The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Nahum Tate
It is amusing, if not edifying, to observe the manner in which all works of general reference, save a very few, repeat in regular succession the idlest inventions, and the clumsiest distortions of fact. In literary history this is especially the case, and we can trace in dictionary after dictionary, life after life, note upon note, some blunder copied with slight variations by book-makers, who lacked the honest industry to investigate, or the ingenuity to detect falsehood.
So because Tate was put into the "Dunciad," and Warburton sought to crush him, he has ever since been treated as a malefactor and impostor. In "The Pictorial History of England" he is described as "the author of the worst alteration of Shakespeare, the worst version of the Psalms of David, and the worst continuation of a great poem." Now it nevertheless does so happen, that his alteration of "King Lear" kept possession of the stage for nearly a century, and that Dr. Johnson admits that when an attempt was made to play the tragedy as Shakespeare wrote it, the public decided in favour of Tate; that in seeking to dwarf the sublimity of Hebrew poetry by English rhyme and metre, he has only failed where every one else has done so; that his Version of the Psalms has for more than a hundred and fifty years been used in our Churches; that it was in itself no small thing to be Dryden's coadjutor; and that the parts of the continuation contributed by Tate have such merit, that Sir Walter Scott, not prone to be charitable towards him, is compelled to conjecture that they underwent the revision of Dryden.
He was doubtless only a second-rate man; but does he deserve to be damned in one sentence as a tenth-rate scribbler by those who very probably have read but a small portion of his works? In another compilation, full of inaccuracies, he is assailed with acrimony, and treated with contempt. That he was the friend of Dryden, the protégé of Dorset, and Laureate for a quarter of a century, even those writers so hasty and indiscriminate in their censures will not deny. We may perhaps show that, however extravagant in tragedy, he was as a dramatist tolerably successful in comedy, farce, and opera; that he has done some good service as an English Psalmodist, and that he is not utterly unworthy of a brief, if not a eulogistic memoir.
Nahum Tate's grandfather and father were both clergymen. It is to be regretted that he did not adopt the hereditary profession. Coleridge has declared that all literary men should have some source of income besides the pen; and there is no lack of instances to show that first as well as second-rate men of letters may live and die in indigence; and that in one age refuge may be sought in the Mint, in another in the Insolvent Court. His father, Dr. Faithful Teat, (for in this way was the name spelled until Tate adopted the English orthography of the Irish mal-pronunciation) was minister of Ballyhays. He was educated at Winchester, but expelled from that school; and became the author of some poems and theological works. During some disturbances in Ireland, he gave information against a party of rebels, who wreaked their vengeance by robbing him on his way to Dublin; while a part of the gang simultaneously plundered his house, and treated his family with such severity that three of his children died from the cruelties inflicted on them. After residing some time in the lodgings of the Provost of Trinity College, Dublin, he was appointed to preferment in Kent, but finally returned to Dublin. He is supposed to have been inclined to Puritanical opinions; but the surmise may have arisen from the fact of his giving his children (which was the fashion with this party) scriptural names.
Nahum was born at Dublin in 1652. He was for some time at Belfast under the tuition of a master whose name was Savage, and he matriculated at the age of sixteen, at Trinity College, Dublin. Of his university career nothing whatever is known. He appears to have determined on not adopting a profession, and came up to London to seek his fortune as a literary man. He was so fortunate as to gain the friendship of Dryden and the patronage of Dorset. His earliest production was a volume of poems in 1677. It consists of a great many verses on subjects the most heterogeneous. One composition laments "the present corrupted state of Poetry," and is, doubtlessly, a striking example of the decay of which it complains. There are some erotic lays replete with the quaintest and most elaborate conceits. The last stanza of a poem called "The Tear," reminds us, of (but we must not compare it with) Mr. Rogers' simple and beautiful lines on the same subject. Tate's are:
"It shall be so. I will convert
This tear to a gem—tis feasible;
For laid near Julia's frozen heart
'Twill to a diamond congeal;
And yet, if I consider well,
These tears of Julia can forbode no ill—
The frost is breaking, when such drops distil."
But the booksellers who catered for the taste of the small reading public of that day did not remunerate our poet very liberally for these effusions; so he betook himself, at once, to the stage, then the best source of income to authors.
