Studies of a Biographer/John Byrom

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1311500Studies of a Biographer — John ByromLeslie Stephen


Who was John Byrom? That is a question to which, if it were set in an examination for students of English literature, an answer might reasonably be expected, but which, if put to less omniscient persons, might not improbably receive a rather vague reply. And yet an answer might be given which would awake some familiar associations. John Byrom was the author of two or three epigrams which for some reason have retained their vitality well into a second century of existence. The unmusical are still happy to recall the comparison between Handel and Buononcini, and to wonder that there should be such a difference between 'tweedle-dum and tweedle-dee,' though they are apt to assign to Swift instead of Byrom the credit of being the first worm to turn against the contempt of more happily endowed natures. There is the still more familiar verse, ending:—

But who Pretender is, and who is King,
God bless us all, that's quite another thing.

And there is a certain assault upon 'Bone and Skin, two millers thin,' which—though the real names of the millers and the circumstances which induced the declaration that flesh and blood could not bear them have long vanished out of all but antiquarian memories—have somehow continued to go on jingling in men's ears ever since 17th December 1728. I have said enough to suggest more than one problem. What is the salt which has kept these fragments of rhyme so long alive? Is it due to the sound or the sense? Survival for a century has been given as the test which entitles a man to be called a classic. Does the survival of these little impromptus entitle Byrom to be a classic? May we call them jewels five lines long, that are to sparkle for ever on the stretched forefinger of all time? That seems to be too lofty a claim. The thought is not by itself very subtle or very keen. And yet when we think how few are the writers who can blow even the frailest of word-bubbles which shall go floating down five or six generations, we must admit the fact to be remarkable. What is the quality which it indicates in the author? And here I might affect to take up the psychological method: show what are the peculiarities necessarily implied by success in these little achievements; deduce from them what must have been the characteristics of Byrom's mind and temperament; and finally, by appealing to facts, show how strikingly the à priori reasoning would be confirmed by experience. I think that a little ingenuity might enable an ambitious critic to give plausibility to such a procedure; but I prefer to take a humbler method, for which sufficient materials have been lately provided. Byrom, I may remark, in the first place, is hardly thought, even by his warm admirers, to be other than a second-rate poet: nor need I appeal to the Latin grammar to prove that second-rate poetry is not generally worth reading. The reason is, I suppose, that a second-rate poet only does badly what has been done well, whereas even a tenth-rate historian or philosopher may be giving something new. That reason, at least, will do sufficiently well to suggest why an exception may be made in favour of some second-rate poetry. There are cases in which poetry not of the highest class reveals a charm of character peculiar to itself, though not of the highest kind. We cannot help loving the writer, though we admit that he was not a Dante, or a Shakespeare, nor even—in this case the comparison is more to the purpose—a Pope. The first condition of this kind of charm is, of course, perfect simplicity. The poet must be really showing us his heart, not getting upon stilts and trying to pour out epic poems and Pindaric odes, after the fashion of some of Byrom's contemporaries. Glover's Leonidas and Mason's odes have long been swept into the limbo where such things go; but the excellent Byrom, who is content to be himself, and whose self happened to be a very attractive one, may be still read with pleasure. Indeed, and this is what prompts me to speak of him just now, he has found an editor who reads him with enthusiasm as well as pleasure. Four handsome volumes[1] have recently been published by the Chetham Society under the care of Dr. Ward, Principal of the Owens College. Dr. Ward has done his work in the most loving spirit; he has pointed out with affectionate solicitude everything that strikes him as admirable in Byrom's poetry; he has not been so blinded by zeal as to try to force upon us admiration for the weaker pieces at the point of the critical bayonet; and he has given with overflowing learning everything that a reader can possibly require for the due appreciation of incidental circumstances. I fear that I am not quite a worthy follower; my admiration of Byrom's poetry stops a little further this side of idolatry; and, therefore, I frankly admit that Dr. Ward is likely to be a better guide than I to those who are accessible to Byrom's charm. In such cases excess of zeal is far less blamable than defect. Still, I hope that in a liking for Byrom himself I am not altogether unworthy to follow in his admirer's steps; and it is of the man himself that I propose chiefly to speak. Byrom, as I think, is a very attractive example of a charming type of humanity; and shows qualities really characteristic of the period, though too often overlooked in our popular summaries. He flourished during the literary reigns of Addison and Pope; and the splendour of their fame is too often allowed to blind us to the peculiarities of some of the secondary luminaries.

