Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Procter, Bryan Waller
PROCTER, BRYAN WALLER (1787–1874), poet, was born at Leeds on 21 Nov. 1787. His ancestors had been small farmers in the north of England; his father came to London and entered into business. 'By some bequest or accident of luck,' says his son, he achieved an independence. His parsimony was as conspicuous as his integrity. He died in 1816. Of Procter's mother, who survived until 1837, he merely says 'she was simply the kindest and tenderest mother in the world.' As a boy, Procter was distinguished by a passion for reading, which was encouraged by a female servant, who initiated him into Shakespeare. He does not, however, seem to have distinguished himself at Harrow, whither, after some years' preliminary schooling at Finchley, he went at the age of thirteen, and where he was the schoolfellow of Peel and Byron. Upon leaving school he was articled to Mr. Atherton, a solicitor at Calne in Wiltshire, of whom he speaks with great respect. He returned to London in 1807, at which point the fragment of autobiography he has left us ends. In 1815 he began to contribute to the 'Literary Gazette.' He soon entered into partnership with another solicitor, and long practised his profession. But literature occupied most of his attention. In 1816 his means were improved by the death of his father, and he seems to have for a time launched out upon a jovial, though not a dissipated, course of life, taking a house in Brunswick Square, keeping a hunter, and becoming a pupil of Thomas Cribb. This free mingling with the world, natural in one whose opportunities appear to have been previously restricted by parental economy, occasioned after a while some temporary pecuniary embarrassment, but it was the means of introducing him to the circle of Leigh Hunt and Charles Lamb, the influence of both of whom may be traced in the abundant poetical productiveness of the next few years. While Hunt inspired 'Marcian Colonna' (1820), 'A Sicilian Story' (1821), and 'The Flood in Thessaly' (1823), Lamb prompted the 'Dramatic Scenes' (1819), to none of which, he declared, he would have refused a place in his selection from the Elizabethan dramatists, had they come down to us from that period. This judgment is a remarkable instance of the intrepidity of friendship; for Procter's scenes, though graceful and poetical, are very obvious productions of the nineteenth century, and seldom transcend the forcible feeble in their attempts to exhibit vehement passion. They are nevertheless much more successful than Procter's imitations of Byron's serio-comic style in some of his poems of this date, to which Byron alludes with good-natured disdain. But none of these efforts exhibit the genuine individuality of the man, which is to be found exclusively in his songs. These were mostly written about this time, although not published until 1832, and, if not effluences of potent inspiration, are melodious, vigorous, and rarely imitative. Longfellow thought them 'more suggestive of music than any modern songs,' a judgment in which it is difficult to concur. A more ambitious effort, the tragedy of 'Mirandola,' was brought upon the stage, at Covent Garden Theatre, somewhat prematurely (January 1821), with the view of relieving the author from the embarrassments in which his hospitality and difficulties with a business partner, together with the loss of an anticipated legacy, had involved him. The object was attained, Procter receiving 630l. as his share of the proceeds of a sixteen nights' run; but the play, a fair and even a favourable example of the taste of the time, was never revived. It owed much of its success to the acting of Charles Kemble, who was said to have never before been so perfectly provided with a part as by Procter's Guido. All these productions appeared under the pseudonym of 'Barry Cornwall,' an imperfect anagram of Procter's real name.
The success of his tragedy, and the establishment of the 'London Magazine' in 1820, introduced Procter to a wider literary circle; and, as he liked almost everybody and everybody liked him, he gradually became acquainted with most contemporary authors of distinction. He performed two eminent services to literature—by initiating Hazlitt, who previously had been acquainted only with Shakespeare, into the Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in general; and by guaranteeing, in conjunction with Thomas Lovell Beddoes [q.v.] and T. Kelsall the expense of the publication of Shelley's posthumous poems. Although, however, his literary interests and sympathies expanded, his literary productiveness, except as a writer of stories for annuals, almost entirely ceased. The cause was probably the necessity for assiduous devotion to legal pursuits after his marriage, in 1824, with Miss Skepper, step-daughter of Basil Montagu [q. v.], a lady of great gifts, both social and intellectual (b. 11 Sept. 1799). By her he had three daughters, the eldest of whom was the poetess, Adelaide Anne Procter [q. v.], and three sons, one of whom became an officer and served in India; the others died young. The branch of law to which he now addicted himself was conveyancing, in which he obtained a large practice. He had also numerous pupils, among whom were Kinglake and Eliot Warburton. His last important contribution to poetry was the volume of songs published in 1832, with an appendix of brief dramatic fragments, and a preface announcing his farewell to poetry; save for such isolated exceptions as his fine epistle to Browning, he abstained from verse for the remainder of his life. In the same year he undertook a life of Edmund Kean, a task which Leigh Hunt had wisely declined. It was published in 1835, but Procter earned nothing from it beyond his stipulated honorarium and a scathing critique in the 'Quarterly.' He had already been called to the bar, and in 1832 was made a metropolitan commissioner in lunacy, which seems to have been thought an eminently suitable appointment for a poet. He held it until 1861, when he retired upon a pension calculated on no generous scale. But the blow was broken by the handsome legacy he had received a few years previously from John Kenyon [q. v.] His prose writings were published in America in 1853, and no occurrence of importance marked the remainder of his life except the death of his daughter Adelaide in 1864, and the publication in London of his delightful biography of Charles Lamb in 1866. Procter died on 5 Oct. 1874. His wife survived until March 1888. She was long the centre of a highly cultivated circle, which delighted in her shrewdness and wit. 'Her spirits,' says a writer in the 'Academy,' 'often had had to do for both.'
