Grainger, James

, an English poet and physician, was born at Dunse, a small town in the southern part of Scotland, about 1723. His father, a native of Cumberland, and once a man of considerable property, had removed to Dunse, on the failure of some speculations in mining, and there filled a post in the excise. His son, after receiving such education as his native place afforded, went to Edinburgh, where he was apprenticed to Mr. Lawder, a surgeon, and had an opportunity of studying the various branches of medical science, which were then begun to be taught by the justly celebrated founders of the school of medicine in that city. Having qualified himself for such situations as are attainable by young men whose circumstances do not permit them to wait the slow returns of medical practice at home, he first served as surgeon to lieut.-general Pulteney’s regiment of foot, during the rebellion (of 1745) in Scotland, and afterwards went in the same capacity to Germany, where that regiment composed part of the army under the earl of Stair. With the reputation and interest which his skill and learning procured abroad, he came over to England at the peace of Aix-laChapelle, sold his commission, and entered upon practice as a physician in London.

In 1753 he published the result of his experience in some diseases of the army, in a volume written in Latin, entitled “Historia Febris Anomalae Batavre annorum 1746, 1747, 1748,” &c. In this work he appears to advantage as an acute observer of the phenomena of disease, and as a man of general learning, but what accession he had been able to make to the stock of medical knowledge was unfortunately anticipated in sir John Pringle’s recent and very valuable work on the diseases of the army. During his residence in London, “his literary talents introduced him to the acquaintance of many men of genius, particularly of Shenstone, Dr. Percy the late bishop of Dromore, Glover, Dr. Johnson, sir Joshua Reynolds, and others, who by Mr. BoswelPs comprehensive biography, are now known to have composed Dr. Johnson’s society, and it is no small praise that every member of it regarded Dr. Grainger with affection. He was first known as a poet by his” Ode on Solitude,“which has been universally praised, and never beyond its merits; but professional success is seldom promoted by the reputation of genius. Grainger’s practice was insufficient to employ his days or to provide | for them, and he is said to have accepted the office of tutor to a young gentleman who settled an annuity upon him; nor did he disdain such literary employment as the booksellers suggested. Smollett, in the course of a controversy which will be noticed hereafter, accuses him of working for bread in the lowest employments of literature, and at the lowest prices. This, if it be not the loose assertion of a calumniator, may perhaps refer to the assistance he gave in preparing the second volume of Maitland’s” History of Scotland," in which he was employed by Andrew Millar, who has seldom been accused of bargaining with authors for the lowest prices. Maitland had left materials for the volume, and as Grainger‘ s business was to arrange them, and continue the work as nearly as possible in Maitiand’s manner and style, much fame could not result from his best endeavours.

In 1758 he published a translation of the “Elegies of Tibullus,” begun during the hours he snatched from business or pleasure when in the army, and finished in London, where he had more leisure, and the aid and encouragement of his literary friends. This work involved him in the unpleasant contest with Smollett, to which we have just referred. Its merits were canvassed in the “Critical Review” with much severity. The notes are styled “a huge farrago of learned lumber, jumbled together to very little purpose, seemingly calculated to display the translator’s reading, rather than to illustrate the sense and beauty of the original.” The Life of Tibullus, which the translator prefixed, is said to contain “very little either to inform, interest, or amuse the reader.” With respect to the translation, “the author has not found it an easy task to preserve the elegance and harmony of the original.” Instances of harshness and inelegance are quoted, as well as of the use of words which are not English, or not used by good writers, as noiseless, redoubtable, feud, &c. The author is likewise accused of deviating not only from the meaning, but from the figures of the original. Of these objections some are groundless, and some are just, yet even the latter are by no means characteristic of the whole work, but exceptions which a critic of more candour would have had a right to state, after he had bestowed the praise due to its general merit. In this review, however, although unqualified censure was all the critic had in view, no personal attack is made on the author, nor are there any allusions to his situation in life. | This appeared in the “Critical Review” for December 1758. In the subsequent number for January 1759, the reviewer takes an opportunity, as if answering a correspondent, to retract his objection against the word noiseless, because it is found in Shakspeare, but observes very fairly, that the authority of Shakspeare or Milton will not justify an author of the present times for introducing harsh or antiquated words. He acknowledges himself likewise to blame in having omitted to consult the errata subjoined (prefixed) to Dr. Grainger’s performance, where some things are corrected which the reviewer mentioned as inaccuracies in the body of the work. But this acknowledgment, so apparently candid, is immediately followed by a wretched attempt at wit, in these words: “Whereas one of the Owls belonging to the proprietor of the M(on)thly R(evie)w, which answers to the name of Grainger, hath suddenly broke from his mew, where he used to hoot in darkness and peace, and now screeches openly in the face of day, we shall take the first opportunity to chastise this troublesome owl, and drive him back to his original obscurity.” The allusion here is to Dr. Grainger’s “Letter to Tobias Smollett, M. D. occasioned by his criticism on a late Translation of Tibullus,” a performance some parts of which every friend to the author must wish had not been published. In this letter, however, Grainger, after quoting a passage from the plan or prospectus of the “Critical Review,” in which the authors promise to revive the true spirit of criticism, to act without prejudice, &c. &c. endeavours to prove, that they have forfeited their word, by notoriously departing from the spirit of just and candid criticism, and by introducing gross partialities and malevolent censures. And these assertions, which are certainly not without foundation, are intermixed with reflections on Dr. Smollett’s loose novels, and insinuations that his partialities arise from causes not very honourable to the character of an independent reviewer.