Byrom has already been made known to us by his 'remains,' published for the Chetham Society some forty years ago. Of this, Dr. Ward says that, were it more widely known, it would be 'one of the most popular works of English biographical literature.' It is, I think, only fair to warn any one who is tempted to rush at once to a library to procure this fascinating work, that it will not yield up its charm—a charm there certainly is—without a certain amount of perseverance. A good deal of it is a skeleton diary mere statements of small facts, which, if interesting at all, are interesting only when you have enabled yourself to read a good deal between the actually written lines—and, moreover, Byrom is apt to be tantalising, and to confine himself to brief notes just where we should be glad of a little more expansion. He meets Laurence Sterne, for example, and repeats not a word of his talk. After making this reservation, I can fully agree with Dr. Ward, that it is impossible to read through the book without deriving a charming impression of Byrom himself, and of the circle in which he especially delighted.

And now I will try to answer briefly the question from which I started. Who was Byrom? Byrom was the descendant of an old family long settled near Manchester. The Byroms of Byrom had dwindled down till they were represented by one Beau Byrom, who, in the time of his cousin, was consuming the last fragments of the ancestral estates, was subsiding into a debtor's prison, and was not above accepting a half-crown from his more prosperous relative. The Byroms of Manchester were meanwhile prospering in business. Manchester was then a country town of some 30,000 inhabitants, beginning to take a certain interest in a Bill permitting a freer use of cotton; but not, as yet, feeling itself aggrieved by exclusion from a Parliamentary representation. The upper classes had a strong tincture of the Jacobitism prevalent in the Lancashire of those days; and John, born in 1692, was clearly brought up in this faith. He was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge, then under the rule of the great Bentley, who was at the time beginning the famous legal warfare which was to display his boundless pugnacity and fertility of resource in litigation. Nobody was less inclined to sympathise with excessive quarrelsomeness than Byrom; but the young man, who became scholar and fellow of his college, was always on most friendly terms with the master. Bentley could be good company when his antipathies were not aroused; and Byrom was welcomed to the great man's domestic circle. Incidentally this led to the performance which made him in a modest way famous for years to come. The Spectator had been revived in 1714, when Byrom was about to gain his fellowship. The young man sent to it a couple of papers which were published in the famous journal—a success sufficient to give him a kind of patent of authorship. He followed it up by the more successful 'pastoral,' addressed to Phebe. Phebe was Joanna or 'Jug' Bentley, the master's youngest daughter. She was destined to be the mother of the Cumberland described by Goldsmith as 'The Terence of England, the mender of hearts,' but perhaps better known as Sheridan's Sir Fretful Plagiary. She was, as her son intimates, a witty young lady, sometimes coy and silent, and sometimes a little too smart in her satire. More than one of the college fellows were fascinated by her in later days, and even brought to take her father's side in his disputes. One of the superseded laments[2] her

haughtiness of mien,

And all the father in the daughter seen.

At this period, though she was only eleven, she probably showed symptoms enough of these characteristics to suggest the tone of Byrom's famous verses. Famous they certainly were in his day, for his friends constantly ask him for copies; but perhaps they are not so famous now as to forbid a specimen. Colin is terribly put out by Phebe's absence.

