The Poetical Works, by Tobias Smollett

The Life of Tobias Smollett.

The combination of a great writer and a small poet, in one and the same person, is not uncommon. With not a few, while other, and severer branches of study are the laborious task of the day, poetry is the slipshod amusement of the evening. Dr Parr calls Johnson probabilis poeta — words which seem to convey the notion that the author of “The Rambler,” who was great on other fields, was in that of poetry only respectable. This term is more applicable to Smollett, whose poems discover only in part those keen, vigorous, and original powers which enabled him to indite “Roderick Random” and “Humphrey Clinker.” Yet the author of “Independence,” and “The Tears of Scotland,” must not be excluded from the list of British poets — an honour to which much even of his prose has richly entitled him.

The incidents in Smollett’s history are not very numerous, and some of them are narrated, under faint disguises, with inimitable vivacity and vraisemblance in his own fictions. Tobias George Smollett was born in Dalquhurn House, near the village of Renton, Dumbartonshire, in 1721. His father, a younger son of Sir James Smollett of Bonhill, having died early, the education of the poet devolved on his grandfather. The scenery of his native place was well calculated to inspire his early genius. It is one of the most beautiful regions in Scotland. A fine hollow vale, pervaded by the river Leven, and surrounded by rich woodlands and bold hills, stretches up from Dumbarton, with its double peaks and ancient castle, to the magnificent Loch Lomond; and in one of the loops of this winding vale was the great novelist born and bred. He called his native region, in “Humphrey Clinker,” the “Arcadia of Scotland,” and has sung the Leven in one of his small poems. He was sent to the Grammar School of Dumbarton, and thence to Glasgow College. He was subsequently placed apprentice to one M. Gordon, a medical practitioner in Glasgow; and from thence, according to some of his biographers, he proceeded to study medicine in Edinburgh. When he was about nineteen years of age, his grandfather expired, without having made any provision for him; and he was compelled, in 1739, to repair to London, carrying with him a tragedy entitled “The Regicide,”— the subject being the assassination of James the First of Scotland — which he had written the year before, and which he in vain sought to get presented at the theatres. He had letters of introduction to some eminent literary characters, who, however, either could not or would not do anything for him; and he found no better situation than that of surgeon’s mate in an eighty-gun ship. He continued in the navy for six or seven years, and was present at the disastrous siege of Carthagena, in 1741, which he has described in a Compendium of Voyages he compiled in 1756, and with still more vigour in “Roderick Random.” His long acquaintance with the sea furnished ample materials for his genius, although it did not improve his opinion of human nature. Disgusted with the service, he quitted it in the West Indies, and lived for some time in Jamaica. Here he became acquainted with Miss Lascelles, a beautiful lady whom he afterwards married. She sat for the portrait of Narcissa, in “Roderick Random.”

In 1746 he returned to England. He found the country ringing with indignation at the cruelties inflicted by Cumberland on the Highland rebels, and he caught and crystalised the prevalent emotion in his spirited lyric, “The Tears of Scotland.” He published the same year his “Advice,”— a satirical poem upon things in general, and the public men of the day in particular. He wrote also an opera entitled “Alceste” for Covent Garden; but owing to a dispute with the manager, it was neither acted nor printed. In 1747 he produced “Reproof,” the second part of “Advice,”— a poem which breathes the same manly indignation at the abuses, evils, and public charlatans of the day. This year also he married Miss Lascelles, by whom he expected a fortune of three thousand pounds. This sum, however, was never fully realised; and his generous housekeeping, and the expenses of a litigation to which he was compelled, in connection with Miss Lascelles’ money, embarrassed his circumstances, and, much to the advantage of the world, drove him to literature. In 1748, he gave to the world his novel of “Roderick Random,”— counted by many the masterpiece of his genius. It brought him in both fame and emolument. In 1749 he published, by subscription, his unfortunate tragedy, “The Regicide.” In 1750 he went to Paris, and shortly after wrote his “Adventures of Peregrine Pickle,” including the memoirs of the notorious Lady Vane — the substance of which he got from herself, and which added greatly to the popularity of the work. Notwithstanding the success he met with as a novelist, he was anxious to prosecute his original profession of medicine; and having procured from a foreign university the degree of M.D., he commenced to practise physic in Chelsea, but without success. He wrote, however, an essay “On the External Use of Water,” in which he seems to have partly anticipated the method of the cold-water cure. In 1753 he published his “Adventures of Count Fathom;” and, two years later, encouraged by a liberal subscription, he issued a translation of “Don Quixote,” in two quarto volumes. While this work was printing, he went down to Scotland, visited his old scenes and old companions, and was received everywhere with enthusiasm. The most striking incident, however, in this journey was his interview with his mother, then residing in Scotston, near Peebles. He was introduced to her as a stranger gentleman from the West Indies; and, in order to retain his incognita, he endeavoured to maintain a serious and frowning countenance. While his mother, however, continued to regard him steadfastly, he could not forbear smiling; and she instantly sprang from her seat, threw her arms round his neck, and cried out, “Ah, my son, I have found you at last! Your old roguish smile has betrayed you.”

Returning to England, he resumed his literary avocations. He became the editor of the Critical Review — an office, of all others, least fitted to his testy and irritable temperament. This was in 1756. He next published the “Compendium of Voyages,” in seven volumes, 12mo. In 1757 he wrote a popular afterpiece, entitled “The Reprisals; or, the Tars of England;” and in 1758 appeared his “Complete History of England,” in four volumes, quarto — a work said to have been compiled in the almost incredibly short time of fourteen months. It became instantly popular, although distinguished by no real historical quality, except a clear and lively style.

