Reynolds, John Hamilton (DNB00)

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

REYNOLDS, JOHN HAMILTON (1796–1852), poet, son of the head writing-master at Christ's Hospital, was born in Shrewsbury on 9 Sept. 1796. After leaving St. Paul's school, which he entered in March 1806, he was placed in the Amicable insurance office in Serjeants' Inn, but no doubt gave most of his time to literature and poetry. In 1814 two volumes of verse by him appeared, betokening the influence of two dissimilar schools of poetical composition. ‘Safie, an Eastern Tale,’ is inscribed to Byron, and is entirely in the manner of Byron's metrical romances. ‘I think,’ wrote Byron—‘though more wild and oriental than he would be if he had seen the scenes where he has placed his tale—that he has much talent, and certainly fire enough.’ ‘The Eden of Imagination,’ on the other hand, shows traces of the influence of Leigh Hunt and Wordsworth, both of whom are lauded in highly superfluous notes. Leigh Hunt, as an old Christ's Hospital boy, was probably already acquainted with Reynolds's father, and it must have been through Hunt that in 1816 Reynolds formed the friendship with Keats which has contributed more to the preservation of his name than his own literary efforts. ‘The Naiad,’ published with other pieces in 1816, is still in the manner of Byron and Scott, but ‘Fairies,’ one of the minor poems printed along with it, is in the style of Hunt, and much better than the more ambitious effort. All Reynolds's serious poetry is henceforward in a higher key, and Keats's numerous letters to him, beginning in March 1817, and contributed by Reynolds himself to Lord Houghton's memoir of Keats, show that he was regarded as on a footing of full intellectual equality. Reynolds addressed a fine sonnet to Keats, and Keats's own lines on Robin Hood were prompted by Reynolds's sonnets to this popular hero, and the last and best of Keats's poetical epistles was addressed to him. There is indeed hardly another correspondent to whom Keats expresses himself so unreservedly, or who has called forth so many of his best and deepest thoughts. Upon the completion of his ‘Endymion,’ Keats projected a series of metrical versions of Boccaccio's tales in conjunction with Reynolds, his own contribution to which was his ‘Isabella, or the Pot of Basil,’ while Reynolds wrote ‘The Garden of Florence’ and ‘The Ladye of Provence,’ which he published later. Hunt, in an article in the ‘Examiner,’ bracketed Reynolds's name with Keats and Shelley, but in 1818 he was in great measure diverted from poetry by receiving an advantageous offer to enter the office of Mr. Fladgate, a solicitor, and expressed his feelings in a sonnet which Mr. Buxton Forman justly calls charming, and which, with two or three other slight compositions of the same nature, stands at the head of his poetry. He produced, nevertheless, a highly successful farce, ‘One, Two, Three, Four, Five,’ in 1819, and in the same year published an anonymous travesty of Wordsworth, under the title of ‘Peter Bell,’ before the actual appearance of Wordsworth's poem of that name, and hence termed by Shelley ‘the ante-natal Peter.’ Some of Wordsworth's more obvious peculiarities are taken off with fair success, but the piece cannot be compared with the parody in the ‘Rejected Addresses,’ or with the Ettrick Shepherd's ‘Flying Tailor.’ It is said, however, to have been the work of a single day, and Coleridge attributed it positively to Charles Lamb. In 1820 Reynolds produced another humorous volume, ‘The Fancy, a Selection from the Poetical Remains of the late Peter Corcoran,’ including a burlesque tragedy and ‘The Fields of Tothill,’ a poem in the manner of ‘Don Juan.’ He also wrote in Thomas Jonathan Wooler's ‘Black Dwarf.’

