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LIFE OF MATTHEW GREEN.
BY MR. CHALMERS.
FOR the only information I have been able to procure respecting this poet, I am indebted to a short notice in the last edition of Dodsley's Poems, and the communication of an anonymous writer in the European Magazine for July, 1785.
Matthew Green was descended from a family in good repute among the dissenters, and had his education in some of the sects into which that body is divided. He was a man of approved probity, and sweetness of temper and manners. His wit abounded in conversation, and was never known to give offence. He had a post in the Custom-house, where he discharged his duty with the utmost diligence and ability, and he died at the age of forty-one years, at a lodging in Nag's Head court, Gracechurch-street, in the year
Mr. Green, it is added, had not much learning, but knew a little Latin. He was very subject to the hip, had some free notions on religious subjects, and, though bred amongst the dissenters, grew disgusted at the preciseness and formality of the sect. He was nephew to Mr. Tanner, clerk of Fishmonger's-hall. His poem entitled the Spleen was written by piece-meal, and would never have been completed, had he not been pressed to it by his friend Mr. Glover, the celebrated author of Leonidas, &c. By this gentleman it was committed to the press soon after Green's death.
This very amusing author published nothing in his life-time. In 1732, he printed a few copies of the Grotto, since inserted in the fifth volume of Dodsley's collection; but, for reasons which cannot readily be guessed at, the following introductory lines are omitted:
We had a water-poet once,
The following anecdotes are given from indisputable authority:
Mr. Sylvanus Bevan, a quaker and a friend of Mr. Green, was mentioning, at Batson's coffee-house, that, while he was bathing in the river, a waterman saluted him with the usual insult of the lower class of people, by calling out, "A quaker, a quaker, quirl!" He at the same time expressed his wonder, how his profession could be known while he was without his clothes. Green immediately replied, that the waterman might discover him by his swimming against the stream.
The department in the Custom-house to which Mr. Green belonged was under the control of the duke of Manchester, who used to treat those immediately under him once a year. After one of these entertainments, Mr. Green, seeing a range of servants in the hall, said to the first of them, "Pray, sir, do you give tickets at your turnpike?"
In a reform which took place in the Custom-house, amongst other articles, few pence, paid weekly for providing the cats with milk, were ordered to be struck off. On this occasion, Mr. Green wrote a humorous petition as from the cats, which prevented the regulation in that particular from taking place. Mr. Green's conversation was as novel a his writings, which occasioned one of the commissioners of the customs, a very dull man, to observe, that he did not know how it was, but Green always expressed himself in a different manner from other people.
Such is the only information which the friends of this poet have thought proper to hand down to posterity, if we except Glover, the author of the preface to the first edition of The Spleen, who introduces the poem in these
"The author of the following poem had the greatest part of his time taken up in business: but was accustomed at his leisure hours to amuse himself with striking out small sketches of wit or humour for the entertainment of his
friends, sometimes in verse, at other times in prose. The greatest part of these alluded to incidents known only within the circle of his acquaintance. The subject of the following poem will be more generally understood. It was at first a very short copy of verses; but, at the desire of the person to whom it is addressed, the author enlarged it to its present state. As it was writ without any design of its passing beyond the hands of his acquaintance, so the author's unexpected death soon after disappointed many of his most intimate friends in their design of prevailing on him to revise and prepare it for the sight of the public. It therefore now appears under all the disadvantages that can attend a posthumous work. But it is presumed, every imperfection of this kind is abundantly overbalanced by the peculiar and unborrowed cast of thought and expression, which manifests itself throughout, and secures to this performance the first and principal character necessary to recommend a work of genius, that of being an original."
The Spleen had not been long published before it was admired by those whose opinion was at that time decisive. Pope said there was a great deal of originality in it. Mr. Melmoth (in Fitzosborne's Letters) after remarking a double beauty in images that are not only metaphors but allusions, adds, “I was much pleased with an instance of this uncommon species in a little poem entitled, The Spleen. The author of that piece (who has thrown together more original thoughts than I ever read in the same compass of lines) speaking of the advantages of exercise in dissipating those gloomy vapours, which are so apt to hang upon some minds, employs the following image
Throw but a stone, the giant dies
"You will observe that the metaphor here is conceived, with great propriety of thought, if we consider it only in its primary view: but when we see it. pointing still farther, and hinting at the story of David and Goliath, it receives a very considerable improvement from this double application."
Gray, in his private correspondence with the late lord Orford, observes of Green's poems, then published in Dodsley's collection, "There is a profusion of wit every where; reading would have formed his judgment, and harmonised his verse, for even his wood-notes often break out into strains of real poetry and music."
The Spleen was first printed in 1737, a short time after the author's death, and afterwards was taken, with his other poems, into Dodsley's volumes, where they remained until the publication of the second edition of Dr. Johnson's Poets. In 1796, a very elegant edition was published by Messrs. Cadell and Davies, which, besides some beautiful engravings, is enriched with a prefatory essay from the pen of Dr. Aikin.
