Ingentes dominos, et clara nomina famæ,
Illustrique graves nobilitate domos
Derita, et longe cautus fuge; contrahe vela,
Et te littoribus cymba propinqua vehat.
Each mighty lord, big with a pompous name,
And each high house of fortune and of fame,
With caution fly; contract thy ample sails,
And near the shore improve the gentle gales.
It is usual for men, engaged in the same pursuits, to be inquisitive after the conduct and fortune of each other; and, therefore, I suppose it will not be unpleasing to you, to read an account of the various changes which have happened in part of a life devoted to literature. My narrative will not exhibit any great variety of events, or extraordinary revolutions; but may, perhaps, be not less useful, because I shall relate nothing which is not likely to happen to a thousand others.
I was born heir to a very small fortune, and left by my father, whom I cannot remember, to the care of an uncle. He having no children, always treated me as his son, and finding in me those qualities which old men easily discover in sprightly children, when they happen to love them, declared that a genius like mine should never be lost for want of cultivation. He therefore placed me, for the usual time, at a great school, and then sent me to the university, with a larger allowance than my own patrimony would have afforded, that I might not keep mean company, but learn to become my dignity when I should be made lord chancellor, which he often lamented, that the increase of his infirmities was very likely to preclude him from seeing.
This exuberance of money displayed itself in gaiety of appearance, and wantonness of expense, and introduced me to the acquaintance of those whom the same superfluity of fortune betrayed to the same licence and ostentation: young heirs, who pleased themselves with a remark very frequent in their mouths, that though they were sent by their fathers to the university, they were not under the necessity of living by their learning.
Among men of this class I easily obtained the reputation of a great genius, and was persuaded, that with such liveliness of imagination, and delicacy of sentiment, I should never be able to submit to the drudgery of the law. I therefore gave myself wholly to the more airy and elegant parts of learning, and was often so much elated with my superiority to the youths with whom I conversed, that I began to listen, with great attention, to those that recommended to me a wider and more conspicuous theatre; and was particularly touched with an observation made by one of my friends; That it was not by lingering in the university that Prior became ambassador, or Addison secretary of state.
This desire was hourly increased by the solicitation of my companions, who removing one by one to London, as the caprice of their relations allowed them, or the legal dismission from the hands of their guardians put it in their power, never failed to send an account of the beauty and felicity of the new world, and to remonstrate how much was lost by every hour’s continuance in a place of retirement and constraint.
My uncle in the mean time frequently harassed me with monitory letters, which I sometimes neglected to open for a week after I received them, generally read in a tavern, with such comments as might shew how much I was superior to instruction or advice. I could not but wonder how a man confined to the country, and unacquainted with the present system of things, should imagine himself qualified to instruct a rising genius, born to give laws to the age, refine its taste, and multiply its pleasures.
The postman, however, still continued to bring me new remonstrances; for my uncle was very little depressed by the ridicule and reproach which he never heard. But men of parts have quick resentments; it was impossible to bear his usurpations for ever; and I resolved, once for all, to make him an example to those who imagine themselves wise because they are old, and to teach young men, who are too tame under representation, in what manner grey-bearded insolence ought to be treated. I therefore one evening took my pen in hand, and after having animated myself with a catch, wrote a general answer to all his precepts with such vivacity of turn, such elegance of irony, and such asperity of sarcasm, that I convulsed a large company with universal laughter, disturbed the neighbourhood with vociferations of applause, and five days afterwards was answered, that I must be content to live on my own estate.
This contraction of my income gave me no disturbance; for a genius like mine was out of the reach of want. I had friends that would be proud to open their purses at my call, and prospects of such advancement as would soon reconcile my uncle, whom, upon mature deliberation, I resolved to receive into favour without insisting on any acknowledgment of his offence, when the splendour of my condition should induce him to wish for my countenance. I therefore went up to London, before I had shewn the alteration of my condition by any abatement of my way of living, and was received by all my academical acquaintance with triumph and congratulation. I was immediately introduced among the wits and men of spirit; and in a short time had divested myself of all my scholar’s gravity, and obtained the reputation of a pretty fellow.
You will easily believe that I had no great knowledge of the world; yet I had been hindered, by the general disinclination every man feels to confess poverty, from telling to any one the resolution of my uncle, and for some time subsisted upon the stock of money which I had brought with me, and contributed my share as before to all our entertainments. But my pocket was soon emptied, and I was obliged to ask my friends for a small sum. This was a favour, which we had often reciprocally received from one another; they supposed my wants only accidental, and therefore willingly supplied them. In a short time I found a necessity of asking again, and was again treated with the same civility; but the third time they began to wonder what that old rogue my uncle could mean by sending a gentleman to town without money; and when they gave me what I asked for, advised me to stipulate for more regular remittances.
This somewhat disturbed my dream of constant affluence; but I was three days after completely awaked; for entering the tavern where they met every evening, I found the waiters remitted their complaisance, and, instead of contending to light me up stairs, suffered me to wait for some minutes by the bar. When I came to my company, I found them unusually grave and formal, and one of them took the hint to turn the conversation upon the misconduct of young men, and enlarged upon the folly of frequenting the company of men of fortune, without being able to support the expense, an observation which the rest contributed either to enforce by repetition, or to illustrate by examples. Only one of them tried to divert the discourse, and endeavoured to direct my attention to remote questions, and common topicks.
A man guilty of poverty easily believes himself suspected. I went, however, next morning to breakfast with him who appeared ignorant of the drift of the conversation, and by a series of inquiries, drawing still nearer to the point, prevailed on him, not, perhaps, much against his will, to inform me that Mr. Dash, whose father was a wealthy attorney near my native place, had, the morning before, received an account of my uncle’s resentment, and communicated his intelligence with the utmost industry of groveling insolence.
It was now no longer practicable to consort with my former friends, unless I would be content to be used as an inferior guest, who was to pay for his wine by mirth and flattery; a character which, if I could not escape it, I resolved to endure only among those who had never known me in the pride of plenty. I changed my lodgings, and frequented the coffee-houses in a different region of the town; where I was very quickly distinguished by several young gentlemen of high birth, and large estates, and began again to amuse my imagination with hopes of preferment, though not quite so confidently as when I had less experience.
The first great conquest which this new scene enabled me to gain over myself was, when I submitted to confess to a party, who invited me to an expensive diversion, that my revenues were not equal to such golden pleasures; they would not suffer me, however, to stay behind, and with great reluctance I yielded to be treated. I took that opportunity of recommending myself to some office or employment, which they unanimously promised to procure me by their joint interest.
I had now entered into a state of dependence, and had hopes, or fears, from almost every man I saw. If it be unhappy to have one patron, what is his misery who has many? I was obliged to comply with a thousand caprices, to concur in a thousand follies, and to countenance a thousand errours. I endured innumerable mortifications, if not from cruelty, at least from negligence, which will creep in upon the kindest and most delicate minds, when they converse without the mutual awe of equal condition. I found the spirit and vigour of liberty every moment sinking in me, and a servile fear of displeasing stealing by degrees upon all my behaviour, till no word, or look, or action, was my own. As the solicitude to please increased, the power of pleasing grew less, and I was always clouded with diffidence where it was most my interest and wish to shine.
My patrons, considering me as belonging to the community, and, therefore, not the charge of any particular person, made no scruple of neglecting any opportunity of promoting me, which every one thought more properly the business of another. An account of my expectations and disappointments, and the succeeding vicissitudes of my life I shall give you in my following letter, which will be, I hope, of use to shew how ill he forms his schemes, who expects happiness without freedom.
I am, &c.