The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/Number 4/Daphnaides: or the English Laurel, from Chaucer to Tennyson
Dorset was still Lord Chamberlain when the death of Shadwell placed the laurel again at his disposal. Had he listened to Dryden, William Congreve would have received it. Of all the throng of young gentlemen who gathered about the chair of the old poet at Wills's, Congreve was his prime favorite. That his advice was not heeded was long a matter of pensive regret:--
"Oh that your brows my laurel had sustained!
Well had I been deposed, if you had reigned!
The father had descended for the son;
For only you are lineal to the throne.
Thus, when the state one Edward did depose,
A greater Edward in his room arose."
The choice fell upon Nahum Tate:--
"But now not I, but poetry is cursed;
For Tom the Second reigns like Tom the First."
What particular quality recommended Tate we are not wholly able to explain. Dryden alleges "charity" as the single impulse of the appointment,--not the merit or aptitude of the candidate. But throughout life Dorset continued to countenance Nahum, serving as standing dedicatee of his works, and the prompter of several of them. We have remarked the want of judgment which Lord Dorset exhibited in his anxious patronage of the scholars and scribblers of his time,--a trait which stood the Blackmores, Bradys, and Tates in good stead.
But there was still another reason why Tate was preferred to Congreve. Dorset was too practised a courtier not to study the tastes of his master to good purpose. A liking for the stage, or a lively sense of poetic excellence, was not among the preferences of King William. The Laureate was sub-purveyor of amusement for the court; but there was no longer a court to amuse, and the King himself never once in his reign entered a theatre. The piety of Queen Mary rendered her a rare attendant at the play-house. Plays were therefore no longer wanted. A playwright could not amuse. Congreve was a dramatist who had never exhibited even passable talent for other forms of poetical composition. But Tate's limited gifts, displayed to Dorset's satisfaction in various encomiastic verses addressed to himself, were fully equal to the exigencies of the office under the new order of things; he was by profession a eulogist, not a dramatist. He was a Tory; and the King was out of humor with the Whigs. He was pretentiously moral and exemplary of life and pen, and so suited the Queen. The duties of the office were conformed, as far as practicable, to the royal tastes. Their scene was transferred from the play-house to the church. On the anniversaries of the birthdays of the two sovereigns, and upon New Year's day, the Laureate was expected to have ready congratulatory odes befitting the occasion, set to music by the royal organist, and sung after service in the Chapel Royal of St. James. Similar duties were required when great victories were to be celebrated, or national calamities to be deplored. In short, from writing dramas to amuse a merry monarch and his courtiers, an office not without dignity, the Laureate sunk into a hired writer of adulatory odes; a change in which originated that prevalent contempt for the laurel which descended from the era of Tate to that of Southey.
And yet the odes were in no sense more thoroughly Pindaric than in the circumstance of their flatteries being bought and paid for at a stated market value. The triumphal lyrics of Pindar himself were very far from being those sp ontaneous and enthusiastic tributes to the prowess of his heroes, which the vulgar receive them for. Hear the painful truth, as revealed by the Scholiast. Pytheas of AEgina had conquered in rough-and-tumble fight all antagonists in the Pancratium. Casting about for the best means of perpetuating his fame, he found the alternative to lie between a statuette to be erected in the temple of the hero-god, or one of the odes of the learned Theban. Choosing the latter, he proceeded to the poet's shop, cheapened the article, and would have secured it without hesitation, had not the extortionate bard demanded the sum of three drachmas, nearly equal to half a dollar, for the poem, and refused to bate a fraction. The disappointed bargainer left, and was for some days decided in favor of the brazen image, which could be had at half the price. But reflecting that what Pindar would give for his money was a draft upon universal fame and immortality, while the statue might presently be lost, or melted down, or its identity destroyed, his final determination was in favor of the ode,--a conclusion which time has justified. Nor was the Bard of the Victors ashamed of his mercenary Muse. In the Second Isthmian Ode, we find an elaborate justification of his practice of praising for pay,--a practice, he admits, unknown to primitive poets, but rendered inevitable, in his time, by the poverty of the craft, and the degeneracy of the many, with whom, in the language of the Spartan sage, "money made the man." With this Pindaric precedent, therefore, for selling Pindaric verses, it is no wonder, if the children of the Muse, in an age still more degenerate than that of their great original, found ample excuse for dealing out their wares at the best market. When such as Dryden and Pope lavished in preface and dedication their encomiums upon wealth and power, and waited eagerly for the golden guineas the bait might bring them, we have no right to complain of the Tates and Eusdens for prostituting their neglected Muses for a splendid sum certain _per annum_. Surely, if royalty, thus periodically and mercenarily eulogized, were content, the poet might well be so. And quite as certainly, the Laureate stipend never extracted from poet panegyric more fulsome, ill-placed, and degrading, than that which Laureate Dryden volunteered over the pall of Charles II.
Tate had been known as a hanger-on at the court of Charles, and as a feeble versifier and pamphleteer of the Tory school, before an alliance with Dryden gave him a certain degree of importance. The first part of "Absalom and Achitophel," in 1681, convulsed the town and angered the city. Men talked for a time of nothing else. Tate, who was in the secret of its authorship, talked of it to Dryden, and urged an extension of the poem. Were there not enough of Shaftesbury's brisk boys running at large who deserved to be gibbeted? Were there not enough Hebrew names in the two books of Samuel to name each as appropriately as those already nomenclatured? But Dryden was indisposed to undertake a continuation which must fall short of what had been executed in the exact proportion that the characters left for it were of minor consequence. He recommended the task to Tate. Tate, flattered and nothing loath, accordingly sent to the press the second part of "Absalom and Achitophel," embodying a contribution from Dryden of two hundred lines, which are as plainly distinguishable from the rest as a patch of cloth of gold upon cloth of frieze. The credit of this first alliance proved so grateful to Nahum, that he never after ventured upon literary enterprise without the aid of a similar coalition. His genius was inherently parasitic. In conjunction with Tory and Jesuit, he coalesced in the celebration of Castlemaine's gaudy reception at Rome.
