LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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[Horace Smith]
A Graybeard’s Gossip. No. V.
New Monthly Magazine  Vol. 80  (July 1847)  290-97.
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No. V.
Forsan et hæc olim meminisse juvabit.

Anecdotes of the late Charles Mathews, the Comedian—The Poet Campbell; his Vanity as an Author rebuked by a pious Shoemaker; Malicious Pleasantry in Ridicule of his Slowness in Composition; his Philanthropic Exertions for Human Improvement; his deep Dejection at their occasional Failure; the Picture of the Gipsy Girl; a Fit of Hypochondria; his Library in Victoria-square; his Burial in Westminster Abbey.

Of the late Charles Mathews, the comedian, one of the most entertaining members of Hill’s Sydenham company, my memory retains few, if any, gleanings which have not already been given to the public, in the full and delightful Biography written by his widow. This lady, whom to know is to esteem, I am proud to reckon among my literary acquaintance, and gladly do I avail myself of this opportunity to waft to her all cordial good wishes from my “loopholes of retreat,” as well as to express a hope that she may give to the world another volume of those “Anecdotes of Actors,“ and “Desultory Recollections,“ of which her store is so copious, and which none can narrate so pleasantly. The matchless power of mimicry possessed by Charles Mathews, far from being confined to mere vocal flexibility, extended to the mind, look, and manner of the original; so that the hearer was not less surprised by his intuition into character than by a copy of every external manifestation so faithful and minute, that you seemed to behold a temporary metempsychosis. He was, indeed,
Proteus for shape and mocking-bird for tongue.
To possess such an unfailing source of merriment is a perilous temptation to its abuse; but he was too polite and kind-hearted to give unnecessary pain to any one, and knowing his mirth-provoking weapon to be irresistible, wielded it charily and considerately. Properly jealous of his great conversational talent, in which few men exceeded him, I have known him resist every solicitation to mimetic display, especially in great houses, if he had any reason to suspect that he had been invited, like Samson, to make sport for the Philistine lords. So well was he aware that “a jest’s prosperity lies in the ear of him who hears it,” that an evidently uncongenial company would seal his mouth for a whole evening; while to an audience that could appreciate and laugh heartily at his waggery, he would pour forth its inexhaustible stores without solicitation or stint.

This was eminently the case at our Noctes Sydenhamicæ, where every boon companion could salute his brother guest with “Hey, fellow, well met;” where all gravity was prohibited; where each guest was sure to understand a joke when he heard it; whither every one came with a full determination to laugh and drown care. Small was the chance of escape for the luckless wight who presented any peculiarity which Mathews could seize and parody; what then must have been the predicament of our host, who was all peculiarity; who was considered fair game by all his guests;
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.291
and who was thus run down, like Actæon, by his own merry dogs? And yet the subject of this cursory notice, however prompt and voluble in general, was apt to lose his readiness at any unexpected encountering. On my return from the continent, after an absence of three years, I ran over to Worthing where he was then acting, to pay him a visit, when, after the first hearty salutation and an expression of surprise, he looked confused, and seemed quite at a loss what to say next. To relieve his embarrassment I asked after our old friend of Sydenham, the simple mention of whose name operating as a sort of charm, he instantly mimicked his voice and manner, his guttural “Pooh, pooh,” and prodigious exaggerations, running on without a moment’s pause, until he had given me a most amusing account of all our old fellow Symposiarchs. It might have been said, without a catachresis, that he became himself again as soon as he had thrown himself into another; he recovered his presence of mind by assuming that of an absent party.

His many bodily infirmities, and more especially the sad accident that lamed him for life, had tended to irritate a temper which his extreme sensitiveness sometimes rendered touchy, though his nature was always kind and genial. Among his little prandial peculiarities was a vehement objection to mock-turtle soup, on account of some unwholesome ingredient with which, as he asserted, it was usually thickened. Once I met him at a party where several servants in succession having offered him a plate of his “pet abhorrence,” he at length lost patience, uttered an angry “No, I tell you!” and petulantly tossing up his elbow at the same time, upset a portion of the rejected compound upon his sleeve. Next day I again encountered him at dinner, when he related what had occurred, exclaiming, “I am delighted beyond measure that my coat is spoiled; I have locked it up; I wouldn’t have it cleaned for twenty pounds; call to-morrow, and I’ll show you the sleeve; it stands of itself, stiff as the arm of a statue. You wouldn’t believe mo when I told you, on good authority, that the lawyers sold all their old parchments to the pastry-cooks, to make some villanous stuff called glaize or gelatine, or in plain English glue, out of which they manufacture jelly, or sell it to our poisoning cooks who put it into their mock-turtle, ‘to make the gruel thick and slab.’”

