Lives of the Poets, by Samuel Johnson

Lyttelton.

George Lyttelton, the son of Sir Thomas Lyttelton, of Hagley, in Worcestershire, was born in 1709. He was educated at Eton, where he was so much distinguished that his exercises were recommended as models to his schoolfellows. From Eton he went to Christchurch, where he retained the same reputation of superiority, and displayed his abilities to the public in a poem on “Blenheim.” He was a very early writer both in verse and prose. His “Progress of Love” and his “Persian Letters” were both written when he was very young, and, indeed, the character of a young man is very visible in both. The verses cant of shepherds and flocks, and crooks dressed with flowers; and the letters have something of that indistinct and headstrong ardour for liberty which a man of genius always catches when he enters the world, and always suffers to cool as he passes forward. He stayed not long in Oxford, for in 1728 he began his travels, and saw France and Italy. When he returned he obtained a seat in Parliament, and soon distinguished himself among the most eager opponents of Sir Robert Walpole, though his father, who was Commissioner of the Admiralty, always voted with the Court. For many years the name of George Lyttelton was seen in every account of every debate in the House of Commons. He opposed the standing army; he opposed the excise; he supported the motion for petitioning the king to remove Walpole. His zeal was considered by the courtiers not only as violent but as acrimonious and malignant, and when Walpole was at last hunted from his places, every effort was made by his friends, and many friends he had, to exclude Lyttelton from the secret committee.

The Prince of Wales, being (1737) driven from St. James’s, kept a separate court, and opened his arms to the opponents of the Ministry. Mr. Lyttelton became his Secretary, and was supposed to have great influence in the direction of his conduct. He persuaded his master, whose business it was now to be popular, that he would advance his character by patronage. Mallet was made Under Secretary, with 200 pounds, and Thomson had a pension of 100 pounds a year. For Thomson, Lyttelton always retained his kindness, and was able at last to place him at ease. Moore courted his favour by an apologetical poem called the “Trial of Selim,” for which he was paid with kind words, which, as is common, raised great hopes, that were at last disappointed.

Lyttelton now stood in the first rank of Opposition, and Pope, who was incited, it is not easy to say how, to increase the clamour against the Ministry, commended him among the other patriots. This drew upon him the reproaches of Fox, who in the House imputed to him as a crime his intimacy with a lampooner so unjust and licentious. Lyttelton supported his friend; and replied that he thought it an honour to be received into the familiarity of so great a poet. While he was thus conspicuous he married (1741) Miss Lucy Fortescue, of Devonshire, by whom he had a son, the late Lord Lyttelton, and two daughters, and with whom he appears to have lived in the highest degree of connubial felicity; but human pleasures are short; she died in childbed about five years afterwards, and he solaced his grief by writing a long poem to her memory. He did not, however, condemn himself to perpetual solitude and sorrow, for after a while he was content to seek happiness again by a second marriage with the daughter of Sir Robert Rich, but the experiment was unsuccessful. At length, after a long struggle, Walpole gave way, and honour and profit were distributed among his conquerors. Lyttelton was made (1744) one of the Lords of the Treasury, and from that time was engaged in supporting the schemes of the Ministry.

Politics did not, however, so much engage him as to withhold his thoughts from things of more importance. He had, in the pride of juvenile confidence, with the help of corrupt conversation, entertained doubts of the truth of Christianity; but he thought the time now come when it was no longer fit to doubt or believe by chance, and applied himself seriously to the great question. His studies, being honest, ended in conviction. He found that religion was true, and what he had learned he endeavoured to teach (1747) by “Observations on the Conversion of St. Paul,” a treatise to which infidelity has never been able to fabricate a specious answer. This book his father had the happiness of seeing, and expressed his pleasure in a letter which deserves to be inserted:—

“I have read your religious treatise with infinite pleasure and satisfaction. The style is fine and clear, the arguments close, cogent, and irresistible. May the King of Kings, whose glorious cause you have so well defended, reward your pious labours, and grant that I may be found worthy, through the merits of Jesus Christ, to be an eye-witness of that happiness which I don’t doubt he will bountifully bestow upon you. In the meantime I shall never cease glorifying God for having endowed you with such useful talents, and giving me so good a son.

“Your affectionate father,
“THOMAS LYTTELTON.”

A few years afterwards (1751), by the death of his father, he inherited a baronet’s title, with a large estate, which, though perhaps he did not augment, he was careful to adorn by a house of great elegance and expense, and by much attention to the decoration of his park. As he continued his activity in Parliament, he was gradually advancing his claim to profit and preferment; and accordingly was made in time (1754) Cofferer and Privy Councillor: this place he exchanged next year for the great office of Chancellor of the Exchequer — an office, however, that required some qualifications which he soon perceived himself to want. The year after, his curiosity led him into Wales; of which he has given an account, perhaps rather with too much affectation of delight, to Archibald Bower, a man of whom he has conceived an opinion more favourable than he seems to have deserved, and whom, having once espoused his interest and fame he was never persuaded to disown. Bower, whatever was his moral character, did not want abilities. Attacked as he was by a universal outcry, and that outcry, as it seems, the echo of truth, he kept his ground; at last, when his defences began to fail him, he sallied out upon his adversaries, and his adversaries retreated.

About this time Lyttelton published his “Dialogues of the Dead,” which were very eagerly read, though the production rather, as it seems, of leisure than of study — rather effusions than compositions. The names of his persons too often enable the reader to anticipate their conversation; and when they have met, they too often part without any conclusion. He has copied Fenelon more than Fontenelle. When they were first published they were kindly commended by the “Critical Reviewers;” and poor Lyttelton, with humble gratitude, returned, in a note which I have read, acknowledgments which can never be proper, since they must be paid either for flattery or for justice.