His first production was "Brutus of Alba, or the Enchanted Lovers," a tragedy. It was dedicated to the Earl of Dorset with the usual amount of flattery, and the poet tells his patron that to lay this tragedy at his feet transports him more than the greatest success on the stage could have done. The play was originally to have been called "Dido and Æneas," but Tate with much modesty feared to attempt "any character drawn by the incomparable Virgil." The plot is founded on an old story told by Geoffrey of Monmouth, who gives the descent of the Welsh Princes from Brutus the Trojan. This Brutus, according to him, came from Troy to Albion, killed a race of giants who occupied this country, and then built London. Tate applies the incidents of the fourth book of the Æneid to this fabulous hero; and as it is his first and most original drama, the reader may be amused by a short account of the plot, which is interesting from its daring absurdities. The scene is laid at Syracuse. Brutus, Prince of the Dardan forces, has been cast by a storm on the shore of Sicily. He is brought into the presence of the Queen of Syracuse, who at once falls hopelessly in love with him. With him is his son Locrinus, who signalizes himself by slaying in a quarrel a young Syracusan, the son of Soziman. Brutus, with much magnanimity, gives up his son to justice; but upon the youth explaining to her Majesty that he was entirely in the right, and the dead man entirely in the wrong, she instantly pardons him, and makes Soziman, who is described as a designing lord, her secret enemy. Brutus is so much distracted with grief for the loss of his friend Assaracus, who has on his voyage suffered shipwreck, that he cannot at first reciprocate the royal regard. Meanwhile, two ambassadors arrive from Agrigentum to demand the Queen in marriage for their lord and master, offering the alternative of war in case of a refusal. Her Majesty valorously and haughtily spurns the proposal. Soziman, however, resolves in a soliloquy that the tyrant of Agrigentum shall have the Queen's person while he allots to himself the sceptre of Syracuse. In the midst of all this, the lost friend, Assaracus, arrives. Brutus is in ecstasies of joy. Then ensues a tender scene between the Queen and her confidante Amarante, in which the royal lady confesses the soft impeachment of being over head and ears in love with Brutus. So ends Act I.
In Act II., the Agrigentine ambassadors and Soziman intrigue, and a plan is arranged by which Soziman is to be put in possession of the throne of Syracuse, on the condition of the Queen being delivered up into the hands of the King of Agrigentum. Meanwhile, her charms have won her another lover in Assaracus, who declares his passion in a very rough and blustering style, informing her that he has been so unfortunate as to have become enamoured of her, that he is very sorry for it, and hopes she will in no way encourage his advances. She replies that she will endeavour to be as reserved as he wishes, but confesses in a soliloquy that she cannot but admire the odd grace of his surly passion. Brutus and Assaracus are both invited to join her Majesty in a hunting expedition. Next follows an interview between Brutus and the Queen, who is surprised by him while doing homage at the tomb of her departed husband. Brutus declares his passion. She is irresolute, and exclaims:
"What can I give, when charity to you
Is perjury to my deceased Argaces?"
In Act III., Ragusa, a sorceress, is in league with Soziman to ruin the virtue and constancy of the Queen. She has four female attendants, who are coarse imitations of the witches in "Macbeth." In this act, the supernatural element is introduced to a terrific extent. Ragusa and her haggard satellites conspire with Soziman, and it is agreed that the Queen and Prince shall be driven to seek refuge from a storm in the same cavern, and that then a philtre, administered by Soziman, shall work its dread effects. The sports begin, the storm is raised, they fly for shelter to the same cavern, and with, of course, the same result as in the case of Dido and Æneas—
"Prima et Tellus et pronuba Juno
Dant signum; fulsere ignes, et conscius æther
Connubiis; summoque ulularunt vertice Nymphæ,
Ille dies primus leti primusque malorum
Act IV. The Queen pours out her grief to Amarante, and informs her of her ruin. She holds a dagger in her hand, with which, she informs her confidante, she contemplates stabbing Brutus. He, however, enters and succeeds in soothing her. She throws away the dagger, and there ensues much kneeling, weeping, and fainting. Assaracus, meanwhile, having overcome his passion for the Queen, reproaches Brutus with his delays, reminds him of the oracle which urged him to go to Albion, and pleads the cause of his son Locrinus, whom he represents as cheated out of his hopes of an empire. A stormy interview is ended by Assaracus stabbing himself to prove the sincerity of his sentiments. Brutus is so affected by this desperate act, that he gives orders for the sailing that night. The Queen enters, and asks whether it is his intention to fly from her, observing, that although he may leave her without destroying his peace of mind, that is gone for ever. He answers:
"You call him happy whom the damn'd would pity!
Despairing ghosts that yell in lightless flames
Would stand aghast to hear my sufferings told.
Reflect, and grow more patient of damnation!"
He then adds that go he must, and she, as a matter of course, swoons.
In the last act, the Queen raves about the perjury of Brutus. Amarante requests her Majesty to be tranquil, and declares that if she is not, she will commit suicide. The Queen is quieted. A conference next takes place between Ragusa and Soziman. She gives him a bracelet to wear which she has previously poisoned. To Ragusa it is announced by a spirit, whom she summons from the vasty deep, that she is doomed to perish that night, but she is consoled by the additional intelligence that it will be one of horrific deeds and disasters. Brutus is driven back by a storm, and there is another terrible parting scene between himself and his royal innamorata. Soziman has, in the interval, discovered that he has been poisoned by the bracelet. He goes off the stage in a fury, tearing his hair. The Queen is in agonies of grief, but is soothed by music, and dies. Amarante at this, stabs herself and dies also. The venom of the poisoned bracelet racks the frame of Soziman, and he rushes on, tearing his clothes, stabs himself, and, to use his own language, plunges "headlong to eternal deeps." At this conjuncture of affairs, the ambassadors from Agrigentum again arrive. They find all their plans frustrated. One exclaims "Prodigious!" while the other confesses that he is "lost in confusion." It is really a very bustling tragedy. There are in it only
And there is much thunder and lightning, rage, fury, and bombast throughout. There are horrors enough for a French novel, and it might be revived at a transpontine theatre with great effect. To speak of it in language applied to a different kind of composition: daggers, flames, and poison "dance through its pages in all the mazes of metaphorical confusion. These are the companions of a disturbed imagination—the melancholy madness of poetry without its inspiration."