In conjunction with Nicholas Brady, he prepared that version of the Psalms still appended to the English Book of Common Prayer. In conjunction with Dryden and others, he translated Juvenal. In conjunction with Lord Dorset, he edited a praiseworthy edition of the poems of Sir John Davies, which might otherwise have been lost or forgotten. In conjunction with Garth, he translated the "Metamorphoses" of Ovid. And in conjunction with Dr. Blow, he prepared those Pindaric flights which set King William asleep, and made Godolphin ashamed that the deeds of Marlborough should be so unworthily sung.
So long as he continued to enjoy the patronage of his liberal Maecenas, Tate, with his aid, and these labors, and the income of his office, contrived to maintain the state of a gentleman. But Dorset died in 1706; the Laureate's dull heroics found no vent; and ere the death of Queen Anne,--an event which he bewailed in the least contemptible of his odes,--his revenues were contracted to the official stipend. The accession of the house of Hanover, in 1714, was the downfall of Toryism; and Tate was a Tory. His ruin was complete. The Elector spared not the house of Pindar. The Laureate was stripped of the wreath; his only income confiscated; and after struggling feebly with fate in the form of implacable creditors, he took refuge in the Old Mint, the resort of thieves and debtors, where in 1715 he died,--it is said, of starvation. Alas, that the common lot of Grub Street should have precedent in the person of laurelled royalty itself!
The coronation of Laureate Rowe was simultaneous with that of George I. His immediate claim to the honor dated back to the year 1702, when his play of "Tamerlane" had caught the popular fancy, and proved of vast service to the ministry at a critical moment in stimulating the national antipathy to France. The effect was certainly not due to artistic nicety or refinement. King William, as _Tamerlane_, was invested with all virtues conceivable of a Tartar conqueror, united with the graces of a primitive saint; while King Louis, as _Bajazet_, fell little short of the perfections of Satan. These coarse daubs, executed in the broadest style of the sign-post school of Art, so gratified the mob, that for half a century their exhibition was called for on the night of November the fifth. Rowe, moreover, belonged to the straitest sect of Whiggery,--was so bigoted, indeed, as to decline the acquaintance of a Tory, and in play and prologue missed no chance of testifying devotion to liberal opinions. His investiture with the laurel was only another proof that at moments of revolution extremists first rise to the surface. A man of affluent fortune, and the recipient of redundant favors from the new ministry, Rowe enjoyed the sunshine of life, while the dethroned Nahum starved in the Mint, as the dethroned James starved at Rome. Had the dramatic tribute still been exacted, there is little doubt that the author of the "Fair Penitent," and of "Jane Shore," would have lent splendid lustre to his office. His odes, however,--such, at least, as have been thought worthy of preservation among his works,--are a prodigious improvement upon the tenuity of his predecessor, and immeasurably superior in poetical fire and elegance to those of any successor antecedent to Warton.
For, following Nicholas Row e, there were dark ages of Laureate dulness,--a period redeemed by nothing, unless by the ridicule and controversy to which the wearers of the leaf gave occasion. Rowe died in the last days of 1718. The contest for the vacant place is presumed to have been unusually active. John Sheffield, Duke of Buckinghamshire, imitating Suckling's "Session of the Poets," brings all the versifiers of the time into the canvas, and after humorously dispatching one after another, not sparing himself, closes,--
"At last, in rushed Eusden, and cried, 'Who shall have it,
But I, the true Laureate, to whom the King gave it?'
Apollo begged pardon, and granted his claim,
But vowed, though, till then, he ne'er heard of his name."
This Laurence Eusden was a scribbling parson, whose model in Art was Sir Richard Blackmore, and whose morality was of the Puritanical stripe. He had assisted Garth in his Ovid, assuming, doubtless upon high moral grounds, the rendering of the impurest fables. He had written odes to great people upon occasions more or less great, therein exhibiting some ingenuity in varying the ordinary staple of adulation. He had addressed an epithalamium to the Duke of Newcastle upon his marriage with the Lady Henrietta Godolphin,--a tribute so gratifying to his Grace, then Lord Chamberlain, as to secure the poet the place of Rowe. Eusden's was doubtless the least honorable name as yet associated with the laurel. His contemporaries allude to him with uniform disdain. Cooke, the translator of Hesiod, tells us,--
"Eusden, a laurelled bard, by fortune raised,
By very few was read, by fewer praised,"
Pope, as cavalierly, in the "Dunciad":--
"She saw old Prynne in restless Daniel shine,
And Eusden eke out Blackmore's endless line."
Jacobs, in his "Lives of the Poets," speaks of him as a multifarious writer of unreadable trash,--and names but few of his productions. The truth was, Eusden, secluding himself at his rectory among the fens of Lincolnshire, took no part in society, declined all association with the polite circles of the metropolis, thus inviting attacks, from which his talents were not respectable enough to screen him. That the loftiest revelations of poetry were not required of the Laureate of George I., who understood little or no English, there can be no question. George II. was equally insensible to the Muses; and had the annual lyrics been a mosaic of the merest gibberish, they would have satisfied his earlier tastes as thoroughly as the odes of Collins or Gray. A court, at which Pope and Swift, Young and Thomson were strangers, had precisely that share of Augustan splendor which enabled such as Eusden to shine lustrously.