An attack on Admiral Knowles in the Critical Review greatly incensed the Admiral; and when he prosecuted the journal, Smollett stepped forward and avowed himself the author. He was sentenced to a fine of £100, and to three months’ imprisonment. During his confinement in King’s Bench, he composed the “Adventures of Sir Lancelot Greaves,” which appeared first in detached numbers of the British Magazine, and was afterwards published separately in 1762. About this time, his busy pen was also occupied with histories of France, Italy, Germany, &c., and a continuation of his English History — all compilations — and some of them exceedingly unworthy of his genius. He became an ardent friend and supporter of Lord Bute, and started The Briton, a weekly paper, in his defence; which gave rise to the North Briton, by Wilkes. In our Life of Churchill, we have recounted his quarrel with that poet, and the chastisement inflicted on Smollett in “The Apology to the Critical Reviewers.”

In 1763 he lost his only daughter, a girl of fifteen. This event threw him into deep despondency, and seriously affected his health. He went to France and Italy for two years; and on his return, in 1766, published two volumes of Travels — full of querulous and captious remarks — for which Sterne satirised him, under the name of Smelfungus. The same year he again visited Scotland. In 1767 he published his “Adventures of an Atom,”— a political romance, displaying, under Japanese names, the different parties of Great Britain. A recurrence of ill health drove him back to Italy in 1770. At Monte Nuovo, near Leghorn, he wrote his delightful “Humphrey Clinker.” This was his last work. He died at Leghorn on the 21st October 1771, in the fifty-first year of his age. His widow erected a plain monument to his memory, with an inscription by Dr Armstrong. In 1774 a Tuscan monument was erected on the banks of the Leven by his cousin, James Smollett, Esq., of Bonhill. As his wife was left in poor circumstances, the tragedy of “Venice Preserved” was acted at Edinburgh for her benefit, and the money remitted to Italy.

Smollett, for variety of powers, and indefatigable industry, has seldom been surpassed. He was a politician, a poet, a physician, a historian, a translator, a writer of travels, a dramatist, a novelist, a writer on medical subjects, and a miscellaneous author. It is only, however, as a novelist and a poet that he has any claims to the admiration of posterity. His history survives solely because it is usually bound up with Hume’s. His translation of “Don Quixote” has been eclipsed by after and more accurate versions. His “Tour to Italy” is a succession of asthmatic gasps and groans. His “Regicide”, and other plays, are entirely forgotten. So also are his critical, medical, political, and miscellaneous effusions.

In fiction he is undoubtedly a great original. He had no model, and has had no imitator. His qualities as a novel-writer are rapidity of narrative, variety of incident, ease of style, graphic description, and an exquisite eye for the humours, peculiarities, and absurdities of character and life. In language he is generally careless, but whenever a great occasion occurs, he rises to meet it, and writes with dignity, correctness, and power. His sea-characters, such as Bowling, and his characters of low-life, such as Strap, have never been excelled. His tone of morals is always low, and often offensively coarse. In wit, constructiveness, and general style, he is inferior to Fielding; but surpasses him in interest, ease, variety, and humour, “Roderick Random” is the most popular and bustling of his tales. “Peregrine Pickle” is the filthiest and least agreeable; its humours are forced and exaggerated, and the sea-characters seem caricatures of those in “Roderick Random;” just as Norna of the Fitful Head, and Magdalene Graeme, are caricatures of Meg Merriless. “Sir Lancelot Greaves” is a tissue of trash, redeemed only here and there by traits of humour. “The Adventures of an Atom” we never read. “Humphrey Clinker” is the most delightful novel, with the exception of the Waverley series, in the English language. “Ferdinand, Count Fathom,” contains much that is disgusting, but parts of it surpass all the rest in originality and profundity. We refer especially to the description of the pretended English Squire in Paris, who bubbles the great bubbler of the tale; to Count Fathom’s address to Britain, when he reaches her shores — a piece of exquisite mock-heroic irony; to the narrative of the seduction in the west of England; and to the matchless robber-scene in the forest — a passage in which one knows not whether more to admire the thrilling interest of the incidents, or the eloquence and power of the language. It is a scene which Scott has never surpassed, nor, except in the cliff-scene in the “Antiquary,” and, perhaps, the barn-scene in the “Heart of Midlothian,” ever equalled.

Smollett’s poetry need not detain us long. In his twin satires, “Advice” and “Reproof,” you see rather the will to wound than the power to strike. There are neither the burnished compression, and polished, pointed malice of Pope, nor the gigantic force and vehement fury of Churchill. His “Tears of Scotland” is not thoroughly finished, but has some delicate and beautiful strokes. “Leven Water” is sweet and murmuring as that stream itself. His “Ode to Independence,” as we have said elsewhere, “should have been written by Burns. How that poet’s lips must have watered, as he repeated the line —

‘Lord of the lion-heart and eagle-eye,’

and remembered he was not their author! He said he would have given ten pounds to have written ‘Donochthead’— he would have given ten times ten, if, poor fellow! he had had them, to have written the ‘Ode to Independence’— although, in his ‘Vision of Liberty,’ he has matched Smollett on his own ground.” Grander lines than the one we have quoted above, and than the following —

“A goddess violated brought thee forth,”

are not to be found in literature. Round this last one, the whole ode seems to turn as on a pivot, and it alone had been sufficient to stamp Smollett a man of lofty poetic genius.

Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30