Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Peter Pindar
JOHN WOLCOT, who published his poems under the sobriquet of Peter Pindar, was perhaps the most scurrilous poet in a scurrilous age. If this were a book of Minor Worthies of Devon, I should hesitate about admitting one who was in nothing worthy, but possessed wit caustic and cutting. He was as witty and not so coarse as Swift; witty but not so terse as Pope, and also without Pope's fine touch.
John Wolcot was the fourth child of Alexander Wolcot by Mary Ryder his wife, and was born at Dodbrooke by Kingsbridge, baptized 9 May, 1738. His father was a country surgeon and the son of a surgeon. The Wolcot family was ancient; it had its origin at Wolcot in Thrushelton, where a moor still bears the name of Wollacot from a farm near by; the heiress of the eldest branch carried Wollacot to the family of Bidlake of Bidlake. A junior branch settled at Chagford, where "John Wolcot for his good service in ye Warres had an addition given him to his Armes, on Chief or, a lis betw. 2 Annulets." One branch had a residence at Butterstone in Hemyock, where it remained for several generations. The lineal descent of John Wolcot, son of Alexander, from the heraldic family of that name has not been made out, but there can be little doubt that he was so descended.
Alexander Wolcot died 14 June, 1751, and John was left to the care of his uncle, John Wolcot, of Fowey. He was educated at the Kingsbridge Grammar School, and afterwards at Liskeard and Bodmin. In or about 1760 he was sent to France for a twelvemonth to acquire French. He does not seem to have been comfortable there, and he retained through life a distaste for the Gallic people:—
I hate the shrugging dogs,
I've lived among them, ate their frogs.
It was decided that he should be a surgeon, as had been his father and grandfather before him, and he went in 1762, to London, and lodged with his maternal uncle, Mr. Giddy, of Penzance. In 1764 he returned to his uncle at Fowey, with whom he lived as assistant till 1767. On 8 September of this year he graduated M.D. at Aberdeen.
Wolcot was connected, it is not clear how, with Sir William Trelawny of Trelawny, Bart., and on Sir William's appointment in 1767 as Governor of Jamaica, Wolcot was, by his influence, appointed to accompany him as physician. Sir William had succeeded to the baronetcy in 1762, on the death of his cousin Sir Harry Trelawny. Sir Harry had married his cousin Letitia, daughter of Sir Jonathan Trelawny, and Sir William married Letitia, daughter of Sir Harry and Letitia. There was a saying—
Trelawne, her course 'mid cousins run,
Shall weep for many a first-born son,
In Jamaica Wolcot found that there was but little opportunity for him to earn much by his profession, and Sir William proposed to him to take Holy Orders, so that he might appoint him to the rich benefice of S. Anne in the island. Wolcot, without the smallest vocation for Orders, looking only to the monetary value of the living, practically a sinecure, returned home in 1769 and was ordained deacon 24 June in that year, and priest on the following day, by the Bishop of London. Thus equipped he returned to Jamaica in March, 1770, hoping to find the incumbent of S. Anne's dead—he had left when the man was ailing. But to his vast disgust the rector of S. Anne's had taken on a new spell of life, and did not at all see his way to vacate the fat benefice to oblige Wolcot. John Wolcot was now given the incumbency of Vere, but lived most of his time in the Governor's house, leaving a hired deputy to perform the duties of his cure.
Finding that there was little prospect of getting S. Anne's he threw aside his Orders, reverted to his profession, and was appointed Physician-General to the troops on the island 21 May, 1770. He lived on terms of close friendship with the Trelawny family, where his broad humour, his sarcastic sallies, and his witty stories made him a delightful companion at the table over the wine.
"I was invited," said he, "to sup with a rich planter and his wife. During the repast, my friend desired a female slave in waiting to mix some toddy, on which the black girl, in her peculiar way, asked him if it was ’to be drinkey for dry, or drinkey for drunkey.' When our supper was ended, and our water being exhausted, the planter sent his wife a short distance from the house for a fresh supply. The thunder and lightning being excessive during her absence, I said to him, 'Why did you not send that girl (the slave) for water on such a night as this, instead of exposing your wife to the storm?' 'Oh, no,' replied he, 'that would never do. That slave cost me forty pounds.'"