And so Eusden shone and wrote, and in the fulness of time--September, 1730--died and was buried; and his laurel others desired. The leading claimants were Richard Savage and Colley Cibber. The touching story of Savage had won the heart of the Queen, and she had extracted from the King the promise of the Laureateship for its hero. But in the Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, Savage had an irreconcilable opponent. The apprehension of exciting powerful enmities, if he elevated the "Bastard" and his wrongs to so conspicuous a place, had, no doubt, an influence with the shrewd statesman. Possibly, too, so keen and practical a mind could not but entertain thorough contempt for the man, who, with brains, thews, and sinews of his own, a fair education, and as many golden opportunities of advancement as a reasonable being could desire, should waste his days in profitless mendicancy at the doors of great people, in whining endeavors to excite the sympathies of the indifferent, in poem and petition, in beastly drunkenness, or, if sober, in maudlin lamentations at the bitterness of his fortune. A Falconbridge would have better suited the ministerial taste. At all events, when his Majesty came to request the appointment of the Queen's _protégé_, he found that the patent had already been made out in the name of Cibber: and Cibber had to be Laureate. The disappointed one raved, got drunk, sober again, and finally wrote an ode to her Majesty, announcing himself as her "Volunteer Laureate," who should repeat his congratulations upon each recurrence of her birthday. The Queen, in pity, sent him fifty pounds, with a promise of an equal amount for each of his annual verses. And although Cibber protested, and ridiculed the new title, as no more sensible than "Volunteer Duke, Marquis, or Prime Minister," still Savage adhered to it and the pension tenaciously, sharing the Queen's favor with Stephen Duck, the marvellous "Thresher," whose effusions were still more to her taste. That the yearly fifty pounds were expended in inexcusable riot, almost as soon as received, was a matter of course. Upon the demise of Queen Caroline, in 1738, Savage experienced another proof of Walpole's dislike. The pensions found upon her Majesty's private list were all continued out of the exchequer, one excepted. The pension of Savage was the exception. Right feelingly, therefore, might he mourn his royal mistress, and vituperate the insensible minister; and that he did both with some degree of animation, the few who still read his poems will freely admit.
Colley Cibber had recommended himself to promotion by consistent partisanship, and by two plays of fair merit and exceeding popularity. "The Careless Husband" even Pope had praised; "The Nonjuror," an adaptation of Molière's "Tartuffe," was one of the most successful comedies of the period. The King had been delighted with it,--a circumstance doubtless considered by Sir Robert in selecting a rival for Savage. Cibber had likewise been the manager, time out of mind, of Drury-Lane Theatre; and if now and then he had failed to recognize the exact direction of popular taste,--as in the instance of the "Beggar's Opera," which he rejected, and which, being accepted by Manager Rich of Covent Garden, made Rich gay and Gay rich,--he was generally a sound stage-tactician and judicious caterer. His career, however, had not been so profitable that an additional hundred pounds should be a thing of indifference; in fact, the sum seemed to be just what was needed to enable him to forsake active duty on the stage,--for the patent was no sooner signed than the veteran retired upon his laurels.
The annals of the Laureateship, during Cibber's reign, are without incident. The duties remained unchanged, and were performed, there is no reason to doubt, to the contentment of the King and court. But the Laureate himself was peculiarly the object of sarcastic satire. The standing causes were of course in operation: the envy of rival poetasters, the dislike of political opponents, the enmities originating in professional disputes and jealousies. Cibber's manners had not been studied in the school of Chesterfield, although that school was then open and flourishing. He was rude, presumptuous, dogmatic. To superiors in rank he was grudgingly respectful; to equals and inferiors, insupportably insolent. But when to these aggravating traits he added the vanity of printing an autobiography, exposing a thousand assailable points in his life and character, the temptation was irresistible, and the whole population of Grub Street enlisted in a crusade against him. Fortunately, beneath the crust of insolence and vanity, there was a substratum of genuine power in the Laureate's make, which rendered him not only a match for these, but for even a greater than these, the author of the "Dunciad." Pope's antipathy for the truculent actor dated some distance back.
Back to the 'Devil,' the last echoes roll,
And 'Coll!' each butcher roars at Hockley-hole.
The latter accounts for it by telling, that at the first representation of Gay's "Three Hours after Marriage," in 1717, where one of the scenes was violently hissed, some angry words passed between the irritated manager and Pope, who was behind the scenes, and was erroneously supposed to have aided in the authorship. The odds of a scolding match must have been all in favor of the blustering Cibber, rather than of the nervous and timid Pope; but then the latter had a faculty of hate, which his antagonist had not, and he exercised it vigorously. The allusions to Cibber in his later poems are frequent. Thus, in the "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot":--
"And has not Colley still his Lord and whore?
His butchers Henley? his freemasons Moore?"
"So humble he has knocked at Tibbald's door,
Has drunk with Colley, nay, has rhymed for Moore."
And in the "Imitation of Horace," addressed to Lord Fortescue:--
"Better be Cibber, I maintain it still,
Than ridicule all taste, blaspheme, quadrille."