In 1680, he produced "The Loyal General," the prologue to which was written by Dryden. Like that great poet, he prefixes to his plays dissertations, which are rather essays on some questions of criticism than prefaces properly so called. The introduction to "The Loyal General" contains some remarks on Shakespeare, which, though they may seem to possess little novelty now that the subject is exhausted, yet show that it was out of no want of respect and admiration for Shakespeare that Tate ventured to alter some of his plays. On the question of the amount of Shakespeare's learning, he asserts that he possessed more than by common report is granted him. He adds: "I am sure he never touches on a Roman story, but the persons, the passages, the manners, the circumstances are all Roman. And what relishes yet of a more exact knowledge, you do not only see a Roman in his hero, but the particular genius of the man without the least mistake of his character, given him by the best historians. You find his Antony, in all the defects and excellencies of his mind, a soldier, a reveller, amorous, sometimes rash, sometimes considerate, with all the various emotions of his mind. His Brutus, again, has all the constancy, gravity, morality, generosity imaginable, without the least mixture of private interest or irregular passion. He is true to him even in the imitation of his oratory, the famous speech which he makes him deliver, being exactly agreeable to his manner of expressing himself; of which we have this account: 'Facultas ejus erat militaris et bellicis accommodata tumultibus.'"
"The Loyal General" was succeeded by "The Sicilian Usurper," which is an alteration of "King Richard II." of Shakespeare. It was on political grounds suppressed. Tate some years afterwards published it; and in a prefatory epistle in vindication of himself, he says: "I fell upon the new modelling of this tragedy (as I had just before done on the history of King Lear), charmed with the many beauties I discovered in it, which I knew would become the stage; with as little design of satire on present transactions as Shakespeare himself, that wrote this story before this age began. I am not ignorant of the position of affairs in King Richard II.'s reign: how dissolute the age, and how corrupt the court, a season that beheld ignorance and infamy preferred to office, and power exercised in oppressing learning and merit; but why a history of these times should be suppressed as a libel on ours, is past my understanding. 'Tis sure the worst compliment that was ever paid to a prince."
As Tate has here alluded to his alteration of "King Lear," a few words may be here said on that subject. The crime of mutilating the works of Shakespeare cannot be magnified; but we must impute this seeming arrogance rather to the age than to the individual who attempted it. There appears to have been an impression at this time, that in taste and refinement they had so outstripped the cultivation of the Elizabethean era, that it was necessary to tame the extravagancies of Shakespeare's rude imagination. Davenant and Dryden had both set Tate the example. In altering "King Lear," Tate omitted the part of the Fool and introduced a love plot between Edgar and Cordelia. Tate's alteration, as has been before observed, maintained possession of the stage for a considerable time. Colman rejected most that Tate had added. Garrick did the same. When Kemble remodelled it in 1809, he reintroduced many of Tate's lines which had been rejected by Colman and Garrick. In speaking of this, the author of "The History of the English Stage," remarks, "When Shakespeare met John Kemble in the Elysian fields he said to him, 'I thank you heartily for your performance of my Coriolanus, Hamlet, Brutus, &c.—but did you never hear the good old proverb: The cobbler should not go beyond his last? Why would you tamper with the text of my plays? Why give many of my characters names which I never dreamed of? Above all, what could induce you to restore such passages of Tate as even Garrick had rejected when he revised King Lear. St. Laurence never suffered more on his gridiron than I have suffered from the prompt-book.'" Whatever alterations and restorations were occasionally made, it was not until at Drury Lane, in 1823, that the entire fifth act was played as Shakespeare wrote it. Here an unfortunate accident for a time baffled its success. Cordelia was impersonated by Mrs. West. Kean, who played Lear, was scarcely strong enough to carry her. This tempted the risibility of the house, and pit, boxes, and gallery joined in a laugh which lasted until the curtain fell.
Tate in his dramatic compositions has manifested no great desire to win the praise of originality. One successful play was more remunerative than many fulsome dedications. To amuse the theatre-goers, therefore, was the object of Tate and others—and they accordingly plundered the plots of their predecessors as unblushingly as we now prey on those of our Gallic contemporaries. In the nine dramatic pieces which he has left behind him, he borrowed from Ben Jonson, Fletcher, Dekker, and others—besides his alteration of Shakespeare. They had no brilliant success—more than one was a decided failure, but others were frequently played and remained stock pieces. His "Duke and no Duke," was last played at the Haymarket, in 1797. Into his "Richard II." Tate introduced some songs, one of which is the following:
"Retired from any mortal's sight,
The pensive Damon lay,
He blest the discontented night,
And cursed the smiling day:
The tender sharers of his pain,
His flocks no longer graze,
But sadly fixed around the swain,
Like silent mourners gaze.
