Volume 1, Chapter 04
Volume 1, Chapter 04
IN this place I feel inclined to relate one of those stories of ingenious intellectual victory, as they considered them, of dull and unfeeling brutality, as they really were, in which too many of my college contemporaries prided themselves. A young man, during my residence at the university, entered himself of our college, who was judged by the gayer Oxonians singularly weir formed to be the butt of their ridicule. The dress in which he made his appearance among us was ungainly and ludicrous: the flaps of his waistcoat extended to his knees, and those of his coat almost to his heels: his black, coarse, shining hair, parted on the forehead, was every where of equal length, and entirely buried his ears beneath its impervious canopy. He had hitherto been brought up in solitude under the sole direction of his father, a country clergyman ; but he was an excellent classic scholar and a mathematician, and his manners were the most innocent and unsuspecting that it is possible to imagine. In addition to these qualities, he had an exalted opinion of his own intellectual accomplishments; and he had brought with him, among his other treasures, the offspring of his stripling meditations, a tragedy founded on the story of the Fifth Labor of Hercules. In this performance the contents of the Augean stable were set out in great pomp of description; the ordure which had accumulated in thirty years from the digestion and dejection of three thousand oxen was amplified and spread out to the fancy ; and Withers (this was the name of the poet) might be said, like Virgil, to " fling about his dung with an air of majesty." The tragedy opened with a pathetic lamentation between the groom and the herdsman of the king, respecting the melancholy condition of the stable, and the difficulty of keeping the cattle which were so unroyally lodged in any creditable appearance. A herald then entered with a proclamation, declaring that three hundred of the king's oxen should be the prize of him who should restore the stable to a wholesome and becoming state. The chorus next sang an ode, in which they exposed the miseries of procrastination, and declared that none but a demigod could accomplish the task which had so long been postponed. In the second act Hercules appeared, and offered to undertake the arduous operation. He has an audience of the king, who dwells upon the greatness of the effort, and exposes, in a loftier style, what had already been described by his servants in familiar verse, the filth the hero would have to encounter. Hercules answers modestly, and enters into the history of the four labors he had already accomplished. The bargain is struck ; and the chorus admire the form and port of the hero, and pray for his success. The third act begins with expressing the general terror and astonishment. Hercules removes the oxen from their stalls; and then a mighty rushing sound is heard of the river leaving its ancient bounds, and pouring its tide through the noisome and infectious walls. The rest of the play consisted of the arguments on the part of the king and of the hero, as to whether Hercules had fulfilled his engagement ; and the punishment of the tyrant. Here many hints were borrowed from the contention of Ajax and Ulysses in Ovid, respecting the preference of wisdom and ingenuity over brute force King Augeas insisting that the nuisance should have been displaced with shovel and wheelbarrow ; while Hercules with great eloquence maintained that to remove the whole evil at once, by changing the course of a river, was a more wonderful and meritorious achievement.
This tragedy soon became a source of inexhaustible amusement to the wits and satirists of our college. One of the drollest and demurest of the set had first wormed himself into the confidence of Withers, and extorted from him his secret, and then, under the most solemn engagements not to name the matter to a living creature, obtained the loan of this choice morsel of scenic poetry. He had no sooner gained possession of it, than he gave notice to four or five of his associates ; and they assembled the same evening, to enjoy over a bottle the treasure they had purloined. It must be owned that the subject of the drama was particularly calculated to expose the effusions of its author to their ridicule. The solemn phrases, and the lofty ornaments, with which every thing was expressed, afforded a striking contrast to the filth and slime which constituted the foundation of the piece. A topic of this sort, however slightly mentioned, must appear low and absurd ; but, when the dung, accumulated in thirty years, by three thousand oxen, together with the solemn engagement between a demigod and a king for its removal, is set out in all the pomp of verse, the man must be more sad than Heraclitus, and more severe than Cato, who could resist the propensity to laughter at the hearing of such a tale. In the present case, where every joyous companion was predetermined to find materials for merriment, the peals of laughter were obstreperous and innumerable ; many passages were encored by the unanimous voice of the company ; and, in conclusion, the scoffer, who had obtained for them their present amusement, was deputed to procure them the higher and more exquisite gratification of bearing the piece gravely declaimed to them by its author.