Miss Anne Trelawny was not a little simple and credulous, and Wolcot delighted in hoaxing her. On one occasion, he informed her that a cherub had been caught in the Blue Mountains, and had been put in a cage with a parrot. Before morning, unhappily, the parrot had pecked out the eyes of the poor cherub, all which the lady believed as an indisputable fact. "The Nymph of Tauris," which was printed in the Annual Register for 1773, was written by Wolcot on the death of this young lady, which occurred in Jamaica.
Sir William Trelawny also died in Jamaica on 11 December, 1772, whereupon Wolcot obtained leave from the new Governor, Dalling, 20 February, 1773, to return to England, accompanying Lady Trelawny, and it was thought not improbable by some that the lady would dry her tears and take Wolcot as her second husband, but death put an end to this scheme, if ever entertained, as she died in the month of August ensuing.
Dr. Wolcot had now entirely dropped his clerical character. He settled at Truro, where he established himself with a view to practising as a doctor. His peculiar treatment, which consisted in giving his fever patients doses of cold water, and his openly proclaimed opinion that a physician did more harm than good by cupping, bleeding, clystering, and by the administration of boluses and draughts, as also that the only good he could effect was by nudging on Dame Nature in the back when slow in recovering the sick, raised a storm against him among his fellow practitioners, and involved him in disputes. Polwhele speaks highly of his medical abilities. "I can say with truth that he had the credit not only of a skilful, but of a benevolent physician. In fevers, he was uncommonly successful. From consumption many were rescued by his hand who had been given up as irrecoverable. As a physician he prescribed medicines; he did more, he examined them, not trusting to the apothecary; and sometimes detected with indignation a cheap medicine substituted for a costly one. He was no favourite with the apothecaries and druggists of the place; but his merit, bearing all before it, showed the impotence of their resentment."
He quarrelled also with the Corporation of Truro, and when that body attempted to avenge the lampoons he had written upon their vindictive management in planting parish apprentices on him, he removed to Helston in 1779, leaving behind him a characteristic letter: "Gentlemen, your Blunderbuss has missed fire.—Yours, John Wolcot."
At Truro he had been allowed to drop in occasionally at Polwhele, but the old Mr. Polwhele was always uneasy with him at table, lest he should launch out into gross and unseemly jests and tales.
From Helston he moved to Exeter, practising, but meeting there with small success. At Exeter he made the acquaintance of William Jackson, the organist of the cathedral, and composer, and for him he wrote songs to set to music.
Owing to the success of his songs, Wolcot shifted to London in 1778, to devote himself wholly to the Muse. He took with him young Opie, whose abilities he had recognized; and it really was a token of great good nature that he endured the society of that "unlicked cub of a Carpenter Opie," as Polwhele calls him, "who was seen now ludicrously exhibited by his keeper, Wolcot,—a wild animal of St. Agnes, caught among the tin works. Not to pick his teeth with a fork at dinner-time, nor at breakfast to 'clap his vingers' into the sugar-basin, etc., were instructions of Wolcot at a subsequent stage of Opie's life when breakfast-rooms and saloons and drawing-rooms were thrown open to his excellence.
"At his first setting out at Falmouth, where it was Wolcot's pride to exhibit him, he collected upwards of thirty guineas; and Wolcot was one day surprised to see him rolling about on the floor, where a quantity of money lay scattered. 'See here (says Opie), here be I, rolling in gold.'"
