Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Taylor, William (1765-1836)
TAYLOR, WILLIAM (1765–1836), man of letters, only child of William Taylor (d. 1819), by his wife Sarah (d. 1811), second daughter of John Wright of Diss, Norfolk, was born at Norwich on 7 Nov. 1765. He was not related to the family of John Taylor (1694–1761) [q. v.] of Norwich; by intermarriage his family was connected with that of Frederick Denison Maurice [q. v.] His father, a manufacturer of Norwich stuffs, chiefly for export, educated him with an eye to the large foreign correspondence of the firm. His first teacher was John Bruckner [q. v.] In 1774 he was transferred to the boarding school then opened at Palgrave, Suffolk, by Rochemont Barbauld, whose wife, Anna Letitia Barbauld [q. v.], Taylor regarded as ‘the mother of his mind.’ For three years his school companion was Frank Sayers [q. v.], with whom for forty years longer he maintained a friendship broken only by death.
In August 1779 his father took him from school and sent him abroad with Casenave, his correspondence manager. He visited Holland, France, and Italy, perfected himself in French and Italian, and learned the ways of foreign commerce. Returning in January 1781, he left home again on 2 April with Schwartz, a foreign merchant, who took him the round of the English manufacturing centres, and on 17 May embarked with him at Margate for Belgium. In July he reached Detmold, where he stayed a year with the protestant pastor Roederer, an Alsatian. He soon became an enthusiast both for the language and the literature of Germany. In a letter to his father (written in Italian 26 Dec. 1781) he expresses a preference for English prose, but thinks German better adapted for poetry. He left Detmold for German travel on 21 July 1782. Roederer gave him introductions to Schloezer the historian, at Göttingen, and to Goethe at Weimar. That Taylor saw Goethe seems rightly inferred by Robberds (Herzfeld leaves it in doubt); his own letters at this period have not been preserved. At Leipzig he rejoined Casenave, with whom he visited Berlin and Dresden. They were on the way to St. Petersburg, but finding at Pillau a vessel bound for Yarmouth, they took passage, and after a perilous voyage, reached Norwich on 17 Nov. 1782.
In May and June 1784 Taylor was in Scotland with Sayers, who had begun his studies at Edinburgh in the previous October (the date is wrongly given in his ‘Life of Sayers’). At Edinburgh he met (Sir) James Mackintosh [q. v.] With Sayers he travelled in the highlands as far as Loch Tay. Business affairs now occupied him, but he found time to learn Spanish. A second journey to Edinburgh in 1788 was due to a nervous breakdown in the health of Sayers, whom he took to the English lakes.
The centenary of the landing of William III was celebrated by a dinner in Norwich (November 1788); a year later, on the formation of a ‘revolution society,’ the elder Taylor was made secretary, ‘gratifying at once his taste for convivial pleasures and his attachment to the cause;’ his son did the correspondence and wrote political letters, with various signatures, to friendly journals. In 1790 he went over to France; on 9 May he ‘kissed the earth on the land of liberty’ at Calais; on 13 May he reached Paris, and eagerly attended the debates in the national assembly. He returned in June; the ‘revolution society’ was soon dropped under fear of repressive measures (with filial concern Taylor wrote ‘junior’ after his father's signatures to the minutes); but before the end of 1790 two new clubs were formed in Norwich, of which Taylor became a member, the ‘Tusculan’ for political, the ‘Speculative,’ founded by William Enfield [q. v.] for philosophical debate. Hitherto he had been engaged (since 1783) in his father's business, and had been taken into partnership with Casenave in 1786. The disturbed state of the continent being unfavourable to the prospects of their trade, he persuaded his father to retire on the fortune already made. The firm was dissolved in 1791; his father employed part of his capital in underwriting, not very successfully. Resisting his father's wish to put him into a London bank, Taylor gave himself henceforth to literature. He had already completed the three poetic translations which secured the recognition of his power to present German poetry in an English dress.
Herzfeld assigns to him a stirring song, ‘The Trumpet of Liberty,’ with the refrain ‘Fall, tyrants, fall,’ which was first published in the ‘Norfolk Chronicle’ on 16 July 1791, having been sung on 14 July at a dinner commemorating the fall of the Bastille. Edward Taylor [q. v.] rightly claims both words and music for the frequent singer of the song, his father, John Taylor (1750–1826) [q. v.]; he gives 1788 (meaning apparently 1789) as the date of its composition (Hymns and Miscellaneous Poems, 1863, pp. 151, 153).
Taylor's name was made by his translation of Bürger's ‘Lenore’ into English ballad metre. This was written in 1790, and bore the title ‘Lenora.’ He submitted it to his friend Benzler (then of Wernigerode), whose society he had enjoyed at Detmold. A previous version had been made in 1782 by Henry James Pye [q. v.], but was not published till 1795, and was unknown to Taylor. His own translation, circulated in manuscript, was made the foundation of a ballad (1791) by John Aikin (1747–1822) [q. v.], and was read by Mrs. Barbauld in 1794 at a literary gathering in the house of Dugald Stewart [q. v.] in Edinburgh. Stewart's brother-in-law, George Cranstoun (Lord Corehouse) [q. v.] gave his recollection of it to (Sir) Walter Scott [q. v.], including the lines
Tramp, tramp, across the land they speed
Splash, splash, across the sea.
