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His conceits are sometimes yet less valuable. In "The Last Day" he hopes to illustrate the reassembly of the atoms that compose the human body at the "Trump of Doom" by the collection of bees into a swarm at the tinkling of a pan.
The prophet says of Tyre, that "her merchants are princes." Young says of Tyre in his "Merchant,"
Her merchants princes, and each deck a throne.
Let burlesque try to go beyond him.
He has the trick of joining the turgid and familiar: to buy the alliance of Britain, "Climes were paid down." Antithesis is his favourite. "They for kindness hate:" and "because she's right she's ever in the wrong."
His versification is his own; neither his blank nor his rhyming lines have any resemblance to those of former writers; he picks up no hemistichs, he copies no favourite expressions; he seems to have laid up no stores of thought or diction, but to owe all to the fortuitous suggestions of the present moment. Yet I have reason to believe that, when once he had formed a new design, he then laboured it with very patient industry; and that he composed with great labour and frequent revisions.
His verses are formed by no certain model; he is no more like himself in his different productions than he is like others. He seems never to have studied prosody, nor to have had any direction but from his own ear. But with all his defects, he was a man of genius and a poet.
Johnson's Lives. II.
OF DAVID MALLET, having no written memorial, I am able to give no other account than such as is supplied by the unauthorised loquacity of common fame, and a very slight personal knowledge.
He was by his original one of the Macgregors, a clan, that became, about sixty years ago, under the conduct of Robin Roy, so formidable and so infamous for violence and robbery, that the name was annulled by a legal abolition; and when they were all to denominate themselves anew, the father, I suppose, of this author, called himself Malloch.
David Malloch was, by the penury of his parents, compelled to be janitor of the high school at Edinburgh; a mean office, of which he did not afterwards delight to hear. But he surmounted the disadvantages of his birth and fortune; for when the Duke of Montrose applied to the College of Edinburgh for a tutor to educate his sons, Malloch was recommended; and I never heard that he dishonoured his credentials.
When his pupils were sent to see the world, they were entrusted to his care; and, having conducted them round the common circle of modish travels, he returned with them to London, where, by the influence of the family in which he resided, he naturally gained admission to many persons of the highest rank and the highest character, to wits, nobles, and statesmen.
Of his works, I know not whether I can trace the series. His first production was "William and Margaret;" of which, though it contains nothing very striking or difficult, he has been envied the reputation: and plagiarism has been boldly charged, but never proved.
Not long afterwards he published "The Excursion;" (1728) a desultory and capricious view of such scenes of nature as his fancy led him, or his knowledge enabled him to describe. It is not devoid of poetical spirit. Many of his images are
striking, and many of the paragraphs are elegant. The cast of diction seems to be copied from Thomson, whose "Seasons" were then in their full blossom of reputation. He has Thomson's beauties and his faults.
His poem on "Verbal Criticism" (1733) was written to pay court to Pope, on a subject which he either did not understand, or willingly misrepresented; and is little more than an improvement, or rather expansion, of a fragment which Pope printed in a Miscellany long before he engrafted it into a regular poem. There is in this piece more pertness than wit, and more confidence than knowledge. The versification is tolerable, nor can criticism allow it a higher praise.
His first tragedy was "Eurydice," acted at Drury-lane, in 1731; of which I know not the reception nor the merit, but have heard it mentioned as a mean performance. He was not then too high to accept a prologue and epilogue from Aaron Hill, neither of which can be much commended.
Having cleared his tongue from his native pronunciation so as to be no longer distinguished as a Scot, he seems inclined to disencumber himself from all adherences of his original, and took upon him to change his name from Scotch Malloch to English Mallet, without any imaginable reason of preference which the eye or ear can discover. What other proofs he gave of disrespect to his native country, I know not; but it was remarked of him, that he was the only Scot whom Scotchmen did not commend.
About this time Pope, whom he visited familiarly, published his "Essay on Man," but concealed the author; and when Mallet entered one day, Pope asked him slightly what there was new. Mallet told him, that the newest piece was something called an "Essay on Man," which he had inspected idly, and seeing the utter inability of the author, who had neither skill in writing nor knowledge of the subject, had tossed it away. Pope, to punish his self-conceit, told him the secret.