Early in 1820 Reynolds went to the continent, which probably occasioned the discontinuance of his correspondence with Keats. There was no estrangement, for in a letter dated from Rome in November 1820 Keats expresses his regret at not having been able to write to him. His versions from Boccaccio appeared in 1821, shortly after the death of Keats, under the title of ‘The Garden of Florence, and other Poems,’ and with the pseudonym of ‘John Hamilton.’ The preface contains a brief and affecting tribute to Keats. After the sonnets, the best poem is ‘The Romance of Youth,’ the first canto of an unfinished poem in the Spenserian stanza, intended to depict the disillusionment of genius by contact with the world, and an intimation that such had been the destiny of the author. Reynolds was by this time fully committed to the law, and, according to the elder Dilke, had a prospect of making a fortune through the generosity of James Rice, Keats's friend, who not only defrayed the expenses of his certificate, but took him into partnership, and subsequently gave up a lucrative practice in his favour. ‘Reynolds unhappily threw away this certain fortune,’ how is not explained. He had married about 1821, and, though forsaking poetry, had by no means relinquished literature, writing in the ‘London Magazine’ under the signature ‘Edward Herbert’ until the end of 1824, and afterwards contributing to the ‘Edinburgh,’ ‘Westminster,’ and ‘Retrospective’ reviews. His connection with the ‘London Magazine’ made him acquainted with Thomas Hood, who in 1824 married his sister Jane. Hood and he were for a time intimate friends; they combined in writing ‘Odes and Addresses to Celebrated Persons,’ 1825; and ‘Lycus the Centaur’ was dedicated to Reynolds; but their friendship was succeeded by a bitter estrangement, the cause of which is not told. Reynolds was one of the proprietors of the ‘Athenæum,’ and a curious letter from him protesting against Dilke's reduction of its price is printed in Sir Charles Dilke's preface to his grandfather's ‘Papers of a Critic.’ He disposed of his share in 1831, but contributed for several years afterwards. His last independent work was a not very brilliant farce, entitled ‘Confounded Foreigners’ (1838, printed in Webster's ‘Acting National Drama,’ vol. iii.). Somewhere near this time Reynolds withdrew from London to the Isle of Wight, where he became clerk to the county court, and where he spent the remainder of his days, dying at Node Hill, Newport, 15 Nov. 1852. He was survived by his sister, Charlotte, who was born on 12 May 1802. Keats's song, ‘Hush, hush, tread softly,’ was composed to a Spanish air played by her on one of many occasions when Keats listened (as he would for hours) to her piano; and she was the heroine of Hood's ‘Number One.’ Charlotte Reynolds died at Hampstead in November 1884 (Athenæum, 1884, ii. 770).

Reynolds had always been distinguished by sarcastic wit, and is represented as becoming cynical and discontented in his latter years. ‘The law,’ says a writer in the ‘Athenæum,’ ‘spoiled his literature, and his love of literature and society interfered with the drudging duties of the lawyer.’ ‘Reynolds,’ says ‘T. M. T.’ in ‘Notes and Queries’ (2nd ser. vol. ii. 4 Oct. 1856), ‘was a man of genius who wanted the devoted purpose and the sustaining power which are requisite to its development. He wrote fitfully. He was one of the most brilliant men I have ever known, though in late years failing health and failing fortune somewhat soured his temper and sharpened his tongue.’ This is no doubt a just judgment. Reynolds's powers as a narrator, though not contemptible, were unequal to the tragic themes he selected from Boccaccio; but it is difficult to think that the author of the fanciful and graceful ‘Romance of Youth,’ which reveals evident traces of the influence of Shelley, of the finely felt lines on Devon, and of so many excellent songs and sonnets, might not, with something more of Keats's loftiness of aim and unsparing labour, have obtained a highly honourable place among English poets.

A fine photogravure of a portrait of Reynolds by Severn is prefixed to the supplementary volume of Forman's edition of Keats's ‘Works.’

[Keats's Letters, with Forman's notes; Broderip's Memorials of Thomas Hood; Dilke's Papers of a Critic.; Gent. Mag. 1853, i. 100; Lamb's Works, ed. Talfourd, vol. ii.; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature; Athenæum, 27 Nov. 1852; Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vol. ii.]

R. G.