These (though the second is an addition to the original) were incorporated by Scott in his own version (1796) of the poem, entitled ‘William and Helen.’ The circumstances are detailed by Scott in a letter to Taylor (25 Nov. 1796). Scott follows him also in transferring, with advantage, the scene of the poem from the seven years' war to the period of the crusades. Much later Mrs. Barbauld reported (and the report is confirmed by Lucy Aikin [q. v.], who heard Scott say it) that Scott told her it was Taylor who made him a poet, a courteous exaggeration. The announcement of the almost simultaneous publication of Scott's version and three others had led Taylor to publish his in the ‘Monthly Magazine’ (just founded by John Aikin) in March 1796; he was paid 6s. for the article. Before the end of the year he published it separately, with the title ‘Ellenore,’ and some improvements, one of them suggested by the version by William Robert Spencer [q. v.]
To 1790 belong also his translations of Lessing's ‘Nathan the Wise’ and Goethe's ‘Iphigenia in Tauris.’ The former was perhaps the later executed, and there is no trace of its having been shown to his friends before it was printed, for private distribution, in 1791; it was first published in 1805, 8vo. The ‘Iphigenia’ was submitted to Benzler before September 1790, but was not printed till 1793 (for private distribution); published 1794, 8vo. In 1795 Taylor sent a copy to Goethe, through Benzler, who at once forwarded it, but it does not seem to have been acknowledged. Henry Crabb Robinson [q. v.], writing to Goethe (31 Jan. 1829), remarks, ‘as it was the first, so it remains the best version of any of your larger poems.’ A volume of Wieland's ‘Dialogues of the Gods,’ 1795, 8vo, contained four dialogues, and was meant to be continued, but excited no demand. Wieland was Taylor's favourite among German poets; five more dialogues were included in his ‘Historic Survey’ (1828–30).
Taylor's career as a literary critic began in April 1793 with an article in the ‘Monthly Review’ on his friend Sayers's ‘Disquisitions.’ To this review (with a break, 1800–1809) he contributed till 1824; to the ‘Monthly Magazine’ from its start till 1824; to the ‘Annual Review’ from 1802 to 1807; to the ‘Critical Review,’ 1803–4 and 1809; to the ‘Athenæum,’ 1807–8, making a total of 1754 articles. He wrote also for the ‘Cambridge Intelligencer,’ conducted by Benjamin Flower [q. v.], from 20 July 1793 to 18 June 1803, and was concerned in two short-lived Norwich magazines, the ‘Cabinet’ (October 1794–5), issued in conjunction with Sayers, and the ‘Iris’ (5 Feb. 1803–29 Jan. 1804), to which Southey was a contributor. To the ‘Foreign Quarterly’ (1827) he contributed one article. Speaking of his contributions to the ‘Monthly Review,’ William Hazlitt [q. v.] affirms that ‘the style of philosophical criticism which has been the boast of the “Edinburgh Review” was first introduced’ by Taylor (Spirit of the Age, 1825, p. 308). With stricter justice it may be claimed for Taylor that he did much to extend the literary outlook of the English public, bringing foreign literature to bear upon the topics he treated, and thus correcting insular tastes. His friends rallied him on the peculiarities of his diction, which Mackintosh styled the Taylorian language. He coined words (in the eyes of purists as criminal an offence as coining money), ‘transversion,’ ‘body-spirit,’ ‘cany,’ ‘fally,’ ‘Sternholdianism,’ and the like. Some of his terms, ruled out by the editor of the ‘Monthly Review’ as ‘not English,’ have since become so—for instance, ‘rehabilitated.’ He wished to raise past participles to the comparative degree, e.g. ‘hateder.’ His articles often present enterprising suggestions: he forecasts steam navigation (1804); advises the formation of colonies in Africa, ‘the only quarter of the world’ in which ‘British commerce’ had ‘struck no root’ (1805); projects the Panama canal (1824). But his habit of writing on all subjects was not good for him. His information was profuse, but he had no sense of proportion; his power of putting most things in new lights was exercised with a vigorous ingenuity, stimulating rather than convincing. Some of his letters of travel are exceedingly graphic; he had a keen eye for such scenery as he enjoyed, but he ‘never could understand the merit of a mountain prospect.’
