1871 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Maginn

S. C. Hall, "Dr. Maginn" in A Book of Memories: Great Men and Women of the Age, from personal Acquaintance (1871) 158-60.



I knew WILLIAM MAGINN, LL.D., when he was a schoolmaster in Cork, where he was born in 1794. He died in London in 1842. When very young he established a reputation for scholastic knowledge, and attained some eminence as a wit; and about the year 1820 astounded "the beautiful city" by poetical contributions to Blackwood's Magazine, in which certain literary citizens of Cork were somewhat scurrilously assailed. The doctor, it is said, was invited to London in order to share with Hook the labours of the John Bull. I believe, however, he was but a very limited "help;" perhaps the old adage, "two of a trade" applied in this case. Certain it is that he subsequently found a more appreciative paymaster in Westmacott, who conducted the Age, a newspaper then greatly patronised, but, as I have said, one that now would be universally branded with the term "infamous."

It is known, also, that he became a leading contributor to Fraser's Magazine, a magazine that took its name less from its publisher, Fraser, than from its first editor, Fraser, a barrister, whose fate I have understood was mournful, as his career had been discreditable. The particulars of Maginn's duel with the Hon. Grantley Berkeley are well known. It arose out of an article in Fraser reviewing Berkeley's novel, in the course of which he spoke in utterly unjustifiable terms of Berkeley's mother. Mr. Berkeley was not satisfied with inflicting on the publisher so severe a beating that it was the proximate cause of his death, but called out the doctor, who manfully avowed the authorship. Each, it is understood, fired three shots without effect, and when Fraser, who was Maginn's second, asked if there should be another shot, Maginn is reported to have said, "Blaze away, by —! a barrel of powder!"

The career of Maginn in London was, to say the least, mournful. Few men ever started with better prospects; there was hardly any position in the state to which he might not have aspired. His learning was profound; his wit of the tongue and of the pen ready, pointed, caustic, and brilliant; his essays, tales, poems, scholastic disquisitions — in short, his writings upon all conceivable topics were of the very highest order. "O'Dogherty" is one of the names that made Blackwood famous. His acquaintances, who would willingly have been his friends, were not only the men of genius of his time; among them were several noblemen and statesmen of power as well as rank. In a word, he might have climbed to the highest rung of the ladder, with helping hands all the way up: he stumbled and fell at its base.

It is notorious that Maginn wrote at the same time for the Age, outrageously Tory, and for the True Sun, a violently Radical paper. For many years he was editor of the Standard. It was, however, less to his thorough want of principle than to his habits of intoxication that his position was low when it ought to have been high; that he was indigent when he might have been rich; that he lost self-respect and the respect of all with whom he came in contact, except the few "kindred spirits" who relished the flow of wit, and little regarded the impure source whence it issued.

Maginn's reckless habits soon told upon his character, and almost as soon on his constitution. They may be illustrated by an anecdote related of him in Barham's Life of Hook. A friend, when dining with him and praising his wine, asked where he got it. "At the tavern close by," said the doctor. "A very good cellar," said the guest; "but do you not pay rather an extravagant price for it?" "I don't know, I don't know," returned the doctor; "I believe they do put down something in a book." And I have heard of Maginn a story similar to that told of Sheridan, that once when he accepted a bill, he exclaimed to the astonished debtor, "Well, thank Heaven, that debt is off my mind!"

The evil seemed incurable; it was not only indulged in at noon and night, but at morning. He was one of the eight editors engaged by Mr. Murray to edit the Representative during the eight months of its existence. I was a reporter on that paper of great promise and large hopes. One evening Maginn himself undertook to write a notice of a fancy ball at the Opera House in aid of the distressed weavers of Spitalfields. It was a grand affair, patronised by the royal family and a vast proportion of the aristocracy of England. Maginn went, of course inebriated, and returned worse. He contemplated the affair as if it had taken place among the thieves and demireps of Whitechapel, and so described it in the paper of the next morning. Well I remember the indignation of John Murray, and the universal disgust the article excited.

I may relate another anecdote to illustrate this sad characteristic. It was told to me by one of the doctor's old pupils and most intimate and steady friends, Mr. Quinten Kennedy, of Cork. A gentleman was anxious to secure Maginn's services for a contemplated literary undertaking of magnitude, and the doctor was to dine with him to arrange the affair. Kennedy was resolved that at all events he should go to the dinner sober, and so called upon him before he was up, never leaving him for a moment all day, and resolutely resisting every imploring appeal for a dram. The hour of six drew near, and they sallied out. On the way Kennedy found it almost impossible, even by main force, to prevent the doctor's entering a public-house. On their road they passed an undertaker's shop; the doctor suddenly stopped, recollected he had a message there, and begged Kennedy to wait for a moment outside. The request was complied with, as there could be no possible danger in such a place. Maginn entered, with his handkerchief to his eyes, sobbing bitterly; the undertaker, recognising a prospective customer, sought to subdue his grief with the usual words of consolation, Maginn blubbering out, "Everything must be done in the best style — no expense must be spared; she was worthy, and I can afford it." The undertaker, seeing such intense grief, presented a seat, and prescribed a little brandy. After sufficient resistance both were accepted. A bottle was produced, and emptied, glass after glass, with suggested instructions between whiles. At length the doctor rose to join his wondering and impatient friend, who soon saw what had happened. He was, even before dinner, in such a state as to preclude all business talk; and it is needless to add that the contemplated arrangement was never made.

He lived in wretchedness and died in misery — wantonly worn out at the age of forty-two. His death took place at Walton-on-Thames, and in the churchyard of that village he is buried. Not long ago I visited the place, but no one could point out to me the precise spot of his interment. It is without a stone, without a mark, lost among the clay sepulchres of the throng who had no friends to inscribe a name or ask a memory.

Maginn was rather under than above the middle size; his countenance was "swarthy," and by no means genial in expression. He had a peculiar thickness of speech, not quite a stutter. Latterly excesses told upon him, producing their usual effects. The quick intelligence of his face was lost; his features were sullied by unmistakable signs of an ever-degrading habit; he was old before his time. He is another sad example to "warn and scare." A life that might have produced so much yielded comparatively nothing; and although there have been suggestions, from Lockhart and others, to collect his writings, they have never been gathered together from the periodical tombs in which they lie buried, and now, probably, they cannot be all recognised.*

* In September, 1842, a subscription was made for the widow and children of Dr. Maginn, Dr. Giffard (then editor of the Standard) and Lockhart being trustees in England; the Bishop of Cork and the Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, in Ireland; and Professor Wilson, in Scotland. The "card" that was issued stated truly that "no one ever listened to Maginn's conversation, or perused even the hastiest of his minor writings, without feeling the influence of very extraordinary talent. His classical learning was profound and accurate, his mastery of modern languages almost unrivalled , his knowledge of mankind and their affairs great and multifarious;" but it did not state that which was true when it stated that, "in all his essays, verse or prose, serious or comic, he never trespassed against demeans or sound morals," or that "the keenness of his wit was combined with such playfulness of fancy, good-humour, and kindness of natural sentiment, that his merits were ungrudgingly acknowledged even by those of politics must different from his own." On the contrary, such statement was palpably and notoriously untrue.