Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by William Ernest Henley
John Byrom (16921763)
[John Byrom, born at Kearsale, near Manchester, was educated partly at Merchant Taylors and partly at Trinity College, Cambridge. For some time he read medicine. Afterwards he practised and taught stenography. Then the paternal estate fell in to him, and he removed from London to Manchester, where he lived in great repute for many years, and died in 1763. His poems were published at Manchester in two volumes.]
BYROMS is a figure rather curious than notable, rather amiable than striking. He had many turns and accomplishments, and many holds upon life. He loved learning, for instance, and had scholarship enough to write with point upon scholarly subjects. Again, it is certain that he was a man who could love; for he gave over medicine and the chance of medical honours merely to follow up and win the lady he was wooing to wife. Then, as became Westons successful rival, the teacher who had improved upon Westons own system, and had Hoadley and Chesterfield for his pupils, he was keenly interested in stenography, and not only lectured on it to his classes (his lectures, by the way, are said to have been full of matter and of wit), but read papers about it before the Royal Society. Also, he was curiously versed in theology and philosophical divinity; he held advanced opinions on the dogmas of predestination and imputed righteousness; he is known for a disciple of William Law, a student of Malebranche and Madame Bourignon, a follower of Jacob Boehmen, for whose sake he learned German, and some of whose discourse he was at the pains of running into English verse. And above all was he addicted to letters and the practice of what he was pleased to think poetry. Add to this, that he was a good and cheerful talker, whose piety was not always pun-proof (Hic jacet Doctor Byfield, volatilis olim, tandem fixus), but who was capable on occasion of right and genuine epigram, and the picture is complete. As revealed in it, Byrom is the very type and incarnation of the ingenious amateur.
Verse was his organ; he wrote it more easily and delightedly than prose. From his schooldays onwards, when, as he declares, a line of metre was more to him than a dozen themes, down to the last hours of his life,
Him, numbers flowing in a measured time,
Him, sweetest grace of English verse, the rhyme,
Choice epithet and smooth descriptive line,
Conspiring all to finish one design,
Smit with delight
and as that delight usually took on palpable shape, it appears to us expressed in more epistles, songs, pastorals, hymns, essays, satires and epigrams, than nowadays one cares to consider. Nothing came amiss to Byrom in the way of subject. He was interested in everything, and said his say about everything; and that say was always in metre. It was alike in metre that he sang the praises of Joanna Bentley, the Phoebe of his first pastoral, and did battle with Comberbatch in the good cause of Rhyme against Blank Verse; alike in metre that he recorded the gaieties of Tunbridge and the dangers of the Epping stage, the grisly glories of the heroic Figgso fierce and sedateand the solemn charm of Eastertide and the Nativity. It was in metre that he confuted Middleton, differed from Hervey, emended Horace and Homer, discoursed on the nature of Pentecost, expounded William Law, and explained the Mystical Cobbler. It was in metre that he anatomised beaux and astrologers, made fables and apologies and epigrams, criticised verses and theologies, spoke breaking-up addresses, painted the free and happy workman, and set forth the kindred mysteries of poesy and shorthand. He prattled incessantly, and always in numbers. Not otherwise than in a copy of verses could he define the nature and characteristics of enthusiasm; not otherwise could he submit to the Royal Society his theory that George the Cappadocian had somehow been foisted into the place of Gregory the Roman as Englands patron saint. To respect him it is really necessary to remember that he wrote chiefly for his own amusement and his friends, and published but a little of the much that he produced.
It is evident that he had read Prior, though not to the best advantage; it is evident, too, that he had read not only Pope, but the metaphysical poets as well; and the poem of Careless Content, here given, is so good an imitation that it has been supposed to be a genuine Elizabethan production. His chief quality is one of ease and fluency; in combination with a certain cheerful briskness of thought and the amiable good sense that is the most striking element in his intellectual composition, it is to be found here and there in all he did. Unhappily for him and for us, it appears to have been as hard for him to correct as it was easy to write. Too often do his verses sound emptily to modern ear
The art of English poetry, I find,
At present, Jenkins, occupies your mind
too often do they set modern fingers itching to shape and improve them. It follows that he is seen to most advantage when, upon compulsion of his stanza, he is at his briefest and most careful. It is not without reason, therefore, that he is generally known but as the author of the sly and amiable quatrain of benediction alike on King and Pretender. That is the mans highest point as an artist; it is at once his happiest and most complete utterance; and the body of his verse will be searched in vain for such another proof of merit and accomplishment.