"He heard the musick of the wood,
And with a sigh reply'd;
He saw the fish sport in the flood,
And wept a deeper tide.
In vain the summer bloom came on,
For still the drooping swain,
Like autumn winds was heard to groan,
Outwept the winter's rain.
"Some ease, said he, some respite give.
Ah, mighty powers! Ah, why
Am I too much distress'd to live,
And yet forbid to die?
Such accents from the shepherd flew,
Whilst on the ground he lay,
At last so deep a sigh he drew,
As bore his life away."
A song in "Cuckold's Haven" supplied Charles II. with a quotation, on an occasion mentioned by Mr. P. Cuningham in his charming story of "Nell Gwynne." The King was dining at the Guildhall. The courtiers and citizens drank as deep as was then the fashion. The Lord Mayor in his cups waxing practically facetious, Charles dismissed his suite without ceremony, and sought to extricate himself from the wine-inspired familiarities of the civic dignitary by stealing off to his coach. He was pursued; his Lordship seized him by the hand and said, "Sir, you shall stay, and take another bottle." The merry Monarch quoted from Tate:
"He that is drunk is as great as a king."
and went back to finish the wine.
In the play, at the end of Act II., there is another song equally in praise of Bacchus, which illustrates the political influence of the theatre, and the Support that it strove to give to the throne.
"How great are the blessings of Government made,
By the excellent rule of our Prince,
Who, while trouble and cares do his pleasure invade,
To his people all joy does dispense:
And while he for us is carking and thinking,
We have nothing to mind—but our shops and our trade,
And then to divert us with drinking.
"For him we derive all our pleasure and wealth,
Then fill me a glass; nay, fill it up higher,
My soul is athirst for his Majesty's health,
And an Ocean of drink can't quench my desire;
Since all we enjoy to his bounty we owe,
'Tis fit all our bumpers like that should o'erflow."
No materials exist, or if they do the authors of this work have failed to discover them, which would enable us to give any accurate or trustworthy account of the incidents of Tate's life. As dramatist we have spoken of him. Let the reader next look at him under the aspect of Laureate and psalmodist.
Tate succeeded on the demise of Shadwell in 1692. His appointment by Lord Jersey, after the accession of Queen Anne, is recorded in the following form of words:
"These are to certify that I have sworn and admitted Nahum Tate into ye place and quality of Poet-Laureate to her Majesty in ordinary, to have, hold, and exercise and enjoy the said place together with all rights, profits, privileges, and advantages thereunto belonging, in as full and ample manner as any Poet-Laureate hath formerly held and of right ought to have held and enjoyed the same.
"Given under my hand this 24th day of Decr., in the first year of her Majesty's reign.
During this reign the appointment was placed in the gift of the Lord Chamberlain, and Tate was re-appointed in 1714.
In his position as Laureate little can be said to his honour. His excuse we find in what we know of the literary men of that era. He was, as Mr. Macaulay says, in morals something between a beggar and a pander. In times of sudden change, it is scarcely probable that we should find the life of a necessitous man of letters, free from the inconsistency which blemished the careers of even the rich and noble. Tate was nearly five-and-twenty years a Poet-Laureate. He eulogized the memory of Charles II.; hailed the accession of James; welcomed William more enthusiastically; panegyrised Mary and Anne, living and dead; and wrote one official ode for George I. Dryden and Waller, however, before him, had exhausted fancy in lauding Cromwell, and at the Restoration were lavish of their praise on the Merry Monarch. To say good things on a great occasion, was all they aimed at. Conscience and consistency were quite out of the case.
It is difficult to discover by what interest Tate gained the appointment, for he had eulogized Charles and James, and had been the friend and coadjutor of the deposed Dryden. His Christian name may possibly have recommended him—or his father's puritanical leaning have been remembered. It seems more likely, however, attributable to the fact that his poverty was known, that he had a little interest, that he possessed the necessary amount of pliancy for a court poet, and that there were no formidable rivals in the field.
Pope was only at this time four years old, and even with his precocity had not yet "lisped in numbers." Swift had written one or more of his Pindaric Odes, but they had merited the discouraging remark of his relation Dryden, and had been sufficiently rewarded by the King teaching him in Sir W. Temple's garden, how to cut asparagus in the Dutch way. Handsome provision had been made for Montague and Prior. Garth had only just passed his examination, and become a fellow of the College of Physicians, and the world had not yet seen the Dispensary. Butler had died in poverty twelve years before; and that poverty, in Tate's words, was a greater satire on the age than his writings. Otway had shared the same wretched fate. And the sweet numbers of Waller were silent. Tate was as good as any of the poetasters of the day, and as a voluminous versifier, and an industrious dramatic author, had been much before the public. Any detailed account of his laureate lucubrations would be superfluous. They are very numerous, and may be found in the library of the British Museum with much pomp of large type and gorgeous binding. The brevity of each poem is its chief recommendation. He flattered the throne, rejoiced in all court appointments, wrote elegies when great men died, advised the Parliament, and celebrated the victories of Prince George of Denmark, and of Marlborough. There is a couplet in his poem on the "sacred memory" of Charles II., which is worthy of one of his successors, Eusden. The grief is terrific.