"The writer before us," says this ingenious critic," was neither by education nor situation in life qualified to attain skill in those constituent points. of poetical composition upon which much of its elegance and beauty depends. He had not, like a Gray or a Collins, his mind early fraught with all the stores
of classic literature; nor could he devote months and years of learned leisure to the exquisite charms of versification or the refined ornaments of diction. He was a man of business, who had only the intervals of his regular employment to improve his mind by reading and reflection; and his powers appear to have been truly no more than hasty effusions for the amusement of himself and his particular friends. Numbers of works thus produced are born and die in the circle of every year; and it is only by the stamp of real genius that these have been preserved from a similar fate. But nature had bestowed on the author a strong and quick conception, and a wonderful power of bringing together remote ideas, so as to produce the most novel and striking effects. No man ever thought more copiously or with more originality; no man ever less fell into the beaten track of common-place ideas and expressions. That cant of poetical phraseology, which is the only resource of an ordinary writer, and which those of a superior class find it difficult to avoid, is scarcely any where to be met with in him. He has no hacknied combinations of substantives and epithets: none of the tropes and figures of a school-boy's Gradus. Often negligent, sometimes inaccurate, and not unfrequently prosaic, he redeems his defects by a rapid variety of beauties and brilliancies all his own, and affords more food to the understanding or imagination in a line or a couplet than common writers in half a page. In short, if in point of versification, regularity and correctness, his place is scarcely assignable among the poets: in the rarer qualities of variety and vigour of sentiment, and novelty and liveliness of imagery, it would not be easy to find any, in modern times at least, who has a right to rank above him."
This opinion, which belongs chiefly to The Spleen, may be adopted with safety; but the praise bestowed afterwards by the same judicious critic on the author's system, or the philosophy of the poem, although qualified by exceptions, is, perhaps, yet higher than it deserves. To me it appears that Green had no regular or serious purpose in writing this poem, unless to make it the vehicle of satire on opinions and subjects which he had relinquished or disliked. There is so little knowledge of the nature or cure of the Spleen in what he advances, that whoever is induced by the title to consult it, may be occasionally diverted by its wit, but will not benefit by its prescriptions.
What, indeed, is his theory of the disorder, and what his remedy? He begins, not improperly, by informing his friend that he does not mean to write a treatise on the Spleen, but to acquaint that friend with the course he had himself taken to drive the Spleen away and to live quietly. He first adopted the commonly received remedies, temperance, chastity and exercise, and then he expatiates on the use of mirth, but how is mirth to be procured by the melancholy sufferer? By laughing, he tells us, at witlings, bad tragedies, dissenters saying grace, a clergyman preaching for a lectureship, and other common topics, some of which are surely improper topics for laughter, and could excite it only in those who are predisposed to throw ridicule upon
what is serious, which is very far from being the case with persons of a melancholic temperament. He then recommends the playhouse, or a concert; during rainy weather, books, or a visit to the coffee-house, the tavern, the card-table, or a joco-serious cup; and the company of the fair-sex, but with the exception of marriage. Such are the remedies he professes to have taken; and he proceeds next to enumerate the causes of the Spleen which are to be avoided, or which he avoids. He never goes to a dissenting meeting, or to law; never games, rarely bets; does not like to lend money, or to run in debt, by which means he avoids that undoubted cause of melancholy, duns and bailiffs; never meddles with politics in church or state; avoids both the regular clergy and the puritans, but conforms to church and state" both for diversion and defence;" abhors all reformers, and especially the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in foreign parts, which he reviles, I do not hesitate to say, with contemptuous malignity. In addition to all this, he never dances attendance at the levees of the great; avoids poetical enthusiasm and all its evils, and has no ambition. He then addresses Contentment, expresses a wish for a small farm in the country, has no expectations from a state of future existence, and concludes with a hacknied allegory on human life.
It may be doubted whether, since the days of the Theriaca, a medicine has been composed of such heterogeneous ingredients, or a cure for listlessness and melancholy recommended, which has a more direct tendency to induce insanity, by overthrowing all established opinions, and substituting darkness and perplexity, indolence towards the concerns of our fellow-creatures, and indifference to all the sympathies of civil and social life. If its tendency should fall short of this, it must at least increase that selfish security which so often drives the splenetic into solitude, or renders them inactive members of society,
As an apology for Green's opinions on religious subjects, so freely expressed in this poem, it has been said, that he was bred among puritanical dissenters, whose principles tended to inspire a gloomy, unamiable and unsocial disposition. Of whatever avail this apology may be in the present case, it is not much in its favour that we find it usually advanced by those who are glad of an excuse for looseness of principle and contempt for revealed religion. It may, however, be said, with confidence, that if no other spleen existed than what is induced by strictness of religious principle, it would not be of sufficient consequence to require the aid either of the poet or the physician. The disorder, all experience and observation show, exists among two classes, those who inherit a constitutional melancholy, or those who from defect of education, possess weak minds: it has no natural connection with any system of religion or politics, but much with folly and vice, and most of all, with that waste of time and talents which, in many conditions of life, fashion commands and countenances.
But enough has been said of a system, if it deserves the name, the evil