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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

V. Thomson and Natural Description in Poetry

§ 14. Lyttelton’s Dialogues of the Dead and other Writings

As he looks from Edge-Hill to the distant Cotswolds, Jago refers to the Monody written by George Lyttelton in 1747 to the memory of his wife, Lucy Fortescue, whose home was at Ebrington near Chipping Campden. Lyttelton, the son of Sir Thomas Lyttelton of Hagley, Worcestershire, was the friend of Pope, Thomson and Shenstone, and his house at Hagley was a favourite resort of men of letters. His life was largely political. Born in 1709, and educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, he made the usual grand tour, and entered parliament as member for Okehampton in 1735. He was a prominent supporter of the “patriotic” party against Walpole, and, after Walpole’s fall, became a lord of the treasury. In 1751, he succeeded to his father’s baronetcy, and, in 1756, after his retirement from a short tenure of the chancellorship of the exchequer, was created baron Lyttelton of Frankley. He died in 1773. His later years saw the publication of Dialogues of the Dead and of his History of the Life of Henry II. But at no season of his life was literature entirely neglected. He wrote poetry at Eton and Oxford; on his foreign tour, he addressed epistles in couplets to his friends at home; and, soon after his return, he appears to have composed the four eclogues called The Progress of Love. His poems include some songs and stanzas, of which the best are those addressed to his wife. His affection for her is a pleasing trait in a character which excited genuine devotion in his friends; and his Monody, composed in irregular stanzas, with a motto taken from Vergil’s description of the lament of Orpheus for Eurydice, is written with some depth of feeling, although its reminiscences of Lycidas invite a comparison which it cannot sustain. The influence of French literature presides over his imaginative prose works: the very titles of the satiric Persian Letters, written in his youth, and the more mature but less sprightly Dialogues of the Dead, are copied from Montesquieu and Fénelon, their contents suffering from the usual inferiority of imitations. The graver tone of his later work, as distinguished from his licence of thought and expression in the letters of the Persian Selim from England to Mirza and Ibrahim Mollac at Ispahan, is due to his change of opinion from deism to Christianity. He flattered himself that his Observations on the Conversion and Apostleship of St. Paul, which took the form of a letter to Gilbert West, translator of Pindar, brought about the conversion of Thomson on his death-bed. However this may have been, the mutual attachment between himself and Thomson calls for some mention of him in this place. He is said to have supplied the stanza which characterises the poet in The Castle of Indolence; he wrote the prologue, recited by Quin, to the posthumous Coriolanus, and, as we have seen, he put a liberal interpretation upon his duties as Thomson’s executor. In this connection, it is interesting to remember the criticism of Thomson which Lyttelton introduced in the most valuable of the Dialogues of the Dead. In answer to a question by Boileau, Pope says:

  • Your description points out Thomson. He painted nature exactly, and with great strength of pencil. His imagination was rich, extensive, and sublime: his diction bold and glowing, but sometimes obscure and affected. Nor did he always know when to stop, or what to reject. … Not only in his plays, but all his other works, there is the purest morality, animated by piety, and rendered more touching by the fine and delicate sentiments of a most tender and benevolent heart.
  • Lyttelton’s early poems show him to have followed in the footsteps of Pope, and the letters written to his father from France and Italy are mainly concerned with foreign politics; the only prolonged passage of description in them is a formal account in French of his journey across Mont-Cenis. In 1756, he wrote two letters to the historian Archibald Bower, describing a journey in north Wales. The master of Hagley, by this time, had developed a strong taste for scenery. His descriptions are excellent and accurate, and he visited the castles of Wales with the enthusiasm of a historian, although he fell into the error of imagining that the ruins of Rhuddlan were those of a castle built by Henry II. The beauty of the valleys charmed him; the situation of Powis castle, the vales of Festiniog and Clwyd, the wooded shores of the Menai straits and the view of the Dee valley from Wynnstay, excited him to enthusiasm. Bala seemed to him an oasis in the desert of Merionethshire, “a solitude fit for Despair to inhabit.” Snowdon filled him with “religious awe” rather than admiration, and its rocks excited “the idea of Burnet, of their being the fragment of a demolished world.” It is characteristic of the taste of his day that the magnificent prospect of the Carnarvonshire mountains from Baron hill above Beaumaris, on which Suckling had looked more than a century before, seemed to Lyttelton inferior to the view of Plymouth sound and Dartmoor from mount Edgcumbe. The love of nature in her wilder moods was not yet part of English literature. “Nature,” said Lyttelton of the Berwyn mountains, “is in all her majesty there; but it is the majesty of a tyrant, frowning over the ruins and desolation of a country.”