"To farthest lands let groaning winds relate,
And rolling Oceans roar their master's fate."
"The death of Queen Mary," says Johnson, "produced a subject; perhaps no funeral was ever so poetically attended." Tate is not mentioned by the Doctor as one of the tuneful mourners, but his strain is louder and loftier than usual. He apotheosizes her in these lines.
"With robes invested of celestial dyes,
She towr's, and treads the Empyrean Skies;
Angelick choirs, skill'd in triumphant song,
Heaven's battlements and crystal turrets throng.
The signal's given, the eternal gates unfold
Burning with jasper, wreath'd in burnish'd gold,
And myriads now of flaming minds I see—
Pow'rs, Potentates, Heaven's awfull Hierarchy
In gradual orbs enthron'd, but all divine
Ineffably those sons of glory shine."
By one of his official poems, written at a particular crisis in the reign of William III. he excited much bitter attack from opponents. Many of our readers will remember the history of the Kentish Petition. This bold document requested the Parliament then sitting to attend to public affairs and not their "own private heats," and besought them to turn their attention to the supplies, and enable the King to defend the country, and protect our allies. The gentlemen who presented it were Justinian Champneys, Sir Thomas Culpepper, William Culpepper, William Hamilton, and David Polhill. The House of Commons felt that so bold a measure must be as boldly resisted. They treated this document as a libel, and gave these five gentlemen into the custody of the sergeant-at-arms. On their remonstrating with him on the illegality of the arrest, that officer informed them in language highly indecorous, that he did not care for the law. They remained under his charge for five days, and were then lodged in Gate House Prison. This arbitrary act occasioned much discontent and disturbance. Many pamphlets were written on both sides of the question, De Foe being one of the ablest advocates of the petitioners. The popular feeling was against the Parliament, and they were at length liberated. Tate took the royal and popular view of the case against the House of Commons, and wrote a poem called "The Kentish Worthies." For this he was severely assailed. In "The History of Faction," we read: "Nor had they reason to think that the court would discountenance them in such practices; for the Poet-Laureate, who is a sworn servant to the Crown, was ordered to write a poem called 'The Kentish Worthies,' which he otherwise durst not have done." Another writer tells us: "And to complete the show (the liberation of the petitioners), that it might look somewhat majestic, the ballad-maker of Whitehall was ordered to compose some lines to the laud and praise of the five Kentish Worthies, which he did with like success as when he and the parson (Dr. Brady), rebelled against King David, and broke his lute, and murdered his psalms."
Tate's Laureate Odes are not more meritorious than his other official poetic offerings. The one for the year 1705 is preserved. It was performed to music before her Majesty, on the 1st of January. The grand chorus with which it concludes runs thus:
"While Anne and George their empire maintain
Of the land and the main,
And a Marlborough fights
Secure are the rights
Of Albion and Europe in Piety's reign."
Whatever envy among contemporaneous, or contempt among later writers, Tate's official eminence provoked, he had his share of eulogy as well. In some lines prefixed to his "Miscellanea Sacra," the writer thus addresses him:
"Long may the laurel nourish on your brow,
Since you so well a Laureate's duty know,
For virtue's rescue daring to engage
Against the tyrant vices of the age."
In contrast to such writings as called forth this praise, Tate has been guilty of some offences. The fact that he rendered into English the second Satire of Juvenal, in what is called "Dryden's Translation," should perhaps screen Dryden from some of the censure which has been cast on him for coarseness. Tate contributed also to "Miscellaneous Poems," published by Tonson, and edited by Dryden, an English version of one of Ovid's loosest elegies. This publication chiefly consisted of poems, original and translated, by "the most eminent hands." The nature of some of its contents, is quite sufficient to show that the taste of the reading public was not a whit purer than that of the habitués of the theatre. At the end of the fourth volume, there is a long translation by Tate of a composition of a very singular kind. It is the celebrated Latin poem on a medical subject by "that famous Poet and Physician, Fracastorius, Englished by Mr. Tate." There are some prefatory lines to Dr. Thomas Hobbs, and a life of the renowned medico-poet-philanthropist. In this memoir, the world is informed that Fracastorius was born at Verona, that he was specially and providentially preserved in childhood to write his great poem, for that while in his mother's arms, she was struck dead by lightning, while he remained unscathed; that he lived to rival Pliny and Catullus, and outstrip all his contemporaries in learning and poetry; that he studied under Peter Pomponatius, and became so devoted a student that Polybius and Plutarch were scarce ever out of his hands; that when not employed in literary avocations he was occupied in curing disorders, and that in the intervals of his professional exertion, while the pestilence he so vividly describes, was raging in the city he found leisure to compose these undying verses, which no less a man than Sanazarius is driven in despair to admit excelled his own poem "De Partu Virginis," which was a labour of twenty years. It is also recorded that Fracastorius died of apoplexy at seventy, having contracted many friendships, and having deservedly no enemy.