Wolcot had never cared for his profession of medicine, and he was glad to shake it off. And now young Opie was ready for making his way in Town. Wolcot had first become acquainted with the young painter at the house of Mr. Zankwell, at Mithian, in 1775; he took him to his own house at Truro, provided the necessary material, gave him instructions and advice, for Wolcot himself handled the brush and palette, and when fully satisfied with the developing genius of Opie, persuaded him to move with him to London in 1781. An agreement was entered into between him and his protégé, by which both were to share equally in the profits made by the artist by the sale of his pictures. This was not an arrangement likely to last. Wolcot very highly estimated, and justly so, the advantage he had been to Opie, not only in providing for his artistic training, but also by getting him orders in Town; but Opie, as his fame grew, and his prices rose, was reluctant to continue the bargain and halve his profits with Wolcot. The origin of the quarrel is sometimes attributed to Opie's having passed disparaging criticism on some of Wolcot's paintings; but this was, if it took place, only one element in the contention that caused a final breach. Wolcot had indeed laid the foundation of Opie's success, by introducing him to Mrs. Boscawen, and extolling his merits in verse.
Speak, Muse, who formed that matchless head,
The Cornish Boy, in tin mines bred;
Whose native genius, like diamonds shone
In secret, till chance gave him to the sun?
'Tis Jackson's portrait—put the laurel on it.
In 1782 appeared "Lyric Odes to the Royal Academy, by Peter Pindar, Esq., a distant relative of the Poet of Thebes, and Laureat of the Academy." They were clever and discriminating. Wolcot recognized the splendid genius of Sir Joshua Reynolds, and the merits of Gainsborough and Wilson. He made merry over a picture by Gainsborough in the Academy that year; but it was good-humouredly done.
And now, O Muse, with song so big,
Turn round to Gainsborough's Girl and Pig,
Or Pig and Girl I rather should have said;
The pig is white, I must allow,
Is really a well-painted sow:
I wish to say the same thing of the maid.
The success of these lyrics was immediate, and induced Wolcot to continue the publication in 1783, 1785, and 1786. Having hit out at the Academicians and finding that this paid, he now struck at higher game. He knew that any miserable back-stairs gossip about the King and the Court would be greedily devoured. There was in London and in the country a sentiment of Jacobitism. The cause of the Stuarts was dead as Herod, but the prejudice against the House of Hanover continued strong. The German proclivities of George I and George II, who never liked England and the English, had alienated even those who sympathized with the claims of the House of Hanover. The simple life of George III, without state, with little dignity, and so homely as not to appeal to the imagination of the people, served as an admirable field for ridicule. There is not any evidence that Peter Pindar personally hated the King, and that his politics were anti-Hanoverian or anti-royal. He attacked the King and Court because he knew it would pay—that was his main inducement, another was equally unworthy. He hoped that the Government would give him some sinecure office, or some bribe in money to silence his slanderous tongue.
He began his assault on the private life of the King in the Lousiad, a poem in five cantos, the first four published in 1785, and the last in 1795. The subject was disgusting. It turned upon the King having discovered a specially nasty parasitical insect on his plate, and on thereupon ordering the shaving of the heads of his cooks and scullions, grooms of the kitchen, servants of the pantry, etc., to the number of fifty-one. A young man in the kitchen, John Bear, refusing to submit to this indignity, was dismissed his place.
The subject was inexhaustible, and these attacks on Royalty sold and brought in much money. Accordingly he worked indefatigably at it. He was supplied with plenty of information by the favourites of the Prince of Wales, who himself relished these attacks upon his father.
Peter Pindar jeered at the King's little note-book in which he dotted down his observations.
|Now Majesty, alive to knowledge, took|
|A very pretty memorandum-book,|
|With gilded leaves of asses' skin so white;|
|And in it lightly began to write:—|
|Mem.||A charming place beneath the grates|
|For roasting chestnuts or potates.|
|Mem.||'Tis hops that give a bitterness to beer—|
|Hops grown in Kent, says Whitbread, and elsewhere.|
|Queen.||Is there no cheaper stuff? where does it dwell?|
|Would not horse-aloes do as well?|
|Mem.||To try it soon on our small beer—|
|'Twill save us sev'ral pounds a year.|
|Mem.||To remember to forget to ask|
|Old Whitbread to my house one day.|
To Whitbread now deigned Majesty to say,
"Whitbread, are all your horses fond of hay?"
"Yes, please your Majesty"—in humble notes,
The Brewer answer'd—"also, Sir, of oats;
Another thing my horses too maintains,
And that, an't please your Majesty, are grains."