"The Dunciad," as originally published in 1728, had Lewis Theobald for its hero. There was neither sense nor justice in the selection. Pope hated Theobald for presuming to edit the plays of Shakspeare with greatly more ability and acuteness than himself had brought to the task. His dislike had no better foundation. Neither the works, the character, nor the associations of the man authorized his elevation to the throne of dulness. The disproportion between the subject and the satire instantly impresses the reader. After the first explosion of his malice, it impressed Pope; and anxious to redeem his error, he sought diligently for some plan of dethroning Tibbald, and raising another to the vacant seat. Cibber, in the mean time, was elevated to the laurel, and that by statesmen whom it was the fate of Pope to detest in secret, and yet not dare to attack in print. The Fourth Book of the "Dunciad" appeared in 1742, and its attacks were mainly levelled at the Laureate. The Laureate replied in a pamphlet, deprecating the poet's injustice, and declaring his unconsciousness of any provocation for these reiterated assaults. At the same time he announced his determination to carry on the war in prose as long as the satirist should wage it in verse,--pamphlet for poem, world without end. Hostilities were now fairly established. Pope issued a fresh edition of his satire complete. The change he had long coveted he now made. The name of Cibber was substituted throughout for that of Theobald, the portraiture remaining the same. Johnson properly ridicules the absurdity of leaving the heavy traits of Theobald on the canvas, and simply affixing the name of his mercurial contemporary beneath; and, indeed, there is much reason to doubt whether the mean jealousy which inspired the first "Dunciad," or the blundering rage which disfigured the second, is in the worse taste. Cibber kept his engagement, replying in pamphlet. The immediate victory was unquestionably his. Morbidly sensitive to ridicule, Pope suffered acutely. Richardson, who found him once with the Cibberine leaves in his hand, declared his persuasion, from the spectacle of rage, vexation, and mortification he witnessed, that the poet's death resulted from the strokes of the Laureate. If so, we must concede him to have been the victor who laid his adversary at his feet on the field. Posterity, however, which listens only to the satirist, has judged differently and unjustly. Theobald, though of no original talent, was certainly, in his generation, the most successful illustrator of Shakspeare, and the first, though Rowe and Pope had preceded him in the effort, who had brought a sound verbal criticism to bear on the text. It is to his credit, that many of the most ingenious emendations suggested in Mr. Collier's famous folio were anticipated by this "king of the dunces"; and it must be owned, that his edition is as far superior to Warburton's and Hanmer's, which were not long after brought out with a deafening flourish of trumpets, as the editions of Steevens and Malone are to his. Yet, prompted by the "Dunciad," it is the fashion of literature to regard Theobald with compassion, as a block-head and empiric. Cibber escapes but little better, and yet he was a man of respectable talent, and played no second-rate part in the literary history of the time.
As Laureate Cibber drew near the end of earthly things, a desire, common to poetical as well as political potentates, possessed him,--a desire to nominate a successor. In his case, indeed, the idea may have been borrowed from "MacFlecknoe" or the "Dunciad." The Earl of Chesterfield, during his administration in Ireland, had discovered a rival to Ben Jonson in the person of a poetical bricklayer, one Henry Jones, whom his Lordship carried with him to London, as a specimen of the indigenous tribes of Erin. It was easier for this Jones to rhyme in heroics than to handle a trowel or construct a chimney. He rhymed, therefore, for the amusement and in honor of the polite circle of which Stanhope was the centre; the fashionable world subscribed magnificently for his volume of "Poems upon Several Occasions"; his tragedy, "The Earl of Essex," in the composition of which his patron is said to have shared, was universally applauded. Its introduction to the stage was the work of Cibber; and Cibber, assisted by Chesterfield, labored zealously to secure the author a reversion of the laurel upon his own lamented demise.
The effort was unsuccessful. Cibber's death occurred in December, 1757. The administration of the elder Pitt, which had been restored six months before, was insensible to the merits of the prodigious bricklayer. The wreath was tendered to Thomas Gray. It would, no doubt, have proved a grateful relief to royalty, obliged for twenty-seven years to listen twice yearly, if not oftener, to the monotonous felicitations of Colley, to hear in his stead the author of the "Bard," of the "Progress of Poetry," of the "Ode at Eton College." But the relief was denied it. Gray, ambitious only of the historical chair at Cambridge, declined the laurel. In the mean time, the claims of William Whitehead were earnestly advocated with the Lord Chamberlain, by Lord and Lady Jersey, and by the Earl Harcourt. A large vote in the House of Commons might be affected by a refusal. Pitt, who cared nothing for the laurel, but much for the votes, gave his assent, and Whitehead was appointed. Whitehead was the son of a baker, and, as an eleëmosynary scholar at Winchester School, had won a poetical prize offered to the students by Alexander Pope. Obtaining a free scholarship at Cambridge, he became in due time a fellow of Clare Hall, and subsequently tutor to the sons of Lord Jersey and Lord Harcourt, with whom he made the tour of the Continent. Two of his tragedies, "The Roman Father," and "Creüsa," met with more success than they deserved. A volume of poems, not without merit, was given to the press in 1756, and met with unusual favor through the exertions of his two noble friends. That he was not a personal applicant for the laurel, nor conscious of the movement in his behalf, he takes occasion in one of his poems to state:--
"Howe'er unworthily I wear the crown,
unasked it came, and from a hand unknown."
