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John Boyle, Earl of Corke and Orrery

LORD ORRERY was an amiable man, and an elegant scholar. It is well known that his father, the second earl of Orrery, in a too hasty passion, which originated in a family dispute, bequeathed his splendid library to the university of Oxford; and this has given room for some malicious critic to observe, that the father must have been very sensible of what little use it would have been to the son, the subject of this article. Nothing can be more unjust. Lord Orrery could not indeed exert the inventive ardour of genius, yet he has displayed in all his literary compositions great delicacy of taste; a fine style, and occasionally an exquisite vein of humour. It were well if amongst our nobility we could boast of more Orreries! It was once the pride of our country, which made it respectable in the eyes of our neighbours, that the fine arts and polite literature were cultivated by courtiers. With the present ungovernable spirit of dissipation, it is rather singular that none have indulged in the luxuries of taste. But horses are more amusing companions, it seems, than books. I believe there may yet remain a few of the nobility who cherish the ingenious artist, but I know of none whose works, as Voltaire observed of some of our nobles in his day, do them more honour than their name. It is however some consolation, when we reflect on the B———, the Q———, and the G——— of the times, that perhaps, at some more propitious period, our posterity may see again a Roscommon, a Dorset, and a Lyttelton. In our days, he is fortunate who attains to the science of a pugilist, and can display the genius of a groom.1

To give a feature of the amiable character of Lord Orrery, I shall transcribe the following sentiment, which is to be found in one of his printed letters.

“Indeed, whenever we step out of domestic life in search of felicity, we come back again disappointed, tired, and chagrined. One day passed under our own roof is worth a thousand in any other place. The noise and bustle, or, as they are foolishly called, the diversions of life, are despicable and tasteless, when we have once experienced the real delights of a fire side.”

As the public have distinguished with their approbation the writings of this elegant scholar, they will respect these relics, which I rescue, for their gratification, with the rapture of an ancient pilgrim, who discovers the bones of a saint. The originals are deposited in the British Museum. They are parts of Lord Orrery’s correspondence with Dr. Birch. I have preferred giving fragments, rather than the whole letters; and have selected those parts which turn on literary topics.

Florence, December 3, 1754.
“Florence, and indeed all the towns which I have seen in Italy, except Bologna, are in a very visible state of decay. Bologna is particularly fortunate, not only in being a territory belonging to the holy see, but in being the birth place of the present Pope Benedict the XIVth. He is a man of literature, and a great encourager of arts and sciences. He has always acted with moderation in his ecclesiastical power, and has gone so far as to abolish a great number of those pernicious exercises of devotion, the idle holidays. He would proceed farther if he dared. He is very old, near eighty, but not infirm. He is of the family of the Lambertini.
“We arrived at Bologna early in the afternoon, on the 20th of October; as strangers, we were conducted to the cathedral dedicated to St. Petronius, and from thence to the lesser but archiepiscopal church of St. Peter. The cathedral is large, dark, and dirty. On the same spot where the high altar now stands, the Emperor Charles the Vth was crowned King of Lombardy, by Pope Clement the Seventh, in the year 1529. The happiest effect of that coronation was an universal peace to Italy.
“The church dedicated to St. Peter has been beautified, and even a third part augmented, by the present Pope. The several interior chapels have the merit at least of cleanliness. Some of them are decorated to a point of magnificence. Scarce a month, scarce a week passes, without many valuable presents from the Pope to this seat of his nativity, besides his constant annual expences in buildings and decorations proper for those edifices. Judge, under the auspicious influence of such a star, how flourishing the university of Bologna must find itself, especially that part of it which was founded, built, and instituted in the year 1712, by that great soldier, and greater philosopher, Lewis Ferdinand Marsigli, as a repository for all proper experiments in the several branches of useful and ornamental knowledge. I may possibly hereafter attempt to describe to you this museum, At present I shall only say, that I wish we had any similitude to it in either of our English universities. I blush when I consider, that foreigners are entertained at Oxford with the sight of Oliver Cromwell’s skull, President Bradshaw’s hat, and Harry the Vth’s cradle. With what contempt and indignation must a Russian look upon the Czar of Muscovy’s dram-cup? And again, with what envy must the ladies behold a Chinese pack of cards, carefully preserved amongst musty manuscripts and old parchments, in one of the libraries at Cambridge! At Bologna, the collection of rarities were far different. Every particular object was either beautiful or instructive; generally both. I was sorry not to enjoy a sight of the books. At present they are in confusion. A new library is fitting up to receive them. It is a noble room, and will contain an hundred thousand volumes. The whole is finishing at the Pope’s expence. The shelves are all fixed. The cases are faced with the finest walnut-tree, and the workmanship is nice enough to put us in mind of England.
Surely BOLOGNA has not been sufficiently dignified in the annals of literature. I scarce remember it celebrated for any thing but sausages; a properer emblem of a cook’s shop than of an university. The truth is, few parts of Italy abound with men of learning. The clergy rather cultivate the political than the classical sciences, and the nobility cultivate no sciences at all.”

In a letter from Caledon, dated May 26, 1747, is the following opinion on Abbé De Blanc’s work on the English nation; a work which was universally read in its day: the observations of lord Orrery are now confirmed by the voice of the public.