My dog I was ever well pleased to see
Come wagging his tail to my fair one and me:
And Phebe was pleased too, and to my dog said,
'Come hither, poor fellow,' and patted his head.
But now, when he's fawning, I with a sour look
Cry 'Sirrah,' and give him a blow with my crook;
And I'll give him another; for why should not Tray
Be as dull as his master when Phebe's away?

'I'll give him another' is a phrase for which I have often been grateful to the excellent Byrom. It gives a pleasant sanction to one's own humours. Though the metre limps a little in this stanza, it is often very dexterously used by Byrom; and the poem is worthy of a high place in the age of Mat Prior. Probably, though an absurd construction has been put upon the facts, the master was not the less friendly towards the young fellow for this compliment to his bright little daughter. 'Mr. Spectator' judged rightly that it would divert his readers; and a Mr. Mills, years afterwards, 'kissed the book' when he read it.

Byrom had some difficulty at the time in taking the oaths to the new family; and he made a rather mysterious journey soon afterwards to Montpellier. He professed to be studying medicine, and was afterwards often called 'doctor.' It was, however, strongly suspected that his journey had a political purpose. He certainly kissed the Pretender's hand at Avignon. He returned after a time to Manchester, where, in 1721, he married his cousin, Elizabeth Byrom. His father was dead; and the family property had gone to his elder brother. Byrom was therefore in want of money, and the measure which he took for obtaining supplies was characteristic, and led him into a peculiar career. Byrom would not have been the man he was without a hobby. In fact, he so far shared the spirit of the Shandy family that he had a whole stable of hobbies. He belongs on one side to the species which has been celebrated by so many of the eighteenth-century humorists. He would have appreciated Sir Roger de Coverley, or Parson Adams, or Uncle Toby, or the Vicar of Wakefield. The kindly simplicity which takes a different colouring in each of those friends of our imagination was fully realised in Byrom. He was evidently overflowing with the milk of human kindness; attaching himself to every variety of person, from the great Bentley to the burlesque Sam Johnson, author of Hurlothrumbo; appreciating them as cordially as Boswell, and alienated by nothing but censorious harshness. But, through all, he has a quaint turn of mind which shows alternately the two aspects of genuine humour—a perception of the absurd side of other people's crotchets, or an addiction to some pet crotchet of his own. Now the great discovery upon which he prided himself was a system of shorthand. He had, it seems, invented a system in combination with a friend at college; and he now bethought himself of turning this invention to account. Shorthand was by no means a novelty; and we all remember how Pepys had employed the invention; but Byrom's was, so he believed, the very perfection of shorthand—'Beauty, Brevity, and Perspicuity' were, he says, its characteristics. He set about propagating the true faith with infinite zeal. In London he found a rival, one Weston, who was making a living by giving lessons in the art. Weston challenged him to display his skill, and put bragging advertisements in the papers to claim superiority. Byrom felt that his dignity might be compromised by a contest with a commonplace teacher. His own shorthand was founded on scientific principles, and was a mystery to be imparted to the nobility and gentry; whereas Weston was a mere empiric, and, moreover, a vulgar person who talked broad Scotch. Byrom, therefore, retorted only by some humorous remarks, and apparently made peace with his humble rival. He served as umpire at a contest between Weston and another pretender to the art, and laid down the law with the lofty superiority of a fellow of the Royal Society. When invited to take notes at a famous law-case in those days he doubts his own ability and even recommends a trial of Weston. His own shorthand was too good, he seems to imply, to be exposed to the vulgar test of mere speed of writing. Experts, in fact, say that its defects in this respect led to its being superseded in the next generation. Meanwhile, however, Byrom not only believed himself, but collected a body of believers. They formed a shorthand society; they had periodical meetings, and addressed each other as 'brothers in shorthand.' Byrom was greeted as Grand Master, and pro nounced a solemn oration at their first gathering. Its preparation during two or three previous weeks is noted in his journal. He takes the highest possible tone. He humorously traces back his art to the remotest antiquity; he intimates that Plato probably used shorthand to take down the conversation of Socrates, and finds shorthand even in Egyptian hieroglyphics. The divine Tully, however, is his great model, and he shows by an ingenious emendation (notare for natare) that the Emperor Augustus taught his nephews, not to swim, but to take notes. He points out that amidst all the vices of Caligula, one which was thought to deserve notice was his ignorance of shorthand. Making a rapid bound over the intervening period, with one brief touch at the Abbot Trithemius, he appeals to the patriotism of his hearers to support what was at this time held to be a specially English art. A formal paper is drawn up, beginning, Quod felix faustumque sit, and declaring that the signers will form a society, ad tachygraphiam no s tram ediscendam, promovendam, et perpetuandam y in secula seculorum, Amen.