But whatever truth may be in all this, the letter was an unwise and hasty production, written in the moment of the strongest irritation. The review appeared in December, and the letter in January. There was no time to cool, and perhaps no opportunity of consulting his friends, who could have told him that nothing was to be gained by an exchange of personalities with Smollett. The latter required no great length of time or consideration to prepare an | answer, which appeared accordingly in the review for February, and in which every insinuation or accusation is introduced that could tend to lessen Dr. Grainger in the eyes of the public, both as a writer and as a man. But the objections which Grainger took are by no means satisfactorily answered, and the review is still liable to the suspicion of partiality. No reader of candour or of taste can peruse the Translation, without allowing that the author deserved praise, not only for the attempt, but for the elegant manner in which he has in general transmitted the tender sentiments of Tibullus into our language. But this the Reviewer has wholly overlooked, confining himself to the censure of a few defects, part of which he has not proved to be so, and part were typographical errors.

It has been supposed that some personal animosity prompted Smollett to such hostility, but of what nature, or excited by what provocation, is not known. All we can learn from the Letter and the Answer is, that the parties were once upon friendly terms, but that mutual respect had now ceased. One circumstance, indeed, we find, which may account for much of Smollett’s animosity: he supposed Grainger to be one of the Monthly Reviewers, and this was provocation enough to the mind of a man, who from the commencement of the Critical Review took every opportunity, whether in his way or not, of reviling the proprietor and writers of that journal. As the latter seldom deigned to notice these attacks, no better reason, we are afraid, can be assigned for Smollett’s conduct than the jealousy of rival merit and success, in both which respects the Monthly Review had a decided superiority. Whether Grainger was a Monthly Reviewer is not an unimportant question, in collecting the materials of his literary life; yet his biographers have hastily subscribed to Smollett’s assertion, without examining the Review in question. The article of his Tibullus in the Monthly Review may convince any person that Grainger could have little or no interest or influence with the proprietors. Although written with decency and urbanity, it has nothing of partiality or kindness; the reader is left to, judge from the specimens extracted, and what praise we find is bestowed with that faint reluctance, which is more blasting to the hopes of an author than open hostility. Even the opinion of the Monthly Reviewer on Grainger’s letter to Smollett, is | expressed with the brevity of one who wishes not to interfere in the contest.

Soon after the publication of Tibullus, Dr. Grainger embraced the offer of an advantageous settlement as physician on the island of St. Christopher’s. During his passage, a lady on board of one of the merchant-men bound for the same place, was seized with the small-pox, attended with some alarming symptoms. He was sent for, and not only prescribed with success, but took the remainder of his passage in the same ship, partly to promote the recovery of his patient, but principally to have an opportunity of paying his addresses to her daughter, whom he married soon after their arrival at St. Christopher’s. By his union with this lady, whose name was Burt, daughter to Matthew William Burt, esq. governor of St. Christopher’s, he became connected with softie of the principal families on the island, and was enabled to commence the practice of physic with the greatest hopes of success. It is probable, however, that this was not his first attachment. In his preface to the translation of Tibullus, he insinuates that his acquaintance with the passion of love gives him a preference over Dart, who had attempted to transfuse the tender sentiments of that poet into English without the same advantage.

The transition from London to a West India island must have been very striking to a reflecting mind. The scenery and society of St. Christopher’s was new in every respect, and Grainger seems to have studied it with those mixed and not very coherent feelings of the poet and the planter, which at length produced his principal work, “The Sugar Cane.” On his return to England, at the conclusion of the war, he submitted this poem to his literary friends, and haying obtained their opinion and approbation, published it in a handsome quarto volume, in 1764. To the astonishment of all who remembered his dispute with Smollett, the “Sugar Cane” was honoured with the highest praise in the “Critical Review.” But Smollett was now on his travels^ and the Review was under the care of Mr. Hamilton, the proprietor and printer, a man who took no pleasure in perpetuating animosities, and who, with great respect for Dr. Smollett’s memory, did not deny that his vindictive temper was of no great service to the Review.

