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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

X. Writers of Burlesque and Translators

§ 6. Ned Ward’s Hudibras Redivivus, Vulgus Britannicus and London Spy

There is nothing that looks so easy as perfection, and the coffee-house poets, easily beguiled, thought it no shame to express themselves and their politics in Hudibrastic verse. If they could not rival the master, they could at least pretend to mimicry in halting octosyllables. The boldest of them all was Ned Ward, who combined the crafts of publican and poet. Born in Oxfordshire in 1667, he was, says his biographer, “of low extraction and little education.” Whatever his extraction may have been, he cleverly picked up his knowledge of letters as he went along. He did not scruple to call one of his books Vulgus Britannicus, and he believed in the singularity of “an Egyptian Magi.” In his youth, he had travelled in the West Indies, a fact commemorated by Pope, “or shipp’d with Ward to Ape and Monkey Lands.” But he early settled to the professions which suited him best. His first experiment in inn-keeping was made in Moorfields. He presently moved to Fulwood rents, where he opened a punch-shop and tavern, “but in a genteel way,” says Giles Jacob, “and with his wit, humour, and good liquor, has afforded his guests pleasurable entertainment.” Whatever he did was, doubtless, done in a “genteel way,” and the guests who found pleasure in his entertainment were, one and all, sound tories and high churchmen. A big, burly man, he showed a practical faith in his own ale and his own punch, and, while he gossiped at the fireside with his clients, never let a day pass without a verse:

  • So Ned, divided, writes and brews,
  • To try if darling gain accrues
  • More from his Mash-Tub than his Muse.
  • His mash-tub had the better of it. Not only did it fill his pocket; it did not put him into the pillory. Twice, for his muse’s sake, he faced the angry mob at the Royal Exchange and at Charing Cross. “As thick as eggs at Ward in Pillory,” says Pope; but his humour carried him safely through the vicissitudes of politics, and he died at his tavern, a prosperous potman and scurrile poet, in 1731.

    He was a journalist in verse. His Hudibras Redivivus is a gazette in rime, which was inspired by the moment, and was published in parts. The ingenious Ward begins his preface with an apology. “Tho’ I have made bold,” he says, “to borrow a Title from one of the best poems that ever was published in the English Tongue—yet I would not have the world expect me such a wizard as to conjure up the spirit of the inimitable Butler.” He need not have been in doubt. He was no wizard, but a pedestrian jogtrot writer of doggerel, whom criticism could not affright nor opposition baulk. Yet his Hudibras is a wonderful achievement. Its facile fluent ease marks the versifier who could write two hundred lines standing on one foot. His language is common enough. Neither Brown nor Motteux surpasses him in knowledge of the slang which was heard in the tavern or at the street corner. Had he lived to-day, he might have been an ornament of the sporting press. Living when he did, he supported the cause of church and state in such couplets as jingled in the brain, and tripped readily to the tongue.

    For popular government he had a hearty contempt

  • For he that will oblige the throng,
  • Must ne’er hold one opinion long,
  • But turn his doctrine and his creed,
  • As often as the Cause has need.
  • Among those upon whom he poured out his contempt are “prophet Dan” with “the scoundrel Freedom of his Pen,” all whigs and all dissenters. He believed, like an eminent statesman, that the one object of the whigs was to make themselves “masters for life” of England and all that it contained:
  • A man of sense, with half an Eye,
  • (Says he) may easily descry,
  • Thro’ all their conscientious Cant,
  • What in reality they want;
  • Which is, believe me, in a word,
  • All that the Kingdom can afford.
  • Compromise he hated, and impartiality. He professed a deep distrust of moderation, which was no better in his eye than a “modish cant,” with which fools disguise “their spite, their venom, and their lies.” The book is tedious in its facility. It weighs upon the reader’s spirit with the heaviness of all dead controversies. Even where he protests against the debtors’ prison, where
  • men for poverty alone
  • Must wear these doublets made of stone,
  • he wins your reluctant approval. He is at his best when he describes the taverns and shops of the town, their picturesque signs, and the strange characters who throng the streets, the campaign wenches and the ale-wives, the lame mumpers and the disabled seamen. Here, he spoke with an authority which none of his colleagues in Grub street could rival. If he had but a casual acquaintance with the English tongue, he knew London and its slang like the tavern keeper that he was. Whatever were his shortcomings, his industry was prodigious. Vulgus Britannicus rivalled his Hudibras in dulness and prolixity. The Republican Procession, in which, among others, he ridicules Marlborough, “a great Pretender to the trick of State,” is merry only on the title-page. He poured forth broadsides, satires, prose and verse with an equal hand. Impartially, he sang the praises of a Derby-Ale-House and the New Tunbridge Wells at Islington. The love of good living and high principles breathes in all that he wrote. The pity is that a sound inspiration found so poor and graceless an expression. Now and then, he could sing a song in the true Rabelaisian strain, as in his Wine and Wisdom: or the Tipling Philosophers:
  • Wise Thales the Father of all
  • The Greek Philosophicall Crew,
  • Ere he gaz’d at the Heavens, would call
  • For a chirruping Bottle or two.
  • In fifty stanzas, he thus extolled what was, assuredly, the more profitable of his two trades, and, for the moment, endowed his doggerel with a rollicking sincerity.

