Sunday, July 3, 2011

Grub Street

Grub Street and its Journal.

No1.-- Grub Street.

No chapter of literary history is more singular or more sad than that which deals with Grub Street, and the men to whom the epithet of Grubean writers is applicable. The name alone has long passed into a proverbial phrase for all that is inferior in the great Republic of Letters. Indeed, the mere mention of Grub Street calls up before the mind’s eye a tribe of miserable, poverty-stricken scribblers, whose main chance of existence depended upon their power of virulence at a libel, and whose last residence was invariably the gaol.

The place known to us as Grub Street was originally tenanted by bowyers, fletchers, makers of bow-strings, and of everything related to archery. Long before the age of printing, however, Grub Street and its vicinity harboured “literary men” in the form of text-writers, or authors of A B C’s, and other religious wares of the same type. It was not until the latter part of the seventeenth century that its name became used as an epithet of reproach. Andrew Marvell, in “The Rehearsal Transposed” (1672), was one of the earliest who so employed it, and this he did on several occasions. “He, honest man, was deep gone in Grub Street and polemical divinity;” and again: “Oh, these are your Nonconformist tricks; oh, you have learnt this of the Puritans in Grub Street.”

It was during the Commonwealth that the Grub Street publications, -- the “seditious and libelous pamphlets,” -- caused a general consternation even in those days of wars and rumours of wars. The place abounded “with mean and old houses”* [Hawkins’ “Life of Pope,” p. 31.] which, let in “holdings,” afforded desirable retreats for those authors who, either from political or pecuniary reasons, desired to make themselves scarce for a time. It was the Alsatia of the period, and here men, who were no longer safe in other parts of London, found a safe retreat. Being the suburb of Aldersgate and Little Britain, it not unnaturally became the abode of authors, ballad-writers, and pamphlet-makers. James Smith has hit off capitally the chief features of the place, in the following verse:--

“A spot near Cripplegate extends,

Grub Street ‘tis called, the modern Pindus,

Where (but that bards are never friends)

Bards might shake hands from adverse windows.”

It is very common to suppose that all writers who came under the Grub Street category were ignorant imposters. But in many instances it was not so. The malignity of Pope has tarred the whole fraternity so completely that individual merit has been totally eclipsed. Several of these men were educated either at a university, or some great public school. Poverty was perhaps their chief “crime,” and this was the result of dissolute living and spendthrift habits. The literary fraternity was apparently composed of men who were in various ways unfit for every other calling under the sun, and their last resource was Grub Street. The moral tendency also of small authors was decidedly downwards, and it is perhaps not very surprising that every fresh recruit was carried on with the tide.

The “Grubeans,” as they were generally termed, had to withstand the combined and persistent attacks of Pope, of Swift, and other brilliant wits who were placed by political or private patronage above the necessities and shifts of literary toil in that transitionary period. “The Dunciad” dealt a death blow to the class at which it was aimed. It became “fashionable” to sneer at and satirize these people, and so, in 1726, we find the Dean of St. Patrick’s writing “Advice to the Grub Street Verse Writers,” of which we quote the first stanza:

“Ye poets ragged and forlorn

Down from your garrets haste;

Ye rhymers, dead as soon as born,

Nor yet consigned to paste.”

On another occasion Swift writes:

“O Grub Street! how do I bemoan thee,

Whose graceless children scorn to own thee!

Tho’, by their idiom and grimace,

They soon betray their native place.

Yet thou has greater cause to be

Asham’d of them than they of thee.”

But sixteen years before he penned his “Advice,” Swift wrote to Stella thus, January 31, 1710-11: “They are here intending to tax all little printed penny papers, a halfpenny every half-sheet, which will utterly ruin Grub Street, and I am endeavoring to prevent it.” About eighteen months after this he writes, “I have this morning sent out another pure Grub;” and again, “Grub Street has but ten days to run; then an act of Parliament takes place to ruin it by taxing every sheet a halfpenny;” and, once more, “Do you know that Grub Street is dead and gone last week? No more ghosts or murders now for love or money.”

