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LIFE OF WILLIAM JULIUS MICKLE,
BY MR. CHALMERS.
The father of this ingenious poet was the rev. Alexander Mickle', who, exchanging the profession of physic for that of divinity, was admitted, at an age more advanced than usual, into the ministry of the church of Scotland. From that country be removed to London, where he preached for some time in various dissenting meetings, particularly that of the celebrated Dr. Watts. He was also employed by the booksellers in correcting the translation of Bayle's Dictionary, to which he is said to have contributed the greater part of the notes. In 1716 he returned to Scotland, on being presented to the living of Langholm, in the county of Dumfries; and in 1727 he married Julia, daughter of Mr. Thomas Henderson, of Ploughlands, near Edinburgh, and first cousin to the late sir William Johnstone, baronet, of Westerhall. By this lady, who appears to have died before him, he had ten children.
Our poet, his fourth son, was born Sunday, Sept. 29, 1734, and educated at the grammar-school of Langholm, where he acquired that early taste for works of genius which frequently ends, in spite of all obstacles, in a life devoted to literary pursuits. He even attempted, when at school, a few devotional pieces in rhyme, which, however, were not superior to the common run of juvenile compositions. About his thirteenth year, he accidentally met with Spenser's Faerie Queene, which he studied with so much perseverance as fixed a lasting impression on his mind, and made him desirous of being enrolled among the imitators of that poet. To this he joined the reading of Homer and Virgil during his education at the high school of Edinburgh, in which city his father obtained permission to reside, in consideration of his advanced age and infirmities, and to enable him to give a proper education to his children. His parochial duty was performed, during his absence, by a substitute: an indulgence which, the biographers of our poet remark, is very unusual in that part of the united kingdom.
About two years after the rev. Mr. Mickle came to reside in Edinburgh, upon the death of a brother-in-law, a brewer in the neighbourhood of that city, he embarked a
· Meikle was the original orthography. C.
great part of his fortune in the purchase of the brewery, and continued the business in the name of his eldest son. Our poet was then taken from school, employed as a clerk under his father, and, upon coming of age, in 1755, took upon him the whole charge and property of the business, on condition of granting his father a share of the profits during his life, and paying a certain sum to his brothers and sisters at stated periods, after his father's decease, which happened in 1758.
Young Mickle is said to have entered into these engagements more from a sense of filial duty, and the peculiar situation of his family, tban from any inclination to business. He had already contracted the habits of literary life; he had begun to feel the enthusiasm of a son of the Muses ; and while he was storing his mind with the productions of former poets, and cultivating those branches of elegant literature not usually taught at schools at that time, he felt the employment too delightful to admit of much interruption from the concerns of trade. In 1761, he contributed, but without his name, two charming compositions, entitled, Knowledge, an Ode, and A Night Piece, to a collection of poetry published by Donaldson, a bookseller of Edinburgh ; and about the same time published some observations on that impious tract, The History of the Man after God's own Heart; but whether separately or in any literary journal, is not now known. had also finished a dramatic poem of considerable length, entitled The Death of Socrates, and had begun a poem on Providence, when his studies were interrupted by the importunities of his creditors.
This confusion in his affairs was partly occasioned by his intrusting that to servants which it was in their power to abuse without his knowledge, and partly by imprudently becoming a joint security, for a considerable sum, with a printer in Edinburgh, to whom one of his brothers was then apprentice, which, on bis failure, Mickle was unable to pay.
In this dilemma, had he at once compounded with bis creditors, and disposed of the business, as he was advised, be might have averted a series of anxieties that preyed on his mind for many years ; and he perhaps might have entered into another concern more congenial to his disposition, with all the advantage of dear-bought experience. But some friends interposed at this crisis, and prevailed on his creditors to accept notes of hand in lieu of present payment; a measure which, however common, is generally futile, and seldom fails to increase the embarrassment which it is kindly intended to alleviate. Accordingly, within a few months, Mickle was again insolvent, and almost distracted with the nearer view of impending ruin ready to fall, not only on himself, but on his whole family. · His reflections on this occasion, which he expressed in a letter to a brother in London, are such as do honour to his moral and religious sentiments.