From the warm championship of his friends, and the commendations of Mason, the friend of Gray, we infer that Whitehead was not destitute of fine social qualities. His verse, which is of the only type current a century ago, is elegantly smooth, and wearisomely tame,--nowhere rising into striking or original beauties. Among his merits as a poet modesty was not. His "Charge to the Poets," published in 1762, drew upon him the wrath and ridicule of his fellow-verse-wrights, and perhaps deservedly. Assuming, with amusing vanity, what, if ever true, was only so a century before or a half-century after, that the laurel was the emblem of supremacy in the realm of letters, and that it had been granted him as a token of his matchless merit,--
"Since my king and patron have thought fit
To place me on the throne of modern wit,--"
he proceeds to read the subject throng a saucy lecture on their vices and follies,--
"As bishops to their clergy give their charge."
A good-natured dogmatism is the tone of the whole; but presumption and dogmatism find no charity among the _genus irritabile_, and Whitehead received no quarter. Small wits and great levelled their strokes at a hide which self-conceit had happily rendered proof. The sturdiest assailant was Charles Churchill. He never spares him,--
"Who in the Laureate chair--
By grace, not merit, planted there--
In awkward pomp is seen to sit,
And by his patent proves his wit;
For favors of the great, we know,
Can wit as well as rank bestow;
And they who, without one pretension,
Can get for fools a place or pension,
Must able be supposed, of course,
If reason is allowed due force,
To give such qualities and grace
As may equip them for the place.
"But he who measures as he goes
A mongrel kind of tinkling prose,
And is too frugal to dispense
At once both poetry and sense,--
Who, from amidst his slumbering guards,
Deals out a charge to subject bards,
Where couplets after couplets creep,
Propitious to the reign of sleep," etc.
Again, in the "Prophecy of Famine,"--
"A form, by silken smile, and tone
Dull and unvaried, for the Laureate known,
Folly's chief friend, Decorum's eldest son,
In every party found, and yet of none,
This airy substance, this substantial shade."
And elsewhere he begs for
"Some such draught...
As makes a Whitehead's ode go down,
Or slakes the feverette of Brown."
But satire disturbed not the calm equanimity of the pensioner and placeman.
"The laurel worn
By poets in old time, but destined now
In grief to wither on a Whitehead's brow,"
continued to fade there, until a whole generation of poets had passed away. It was not until the middle of April, 1785, that Death made way for a successor.
The suddenness of Whitehead's decease came near leaving a royal birthday unsung,--an omission scarcely pardonable with one of George the Third's methodical habits. An impromptu appointment had to be made. It was made before the Laureate was buried. Thomas Warton, the Professor of Poetry at Oxford, received the patent on the 30th of April, and his ode, married to fitting music, was duly forthcoming on the 24th of May. The selection of Warton was faultless. His lyrical verse was the best of a vicious school; his sonnets, according to that exquisite sonneteer, Sir Egerton Brydges, were the finest in the language; his "History of English Poetry," of which three volumes had appeared, displayed an intimate acquaintance with the early English writers. Nor should we pass unnoticed his criticisms and annotations upon Milton and Spenser, manifesting as they did the acutest sensitiveness to the finest beauties of poetry. If the laurel implied the premiership of living poets, Warton certainly deserved it. He was a head and shoulders taller than his actual contemporaries. He stood in the gap between the old school and the new, between the dead and the coming. Goldsmith and Johnson were no more; Cowper did not print his "Task" until the autumn of 1785; Burns made his _début_ about the same moment; Rogers published his "Ode to Superstition" the next year; the famous "Fourteen Sonnets" of Bowles came two years later; while Wordsworth and Landor made their first appearance in 1793. Fortunate thus in time, Warton was equally fortunate in politics. He was an Oxford Tory, a firm believer in divine right and passive obedience, and a warm supporter of the new ministers. To the King, it may be added, no nomination could have given greater satisfaction. The official odes of Warton evince all the elegant traits which characterize his other writings. Their refined taste and exquisite modulation are admirable; while the matter is far less sycophantic than was to be expected from so devout a monarchist. The tender of the laurel certainly gratified him:--
"Yet still one joy remains, that not obscure
Nor useless all my vacant days have flowed,
From youth's gay dawn to manhood's prime mature,
Nor with the Muse's laurel unbestowed."
And, like Southey, he was not indisposed to enhance the dignity of the wreath by classing Chaucer and Spenser, as we have seen, among its wearers. The genuine claims of Warton to respect probably saved him from the customary attacks. Bating a few bungling thrusts amid the doggerel of "Peter Pindar," he escaped scathless,--gaining, on the other hand, a far more than ordinary proportion of poetical panegyric.
"Affection and applause alike he shared;
All loved the man, all venerate the bard:
E'en Prejudice his fate afflicted hears,
And lettered Envy sheds reluctant tears.
Such worth the laurel could alone repay,
Profaned by Cibber, and contemned by Gray;
Yet hence its Breath shall new distinction claim,
And, though it gave not, take from Warton fame."