"Grains, grains," said Majesty, "To fill their crops?
Grains? Grains?—that come from hops—yes, hops, hops, hops?"
Here was the King, like hounds sometimes at fault—
"Sire" cry'd the humble Brewer, "give me leave
Your sacred Majesty to undeceive:
Grains, Sire, are never made from hops, but malt."
"True," said the cautious Monarch, with a smile;
"From malt, malt, malt—I meant it all the while."
"Yes," with the sweetest bow, rejoined the Brewer.
"An't please your Majesty, you did I'm sure."
"Yes," answered Majesty, with quick reply,
"I did, I did, I did, I, I, I, I."
Peter Pindar scoffed at the parsimony of George III. He scoffed at his personal appearance, his simple tastes, his attempt to enforce respect for the Sunday, his admiration for the music of Handel, above all his patronage of Benjamin West.
E'en with his painter let the King be blest;
Egad! eat, drink, and sleep, with Mister West.
Let the Court, the fashionables, the vulgar populace admire West and purchase his wretched pictures, Peter will have none of him or of them. Then he tells an amusing tale of a Toper and the Flies. A group of topers sat about the table drinking punch. Flies joined the party, sipped the grog, fell by hundreds into the bowl.
Wanting to drink—one of the men
Dipp'd from the bowl the drunken host,
And drank—then taking care that none were lost,
He put in ev'ry mother's son agen.
Up jump'd the bacchanalian crew on this,
Taking it very much amiss—
Swearing, and in the attitude to smite:
"Lord!" cry'd the man with gravely lifted eyes,
"Though I don't like to swallow flies,
I did not know but others might."
The Queen had removed the cartoons of Raphael from Hampton Court to St. James's, and had them cut down so as to fit the place which she designed them to occupy. This exasperated Peter to the last degree: it reminded him of a cutting story. In the last war the French prisoners died by scores, and the Mayor of Plymouth to accommodate a first cousin, a carpenter, gave him a contract for their coffins. The carpenter, thinking to save some pence on each coffin, made every one too short; and so as to accommodate the dead to the receptacles made for them, cut off the heads of the deceased prisoners and tucked them en chapeau bas under their arms.
To a Devonshire man one of the most amusing compositions of Peter Pindar is an account of the royal visit to Exeter in 1788, supposed to be written by a farmer of Moreton Hampstead to his sister Nan:—
Now meend me, Nan! all Ex'ter town
Was gapin', rennin' up and down,
Vath, just leek vokes bewitch'd!
Lord! how they laugh'd to zee the King;
To hear un zay zum marv'lous thing!
Leek mangy dogs they itch'd.
Leek bullocks sting'd by appledranes (wasps),
Currantin' it about the lanes,
Vokes theese way dreav'd and that;
Zum hootin', swearin', scraimin', bawlin'!
Zum in the muck, and pellum (dust) sprawlin';
Leek pancakes all zo flat.
And zoon beginn'd to speak;
Zo zaid, "Neat, neat—clean, very clean;
D'ye mop it, mop it Measter Dean;
Mop, mop it every week?
Wolcot adds in a note that the King actually did make this observation at Exeter, as well as at Salisbury some years later.
The royal entry into the city is most humorously described, and Mr. Rolle's active attention to the King is hit off:—
Wipin' his zweatty jaws and poull
All over dust we spy'd Squire Rolle,
Close by the King's coach trattin':
Now shovin' in the coach his head,
Meaning, we giss'd, it might be zed,
The Squire and King be chattin'.
Now goed the Aldermen and May'r,
Zum wey cropp'd wigs, and zum wey hair,
The Royal Yoke to ken;
When Measter May'r, upon my word,
Pok'd to the King a gert long sword,
Which he pok'd back agen.
It had been hoped that the King would make the round of the city and visit the Guildhall and Castle, but he declined to do this. The Mayor and Alderman had proposed a sumptuous repast at the Guildhall for His Majesty, but he declined to attend, much to their disappointment.
But this a did—now this was kind—
Knowin' the people's longing mind,
And being pretty tall,
A stude 'pon tiptoes, it is zed;
And, condescending pok'd his head
Over the Bishop's wall.
