Lives of the Poets, by Samuel Johnson

West.

Gilbert West is one of the writers of whom I regret my inability to give a sufficient account; the intelligence which my inquiries have obtained is general and scanty. He was the son of the Rev. Dr. West; perhaps him who published “Pindar” at Oxford about the beginning of this century. His mother was sister to Sir Richard Temple, afterwards Lord Cobham. His father, purposing to educate him for the Church, sent him first to Eton, and afterwards to Oxford; but he was seduced to a more airy mode of life, by a commission in a troop of horse, procured him by his uncle. He continued some time in the army, though it is reasonable to suppose that he never sunk into a mere soldier, nor ever lost the love, or much neglected the pursuit, of learning; and afterwards, finding himself more inclined to civil employment, he laid down his commission, and engaged in business under the Lord Townshend, then Secretary of State, with whom he attended the King to Hanover.

His adherence to Lord Townshend ended in nothing but a nomination (May, 1729) to be Clerk–Extraordinary of the Privy Council, which produced no immediate profit; for it only placed him in a state of expectation and right of succession, and it was very long before a vacancy admitted him to profit.

Soon afterwards he married, and settled himself in a very pleasant house at Wickham, in Kent, where he devoted himself to learning and to piety. Of his learning the late Collection exhibits evidence, which would have been yet fuller if the dissertations which accompany his version of “Pindar” had not been improperly omitted. Of his piety the influence has, I hope, been extended far by his “Observations on the Resurrection,” published in 1747, for which the University of Oxford created him a Doctor of Laws, by diploma (March 30, 1748), and would doubtless have reached yet further had he lived to complete what he had for some time meditated — the “Evidences of the Truth of the New Testament.” Perhaps it may not be without effect to tell that he read the prayers of the public Liturgy every morning to his family, and that on Sunday evening he called his servants into the parlour and read to them first a sermon and then prayers. Crashaw is now not the only maker of verses to whom may be given the two venerable names of Poet and Saint. He was very often visited by Lyttelton and Pitt, who, when they were weary of faction and debates, used at Wickham to find books and quiet, a decent table, and literary conversation. There is at Wickham a walk made by Pitt; and, what is of far more importance, at Wickham, Lyttelton received that conviction which produced his “Dissertation on St. Paul.” These two illustrious friends had for a while listened to the blandishments of infidelity; and when West’s book was published, it was bought by some who did not know his change of opinion, in expectation of new objections against Christianity; and as infidels do not want malignity, they revenged the disappointment by calling him a Methodist.

Mr. West’s income was not large; and his friends endeavoured, but without success, to obtain an augmentation. It is reported that the education of the young Prince was offered to him, but that he required a more extensive power of superintendence than it was thought proper to allow him. In time, however, his revenue was improved; he lived to have one of the lucrative clerkships of the Privy Council (1752); and Mr. Pitt at last had it in his power to make him Treasurer of Chelsea Hospital. He was now sufficiently rich; but wealth came too late to be long enjoyed; nor could it secure him from the calamities of life; he lost (1755) his only son; and the year after (March 26) a stroke of the palsy brought to the grave one of the few poets to whom the grave might be without its terrors.

Of his translations I have only compared the first Olympic Ode with the original, and found my expectation surpassed, both by its elegance and its exactness. He does not confine himself to his author’s train of stanzas; for he saw that the difference of languages required a different mode of versification. The first strophe is eminently happy; in the second he has a little strayed from Pindar’s meaning, who says, “If thou, my soul, wishest to speak of games, look not in the desert sky for a planet hotter than the sun; nor shall we tell of nobler games than those of Olympia.” He is sometimes too paraphrastical. Pindar bestows upon Hiero an epithet which, in one word, signifies DELIGHTING IN HORSES; a word which, in the translation, generates these lines:—

“Hiero’s royal brows, whose care

    Tends the courser’s noble breed,

Pleased to nurse the pregnant mare,

    Pleased to train the youthful steed.”

Pindar says of Pelops, that “he came alone in the dark to the White Sea;” and West —

“Near the billow-beaten side

Of the foam-besilvered main,

Darkling, and alone, he stood:”

which, however, is less exuberant than the former passage.

A work of this kind must, in a minute examination, discover many imperfections; but West’s version, so far as I have considered it, appears to be the product of great labour and great abilities.

His “Institution of the Garter” (1742) is written with sufficient knowledge of the manners that prevailed in the age to which it is referred, and with great elegance of diction; but, for want of a process of events, neither knowledge nor elegance preserves the reader from weariness.

His “Imitations of Spenser” are very successfully performed, both with respect to the metre, the language, and the fiction; and being engaged at once by the excellence of the sentiments, and the artifice of the copy, the mind has two amusements together. But such compositions are not to be reckoned among the great achievements of intellect, because their effect is local and temporary; they appeal not to reason or passion, but to memory, and presuppose an accidental or artificial state of mind. An imitation of Spenser is nothing to a reader, however acute, by whom Spenser has never been perused. Works of this kind may deserve praise, as proofs of great industry and great nicety of observation; but the highest praise, the praise of genius, they cannot claim. The noblest beauties of art are those of which the effect is co-extended with rational nature, or at least with the whole circle of polished life; what is less than this can be only pretty, the plaything of fashion, and the amusement of a day.

There is in the Adventurer a paper of verses given to one of the authors as Mr. West’s, and supposed to have been written by him. It should not be concealed, however, that it is printed with Mr. Jago’s name in Dodsley’s Collection, and is mentioned as his in a letter of Shenstone’s. Perhaps West gave it without naming the author, and Hawkesworth, receiving it from him, thought it his; for his he thought it, as he told me, and as he tells the public.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/j/johnson/samuel/lives_of_the_poets/chapter15.html

Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38