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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

II. Political Writers and Speakers

§ 3. John Wolcot (Peter Pindar)

This admirable fooling was succeeded by the still more amusing drolleries of a clerical black sheep, whose real talent, allied with certain respectable qualities, is obscured by his sordid life and offensive compositions. Peter Pindar was the pseudonym of John Wolcot, a country surgeon’s son, who hovered during a long life on the dubious confines of society and Bohemia. He began his career as a physician, but, while well employed in Jamaica, was ordained in the hope of a living. Later, when practising as a doctor in his native county Cornwall, he discovered the painter Opie, helped to train him and came with him to London in 1781. He was to receive half Opie’s profits, and they soon quarrelled. Wolcot’s good judgment in art and his skill in minor verse, however, enabled him to make an income by a series of severe squibs on the royal academicians. Thus, he was led to satirise their patron, the king, and The Rolliad gave him the cue for further achievements in the same style. In 1785, he scored considerable success in his mock-heroic poem, The Lousiad, which now, at least, reads very tediously. He followed this up, in 1787, by his profitable Ode upon Ode; it had an enormous, and, in a way, deserved, vogue. The absurdities of the yearly official ode-writing and the painful vagaries, together with some real faults, of George III were well known; and Wolcot, hampered by few convictions and fewer scruples, found a ready market among indignant whigs for his small scandal. What with legal threats and negotiations for a pension, which broke down, he decided, in two or three years, to choose less potent objects of attack; but he found his profits dwindle, and returned to the king and Pitt in 1792. His powers, of no uncommon vigour at best, were, however, waning; he was worsted by the surly Gifford, both in fisticuffs and in abusive verse. His later satire and his serious rimes were not of any merit, and he subsisted on a fortunate sale of his copyrights. When blindness overtook him, he displayed a stoical good humour, which makes us regret that a musical, artistic man, of a “kind and hearty disposition,” played so scurvy a literary rôle.

Peter Pindar’s verse is not of the kind that appears in anthologies, from which the immense length of his rambling drollery tends to bar him out. Still, the nature of his talent is the chief reason for his exclusion. He lacks altogether elect phrase, musical rhythm and any charm of imagination or thought. He sins constantly in baseness and vulgarity. As an imitator of La Fontaine, whose irregular verse was his chief model, and as a precursor of The Ingoldsby Legends, he takes a position of hopeless inferiority. None the less, one cannot but admire his positive ability. A mixture of good sense and mischievousness transpires successfully through his elaborately roguish airs. His shrewd hits at the king’s stinginess and obtuseness went home. He is, perhaps, the very best of English caricaturists in verse, reaching his highest level in his account of the royal visit to Whitbread’s brewery. In its kind, it was delicate work; the lines of his drawing are very little out of their natural position; but the whole forms a glaring comic exaggeration. Bozzy and Piozzi, the amoebean strife of the two worshippers of Dr. Johnson in rimed quotations from their books, is another masterpiece in this style. Each absurdity of his two victims is emphasised with an adroit legerdemain of words, and Wolcot, for once, suppresses his irritating snigger. The pair are left to tell their own tale. Bozzy, for instance, says:

  • But to return unto my charming child—
  • About our Doctor JOHNSON she was wild;
  • And when he left off speaking, she would flutter,
  • Squall for him to begin again, and sputter!
  • And to be near him a strong wish express’d,
  • Which proves he was not such a horrid beast.
  • As appears in this instance, Peter Pindar’s strength lies in his power of realising for his reader a comic situation; polished epigram and the keener arrows of wit are not in his quiver. He loves to slip one or two sly colloquialisms into verses written in the formal eighteenth century style, and, thus, brings out the broad fun of his conceptions. But his tricky method could only secure a temporary success; and, since his humour was not many-sided and depended on one or two foibles in his subject, he lost his hold on the public, when his lucky pocket of ore was exhausted. Nor could the scolding, dull invective, to which he then resorted, restore his popularity in an age that, after 1789, became engrossed in greater matters than the tattle of the servants’ hall at Windsor.