The meetings of the shorthanders naturally took place at taverns, and they formed a kind of club after the fashion of the day. Byrom took five guineas from each aspirant to the art, and a promise not to divulge the secret. They had apparently very pleasant meetings, and diverged from shorthand into discussions of politics, theology, free-will, and things in general. On one occasion, for example, when Byrom observes that he was in 'a talking humour,' which was certainly not rare, he discusses the Babylonian and Coptic letters, the probabilities of the devil being saved, and 'Dr. Dens' drawer of daggers.' Unluckily, the remarks which threw light upon these topics are not reported. The society seems to have done its duty in loyally spreading its president's fame. Great men became his pupils. The most famous in early years was Lord Chesterfield; Horace Walpole afterwards took some lessons. His warmest friend was the amiable philosopher, David Hartley, who cordially supported him in efforts to raise a subscription for a publication of his method once for all. Although this came to nothing, Byrom, in 1742, obtained an Act of Parliament which gave him the right of publishing and teaching for twenty-one years.

It was while he was engaged upon this propaganda that most of the diary was written. Manchester, of course, did not afford aspirants enough to maintain a teacher. Byrom had, therefore, to leave his family and pass months together in London and at Cambridge, where he had kept up many friendships. Travelling, of course, was a serious business. He generally makes two days of the fifty miles from London to Cambridge, though he once does it without an upset in less than nine hours. Now and then there is mention of a coach, but he is generally on horseback. Sometimes he rides post on 'little hobbling horses,' which leave him with aching arms after forty or fifty miles. Oftener it seems that he buys a horse at Manchester for five pounds or so, and sells it when he gets to London, and his horses are apt to turn out blind or lame. Once he collects a party of half a dozen friends and makes a walking tour from London, through Oxford, Worcester, and Shrewsbury to Manchester. It is to be regretted that he scarcely gives more than glimpses of these little tours. They suggest dimly the days when the wanderer had to plunge through labyrinths of muddy lanes; when he had to take a guide from one halting-place to another, and make inquiries of knowing persons as to the proper turning where you should leave the great northern road to diverge to Manchester. I see no indications, either here or in the poems, that the excellent Byrom cared for 'nature' in the shape of scenery. He had none of the love for field-sports which in those days might serve as an excuse for enjoying the country. 'Nay,' he observes, when some one sends him a hare,

Nay, should one reflect upon cruelty's course,
In the gentlemen butchers, the Hunt, and the Course,
'Twere enough to prevent either pudding or jelly
From storing such carcass within a man's belly!

