1777
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Verses composed on viewing the turfless Grave of the Rev. Mr. Eccles.

Morning Post and Daily Advertiser (18 September 1777).

William Meyler


Eight quatrains signed "The Invalid" in which Gray's Elegy written in a Country Churchyard is pressed into service to commemorate a local hero: "Beneath this stone "the Man of Feeling lies: | Humanity had marked him for her own; | His virtue rais'd him to his native skies | Ere half his merit to the world was known." The complete title is given as: "Verses composed on viewing the turfless Grave of the Rev. Mr. Eccles, who fatally and fruitlessly lost his own Life in humanely endeavouring to save a drowning Youth in the River Avon." Writing as "The Invalid," Meyler was a frequent contributor to the Morning Post. The sensational nature of the good man's death ensured that these verses were widely reprinted in the magazines. Boswell discusses the episode in his Life of Johnson (1791).

In 1777 William Meyler was apprenticed to a bookseller at Bath and contributing verses to the vase at Bath-Easton; he later edited the Bath Herald. Meyler apparently claimed the poem in a conversation with Joseph Hunter.

An obituary notice for "Mr. Eccles" appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine 47 (August 1777) 404. A small but sharp controversy surrounded this poem. It appears that the Rev. Charles Stewart Eccles, rector of Birts Morten in Worcestershire, had claimed authorship of Henry Mackenzie's anonymously published Man of Feeling (1771) before his untimely death. This led to a note in General Evening Post appended to this poem: "Mr. Eccles was the Author of a piece under that title [Man of Feeling]; Mr. Eccles's friends live in Ireland" (20 September 1777). The claim was repeated in An Elegiac Ode, the the Memory of the Rev. Charles Stewart Eccles (1777).

In reviewing that work the Westminster Magazine wrote: "we have the pleasure to inform our Readers, that since we have closed the above remark, we have received further testimony in this point, from a person of undoubted veracity, who was well acquainted with Mr. Eccles, and chanced to be at Bath, at the time the unfortunate accident happened that he confessed himself to the the Author of those Pieces, on the very morning of the day he was drowned, with this addition, that being flattered with the approbation they had been honoured with from the public, he meant to go up to London shortly after to republish them, with amendments, and under his own name; shewing him, at the same time, the Preface he designed to print with the second Edition; so that Mr. Mackenzie, we are clearly of opinion, is left to found his fame upon other grounds, than the imputation of those writings" 5 (November 1777) 596. In a note the magazine reprinted a disclaimer from Strahan and Davies, declaring that they had received the novels from Mackenzie.

This, as may be imagined, drew a sharp response from the real Man of Feeling, which was printed in December, offering "such further proof as, I think, will put this matter beyond the possibility of question" 5 (December 1777) 624.

Henry Mackenzie: "Eccles, his death vindicated his title to The Man of Feeling. He was drowned in the Avon, trying to save a child who had been carried down by the flood. — There is a propensity in the public to impute Works to persons who do not write them, of which every literary man must recollect instances" Anecdotes and Egotisms (1927) 190.

Port Folio [Philadelphia]: Mackenzie's "name remained, for a time, unknown beyond the circle of his private friends. But, in England as in Scotland, it was thought that he must, certainly, be the most amiable of men; and the ladies in particular, were anxiously desirous to learn — who in the world it might be? A Mr. Eccles, a young Irish clergyman, became, amidst these circumstances, ambitious to usurp the praise of it. For some purpose, whether of love, of interest, or of mere vanity, he was, it seems, capable of taking the pains to transcribe the whole work, and even of marking his manuscript with erasures and interlineations, to give it an air of being that copy, in which the author had wrought the last polish on his piece, before transcribing it for the press. The manuscript was found among that gentleman's papers, after his death; and had, for a time, the effect to excite among persons, who were not better informed, the persuasion for which he seems to have intended it" "Henry Mackenzie" 3 (11 June 1803) 189.

Joseph Hunter: "he had published an elegy on the death of a Mr. Eccles, who was drowned in attempting to save a person who had fallen into the Avon. This gentleman had taken advantage of the anonymous publication of The Man of Feeling, to claim it as his own, and actually carried a MS. copy of it in his pocket. To this delightful tale frequent allusions were made in the poem, which called forth an expostulation from the real author, Mackenzie, and which were of course afterwards explained" "Memoir of the late William Meyler" Weekly Entertainer and West of England Miscellany [Sherborne] NS 3 (21 May 1821) 382.

Harold W. Thompson: "There is a family tradition among the Mackenzies that the case was taken to court by Mackenzie's publishers and that the forgery was proved by the watermark of the alleged manuscript, which was later than 1771, the date of the publication of the book" in Mackenzie, Anecdotes and Egotisms (1927) 260-61.

William Tasker composed an "Epitaph" for Mr. Eccles, published in Poems (1779).



Here worth exalted undistinguish'd lies,
No stone, alas! to claim one grateful tear;
Yet Fame shall sound his plaudit in the skies,
Whilst list'ning angels hush their hymns to hear.

True worth alone his monument shall prove,
No marble need be rear'd his praise to tell;
Yet 'twere but just that those who felt his love,
Should pay some tribute to his God-like zeal.

Should proud Ambition sleep beneath the tomb
Of pomp and state, to catch the public eye,
While a rude grave alone shall prove his doom
Who fell a victim to Humanity?

Forbid it! ev'ry virtue of the soul,
Forbid it! Justice, from thy sacred throne;
Let some inscription, form'd to speak the whole,
Proclaim his merit on some humble stone.

And, that Necessity may prove no plea,
Accept these lines, though homely, yet sincere;
For, ah! did each spectator feel like me,
Not one would quit his grave without a tear.

EPITAPH.
Beneath this stone "The Man of Feeling" lies,
Humanity had marked him for her own:
His virtue rais'd him to his native skies
Ere half his merit to the world was known.

In health and full-blown prime he nobly dy'd,
To save a drowning youth he dar'd the wave;
But, ere his throbbing bosom well had sigh'd,
Th' obdurate Avon prov'd their mutual grave.

O'er his remains, ah! drop one grateful tear,
For far from kindred and from friends he lies;
No parent strew'd his solitary bier,
No kind relation clos'd his clay-cold eyes.

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