The last of Warton's odes was written in his last illness, and performed three days after his death. Appositely enough, it was an invocation to Health, meriting more than ordinary praise for eloquent fervor. Warton died May 21st, 1790. The laurel was vacant for a month, when Henry James Pye was gazetted. There was hardly a hungry placeman in London who had not as just pretensions to the honor. What poetical gifts he had displayed had been in school or college exercises. His real claims consisted in having spent a fortune in electioneering for ministers; and these claims being pressed with unusual urgency at the moment of Warton's death, he was offered the Laureateship as satisfaction in part. He eagerly accepted it, and received the balance two years later in the shape of a commission as Police Magistrate of Middlesex. Thereafter, like Henry Fielding, or Gilbert A'Beckett, he divided his days between penal law and polite literature. His version of the "Poetics" of Aristotle, with illustrations drawn liberally from recent authors, was perhaps begotten of a natural wish to satisfy the public that qualifications for the laurel were not wholly wanting. A barren devotion to the drama was always his foible. It was freely indulged. With few exceptions, his plays were affairs of partnership with Samuel James Arnold, a writer of ephemeral popularity, whose tale of "The Haunted Island" was wildly admired by readers of the intensely romantic school, but whose tragedies, melodramas, comedies, farces, operas, are now forgotten. In addition to these auxiliary labors, which ripened yearly, Pye tried his hand at an epic,--the subject, King Alfred,--the plot and treatment not greatly differing from those which Blackmore brought to the same enterprise. The poem passed at once from the bookshop to the trunk-maker,--not, however, before an American publisher was found daring enough to reprint it. There are also to be mentioned translations from Pindar, Horace, and other classics, for Sharpe's edition of the British Poets, a collection to which he lent editorial aid. "Poet Pye" was fortunate in escaping contemporary wit and satire. Gifford alluded to him, but Gifford's Toryism was security that no Tory Court-Poet would be roughly handled. Byron passed him in silence. The Smiths treated him as respectfully as they treated anybody. Moore's wit at the expense of the Regent and his courtiers had only found vent in the "Two-Penny Post-Bag" when Pye was gathered to his predecessors.
That calamity occurred in August, 1813. With it ended the era of birthday songs and New-Year's verses. The King was mad; his nativity was therefore hardly a rational topic of rejoicing. The Prince Regent had no taste for the solemn inanity of stipulated ode, the performance of which only served to render insufferably tedious the services of the two occasions in the year when imperative custom demanded his attendance at the Chapel. Consultation was had with John Wilson Croker, Secretary of the Admiralty. Croker' s sharp common-sense at once suggested the abolition of the Laureate duties, but the retention of the office as a sinecure. Walter Scott, to whom the place was offered, as the most popular of living poets, seconded the counsel of Croker, but declined the appointment, as beneath the dignity of the intended founder of a long line of border knights. He recommended Southey. He had already recommended Southey to the "Quarterly," and through the "Quarterly" to Croker, then and still its most brilliant contributor; and this second instance of disinterested kindness was equally efficacious. Southey was appointed. The tierce of Canary ceased to be a perquisite of the office, the Laureate disclaiming it; and instead of annual odes upon set occasions, such effusions as the poet might choose to offer at the suggestion of passing events were to be accepted as the sum of official duty. These were to be said or read, not sung,--a change that completed the radical revolution of the office.
However important the salary of a hundred pounds may have been to Southey, it is very sure that the laurel seemed to infuse all its noxious and poisonous juices into his literary character. His vanity, like Whitehead's, led him to regard his chaplet as the reward of unrivalled merit. His study-chair was glorified, and became a throne. His supremacy in poetry was as indubitable as the king's supremacy in matters ecclesiastical. He felt himself constrained to eliminate utterly from his conscience whatever traces of early republicanism, pantisocracy, and heresy still disfigured it; and to conform unreservedly to the exactest requirements of high Toryism in politics and high Churchism in religion. He was in the pay and formed a part of the government; could he do else than toil mightily in his department for the service of a master who had so sagaciously anticipated the verdict of posterity, as to declare him, who was the least popular, the greatest of living poets? He found it a duty to assume a rigid censorship over as many of his Majesty's lieges as were addicted to verse,--to enact the functions of minister of literary police,--to reprehend the levity of Moore, the impiety of Byron, the democracy of Leigh Hunt, the unhappy lapse of Hazlitt, the drunkenness of Lamb. Assumptions so open to ridicule, and so disparaging to far abler men, told as disadvantageously upon his fame as upon his character. He became the butt of contemporary satire. Horace Smith, Moore, Shelley, Byron, lampooned him savagely. The latter made him the hero of his wicked "Vision of Judgment," and to him dedicated his "Don Juan." The dedication was suppressed; but no chance offered in the body of that profligate rhapsody to assail Bob Southey, that was not vigorously employed. The self-content of the Laureate armed him, however, against every thrust. Contempt he interpreted as envy of his sublime elevation:--
"Grin, Envy, through thy ragged mask of scorn!
In honor it was given; with honor it is worn."
Of course such matchless self-complacency defied assault.
Southey's congratulatory odes appeared as often as public occasion seemed to demand them. There were in rapid succession the "Ode to the Regent," the "Carmen Triumphale," the "Pilgrimage to Waterloo," the "Vision of Judgment," the "Carmen Nuptiale," the "Ode on the Death of the Princess Charlotte." The "Quarterly" exalted them, one and all; the "Edinburgh" poured upon them volleys of keen but ineffectual ridicule. At last the Laureate desisted. The odes no longer appeared; and during the long and dark closing years of his life, the only production of the Laureate pen was the yearly signature to a receipt for one hundred pounds sterling, official salary.
Robert Southey died in March, 1843. Sir Robert Peel, who had obliged Wordsworth the year before, by transferring the post in the excise, which he had so long held, to the poet's son, and substituting a pension for its salary, testified further his respect for the Bard of Rydal by tendering him the laurel. It was not to be refused. Had the office been hampered with any demands upon the occupant for popular lyric, in celebration of notable events, Wordsworth was certainly the last man to place in it. His frigid nature was incapable of that prompt enthusiasm, without which, poetry, especially poetry responsive to some strong emotion momentarily agitating the popular heart, is lifeless and worthless. Fortunately, there were no such exactions. The office had risen from its once low estate to be a dignified sinecure. As such, Wordsworth filled it; and, dying, left it without one poetical evidence of having worn the wreath.
