« PreviousContinue »
give the two boys dinners at the Christopher, and teach them politics. When Canning entered Parliament, his first speech was in support of Pitt. There was rather a bitter epigram hereon, by General Fitzpatrick:
• The turning of coats so common is grown,
That no one would think to attack it;
Of a schoolboy turning his jacket.'
But such reproaches are unfair. No boy of two- or three-and-twenty can by possibility have made-up his mind on the vast and numerous questions involved in the great science of politics.
At the same time, Praed and his brilliant rival Macaulay were coadjutors in Knight's Quarterly Magazine, one of the numerous periodicals that are too clever to last. This is no paradox. The perverse public will not purchase what they cannot understand. He is the successful writer who can adapt himself to the taste of the multitude. Just imagine what would be the fate of a newspaper conducted on high moral principles, without any tolerance for the ordinary Great Briton's self-esteem and love of money and taste for police news, and with exhaustive articles on all topics by men who had completely mastered them! Why, it would not live a week. It would be caviare to the general. A catalogue raisonnée of all the periodicals that have failed because they were too good to succeed would be a capital compilation. I have contributed to the failure of at least a dozen myself.
It is odd to think of Praed and Macaulay writing youthfully in the same magazine just as another youth, two or three years their junior, was producing Vivian Grey. If! If the elder brother of either Henry VIII. or Charles I. had lived, and the uxorious Tudor or the aesthetic Stuart had become (as was destined) Archbishop of Canterbury, what would have been the course of English history? Praed has been dead more than thirty years. If he had lived to this day, what would have been the course of the Tory party? Vain speculations.
• If wit were always radiant,
And wine were always iced,
One well might be enticed,
And wine were always iced.'
For Praed was born to be a first - class politician. He rose rapidly in public esteem, without effort and without intrigue. That land of which the House of Commons is the omphalos was his natural habitation. Lord Lytton, in his noble poem St. Stephen's, thus mentions Praed:
• More richly gifted, though to him denied
Heard Praed's reply, and long'd to halve the crown.' The position which he would have occupied if he had lived may be judged from the fact that he became the confidential friend of the Duke of Wellington. It was he who, when the Reform Bill of 1831 was under discussion, proposed the scheme for the representation of minorities in three-cornered' constituencies, which has since been accepted by Parliament. Amid the serious business of politics he was always light of heart. Many a gay jeu d'esprit did his brilliant pen throw-off within the solemn walls of St. Stephen's. The capital squib entitled 'Sleep, Mr. Speaker !' is too well known for quotation here. We find him, during an interval of debate, sitting down in the library to write some pleasant rhymes to his wife. Such gems he polished to perfection; no one has ever equalled him in this lapidary art. Suckling and Dorset were wittier, Prior and Goldsmith more humorous; but none of these or of their compeers had quite his dainty delicacy of touch. How charming his lines on Lord Mayo's portrait drawn by the Queen, whereof I quote the final quatrain :
. Still ready-favour'd or disgraced
To do the right, to speak the true;
A better subject never knew.' That inexhaustible American gossip N. P. Willis—Namby-pamby Willis, as Fraser in its hot youth used to call him—met Praed in his own country, and in the refined society which he admirably adorned. It was at a country-house. Jane Porter was of the party
— who now remembers her marvellous romances ? — Julia Pardoe, and Krasinski the Polish historian, and Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, a predecessor of Eothen, and Lady Cork, the Lady Bellair of Disraeli's Henrietta Temple. I can understand Praed's getting-on capitally with Lady Bellair, that charming old sayer of witty wicked things; but I suspect he was infinitely bored by Miss Jane and Miss Julia, and that he found the inquisitive American an atrocious nuisance—so at least I should judge from Willis's description of his behaviour. “His exquisitely beautiful poem of Lillian was among
the pet treasures of the lady of the house, and we had all been indulged with a sight of it, in a choicely-bound manuscript copy; but it was hard to make him confess to any literary habits or standing.' It must have been harder upon poor Praed to have had the pertinacious American worrying him for such a confession. “As a gentleman of ample means [O, N. P. W.!] and retired life, the kind of notice drawn upon him by the admiration of this poem seemed distasteful. His habits were very secluded. We only saw him at table and in the evening; and for the rest of the day he was away in the remote walks and woods of the extensive park around the mansion, apparently more fond of solitude than of anything else.' More fond of solitude, I doubt not, than of answering or evading the innumerable inquiries of the most inquisitive American that ever set foot in England. Praed was trying to enjoy some rest in the country, after a busy session, and it was hardly to be expected that he should entirely waste his holiday. As it was, he seems to have been rather ill-treated. Mr. Praed's mind was one of wonderful readinessrhythm and rhyme coming to him with the flow of an improvisatore. The ladies of the party made the events of every day the subjects of charades, epigrams, sonnets, &c., with the design of suggesting inspiration to his ready pen; and he was most brilliantly complying, with treasures for each in her turn. What a rascally shame! Why did not Lady Bellair defend him from Jane and Julia ? In these days we are more civilised. Every well-ordered countryhouse has smoking- and billiard-rooms, where a persecuted poet can take refuge from ladies too eager for his autograph. But there is no taking sanctuary from the questionings of a Willis.