Accordingly, in a few days, he waited on Withers with a grave and melancholy face, manuscript in hand, and confessed, that by a very culpable neglect, he had fallen into a breach of the engagement he had made to the author on receiving it. He then named a young man of ingenuity and fancy in the same college, who had obtained considerable notoriety by several pieces of fugitive poetry, which were much admired at Oxford. Withers had heard of him, and felt that respect which might naturally be expected for a brother of his own vocation. Morrison, the jester, added, that this votary of the muses, arid himself, were upon so intimate terms, that each had a key to the other's chamber; that he, not recollecting this at the moment, had left the manuscript, - being called away by a particular occasion, open upon his desk, had locked the door, and departed ; and that the poet, arriving soon after, had discovered, and seized with avidity, the Fifth Labor of Hercules.
Withers was greatly distressed at this tale. He had those feelings of modesty, which, under certain modifications, are most incident to such persons as ax pervaded with an anticipation of their future eminence. He did not pretend, however, to blame his friend for a fault into which be seemed so innocently to have fallen, and which he so ingenuously confessed. On the other hand, Morrison soothed the dramatist, by describing to him the transports of admiration with which the poet had been impressed in the perusal of this virgin tragedy.
While they were yet in conversation, the poet knocked at the chamber-door. The verses of this young man, Frewen by name, were not deficient in merit, or even in delicacy; but his features were harsh and his manners coarse. He began with saying, that he could by no means deny himself the pleasure of soliciting the acquaintance and friendship of a youth, to whose mind he had the vanity to believe his own was in so many respects congenial. He then launched out in rapturous praise of the Fifth Labor of Hercules. Seeing the manuscript on the table, he requested permission to open it, and point out to the author one or two places which had struck him as particularly excellent. He then read part of a speech from King Augeas' groom, and that with such emphasis of delivery, and seeming enthusiasm of intonation, as might have persuaded the most skeptical bystander that be was really smitten with approbation of the verses he pronounced. The eyes of Withers glistened with joy. His self-love had never experienced so rich a treat. Frewen then proceeded to descant, with great ingenuity, upon certain metaphors and ornaments of style interspersed through the composition; showing how happily they were chosen, how skillfully adapted, how vigorously expressed, and how original they were in the conception ; and, though some of the clauses he fixed upon were to such a degree absurd, that the poet himself, when he heard them thus insulated from their connection, began to suspect that all was not right, yet the remarks of his panegyrist were so subtle, and above all, were delivered with an air of such perfect sincerity, that he finished with being completely the dupe his false friends bad purposed to make him. In conclusion, Mr. Frewen observed that he bad a select party of friends, whom he was accustomed to make judges of his own productions ; and he earnestly entreated Withers that he would no longer conceal his talent, but would condescend to recite the tragedy he had written, to the same circle.
Withers unaffectedly shrunk back, with the diffidence of a young man, who had never yet, in so striking a manner, burst the bounds of modesty ; but, urged alternately by the solicitations and the encomiums of his tempters, he suffered them to " wring from him his slow consent." A day was then to be fixed. He refused to make it the same evening : he confessed to his visiters that it would be an unprecedented exertion to him, and that he must string up his mind to the task: it was ultimately fixed for the day following.
In the interval Withers had many qualms.
He felt the sort of arrogance which was implied, in the seating himself in the chair of honor, fixing the eyes of different persons, strangers, upon him, and calling their attention to the effusions of his brain, as to something worthy of their astonishment. He recollected the faults of his poem, the places where he had himself doubted, whether be had not embraced a Sycorax instead of an angel. He recollected his youth and inexperience, and the temerity of which he had in reality been guilty, in undertaking, in his first essay, to celebrate, perhaps, the most prodigious of the labors of the immortal Hercules. He remembered what he bad somewhere heard, of the satirical and malicious turn of the elder Oxonians, and feared to become their butt. On the other hand, he called to mind the beauties of his poem, and was encouraged. Above all, he considered his character and fortitude as at stake, in the engagement be had contracted, and was determined, at every hazard, to complete it.
