LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
Documents Biography Criticism

Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries
First Prose; The Weekly Messenger; The News.

Lord Byron.
Mr. Moore.
Mr. Shelley. With a Criticism on his Genius.
Mr. Keats. With a Criticism on his Writings.
Mr. Dubois. Mr. Campbell. Mr. Theodore Hook. Mr. Mathews. Messrs. James & Horace Smith.
Mr. Fuseli. Mr. Bonnycastle. Mr. Kinnaird.
Mr. Charles Lamb.
Mr. Coleridge.
Recollections of the Author’s Life.
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“It is for slaves to lie, and for freemen to speak truth.

“In the examples, which I here bring in, of what I have heard, read, done, or said, I have forbid myself to dare to alter even the most light and indifferent circumstances. My conscience does not falsify one tittle. What my ignorance may do, I cannot say.”       Montaigne.



It was not long after this period, that I ventured upon publishing my first prose, which consisted of a series of essays under the title of “The Traveller, by Mr. Town, Junior, Critic and Censor-General.” They came out in the evening paper of that name; and were imitations, as the reader will guess, of the “Connoisseur,” which professed to be written by Mr. Town, Critic and Censor-General. I offered them with fear and trembling to Mr. Quin, the Editor of the “Traveller,” and was astonished at the gaiety with which he accepted them. What astonished me more, was a perquisite of five or six copies of the paper, which I enjoyed every Saturday when my essays appeared, and with which I used to reissue from Bolt-Court in a state of transport. I had been told, but could not
easily conceive, that the Editor of a new evening paper would be happy to fill up his pages with any decent writing; but Mr. Quin praised me besides, and I could not behold the long columns of type, written by myself, in a public paper, without thinking there must be some merit in them, besides that of being a stop-gap. They were lively, and showed a tact for writing; but nothing more. There was something, however, in my writings at that period, and for some years afterwards, which, to observers, might have had an interest beyond what the author supplied, and amounted to a sign of the times. I allude to a fondness for imitating Voltaire. I had met with translations of several of his pieces on the book-stalls; and being prepared by a variety of circumstances, already noticed, to think that existing opinions and institutions might be fallible, I was transported with the gay courage and unquestionable humanity of that extraordinary person, and soon caught the tone of his cunning implications and provoking turns.
Voltaire, in an essay written by himself in the English language, has said of Milton, in a passage which would do honour to our best writers, that when the poet saw the Adamo of Andreini at Florence, he “pierced through the absurdity of the plot to the hidden majesty of the subject.” It may be said of himself, that he pierced through the conventional majesty of a great many subjects, to the hidden absurdity of the plot. He could not build as he could destroy. He was the merry general of an army of pioneers. But he laid the axe to a heap of savage abuses; pulled the corner-stones, out of dungeons and inquisitions; bowed and mocked the most tyrannical absurdities out of countenance; and raised one prodigious peal of laughter at superstition, from Naples to the Baltic. He was the first man who got the power of opinion and common sense
openly recognized as a great reigning authority; and who made the acknowledgment of it a point of wit and cunning, with those who had hitherto thought they had the world to themselves. I admired him more then than I do now; I thought he had more imagination, and a deeper insight into all the wants and capabilities of mankind. But though I think less of him as one who understands all they want, I think now, more than ever, that he cannot be too highly appreciated as one who understood what they want not. I differ with him in many points, moral, political, and religious; and I state this, not to make out that my difference is of any value, but to show that those who honestly differ with a man, can afford to do him justice; and that the true way of regarding Voltaire, in order to do him this justice, and ourselves too, is to look at him in the broad light of the great opposer of dogma; leaving us, in our still broader light, if we have it, to retain whatever good he omitted, and to add whatever improvement we can discover. It is enough, that he has taught us not to dictate and arrogate on the one hand, and not to submit to any thing uninquired into or inhuman on the other.