Perhaps an unreserved acknowledgment of insolvency might not yet lave been too late to shorten his sufferings, had not the same friends again interfered, and again persuaded his creditors to allow him more time to satisfy their demands. This interference, as it appeared to be the last that was possible, in some degree roused him to a more close application to business ; but as business was ever secondary in his thoughts, he was induced at the same time to place considerable reliance on his poetical talents, which, as far as known, had been encouraged by some critics of acknowledged taste, in his own country. He therefore began to retouch and complete his poem on Providence, from which he conceived great expectations, and at length had it published in London by Becket, in August, 1762, under the title of Providence, or Arandus and Emilée. The character given of it in the Critical Review was highly flattering; but the opinion of the
Monthly, which was then esteemed more decisive, being less satisfactory, he determined to appeal to lord Lyttelton. Accordingly, he sent to this nobleman a letter, dated January 21, 1763, under the assumed name of William More, begging his lordship's opinion of his poem, which,” he tells him, “ was the work of a young man, friendless and unknown; but that, were another edition to have the honour of lord Lyttelton's name at the head of a dedication, such a pleasure would enable him to put it in a' much better dress than what it then appeared in.” He concluded with requesting the favour of an answer to be left at Seacoe's caffee-house, Holborn. This letter he consigned to the care of his brother in London, who was to send it in his own hand, and call for the answer. The whole was the simple contrivance of a young man, unacquainted with the real value of the favour he solicited, and who, perhaps, had no very distinct ideas of his own expectations from it.
But before he could receive any answer, his affairs became so deranged that, although he experienced many instances of frievdship and forbearance, it was no longer possible to avert a bankruptcy; and, suspecting that one of his creditors intended to arrest him for an inconsiderable debt, he was reduced to the painful necessity of leaving his home, which he did in the month of April, and reached London on the eighth day of May. Here, for some time, he remained friendless and forlorn, reflecting, with the utmost poignancy, that he had, in all probability, involved his family and friends in irremediable distress.
Among other schemes which he hoped might eventually succeed in relieving his embarrassments, he appears to have now had some intentions of going to Jamaica, but in what capacity, or with what prospects, he perhaps did not himself know. There was, however, no immediate plan so easily practicable, by which he could expect, at some distant period, to satisfy his creditors; and the consciousness of this most painful of all obligations, was felt by bim in a manner which can be conceived only by minds of the nicest honour and most scrupulous integrity.
While in this perplexity, he was cheered by a letter from lord Lyttelton, in which his lordship assured him, that he thought bis genius in poetry deserved to be cultivated, but would not advise the re-publication of his poem without considerable alterations. He declined the offer of a dedication, as a thing likely to be of no use to the poet, body winded dedications ;" but suggested that it might be of some use if he were to come and read the poem with his lordship, when they might discourse together upon what he thought its beauties and faults. In the meantime, he exhorted Mickle to endeavour to acquire greater harmony of versification : and to take care that his diction did not loiter into prose, or become hard by new phrases, or words unauthorized by the usage of good authors. Whatever may be thought of lord Lyttelton's subsequent conduct, it cannot be denied that this letter was condescending and friendly; and it is certain, that his lordship readily and zealously performed what he had undertaken.
In answer, Mickle informed his lordship of his real name, and inclosed the elegy of Pollio for his lordship's advice. This was followed by another kind letter from lord Lyttelton, in which he gave his opinion, that the correction of a few lines would make it as perfect as any thing of that kind in our language, and promised to point out its faults when he had the pleasure of seeing the author. An interview accordingly took place, in the month of February, '1764, when his lordship, after receiving bim with the utmost politeness and affability, begged him not to be discouraged at such difficulties as a young author must naturally expect, but to cultivate his very promising poetical powers : and, with his-usual condescension, added, that he would become his schoolmaster. Other
interviews followed this very flattering introduction, at which Mickle read with him the poem on Providence, and communicated his plan for treating more fully a subject of so much intricacy, intimating that he had found it necessary to discard the philosophy of Pope's ethics.
His ideas on this subject, although not very clear, are thus explained in one of his letters to lord Lyttelton. “ What is called God's moral government of the world may be reduced to a few general classes, which may be represented each by a particular fable, and however contrary to common practice, such fable, as was no way out of nature, seemed most proper to me, only heightening it by laying the scene in the east. In the speech of the angel, I thought once to avail myself of the philosophy of Mr. Pope's ethics, but found his system, if I rightly understood it, not clearly compatible with the real miseries that human wisdom cannot foresee, nor human virtue prevent: and that there are such must be owned. That in the scale of being there must be such a rank as man in his present condition seems to want proof, and is much further than Mr. Locke goes, who only asserts the probability of a scale of gradation above us; nor, were it granted, is it a satisfactory method to solve the complaint of the sufferer. And though the argument drawn from man's blindness, and that hope is its own reward, may prove the duty of submission, it seems but ill fitted to beget a cheerful resignation. I have mentioned these, my lord, to show what scheme I would wish for: one that owned there was sometimes “ to virtue woe,' though it affirmed,
The broadest mirth unfeeling folly wears,
A scheme that considered the individual in the moral world in a manner analogous to what is said of every seed in the natural, that it contains a perfect plant in itself. I never intended to run into discussions."
