The Adventures of Roderick Random, by Tobias Smollett

Chapter LXII

I read Melopoyn’s Tragedy, and conceive a vast Opinion of his Genius — he recounts his Adventures

While we ate our breakfast together, I made him acquainted with the character and condition of the poet, who came in with his play at that instant, and, imagining we were engaged about business, could not be prevailed upon to sit; but, leaving his performance, went away. My friend’s tender heart was melted at the sight of a gentleman and Christian (for he had a great veneration for both these epithets) in such misery; and assented with great cheerfulness to a proposal I made of clothing him with the our superfluities; a task with which he charged himself, and departed immediately to perform it.

He was to sooner gone than I locked my door, and sat down to the tragedy; which I read to the end with vast pleasure, not a little amazed at conduct of the managers who had rejected it. The fable, in my opinion, was well chosen and naturally conducted, the incidents interesting, the characters beautifully contrasted, strongly marked, and well supported; the diction poetical, spirited and correct; the unities of the drama maintained with the most scrupulous exactness; the opening gradual and engaging, the peripeteia surprising, and the catastrophe affecting, In short, I judged it by the laws of Aristotle and Horace, and could find nothing in it exceptionable but a little too much embellishment in some few places, which objection he removed to my satisfaction, by a quotation of Aristotle’s poetics, importing, that the least interesting parts of a poem ought to be raised and dignified by the charms and energy of diction.

I revered his genius, and was seized with an eager curiosity to know the particular events of a fortune so unworthy of his merit. At that instant Strap returned with a bundle of clothes, which I sent with my compliments to Mr. Melopoyn, as s small token of my regard, and desired the favour of his company to dinner. He accepted my present and invitation, and in less than half-an-hour made his appearance in a decent dress, which altered his figure very much to his advantage. I perceived by his countenance that his heart was big with gratitude, and endeavoured to prevent his acknowledgments, by asking pardon for the liberty I had taken; he made no reply, but, with an aspect full of admiration and esteem, bowed to the ground, while the tears gushed from his eyes. Affected with these symptoms of an ingenuous mind, I shifted the conversation, and complimented him on his performance, which I assured him afforded me infinite pleasure. My approbation made him happy. Dinner being served, and Jackson arrived, I begged their permission for Strap to sit at table with us, after having informed them that he was a person to whom I was extremely obliged; they were kind enough to grant that favour, and we ate together with great harmony and satisfaction.

Our meal being ended, I expressed my wonder at the little regard Mr. Melopoyn had met with from the world: and signified a desire of hearing how he had been treated by the managers of the playhouses, to whom I understood from Jackson, he had offered his tragedy without success. “There is so little entertaining in the incidents of my life,” said he, “that I am sure the recital will not recompense your attention; but, since you discover an inclination to know them I understand my duty too well to disappoint your desire.

“My father, who was a curate in the country, being by the narrowness of his circumstances hindered from maintaining me at the university, took the charge of my education upon himself, and laboured with such industry and concern in the undertaking, that I had little cause to regret the want of public masters. Being at great pains to consult my natural bias, He discovered in me betimes an inclination for poetry; upon which he recommended to me an intimate acquaintance with the classics, in the cultivation of which he assisted me with a paternal zeal and uncommon erudition. When he thought me sufficiently acquainted with the ancients, he directed my studies to the best modern authors, French and Italian as well as English, and laid, and laid a particular injunction upon me make myself master of my mother tongue.

“About the age of eighteen, I grew ambitious of undertaking a work of some consequence; and, with my father’s approbation, actually planned the tragedy you have read; but, before I had finished four acts, that indulgent parent died, and left my mother and me in very indigent circumstances. A near relation, compassionating our distress, took us into his family, where I brought my fable to a conclusion; and, soon after that period my mother quitted this life. When my sorrow for this melancholy event had subsided, I told my kinsman, who was a farmer, that, having paid my last duty to my parent, I had now no attachment to detain me in the country, and therefore was resolved to set out for London, and offer my play to the stage, where I did not doubt of acquiring a large share of fame as well as fortune; in which case I should not be unmindful of my friends and benefactors. My cousin was ravished with the prospect of my felicity, and willingly contributed towards the expense of fitting me out for my expedition.