“I have heard of a man eating his own words,” said James Smith, “but if your statement be true, a man may unconsciously have eaten his own acts and deeds.”

“He may, he may!” cried Mathews. “Egad, my friend, I thank you for the hint, it explains all about my confounded indigestion. Doubtless I have some other man’s will in my stomach, which renders it so insubordinate to my own will; I myself love roast pork and plum-pudding, but this alien will, transferred from some lawyer’s office to my intestines, will not allow me to digest them. You have heard of the fellow with a bad asthma who exclaimed, ‘If once I can get this troublesome breath out of my body, I’ll take good care it shall never get in again;’ and I may well say the same of this parchment usurper who has taken possession of my stomach. How he got there is the wonder, for years have elapsed since I swallowed glue—I mean jelly or mock-turtle.”

Grievously was he annoyed by the lateness of the dinners, whereby people condemned themselves to two or three previous dark and idle hours of intolerable ennui. These dark hours, indeed, constituted his bête noire,
292A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
and formed the subject of his incessant complaint; nor did he fail to enter an additional protest when the long-deferred meal was not punctually served.

“Now a days,” I once heard him say, “I never know at what hour I may expect to get any thing to eat; but last week I was informed to a minute when I could not get a mouthful. While posting to Liverpool, where I had an appointment to attend a rehearsal, the sharp air made me uncommonly hungry, and as I perceived a decent road-side inn, with the landlord standing at the door, I told the postilion to draw up, and called out from the window of the chaise,

“‘Landlord, have you got any thing hot in the house?’

“‘No, sir.’

“‘Any thing cold in the house?’

“‘No, sir.’

“‘The deuce! what then have you got in the house?’

“‘An execution, sir.’

“‘Poor fellow, sorry for you. Drive on, postilion.’”

And this reminds me of another anecdote which—but if I run on in this manner I shall never have done, and I might unconsciously be repeating stories inserted in the delightful biography to which the reader has already been referred. An author’s vanity and a gray beard’s licence may, perhaps, plead my excuse when I state, in conclusion, that on the death of this unrivalled comedian and excellent man, I was honoured by an application from his family to write a poetical inscription for his tombstone in St. Andrew’s church, Plymouth; which melancholy duty I performed, and gave vent to my feelings of sorrow and respect in a subsequent and longer tribute to his memory.

The man of the highest literary eminence among the visitors to Hill’s cottage, at Sydenham, was indisputably the poet Campbell, and to him, therefore, I ought, perhaps, to have given precedence in the series of sketches which I am about to attempt. In this instance, however, mine will be hardly a sketch, hardly an outline, since his friend, Mr. Cyrus Redding, is contributing to the New Monthly Magazine a succession of papers which will constitute a portraiture much more finished and accurate than any that I could delineate. Another of his friends, Dr. William Beattie, who attended him during his last illness at Boulogne, and who has procured for the purpose a valuable mass of documents and letters, has announced his intention of publishing a regular biography; so that there is nothing left for the present writer but to pick up such anecdotical strays and waifs as may, perchance, have escaped the knowledge, or have been deemed hardly worth the gathering, of other and more regular collectors. Though few men were more competent to discuss elevated and learned subjects, and to convey information as well as to confer pleasure by his manner of treating them, the poet, who was naturally sociable and hilarious, loved to unbend Apollo’s bow, and to indulge in the gibes, and gambols, and flashes of merriment “that were wont to set the table in a roar.” In these moods he would freely communicate any little adventure in which he had been concerned, even though it turned the laugh of the auditory against himself, as was invariably the case when he related the following unexpected disappointment of his auctorial vanity.

