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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

§ 7. Tom Brown’s Amusements for the Meridian of London

Tom Brown followed hard upon the heels of Ned Ward, and, in his Amusements Serious and Comical Calculated for the Meridian of London, pictured the London that he saw, with less truth than Ward, and greater wit. London he recognises to be a world by itself, and he imagines “what an Indian would think of such a motley herd of people,” thus anticipating Macaulay’s imagined New Zealander. He sketches the city, and those whom he and his Indian encounter—the alderman, the usurer, the broker and the rest—with a good-humoured enthusiasm. For him, the playhouse is “an enchanted island.” When they walk in the Mall, he persuades his Indian to exclaim, “I never beheld in my life so great a flight of birds.” Much of the book is the comedy of the age translated into a light-fingered prose. Tom Brown finds it as hard as Ned Ward finds it to keep away from the taverns and gaming-houses, and, in his exposure of the many rascals who lay in waiting for the unwary traveller, he sets a fashion speedily followed in The Cheats of London and a vast library of similar chapbooks. He was, in truth, well fitted by character and training to do the work of Grub street. Educated at Christ Church, he won an instant fame by a pleasant trick of writing Latin verse, and it is said that many pieces were extant of his composition, bearing other names. Even in his youth, his cynic temper preferred money to fame, and no sooner had he left the university for London than he was ready to hire himself out to the highest bidder. Nothing came amiss to his facile brain. To show his touch with the classics, he translated Persius and mimicked Horace. The example of Rabelais was ever before him, and he followed John Phillips in imitating the prognostications of Pantagruel. His epigrams, in Latin or English, are rather coarse than witty. The best of his work is journalism, illuminated always by the light of scholarship. There is no topic so bare that he will not embroider it with tags from the classics. His favourite artifice was to indite letters from the dead to the living, an artifice which gave him the chance to ridicule “Tom” D’Urfey, “Joe” Harris the player, and even the great Dryden himself. The death of “the gallant Dundee” inspired him to imitate Cowley’s pindarics, though, as he said himself, he was ill acquainted with that kind of writing, He suffered at once from excessive praise and ill-deserved blame. “Without partiality, we may say,” wrote Sam Briscoe, his bookseller, “for satyrical Prose or Verse, Mr. Brown was not inferior to Petronius, Martial, or any other of the witty ancients.” These were his models, truly; but his works testify how far he fell short of their performance. On the other hand, a grave injustice was done to him, as it has been to many another, by the thoughtless, who fathered upon him “all the pamphlets good and bad, Lampoons, Trips, London Spies, and the like insignificant Trifles.” His lively humour won him the name of “Tom Brown the facetious” and the epithet, not wholly complimentary, still clings to him. The enemy, who said of him that “he had less the Spirit of a Gentleman than the rest, and more of a Scholar,” spiced his malice with the truth. What, indeed, had a gentleman to make in Grub street? However, with all his faults, Tom Brown was a real man of letters, who, had he not been “too lazy in his temper to write much would have builded himself a better monument.” In character, he was careless and independent. He did his best to live by his pen, and, when his pen failed him, he turned pedagogue. At no time would he rely upon the caprices of a patron. “I am one of the first of the Suburban class,” he boasted, “that has ventur’d out without making an application to a nobleman’s porter, and tiring him out with showing him his master’s name.” For the rest, he wrote the famous epigram upon Dr. Fell, and died, at last, repentant and absolved. He confessed on his death-bed that he had “complied too much with the Libertinism of the time,” and extorted a promise from his bookseller, who speedily went back upon his word, to expunge “all prophane, undecent passages” from his works, when he came to reprint them.

The career of Tom Brown is characteristic of Grub street and of his age. From one—incomparably the best—you may learn all. But, by a curious irony, neither poverty nor the bottle impaired the tireless industry of the hacks. Though the standard of style which they set up for themselves was not a high one, they never feared to put their talent to the test. They fought for causes good or evil with a kind of ferocity. None of them disdained the weapons of the wits. We have seen how Ned Ward expressed his opinions and his prejudices in Hudibrastic verse. The gathered pamphlets of Roger L’Estrange, written, for the most part, in defence of himself and the high church party, would fill a shelf. John Phillips, whom Milton trained for wiser purposes, disgraced himself for ever by selling a hireling pen to Titus Oates. If there is nothing so transient as dead controversy, it must yet be admitted that these writers were artists in their own style. Their skill in invective, their assumption of passionate conviction, their outspoken contempt for the enemy of the moment, cannot but claim our admiration. But in nothing did they display their marvellous energy so clearly as in the task of translation. Here, again, they recall the enterprise of the Elizabethans. They do not challenge comparison with their predecessors. They recognised that each age must look at the classics through its own eyes. They knew, also, that the France and Spain of their time had provided a treasure-house of masterpieces, which their skill and knowledge could unlock. And, when they had taken these masterpieces from their treasure-house, they did not scruple to trick them out in the familiar, parti-coloured style of their own Grub street.