“I could not meet with the original French letters of Monsieur LE BLANC. I met with a translation of them, which reads heavily enough. The spirit of the author may possibly be lost in the translation, but the reflections are by no means brilliant. They are often unjust, and where proper, are trite or trifling. They seem rather observations made in particular companies, upon particular persons, than an extended criticism upon the whole nation. Yet I am to blame to pass this positive judgment on the book, since of the two volumes I have only read one, and about a quarter, but in truth I believe I shall never go any farther.
“I had a glimpse of WARBURTON’s Shakespeare, my house is too little to hold any more Shakespeares; but I have room for the Divine Legation of Moses.”

In the same letter are the following passages relative to the Irish nation:

“I have lately passed a fortnight in Dublin. All my leisure time was employed in the bookseller’s shops and particularly in search of such books as you have mentioned to me. Many of them are not to be found on our Hibernian coast. When St. Patrick banished poisonous animals, the Saint in his fury probably cursed books into the bargain. He certainly wished ignorance might succeed him; and I am sorry to tell you, that scarce a gentleman in Ireland (although he be a better protestant than ever St. Patrick dreaded) goes further in literature than Urban’s English Magazine, or Faulkner’s Irish Journal.”

In another part he continues the same subject.

“The essay on virtue and the philosophical books stay on your side of the water. Virtue is loth, I fear, to come to Ireland; and philosophy thinks she should be swallowed up in our bogs; yet in truth such apprehensions are groundless. We are really improving, slowly but certainly. Lord Chesterfield’s influence, like the departed sun, has left a warm, but serene sky behind it. I have known this kingdom fifteen years. More improvements than I have visibly observed of all kinds, could not have been effected in that space of time. Duels are at an end. Politeness is making some progress. Literature is close behind her. Industry must follow. As popery decreases, cleanliness and honesty will find place. The charter schools will banish the former, and introduce the two latter.”

The following extracts present us with his sentiments on Johnson’s celebrated Dictionary:

Caledon, Nov. 19, 1747.
“Do you know the author of the English dictionary? I wish the work well done; it is much wanted. I would have a collection of bad phrases, as well as of good; as I would see a bad building to avoid the faults in it.”
Dec. 30, 1747.
“I have just now seen the specimen of Mr. Johnson’s Dictionary, addressed to lord Chesterfield. I am much pleased with the plan, and think the specimen is one of the best I have ever read, Most specimens disgust, rather than prejudice us in favour of the work to follow. But the language of Mr. Johnson’s is good, and the arguments are properly expressed. However some expressions may be cavilled at, but they are trifles. I will mention one, the barren laurel; the laurel is not barren in any sense whatever. It bears fruits and flowers. Sed hæ sunt nugæ. And I have great expectations from the performance.”
October 13, 1742, written at Marston, near Frome, Somersetshire.
“FONTENELLE, like our neighbouring thorn, blossoms in the winter of his days. As I have his works in three volumes quarto, I will be contented with that edition till he dies; and then perhaps we may have his whole works compleat. Living authors are so continually adding, altering; and new edifying their books, that if we attempt, at this distance from London, to buy every new edition that appears, the carriage will amount to more than the books themselves.—These are my thoughts too of VOLTAIRE, but if he would give us the life of Lewis the XIVth, which he promised long ago, I should be much more craving after that morsel, than any feast he may exhibit of Charles XII. in prose, or Henry IV. in poetry.”
Caledon; (his seat in Ireland) December 27, 1746.
“I am very curious to see the letters concerning the English, and will try to obtain the original in French. I never heard before of the author, the Abbé de Blanc. I shall not wonder to find him much mistaken in facts, and in accounts of persons; he certainly never appeared in high life; and the scenes of his life are scarce worth knowing. Monsieur Voltaire has failed more in his letters concerning the English, than in any work he ever published; yet, he saw and conversed with the first rank of people in our nation, and his genius, I dare surmise, is far superior to De Blanc: even the letters published before, upon the same subject, (I know not the author) are very erroneous. We are a people not immediately known; various like our climate, reserved and stiff to foreigners, shy and mistrustful even of ourselves. The eye must be very discerning that can see the beauties and defects of the English nation.”

At this time Lord Orrery was employed on his translation of Pliny, and Mr. Melmoth’s suddenly appeared. On this subject he writes,

“Mr. MELMOTH raises my impatience, (not the impatience of anger) and therefore I will try to have his work sent me in sheets by the post. He has undertaken a very difficult task, to my knowledge. I pursue Pliny very closely, but mostly in translation as yet; for I find I cannot conveniently go on in my observations without my chronological table, which is in your hands.”

In a letter dated Caledon, February 23, 1746-7, is to be found his opinion of Melmoth’s translation:

“I have read Mr. Melmoth: he has studied the language more, I believe, than the translation. Some of his notes are extremely good; but his method and mine are so very different, that the public cannot, I hope, be cloyed with seeing Pliny in another dress. Mr. Melmoth seems to have been in haste to publish; I am too old and too gouty to run races.”

1 The Jockey club having declared that Chiffeney, a groom, was disabled from running his usual courses, a great personage has bestowed on him an annuity of two hundred pounds per annum, and has thus given his groom a philosophical independence.