Walking up Holborn-hill, he perceived that he had burst his boot, and as it happened that the streets were rather wet, he turned into the first
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.293
shop where he could provide himself with a new pair, which was soon accomplished, when he wrote down his name and residence in an address-book kept for that purpose, directing the old boots to be sent home to him. No sooner had the shopkeeper read the words, “Thomas Campbell, Essex Chambers, Duke-street, St. James’s,” than his countenance underwent a change, and bowing with an air of profound reverence, he said, or rather whispered, as if his natural voice would not sufficiently express his homage,

“I beg your pardon, sir; I hope I am not taking too great a liberty; I would not for the world be guilty of the smallest disrespect, but may I venture to inquire whether I have the honour of seeing in my shop the celebrated Mr. Thomas Campbell?“

“My dear friend,” said the bard, in relating this anecdote to me, “I have heard so little lately of my literary reputation, for people have almost forgotten the ‘Pleasures of Hope,’ that having, as I fondly imagined, caught a new and an ardent admirer, I resolved to play with the hook a little; so I replied, looking as modest and unconscious as I could,

“‘I don’t exactly know whom you mean by the celebrated Mr. Thomas Campbell.’

“‘Oh, sir,’ cried the fellow, ‘I meant Mr. Thomas Campbell, the African missionary—I never heard of any other!’

“An ignorant Muggletonian rascal!” ejaculated the bard, in narrating this misadventure, “I’ll never buy another pair of boots of him as long as I live.”

The poet’s residence among the grave Algerines did not destroy his taste for jocular quirks and quiddits, for he addressed from that quarter a poetical epistle to the writer of these notices, full of puns and verbal conceits, to one of which I remember his alluding after his return to England. A reference having been made to him upon some question of chronology, he exclaimed,

“That is a point upon which you should never apply to a Scotch Cam’el (thus did he always pronounce his own name), the whole clan have short memories, and I shall never forget my amazement when I first saw an African camel carrying a load of dates without the least apparent inconvenience.”

I have heard him state, that when a child, knowing nothing of his animal namesake, he felt offended at the association, on reading in the Old Testament, that Jacob had “much cattle, asses and camels,” but he probably did not expect this anecdote to be taken au pied de la lettre.

Though he did not affect the character of a professed wag, he would sometimes indulge a vein of quiet, caustic drollery that might well have entitled him to his diploma as a successful jester, one instance of which I cannot refrain from recording.

It may be in the recollection of my elderly readers that, early in the career of Napoleon he gave orders for seizing a German bookseller named Palm, who had published a libel against his person and government, for which offence he was brought to a court-martial and shot. Some time subsequent to this occurrence, the eminent firm of Longman & Co., after one of their annual book sales, gave a dinner, to which were invited the principal publishers of London, as well as a few of the most eminent authors, including the subject of this notice. After dinner, the conversation turned upon the daily aggressions and enormities of Buonaparte,
294A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
who was anathematised as a tyrant and a monster, to whom it was impossible to ascribe a single good action.

“Not one—not one—not one,” was assentingly echoed by three times as many loyal bibliopplists.

“Egad, gentlemen,” said the poet, with an arch smile, “I cannot quite agree with ye. Ye seem, all of ye, to forget that he once shot a bookseller!”

Few writings have attained long endurance which have not required a length of time for their composition; a literary as well as natural law seeming to require that longevity should demand an extended period of gestation. An elephant is not prolific, but its offspring outlives whole generations of the inferior animals whose incubation is of more frequent recurrence. Drudges are manually and mechanically quick, because they are intellectually slow; men of genius are tardy, because the fertility of their minds supplies a superabundance of thought, and their high standard, of taste renders them fastidious in the choice and perfection of their materials. Their’s is literally l’embarras des richesses, and such was especially the case with Campbell, the disbursement of whose mental opulence was checked and controlled by his high appreciation of art, as well as by his fear of compromising, in inferior works, the great reputation he had already acquired. In the sunset of his life, the shadow of his own greatness frightened him, and yet he felt the necessity of keeping his name before the public, lest it should be forgotten. He knew that he could outstrip others, but the difficulty was to surpass himself.

“My good friend,” he once said to me, “if an author does not go forwards he goes backwards; the world will not suffer him to stand still. When he has a hungry reputation to sustain, he is like a man with a ravenous beast in his house, he must feed it, or it will prey upon its owner.”

With these feelings, he was the last man who should have undertaken, as he did in two or three instances, to get up a book for the publishers, invitâ Mivervâ; an irksome and uncongenial task, in which he found it impossible to satisfy himself, even when the long protracted result of his labours gave satisfaction to the public. More than once have I heard him exclaim, when frittering away years upon the life of Mrs. Siddons,—

“Confound the woman. I wish her career had not been so monotonous and so virtuous, for it does not afford me any supplies, either of incident or of scandal; so that when I once get her off the stage of the theatre, I have not a word more to say.”

