Open main menu
This page needs to be proofread.
347
IMPROMPTU—IMPROVISATORE

watermen on rivers, were liable to he pressed between the ages of eighteen and fifty-five, and might be pressed repeatedly for so long as their liability lasted. The rogue and vagabond element were at the mercy of the justices of the peace. The frightful epidemics of fever which desolated the navy till late in the 18th century were largely due to the infection brought by the prisoners drafted from the ill-kept jails of the time. As service in the fleet was most unpopular with the sailors, the press could often only be enforced by making a parade of strength and employing troops. The men had many friends who were always willing to conceal them, and they themselves became expert in avoiding capture. There was, however, one way of procuring them which gave them no chance of evasion. The merchant ships were stopped at sea and the sailors taken out. This was done to a great extent, more especially in the case of homeward-bound vessels. On one occasion, in 1802, an East Indiaman on her way home was deprived of so many of her crew by a man of war in the Bay of Biscay that she was unable to resist a small French privateer, and was carried off as a prize with a valuable cargo. The press and the jails failed to supply the number of men required. In 1795 it was found necessary to impose on the counties the obligation to provide “ a quota ” of men, at their own expense. The local authorities provided the recruits by offering high bounties, often to debtors confined in the prisons. These desperate men were a very bad element in the navy. In 1797 they combined with the United Irishmen, of whom large numbers had been drafted into the fleet as vagabonds, to give a very dangerous political character to the mutinies at the Nore and on the south of Ireland. After the conclusion of the great Napoleonic wars in 1815 the power of the press was not again exercised. In 1835 an act was passed during Sir James Graham's tenure of office as first lord of the admiralty, by which men who had once been pressed and had served for a period of five years were to be exempt from impressment in future. Sir James, however, emphatically reaffirmed the right of the crown to enforce the service of the subject, and therefore to impress the seamen. The introduction of engagements for a term of five years in 1853, and then of long service, has produced so large a body of voluntary recruits, and service in the navy is so popular, that the question has no longer any interest save an historical one. If compulsory service in the fleet should again become necessary it will not be in the form of the old system of impressment, which left the sailor subject to compulsory service from the age of eighteen to fifty-five, and flooded the navy with the scum of the jails and the workhouse.

Authorities.—Grose's Military Antiquities, for the general subject of impressment, vol. ii. p. 73 et seq. S. R. Gardiner gives many details in his history of James I. and Charles I., and in The Civil War. The acts relating to the navy are quoted in A Collection of the Statutes relating to the Admiralty, &c., published in 1810. Some curious information is in the papers relating to the Brest Blockade edited by John Leyland for the Navy Record Society. Sir James Graham's speech is in Hansard for 1835.  (D. H.) 


IMPROMPTU (from in promptu, on the spur of the moment), a short literary composition which has not been, or is not supposed to have been, prepared beforehand, but owes its merit to the ready skill which produces it without premeditation. The word seems to have been introduced from the French language in the middle of the 17th century. Without question, the poets have, from earliest ages, made impromptus, and the very art of poetry, in its lyric form, is of the nature of a modified improvisation. It is supposed that many of the epigrams of the Greeks, an<l still more probably those of the Roman satirists, particularly Martial, were delivered on the moment, and gained a great part, at least, of their success from the evidence which they gave of rapidity of invention. But it must have been difficult then, as it has been since, to be convinced of the value of that evidence. Who is to be sure that, like Mascarille in Les Prfcieuses ridicules, the impromptu-writer has not employed his leisure in sharpening his arrows? Tames Smith received the highest praise for his compliment to Miss Tree, the cantatricez-On this tree when a nightingale settles and sings,

The Tree will return him as good as he brings.

This was extremely neat, but who is to say that lames Smith had not polished it as he dressed for dinner? One writer owed all his fame, and a seat among the Forty Immortals of the French Academy, to the reputation of his impromptus. This was the Marquis Francois, Joseph-de St Aulaire (1643-1742)- The piece which threw open the doors of the Academy to him in 1706 was composed at Sceaux, where he was staying with the duchess of Maine, who was guessing secrets, and who called him Apollo. St Aulaire instantly responded:-

La divinité qui s'amuse

A me demander mon secret,

Si j'étais Apollon, ne serait pas ma muse,

Elle serait Thétis-et le jour finirait.

This is undoubtedly as neat as it is impertinent, and if the duchess had given him no ground for preparation, this is typical of the impromptu at its best. Voltaire was celebrated for the savage wit of his impromptus, and was himself the subject of a famous one by Young. Less well known but more certainly extemporaneous is the couplet by the last-mentioned poet, who being asked to put something amusing in an album, and being obliged to borrow from Lord Chesterfield a pencil for the purpose, wrote:-

Accept a miracle instead of wit, -

See two dull lines with Stanhope's pencil writ. The word “ impromptu ” is sometimes used to designate a short dramatic sketch, the type of which is Moliére's famous Impromptu du Versailles (1663), a miniature comedy in prose.


IMPROVISATORE. a word used to describe a poet who recites verses which he composes on the spur of the moment, without previous preparation. The term is purely Italian, although in that language it would be more correctly spelt improovisatore. It became recognized as an English word in the middle of the eighteenth century, and is so used by Smollett in his Travels (1766); he defines an improvisatory as “ an individual who has the surprising talent of reciting verses extempore, on any subf ject you propose.” In speaking of a woman, the female form improoisatrice is sometimes used in English.

Improvisation is a gift which properly belongs to those languages in which a great variety of grammatical inflections, wedded to simplicity of rhythm and abundance of rhyme, enable a poet to slur over difficulties in such a way as to satisfy the ear of his audience. In ancient times the greater partof the popular poetry with which the leisure of listeners was beguiled was of this rhapsodical nature. But in modern Europe it was the troubadours, owing to the extreme flexibility of the languages of. Provence, who distinguished themselves above all others as improvisatores. It is difficult to believe, however, that the elaborate compositions of these poets, which have come down to us, in which every exquisite artitice of versification is taken advantage of, can have been poured forth without pre» meditation. These poets, we must rather suppose, took 'a pride in the ostentation of a prodigious memory, most carefully trained, and poured forth in public what they had laboriously learned by heart in private. The Italians, however, in the 16th century, cultivated what seems to have been a genuine improvisation, in which the bards rhapsodized, not as they themselves pleased, but on subjects which were unexpected by them, and which were chosen on the spot by their patrons. Of these, the most extraordinary is said to have been Silvio Antoniano (1540-1603), who from the age of ten was able to pour out melodious verse on any subject which was suggested to him. He was brought to.. Rome, Where successive popes so delighted in his talent that in 1598 he was made a cardinal. In the 17th century the celebrated Metastasio first attracted attention by his skill as an improvisatory. But he Was excelled by Bernardino Perfetti (1681-1747), who was perhaps the most extraordinary genius of this class who has ever lived. He was seized, in his moments of composition, with a transport which transfigured his whole person, and under this excitement he poured forth verses in a miraculous

flow. It was his custom to be attended by a guitarist, who played a recitative accompaniment. In this way Perfetti made a triumphal procession through the cities of Italy, ending