Here and there he has an adventure. He has a gift for falling in with the most deserving beggars, poor soldiers who have been 'in slavery' somewhere, and the like, and gives them money and letters to his friends. Once, in Epping Forest, on the way to Cambridge, he has the proper meeting with a highwayman. Of course, he takes it good-humouredly, as an excellent pretext for a copy of verses. The highwayman's bad language runs spontaneously into rhyme; and in proper epical style the ruffian is put to flight by the mock-heroic vision of the 'Goddess Shorthand, bright, celestial maid'! In sober prose, the highwayman goes off with a guinea of Byrom's, and Byrom expects to see him again in the neighbourhood of Tyburn. Byrom, however, is really happy when he is in the full stream of society. One of his friends describes a typical London day from imagination, which, as the diary shows, is very nearly correct. He generally gets up late, we are sorry to observe, but he has often been sitting up at a club, or sometimes studying Hebrew till two or three in the morning. He has a meagre dish of tea, reads the equally meagre papers, and groans over his absence from Mrs. Byrom and his family. Then he turns out to give a lesson in shorthand. He is tempted to 'a hedge-booksellers in some bye-lane.' He is in the habit of denouncing the love of book-buying as a vanity, but he cannot resist it. He buys some queer old volume—mystical divinity if possible—and, to do him justice, seldom gets to a pound and often descends to fourpence. Afterwards he drops in upon friendly Dr. Hartley and his charming wife, and discusses the chances of a subscription for his book. He fills up time by an interview with a member of some eccentric sect; and, finally, meets a knot of friends at a tavern. Byrom, of course, was strictly temperate, though he seems to have tried his digestion by some rather odd mixtures (such as cream and ale), and equally of course, he is, though not quite systematically, a vegetarian. He would have been an anti-vaccinationist, and already denounces inoculation. His friends dearly like to pay him little compliments by asking for a copy of 'My time, O ye Muses,' or his epigram on Handel and Buononcini. Now and then he extemporises a copy of verses on the appearance of the president of a club, for example, in 'a black bob-wig,' What can be the cause?

A phrenzy? or a periwigmanee
That overruns his pericranie?

That he could enjoy some amusements which seem scarcely in character is proved by the verses on Figg and Sutton, done into prose in Thackeray's Virginians, and Dr. Ward has to remind us that this was 'not a brutal prize-fight,' but an ultra-vigorous 'assault-at-arms.' The line seems rather hard to draw. Byrom at least sympathises with the familiar sentiment about the 'British Grenadier.'

Were Hector himself, with Apollo to back him,
To encounter with Sutton,—zooks! how he would thwack him!
Or Achilles, though old Mother Thetis had dipt him,
With Figg—odds my life! how he would have unript him!

Another of Byrom's characteristic performances was prompted by his interest in his fellow-townsman, Samuel Johnson, a fiddler and dancing-master, who produced a strange medley called Hurlothrumbo. Dr. Ward, who has read it, as in duty bound, says that it is sheer burlesque, though some critics seem to be haunted by an uncomfortable suspicion that its apparent madness conceals some sparks of genius. Anyhow, Byrom took it as farce, and, partly for the fun of the thing, and partly from a good-natured wish to be of use to the author, contributed an amusing epilogue and attended the first performance in London. There were seven or eight 'garters' in the pit; Byrom led the claque. The audience took the joke. The play ran for thirty nights; the name got a place in popular slang, and Johnson appears to have been grateful, whether he quite perceived or not that Byrom was laughing in his sleeve. 'For my part,' says Byrom to his wife, 'who think all stage entertainments stuff and nonsense, I consider this as a joke upon 'em all.'