Zum of the Ex'ter vokes suppose
They plainly zeed his royal nose,
And zum his royal eyes;
And, Lord! whatever peart they zeed,
In this they one and all agreed,
'Twas glorious, gert, and wize.
There is a rollicking swing about the whole composition, which keeps the narrative going like the steady onward pace of a racing eight-oar.
The conclusion at which Jan Ploughshare arrives is vastly droll:—
Theeze once I've made myzelf a vool
And now I feel my courage cool
For zeeing Royal things;
And whan my Bible next I read,—
Zo leet I worship all the breed,
I'll skep the Book of Kings.
But among offensive things written on George III, perhaps the most offensive is his "Letter from Brother Peter to Brother Tom," in which he contrasts the Prince of Wales with his father. In this and in his "Expostulary Odes" he treats the vices of the Prince as virtues—an obvious bid made for his favour. The good old King's homely ways are drawn in the Letter with a pen dipped in gall, whereas it is plunged in honey for the Prince.
Whene'er he hunts, the Monarch is thrown out,
As in his politics—a common thing!
With searching eyes he stares at first about,
Then faces the misfortune as a king.
Hearing no news of nimble Mister Stag,
He sits like Patience grinning on his nag.
Thus, wisdom-fraught, his curious eye-balls ken
The little hovels that around him rise:
To these he trots—of hogs surveys the styes,
And nicely numbers every cock and hen.
Then asks the farmer's wife or farmer's maid,
How many eggs the fowls have laid.
What's in the oven—in the pot—the crock;
Whether 'twill rain or no, and what's o'clock.
Thus from poor hovels gleaning information,
To serve as future treasure for the nation.
There, terrier-like, till pages find him out,
He pokes his most sagacious nose about;
And scenes in Paradise—like that so fam'd;
Looking like Adam too, and Eve so fair;
Sweet simpletons! who, though so bare,
Were (says the Bible) not asham'd.
No man binds books so well as George the Third.
By thirst of leather glory spurr'd,
At bookbinders he oft is seen to laugh—
And wond'rous is the King in sheep or calf!
But see! the Prince upon such labour looks
Fastidious down, and only readeth books.
Here by the Sire the son is much surpast;
Which fame should publish on her loudest blast I
The King beats Monmouth-street in cast-off riches;
That is, in coats, and waistcoats, and in breeches;
Which, draughted once a year for foreign stations,
Make fine recruits to serve some near relations.
But lo! the Prince, shame on him ! never dreams
Of petty Jewish, economic schemes!
So very proud (I'm griev'd, O Tom, to tell it)
He'd rather give a coat away than sell it!
Fair justice to the Monarch must allow
Prodigious science in a calf or cow;
And wisdom in an article of swine.
What most unusual knowledge for a King!
Because pig-wisdom is a thing
In which no Sov'reign e'er were known to shine.
Yet who 'will think I am not telling fibs?
The Prince, who Britain's throne in time shall grace,
Ne'er finger’d, at a fair, a bullock's ribs,
Nor even ogled a pig's face!
O dire disgrace! O let it not be known
That thus a Father hath excell'd a Son.
To Lady Mount Edgcumbe he wrote a consolatory stanza on the death of her favourite pig.
O dry that tear, so round and big;
Nor waste in sighs your precious wind!
Death only takes a single Pig—
Your lord and son are still behind.
In 1793, Wolcot sold the copyright of his public works to J. Walker for an annuity of £200, and it was stipulated that any future work should be offered to the same publisher.
On this occasion he craftily overreached the publisher. When Walker made the proposition to the doctor by letter it was with an offer of an annuity of two hundred pounds. Wolcot replied by appointing the publisher to call on him, that day week. He received him in deshabille, even in his nightcap; and, from having purposely abstained from shaving for four days, together with the naturally cadaverous complexion, his appearance was unhealthy; added to which, he assumed a hollow sepulchral cough. Walker had determined not to make any advance on the sum he had named, but when the doctor was again taken with a fit of coughing he was induced to make it two hundred and fifty pounds. This Wolcot peremptorily refused, and was seized with an attack of coughing that nearly suffocated him. The publisher, thinking it impossible that he could last long, agreed to make the annuity three hundred. But some time after, Pitt having passed a Bill through both Houses to restrain such libellous writings as those of Peter Pindar, the publisher, considering that the restraint thereby imposed would militate against his profits, filed a bill in Chancery against him, and got the sum reduced to two hundred. Wolcot was furious, and vowed vengeance against Walker, which he eventually accomplished, by living nearly twenty years afterwards.
