The History of Henry Esmond, by William Makepeace Thackeray

Chapter XI.

The Famous Mr. Joseph Addison.

The gentlemen ushers had a table at Kensington, and the Guard a very splendid dinner daily at St. James’s, at either of which ordinaries Esmond was free to dine. Dick Steele liked the Guard-table better than his own at the gentlemen ushers’, where there was less wine and more ceremony; and Esmond had many a jolly afternoon in company of his friend, and a hundred times at least saw Dick into his chair. If there is verity in wine, according to the old adage, what an amiable-natured character Dick’s must have been! In proportion as he took in wine he overflowed with kindness. His talk was not witty so much as charming. He never said a word that could anger anybody, and only became the more benevolent the more tipsy he grew. Many of the wags derided the poor fellow in his cups, and chose him as a butt for their satire: but there was a kindness about him, and a sweet playful fancy, that seemed to Esmond far more charming than the pointed talk of the brightest wits, with their elaborate repartees and affected severities. I think Steele shone rather than sparkled. Those famous beaux-esprits of the coffee-houses (Mr. William Congreve, for instance, when his gout and his grandeur permitted him to come among us) would make many brilliant hits — half a dozen in a night sometimes — but, like sharp-shooters, when they had fired their shot, they were obliged to retire under cover till their pieces were loaded again, and wait till they got another chance at their enemy; whereas Dick never thought that his bottle companion was a butt to aim at — only a friend to shake by the hand. The poor fellow had half the town in his confidence; everybody knew everything about his loves and his debts, his creditors or his mistress’s obduracy. When Esmond first came on to the town, honest Dick was all flames and raptures for a young lady, a West India fortune, whom he married. In a couple of years the lady was dead, the fortune was all but spent, and the honest widower was as eager in pursuit of a new paragon of beauty, as if he had never courted and married and buried the last one.

Quitting the Guard-table one Sunday afternoon, when by chance Dick had a sober fit upon him, he and his friend were making their way down Germain Street, and Dick all of a sudden left his companion’s arm, and ran after a gentleman who was poring over a folio volume at the book-shop near to St. James’s Church. He was a fair, tall man, in a snuff-colored suit, with a plain sword, very sober, and almost shabby in appearance — at least when compared to Captain Steele, who loved to adorn his jolly round person with the finest of clothes, and shone in scarlet and gold lace. The Captain rushed up, then, to the student of the book-stall, took him in his arms, hugged him, and would have kissed him — for Dick was always hugging and bussing his friends — but the other stepped back with a flush on his pale face, seeming to decline this public manifestation of Steele’s regard.

“My dearest Joe, where hast thou hidden thyself this age?” cries the Captain, still holding both his friend’s hands; “I have been languishing for thee this fortnight.”

“A fortnight is not an age, Dick,” says the other, very good-humoredly. (He had light blue eyes, extraordinary bright, and a face perfectly regular and handsome, like a tinted statue.) “And I have been hiding myself — where do you think?”

“What! not across the water, my dear Joe?” says Steele, with a look of great alarm: “thou knowest I have always —”

“No,” says his friend, interrupting him with a smile: “we are not come to such straits as that, Dick. I have been hiding, sir, at a place where people never think of finding you — at my own lodgings, whither I am going to smoke a pipe now and drink a glass of sack: will your honor come?”

“Harry Esmond, come hither,” cries out Dick. “Thou hast heard me talk over and over again of my dearest Joe, my guardian angel?”

“Indeed,” says Mr. Esmond, with a bow, “it is not from you only that I have learnt to admire Mr. Addison. We loved good poetry at Cambridge as well as at Oxford; and I have some of yours by heart, though I have put on a red coat. . . . ‘O qui canoro blandius Orpheo vocale ducis carmen;’ shall I go on, sir?” says Mr. Esmond, who, indeed, had read and loved the charming Latin poems of Mr. Addison, as every scholar of that time knew and admired them.

“This is Captain Esmond who was at Blenheim,” says Steele.

“Lieutenant Esmond,” says the other, with a low bow, “at Mr. Addison’s service.

“I have heard of you,” says Mr. Addison, with a smile; as, indeed, everybody about town had heard that unlucky story about Esmond’s dowager aunt and the Duchess.

“We were going to the ‘George’ to take a bottle before the play,” says Steele: “wilt thou be one, Joe?”

