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TO THE REV. JOHN NEWTON.*
Olney, April 22, 1785. My dear Friend—When I received your account of the great celebrity of John Gilpin, I felt myself , both flattered and grieved. Being man, and having
my composition all the ingredients of which other men are made, and vanity among the rest, it pleased me to reflect that I was on a sudden become so famous, and that all the world was busy inquiring after me: but, the next moment, recollecting my former self, and that thirteen years ago, as harmless as John's history is, I should not then have written it, my spirits sank and I was ashamed of my success. Your letter was followed the next post by one from Mr. Unwin. You tell me that I am rivalled by Mrs. Bellamy it and he, that I have a competitor for fame not less formidable in the Learned Pig. Alas! what is an author's popularity worth in a world that can suffer a prostitute on one side, and a pig on the other, to eclipse his brightest glories ? I am therefore sufficiently humbled by these considerations; and, unless I should hereafter be ordained to engross the public attention by means more magnificent than a song, am persuaded that I shall suffer no real detriment by their applause. I have produced many things, under the influence of despair, which hope would not have permitted
* Private Correspondence.
† A celebrated actress, who wrote her memoirs, which were much read at that time.
to spring. But, if the soil of that melancholy, in which I have walked so long, has thrown up here and there an unprofitable fungus, it is well at least that it is not chargeable with having brought forth poison. Like
I see or think I can see, that Gilpin may have his use. Causes, in appearance trivial, produce often the most beneficial consequences; and perhaps my volumes may now travel to a distance, which, if they had not been ushered into the world by that notable horseman, they would never have reached.
Our temper differs somewhat from that of the ancient Jews. They would neither dance nor weep. We indeed weep not, if a man mourn unto us; but I must needs say that, if he pipe, we seem disposed to dance with the greatest alacrity.
TO THE REV. WILLIAM UNWIN.
Olney, April 30, 1785. My dear Friend—I return you thanks for a letter so warm with the intelligence of the celebrity of John Gilpin. I little thought, when I mounted him upon my Pegasus, that he would become so famous. I have learned also from Mr. Newton that he is equally renowned in Scotland, and that a lady there had undertaken to write a second part, on the subject of Mrs. Gilpin's return to London ; but, not succeeding in it as she wished, she dropped it. He
tells me likewise that the head master of St. Paul's school (who he is I know not) has conceived, in consequence of the entertainment that John has afforded him, a vehement desire to write to me. Let us hope he will alter his mind; for, should we even exchange civilities on the occasion, Tirocinium will spoil all. The great estimation however in which this knight of the stone-bottles is held may turn out a circumstance propitious to the volume, of which his history will make a part. Those events that prove the prelude to our greatest success are often apparently trivial in themselves, and such as seemed to promise nothing. The disappointment that Horace mentions is reversed We design a mug, and it proves a hogshead. It is a little hard that I alone should be unfurnished with a printed copy of this facetious story. When you visit London next, you must buy the most elegant impression of it, and bring it with you. I thank you also for writing to Johnson. I likewise wrote to him myself. Your letter and mine together have operated to admiration. There needs nothing
. more but that the effect be lasting, and the whole will soon be printed. We now draw towards the middle of the fifth book of “ The Task.” The man, Johnson, is like unto some vicious horses that I have known. They would not budge till they were spurred, and when they were spurred they would kick. So did he his temper was somewhat disconcerted; but his pace was quickened, and I was contented.
I was very much pleased with the following sentence in Mr. Newton's last,—“I am perfectly satisfied with the propriety of your proceeding as to the publication."-Now, therefore, we are friends again. Now he once more inquires after the work, which, till he had disburthened himself of this acknowledgment, neither he nor I in any of our letters to each other ever mentioned. Some sidewind has wafted to him a report of those reasons by which I justified my conduct. I never made a secret of them. Both
mother and I have studiously deposited them with those who we thought were most likely to transmit them to him. They wanted only a hearing, which once obtained, their solidity and cogency were such that they were sure to prevail.
You mention I formerly knew the man you mention, but his elder brother much better. We were school-fellows, and he was one of a club of seven Westminster men, to which I belonged, who dined together every Thursday. Should it please God to give me ability to perform the poet's part to some purpose, many whom I once called friends, but who have since treated me with a most magnificent indifference, will be ready to take me by the hand again, and some, whom I never held in that estimation, will, like (who was but a boy when I left London,) boast of a connexion with me which they never had. Had I the virtues, and graces, and accomplishments of St. Paul himself, I might have them at Olney, and nobody would care a button about me, yourself and one or two more excepted. Fame begets favour, and one talent,
if it be rubbed a little bright by use and practice, will procure a man more friends than a thousand virtues. Dr. Johnson, (I believe,) in the life of one of our poets, says that he retired from the world flattering himself that he should be regretted. But the world never missed him. I think his observation upon it is that the vacancy made by the retreat of any individual is soon filled up; that a man may always be obscure, if he chooses to be and that he who neglects the world will be by the world neglected.
Your mother and I walked yesterday in the Wilderness. As we entered the gate, a glimpse of something white, contained in a little hole in the gate-post, caught my eye. I looked again, and discovered a bird's nest, with two tiny eggs in it. By-and-by they will be fledged, and tailed, and get wing-feathers, and fly. My case is somewhat similar to that of the parent bird. nest is in a little nook. Here I brood and hatch, and in due time my progeny takes wing and whistles.
We wait for the time of your coming with pleasant expectations.
The following letter records an impressive instance of the instability of human life ; and also contains some references, of deep pathos, to his own personal history and feelings.