Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
James Ralph (c. 17051762)
THE EARLIEST mention of this person is in the memoirs of Franklin, who describes him as one of his youthful associates in Philadelphia, ingenuous and shrewd, genteel in his address, extremely eloquent, and the most agreeable speaker he ever met with. Ralph had, at this early period of his life shown his inclination for poetry by the production of several small pieces, and was so bent upon the pursuit, that he was disposed to abandon his occupation and devote himself wholly to the muses. Full of the lofty anticipations and the confidence of youth, he dreamed of nothing but success, and imagined both fame and fortune to be within his reach. Franklin and his other friends endeavored to cure him of his poetical passion, by assuring him that he had no genius for the business, and would do much better to stick to his trade; but the effect of these representations was totally destroyed by the following incident. Franklin and Ralph, with two other young men, named Watson and Osborne, had agreed each to write a portion of verses for mutual remark, criticism, and correction, by way of amusement and the improvement of their style. Franklin having little inclination for the business, neglected his, and agreed to offer Ralphs performance as his own, in aid of a design of this last to secure the approbation of Osborne, Ralph imagining that Osborne depreciated his talents from personal envy alone. The stratagem succeeded to his wish. Osborne and the other commended the piece in the highest terms, and Ralph had the satisfaction of hearing his verses receive the warm admiration of the person who had been the foremost to deny his poetical talent. He made known the trick, enjoyed his triumph, and was fixed in his determination to become a poet.
Shortly after this, Franklin embarked for England, and Ralph accompanied him on his voyage with the ostensible purpose of establishing himself in the mercantile commission business, but as Franklin afterwards learnt, to get away from his wife, with whose parents he had fallen out. On their arrival in London, Ralph and Franklin lived together in the strictest intimacy. Ralph met some of his relations, but none of them were able to assist him, and his money being gone he began to look about for employment. Thinking himself possessed of talents for the stage, he resolved to turn actor, but the person to whom he applied succeeded in persuading him that he had no prospect of success in such a line. He then proposed to a London bookseller to write a weekly paper in the manner of the Spectator, but without any better result. He next tried to procure employment as a copyist, of the lawyers and stationers about the Temple, in which attempt he likewise failed. Finally he succeeded in obtaining the care of a school in a small village in Berkshire, but continuing to indulge in his dreams of future greatness, he resolved upon a precaution that his exercise of what he considered so ignoble an office should not be known afterward; and therefore changed his name, and as Franklin remarks, did him the honor to assume his. He continued to correspond with Franklin at London, and sent him fragments of an epic poem he was composing, for his criticism and correction. Franklin lent him this assistance, but accompanied his good offices with the advice to give up his literary pursuits, and seconded his entreaties by transmitting him a part of one of Youngs satires upon the folly of cultivating the muses with a hope of rising in the world. This had no effect; he kept on writing his poem, and sent it piece after piece by the post.
Sometime after, a breach occurred between him and Franklin, the occasion of which is related in the memoirs of the latter. No further particulars are known of him except that he became a political writer, and was patronized by some distinguished persons in public affairs. He wrote a poem called Sawney, very abusive, according to Warburton, of Swift, Gay, and Pope, for which he was put into the Dunciad. Another poem of his, entitled Night, is mentioned in the notes to Pope. We have never seen either of these performances.
The work which he wrote upon his first arrival in England, and got Franklin to correct for him, was probably Zeuma, or the Love of Liberty, printed in London in 1729. This is an heroic poem in three books in blank verse, which celebrates the resistance of a fabulous South American chieftain against the Spanish invaders. The story has little merit on the score of invention, and is executed in a style sufficiently negligent. Warburton vilifies Ralph as a person totally illiterate, and we should judge by this production of his early years, that he had not formed his taste by a very careful study. Still there is something of a poetical spirit about him.