Mr. Addison said his own lodgings were hard by, where he was still rich enough to give a good bottle of wine to his friends; and invited the two gentlemen to his apartment in the Haymarket, whither we accordingly went.

“I shall get credit with my landlady,” says he, with a smile, “when she sees two such fine gentlemen as you come up my stair.” And he politely made his visitors welcome to his apartment, which was indeed but a shabby one, though no grandee of the land could receive his guests with a more perfect and courtly grace than this gentleman. A frugal dinner, consisting of a slice of meat and a penny loaf, was awaiting the owner of the lodgings. “My wine is better than my meat,” says Mr. Addison; “my Lord Halifax sent me the Burgundy.” And he set a bottle and glasses before his friends, and ate his simple dinner in a very few minutes, after which the three fell to, and began to drink. “You see,” says Mr. Addison, pointing to his writing-table, whereon was a map of the action at Hochstedt, and several other gazettes and pamphlets relating to the battle, “that I, too, am busy about your affairs, Captain. I am engaged as a poetical gazetteer, to say truth, and am writing a poem on the campaign.”

So Esmond, at the request of his host, told him what he knew about the famous battle, drew the river on the table aliquo mero, and with the aid of some bits of tobacco-pipe showed the advance of the left wing, where he had been engaged.

A sheet or two of the verses lay already on the table beside our bottles and glasses, and Dick having plentifully refreshed himself from the latter, took up the pages of manuscript, writ out with scarce a blot or correction, in the author’s slim, neat handwriting, and began to read therefrom with great emphasis and volubility. At pauses of the verse, the enthusiastic reader stopped and fired off a great salvo of applause.

Esmond smiled at the enthusiasm of Addison’s friend. “You are like the German Burghers,” says he, “and the Princes on the Mozelle: when our army came to a halt, they always sent a deputation to compliment the chief, and fired a salute with all their artillery from their walls.”

“And drunk the great chiefs health afterward, did not they?” says Captain Steele, gayly filling up a bumper; — he never was tardy at that sort of acknowledgment of a friend’s merit.

“And the Duke, since you will have me act his Grace’s part,” says Mr. Addison, with a smile, and something of a blush, “pledged his friends in return. Most Serene Elector of Covent Garden, I drink to your Highness’s health,” and he filled himself a glass. Joseph required scarce more pressing than Dick to that sort of amusement; but the wine never seemed at all to fluster Mr. Addison’s brains; it only unloosed his tongue: whereas Captain Steele’s head and speech were quite overcome by a single bottle.

No matter what the verses were, and, to say truth, Mr. Esmond found some of them more than indifferent, Dick’s enthusiasm for his chief never faltered, and in every line from Addison’s pen, Steele found a master-stroke. By the time Dick had come to that part of the poem, wherein the bard describes as blandly as though he were recording a dance at the opera, or a harmless bout of bucolic cudgelling at a village fair, that bloody and ruthless part of our campaign, with the remembrance whereof every soldier who bore a part in it must sicken with shame — when we were ordered to ravage and lay waste the Elector’s country; and with fire and murder, slaughter and crime, a great part of his dominions was overrun; when Dick came to the lines —

“In vengeance roused the soldier fills his hand
With sword and fire, and ravages the land,
In crackling flames a thousand harvests burn,
A thousand villages to ashes turn.
To the thick woods the woolly flocks retreat,
And mixed with bellowing herds confusedly bleat.
Their trembling lords the common shade partake,
And cries of infants found in every brake.
The listening soldier fixed in sorrow stands,
Loth to obey his leader’s just commands.
The leader grieves, by generous pity swayed,
To see his just commands so well obeyed;”

by this time wine and friendship had brought poor Dick to a perfectly maudlin state, and he hiccupped out the last line with a tenderness that set one of his auditors a-laughing.