An abridgment that I picked up of the Philosophical Dictionary (a translation) was for a long while my text-book, both for opinion and style. I was also a great admirer of L’Ingenu, or the Sincere Huron; and the Essay on the Philosophy of History. In the character of the Sincere Huron I thought I found a resemblance to my own, as most readers do in those of their favourites: and this piece of self-love helped me to discover as much good-heartedness in Voltaire as I discerned wit. Candide, I confess, I could not like. I enjoyed passages; but the laughter was not as good-humoured as usual; there was a view of things in it, which I never entertained then or afterwards, and into which the
author had been led, rather in order to provoke
Leibnitz, than because it was natural to him; and, to crown my unwilling dislike, the book had a coarseness, apart from graceful and pleasurable ideas, which I have never been able to endure. There were passages in the abridgment of the Philosophical Dictionary which I always passed over; but the rest delighted me beyond measure. I have not seen it for years till the other day, having used in the meantime a French copy of the work itself; but I can repeat passages out of it now, and will lay two or three short ones before the reader, as specimens of what made such an impression upon me. They are in Voltaire’s best manner; which consists in an artful intermixture of the conventional dignity and real absurdity of what he is exposing, the tone being as grave as the dignity seems to require, and the absurdity coming out as if unintentionally and by the by.

Speaking of the Song of Solomon, (of which, by the way, his criticism is very far from being in the right, though he puts it so pleasantly,) he thinks he has the royal lover at a disadvantage with his comparisons of noses to towers, and eyes to fishpools, and then concludes with observing, “All this, it must be confessed, is not in the taste of the Latin poet; but then a Jew is not obliged to write like Virgil.” Now it would not be difficult to show, that Eastern and Western poetry had better be two things than one; or, at least, that they have a right to be so, and can lay claim to their own beauties; but, at the same time, it is impossible to help laughing at this pretended admission in Solomon’s favour, and the cunning introduction of the phrase “a Jew,” contrasted with the dignity of the name of Virgil.

In another part of the same article on Solomon, where he speaks of the many thousands of chariots which the Jewish monarch possessed,
(a quantity that certainly have a miraculous appearance, though, perhaps, explainable by a good scholar,) he says he cannot conceive, for the life of him, what Solomon did with such a multitude of carriages, “unless,” adds he, “it was to take the ladies of his seraglio an airing on the borders of the lake of Genesareth, or along the brook Cedron; a charming spot of ground, except that it is dry nine months in the year, and the ground a little stony.” At these passages I used to roll with laughter; and I cannot help laughing now, writing as I am, alone by my fire-side. They tell nothing, except against those who confound every thing the most indifferent, relating to the great men of the Bible, with something sacred; and who have thus done more harm to their own distinctions of sacred and profane, than all which has been charged on the ridicule they occasion.

The last quotation shall be from the admirable article on War, which made a profound impression on me. You cannot help laughing at it: the humour is high and triumphant; but the laugh ends in very serious reflections on the nature of war, and the very doubtful morality of those who make no scruple, when it suits them, of advocating the certainty of calamity in some things, while they protest against the least hazard of it in others. Voltaire notices the false and frivolous pretensions, upon which princes subject their respective countries to the miseries of war, purely to oblige their own cupidity and ambition. One of them, he says, finds in some old document a claim or pretence of some relation of his to some piece of land in the possession of another. He gives the other notice of his claim; the other will not hear of it: so the prince in question “picks up a great many men, who have nothing to do and nothing to lose; binds their hats with coarse white worsted, five sous to the ell; turns them to the right and left, and marches
away with them to glory.” Now the glory and the white worsted, the potentate who is to have an addition to his coffers, and the poor soul who is to be garnished for it with a halo of bobbin, “five sous to the ell,” here come into admirable contrast. War may be necessary on some occasions, till a wiser remedy be found; and ignoble causes may bring into play very noble passions; but it is desirable that the world should take the necessity of no existing system for granted, which is accompanied with horrible evils. This is a lesson which Voltaire has taught us; and it is invaluable. Our author terminates his ridicule on War with a sudden and startling apostrophe to an eminent preacher on a very different subject. The familiar tone of the reproof is very pleasant. “
Bourdaloue, a very bad sermon have you made against Love; against that passion which consoles and restores the human race; but not a word, bad or good, have you said against this passion that tears us to pieces.” (I quote from memory, and am not sure of my words in this extract; but the spirit of them is the same.) He adds, that all the miseries ever produced in the world by Love, do not come up to the calamities occasioned by a single campaign. If he means Love in the abstract, unconnected with the systems by which it has been regulated in different parts of the world, he is probably in the right; but the miscalculation is enormous, if he includes those. The seventy thousand prostitutes alone in the streets of London, which we are told are the inevitable accompaniment, and even safeguard, of the virtuous part of our system, (to say nothing of the tempers, the jealousies, the chagrins, the falsehoods, the quarrels, and the repeated murders which afflict and astonish us even in that,) most probably experience more bitterness of heart every day of their lives, than is caused by any one campaign, however wild and flagitious.