This, indeed, marks Byrom's peculiar vein. Hitherto I have spoken of him as an admirably good-natured humorist and lover of harmless fun. He can go to a tavern or Figg's 'amphitheatre,' and, to all appearance, throw himself into the spirit of the performances as heartily as any of his companions. Yet, at the same time, he was a man of very deep and peculiar religious sentiments. In this matter of the play, he gradually came, it seems, to take a stricter view. The denunciation of the stage by the nonjuror Jeremy Collier had become famous. Arthur Bedford, an orthodox clergyman, had (in 1719) collected 7000 'immoral sentiments from British dramatists' to prove the same point, and William Law, Byrom's great teacher, had demonstrated in a treatise the absolute unlawfulness of stage entertainments (1726), and had elsewhere declared that 'the playhouse was as certainly the house of the devil as the church was the house of God.' Byrom was, perhaps, one of those people who could not be too hard even upon the 'puir de'il.' He was, at least, willing to try the effect of good-humoured raillery on the evil one before proceeding to stronger measures. When one of his friends complains of Law's severity in this matter, Byrom is evidently puzzled. His reverence for Law struggles with a sense that the oracle was rather harsh. But in other matters Byrom's loyalty was boundless. Byrom's interest in various representatives of the religious speculations of the time is shown constantly in his diaries. He meets William Whiston, the successor to Newton's professorship, who had been deprived of his place as a heretic, and went about in all societies (he appears in the well-known picture of Tunbridge Wells with Richardson, Chesterfield, and the rest) trying to propagate what he took to be primitive Christianity. Dr. Primrose, as we know, was unlucky enough to be converted to his doctrine of monogamy. In simplicity and honesty he was worthy to make friends with Byrom; but, to say the truth, he appears in the diary rather in the character of a conceited bore. He had not Byrom's saving sense of humour. Then there was Edward Elwall, who was tried for blasphemy because he taught the 'perpetual obligation' of the Jewish law, and consequently wore a beard and a Turkish habit (the 'habit' out of respect, we are told, for the Mohammedans), and shut his shop on Saturdays. King George, he said, according to Dr. Johnson, if he were afraid to dispute with a poor old man, might bring a thousand of his blackguards with him; and, if that would not do, a thousand of his red guards. He seems, however, to have got out of his troubles, and was duly interviewed by Byrom. Byrom met more remarkable personages. He knew something of the Wesleys, and he had one of the few recorded interviews with Bishop Butler. They had a long discussion as to the claims of reason and authority. The bishop, one may guess, got rather the best of it, as Byrom admits that he was himself too warm, while the bishop was conspicuously mild and candid. Unluckily, Byrom was an inadequate Boswell, and is so anxious to record his own argument on behalf of authority that he does not quite let us know what Butler had to say for reason. Law, however, is by far the most conspicuous figure. Law, when Byrom first went to see him (4th March 1729), was living in the house of old Mr. Gibbon at Putney, and acting as tutor to the younger Gibbon, afterwards father of the historian. He had been at Cambridge in Byrom's time, had got into difficulties for his Jacobite proclivities, and, by refusing to take the oaths, had cut himself off from an active clerical career. Byrom would sympathise with him upon this ground; but it was the recently published Serious Call which led to the new connection. Byrom bought the book in February 1729, and at once felt the influence, which made its perusal a turning-point in the lives of many eminent men of the day. To him it was especially congenial. Law afterwards became a disciple of Jacob Bohme, and Byrom, though he accepted the later utterances with reverence, confessed that they were above his comprehension. Of such matters, I may say that at a later period Law might probably have been, like Coleridge, a follower of Schelling, and have clothed his thought in the language of transcendental metaphysics rather than of the old theosophy. He was no mere dreamer or word-maker. If to his contemporaries he seemed to be talking mere jargon, later critics have thought that his position showed a real insight into the intellectual deficiencies of the time. But, in any case, he was, as Gibbon declares, 'a wit and a scholar'; had not his mind been 'clouded with enthusiasm' he would have been one of the most agreeable authors of the day; and his portraits in the Serious Call are 'not unworthy of the pen of La Bruyère.' These compliments from Gibbon are significant. Neither Law nor Byrom were contemporaries of Addison and Pope for nothing. However far they were from the ordinary tone of religion and philosophy, they could both mix in the society of the day, and write as brightly and observe as keenly as the ordinary frequenter of clubs and coffee-houses. Their mysticism was not mere muddle. They show that a man may have the sparkle and clearness of the wits of Queen Anne allied with a steady flow of sweet and tender sentiment.

