Mickle, William Julius (DNB00)
|←Michell, Richard||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 37
Mickle, William Julius
MICKLE, WILLIAM JULIUS (1735–1788), poet, was born 28 Sept. 1735, at Langholm, Dumfriesshire, where his father, Alexander Meikle, was parish minister from 1717 till 1746 (Hew Scott, Fasti, pt. ii. pp. 628-9). His mother was Julian, daughter of Thomas Henderson of Ploughlands, Dalmeny. He was educated at Langholm grammar school till his father, owing to advancing years, arranged for a substitute in his parish and settled in Edinburgh. Here Mickle attended the high school till his fifteenth year, when he became a clerk in an Edinburgh brewery, purchased by his father on the death of a brother-in-law. At the end of six years Mickle was made chief partner, and a little afterwards, on his father's death in 1757, he found himself owner of the brewery under certain restrictions in the interests of the family. Unluckily for his commercial success he trusted servants and attended to literature; he soon became so harassed that a composition with his creditors was necessary; and at length, in 1763, he left business and settled in London as a man of letters.
About 1761 Mickle had contributed anonymously ‘Knowledge, an Ode,’ and ‘A Night Piece’ to Donaldson's ‘Collection of Poetry,’ Edinburgh. He had criticised, to the admiration of his friends, Annet's ‘History of the Man after God's own Heart,’ and Chalmers says that before the crisis in his business he finished a dramatic piece on the death of Socrates and began a poem on ‘Providence.’ He had also corresponded under an assumed name with Lord Lyttelton regarding his poetry, and now, when he revealed himself on settling in London, Lyttelton, while advising him to avoid publishing immature work, encouraged him to persevere in literature, and dissuaded him from seeking a post in the West Indies.
Becoming corrector to the Clarendon Press, Oxford, in 1765, Mickle settled to his work. In 1767 he published the longest of his original poems, ‘The Concubine,’ which was reissued in 1778 as ‘Sir Martyn.’ A fragmentary tribute to his brother Charles, who died young, was written in 1768. In 1769 he wrote his ‘Letter to Mr. Harwood’ [see Harwood, Edward, D.D.], and in 1770 produced ‘Voltaire in the Shades,’ an onslaught on the deists with Hume as an interlocutor. His literary reputation was growing, and when, in 1771, he proposed to publish by subscription a translation of ‘0s Lusiadas’ of Camoens, he received abundant encouragement. A specimen of Book V, given in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ in March 1771, and Book I, published separately somewhat later, were so favourably regarded that Mickle resolved to devote his entire time to the translation. He left the Clarendon Press and settled with Mr. Tomkins, a farmer at Forest Hill, near Oxford. Here he completed his task in 1775, and he at once published the translation in London. Besides copiously annotating the ‘Lusiad,’ Mickle furnished the work with an introduction in defence of ‘Commerce,’ ‘A History of the Discoverv of India,’ ‘A History of the Portuguese Empire in the East,’ ‘A Life of Camoens,’ a dissertation on the ‘Lusiad’ and a critical excursus on epic poetry. The first edition, on the recommendation of Mickle's friend, Commodore Johnston, was dedicated to the Duke of Buccleuch, whose indifference and insolence (prompted, Mickle thought, by Hume and Adam Smith) led to the suppression of the dedication. A second edition appeared in 1778, to which Mickle added a discussion of the religious beliefs of the Brahmins. It was reprinted in two volumes in 1798, and in three in 1807. It presents Camoens in English much as Pope presents Homer—with freedom of interpretation and considerable license of expansion —but it is true to the spirit of the original, and is a fine poem in itself. It completely superseded Fanshawe's version.
About 1771, while he was engaged on the ‘Lusiad,’ Mickle, on the suggestion of friends, had written ‘The Siege of Marseilles,’ a tragedy, which Garrick declined to accept for the stage while admitting its merits as a poem. The Wartons and John Home revised the piece for Garrick's further consideration without success. Harris also declined it, and it was afterwards submitted to Sheridan who never returned it. Mickle inserted an angry note on Garrick in the first edition of his ‘Lusiad,’ and Boswell and others with some difficulty dissuaded him from writing a new ‘Dunciad’ with Garrick as hero. A legend relates that afterwards on seeing the actor in ‘Lear’ he relented, and wished the note were out of his book (Bishop Horne, Essays, p. 38, ed. 1808, quoted in Chalmers's ‘Life of Mickle’ and Boswell's ‘Johnson,’ ii. 182, ed. Birkbeck Hill).
Mickle gained 1,000l. by the ‘Lusiad,’ but was without regular employment. His friends failed to secure for him a literary pension, and he declined Bishop Lowth's suggestion of taking orders. In 1779 he issued a pamphlet in defence of the East India Company against Adam Smith. In May 1779 Commodore George Johnstone [q. v.] appointed him his secretary in the Romney man-of-war, sailing with a squadron to Portugal. Here Mickle was enthusiastically received. He was made a member of the Royal Academy of Portugal, under the presidency of Prince John, duke of Braganza, who presented him with his portrait. In Lisbon he wrote ‘Almada Hill, an epistle from Lisbon’—a fresh and interesting poem —which he published in 1781, after his return to England. He came back as purser of the Brilliant, and in London was appointed joint agent for disposal of the prizes gained by the squadron. The outcome for himself was a handsome competence for life. He paid off debts in Scotland, settled annuities on his sisters, and married (3 June 1781) Mary Tomkins, the farmer's daughter at Forest Hill, with whom he received a substantial addition to his fortune.
Settling at Wheatley, near Oxford, Mickle began to enjoy literary ease. He had in 1772 published an edition of Pearch's ‘Collection of Poems,’ including in it his own ‘Hengist and May’ and ‘Mary Queen of Scots.’ To Evans's ‘Old Ballads, historical and narrative, with some of Modern Date’ (1777-84), he now contributed his exquisite ballad ‘Cumnor Hall,’ the haunting beauty of which fascinated Scott (Introd. to Kenilworth). He was afterwards troubled by losses due to the failure and death of a banker associated with him in the management of the naval prizes, and he suffered not a little from a protracted chancery suit instituted to recover part of his wife's fortune. But in 1782 he discussed the question of American independence in an allegorical form, showing himself a capable master of travesty and persiflage. This was entitled ‘Prophecy of Queen Emma,’ and to it was prefixed a clever travesty of critical method in the ‘Hints towards the Vindication of the Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian and Rowley.’ His last composition was ‘Eskdale Braes,’ a song on his birthplace written at the suggestion of a friend. He died when visiting at Forest Hill, 28 Oct. 1788, and was buried in the churchyard of the parish. He left one son.
To Mickle has been attributed the Scottish song ‘There's na'e luck about the hoose,' which of itself is sufficient to establish a poetical reputation. Internal evidence is rather against the likelihood of his authorship and in favour of that of Jean Adams (1710-1765), but there is no definite external evidence, and the doubt on the subject cannot be resolved.
In 1794 a quarto edition of Mickle's poems was published by subscription for the benefit of his son, with life by John Ireland. In 1807 appeared a corrected and enlarged edition, to which Mickle's friend, John Sim, supplied a biography. Mickle's poems form vol. xvii. of Chalmers's ‘English Poets,’ 1810, and volume lxvi. of the ‘Chiswick Press Poets,’ 1822.[Reed's Memoir of Mickle in the European Magazine, 1789; biographies prefixed to the various editions; Lives of Eminent Scotsmen by the Society of Ancient Scots; Johnson's Musical Museum, vol. iv. ed. Laing; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen.]