Besides Voltaire and the “Connoisseur,” I was very fond at that time of “Johnson’s Lives of the Poets,” and a great reader of Pope. My admiration of the “Rape of the Lock,” led me to write a long mock-heroic poem, entitled the “Battle of the Bridal Ring,” the subject of which was a contest between two rival orders of spirits, on whom to bestow a lady in marriage. I venture to say, that it would have been well spoken of by the critics, and was not worth twopence. I recollect one couplet, which will serve to show how I mimicked the tone of my author. It was an apostrophe to Mantua,—
“Mantua, of great and small the long renown,
That now a Virgil giv’st, and now a gown.”

Dryden I read too, but not with that relish for his nobler versification which I afterwards acquired. Dramatic reading, with all my love of the play, I never was fond of; yet, in the interval of my departure from school, and my getting out of my teens, I wrote two farces, a comedy, and a tragedy; and the plots of all (such as they were) were inventions. The hero of my tragedy was the Earl of Surrey (Howard, the poet) who was put to death by Henry the Eighth. I forget what the comedy was upon. The title of one of the farces was the “Beau Miser,” which may explain the nature of it. The other was called “A Hundred a Year,” and turned upon a hater of the country, who upon having an annuity to that amount given him, on condition of his never going out of London, becomes a hater of the town. In the last scene, his annuity died a jovial death in a country-tavern; the bestower entering the room just as my hero had got on a table, with a glass in his hand, to drink confusion to the metropolis. All these pieces were, I doubt not, as bad as need be. About ten years ago, being sleepless one night with a fit of
enthusiasm, in consequence of reading about the Spanish play of
the Cid in Lord Holland’sLife of Guillen de Castro,” I determined to write a tragedy on the same subject, which was accepted at Drury Lane. Perhaps the conduct of this piece was not without merit, the conclusion of each act throwing the interest into the succeeding one; but I had great doubts of all the rest of it; and on receiving it from Mr. Elliston to make an alteration in the third act, very judiciously proposed by him, I looked the whole of the play over again, and convinced myself it was unfit for the stage: I therefore withheld it. I had made my hero too much like the beau ideal of a modern reformer, instead of the half godlike, half-bigoted soldier that he was. I began afterwards to re-cast the play, but grew tired and gave it up. The Cid would make a delicious character for the stage, or in any work; not, indeed, as Corneille declaimed him, nor as inferior writers might adapt him to the reigning taste; but taken, I mean, as he was, with the noble impulses he received from nature, the drawbacks with which a bigoted age qualified them, and the social and open-hearted pleasantry (not the least evidence of his nobleness) that brings forth his heart, as it were, in flashes through the stern armour. But this would require a strong hand, and readers capable of grappling with it. In the meantime, they should read of him in Mr. Southey’s  Chronicle of the Cid, (an admirable summary from the old Spanish writers,) and in the delightful verses at the end of it, translated from an old Spanish poem by Mr. Hookham Frere, with a triumphant force and fidelity, that you know to be true to the original at once. It seems to me, that if I could live my life over again, and command a proper quantity of health and muscles from my ancestors, or a gymnasium, I could write same such poem myself, and make a book of it. All that I pretend at present, when I think what
a poem ought to be, is to be a reader not unworthy. As to the drama, I am persuaded I have no sort of talent for it; though I can paint a portrait or so in dialogue pretty well out of history, as in the imaginary conversations of
Pope and Swift, that have appeared in the New Monthly Magazine.