    It is, as has been said, by his sketches of Londonand its streets that Ned Ward saves his Hudibrastic experiments from dulness, and there, in the sights and sounds about him, he found the material best suited to his talent. Whatever disloyalty the hacks of Grub street may have shown to the English language, they were constant in their devotion to the London, which was their world. Ned Ward, in his London Spy, and Tom Brown, in his Amusements Serious and Comical, have bequeathed to us a picture of the town whose merit is wholly independent of literature. They are the true descendants of Dekker and Nashe, from whom they are separated by less than a century of time. Between them are many centuries of style and thought. The London which Dekker and Nashe describe is enwrapped in an atmosphere of dark mystery and impenetrable gloom. They see the seven deadly sins ever before them, and deplore the iniquity of their city with the solemn eloquence of prophets. Satire is their lightest weapon. They condemn even where they admire. It is in no spirit of flippancy that Dekker denounces the cruelty of this “now once-againe New-reared Troy.” Nashe’s voice is the voice of a sincerely repentant sinner. “London,” he cries, “lay off thy gorgeous attire and cast downe thy selfe before God in contrition and prayer, least hee cast thee downe in his indignation into hell-fire.”

    Ned Ward and Tom Brown could not look upon the life about them with the grave eyes of their predecessors. It was not for them to be censorious or to hope for better things. If only the city of their habitation were a place of pleasant resort, they cared not for its morals. And they wrote of it in the easy style of the trained reporter. Their temperament in no sense diminishes the value of their sketch. They have shown us a London infinitely more supple, infinitely commoner and, at the same time, far closer to our own than the London of Dekker and Nashe. The cockney with his nimbler wit and paltrier ideals had intervened, and fixed for all time certain lineaments of the city. No longer is it dominated by gallant or beau or gull. Those who throng the taverns of the time are either impostors, such as Radcliffe paints in The Ramble, or mere citizens meanly ambitious of cutting a dash. In brief, it seems perfectly consonant with the prevailing manners that Ned Ward should keep an ale-house, or that Motteux, the translator of Rabelais, should desert literature for the selling of China goods.

    The London Spy is, undoubtedly, Ward’s masterpiece. After two centuries, it still keeps the fresh stamp of truth. Its design, if design it may be called, is of the simplest. A citizen, who, “after a tedious confinement in a country Hutt,” breaking loose from “the scholar’s gaol, his study,” revisits London. There he meets an old schoolfellow, who shows him the sights, and especially the taverns, of the town. It is a Gull’s Hornbook of another age, written with a plain simplicity, and with scarce a touch of satire. The two friends range from Billingsgate, where they observe the “oars” and “scullers,” who tout by the waterside, and note “the stink of sprats and the unteneable clamours of the wrangling society,” to Hummun’s Turkish bath. They wander from the Quaker’s tavern in Fish lane to that hideous inferno the Poultry compter, from the Wits’ coffee-house, where the cockney sketches for his friend a character of the modern poets, to Bartholomew Fair, now stripped of its glory. By the way, they encounter many strange personages, such as the highwayman, who “has good friends in Newgate,” and is “well acquainted with the ostlers about Bishopsgate and Smithfield, and gains from them intelligence of what booties go out that are worth attempting.” The book is written with a directness and simplicity which command belief, and ends, as in duty bound, with a description of the death and funeral of Dryden, who was the master of them all, and who impressed his laws upon his liege subjects, like the dictator that he was.