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THOMAS LOVE PEACOCK. (1785–1866.)
Thomas LovE PEAcock was the last and one of the best of the convivial poets and masters of the English drinking song. The following has been called by critics of the highest order the perfection in that sort of writing :
If I drink water while this doth last,
And though a good wish will fill no dish,
Miss Agnes Repplier, in one of her most charming essays, says of this song, that it is “at
once the kindest and the most scandalous that
poet ever wrote—a song which is the final, definite, unrepentant expression of heterodoxy.” Another of Peacock's songs is “ The Ghost,”
In life three ghostly friars were we,
ghosts are we ;
With songs that jovial specters chaunt
ghosts are we ;
It is probable that there are not many readers of Peacock's novels and poems in these days, but it is their loss. “Headlong Hall,” “Nightmare Abbey,” “Melincourt,” “Maid Marian,” “Crotchet Castle,” and “Gryll Grange ’’ are more familiar by their names possibly than by their contents, and I am not certain they were ever very widely read. They are not for all tastes any more than are olives and caviare. Thomas Love Peacock was born at Weymouth, in England, in 1785. He was almost entirely self-educated, having left school when he was thirteen. And yet he became exceptionally well-read in Greek, Latin, Italian, and French. His father died when he was three years old and he was brought up by his mother and maternal grandfather, Thomas Love, a retired naval officer, after whom he was named. At the age of nineteen he went to London to write poetry and study in the British Museum. He seems to have never studied for a profession. He was fond of solitary pedestrian tours and in one of his walks in Wales met the lady who subsequently became his wife, and on another occasion met the Shelleys—the poet and his first wife, Harriet. He and Shelley became warm and intimate friends, as Shelley's correspondence reveals. The character of Scythrop in Peacock's novel, “Nightmare Abbey,” is drawn from
Shelley. The novel was written in 1818 and Shelley read it in Italy and wrote to Peacock as follows:
I am delighted with “Nightmare Abbey.” I think Scythrop a character admirably conceived and executed; and I know not how to praise sufficiently the lightness, chastity, and strength of the language of the whole. It perhaps exceeds all your works in this. The catastrophe is excellent.
To those who have not read the story it may be said that Scythrop is a youth possessed with the desire to reform the world. He falls in love with two women at the same time, is drawn toward one and then toward the other, loses both and is always a dreamer.
In a letter to Mrs. Gisborne, Shelley says of Peacock:
His fine wit
Peacock's satire was, as a rule, not harsh. He hated stupidity, he hated vulgarity, and he hated a fool and bore, and he had no hesitation in saying
His novels can hardly be called novels, but rather a series of fantastic and sarcastic conversations, with the slightest possible thread of a story running through them. He brings together a number of people who have knowledge, wit, learning, high spirits, love of music, pictures, books, and fond of good eating and drinking. Among them are enthusiasts and cranks on all sorts of subjects, religious, political, and social, and brilliant conversation abounds, containing a good deal of wisdom and not a little satire on the follies and foibles of well-known public characters, such as Shelley, Bryon, Coleridge, Sydney Smith, Lord Brougham, Lord John Russell, Canning, Wordsworth and Southey.
In the novel just referred to, “Nightmare Abbey,” we have, in addition to Scythrop, Mr. Cypress, who is Lord Byron, and Mr. Skioner, who is drawn from Coleridge. Mr. Cypress writes a poem which is a hit at Byron's style:
There is a fever of the spirit,