In the "Distressed Poet" we have the only known Portrait of Lewis Theobald, an Author of no ordinary talents; and who, whatever may have been his merit in other respects, was a better Classical Scholar, and a far more able Commentator on Shakspeare, than his immediate Predecessor, by whom he was most wantonly abused in "The Dunciad."
The Distressed Poet, the Hero of the piece, considering independence as the most valuable ingredient in human life, has wisely determined to produce a Poem upon Riches, a subject to which he has hitherto been totally a stranger. Seated on the side of his bed, and defended from inclemency only by an antient night-gown, imagination glowing with the sublime, he seems inspired and delighted with his subject; when, unluckily, a Nymph of the milky way, like a ghost, comes stalking in, and destroys his high-soaring ideas. Her shrill-sounding voice on the magnitude of the score, accompanied with reiterated threats of giving no further credit, alarms the Female Partner of the Bard, and obliterates from his memory some of the noblest of stanzas which his fancy had created. Recovered from his shock, his ruffled mind grows calm, and he still conceives himself in possession of the Peruvian mines, a prospect of which is visible over his head, though far above his reach. Byshe's Art of Poetry lying on the table, informs us that the Versifier is unacquainted with the art of jingling, and is a stranger even to the mechanical part of Poesy. His pipe and tobacco-box, the friends and promoters of cogitation, seem to intimate that opaque clouds of smoke may occasionally envelope and obscure his talents; and from the Grub-street Journal on the floor, it seems natural to suppose that he may have been a contributor to that valuable repository of genius and erudition.
By the sloping roof and projecting chimney, we learn that the throne of this inspired Bard is far above the multitude. A garret is the height of his ambition, and he is happy in the possession of such an elevated habitation. The chimney is embellished with a dare for larks (a circular board, with pieces of looking glass inserted in it), a loaf, a book, a saucepan, and the utensils necessary for tea.
His sword lies peaceably on the floor; for our Professor of Poetry deals in no other instruments of war than sarcastic words; but in 1740 a sword was a necessary appendage to every man who called himself a Gentleman. At the feet of his domestic Helpmate, the full-dress coat performs the humble office of furnishing repose for a cat and two half-starved kittens. One stocking is also seen on the same spot, and another half immersed in the washing-pan. The broom, mop, and bellows, are scattered on the floor. A fencing-foil is degraded into a poker, and submits to the mean employment of stirring a half-extinguished fire.
The open door exposes an unfurnished cupboard, in which a starving solitary mouse is in vain endeavouring to discover a morsel of provision. The cracking plastering of the walls, the broken window, and the irregular floor, remind us of the Artist's strict attention to the propriety of scenery in this wretched abode of the Fabricator of heroic verse; and the long cloak, hanging in the corner, is finely calculated to conceal the tattered wardrobe of the Heroine of the tale.
Mr. Lamb, in noticing this Plate, asks, "Is there nothing sweetly conciliatory in the mild patient face and gesture with which the Wife seems to allay and ventilate the feverish irritated feelings of her poor, poverty-distracted Mate, who is the true copy of the genus irritabile?"
In the first impressions of this Print, Hogarth appears to have endeavoured to make his peace with the waspish Bard of Twickenham; who is represented, in the back-ground, thrashing Curll. Over the head of the Poet, was written, "Pope's Letters;" out of his mouth appeared, "Veni, vidi, vici;" and under the degraded Publisher was a letter directed to "Curll."
The following quotation from Pope was inscribed under it:
"Studious he sate, with all his books around,
Sinking from thought to thought, a vast profound;
Plunged for his sense, but found no bottom there,
Then wrote and floundered on in mere despair."
"All his books," when only one appeared, shews that Hogarth was not at first aware of the impropriety of introducing those lines as explanatory of his subject; but, upon mature consideration, he judiciously erased them; and instead of Pope thrashing Curll, inserted a view of the Mines of Peru.
The original Picture now forms part of the valuable and splendid collection of Earl Grosvenor.