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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.
The Library of the World’s Best Literature. An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By George Canning (1770–1827)

THE POLITICAL history of this famous British statesman is told by Robert Bell (1846), by F. H. Hill (English Worthies Series), and in detail by Stapleton (his private secretary) in ‘Political Life of Canning.’ He became a friend of Pitt in 1793, entered the House of Commons in 1794, was made Under-Secretary of State in 1796, was Treasurer of the Navy from 1804 to 1806, Minister for Foreign Affairs from 1807 till 1809, Ambassador to Lisbon from 1814 to 1816, again at the head of foreign affairs in 1822, and was made Premier in 1827, dying under the labor of forming his Cabinet.

Soon after his birth in London, April 11th, 1770, his disinherited father died in poverty, and his mother became an unsuccessful actress. An Irish actor, Moody, took young Canning to his uncle, Stratford Canning, in London, who adopted him and sent him to Eton, where he distinguished himself for his wit and literary talent. With his friends John and Robert Smith, John Hookham Frere, and Charles Ellis, he published a school magazine called The Microcosm, which attracted so much attention that Knight the publisher paid Canning £50 for the copyright. It was modeled on the Spectator, ridiculed modes and customs, and was a unique specimen of juvenile essay-writing. A fifth edition of the Microcosm was published in 1825. Subsequently Canning studied at Oxford. He died August 8th, 1827, at Chiswick (the residence of the Duke of Devonshire), in the same room and at the same age as Fox, and under similar circumstances; and he was buried in Westminster Abbey by the side of William Pitt.

It was not until 1798 that he obtained his great reputation as a statesman and orator. Every one agrees that his literary eloquence, wit, beauty of imagery, taste, and clearness of reasoning, were extraordinary. Byron calls him “a genius—almost a universal one; an orator, a wit, a poet, and a statesman.” As a public speaker, we may picture him from Lord Dalling’s description:—

  • “Every day, indeed, leaves us fewer of those who remember the clearly chiseled countenance, which the slouched hat only slightly concealed; the lip satirically curled; the penetrating eye, peering along the Opposition benches, of the old Parliamentary leader in the House of Commons. It is but here and there that we find a survivor of the old days to speak to us of the singularly mellifluous and sonorous voice, the classical language,—now pointed with epigram, now elevated into poetry, now burning with passion, now rich with humor,—which curbed into still attention a willing and long-broken audience.”
  • As a statesman his place is more dubious. Like every English politician not born to a title, however,—Burke is an instance,—he was ferociously abused as a mere mercenary adventurer because his livelihood came from serving the public. The following lampoon is a specimen; the chief sting lies not in Canning’s insolent mockery,—“Every time he made a speech he made a new and permanent enemy,” it was said of him,—but in his not being a rich nobleman.

  • Not a woman, child, or man in
  • All this isle that loves thee, Canning.
  • Fools, whom gentle manners sway,
  • May incline to Castlereagh;
  • Princes who old ladies love
  • Of the Doctor may approve;
  • Chancery lords do not abhor
  • Their chatty, childish Chancellor;
  • In Liverpool, some virtues strike,
  • And little Van’s beneath dislike.
  • But thou, unamiable object,
  • Dear to neither prince nor subject,
  • Veriest, meanest scab for pelf
  • Fastening on the skin of Guelph,
  • Thou, thou must surely loathe thyself.
  • But his dominant taste was literary. His literature helped him to the field of statesmanship; as a compensation, his statesmanship is obscured by his literature. Bell says of him:—

  • “Canning’s passion for literature entered into all his pursuits. It colored his whole life. Every moment of leisure was given up to books. He and Pitt were passionately fond of the classics, and we find them together of an evening after a dinner at Pitt’s, poring over some old Grecian in a corner of the drawing-room while the rest of the company are dispersed in conversation…. In English writings his judgment was pure and strict; and no man was a more perfect master of all the varieties of composition. He was the first English Minister who banished the French language from our diplomatic correspondence and indicated before Europe the copiousness and dignity of our native tongue.”
  • Part of the time that he was Foreign Secretary, Chateaubriand held the like post for France, and Canning devoted much attention to giving his diplomatic correspondence a literary polish which has made these national documents famous. He also formed an intimate friendship with Sir Walter Scott, founding with him and Ellis the Quarterly Review, to which he contributed with the latter a humorous article on the bullion question.

    In literature Canning takes his place from his association with the Anti-Jacobin, a newspaper established in 1797 under the secret auspices of Pitt as a literary organ to express the policy of the administration,—similar to the Rolliad, the Whig paper published a few years before this date; but more especially to oppose revolutionary sentiment and ridicule the persons who sympathized with it. The house of Wright, its publisher in Piccadilly, soon became the resort of the friends of the Ministry and the staff, which included William Gifford, the editor,—author of the ‘Baviad’ and ‘Mæviad,’—John Hookham Frere, George Ellis, Canning, Mr. Jenkinson (afterward Earl of Liverpool), Lord Clare, Lord Mornington (afterward Lord Wellesley), Lord Morpeth (afterward Earl of Carlisle), and William Pitt, who contributed papers on finance.

    The Anti-Jacobin lived through thirty-six weekly numbers, ending July 16th, 1796. Its essays and poetry have little significance to-day except for those who can imagine the stormy political atmosphere of the Reign of Terror, which threatened to extend its rule over the whole of Europe. Hence the torrents of abuse and the violent attacks upon any one tainted with the slightest Sans-culottic tone may be understood.

    The greater number of poems in the Anti-Jacobin are parodies, but not exclusively political ones. The ‘Loves of the Triangles’ is a parody on Dr. Erasmus Darwin’s ‘Loves of the Plants,’ and contains an amusing contest between Parabola, Hyperbola, and Ellipsis for the love of the Phœnician Cone; the ‘Progress of Man’ is a parody of Payne Knight’s ‘Progress of Civil Society’; the ‘Inscription for the Cell of Mrs. Brownrigg’ a parody of Southey; and ‘The Rovers,’ of which one scene is given below, is a burlesque on the German dramas then in fashion. This was written by Canning, Ellis, Frere, and Gifford, and the play was given at Covent Garden in 1811 with great success, especially the song of the captive Rogero. ‘The Needy Knife-Grinder,’ also quoted below, a parody of Southey’s ‘Sapphics,’ is by Canning and Frere. The poetry of the Anti-Jacobin was collected and published by Charles Edmonds (London, 1854), in a volume that contains also the original verses which are exposed to ridicule. Canning’s public speeches, edited by R. Therry, were published in 1828.