Friday, March 19, 2010

Tobias Smollet

"The Life of Smollett, whose genius has raised an imperishable monument to his fame, has been written, with spirit and elegance- by his friend and contemporary, the celebrated Dr Moore, and more lately by Dr Robert Anderson of Edinburgh, with a careful research, which leaves to us little except the task of selection and abridgement..."

Thus Walter Scott begins his brief biography of Tobias Smollett, published in "The Miscellaneous Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott".  Smollett, born on March 19, 1721, died the month following Scott's own birth (Smollett passed Sept. 17, 1771).  His youth was spent in what is now Renton, in West Dunbartonshire.  Scott describes the scene: "Tobias Smollett (baptized Tobias George) was born in 1721, in the old house of Dalquhurn, in the valley of Leven, in perhaps the most beautiful district in Britain."

Smollett trained as a surgeon at the University of Glasgow, and served as a naval surgeon.  His true calling however, was to literature, and he was also partial to Scotland.  His first publication was the poem " The Tears of Scotland", about the Battle of Culloden.  Scott reports a story of Smollet's working on this poem:  "...The late Robert Graham, Esq. 01 Gartmore, a particular friend and trustee of Smollett, has recorded the manner in which this effusion was poured forth.

" Some gentlemen having met at a tavern were amusing themselves before supper with a game at cards j while Smollett, not choosing to play, sat down to write. One of the company, who also was nominated by him one of his trustees," ( Gartmore himself,) " observing his earnestness, and supposing lie was writing verses, asked him if it was not so. He accordingly read them the first sketch of his Tears of Scotland, consisting only of six stanzas ; and on their remarking that the termination of the poem, being too strongly expressed, might give offence to persons whose political opinions were different, he sat down, without reply, and, with an air of great indignation, subjoined the concluding stanza:—


" While the warm blood bedews my veins.
And unimpaired remembrance reigns,
Resentment of my Country's fate

Within my filial breast shall heat.

Yes, spite of thine insulting foe,

My sympathizing verse shall flow.

Mourn, hapless Caledonia, mourn,

Thy banish'd peace, thy laurels torn !"..."
 
Smollett established himself as a literary figure with the publication of his novel "The Adventures of Roderick Random, in 1748.  Smollett's great work, to his own thinking, was his "A Complete History of England."  Smollett had already achieved quite a literary reputation before embarking on this study, which took from 1757 - 1765 to complete.
 
Smollett was contemporary with Samuel Johnson, who he nicknamed "the great Cham of literature".  James Boswell records this conversation in his "Life of Johnson" (April 10, 1776), which highlights the great esteem Smollett was held in, as well as his reputation as a critic: "...He (Johnson) talked of Lord Lyttelton's extreme anxiety as an authour; observing, that 'he was thirty years in preparing his History, and that he employed a man to point it for him; as if (laughing) another man could point his sense better than himself.' Mr. Murphy said, he understood his history was kept back several years for fear of Smollet. JOHNSON. 'This seems strange to Murphy and me, who never felt that anxiety, but sent what we wrote to the press, and let it take its chance.' MRS. THRALE. 'The time has been, Sir, when you felt it.' JOHNSON. 'Why, really, Madam, I do not recollect a time when that was the case.'..." Dr. Johnson edited the Latin inscription on a memorial column at Smollett's burial site.

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