At the period I am speaking of, circumstances introduced me to the acquaintance of Mr. Bell, the Proprietor of the “Weekly Messenger.” In his house in the Strand, I used to hear of politics and dramatic criticism, and of the persons who wrote them. Mr. Bell had been well known as a bookseller, and a speculator in elegant typography. It is to him the public are indebted for the small edition of the Poets that preceded Cooke’s, and which, with all my predilections for that work, was unquestionably superior to it. Besides, it included Chaucer and Spenser. The omission of these in Cooke’s edition was as unpoetical a sign of the times, as the existing familiarity with their names is the reverse. It was thought a mark of good sense! As if good sense, in matters of literature, did not consist as much in knowing what was poetical in poetry, as brilliant in wit. Mr. Bell was upon the whole a remarkable person. He was a plain man, with a red face, and a nose exaggerated by intemperance; and yet there was something not unpleasing in his countenance, especially when he spoke. He had sparkling black eyes, a good-natured smile, gentlemanly manners, and one of the most agreeable voices I ever heard. He had no acquirements, perhaps not even grammar; but his taste in putting forth a publication, and getting the best artists to adorn it, was new in those times, and may be admired in any; and the same taste was observable in his house. He knew nothing of poetry. He thought the Della Cruscans fine people, because they were
known in the circles; and for
Milton’s Paradise Lost he had the same epithet as for Mrs. Crouch’s face, or the phaeton of Major Topham: he thought it “pretty.” Yet a certain liberal instinct, and turn for large dealing, made him include Chaucer and Spenser in his edition; he got Stothard to adorn the one, and Mortimer the other; and in the midst, I suspect, of very equivocal returns, published a British Theatre with embellishments, and a similar edition of the plays of Shakspeare,—the incorrectest work, according to Mr. Chalmers, that ever issued from the press. Unfortunately for Mr. Bell, he had as great a taste for neat wines and ankles, as for pretty books; and, to crown his misfortunes, the Prince of Wales, to whom he was bookseller, once did him the honour to partake of an entertainment at his house. He afterwards became a bankrupt. He was one of those men whose temperament and turn for enjoyment throw a sort of grace over whatsoever they do, standing them in stead of every thing but prudence, and sometimes even supplying them with the consolations which imprudence itself has forfeited. After his bankruptcy he set up a newspaper, which became profitable to every body but himself. He had become so used to lawyers and bailiffs, that the more his concerns flourished, the more his debts flourished with them. It seemed as if he would have been too happy without them; too exempt from the cares that beset the prudent. The first time I saw him, he was standing in a chemist’s shop, waiting till the road was clear for him to issue forth. He had a toothache, for which he held a handkerchief over his mouth; and while he kept a sharp look-out with his bright eye, was alternately groaning in a most gentlemanly manner over his gums and addressing some polite words to the shopman. I had not then been introduced
to him, and did not know his person; so that the effect of his voice upon me was unequivocal. I liked him for it, and wished the bailiff at the devil.

In the office of the “Weekly Messenger,” I saw one day a person who looked the epitome of squalid authorship. He was wretchedly dressed and dirty; and the rain, as he took his hat off, came away from it as from a spout. This was a man of the name of Badini, who had been poet at the Opera, and was then editor of the “Messenger.” He was afterwards sent out of the country under the Alien Act, and became reader of the English papers to Bonaparte. His intimacy with some of the first families in the country, among whom he had been a teacher, is supposed to have been of use to the French government. He wrote a good idiomatic English style, and was a man of abilities. I had never before seen a poor author, such as are described in books; and the spectacle of the reality startled me. Like other authors, however, who are at once very poor and very clever, his poverty was his own fault. When he received any money, he disappeared, and was understood to spend it in alehouses. We heard that in Paris he kept his carriage. I have since met with authors of the same squalid description; but they were destitute of ability, and had no more right to profess literature as a trade, than alchemy. It is from these that the common notions about the poverty of the profession are taken. One of them, poor fellow! might have cut a figure in Smollett. He was a proper ideal author, in rusty black, out at elbows, thin and pale. He brought me an ode about an eagle; for which the publisher of a magazine, he said, had had “the inhumanity” to offer him half-a-crown. His necessity for money he did not deny; but his great anxiety was to know whether, as a poetical composition, his ode was not worth more. “Is that poetry, Sir?” cried
he: “that’s what I want to know—is that poetry?” rising from his chair, and staring and trembling in all the agony of contested excellence.

My brother John, at the beginning of the year 1805, set up a paper, called the “News,” and I went to live with him in Brydges-street, and write the theatricals in it. It was he that invented the round window in the office of that paper, to attract attention. I say, the paper was his own, but it is a singular instance of my incuriousness, that I do not know to this day, and most likely never did, whether he had any share in it or not. Upon reflection, my impression is, that he had not. At all events, he was the printer and publisher, and he occupied the house.