To him, in May, 1850, succeeded, who, as the most acceptable poet of the day, could alone rightly succeed, Alfred Tennyson, the actual Poet-Laureate. Not without opposition. There were those who endeavored to extinguish the office, and hang up the laurel forever,--and to that end brought pregnant argument to bear upon government. "The Times" was more than usually decided in favor of the policy of extinguishment. Give the salary, it was urged, as a pension to some deserving writer of verse, whose necessities are exacting; but abolish a title degraded by association with names and uses so unworthy, as to confer shame, not honor, on the wearer. The laurel is presumed to be granted to the ablest living English poet. What vocation have the Tite Barnacles, red-tapists, vote-mongers, of Downing Street to discriminate and determine this supreme poetical excellence, in regard to which the nicest critics, or the most refined and appreciative reading public may reasonably differ among themselves as widely as the stars? On the other hand, it was argued, that the laurel had, from its last two wearers, recovered its lost dignity. They had lent it honor, which it could not fail to confer upon any survivor, however great his name. If, then, the old odium had disappeared, why not retain the place for the sake of the ancient worthies whom tradition had handed down as at one time or another connected with it? There was rarely difficulty in selecting from among contemporary poets one of preëminent talent, whose elevation to the laurel would offend none of his fellows. There was certainly no difficulty in the present case. There was palpable evidence that Tennyson was by all admission the hierophant of his order; and it would be time enough to dispense with the title when a future occasion should be at a loss to decide among contending candidates. The latter reasoning prevailed. Tennyson accepted the laurel, and with it a self-imposed obligation to make occasional acknowledgments for the gift.
The first opportunity presented itself in the issue of a fresh edition of his poems, in 1851. To these he prefixed some noble verses, dedicating the volumes to the Queen, and referring with as much delicacy as modesty to his place and his predecessor:--
"Victoria,--since your royal grace
To one of less desert allows
This laurel, greener from the brows
Of him that uttered nothing base."--
The next occasion was of a different order. The hero of Waterloo ended his long life in 1852, and a nation was in mourning. Then, if ever, poets, whether laurelled or leafless, were called to give eloquent utterance to the popular grief; and Tennyson, of all the poets, was looked to for its highest expression. The Threnode of the Laureate was duly forthcoming. The public was, as it had no right to be, disappointed. Tennyson's Muse was ever a wild and wilful creature, defiant of rules, and daringly insubordinate to arbitrary forms. It could not, with the witling in the play, cap verses with any man. The moment its tasks were dictated and the form prescribed, that moment there was ground to expect the self-willed jade to play a jade's trick, and leave us with no decent results of inspiration. For odes and sonnets, and other such Procrustean moulds into which poetic thought is at times cast, Tennyson had neither gift nor liking. When, therefore, with the Duke's death, came a sudden demand upon his Muse, and that in shape so solemn as to forbid, as the poet conceived, any fanciful license of invention, the Pindaric form seemed inevitable; and that form rendered a fair exhibition of the poet's peculiar genius out of the question. Strapped up in prescription, and impelled to move by official impulse, his Pegasus was as awkward as a cart-horse. And yet men did him the justice to say that his failure out-topped the success of others.
Far better--indeed, with the animating thrill of the war-trumpet--was "The Charge of the Light Brigade," and simply because the topic admitted of whatever novelty of treatment the bias of the bard might devise. This is the Laureate's most successful attempt at strictly popular composition. It proves him to possess the stuff of a Tyrtaeus or a Körner,--something vastly more stirring and stimulating than the usual staple of
"The dry-tongued laurel's pattering talk."
Howbeit, late may he have call for another war-song!
With the name of Tennyson we reach the term of our Laureate calendar. Long ages and much perilously dry research must he traverse who shall enlarge these outlines to the worthier proportions of history. Yet will the labor not be wholly barren. It will bring him in contact with all the famous of letters and poetry; he will fight over again numberless quarrels of authors; he will soar in boundless Pindaric flights, or sink, sooth to say, in unfathomed deeps of bathos. With one moral he will be profoundly impressed: Of all the more splendid results of genius which adorn our language and literature,--for the literature of the English language is ours,--not one owes its existence to the laurel; not one can be directly or indirectly traced to royal encouragement, or the stimulus of salary or stipend. The laurel, though ever green, and throwing out blossoms now and then of notable promise, has borne no fruit. We might strike from the language all that is ascribable solely to the honor and emolument of this office, without inflicting a serious loss upon letters. The masques of Jonson would be regretted; a few lines of Tennyson would be missed. For the rest, we might readily console ourselves. It may certainly be urged, that the laurel was designed rather as a reward than as a provocative of merit; but the allegation has become true only within the last half-century. Antecedently to Southey, it was the consideration for which return in poetry was demanded,--in the first instance, a return in dramatic poetry, and then in the formal lyric. It was put forth as the stimulus to works good in their several kinds, and it may be justly complained of for never having provoked any good works. To represent it as a reward commensurate with the merits of Wordsworth and Tennyson, or even of Southey, is to rate three first-class names in modern poetry on a level with the names of those third-rate "poetillos" who, during the eighteenth century, obtained the same reward for two intolerable effusions yearly. Upon the whole, therefore, we incline to the opinion that the laurel can no longer confer honor or profit upon literature. Sack is palatable, and a hundred pounds are eminently useful; but the arbitrary judgments of queens and courtiers upon poetical issues are neither useful nor palatable. The world may, in fact, contrive to content itself, should King Alfred prove the last of the Laureates.