A new edition of the works of Bacon being prepared (1750) for the press, Mallet was employed to prefix a life, which he has written with elegance, perhaps with some affectation; but with so much more knowledge of history than of science, that when he afterwards undertook the Life of Marlborough, Warburton remarked, that he might perhaps forget that Marlborough was a general, as he had forgotten that Bacon was a philosopher.
When the Prince of Wales was driven from the palace, and, setting himself at the head of the opposition, kept a separate court, he endeavoured to increase his popularity by the patronage of literature, and made Mallet his under-secretary, with a salary of two hundred pounds a year; Thomson likewise had a pension; and they were associated in the composition of "The Mask of Alfred," which in its original state was played at Cliefden in 1740; it was afterwards almost wholly changed by Mallet, and brought upon the stage at Drury-Lane in 1751, but with no great success.
Mallet, in a familiar conversation with Garrick, coursing of the diligence which he was then exerting upon the Life of Marlborough let him know, that, in the series of great men quickly to be exhibited, he should find a niche for the hero of the theatre. Garrick professed to wonder by what artifice he could be introduced; but Mallet let him know, that, by a dexterous anticipation, he should fix him in a conspicuous place. "Mr. Mallet," says Garrick, in his gratitude of exultation, "have you left off to write for the stage?" Mallet then confessed that he had a drama in his hands. Garrick promised to act it; and "Alfred" was produced.
The long retardation of the Life of the Duke of Marlborough, shews, with strong conviction, how little confidence can be placed in posthumous renown. When he died, it was soon determined that his story should be delivered to posterity; and the papers supposed to contain the necessary information were delivered to Lord Molesworth, who had been his favourite in Flanders. When Molesworth died, the same papers were transferred with the same design to Richard Steele, who in some of his exigences put them in pawn. They then remained with the old Dutchess, who in her will assigned the task to Glover and Mallet, with a reward of a thousand pounds, and a prohibition to insert any verses. Glover rejected, I suppose with disdain, the legacy, and devolved the whole work upon Mallet; who had from the late Duke of Marlborough a pension to promote his industry, and who talked of the discoveries which he had made; but left not, when he died, any historical labours behind him.
While he was in the Prince's service he published "Mustapha," with a Prologue by Thomson, not mean, but far inferior to that which he received from Mallet for "Agamem
non." The Epilogue, said to be written by a friend, was composed in haste by Mallet, in the place of one promised which was never given. This tragedy was dedicated to the Prince his master. It was acted at Drury-lane in 1739, and was well received, but was never revived.
In 1740, he produced, as has been already mentioned, "The Mask of Alfred," in conjunction with Thomson. For some time afterwards he lay at rest. After a long interval, his next work was "Amyntor and Theodora, (1747) a long story in blank verse; in which it cannot be denied that there is copiousness and elegance of language, vigour of sentiment, and imagery well adapted to take possession of the fancy. But it is blank verse. This he sold to Vaillant for one hundred and twenty pounds. The first sale was not great, and it is now lost in forgetfulness.
Mallet, by address or accident, perhaps by his dependence on the Prince, found his way to Bolingbroke; a man whose pride and petulance made his kindness difficult to gain, or keep, and whom Mallet was content to court by an act, which, i hope, was unwillingly performed. When it was found that Pope had clandestinely printed an unauthorized number of the pamphlet called "The Patriot King," Bolingbroke, in a fit of useless fury, resolved to blast his memory, and employed Mallet (1749) as the executioner of his vengeance. Mallet had not virtue, or had not spirit, to refuse the office; and was rewarded, not long after, with the legacy of Lord Bolingbroke's works.
Many of the political pieces had been written during the opposition to Walpole, and given to Franklin, as he supposed, in perpetuity. These, among the rest, were claimed by the will. The question was referred to arbitrators; but, when they decided against Mallet, he refused to yield to the award; and by the help of Millar the bookseller, published all that he could find, but with success very much below his expecta
In 1755, his mask of "Britannia" was acted at Drurylane; and his tragedy of "Elvira" in 1763; in which year he was appointed keeper of the book of entries for ships in the port of London.
In the beginning of the last war, when the nation was exasperated by ill success, he was employed to turn the public vengeance upon Byng, and wrote a letter of accusa