The evening arrived; the company assembled ; the unhappy poet, the victim of their ridicule, was introduced. Mr. Frewen, at his entrance, took him by the hand, led him into the middle of the room, made a short oration in his praise, and, in the name of the company, thanked him for his condescension, in admitting them to such a pleasure as they were about to receive. After a variety of grimaces on the part of the persons present, the manuscript was laid on the table. The poet took it up to read ; but, in the first line, his voice failed him, he turned pale, and was obliged to desist. Morrison his original seducer, and another, had so placed their chairs, that their countenances and action could not be perceived by the reader, they being partly behind him: they winked the eye, and pointed the finger to each other, and by various gestures endeavored to heighten the entertainment of the party. The table was covered with bottles and glasses. Frewen, when he saw the unaffected marks of Withers's distress, began to feel an impulse of compunction ; but he knew that such an impulse would render him for ever contemptible to the present society, and he suppressed it. He filled Withers a bumper, which he obliged him to take off; he snatched the play from his hand, and read with much gravity and articulation, the opening speech from the stable-keeper to the herdsman, in which the former bewails the miserable state of the stalls, and, not knowing what to quarrel with, shows himself ready to quarrel with his fellow-officer, laments that there are such animals as oxen, or that oxen cannot live but by food and digestion. This speech was received with bursts of applause, and Frewen particularly commended the "long majestic march and energy divine" of the concluding verse. The poet was encouraged; lie had had time to reason with himself, and recover his fortitude ; Frewen restored to him his manuscript, filled him another bumper, and the scene commenced.
That my readers may more exactly understand the spirit of the transaction, I will insert here a part of the chorus at the end of the third act, with which the auditors pretended to be especially struck:--
One apology may be made for the contrivers of this scene, that they by no means foresaw, in the outset, how far they should be drawn in to go, and the serious evils of which they might become authors. The purpose of the auditors was, under extravagant and tumultuous expressions of applause, to smother the indications of their ridicule and contempt. In this, however, they could not uniformly succeed. A phrase of a ludicrous nature in the piece, an abrupt fall from what was elevated to something meanly familiar or absurd, would sometimes unexpectedly occur, and produce a laughter that could not be restrained. Nor would the feelings allied to laughter always occur in the right place. Persons eager in search of the ludicrous, will often find it in an image, or a mode of expression, which by others, not debauched with this prepossession, would be found fraught with pleasing illustration and natural sentiment. The circle, too, assembled on this occasion, acted by sympathy upon each other, and pointed many a joke, and gave vigor to many a burlesque idea, which, perhaps, to any one of the associates, in his retirement, would have appeared unworthy to move a risible muscle.
For a short time the jesters, who had made Withers their prey, observed a certain degree of decorum. They bit their lips, affectedly raised their eyes, applied the finger to the mouth, the nose, or the forehead, and thus pacified and appeased their propensities to ridicule. One and another incessantly showed themselves lavish in commendation of the beauties of the poem ; and with every compliment the glass of Withers was filled, and he was excited to drink. Presently the laugh, imperfectly suppressed, broke out in one solitary convulsion, and was then disguised in a cough, or an effort to sneeze. The dumb gestures of the auditors were unperceived by the reader, who for the most part kept his eyes on the paper, and but rarely ventured, when he came, to some bolder flight, to look round him for applause. Then the countenances of the hearers suddenly fell, and their limbs were at once composed into serenity. This transition produced an effect singularly humorous, but which was wholly lost upon Withers, who had the misfortune to be purblind.
By and by an outrageous laugh burst forth at once from one of the audience. The poor novice, their victim, started, as if be had trod on a serpent. Frewen, making a motion to him to be tranquil, addressed the offender with much apparent gravity, and begged to know what he could find ludicrous in the passage which had just been read, at the same time repeating the two last lines with a full and lofty voice. The culprit, as soon as be could resume his seriousness, humbly sued for pardon, and declared that he laughed at nothing in the poem, of which no one could be a sincerer admirer, but that his fancy had been tickled at the sight of a corkscrew (picking it up), which had just dropped from Jack Jones's pocket. This apology was admitted. In a few minutes the same person broke out into an equally loud and clamorous fit of merriment, in which he was now joined by two or three others. Greater anger, as the tumult subsided, was expressed toward him ; a more bungling and imperfect apology was tendered; and Frewen offered, if Mr. Withers required it, to turn the culprit out of the
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