A professed scribe would have dilated, to any extent, upon everything and nothing, however irrelevant the matter; a substitution for genuine biography which Campbell was much too punctilious to adopt.

In ridicule of the imputed rareness and difficulty of his literary parturition, more especially when the offspring of his throes was poetical, one of his waggish friends used gravely to assert, that on passing his residence, at the time that he was writing “Theodoric,” he observed the knocker to be tied up, and the street in front of the house to be covered with straw. Alarmed at these appearances he gently rang the bell, and inquired anxiously after the poet’s health.

“Thank you, sir,” was the servant’s reply, “master is doing as well as can be expected.”

“Good heavens! as well as can be expected! what has happened to him?”

“Why, sir, he was this morning delivered of a couplet!

A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance. 295

With the enlarged and liberal feeling of all true poets, Campbell had ever been enthusiastically devoted to the cause of liberty and human advancement. A philanthropist in the most exalted sense of the word, he had pleaded the cause of humanity against the spoilers of Poland, the invaders of Spain, the enslavers of Greece, as well as against the bigots and oppressors of his native land. For many years had he fought the good fight, undaunted and unwavering; but the continued disappointment of his cherished aspirations, that hope deferred which the most ardent and generous spirits ever find it the most difficult to endure with patience, combined with waning health and increasing years, finally preyed upon his noble mind, oppressing him with occasional attacks of hypochondria, and a morbid despair of all human improvement. The sweetest wine is the soonest soured; and the milk of human kindness, wanting a fit recipient for its overflow, will sometimes turn to gall, and generate both mental and corporeal disturbance. For the frustration of his benevolent yearnings he could find little compensation in domestic enjoyment, the death of his wife and the mental imbecility of his son, an only child, whom he had been obliged to place under restraint, having consigned him to a sad and solitary home. Perchance some act of individual ingratitude may have further helped to Timonise his spirit; but whatever may have been the cause, the effect was visible enough when, in one of my visits to the metropolis, I paid him my customary visit. Not without difficulty did I discover the house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in which he had engaged a set of chambers. Various names were written on the door-post, but not that of which I was in search. I wandered from floor to floor with no better result; and at length I summoned the porteress from below, who told me where to find the door of my friend’s apartment; adding, that he would not have his name inscribed on it, because he did not want to be “bothered with visitors.”

Undiscouraged by this warning, I ventured to knock at the portal, which was opened by the bard himself, who welcomed me with his usual cheerful cordiality, though his appearance led me to suspect that he was out of health and out of spirits. After the first salutations had been exchanged, I made inquiry about the London University, knowing that he had actively exerted himself in its establishment, though I was not aware that it was just then involved in some little temporary difficulty. “My dear friend,” was his reply, “don’t ask me a word about it. I never wish to hear its name mentioned. Don’t ask me about any thing upon the success of which I have set my heart, for you may be sure it’s a failure. All attempts at improving or benefiting my fellow-creatures I have given up for ever. I have now had a pretty long experience, and I have at length come to the conclusion—I wish I had done so sooner— that our race is not destined to improve, even if it do not relapse into comparative barbarism. Ay, you may shake your head; I know you are a sanguine believer in a never-ceasing progress towards higher destinies; but for my own part I am satisfied that man is an incorrigible rascal, whose innate brutality will ever predominate over his modicum of rationality.”

After he had run on in this strain for some time, I ventured to protest against his disparaging and gloomy views, predicting that they
296A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.
would deepen into a fixed despondency, if he persisted in withdrawing from his friends, and shutting himself up like a monk in his cell.

“Oh, I am at no loss for much better society than the world can give me,” was his reply; “come hither and see what a charming companion I have.”

So saying, he led me up to an oil-painting, of the size of life, representing a handsome gipsy girl, the work, as he informed me, of a Polish emigrant. In an enthusiastic and excited tone, he proceeded to give me the history of the picture, evidently quite unconscious of the hallucination the following narrative betrayed:—

“I was walking down Great Queen-street, when I saw this beautiful creature in a broker’s shop, gazing upon me with such a friendly smile, that I instantly stood transfixed. So much was I smitten with the painting, that I inquired the price, but finding that it was forty guineas, much more than I could afford to give, I uttered a deep sigh, and walked on to Long Acre. But the gipsy was still before me, smiling at me as I proceeded, and thus she continued to bless me with her lovely presence, until I reached my home. Even in the darkness of night it was just the same. I could not sleep, because those beautiful eyes were still benignly fixed upon mine; and in the morning I asked myself, why I should be made miserable by not possessing that which forty guineas would obtain. I procured the money, accordingly, hurried to secure my beauty—there she is—and I would not take a thousand guineas for her! See how she smiles upon me! so she does in whatever part of the room I may be placed, and even when I quit the room. How can I be solitary with such a sweet companion? I talk to her constantly, and she always gives me a gracious reply. You laugh, and I don’t wonder. Mark you, I don’t say that you, or any one else, can hear her mellifluous voice; but I do, and that is quite enough to make her society charming, and more than enough to supply the place of all other companionship.”