“I admire the license of your poets,” says Esmond to Mr. Addison. (Dick, after reading of the verses, was fain to go off, insisting on kissing his two dear friends before his departure, and reeling away with his periwig over his eyes.) “I admire your art: the murder of the campaign is done to military music, like a battle at the opera, and the virgins shriek in harmony, as our victorious grenadiers march into their villages. Do you know what a scene it was?”—(by this time, perhaps, the wine had warmed Mr. Esmond’s head too,)—“what a triumph you are celebrating? what scenes of shame and horror were enacted, over which the commander’s genius presided, as calm as though he didn’t belong to our sphere? You talk of the ‘listening soldier fixed in sorrow,’ the ‘leader’s grief swayed by generous pity;’ to my belief the leader cared no more for bleating flocks than he did for infants’ cries, and many of our ruffians butchered one or the other with equal alacrity. I was ashamed of my trade when I saw those horrors perpetrated, which came under every man’s eyes. You hew out of your polished verses a stately image of smiling victory; I tell you ’tis an uncouth, distorted, savage idol; hideous, bloody, and barbarous. The rites performed before it are shocking to think of. You great poets should show it as it is — ugly and horrible, not beautiful and serene. Oh, sir, had you made the campaign, believe me, you never would have sung it so.”

During this little outbreak, Mr. Addison was listening, smoking out of his long pipe, and smiling very placidly. “What would you have?” says he. “In our polished days, and according to the rules of art, ’tis impossible that the Muse should depict tortures or begrime her hands with the horrors of war. These are indicated rather than described; as in the Greek tragedies, that, I dare say, you have read (and sure there can be no more elegant specimens of composition), Agamemnon is slain, or Medea’s children destroyed, away from the scene; — the chorus occupying the stage and singing of the action to pathetic music. Something of this I attempt, my dear sir, in my humble way: ’tis a panegyric I mean to write, and not a satire. Were I to sing as you would have me, the town would tear the poet in pieces, and burn his book by the hands of the common hangman. Do you not use tobacco? Of all the weeds grown on earth, sure the nicotian is the most soothing and salutary. We must paint our great Duke,” Mr. Addison went on, “not as a man, which no doubt he is, with weaknesses like the rest of us, but as a hero. ’Tis in a triumph, not a battle, that your humble servant is riding his sleek Pegasus. We college poets trot, you know, on very easy nags; it hath been, time out of mind, part of the poet’s profession to celebrate the actions of heroes in verse, and to sing the deeds which you men of war perform. I must follow the rules of my art, and the composition of such a strain as this must be harmonious and majestic, not familiar, or too near the vulgar truth. Si parva licet: if Virgil could invoke the divine Augustus, a humbler poet from the banks of the Isis may celebrate a victory and a conqueror of our own nation, in whose triumphs every Briton has a share, and whose glory and genius contributes to every citizen’s individual honor. When hath there been, since our Henrys’ and Edwards’ days, such a great feat of arms as that from which you yourself have brought away marks of distinction? If ’tis in my power to sing that song worthily, I will do so, and be thankful to my Muse. If I fail as a poet, as a Briton at least I will show my loyalty, and fling up my cap and huzzah for the conqueror:—

“‘Rheni pacator et Istri
Omnis in hoc uno variis discordia cessit
Ordinibus; laetatur eques, plauditque senator,
Votaque patricio certant plebeia favori.’”

“There were as brave men on that field,” says Mr. Esmond (who never could be made to love the Duke of Marlborough, nor to forget those stories which he used to hear in his youth regarding that great chiefs selfishness and treachery)—“there were men at Blenheim as good as the leader, whom neither knights nor senators applauded, nor voices plebeian or patrician favored, and who lie there forgotten, under the clods. What poet is there to sing them?”

“To sing the gallant souls of heroes sent to Hades!” says Mr. Addison, with a smile. “Would you celebrate them all? If I may venture to question anything in such an admirable work, the catalogue of the ships in Homer hath always appeared to me as somewhat wearisome; what had the poem been, supposing the writer had chronicled the names of captains, lieutenants, rank and file? One of the greatest of a great man’s qualities is success; ’tis the result of all the others; ’tis a latent power in him which compels the favor of the gods, and subjugates fortune. Of all his gifts I admire that one in the great Marlborough. To be brave? every man is brave. But in being victorious, as he is, I fancy there is something divine. In presence of the occasion, the great soul of the leader shines out, and the god is confessed. Death itself respects him, and passes by him to lay others low. War and carnage flee before him to ravage other parts of the field, as Hector from before the divine Achilles. You say he hath no pity; no more have the gods, who are above it, and superhuman. The fainting battle gathers strength at his aspect; and, wherever he rides, victory charges with him.”