But he presently met his match, William Gifford, also a Devonshire man; in his "Anti-Jacobin," Gifford fell upon the poet, and in a review of his life called him "his disgustful subject, the profligate reviler of his Sovereign and impious blasphemer of his God." Peter Pindar was quite unable to stand his ground against Gifford, whose "Epistle to Peter Pindar" was savage and caustic in the extreme (1800).
Lo, here the reptile! who from some dark cell,
Where all his veins in the native poison swell,
Crawls forth a slimy toad, and spits and spews
The crude abortions of his loathsome muse
On all that genius, all that worth holds dear—
Unsullied rank, and piety sincere.
Lashes his wither'd nerves to tasteless sin;
Squeals out (with oaths and blasphemies between)
The impious song 1 , the tale, the jest obscene;
And careless views, amidst the barbarous roar,
His few grey hairs strew, one by one, the floor.
Of guilty joy, and hear the voice within;
The small, still voice of Conscience, hear it cry:
An atheist thou mayst live, but canst not die.
Waste the poor remnant of thy spluttering oil
In filth and falsehood? Ignorant and absurd!
Pause from thy pains, and take my closing word;
Thou canst not think, nor have I power to tell,
How much I scorn and loathe thee—so—Farewell.
The Prince of Wales, that "First Gentleman in Europe," had encouraged Peter, and is said to have had the poet's proof sheets forwarded to him before publication. Peter had licked the Prince's dirty boots, and hoped for his reward. But when the Prince became Regent he cooled towards the savage yet servile poet, and the indignant Peter gave vent to his feelings of disappointment and resentment in a poem in 1811, "Carlton House, or the Disappointed Bard."
In Wolcot's later years his sight was affected, and in May, 1811, he was almost totally blind. He still, however, continued to write and publish. Four volumes of his works had been published by Walker in 1794, a fifth was added in 1801. He died 14 January, 1819, in Somerstown, and was buried 21 January, in S. Paul's Church, Covent Garden. By his own expressed wish, his coffin was placed beside that of Samuel Butler, author of Hudibras.
In appearance Wolcot was "a thick, squat man, with a large dark and flat face, and no speculation in his eye." His portrait, by Opie, is in the National Portrait Gallery, where is also a miniature of him by Lethbridge.
He was never married. Indeed, he flouted at marriage. He was a sensualist. In an "Apology for Keeping Mistresses" he wrote:—
O Love! for heaven's sake, never leave my heart;
No! thou and I will never, never part:
Go, Wedlock, to the men of leaden brains,
Who hate variety, and sigh for chains.
The old shepherd's dog, like his master, was gray;
His teeth all departed, and feeble his tongue;
Yet where'er Colin went, he was follow'd by Tray.
Thus happy through life did they hobble along.
When fatigued on the grass the shepherd would lie
For a nap in the sun, 'midst his slumbers so sweet,
His faithful companion crawl'd constantly nigh,
Placed his head on his lap, and lay down at his feet.
When winter was heard on the hill and the plain,
And torrents descended, and cold was the wind,
If Colin went forth 'midst the tempests and rain,
Tray scorned to be left in the chimney behind.
At length in the straw Tray made his last bed;
For vain, against death, is the stoutest endeavour—
To lick Colin's hand he rear'd up his weak head,
Then fell back, clos'd his eyes, and, ah! clos'd them for ever.
Not long after Tray did the Shepherd remain,
Who oft o'er his grave with true sorrow would bend;
And, when dying, thus feebly was heard the poor swain,
"Oh bury me, neighbours, beside my old friend."