That poem of Lillian, which Willis calls exquisitely beautiful,' was produced under circumstances of a similar kind. Praed was challenged by some ladies to write on this enigmatic theme :
"A dragon's tail is flay'd to warm
A headless maiden's heart.'
Not very promising, it must be admitted ; but the poet did his work well. Of course such work is waste; poetry should never attempt to be ingenious. There are new theories about it just now : Professor Sylvester, indeed, fancies he has found a way of constructing it by the higher algebra. There is never any knowing, in these scientific times, what discovery will come next. There was a gentleman a good many years ago who invented a machine that made Latin hexameters : they were villanous in quality, but the quantity was undeniable. Perhaps Mr. Sylvester's algebraic lyrics will be something similar. Mr. Tomlinson (well known as a chess-player) maintains in Notes and Queries the possibility of constructing a machine to play chess, and to play it infallibly well. What next?
By the pleasant river Teign was the country seat of Praed's family, and in some of his poems he gives us glimpses of the happy Devonshire life. Here is the belle of Teignmouth imploring her cousin to come to the country ball :
* I've often been out upon Haldon
To look for a covey with Pup;
To see how your boat is laid up;
I've ridden the filly you broke;
In the shade of your favourite oak:
I sat in your love of a shawl;
Perhaps, if you'll come to our ball.' Another poet sojourned for a time at Teignmouth, Endymion Keats. He went over the hills to a fair at Dawlish, and records in some doggerel rhyme that the gingerbread-nuts were smallish. In the days before the railway, Dawlish, which even now is charming, was one of the loveliest villages in England: the only others which seem to fascinate me in the same way are Troutbeck and Wetheral, the former of which I have recently mentioned as the most beautiful village in the world. Wetheral is on the banks of the glorious river Eden, that swift and sparkling stream which tradition declares King Arthur's father strove vainly to turn from its course, and on whose banks is the haunted hall where fairies in forgotten days left & mystic goblet with magical powers.
De Quincey was there for a while, and wrote a weird wild story, the Stranger's Grave, which is not to be found in his collected works. As to Dawlish, it is an old-fangled village built around pleasant lawns, through which a stream runs shimmering to the sea. A railway-arch now crosses the estuary of this rippling rivulet; but in the old days, before Brunel had invaded Devon, those emerald lawns came right down to the smooth hard sands; and the lovely little bay, with its lofty rocks of blood-red sandstone on either hand, was divinely isolated, a shrine for the goddess of the bath. Such is one of the gems of Praed's country.
Our poet had wonderful capacity for sketching in the tersest language characters peculiar to Devonshire; the old-fashioned Devon parson to wit:
· His sermons never said or show'd
That earth is foul, that heaven is gracious,
From Jerome or from Athanasius;
The band and head that penn'd and plann'd them,
And some who did not understand them.'
The old village bachelor :
• Though all the parish were at strife,
He kept his counsel and his carriage,
And shrank from chancery suits--and marriage.
Warm was his double ale-and feelings :
That he was faultless in his dealings.
Yet Dr. Poundtext always found him
And liked to see his friends around him.'
Many a rare old crusty bachelor of this sort have I known, with quaint ideas and pungent humour, and an inveterate misogyny clinging to them. Old Townsend, who died the other day, vicar of Kingston-by-Sea, and who had been a great crony of Wordsworth and Rogers, was of this class. He liked children, but women he abominated. He was a shrewd epigrammatist, and thus consoled himself after some thieves had broken into his vicarage :
• They came and prigg'd my linen, my stockings, and my store;
But they couldn't prig my sermons, for they were prigg'd before.' Praed's sketch of the Devonshire belle-a charming coquetteis excellent good :
'I saw her at the county ball:
There, when the sounds of flute and fiddle
Of hands across and down the middle,
Of all that set young hearts romancing;
And then she danced- heaven, her dancing!
She sketch'd; the vale, the wood, the beach,
Grew lovelier from her pencil's shading :
Young blossom in her boudoir fading:
She made the Catalani jealous :
For hours and hours to blow the bellows.'
There is another country which I may call Praed's in a special sense-ridelicet, America. Although he died in 1839, it was not till 1864 that an English edition of his poems was published. Meanwhile there had been at least four American editions, of the last of which, published in 1860, I possess one of the fifty copies printed for the editor, Mr. W. H. Whitmore of Boston, whose acquaintance I had the pleasure of making when he was in England. Doubtless