But, as in order to render his talents as soon productive as possible he had now a wish to publish a volume of poems,'he sent to his noble friend that on Providence, Pollio, and an Elegy on Mary Queen of Scots. This produced a long letter from his lordship, in which, after much praise of the two former, he declined criticising any part of the Elegy on Mary, because he wholly disapproved of the subject. He added, with justice, that poetry should not consecrate what history must condemn, and in the view his lordship had taken of the history of Mary, he thought her entitled to pity, but not to praise. In this opinion Mickle acquiesced, from convenience if not from conviction, and again sent his lordship a copy of Providence with further improvements, hoping probably that they might be the last, but he had the mortification to receive it back from the noble critic so much marked and blotted, that he began to despair of completing it to his satisfaction. He remitted therefore a new performance, the Ode on May Day, begging his lordship's opinion“ if it could be made proper to appear this spring (1765) along with the one already approved."
Whether any answer was returned to this application, we are not told. It is certain no volume of poems appeared, and our author began to feel how difficult it would be to justify such tardy proceedings to those who expected that he should do something to provide for himself. He had now been nearly two years in London, without any other subsistence than what he received from his brothers, or procured by contributing to some of the periodical publications, particularly the British and St. James's Magazines, All
this was scanty and precarious, and his hopes of greater advantages from his poetical efforts were considerably damped by the fastidious opinions of the noble critic who had voluntarily undertaken to be his tutor. It now occurred to Mickle to try whether his lordship might not serve him more essentially as a patron, and having still some intention of going to Jamaica, he took the liberty to request his lordship's recommendation to his brother William Henry Lyttelton, esq., who was then governor of that island. This produced an interview, in which lord Lyttelton intimated that a recommendation to his brother would be of no real use, as the governor's patronage was generally bespoke long before vacancies take place; he promised, however, to recommend Mickle to the merchants, and to one of them then in London whom he expected to see very soon. He also hinted that a clerkship at home would be desirable, as England was the place for Mickle, but repressed all hopes from this scheme by adding, that as he (lord Lyttelton) was in opposition, he could ask no favours. He then mentioned the East Indies, as a place where perhaps he could be of service, and after much conversation on these various schemes, concluded with a promise, which probably appeared to his client as a kind of anti-climax, that he would aid the sale of his Odes with his good opinion when they should be published.
This was the last interview Mickle had with his lordship. He afterwards renewed the subject in the way of correspondence, but received so little encouragement that he was at length compelled, although much against the fond opinion he had formed of his lordship's zeal in his cause, to give up all thoughts of succeeding by his means. It cannot be doubted that he felt this disappointment very acutely; but whether he thought, upon more mature reflection, that he had not sufficient claims on lord Lyttelton's patronage, that his lordship could not be expected to provide for every one who solicited his opinion, or that he was really unable to befriend him according to his honest professions, it is certain that he betrayed no coarse resentment, and always spoke respectfully of the advantages he had derived from his critical opinions.
The conclusion of their correspondence, indeed, was in some respect owing to Mickle himself. Lord Lyttelton so far kept his word as to write to his brother in his favour at the time when Mickle was bent on going to Jamaica, but the latter had, in the meantime, “ in order to avoid the dangers attending on uncertainty," accepted the offer of going as a merchant's clerk to Carolina, a scheme which, being delayed by some accident, he gave up for a situation more agreeable to his taste, that of corrector of the Clarendon press at Oxford.
To whom he owed this appointment we are not told. As it is a situation, however, of moderate emolument, and dependent on the printer employed, it required no extraordinary interference of friends. He was already known to the Wartons, and it is not improbable that their mentioning him to Jackson, the printer, would be sufficient. He removed to Oxford in 1765, and in 1767 published The Concubine, in the manner of Spenser, which brought him into more notice than any thing he had yet written, and was attributed to some of the highest names on the list of living poets, while he concealed his being the author. It may here be noticed, that when he published a second edition, in 1778, he changed the name to Sir Martyn, as The Concubine conveyed a very improper idea both of the subject and spirit of the poem. The change of name is not of much consequence, but the reason here assigned is by no means satisfactory.
In the beginning of 1768, he lost an amiable and favourite brother, whose death he lamented in a pathetic poem, of which the introduction only has been recovered, and is