Mr. Boswell, in his life of Johnson, informs us that when the Sugar Cane " was read in manuscript at sir Joshua | Heynolds’s, the assembled wits burst out into a laugh, when, after much blank-verse pomp, the poet began a new paragraph thus:

Now Muse, let’s sing of rats

And what increased the ridicule was, that one of the company, who slyly overlooked the reader, perceived that the word had originally been mice, and had been altered to rats as more dignified.“” This passage,“adds Mr. Boswell,” does not appear in the printed work. Dr. Grainger, or some of his friends, it should seem, having become sensible that introducing even rats, in a grave poem, might be liable to banter. He, however, could not bring himself to relinquish the idea; for they are thus, in a still more ludicrous manner, paraphrastically exhibited in his poem as it now stands:

" Nor with less waste the whiskered vermin race,

A countless clan, despoil the lowland cane’."

Of this incident, Dr. Percy furnished Mr. Boswell with the following explanation. “The passage in question was not originally liable to such a perversion; for the author having occasion in that part of his work to mention the havoc made by rats and mice, had introduced the subject in a kind of mock heroic, and a parody of Homer’s battle of the frogs and mice, invoking the muse of the old Grecian bard in an elegant and well-turned manner. In that state I had seen it; but afterwards, unknown to me and other friends, he had been persuaded, contrary to his better judgment, to alter it so as to produce the unlucky effect above mentioned.” Mr. Boswell tells us that Dr. Percy had not the poem to refer to, when he wrote this explanation; and it is equally evident that Mr. Boswell had not read the whole passage with attention, or considered the nature of the poem, when he objected to the introduction of rats. If we once allow that a manufacture may be sung in heroics, we must no longer be choice in our subjects; as to the alteration of mice to rats, the former was probably an error of the pen, for mice are not the animals in question, nor once mentioned by the poet. But it is somewhat strange that Grainger should have ever thought it prudent to introduce an episode of the mock-heroic kind in a poem which his utmost care can scarcely elevate to solemnity.

In the same year (1764) Dr. Grainger published “An Essay on the more common West India Diseases j and the | remedies which that country itself produces. To which are added, some hints on the management of Negroes.” To this pamphlet he did not affix his name. Many of the remarks it contains, particularly those which concern the choice and treatment of the negroes, may be found in “The Sugar Cane.” After a short residence in England, he returned to St. Christopher’s, to which, it appears by his poem, he became much attached; and continued his practice as a physician until his death, Dec. 24, 1767, which was occasioned by one of those epidemic fevers that frequently rage in the West India islands.

Although it is impossible to deny Grainger the credit of poetical genius, it must ever be regretted that where he wished most to excel, he was most unfortunate in the choice of a subject. The effect of his “Sugar Cane,” either as to pleasure or utility, must be local. Connected as an English merchant may be with the produce of the West Indies, it will not be easy to persuade the reader of English poetry to study the cultivation of the sugar plant merely that he may add some new imagery to the more ample stores which he can contemplate without study or trouble. In the West Indies this poem might have charms, if readers could be found; but what poetical fancy can dwell on the ceconomy of canes and copper-boilers, or find interest in the transactions of planters and sugar-brokers? His invocations to his muse are so frequent and abrupt, that “the assembled wits at sir Joshua ReynoldsV might have found many passages as ludicrous as that which excited their mirth. The solemnity of these invocations excites expectation, which generally ends in disappointment, and at best the reader’s attention is bespoke without being rewarded. He is induced to look for something grand, and is told of a contrivance for destroying monkies, or a recipe to poison rats. He smiles to find the slaves called by the happy poetical name of swains, and the planters urged to devotion The images in this poem are in general low, and the allusions, where the poet would be minutely descriptive, descend to things little and familiar. Yet this is in some measure forced upon him. His muse sings of matters so new and uncouth to her, that it is impossible” her heavenly plumes“should escape being” soiled.“What muse, indeed, could give a receipt for a compost of” weeds, mould, clung, and stale,“or a lively description of the symptoms and cure of the yaws and preserve her | elegance or purity Where, however, he quits the plain track of mechanical instructions, we have many of those effusions of fancy which will yet preserve this poem in our collections. The description of the hurricane, and of the earthquake, are truly grand, and heightened by circumstances of horror that are new to Europeans. The episode of Montano in the first book arrests the attention very forcibly, and many of the occasional reflections are elegant and pathetic, nor ought the tale of Junio and Theana to be omitted in a list of the beauties of this poem. The” Ode to Solitude,“already noticed, and the ballad of Bryan and Pereene,” are sufficient to attest our author’s claim to poetical honours; and the translation of Tibullus gives proofs of classical taste and learning. 1

1 Johnson and Chalmers’s English Poets, 1810.