“Accordingly I took a place in the waggon, and arrived in town, where I hired an apartment in a garret, willing to live as frugally as possible, until I should know what I had to expect from the manager, to whom I intended to offer my play. For, though I looked upon myself as perfectly secure of a good reception, imagining that a patentee would be as eager to receive as I to present my production, I did not know whether or not he might be pre-engaged in favour of another author, a circumstance that would certainly retard my success. On this consideration, too, I determined to be speedy in my application, and even to wait upon one of the managers the very next day. For this purpose, I inquired my landlord if he knew where either or both of them lived: and he, being curious to know my business, and at the same time appearing to be a very honest friendly man (a tallow chandler), I made him acquainted with my design, upon which he told me that I went the wrong way to work; that I would not find such easy access to a manager as I imagined; and that if I delivered my performance without proper recommendation, it would be as one to a thousand if ever it would be minded. “Take my advice,” said he, “and your business is done. One of the patentees is a good catholic, as I am, and uses the same father who confesses me. I will make you acquainted with this good priest, who is an excellent scholar, and if he should approve of your play, his recommendation will go a great way in determining Mr. Supple to bring it on the stage.” I applauded his expedient, and was introduced to the friar, who, having perused the tragedy, was pleased to signify his approbation, and commended me in particular for having avoided all reflections upon religion. He promised to use all his influence with his son Supple in my behalf, and to inform himself that very day at what time it was proper for me to wait upon him with the piece. He was punctual in performing his engagement, and next morning gave me to understand that he had mentioned my affair to the manager, and that I had nothing more to do than to go to his house any time in the forenoon, and make use of his name, upon which I should find immediate admittance. I took his advice, put my performance in my bosom, and, having received directions, went immediately to the house of Mr. Supple, and knocked at the door, which had a wicket in the middle, faced with a net-work of iron. Through this a servant having viewed me for some time, demanded to know my business. I told him my business was with Mr. Supple, and that I came from Mr. O’Varnish. He examined my appearance once more, then went away, returned in a few minutes, and said his master was busy, and could not be seen. Although I was a little mortified at my disappointment, I was persuaded that my reception was owing to Mr. Supple’s ignorance of my errand: and, that I might meet with no more obstructions of the same kind, I desired Mr. O’Varnish to be my introductor the next time. He complied with my request, and obtained immediate admittance to the manager, who received me with the utmost civility, and promised to read my play with the first convenience. By his own appointment I called again in a fortnight, but he was gone out: I returned in a week after, and the poor gentleman was extremely ill: I renewed my visit in a fortnight after that, and he assured me he had been so much fatigued with business, that he had not been able as yet to read it to an end, but he would take the first opportunity: and, in the meantime, observed that what he had yet seen of it was very entertaining. I comforted myself with this declaration a few weeks longer, at the end of which I appeared again before his wicket, was let in, and found him laid up with the gout. I no sooner entered his chamber than, looking at me with a languishing eye, he said, “Mr. Melopoyn, I’m heartily sorry for an accident that has happened during my illness. You must know that my eldest boy, finding your manuscript upon the table in the dining-room, where I used to read it, carried it into the kitchen, and leaving it there, a negligent wench of a cook-maid, mistaking it for waste paper, has expended it but a few leaves in singing fowls upon the spit. But I hope the misfortune is not irreparable, since, no doubt, you have several copies.”

“I protest to you, my good friend, Mr. Random, I was extremely shocked at this information; but the good-natured gentleman seemed to be so much affected with my misfortune, that I suppressed my concern, and told him that, although I had not another copy, I should be able to retrieve the loss by writing another from my memory, which was very tenacious. You cannot imagine how well pleased Mr. Supple was at this assurance; he begged I would set about it immediately, and carefully revolve and recollect every circumstance before I pretended to commit it to paper, that it might be the same individual play that he had perused. Encouraged by this injunction, which plainly demonstrated how much he interested himself in the affair, I tasked my remembrance and industry, and in three weeks produced the exact image of the former, which was conveyed to him by my good friend Father O’Varnish, who told me next day, that Mr. Supple would revise it superficially, in order to judge of its sameness with the other, and then give his final answer. For this examination I allotted a week: and, in full confidence of seeing it acted in a little while, demanded an audience of the manager, when that term was expired. But, alas! the season had slipped away insensibly. He convinced me, that if my play had been put into rehearsal at the time, it could not have been ready for performing until the end of March, when the benefit nights came on; consequently, it would have interfered with the interest of the players, whom it was not my business to disoblige.

“I was fain to acquiesce in these reasons, which, to be sure, were extremely just; and to reserve my performance for the next season, when he hoped I would not be so unlucky. Although it was a grievous disappointment to me, who, by this time, began to want both money and necessaries; having on the strength of my expectation from the theatre, launched out into some extravagances, by which the sum I brought to town was already almost consumed. Indeed, I ought to be ashamed at this circumstance of my conduct; for my finances were sufficient, with good economy, to have maintained me comfortably a whole year. You will perhaps be amazed when I tell you that, in six months, I expended not a farthing less than ten guineas: but, when one considers the temptations to which a young man is exposed in this great city, especially if he be addicted to pleasure, as I am, the wonder will vanish, or at least abate. Nor was the cause of my concern limited to my own situation entirely: I had written an account of my good reception to my kinsman the farmer, and desired him to depend upon me for the money he had kindly accommodated me with about the end of February, which promise I now found myself unable to perform. However, there was no remedy but patience: I applied to my landlord, who was a very good-natured man, candidly owned my distress, and begged his advice in laying down some plan for my subsistence; he readily promised to consult his confessor on this subject, and, in the meantime, told me, I was welcome to lodge and board with him until fortune should put it in my power to make restitution.