His intimacy with Robert Southey [q. v.] began early in 1798, when Southey, having placed his brother, Henry Herbert Southey [q. v.], with George Burnett [q. v.] at Yarmouth, visited Norwich as Taylor's guest. Much of their correspondence to 1821 is given by Robberds; it is frank on both sides, and the good humour with which Southey receives Taylor's erratic opinions is remarkable. Taylor suggested to Southey the publication of an annual collection of verse, on the plan of the ‘Almanach des Muses,’ and contributed to both volumes of this ‘Annual Anthology’ (1799–1800), using the signatures ‘Ryalto’ (an anagram) and ‘R. O.’ To the second volume he contributed specimens of English hexameters, which he had first attempted in the ‘Monthly Magazine,’ 1796. Southey revisited him at Norwich in February 1802. In March Taylor visited France, partly on business; Henry Southey joined him at Paris in April. He stayed with Lafayette at Lagrange, where he met Frances d'Arblay [q. v.] In Paris he met Thomas Holcroft [q. v.], Thomas Paine [q. v.], and Thomas Manning [q. v.] His love of liberty was not fanatical; as editor of the book on Demerara (1807) by Henry Bolingbroke [q. v.], he expressed himself in favour of a regulated slave trade ‘which redeems slaves to exalt them into vassals.’
The family affairs were not prospering, and what he made by his pen was useful. His ‘Tales of Yore,’ 1810, 3 vols. 8vo (anon.), was a collection of prose translations from French and German, begun in 1807. In May 1811 the stoppage of his father's London agent involved a loss of 200l. a year from an income already curtailed through American losses. A competence remained, but Taylor felt keenly the social consequences of a reduced style of living. He applied in 1812, at Southey's suggestion, for the post of keeper of manuscripts in the British Museum, on the resignation of Francis Douce [q. v.]; but the vacancy was already filled. On the basis of his magazine articles he issued his ‘English Synonyms Described,’ 1813, 8vo, a work from which his old schoolfellow George Crabb [q. v.] borrowed much (1824) without specific acknowledgment; it was reissued in 1850 and since; a German translation appeared in 1851. In 1823 he edited the works of his friend Sayers, prefixing an elaborate biography.
His magnum opus, the ‘Historic Survey of German Poetry,’ 1828–30, 3 vols. 8vo, was somewhat belated. It is a patchwork (Carlyle calls it a ‘jail-delivery’) of his previous articles and translations, with digressions on Homer, the Zendavesta, and other literary gleanings, while the ‘survey’ itself was not brought up to date. But it shows what Taylor had been doing for German studies during a literary life of forty years, and its value is that of a permanent conspectus of his work. His last publication was a ‘Memoir,’ 1831, 4to, of P. M. Martineau, a Norwich surgeon, written in conjunction with F. Elwes.
Taylor was a devoted son and a generous friend. It delighted him to encourage the studies of young men; George Borrow [q. v.] learned German from him ‘with extraordinary rapidity’ before he was eighteen, and has described him in ‘Lavengro.’ After his losses he cultivated chiefly the society of his juniors; hence Harriet Martineau's rather harsh judgment that he was spoiled by flattery. He was accused of initiating young men into habits of conviviality; what his censors really feared was the influence of his erratic opinions, but these were not always taken seriously. He was known to argue for an hour in proof that Adam was a negro; no one venturing to reply, he spent the next hour in answering himself and proving that Adam was white. In early life (1784) his friend Sayers was ‘decidedly the bolder theologian of the two, a relation which was afterwards to be reversed.’ In 1795 he contributed several hymns to a collection edited by William Enfield; one of them is based on two odes of Horace; others are retained in Dr. Martineau's collections. Till his mother's death (she was blind for twenty-two years) he constantly went with her to the Octagon chapel. He claimed to be a believer in the true teaching of Christ, maintaining that our Lord was the translator of Ecclesiasticus, and the author, ‘after the crucifixion,’ of the ‘Wisdom of Solomon.’ A revolting paradox as to our Lord's parentage was maintained by him in an anonymous ‘Letter concerning the Two First Chapters of Luke’ (1810). His religious philosophy appears in his memoir of John Fransham [q. v.] in the ‘Monthly Magazine,’ 1811; he describes it (1812) as ‘Philonic pantheism.’
He died, unmarried, at his residence, King Street, Norwich, on 5 March 1836, and was buried in the graveyard of the Octagon chapel. His portrait was painted by John Barwell (Cat. Third Loan Exhib. No. 273).[The Memoir by John Warden Robberds, 1843, 2 vols. (portrait), is exceedingly full and accurate, giving much of Taylor's correspondence, and chronicling every article he wrote, but lacking an index. The pith is extracted by Georg Herzfeld in his valuable monograph, William Taylor von Norwich, eine Studie über das Einfluss der neueren deutschen Litteratur in England, 1897; Quarterly Review, lxxxiii. 27 seq.; Edinburgh Review, lxxxvii. 368 seq.; Autobiography of Harriet Martineau, i. 297 seq.; Mrs. Oliphant's Hist. of English Literature, 1790–1825, i. 386; information from the late John Withers Dowson of Norwich.]