A couple of days after, when Mr. Esmond revisited his poetic friend, he found this thought, struck out in the fervor of conversation, improved and shaped into those famous lines, which are in truth the noblest in the poem of the “Campaign.” As the two gentlemen sat engaged in talk, Mr. Addison solacing himself with his customary pipe, the little maid-servant that waited on his lodging came up, preceding a gentleman in fine laced clothes, that had evidently been figuring at Court or a great man’s levee. The courtier coughed a little at the smoke of the pipe, and looked round the room curiously, which was shabby enough, as was the owner in his worn, snuff-colored suit and plain tie-wig.

“How goes on the magnum opus, Mr. Addison?” says the Court gentleman on looking down at the papers that were on the table.

“We were but now over it,” says Addison (the greatest courtier in the land could not have a more splendid politeness, or greater dignity of manner). “Here is the plan,” says he, “on the table: hac ibat Simois, here ran the little river Nebel: hic est Sigeia tellus, here are Tallard’s quarters, at the bowl of this pipe, at the attack of which Captain Esmond was present. I have the honor to introduce him to Mr. Boyle; and Mr. Esmond was but now depicting aliquo proelia mixta mero, when you came in.” In truth, the two gentlemen had been so engaged when the visitor arrived, and Addison, in his smiling way, speaking of Mr. Webb, colonel of Esmond’s regiment (who commanded a brigade in the action, and greatly distinguished himself there), was lamenting that he could find never a suitable rhyme for Webb, otherwise the brigade should have had a place in the poet’s verses. “And for you, you are but a lieutenant,” says Addison, “and the Muse can’t occupy herself with any gentleman under the rank of a field officer.”

Mr. Boyle was all impatient to hear, saying that my Lord Treasurer and my Lord Halifax were equally anxious; and Addison, blushing, began reading of his verses, and, I suspect, knew their weak parts as well as the most critical hearer. When he came to the lines describing the angel, that

“Inspired repulsed battalions to engage,
And taught the doubtful battle where to rage,”

he read with great animation, looking at Esmond, as much as to say, “You know where that simile came from — from our talk, and our bottle of Burgundy, the other day.”

The poet’s two hearers were caught with enthusiasm, and applauded the verses with all their might. The gentleman of the Court sprang up in great delight. “Not a word more, my dear sir,” says he. “Trust me with the papers — I’ll defend them with my life. Let me read them over to my Lord Treasurer, whom I am appointed to see in half an hour. I venture to promise, the verses shall lose nothing by my reading, and then, sir, we shall see whether Lord Halifax has a right to complain that his friend’s pension is no longer paid.” And without more ado, the courtier in lace seized the manuscript pages, placed them in his breast with his ruffled hand over his heart, executed a most gracious wave of the hat with the disengaged hand, and smiled and bowed out of the room, leaving an odor of pomander behind him.

“Does not the chamber look quite dark?” says Addison, surveying it, “after the glorious appearance and disappearance of that gracious messenger? Why, he illuminated the whole room. Your scarlet, Mr. Esmond, will bear any light; but this threadbare old coat of mine, how very worn it looked under the glare of that splendor! I wonder whether they will do anything for me,” he continued. “When I came out of Oxford into the world, my patrons promised me great things; and you see where their promises have landed me, in a lodging up two pair of stairs, with a sixpenny dinner from the cook’s shop. Well, I suppose this promise will go after the others, and fortune will jilt me, as the jade has been doing any time these seven years. ‘I puff the prostitute away,’” says he, smiling, and blowing a cloud out of his pipe. “There is no hardship in poverty, Esmond, that is not bearable; no hardship even in honest dependence that an honest man may not put up with. I came out of the lap of Alma Mater, puffed up with her praises of me, and thinking to make a figure in the world with the parts and learning which had got me no small name in our college. The world is the ocean, and Isis and Charwell are but little drops, of which the sea takes no account. My reputation ended a mile beyond Maudlin Tower; no one took note of me; and I learned this at least, to bear up against evil fortune with a cheerful heart. Friend Dick hath made a figure in the world, and has passed me in the race long ago. What matters a little name or a little fortune? There is no fortune that a philosopher cannot endure. I have been not unknown as a scholar, and yet forced to live by turning bear-leader, and teaching a boy to spell. What then? The life was not pleasant, but possible — the bear was bearable. Should this venture fail, I will go back to Oxford; and some day, when you are a general, you shall find me a curate in a cassock and bands, and I shall welcome your honor to my cottage in the country, and to a mug of penny ale. ’Tis not poverty that’s the hardest to bear, or the least happy lot in life,” says Mr. Addison, shaking the ash out of his pipe. “See, my pipe is smoked out. Shall we have another bottle? I have still a couple in the cupboard, and of the right sort. No more? — let us go abroad and take a turn on the Mall, or look in at the theatre and see Dick’s comedy. ’Tis not a masterpiece of wit; but Dick is a good fellow, though he doth not set the Thames on fire.”