It was the custom at that time for editors of papers to be intimate with actors and dramatists. They were often proprietors, as well as editors; and, in that case, it was not expected that they should escape the usual intercourse, or wish to do so. It was thought a feather in the cap of all parties; and with their feathers they tickled one another. The newspaper man had consequence in the green-room, and plenty of tickets for his friends; and he dined at amusing tables. The dramatist secured a good-natured critique in his journal, sometimes got it written himself, or, according to Mr. Reynolds, was even himself the author of it. The actor, if he was of any eminence, stood upon the same ground of reciprocity; and not to know a pretty actress, would have been a want of the knowing in general. Upon new performers, and upon writers not yet introduced, a journalist was more impartial; and sometimes, where the proprietor was in one interest more than another, or for some personal reason grew offended with an actor, or set of actors, a criticism would occasionally be hostile, and even severe. An editor, too, would
now and then suggest to his employer the policy of exercising a freer authority, and obtain influence enough with him to show symptoms of it. I believe
Mr. Bell’s editor, who was more clever, was also more impartial than most critics; though the publisher of the “British Theatre,” and patron of the “Della Cruscans,” must have been hampered with literary intimacies. The best chance for an editor, who wished to have any thing like an opinion of his own, was the appearance of a rival newspaper with a strong theatrical connexion. Influence was here threatened with diminution. It was to be held up on other grounds; and the critic was permitted to find out, that a bad play was not good, or an actress’s petticoat of the lawful dimensions.

Puffing and plenty of tickets were, however, the system of the day. It was an interchange of amenities over the dinner-table; a flattery of power on the one side, and puns on the other; and what the public took for a criticism on a play, was a draft upon the box-office, or reminiscences of last Thursday’s salmon and lobster-sauce.

Things are altered now. Editors of newspapers (with one or two scandalous exceptions, and they make a bullying show of independence) are of a higher and more independent order; and proprietors are wealthier, and leave their editors more to themselves. Tickets are accepted from the theatres; but it is upon an understanding that theatrical criticism of any sort is useful to both parties. At the time when the “News” was set up, there was no such thing, strictly speaking, as impartial newspaper criticism; there was hardly any criticism at all—I mean, any attempt at it, or articles of any length. The best critiques were to be found in weekly papers, because their corruption was of less importance. For the most part the etiquette was, to write as short and as favourable a paragraph on the new piece as could be; to say that Bannister was
“excellent,” and
Mrs. Jordan “charming;” to notice the “crowded house,” or invent it, if necessary; and to conclude by observing, that “the whole went off with éclat.” If a lord was in the boxes, he was noticed as well as the actors;—a thing never done now, except as a help to a minor theatre. Lords may sit by dozens in the boxes at Covent Garden, and an editor take no more notice of them than chorus-singers. For the rest, it was a critical religion in those times to admire Mr. Kemble; and at the period in question, Master Betty had appeared, and been hugged to the hearts of the town as the young Roscius.

We saw that independence in theatrical criticism would be a great novelty. We announced it, and nobody believed us:—we stuck to it, and the town believed every thing we said. The proprietors of the “News,” of whom I knew so little that I cannot recollect with certainty any one of them, very handsomely left me to myself. My retired and scholastic habits kept me so; and the pride of success confirmed my independence with regard to others. I was then in my twentieth year, an early period at that time for a writer. The usual exaggeration of report made me younger than I was; and after being a “young Roscius“ poetical, I was now looked upon as one critical. To know an actor personally, appeared to me a vice not to be thought of; and I would as lief have taken poison as accepted a ticket from the theatres. Good God! To think of the grand opinion I had of myself in those days, and what little reason I had for it! Not to accept the tickets was very proper, considering that I bestowed more blame than praise. There was also more good-nature than I supposed in not allowing myself to know any actors; but the vanity of my position had greater weight with me than any thing else, and I must have proved it to discerning eyes by the small quantity of information I brought to my task, and the ostentation with
which I produced it. I knew almost as little of the drama, as the young Roscius himself. Luckily I had the advantage of him in knowing how unfit he was for his office; and probably he thought me as much so, though he could not have argued upon it; for I was in the minority respecting his merits, and the balance just then trembling on the beam; the “News,” I believe, hastened the settlement of the question. I wish with all my heart we had let him alone, and he had got a little more money. However, he obtained enough to create him a provision for life. His position, which appeared so brilliant at first, had a remarkable cruelty in it. Most men begin life with struggles, and have their vanity sufficiently knocked about the head and shoulders, to make their kinder fortunes the more welcome. Mr. Betty had his sugar first, and his physic afterwards. He began life with a double childhood, with a new and extraordinary felicity added to the natural enjoyments of his age; and he lived to see it speedily come to nothing, and to be taken for an ordinary person. I am told that he acquiesces in his fate, and agrees that the town were mistaken. If so, he is no ordinary person still, and has as much right to our respect for his good sense, as he is declared on all hands to deserve it for his amiableness. I have an anecdote of him to both purposes, which exhibits him in a very agreeable light. A living writer, who, if he had been criticising in another what he did himself, would have attributed it to an overweening opinion of his good word, happened to be at a party where Mr. Betty was present; and in coming away, when they were all putting on their great coats, he thought fit to compliment the dethroned favourite of the town, by telling him that he recollected him in old times, and had been “much pleased with him.” Mr. Betty, who appears to have shown all the address which the other wanted, looked at his unlucky memorialist, as much as to say “You
don’t tell me so!” and then starting into a tragical attitude, exclaimed “Oh, memory! memory!”