When, in the latter part of the last reign, the inauspicious commencement of the war made the dissolution of the Ministry unavoidable, Sir George Lyttelton, losing with the rest his employment, was recompensed with a peerage; and rested from political turbulence in the House of Lords.

His last literary production was his “History of Henry the Second,” elaborated by the searches and deliberations of twenty years, and published with such anxiety as only vanity can dictate. The story of this publication is remarkable. The whole work was printed twice over, a great part of it three times, and many sheets four or five times. The booksellers paid for the first impression; but the changes and repeated operations of the press were at the expense of the author, whose ambitious accuracy is known to have cost him at least a thousand pounds. He began to print in 1755. Three volumes appeared in 1764, a second edition of them in 1767, a third edition in 1768, and the conclusion in 1771.

Andrew Reid, a man not without considerable abilities and not unacquainted with letters or with life, undertook to persuade Lyttelton, as he had persuaded himself, that he was master of the secret of punctuation; and, as fear begets credulity, he was employed, I know not at what price, to point the pages of “Henry the Second.” The book was at last pointed and printed, and sent into the world. Lyttelton took money for his copy, of which, when he had paid the pointer, he probably gave the rest away; for he was very liberal to the indigent. When time brought the History to a third edition, Reid was either dead or discarded; and the superintendence of typography and punctuation was committed to a man originally a comb-maker, but then known by the style of Doctor. Something uncommon was probably expected, and something uncommon was at last done; for to the Doctor’s edition is appended, what the world had hardly seen before, a list of errors in nineteen pages.

But to politics and literature there must be an end. Lord Lyttelton had never the appearance of a strong or of a healthy man; he had a slender, uncompacted frame, and a meagre face; he lasted, however, sixty years, and was then seized with his last illness. Of his death a very affecting and instructive account has been given by his physician, which will spare me the task of his moral character:—

“On Sunday evening the symptoms of his lordship’s disorder, which for a week past had alarmed us, put on a fatal appearance, and his lordship believed himself to be a dying man. From this time he suffered from restlessness rather than pain; though his nerves were apparently much fluttered, his mental faculties never seemed stronger, when he was thoroughly awake. His lordship’s bilious and hepatic complaints seemed alone not equal to the expected mournful event; his long want of sleep, whether the consequence of the irritation in the bowels, or, which is more probable, of causes of a different kind, accounts for his loss of strength, and for his death, very sufficiently. Though his lordship wished his approaching dissolution not to be lingering, he waited for it with resignation. He said, ‘It is a folly, a keeping me in misery, now to attempt to prolong life;’ yet he was easily persuaded, for the satisfaction of others, to do or take anything thought proper for him. On Saturday he had been remarkably better, and we were not without some hopes of his recovery.

“On Sunday, about eleven in the forenoon, his lordship sent for me, and said he felt a great hurry, and wished to have a little conversation with me, in order to divert it. He then proceeded to open the fountain of that heart, from whence goodness had so long flowed, as from a copious spring. ‘Doctor,’ said he, ‘you shall be my confessor: when I first set out in the world I had friends who endeavoured to shake my belief in the Christian religion. I saw difficulties which staggered me, but I kept my mind open to conviction. The evidences and doctrines of Christianity, studied with attention, made me a most firm and persuaded believer of the Christian religion. I have made it the rule of my life, and it is the ground of my future hopes. I have erred and sinned; but have repented, and never indulged any vicious habit. In politics and public life I have made public good the rule of my conduct. I never gave counsels which I did not at the time think the best. I have seen that I was sometimes in the wrong, but I did not err designedly. I have endeavoured in private life to do all the good in my power, and never for a moment could indulge malicious or unjust designs upon any person whatsoever.’

“At another time he said, ‘I must leave my soul in the same state it was in before this illness; I find this a very inconvenient time for solicitude about anything.’

“On the evening, when the symptoms of death came on, he said, ‘I shall die; but it will not be your fault.’ When Lord and Lady Valentia came to see his lordship, he gave them his solemn benediction, and said, ‘Be good, be virtuous, my lord; you must come to this.’ Thus he continued giving his dying benediction to all around him. On Monday morning a lucid interval gave some small hopes, but these vanished in the evening; and he continued dying, but with very little uneasiness, till Tuesday morning, August 22, when, between seven and eight o’clock, he expired, almost without a groan.”

His lordship was buried at Hagley, and the following inscription is cut on the side of his lady’s monument:—

“This unadorned stone was placed here by the particular
desire and express directions of the Right Honourable
GEORGE LORD LYTTELTON,
who died August 22, 1773, aged 64.”

Lord Lyttelton’s Poems are the works of a man of literature and judgment, devoting part of his time to versification. They have nothing to be despised, and little to be admired. Of his “Progress of Love,” it is sufficient blame to say that it is pastoral. His blank verse in “Blenheim” has neither much force nor much elegance. His little performances, whether songs or epigrams, are sometimes sprightly, and sometimes insipid. His epistolary pieces have a smooth equability, which cannot much tire, because they are short, but which seldom elevates or surprises. But from this censure ought to be excepted his “Advice to Belinda,” which, though for the most part written when he was very young, contains much truth and much prudence, very elegantly and vigorously expressed, and shows a mind attentive to life, and a power of poetry which cultivation might have raised to excellence.

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