Seeing that it would be difficult, and, perhaps, hardly desirable to dispel an illusion which had a peculiar charm for his imaginative mind, I did not attempt to combat it, and willingly admitted the great beauty of his canvas innamorata. How long this species of nympholepsy lasted, I cannot say; I was told he had completely chased away the vaporous clouds by which his fine mind had been depressed, but one subsequent return of his hypochondria fell within my own immediate cognisance.

From time to time he would run down to the provincial town in which I reside, on which occasions he passed the greater part of the day with me as long as he remained. One afternoon he made his appearance, evidently in deep dejection of spirits, telling me that he had given up his chambers, and after having tied up all his money, between one and two hundred pounds, intending to bring it with him, he had ensconced himself and his valise in the stage-coach, for the purpose of paying me a visit. When the coach arrived at Reigate, he suddenly recollected that he had left his money-bag on the table of his bed-room, whereupon he jumped instantly out, ordered a post-chaise, urged the postilion to drive as fast as possible, sped back to London, and had the satisfaction to find that the landlady had found and carefully locked up his treasure. The worthy dame, after having made him count it over in her presence, to be sure that nothing had been abstracted, again tied it up, secured it in his
A Graybeard’s Gossip about his Literary Acquaintance.297
pocket, and the money-laden bard, throwing himself into another stage, finally reached his destination in safety.

“And why, in the name of wonder,” I demanded, “did you not pay it into your banker’s? and for what earthly purpose can you have come hither with so large a sum of money?”

“Pay it into my banker’s!” exclaimed the poet, “why, my good friend, I have just drawn it out. As to my purpose in doing so, I will disclose it to you; but I do so in confidence. The fact is that I shall stay here for some time: I have secured capital apartments at the hotel; I shall live handsomely until the money is all gone; I shall then take advantage of some fine morning to go out in a boat, as if for the purpose of fishing; and when we are at a sufficient distance from land, I have made up my mind to jump overboard, that I may take my leave for ever of a good-for-nothing and ungrateful world, which no philanthropist can improve, and which no gentleman can wish to live in—I beg your pardon; you are willing, I believe, to take a prolonged lease of life: I am tired of mine, and care not how soon I get rid of it.”

I treated this as a joke, or as the splenetic effusion of the minute; but his look and manner evinced a seriousness that pained and alarmed me. A few post-prandial glasses of wine, however, so completely chased away his blue devils, that he quickly became too much elevated in spirits to be quite guarded in his language; and subsequent meetings gave me occasion to observe, that very slight potations disturbed the equipoise of his mind. Bracing air, change of scene, and a little cheerful society, having cured his morbid despondency, he returned to London in a few days, with his health invigorated, and his money-bag unemptied.

The last time I encountered my friend was at his own house in Victoria-square, Pimlico, where he took great delight in showing me his library,—a projecting skylight room, built at the back of the premises.

“This is much better than your study,” he said, rubbing his hands; “a library should be always lighted in this way; first, because it gives you the command of the whole wall for your books; and secondly, because, instead of being tempted to sit at the window, and look out upon living knaves and fools, you hold uninterrupted communion with the surrounding spirits of departed sages and philanthropists; or if you look upwards, you gaze out upon the pure and glorious heavens.”

It will be seen that there was still a touch of misanthropy in his language; but it was literally a façon de parler; it never reached his heart.

Summoned to attend his burial, I performed the melancholy duty of following this eminent bard and distinguished man to his last, and most appropriate resting-place in the Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey. His funeral suggested to me a short poem, with the last stanza of which I will conclude this brief and slight notice of Thomas Campbell:—

To me, the humblest of the mourning band,
Who knew the bard thro’ many a changeful year,
It was a proud, sad privilege to stand
Beside his grave, and shed a parting tear.
Seven lustres had he been my friend,
Be that my plea when I suspend
This all-unworthy wreath on such a poet’s bier.