Within a month after this day, Mr. Addison’s ticket had come up a prodigious prize in the lottery of life. All the town was in an uproar of admiration of his poem, the “Campaign,” which Dick Steele was spouting at every coffee-house in Whitehall and Covent Garden. The wits on the other side of Temple Bar saluted him at once as the greatest poet the world had seen for ages; the people huzza’ed for Marlborough and for Addison, and, more than this, the party in power provided for the meritorious poet, and Addison got the appointment of Commissioner of Excise, which the famous Mr. Locke vacated, and rose from this place to other dignities and honors; his prosperity from henceforth to the end of his life being scarce ever interrupted. But I doubt whether he was not happier in his garret in the Haymarket, than ever he was in his splendid palace at Kensington; and I believe the fortune that came to him in the shape of the countess his wife was no better than a shrew and a vixen.

Gay as the town was, ’twas but a dreary place for Mr. Esmond, whether his charmer was in or out of it, and he was glad when his general gave him notice that he was going back to his division of the army which lay in winter-quarters at Bois-le-Duc. His dear mistress bade him farewell with a cheerful face; her blessing he knew he had always, and wheresoever fate carried him. Mistress Beatrix was away in attendance on her Majesty at Hampton Court, and kissed her fair fingertips to him, by way of adieu, when he rode thither to take his leave. She received her kinsman in a waiting-room, where there were half a dozen more ladies of the Court, so that his high-flown speeches, had he intended to make any (and very likely he did), were impossible; and she announced to her friends that her cousin was going to the army, in as easy a manner as she would have said he was going to a chocolate-house. He asked with a rather rueful face, if she had any orders for the army? and she was pleased to say that she would like a mantle of Mechlin lace. She made him a saucy curtsy in reply to his own dismal bow. She deigned to kiss her fingertips from the window, where she stood laughing with the other ladies, and chanced to see him as he made his way to the “Toy.” The Dowager at Chelsey was not sorry to part with him this time. “Mon cher, vous etes triste comme un sermon,” she did him the honor to say to him; indeed, gentlemen in his condition are by no means amusing companions, and besides, the fickle old woman had now found a much more amiable favorite, and raffoled for her darling lieutenant of the Guard. Frank remained behind for a while, and did not join the army till later, in the suite of his Grace the Commander-inChief. His dear mother, on the last day before Esmond went away, and when the three dined together, made Esmond promise to befriend her boy, and besought Frank to take the example of his kinsman as of a loyal gentleman and brave soldier, so she was pleased to say; and at parting, betrayed not the least sign of faltering or weakness, though, God knows, that fond heart was fearful enough when others were concerned, though so resolute in bearing its own pain.

Esmond’s general embarked at Harwich. ’Twas a grand sight to see Mr. Webb dressed in scarlet on the deck, waving his hat as our yacht put off, and the guns saluted from the shore. Harry did not see his viscount again, until three months after, at Bois-le-Duc, when his Grace the Duke came to take the command, and Frank brought a budget of news from home: how he had supped with this actress, and got tired of that; how he had got the better of Mr. St. John, both over the bottle, and with Mrs. Mountford, of the Haymarket Theatre (a veteran charmer of fifty, with whom the young scapegrace chose to fancy himself in love); how his sister was always at her tricks, and had jilted a young baron for an old earl. “I can’t make out Beatrix,” he said; “she cares for none of us — she only thinks about herself; she is never happy unless she is quarrelling; but as for my mother — my mother, Harry, is an angel.” Harry tried to impress on the young fellow the necessity of doing everything in his power to please that angel; not to drink too much; not to go into debt; not to run after the pretty Flemish girls, and so forth, as became a senior speaking to a lad. “But Lord bless thee!” the boy said; “I may do what I like, and I know she will love me all the same;” and so, indeed, he did what he liked. Everybody spoiled him, and his grave kinsman as much as the rest.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 19:07