In the preface to the fourth part [*In the later editions this was made part five. Vide Scott’s “Swift,” vi. 123-124.] of “Law is a bottomless Pit; or, the History of John Bull” (1712), usually attributed to Swift, but written for the most part by Arbuthnot, we have a reference to this act of muzzling the press, and the result of which, contends the writer, was the silencing of “the whole university of Grub Street,” which he laments thus:-

“O Grub Street! thou fruitful nursery of tow’ring geniuses! how do I lament thy downfall! Thy ruin could never be meditated by any who meant well to English liberty: no modern lycaeum will ever equal your glory, whether in soft pastorals thou sung the plauses of pampered apprentices, or coy cook-maids; or if to maeonian strains thou raised thy voice, to record the stratagems, the arduous exploits, and the nocturnal scalade of needy heroes, the terror of your peaceful citizens, describing the powerful Betty, [*A cant name given by house-breakers to an iron lever.] or the artful pit-lock, or the secret caverns and grottos of Vulcan, sweating at his forge, and stamping the Queen’s image on baser metals, which he retails for beef and pots of ale; or if thou wert content in simple narrative to relate the acts of implacable revenge, or the complaints of ravished virgins, blushing to tell their adventure before the listening crowd of city damsels, whilst in thy faithful history thou intermingles the greatest counsels and the purest morals; nor less acute and piercing wert thou in thy search and pompous description of the works of nature, whether in proper and emphatic forms thou didst paint the blazing comet’s fiery tail, the stupendous force of dreadful thunder and earthquakes, and the unrelenting inundations. Sometimes with Machiavellian sagacity, thou unravelest the intrigues of state, and the traitorous conspiracies of rebels giving wise counsel to monarchs. How didst thou move our terror and our pity with thy passionate scenes between Jack Catch and the heroes of the Old Bailey! How didst thou describe the intrepid march upon Holborn Hill! Nor didst thou shine less in thy theological capacity, when thou gavest thy ghastly counsel to dying felons, and recorded the guilty pangs of Sabbath-breakers! How will the noble acts [? arts] of Jon Overton’s [*The engraver of the cuts for the Grub Street papers.] painting and sculpture languish! where rich invention, proper expression, correct design, divine attitudes, and artful contrast, heightened with the beauties of clar-oscur, embellished by celebrated pieces to the delight and astonishment of the judicious multitude! Adieu, persuasive eloquence! The quaint metaphor, the poignant irony, the proper epithet, and the lively simile, are fled forever! Instead of thee we shall have, ‘I know not what!’ -- ‘The illiterate will tell the rest with pleasure.’ [Hawkesbury refers to the preface of four sermons by W. Fleetwood, Bishop of St. Asaph (1712), where, having displayed the beautiful and pleasing prospect which was opened by the war, he complains that the spirit of discord had given us in its stead -- I know not what -- our enemies will tell the rest with pleasure. This preface was, by order of the House of Commons, burnt by the hangman in Palace Yard, Westminster.]

The author of the foregoing naturally apologizes for the digression “by way of condolence to my worthy brethren of Grub Street,” and humorously avers that “it has been my good fortune to receive my education there; and so long as I possessed some figure and rank amongst the learned of that society, I scorned to take my degree either at Utrecht or Leyden, though I was offered it gratis by the professors in those universities.”

It is a very general belief that John Foxe wrote his “Book of Martyrs” in Grub Street; and although this is an open question, there can be no doubt whatever about the fact that he resided here for some time, as several letters in the Harleian collection testify. Milton’s connection with Grub Street is of a very abstract nature: about the year 1830 that street was re-christened, and, by an unhappy choice, violent hands were laid on the name of the author of “Paradise Lost,” chiefly it seems from its proximity to the Bunhill residence of the great poet, who was buried in the chancel of St. Giles’, Cripplegate, also hard by. John Speed, the tailor historian, and the happy father of twelve sons and six daughters, was also an inhabitant of Grub Street. As Dr. Brewer very pertinently remarks, “the connection between Grub Street literature and Milton is not apparent. However, as Pindar, Hesiod, Plutarch, &c., were Boetians, so Foxe the martyrologist and Speed the historian resided in Grub Street.” It is sometimes stated that the present name of the street was given it by a carpenter named Milton, in honour of himself, who, in or about 1830, bought up the leases; but the fact is as we have described.