I was right about Master Betty, and I am sorry for it; though the town was in fault, not he. I think I was right also about Mr. Kemble; but I have no regret upon that score. He flourished long enough after my attacks on his majestic dryness and deliberate nothings; and Mr. Kean would have taken the public by storm, whether they had been prepared for him or not:
“One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.”
Mr. Kemble faded before him, like a tragedy ghost. I never denied the merits which that actor possessed. He had the look of a Roman; made a very good ideal, though not a very real Coriolanus, for his pride was not sufficiently blunt and unaffected; and in parts that suited his natural deficiency, such as Penruddock and the Abbé de l’Epée, would have been altogether admirable and interesting, if you could have forgotten that their sensibility, in his hands, was not so much repressed, as wanting. He was no more to be compared to his sister, than stone is to flesh and blood. There was much of the pedagogue in him. He made a great fuss about trifles; was inflexible on a pedantic reading: in short, was rather a teacher of elocution than an actor; and not a good teacher, on that account. There was a merit in his idealism, as far as it went. He had, at least, faith in something classical and scholastic, and he made the town partake of it; but it was all on the surface—a hollow trophy: and I am persuaded, that he was a very dull person, and had no idea in his head but of a stage Roman, and the dignity he added to his profession.


But if I was right about Mr. Kemble, whose admirers I plagued enough, I was not equally so about the living dramatists, whom I plagued more. I laid all the deficiencies of the modern drama to their account, and treated them like a parcel of mischievous boys, of whom I was the schoolmaster and whipper-in. I forgot that it was I who was the boy, and that they knew twenty times more of the world than I did. Not that I mean to say their comedies were excellent, or that my commonplaces about the superior merits of Congreve and Sheridan were not well founded: but there was more talent in their “five-act farces” than I supposed; and I mistook, in great measure, the defect of the age,—its dearth of dramatic character,—for that of the writers who were to draw upon it. It is true, a great wit, by a laborious process, and the help of his acquirements, might extract a play or two from it, as was Sheridan’s own case; but there was a great deal of imitation even in Sheridan, and he was fain to help himself to a little originality out of the characters of his less formalized countrymen, his own included. It is remarkable, that the three most amusing dramatists of the last age, Sheridan, Goldsmith, and O’Keeffe, were all Irishmen, and all had characters of their own. Sheridan, after all, was Swift’s Sheridan come to life again in the person of his grandson, with the oratory of Thomas Sheridan, the father, superadded and brought to bear. Goldsmith, at a disadvantage in his breeding, but full of address with his pen, drew upon his own absurdities and mistakes, and filled his dramas with ludicrous perplexity. O’Keeffe was all for whim and impulse, but not without a good deal of conscience; and, accordingly, in his plays we have a sort of young and pastoral taste of life in the very midst of its sophistications. Animal spirits, quips and cranks, credulity, and good intention, are triumphant throughout, and make a delicious mixture. It is a great credit
to O’Keeffe, that he ran sometimes close upon the borders of the sentimental drama, and did it not only with impunity but advantage: but sprightliness and sincerity enable a man to do every thing with advantage. It is a pity that as much cannot be said of
Mr. Colman, who, after taking more license in his writings than any body, has become a Licenser ex officio, and seems inclined to license nothing but cant. When this writer got into the sentimental, he made a sad business of it, for he had no faith in sentiment. He mouthed and overdid it, as a man does when he is telling a lie. At a farce he was admirable; and remains so, whether writing or licensing. Morton seemed to take a colour from the writers all round him, especially from O’Keeffe and the sentimentalists. His sentiment was more in earnest than Mr. Colman’s, yet somehow not happy either. There was a gloom in it, and a smack of the Old Bailey. It was best when he put it in a shape of humour, as in the paternal and inextinguishable tailorism of Old Rapid in a Cure for the Heart-Ache. Young Rapid, who complains that his father “sleeps so slow,” is also a pleasant fellow and worthy of O’Keeffe. He is one of the numerous crop that sprang up from Wild Oats, but not in so natural a soil. The character of the modern drama at that time was singularly commercial; nothing but gentlemen in distress, and hard landlords, and generous interferers, and fathers who got a great deal of money, and sons who spent it. I remember the whole wit of Mr. H——’s play ran upon prices, bonds, and post-obits. You might know what the pit thought of their pound-notes by the ostentatious indifference with which the heroes of the pieces gave them away, and the admiration and pretended approval with which the spectators observed it. To make a present of a hundred pounds was as if a man had uprooted and given away an Egyptian pyramid.