Procter's disposition is one of the most amiable recorded in the history of literature, Carlyle called him 'a decidedly rather pretty little fellow, bodily and spiritually.' He appears entirely exempt from the ordinary defects of the literary character, and a model of kindly sympathy and generous appreciation. His secret good deeds were innumerable. His chief intellectual endowment was an instinctive perception of novel merit, which embraced the most various styles of literary excellence, and which, combined with his frankness of eulogy and his wide social opportunities, enabled him to be of great service to young genius. Browning and Swinburne were both deeply indebted to him in this respect. His own claims as a poet cannot be rated high. His narrative poems occasionally display beauty both of diction and versification, but are on the whole languid compositions, whose chief interest is that they alone among the poems of the day evince the influence of Shelley, who is imitated judiciously and without exaggeration or servility. Some of the longer dramatic scenes have extraordinary lapses into bathos, but the brief fragments are often fanciful and poetical. Procter's songs will probably constitute the most abiding portion of his work. A few, such as 'To a Flower,' are exceedingly beautiful, and others have obtained wide popularity through their simple energy and the musical accompaniments by Chevalier Neukomm, who, according to Chorley, monopolised the proceeds. His prose writings are always agreeable. The most valuable are the essay on Shakespeare, whom he idolised, contributed to an edition of the poet's works in 1843, and the biography of Charles Lamb, simple and unpretending, but irradiated by the light of personal acquaintance and the glow of sympathy.
The following is a list of Procter's works;
- 'Dramatic Scenes and other Poems,' 1819, 12mo; new edit, with illustrations by John Tenniel, 1857-8.
- 'Marcian Colonna, an Italian tale, with three Dramatic Scenes and other poems,' 1830, 8vo.
- 'A Sicilian Story, with Diego de Montilla and other poems,' 1820, 12mo; 3rd edit. 1821.
- 'Mirandola: a tragedy' (in five acts and in verse). 1821, 8vo.
- 'Poetical Works,' 3 vols. 1822, 12mo.
- 'The Flood of Thessaly, the Girl of Provence, and other poems,' 18i?3, 8vo.
- 'Effigies Poeticæ, or the Portraits of the British Poets; illustrated by notes biographical, critical, and poetical,' 1824, 8vo.
- 'English Songs and other smaller poems,' 1832. 12mo; 3rd edit. 1851.
- 'Life of Edmund Kean,' 1835, 8vo; German translation, 1836. 8vo.
- 'Essays and Tales in Prose,' 2 vols. Boston, 1853.
- 'Charles Lamb: a Memoir,' 1866-8, 8to.
- 'Autobiographical Fragment,' ed. C.P., 1877, 8vo [see below].
His editions include 'The Works of Ben Jonson, with Memoir' (1838), 'The Works of Shakespeare, with Memoir and Essay on his Genius' (1843; reissued 1853, 1857, and 1875), 'Selections from Browning,' in conjunction with J. Forster (1863),and 'Essays of Elia, with a Memoir of Lamb' (1879).
His critical papers and his tales, contributed to annuals, were mostly comprised in the American edition of his prose miscellanies, but have not been reprinted in England.
[The principal authority for Procter's life is his own fragmentary autobiography, accompanied by reminiscences of eminent persons whom he had known, and supplemented with additional particulars by 'C.P.' (Coventry Patmore), 1877. See also Miss Martineau's Biographic Sketches; H. T. Chorley's Autobiography; Madame Belloc's In a Walled Garden; J. T. Fields's Old Acquaintances, 1876; S. C. Hall's Reminiscences ii. 25-6; E. P. Whipple in International Magazine, vol, iv.; S. T. Mayer in Gent. Mag. vol. xiii. new ser.; Edinburgh Review, vol. cxlvii.; Athenæum, 10 Oct, 1874; Academy, 17 March 1883.]