with him all one with some paltry "wooden O;" and with a mouthing mockery of versatility, he plays the parts of his own scene-shifter, candle-snuffer, prompter, and trumpeter, presuming by a mere change of dress, to pass himself off as a separate personage in each of these dignified characters, — yet visibly hugging himself in them all, — so strong is his love of his own dear identity, and so weak his power of imitating even what is worthless. Every man, we have heard it said, has some particular talent — could you but find it out — in which he is strong; but George is an exception to that general rule, for he teazingly tries many a poor talent, and miserably fails in all, sometimes approaching, but never touching, the lowest level of the clever, — being not even so much as brisk, but, at his very best, like a bottle of small beer, which a butler sets himself to uncork in an obstinate attitude, for fear of being blown up to the ceiling, and is much more alarmed, on the performance of the achievement, to find the liquor as dead as mud or mutton. The party at table cannot retain their gravity; and the manager, discomfited, retires to the sideboard to hide his blushes. There, the parallel does not hold good; for Colman's face is too brazen to blush, and on drawing the cork of a flat jest, he pretends that he was only hamming, and then, flapping his wings, chuckles into a lamentable crow. And this person — in London — is reckoned a — Wit! puffed by Henry Colburn — and buttered by John Bull — and — now basted by Christopher North! Not a drama can be damned, it seems, without his special license — the Cockneys by him are told at what they must laugh or weep; under his revision are now brought the manners and morals of the stage; that they may be filtered into purification through strainers in which all the mud is deposited — and Tragedy, with sable stole, must come sweeping by, before this effete Mr. Merryman, ere she be allowed to drug the bowl or the dagger, a sovereign supplicating a slave.

We are sorry to speak scornfully of any thing alive — threescore and ten. Yet what merit is there in merely becoming a holy old woman out of a graceless middle-aged or elderly man, which Colman was when he degraded manhood by his Grins? We feel no reverence even for the head of a bishop, merely because it happens, without having been shaved for wig-wear, to be bald; and why, then, should we feel any for the slape sconce of a superannuated buffoon? There is only the first syllable of humanity in pretending to respect the few grey hairs of an obsolete Pantaloon who can scarcely shuffle. He, who in the prime of life, as a writer, was, at the best, but a bawdy blockhead, must not be coaxed and cajoled in his latter days into a belief that he is the remains of an Admirable Crichton. He must be taught to see, by a stern "Know thyself!" that while he thought himself a star, he was nothing but a jelly; and that now he stinks where he lies. George Colman, junior, when he must, we think, have been about fifty years old, and not absolutely starving, published a volume of verses, which at the first sight seem to be filthy, at the second foul, and at the third hideous, — almost unnaturally so, polluted as nature is; — and, incredible! he is now sow-gelder, with a salary, at the theatres and lives by castrating pigs-plays! There seems to be nothing more sacred in the light of his setting, than in that of his rising sun. Would you believe it — that he who lived all his life on the smell of the lamps, sneers at tallow-chandlers! Himself notorious only as a Jack-pudding, he speaks insultingly of "sleek pudding-faced sons" of commerce! and persons of that kidney form the majority of mankind in our metropolis and trading towns!!" As if the shabbiest unsalaried foundling that ever swept a warehouse were not a more useful and respectable character than any bastard's son that ever with rubbish choked a stage! In a kindred spirit of abject servility to the powers that be, he still stoops, as of yore, his anointed — perhaps his powdered head; the leer of the letcher is yet in the rheum of the dim eyes of tottering Sir Tooley O'Whack; and a certain gentleman in a sable suit regards, with "grins broader" than his own, the sanctified and hypocritical phiz of the unlicensed and licentious licenser! We are no satirists, — but with all our horror of personality, we must speak the truth — even though it be a libel. It is of George Colman the Younger, as an author, with his head in papers, that we treat; and we tax him but with a tithe of his revolting obscenities, to his gums, if not to his teeth. For the sake of the young — and the middle-aged, which he was when he committed those flagrant delinquencies, and not for his own, we now use the knout; follies may be forgotten, but such foulnesses as the Grins are ineffaceable; those meet with ready pardon, but these are under everlasting ban; and it is salutary and sanative to those who may err from passion, to see raked up from oblivion, and set dimly and distantly — for close contact would be deadly — before their averted eyes, the disgusting and inexpiable perpetrations in which an insolent sinner, overtaken at last by drivelling dotage, in the morn and meridian of life was once base and brutal enough to glory, and at the same time so deludedly stupid as to believe himself Apollo, while he was but impotently acting Priapus.