[Footnote 1: Schol. Vet. ad _Nem. Od._ 5.]
[Footnote 2: Commentators agree, we believe, that there was an error as to the sum. But we tell the story as we find it.]
[Footnote 3: DRYDEN, _Epistle to Wm. Congreve_, 1693.]
[Footnote 4: The _Threnodia Augustalis_, 1685, where the eulogy is equitably distributed between the dead Charles and the living James.]
[Footnote 5: Dr. Johnson tells the story of Rowe having applied to Lord Oxford for promotion, and being asked whether he understood Spanish. Elated with the prospect of an embassy to Madrid, Rowe hurried home, shut himself up, and for months devoted himself to the study of a language the possession of which was to make his fortune. At length, he reappeared at the Minister's _levée_ and announced himself a Spanish scholar. "Then," said Lord Oxford, shaking his hand cordially, "let me congratulate you on your ability to enjoy _Don Quixote_, in the original." Johnson seems to throw doubt on the story, because Rowe would not even speak to a Tory, and certainly would not apply to a Tory minister for advancement. But Oxford was once a Whig, and was in office as such; and it was probably at that period the incident occurred.]
[Footnote 6: Battle of the Poets, 1725.]
"Harmonious Cibber entertains
The court with annual birthday strains,
Whence Gay was banished in disgrace,
Where Pope will never show his face,
Where Young must torture his invention
To flatter knaves,
=== no match ===
or lose his pension."
SWIFT, _Poetry, a Rhapsody,_ 1733.]
"Know, Eusden thirsts no more for sack or praise;
He sleeps among the dull of ancient days;
Where wretched Withers, Ward, and Gildon rest,
And high-born Howard, more majestic sire,
With fool of quality completes the choir.
Thou, Cibber! thou his laurel shalt support;
Folly, my son, has still a friend at court."
_Dunciad_, Bk. I.
Warburton, by-the-by, exculpates Eusden from any worse fault, as a writer, than being too prolix and too prolific.--See Note to _Dunciad_, Bk. II. 291.]
[Footnote 9: Duck stands at the head of the prodigious school in English literature. All the poetical bricklayers, weavers, cobblers, farmer's boys, shepherds, and basket-makers, who have since astonished their day and generation, hail him as their general father.]
[Footnote 10: The antiquary may be pleased to know that the "Devil" tavern in Fleet Street, the old haunt of the dramatists, was the place where the choir of the Chapel Royal gathered to rehearse the Laureate odes. Hence Pope, at the close of _Dunciad I._,
"Then swells the Chapel-Royal throat;
'God save King Cibber!' mounts in every note.
Familiar White's 'God save King Colley!' cries;
'God save King Colley!' Drury-Lane replies;"]
"On his own works with laurel crowned,
Neatly and elegantly bound,--
For this is one of many rules
With writing Lords and laureate fools,
And which forever must succeed
With other Lords who cannot read,
However destitute of wit,
To make their works for bookcase fit,--
Acknowledged master of those seats,
Cibber his birthday odes repeats."
CHURCHILL, _The Ghost_.]
[Footnote 12: Swift charges Colley with having wronged Grub Street, by appropriating to himself all the money Britain designed for its poets:--
"Your portion, taking Britain round,
Was just one annual hundred pound;
Now not so much as in remainder,
Since Cibber brought in an attainder,
Forever fixed by right divine,
A monarch's right, on Grub-Street line."
_Poetry, a Rhapsody_, 1733.]
[Footnote 13: Whatever momentary benefit may result from satire, it is clear that its influence in the long run is injurious to literature. The satirist, like a malignant Archimago, creates a false medium, through which posterity is obliged to look at his contemporaries,--a medium which so refracts and distorts their images, that it is almost out of the question to see them correctly. There is no rule, as in astronomy, by which this refraction may be allowed for and corrected.]
[Footnote 14: London, 1749, 8vo.]
[Footnote 15: Charge to the Poets, 1762.]
[Footnote 16: If the reader cares to hear the best that can be said of Thomas Warton, let him read the Life of Milton, prefixed by Sir Egerton Brydges to his edition of the poet. If he has any curiosity to hear the other side, let him read all that Ritson ever wrote, and Dr. Charles Symnions, in the Life of Milton, prefixed to the standard edition of the Prose Works, 1806. Symnions denies to Warton the possession of taste, learning, or sense. Certainly, to an American, the character of Joseph Warton, the brother of Thomas, is far more amiable. Joseph was as liberal as his brother was bigoted. While Thomas omits no chance of condemning Milton's republicanism, in his notes to the Minor Poems, Joseph is always disposed to sympathize with the poet. The same generous temper characterizes his commentary upon Dryden.]
[Footnote 17: _Sonnet upon the River Lodon_.]
[Footnote 18: Dr. Huddersford's _Salmagundi_.]
[Footnote 19: One of the earlier poems of Alexander Wilson, the ornithologist, was entitled, _The Laurel Disputed_, and was published in 1791. We have not met with it; but we apprehend, from title and date, that it is a _jeu d'esprit_, founded upon the recent appointment. The poetry of Wilson was characterized by much original humor.]
"Come to our _fête_, and show again
That pea-green coat, thou pink of men!
Which charmed all eyes, that last surveyed it;
When Brummel's self inquired, 'Who made it?'
When Cits came wondering from the East,
And thought thee Poet Pye at least."
_Two-Penny Post-Bag_, 1812.]
[Footnote 21: TENNYSON, _Maud_.]