To criticise either the Latin or English would take us beyond our limits. Tate appears to have been compelled to work for the booksellers, as a translator of prose as well as verse. In 1686, he published, under the title of "Triumphs of Love and Constancy," a translation of the "Æthopics" of Heliodorus. This work is the earliest and best Greek romance, and narrates what are called "The Heroic Amours of Theagenes and Chariclea." Its author was born at Emesa, in Syria, and lived at the end of the fourth century, under the reign of Theodosius and his sons. He wrote the "Æthiopics" in his youth, and upon his being appointed Bishop of Tucca, it is said, that a provincial Synod decreed that the author must burn his romance or lay down his bishopric. Heliodorus chose the latter alternative. The whole story, however, sounds very apocryphal; and its improbability is heightened by the fact that, although as a love story it offends against modern notions of delicacy, its tendency is to exalt virtue. It was twice translated into English before Mr. Tate and his coadjutor, who is described as a person of quality, undertook it. A version has since been given by Mr. Payne in 1792. The Greek manuscript was strangely preserved. Although well known in earlier, it was in modern times, almost forgotten, until, at the sacking of Ofen, in 1526, the manuscript was found in the library of Matthias Corvinus, King of Hungary, and as it was decorated and illuminated it attracted the cupidity of a soldier who brought it into Germany, where falling into the hands of Vincentius Opsopæus, it was printed at Basil in 1534.
Tate also published a translation from the French of "The Life of the Prince de Condé." We must, however, forget what he had meanwhile been doing in his poetical capacity. In 1697, he produced a short poem called "The Innocent Epicure, or the Art of Angling." It is of the didactic kind, and lays down minute directions for fishing. It is tedious and prosaic, and the rhymes are careless and faulty. "Panacea," a poem on tea, in 1700, was a more successful effort of his Muse. The subject may appear to us a strange one, but tea was then a novelty and a luxury. It was sold in a liquid state. In Dryden's "Wild Gallant" it is spoken of as a morning draught for those who had drank too deeply overnight. Pepys tells us: "I sent for a cup of tea (a Chinese drink), of which I had never drank before." In 1664, the East India Company purchased two pounds and two ounces to present to the King. Its virtues were then very highly estimated, and they are celebrated in this poem with Tate's utmost power. The versification is excellent, but as a whole, from its plan and subject, it is uninteresting.
This effort, his partnership with Dryden, his translations, and the success of one volume of poems, which had gone through two editions, seemed to have increased the fame of the Laureate. By a poetical friend he is thus addressed:
"The British Laurel by old Chaucer worn,
Still fresh and gay did Dryden's brow adorn,
And that its lustre may not fade on thine,
Wit, fancy, judgment, Tate, in thee combine."
It remains that we should look on Tate as Psalmist. And we shall see that he made much recompense for his few former offences against morality in pandering to the taste of the age, by his later writings, which tend to support the cause of religion and virtue. The times were mending a little, and some check seems to have been given to the open profligacy which characterized the period of the Restoration. In the Reformed Churches abroad, Protestantism and Psalmody had gone hand in hand together. A want was now felt in the English Church. The Old Version, written by Sternhold, and altered by Hopkins and others, sometimes for the better, oftener for the worse, had been in general use from the time of its publication. It was now thought that the advance our language had made, demanded a version more in accordance with the taste of the age, and that smoothness of versification which was more and more aimed at by our poets. Hence we exchanged the rugged strength and occasional doggrel of Sternhold and Hopkins for the more level mediocrity of Brady and Tate.
What brought about the literary partnership, which has been so often made a target for the shafts of sarcasm, we have no means of ascertaining or conjecturing, unless it were the tie of a common nationality. Dr. Nicholas Brady was Tate's fellow-countryman. He was educated at Westminster, and showed very early a talent for writing verse. He was an active politician and a popular preacher, and took a busy part in the Revolution of 1688, for which at the time he severely suffered. He lived, however, to be rewarded for his exertions, for at his death, in 1726, he was the incumbent of three benefices. He outlived his coadjutor eleven years, and could, with a better grace, have preached the funeral sermon of the unfortunate Psalmodist than that of sack-drinking Shadwell, whose name, until heard from the pulpit, had been mainly associated with taverns and theatres. Dr. Brady, however, could have quoted a precedent for his funeral oration; for the praises of Nell Gwynne had been sounded from the pulpit.