“Mr. O’Varnish, being informed of my necessity, offered to introduce me to the author of a weekly paper, who, he did not doubt, would employ me in that way, provided he should find me duly qualified; but, upon inquiry, I understood that this journal was calculated to foment divisions in the commonwealth, and therefore I desired to be excused from engaging in it. He then proposed that I should write something in the poetical way, which I might dispose of to a bookseller for a pretty sum of ready money, and, perhaps, establish my own character into the bargain. This event would infallibly procure friends, and my tragedy would appear next season to the best advantage, by being supported both by interest and reputation. I was charmed with this prospect, and having heard what friends Mr. Pope acquired by his pastorals, set about a work of that kind, and in less than six weeks composed as many eclogues, which I forthwith offered to an eminent bookseller, who desired me to leave them for his perusal, and he would give an answer in two days. At the end of that time, I went to him, when he returned the poems, telling me, they would not answer his purpose, and sweetened his refusal by saying there were some good clever lines in them. Not a little dejected at this rebuff, which, I learned from Mr. O’Varnish, was owing to the opinion of another author whom this bookseller always consulted on these occasions, I applied to another person of the same profession, who told me the town was cloyed with pastorals, and advised me, if I intended to profit by my talents, to write something satirical or luscious, such as the Button Hole, Shockey and Towner, The Leaky Vessel, etc, and yet this was a man in years, who wore a reverend periwig, looked like a senator, and went regularly to church. Be that as it will, I scorned to prostitute my pen in the manner proposed, and carried my papers to a third, who assured me that poetry was entirely out of his way; and asked me if I had got never a piece of secret history, thrown into a series of letters, or a volume of adventures, such as those of Robinson Crusoe, and Colonel Jack, or a collection of Conundrums, wherewith to entertain the plantations. Being quite unfurnished for this dealer, I had recourse to another with as little success; and I verily believe, was rejected by the whole trade.

“I was afterwards persuaded to offer myself as a translator, and accordingly repaired to a person who was said to entertain numbers of that class in his pay; he assured me, he had already a great deal of that work on his hands, which he did not know what to do with; observed that translations were a mere drug, that branch of literature being overstocked with an inundation of authors from North Britain; and asked what I would expect per sheet for rendering the Latin classics into English. That I might not make myself too cheap, I determined to set a high price upon my qualifications, and demanded half-a-guinea for every translated sheet. “Half-a-guinea!” cried he, staring at me; then paused a little, and said, he had no occasion for my service at present. I found my error, and, resolving to make amends, fell one-half in my demand; upon which he stared at me and told me his hands were full. I attempted others without finding employment, and was actually reduced to a very uncomfortable prospect, when I bethought myself of offering my talents to the printers of half-penny ballads and other such occasional essays, as are hawked about the streets. With this in view I applied to one of the most noted and vociferous of this tribe, who directed me to a person whom I found entertaining a whole crowd of them with gin, bread, and cheese; he carried me into a little back parlour, very neatly furnished, where I signified my desire of being enrolled among his writers; and was asked what kind of composition I professed. Understanding that my inclination leaned towards poetry, he expressed his satisfaction, telling me one of his poets had lost his senses, and was confined in Bedlam, and the other was become dozed with drinking drams; so that he had not done anything tolerable these many weeks. When I proposed that we should enter into terms of agreement, he gave me to understand that his bargains were always conditional, and his authors paid in proportion to the sale of their works.

“Having therefore settled these conditions, which (I do assure you) were not very advantageous to me, he assigned me a subject for ballad, which was to be finished in two hours; and I retired to my garret in order to perform his injunction. As the theme happened to suit my fancy, I completed a pretty sort of an ode within the time prescribed, and brought it to him, big with hope of profit and applause. He read it in a twinkling, and, to my utter astonishment, told me it would not do; though indeed he owned I wrote a good hand, an spelled very well, but my language was too high flown, and of consequence not at all adapted to the capacity and taste of his customers. I promised to rectify that mistake and in half an hour humbled my style to the comprehension of vulgar readers; he approved of the alteration, and gave me some hopes of succeeding in time, though he observed that my performance was very deficient in the quaintness of expression that pleases the multitude: however, to encourage me, he ventured the expense of printing and paper, and, if I remember aright, my share of the sale amounted to fourpence halfpenny.

“From that day I studied the Grub Street manner with great diligence, and at length became such a proficient that my works were in great request among the most polite of the chairmen, draymen, hackney-coachmen, footmen, and servant maids: nay, I have enjoyed the pleasure of seeing my productions adorned with cuts, pasted upon the walls as ornaments in beer cellars and cobblers’ stalls; and have actually heard them sung in clubs of substantial tradesmen — but empty praise (you know, my dear friend) will not supply the cravings nature. I found myself in danger of starving in the midst of all my fame; for of ten songs I composed, it was well if two had the good fortune to please. For this reason I turned my thoughts to prose, and, during a tract of gloomy weather, published an apparition, on the substance of which I subsisted very comfortably a whole month; I have made many a good meal upon a monster; a rape has often afforded me great satisfaction; but a murder, well timed, was my never-failing resource. What then? I was almost a slave to my employers, who expected to be furnished at a minute’s warning with prose and verse, just as they thought the circumstances of the times required, whether the inclination was absent or present. Upon my sincerity, Mr. Random, I have been so much pestered and besieged by those children of clamour, that life became a burden to me.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00