The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

VI. Caricature and the Literature of Sport

§ 6. Dr. Syntax

Under the title The Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of the Picturesque, the joint work of Rowlandson and Combe was published in The Poetical Magazine in 1809 and onwards, and first appeared as a separate volume in 1812. Its popularity was immediate and very great. The figure of the lean curate and schoolmaster in his scratch wig and his rusty black suit, with his long nose and chin, caught the public fancy; and, doubtless, the device of representing him as a man of learning and of some dignity added to the fun of the ridiculous mishaps into which he fell. In the character of Syntax, Combe attempted to combine Don Quixote with parson Adams; and, though the attempt revealed his shortcomings in imagination and humour, he so far succeeded that Syntax remains good company to this day. Feeling the pinch of poverty, the reverend doctor announces to his busy and shrewish wife that, while his pupils are at home for the summer holidays, he intends to make a tour.

  • I’ll make a TOUR—and then I’ll WRITE IT.
  • You well know what my pen can do,
  • And I’ll employ my pencil too:—
  • I’ll ride and write, and sketch and print,
  • And thus create a real mint;
  • I’ll prose it here, I’ll verse it there,
  • And picturesque it ev’ry where.
  • I’ll do what all have done before;
  • I think I shall—and somewhat more.
  • So off he sets on his old mare, Grizzle. He falls among robbers; he is pursued by a bull; he mistakes a gentleman’s house for an inn; he falls, more than once, into mud or water; he is robbed at a race-meeting; he is carried by Grizzle at full gallop among the cavalry at a review; and he suffers other amusing troubles. But, also, he shows on many occasions learning and good sense beneath his simplicity. A great eater, a great smoker and a great talker, he is loved for his companionable spirit. He makes powerful friends, and at the close has won not only a handsome price for his book but ecclesiastical preferment which will make him easy for life. Combe’s verse ambles along with the very paces of the doctor’s Grizzle. It is (like most dictated work) frequently flaccid; and it moralises at too great length and with too little force for modern taste. But it seldom goes for long without wit and sense. It is the verse of an able journalist, as might be said to-day, who knows what people in the world are talking about. Take, for instance, Syntax’s soliloquy on the picturesque. He will paint the cottage, the coppice and the elm-trees; but he will omit the pigs.
  • For, to say truth, I don’t inherit
  • This self-same picturesquish spirit,
  • That looks to nought but what is rough,
  • And ne’er thinks Nature coarse enough.
  • Their system does my genius shock,
  • Who see such graces in a dock;
  • Whose eye the picturesque admires
  • In straggling brambles, and in briers;
  • Nay, can a real beauty see
  • In a decay’d and rotten tree.
  • People were talking in those days about the picturesque, the “trim” of art and so forth; and Combe knew what would interest his readers.

    So successful a work was sure to find imitators. Among them were The Tour of Dr. Syntax through London, Dr. Syntax in Paris and The Adventures of Dr. Comicus, a parody of Combe’s verses, illustrated by burlesques of Rowlandson’s engravings. Ackermann, finding the collaboration profitable, set the same pair to work upon other productions. Rowlandson drew a series of designs of The Dance of Death, “with the View of applying it exclusively to the Manners, Customs, and Character of this Country”; and, as before, Combe “accompanied with Metrical Illustrations” the drawings as they were delivered to him. Issued originally in successive numbers, The English Dance of Death was published in two volumes in 1815–16. Describing the death-scenes of a number of different characters, the verse shows Combe in his most serious mood; but it lacks both impressiveness and variety, while, on the other hand, the plates by Rowlandson are various, impressive and full of the peculiar beauty of this artist’s best work. In 1816 came, also, The Dance of Life, by Rowlandson and Combe. The poem and the plates recount the life of a young man of position. Since part of the story concerns a period of dissipation in London, it touches a kind of work to which reference will be made later, and, by comparison, shows Combe, who could be coarse upon occasion, as a writer of some taste and reticence. The two fellow-workers had, by this time, made each other’s acquaintance; and Combe implies, in his advertisement prefixed to the poem, that he had suggested to Rowlandson some of the ideas, though, in the main, they had followed their old plan of working. He makes the claim more strongly in the introduction to a second tale of Dr. Syntax, to whom they returned in 1819–20. Issued, as a book, in 1820, The Second Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of Consolation narrates how the reverend doctor, having lost his vulgar but valued wife, is persuaded by his friends to seek relief in another tour. In the Lakes, Bath, London and elsewhere, Syntax visits scenes and people of interests; and, of such humour as there is, beyond the lively and homely circumstances of Mrs. Syntax’s death, much is supplied by the Irish manservant who accompanies his master. But Combe was now nearly eighty. A well-read man, he makes free use of his knowledge, but dilutes his originals excessively. His verse is garrulous and spiritless, compared with that of the first tour, and Rowlandson’s invention was either flagging or too closely bounded by the scenes that he thought fit to introduce. The work is dull, and was not so popular as its predecessor. In The Third Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of a Wife, however, published, as a book, in 1821, both artist and versemaker revived; the studies of various kinds of women are full of character and give no little information about the feminine types of the day. Finally, in 1822, Rowlandson and Combe produced Johnny Quae Genus, the Foundling of the late Dr. Syntax, which is the feeblest, and was the least popular, of the series.

    Two other series of drawings, which Rowlandson made in lighter vein, may be mentioned here. In 1815, he drew a set of plates for The Military Adventures of Johnny Newcome, the letterpress for which was written, probably, by colonel David Roberts, who became a writer after a wound, received in the Peninsular war, had incapacitated him for military service. In 1818 appeared The Adventures of Johnny Newcome in the Navy, in which Rowlandson’s sixteen plates were accompanied by a poem in four cantos by “Alfred Burton,” a pseudonym of John Mitford, author of The Poems of a British Sailor and a contributor to The Scourge, the journal for which George Cruikshank, also, worked. Mitford, who had served in the navy, was worthy of collaborating with Rowlandson in such a book as this. Verses and drawings alike are full of hearty humour, and there is a dramatic quality in their exposition of the troubles of a new hand, of “larks” at sea and on shore and of the tyranny and brutality that marked the naval service in those days.