Byrom had already shown his fitness to be a disciple of Law. One of his pleasantest copies of verses tells how, in 1727, he bought a picture of Malebranche, a philosopher naturally revered by both. Byrom describes his eagerness in going to the auction, his palpitations when the portrait of the great teacher was brought out, the haste with which he advanced his biddings, and how he gets the picture for three pounds five shillings. His ecstasy is indescribable! Let your duchesses throw away ten times as many guineas on pictures of nobodies by famous artists. Byrom has got his Malebranche, 'the greatest divine that e'er lived upon earth,' whips into a coach, calls to the driver to go as fast as he can spin; deposits the treasure at his chambers, and summons his friend to come and rejoice; let him bring a friend or two to 'mix metaphysics, and shorthand, and port.' What, he exclaims, can 'be more clever'?

Huzza! Father Malebranche, and Shorthand for ever!

The Serious Call inspired another poem. When Byrom, a few days after reading it, made his first call upon the author, he had in his pocket a versification of a quaint parable which it contains. Law compares the man whose heart is set upon the world to a person with a monomania about a pond. He passes his life in trying to keep the pond full, and is finally drowned in it. This struck Byrom's fancy. He expands it into a fable in verse, and ventures to show his performance to Law himself. Law laughed, and begged him not to turn the whole book into verse, 'for then it would not sell in prose—so the good man can joke.' This was before the rise of the Authors' Society, and the value of a copyright was still a subject for 'joking.' In later days Law encouraged Byrom to versify other works, and seems to have thought that the effect would be to advertise the prose. He calls Byrom his laureate; but Byrom, I suspect, did not contribute much to Law's popularity. The poems had not a large circulation.

Some of his other religious poems have great merits. Of an early paraphrase of the 23rd Psalm I will only say that Dr. Ward endorses the statement of a Mr. Hedges, that he 'would give all the world to have been able to have done them.' It is in the same metre as the pastoral, and like that poem owes its charm to the entire simplicity which enables Byrom as a reverential interpreter to catch the charm of that masterpiece of Hebrew poetry. Another poem,

Christians, awake! salute the happy morn,
Whereon the Saviour of the world was born,

has been often reprinted, and is given in Hymns Ancient and Modern. I may infer that it is at least as familiar to my readers as to myself. It probably marks Byrom's highest level, though some other of his religious poems, especially those in which he celebrates his favourite virtue, contentment, have the same charm. They breathe, at least, the sweetness and simplicity of the writer's own character. I will quote one little fragment as at once brief and characteristic:—

O happy Resignation!
 That rises by its fall!
That seeks no exaltation,
 But wins by losing all;
That conquers by complying,
 Triumphing in its lot;
That lives when it's a-dying,
 And is when it is not!

The longer pieces, in which Byrom versified Law's works with more or less closeness, come nearer to the conventional style of the period, and drop pretty frequently into the flat of mere rhymed prose. One of the longer, upon 'Enthusiasm,' may be mentioned as symptomatic of an often noticed transformation of meaning. Our ancestors understood by 'enthusiasm' the state of mind of the fanatical sects of the Commonwealth, or of the 'French Prophets' of the eighteenth century. An enthusiast meant a believer in a sham inspiration. The gradual change of the word to a complimentary meaning marks the familiar change which was also shown by the development of sentimentalism in literature. Byrom, following Law pretty closely, takes 'enthusiasm' to mean devotion to some end, and is good or bad according to the goodness or badness of the end. Everybody must have some aim. The enthusiasm which Byrom shared with Law meant a serious belief in Christianity, and the worldly only scoffed because they were equally enthusiastic about some really inferior aim. A few verses will show how far Byrom could follow in the steps of Pope. Expanding a sentence of Law's, he compares the classical enthusiast with the Christian. The mere scholar is grieved when he sees

Time, an old Goth, advancing to consume
Immortal Gods and once eternal Rome;
When the plain Gospel spread its artless ray,
And rude, uncultured Fishermen had sway;
Who spared no Idol, tho' divinely carved,
Tho' Art and Muse and Shrine-engraver starved;
Who saved poor wretches and destroyed, alas!
The vital marble and the breathing brass.