They at first printed a version of twenty Psalms, as an "Essay," as they termed it, and in the following year appeared the completed work, "A New Version of the Psalms of David," fitted to the tunes used in churches, by N. Brady, D.D., Chaplain in Ordinary to Her Majesty, and N. Tate Esq., Poet-Laureate. In a pamphlet entitled: "A brief and full account of Mr. Tate and Mr. Brady's 'New Version of the Psalms,' by a true son of the Church," the Royal Sanction is copied. "At the Court of Kensington, Decr. 3rd, 1696. Present, the King's most excellent Majesty in Council. Upon the humble petition of Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate this day read at the Board, setting forth that the Petitioners have, with their utmost care and industry, compleated a New Version of the Psalms of David in English Metre, fitted for publick use; and humbly praying His Majesty's Royal allowance that the said Version may be used in such congregations as shall think fit to receive it; His Majesty, taking the same into his royal consideration, is pleased to order in Council that the said New Version of the Psalms in English Metre be, and the same is hereby allowed, and permitted to be used in all Churches and Chapels and Congregations as shall think fit to receive the same."
Dr. Compton, Bishop of London, sent out circular letters of recommendation to all the clergy of his diocese. The version has been eulogised by Basil Kennet and others; but Bishop Beveridge has censured it for faults which it would now be difficult to discover. "There are," he says, "many such new phrases and romantic expressions in the new version, which are taken up by our present poets, and being now in fashion may serve well enough in other places, but can by no means suit with a divine poem, much less with one inspired by God himself." It encountered much prejudice and provoked some controversy. Tate undertook its defence, and published, in 1710, "An Essay for Promoting Psalmody." It is dedicated to Queen Anne. The style is quaint and florid. Psalmody is boldly personified and apostrophized as a goddess, a princess, a charmer. Parts of the treatise are written in a strain of rapture, and with the tone of a man of warm and sincere piety. He complains that while psalmody has been much cultivated in all the Reformed Churches it has been neglected in ours, and he attributes the decay into which it has fallen very much to the apathy "of our quality and gentry." "You may hear them," he says, "in the responses and reading psalms; but the giving out a singing psalm, seems to strike 'em dumb." He next extols Praise in occupying a devotional rank higher than Prayer, and supports his view by some beautiful lines from the "Gondibert" of his Laureate predecessor Davenant.
"For Prayer the Ocean is, where diversely
Men steer their course, each to a different coast,
Where oft our interests so discordant be,
That half beg winds by which the rest are lost.
"Praise is devotion fit for mighty minds,
The diff'ring World's agreeing sacrifice."
These raptures about the superior nature of Praise from one who had written a version of the Psalms, remind us forcibly of the clerk of a small country church in Wales, who, inasmuch as by playing a violoncello and singing lustily, he produced what is called in the 100th psalm "awful mirth," was so gratified with the success of his musical efforts, that he informed the rector one Sunday with an air of cheerful confidence, that although prayer and preaching were perhaps necessary, praise was the noblest part of divine worship. The rector's reply is an answer to Tate and to the rural musician, and is a good comment on the lines of Davenant: "If your prayers are not accepted, your praises will never be heard."
Tate then proceeds, in his treatise, to show what were the faults of the old version, and to lament the prejudices which obstruct the attempt to produce one better fitted for purposes of devotion. "You must," he writes, "expect the first outcry against any new version of the Psalms from the ignorance amongst some of our common people, who, because they found the old singing psalms bound up with their Bibles, take it for granted that these English metres, as well as the matter, were compiled by King David. Nay, some have supposed a greater person was the composer of these metres. For instance, the late Bishop of Ely upon his first using of his brother Dr. Patrick's new version in family devotion, observed (as I have heard himself relate the passage) that a servant maid of a musical voice was silent for several days together. He asked her the reason, whether she were not well or had a cold, adding that he was much delighted to hear her, because she sung sweetly and kept the rest in tune. 'I am well enough in health,' answered she, 'and have no cold, but if you must needs know the plain truth of the matter, as long as you sang Jesus Christ's psalms, I sung along with ye, but now you sing psalms of your own invention, you may sing by yourselves.'"
Tate concludes his essay with a rhapsody, from which we give a brief extract.
"O Queen of Sacred Harmony, how powerful are thy charms. Care shuns thy walks, Fear kindles with courage, and Joy sublimes into ecstasy. What! shall stage syrens sing and Psalmody sleep! Theatres be thronged, and thy temples empty! Shall thy votaries abroad find heart and voice to sing in the fiery furnace of persecution, upon the waters of affliction, and our Britons sit sullenly silent under their vines and fig-trees?"
To expend any criticism on this version of the Psalms would scarcely be less absurd, than to gravely endeavour to discover by internal evidence which were contributed by Brady and which by Tate. In "Miscellanea Sacra," published in 1698, there is a rendering of the 104th Psalm by him which is excellent. Nothing but want of space prevents our inviting criticism to it by a long quotation. To sum up his merits as a psalmodist, it may be said of him that he has only failed where others have done so; for are not all attempts, save a few by eminent poets, scattered here and there in literature, rather parodies than paraphrases?