When Swift wrote that “Grub Street is dead and gone last week,” he was, to say the least, premature. For the climax to its wretchedness and misery was not reached until a quarter of a century afterwards. At all events, it could not have been much more depraved than it was in the days of Goldsmith and Johnson; and Macauley goes so far as to say that the latter was the “last-survivor of the genuine race of Grub Street hacks; the last of that generation of authors whose abject misery and whose dissolute manners had furnished inexhaustible matter to the satirical genius of Pope.” But the shame and misery of Grub Street were past; and Johnson, looking back upon it from the eminence of his position, could refer to it with some complacency. In reply to an observation of Hoole, of Tasso fame, to the effect that he was born in Moorfields, and had received part of his early education in Grub Street, “Sir,” said the great lexicographer smiling, “you have been regularly educated.”

Smart, an author of considerable talent, may be conveniently arranged under the Grub Street category. This far-seeing scribe actually let himself out to a monthly journal on a regular lease of ninety-nine years. “Surely the publisher,” exclaims De Quincey, “might have been content with seventy.” Some time after this singular agreement had been made, a rival tradesman invited some contributions from Smart, but was met with the reply: “No objection, sir, whatever, except an unexpired term of ninety-seven years left to run.” There were many a similar “contract between the Devil and William Faustus.” John Dennis was another of the fraternity, and although he wrote desperately bad verses, and several inferior plays, his critical abilities were of a very high order, and considerably in advance of his time. And those who care to pursue the subject further may do so by perusing Savage’s “An Author to be Let.”

In the second essay published in the first number of The Bee, October 9, 1759, Goldsmith speaks thus of his own brotherhood: “Our theatres are now opened, and all Grub Street is preparing its advice to the managers. We shall undoubtedly hear learned disquisitions on the structure of one actor’s legs and another’s eyebrows. We shall be told much of enunciations, tones, and attitudes; and shall have our lightest pleasures commented on by didactic dullness.”

A notice of Grub Street would be lamentably incomplete without some slight reference to Henry Welby, the famous hermit, of whom we give an illustration from a picture published by Richardson in 1794. The accounts respecting this person differ somewhat, but the gist of the affair appears to be to the effect that Henry Welby was born about the middle of the sixteenth century, that he was the inheritor of a considerable fortune, and that a younger brother’s attempt upon his life caused him to renounce everything and everybody. From a very quaint book, entitled, “The Phoenix of these Late Times; or, the Life of Henry Welby, Esq.,” &c. (printed for N. Okes, and sold by “Richard Clutterbuck at his shop in little Brittaine, at the signe of the golden ball”), it seems that he lived alone for forty-four years, during which period he was not seen by anyone. He is said to have had purchased for him all the new books, most of which he rejected after a short inspection. The younger brother’s name was John, and it has been contended that Welby was more than eighty-four years old when he died, October 29, 1636. Full notices of this eccentric individual will be found in Morgan’s “Phoenix Britannicus,” p. 373; Burke’s “Patrician,” vol. i., p. 52; “Reliquiae Hearnianae,” vol. i., p. 209; and the privately printed “Notices of the Family of Welby.”

We also give, as apropos of our present article, an illustration of a very old house in Sweedon’s Passage, Grub Street, which, tradition tells us, was inhabited by Whittington and Gresham, and which formed part of six houses which had occupied the site of an older mansion. Tradition, also, is responsible for the statement that a fine old house, in Hanover Yard, near Grub Street, sketched by J. T. Smith in 1791, was the residence of General Monk. As there is a general absence of proof either one way or another in regard to this theory, we may as well give the house the benefit of the doubt, and assume that once upon a time it was inhabited by Monk. Of this, also, we give an illustration. -- W. Roberts, The Bookworm Vol. I, 1888

Part II HERE, p. 94

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