Where does all Sense to him and Reason shine?
Behold, in Tully's rhetoric divine!
'Tully!' Enough; high o'er the Alps he's gone,
To tread the ground that Tully trod upon;
Haply, to find his statue or his bust,
Or medal green'd with Ciceronian rust;
Perchance, the Rostrum—yea, the very wood
Whereon this elevated genius stood.
When forth on Catiline, as erst he spoke,
The thunder of 'Quousque tandem' broke.

Byrom is beginning to forget even Tully's merits as a shorthand writer. He follows Law towards the condemnation, not only of the stage, but of classical scholarship and art in general.

It does not appear, however, that Byrom ever got quite so far. Law retired to his curious hermitage at King's Cliffe, where he could abandon himself to pious meditation and the demoralisation of the neighbourhood by profuse charity. Byrom was held fast by his domestic ties; and took an interest in the local politics of Manchester. His talent for versification gave him frequent employment. He contributed a number of verses, in the nature of election squibs, to a newspaper of the period, and whenever he has an argument with a friend, he twists his logic into verse. Some of the results are quaint enough. Tempted, apparently, by Bentley's example, he had made a variety of conjectural emendations of Horace, obviously rash, if not altogether absurd. But it could have entered into no less whimsical head to put the arguments for them into rhyme. He suggests unum for nonum in the familiar passage,

I take the correction, unumque prematur,
'Let it lie for one twelvemonth'—Ah, that may hold water!

and argues the point through twelve eight-lined stanzas. Another 'poem' is an antiquarian discussion, showing that St. Gregory and not St. George was the patron saint of England; he proves in another that the locusts eaten by the Baptist were fruit, not insects; in a third, that the miracle at the Pentecost was worked upon the hearers, not the speakers.

'Are not these,' said the men, the devout of each land,
'Galileans that speak, whom we all understand?'
As much as to say, 'By what wonderful powers
Does the tongue Galilean become to us ours?'

With equal readiness he enters into an elaborate exegetical discussion, defending Sherlock against Conyers Middleton; expounds the orthodox doctrine of the fall of man and justification by faith; condemns Jonathan Edwards's arguments upon free-will, or versifies some prayer or letter that has struck him in reading memoirs or treatises of mystical divinity. The worthy Byrom, it must be added, did not take his own performances in this line too seriously. They were an amusement—a quaint whim characteristic of an oddly constituted brain; and one fancies that when he forces even Hebrew and Greek into the fetters of his 'cantering rhymes,' and twists dry grammatical discussion into comic metres, he feels that the process takes the bitterness out of controversy and enables him to treat thorny subjects in a vein of pleasantry. It is characteristic that he came into collision with the colossal Warburton, who had treated Law with his usual brutality, and that even Warburton found it desirable for once to be civil to so amiable an antagonist.

Byrom's activity in the shorthand business declined after the death of his brother in 1740 gave him the family estates. In 1745 he was presented to the Chevalier in Manchester; but luckily did not commit himself in any dangerous way to answering his own question, Which was King and which was Pretender? Byrom was very near the Quakers in such matters. In a poem on the occasion his hero, representing Lancashire in dialect and common-sense, decides, in spite of patriotic taunts, to look after his own carcass and leave Highlanders and redcoats to fight it out. Byrom obviously approves. Nobody, as other poems prove, could be less given to the worship of Jingo. He tried vainly to save some young friends, less prudent than himself, convicted of joining the rebels—and, of course, wrote his petition in verse. He protested, too, in verse, and with equal want of success, against the denunciators of Admiral Byng. He died a few years later (1763). He was not buried as the law directed, in woollen. His executors had to pay £5 as a fine. As Byrom does not appear to have left any verses to justify the failure, we may perhaps assume that the omission was not due to any final whim of his own. He would hardly have missed such a chance for a poem. Few kindlier men have been buried either in woollen or linen.

  1. Two volumes, each in two parts, properly.
  2. See his poem in Nichol's Literary Anecdotes, i. 244.