The sorrow and the triumphs which shook the strings of the royal harp are breathed in such strains of poetry as speak with divine eloquence in the unfettered rhythm of our version; but the sublimity is dwarfed by the exactments of metre, and the music faintly and falsely echoed by the jingle of rhyme.
In 1713, Tate undertook the management of a well-meaning publication, which was as short-lived as many such have been, and, strange to say, as one of the same name started in London within the last four years. "The Monitor," for so was it called, was to appear on alternate days, and the first number was issued on March 2nd, 1713. It was "intended for the promoting of Religion and Virtue, and the suppression of vice and immorality, in pursuance of Her Majesty's most gracious Direction."
The undertaking not only enjoyed royal patronage, but was encouraged by many of the nobility, bishops, and clergy. But in spite of all this, and the moderate price (one penny per number), it struggled unsuccessfully for but a short time. They were sent to the subscribers' houses on the terms of twelvepence a month, "sixpence on the receipt of the first paper, and sixpence more when the twelfth paper is delivered."
We are informed that through the contribution of some pious persons, some schools were to be supplied with them, "the masters of which will oblige their scholars to get the Poems by heart as part of their exercise." These scholars merit our sincerest sympathies. The publication commences with an "Essay on Divine Poesie." Then follows an exhortation to the youth of Great Britain, which endeavours to carry out the principle which the paper professed, viz., "to establish them in the principles of Religion and Virtue, and fortify them against the attacks of Vice." The swearer and the gambler are denounced in two separate numbers. "The Witch of Endor" is the subject of a sublime dialogue, full of pious profanity. Another is a description of "The Upright Man," and is a bombastic paraphrase of Horace's "justum et tenacem propositi virum." The stern stoicism of the character is depicted in a couplet, which prophetically expresses a phrase of modern slang—
"Though whirl'd by storms the racking clouds are seen,
His unmolested breast is all serene."
In the number for April 6th, a prose notice is added, which contains an anecdote not in the least à-propos to the subject of the paper, but referring to a matter which has been alluded to in a former part of this work. "We shall beg the reader's pardon for mentioning a passage told us by a gentleman of our society, almost forty years since, by Mr. Dryden, who went, with Mr. Waller in company, to make a visit to Mr. Milton, and desire his leave for putting his 'Paradise Lost' into rhyme for the stage. 'Well, Mr. Dryden,' says Milton, 'it seems you have a mind to tagg my points, and you have my leave to tagg 'em; but some of 'em are so awkward and old-fashioned, that I think you had as good leave 'em as you found 'em.'" In the last number but one, we are told that those "who particularly approve of these Divine subjects, seem anxious that entertaining ones may be mixed with them, and that to meet this want, some gentlemen of the brightest parts are setting upon such a work." Whether "The Oracle" ever appeared, we know not; but next day "The Monitor" died.
And so ends the literary career of Nahum Tate.
Of his private life and habits, little can be ascertained. He was, we are told, of a downcast look, and very silent in company; but he has also been described as a "free and fuddling companion." He has been praised for his integrity and modesty.
There is nothing to justify Dr. Johnson's surmise that he was ejected from his office at the accession of George I. The date of Rowe's appointment is 1715, and it was in this year that Tate died in the Mint, Southwark, where he had taken refuge from his numerous creditors.
He appears to have been very industrious with his pen, but in worldly matters imprudent and unfortunate. His case is one among a thousand which prove the necessity of such institutions as the Athenæum Institute and the Guild of Literature and Art. Patronage was of some avail to Tate and other necessitous men of letters; but when improvidence has not even patronage to fall back upon, as is now the case, there would seem to be greater need for co-operative providence.
Had Tate lived in these days, his life would doubtless have been very badly written by a near relative, and the minutest details of his existence chronicled with precision. There was no such lust for biography when he died in the Mint. But gibbeted by the sarcasms of Pope, he has been much misrepresented by those who copied the sarcasms without reading his works. Sir Walter Scott, who doubtless knew them, gives a mention of him, severe, but fairer than that of many other writers. "He is one of those second-rate bards," he says, "who, by dint of pleonasm and expletive, can find smooth lines if any one will supply ideas."
Neither he nor Shadwell deserve the treatment they have suffered even at the hands of recent writers. Miss Strickland calls the latter "the loathsome Laureate." Religious and political prejudice can see nothing but what is detestable in the poet of the court of William and Mary. We are more surprised to read in Southey's "Life of Cowper"—"Nahum Tate, of all my predecessors, must have ranked the lowest of the Laureates if he had not succeeded Shadwell." Could Southey, with all his varied book lore, have been ignorant of the verses of Eusden? and is he not in this estimate somewhat polite and merciful to his immediate predecessor, Pye?
- Lives of English Dramatists. Lardner's Encyclopædia.
- Biog. Liter.
- Letter of Junius to Sir W. Draper.
- "Account of some late designs to create a misunderstanding between the King and the people," quoted in Wilson's Life of De Foe.