Mr. Reynolds was not behindhand with his brother dramatists, in drawing upon the taste of the day for gains and distresses. It appears, by his Memoirs, that he had too much reason for so doing. He was perhaps the least ambitious, and the least vain, (whatever charges to the contrary his animal spirits might have brought on him,) of all the writers of that period. In complexional vivacity he certainly did not yield to any of them; his comedies, if they were fugitive, were genuine representations of fugitive manners, and went merrily to their death; and there is one of them, the “Dramatist,” founded upon something more lasting, which promises to remain in the collections, and deserves it: which is not a little to say of any writer. I never wish for a heartier laugh than I have enjoyed, since I grew wiser, not only in seeing, but in reading the vagaries of his dramatic hero, and his mystifications of “Old Scratch.” When I read the good-humoured Memoirs of this writer the other day, I felt quite ashamed of the ignorant and boyish way in which I used to sit in judgment upon his faults, without being aware of what was good in him; and my repentance was increased by the very proper manner in which he speaks of his critics, neither denying the truth of their charges in letter, nor admitting them altogether in spirit; in fact, showing that he knew very well what he was about, and that they, whatsoever they fancied to the contrary, did not. Mr. Reynolds, agreeably to his sense and good-humour, never said a word to his critics at the time. Mr. Thomas Dibdin, not quite so wise, wrote me a letter, which Incledon, I am told, remonstrated with him for sending, saying, it would do him no good with the “d— boy.” And he was right. I published it, with an answer; and only thought that I made dramatists “come bow to me.” Mr. Colman attacked me in a prologue, which by a curious chance Fawcett spoke
right in my teeth, the box I sat in happening to be directly opposite him. I laughed at the prologue; and only looked upon Mr. Colman as a great monkey, pelting me with nuts, which I ate. Attacks of this kind were little calculated to obtain their end with a youth who persuaded himself that he wrote for nothing but the public good; who mistook the impression which any body of moderate talents can make with a newspaper, for the result of something peculiarly his own; and who had just enough scholarship to despise the want of it, or what appeared to be the want of it, in others. I do not pretend to think that the criticisms in the “
News” had no merit at all. They showed an acquaintance with the style of Voltaire, Johnson, and others; were not unagreeably sprinkled with quotation; and, above all, were written with more care and attention than was customary with newspapers at that time. The pains I took to round a period with nothing in it, or to invent a simile that should appear offhand, would have done honour to better stuff. On looking over the articles the other day, for the first time perhaps these twenty years, I found them less absurd than I had imagined; and began to fear that, with all their mistakes, my improvement since had not been free from miscalculation. If so, God knows how I should have to criticise myself twenty years hence! But there is a time of life, at which we cannot well experience more, at least so as to draw any healthy and useful deductions from our experience: and when a man has come to this, he is as wise, after his fashion, as he ever will be. The world require neither the ill-informed confidence of youth, nor the worse diffidence or obstinacy of old age, to teach them; but a comparison of mutual experiences; enough wisdom for acknowledging, that we are none of us as wise or as happy as we might be; and a little more (which is the great point to arrive at) for
setting to work and trying if we cannot be otherwise. Methinks we have been beating blindly upon this point long enough, and might as well open our eyes to it.