The Poetic Parson

Rev Percival Stockdale

The Reverend Percival Stockdale, cleric, poet and writer who is now largely forgotten. He seems to have thought more of his talents than others did!


Percival Stockdale, writer, the only child of Thomas Stockdale (d. 1755), vicar of the parish and perpetual curate of Cornhill, near the Tweed, and his wife, Dorothy Collingwood of Murton, Northumberland, was born on 26 October 1736 at Brampton, Northumberland. He spent six years in grammar school at Alnwick, from which he transferred to Berwick upon Tweed, where he became proficient in Greek and Latin, learned a smattering of Hebrew, and acquired a love of poetry. He had hoped to attend Oxford or Cambridge, but neither he nor his relatives could, or would, afford it. In 1754 he entered St Andrews University, having obtained a bursary in the united colleges of St Leonard and St Salvador, where he proved a disputatious student. When his father died on 7 April 1755 his already straitened circumstances became even more dire. He returned to St Andrews in October, and in February 1756 left the university and his home at Berwick to become a second lieutenant in the Royal Welch Fusiliers. He served on HMS Revenge during 1756–7 in the unfortunate expedition dispatched, under the command of Admirals Byng and West, to relieve the besieged garrison of St Philip on the island of Minorca.

Stockdale’s poor health forced him to leave the army after a short spell as a recruiting officer in Bigglesworth, Bedfordshire. He resigned his commission in November 1757 and set out to rejoin his mother in Berwick, stopping, however, in Durham, where he enjoyed the hospitality of Dr Thomas Sharp, Hebraist and writer of theological works, and his son Thomas. He evidently stayed with the Sharps for some time, a period during which he applied himself to further study of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and theology. It was at the urging of the Sharps that he took holy orders, being ordained deacon on 29 September 1759. Soon after his ordination as deacon by Dr Richard Trevor, Bishop of Durham, he went to London as the young Sharp’s substitute in the curacy and lectureship of Duke’s Place, Aldgate. He returned to Berwick in 1762 and to a curacy which he enjoyed up to 1767; while there he published two poems, the first of his many publications. When his curacy ended he was at a loose end and travelled to Italy, spending two years in Villafranca, studying and reading and learning Italian and Spanish. There he fell in love with a British woman whom he later married and then abandoned.

Most of what is known of this part of his life resides in a letter, dated 19 July 1785, from William Johnson Temple, a friend of the younger James Boswell, to Edward Jerningham, a bad minor poet, although a conscientious correspondent.

“As to Mr. Stockdale, I had known him long. He is a strange eccentrick character & has been guilty of great indiscretions, & it surprises me how he has fallen in your way. I find he attempts to make atonement for something disrespectful he had rhymed of you in some poem of his. He was first in the army,—then in the Church—engaged to a young Lady, married an old one—The young one prosecuted & recovered damages, which he paid. They then ran away together—to Nice, leaving the woman behind, who went mad & died. The lovers then returned & married & then separated. For some time he was tutor to Lord Craven’s children, but left them in disdain, because her Ladyship would not admit him of her private parties. Mr. Pitt it seems has given him a living which he might have bestowed on as good a man. … I believe he can hardly mention a friend or benefactor with whom he has not quarreled for imaginary slights, Dr Thorpe, Dr Johnson & c. He has not yet been able to quarrel with me & I have assisted him out of some humanity when he was in great distress.”

When Stockdale returned to London in 1769 he was without clerical prospects and hence devoted himself to writing, beginning with a translation of Tasso’s Amyntas, published in 1770, the same year he met Samuel Johnson. He became editor of the Critical Review and of the Universal Magazine in the following year. A number of Stockdale’s works were published in 1772 and 1773, including his best-known poem, simply titled The Poet. It was during this period that Lord Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty, appointed him chaplain of HMS Resolution, a post he held for three years. As a result he found it necessary to reside in Portsmouth, the Isle of Wight, and London. While chaplain of the Resolution he wrote some minor poetry, translated from French, and took issue with the first volume of Joseph Warton’s Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1756) in his own An Enquiry into the Nature and Genuine Laws of Poetry, Including a Particular Defence of the Writing and Genius of Mr. Pope (1778). Warton had advocated stripping the metre from a number of lines of a given poem by Pope and enquiring if it could still be adjudged poetry. Stockdale would have none of this, stating that one could tell poetry simply from taste. No single part of a true poem could be omitted. Elsewhere in his criticism he showed a preference for Pope over Dryden, the former better able to arouse emotion. He was a champion for the poetry of Gray and Milton against Johnson’s strictures. And in his Essay on Misanthropy (1783) he had some perceptive things to say about Gulliver’s Travels. If Jane Porter, the author of the biographical account of Stockdale in the Gentleman’s Magazine, can be believed, Dr Johnson, speaking of Stockdale’s criticism of Warton’s Essay, said:

“Stockey … (that kind of diminutive being used by him toward his familiar acquaintance), is perfectly right. He has defended the cause of Pope with incontrovertible arguments, and with great eloquence; and he must be supported in his defence of that great Poet.”

As Stockdale had borrowed passages from Johnson’s Rambler, no. 156, the anecdote may have some validity. Miss Porter, author of the very popular novels Thaddeus of Warsaw (1803) and the more famous The Scottish Chiefs (1810), was Stockdale’s correspondent and very great friend.

After a brief period as tutor to Lord Craven’s children, Stockdale left that position and £300 a year in 1780, when he was given the rectory of Hinxworth, Hertfordshire, where, twenty-three years after his diaconate, he took priest’s orders. He continued to write, and in 1773 he was presented the vicarage of Lesbury, Northumberland, by Lord Chancellor Thurlow and the vicarage of Long Houghton by the Duke of Northumberland. On 28 October 1784 Archbishop More conferred upon him the Lambeth degree of MA, a degree necessary to hold the plural livings. Four years later his verse tragedy Ximenes was printed but not acted, turned down by the manager of the Covent Garden Theatre.

According to Stockdale, about 1779 or 1780 he was contracted by two booksellers to bring out a new edition of the English poets with biographical accounts, but because of some misunderstanding he was passed over and Dr Johnson was given a contract which resulted in his Lives of the English Poets. Stockdale never forgave Johnson; shortly after Johnson’s death he wrote, in a letter of 22 January 1785: “Dr. Johnson is no more. As I was a friend of his glory, I wish he had died ten years ago, before he wrote his Lives of the Poets and his political pamphlets. But he was a great and good man; and his death has made a large, melancholy, and irreperable chasm in Society. This my generosity, if not my equity, says of him, for he acted very meanly as my friend”

After a trip to Tangier, to recuperate from a spell of ill health, Stockdale returned to Lesbury in 1790. There, where he was to spend the rest of his life, he wrote on a number of subjects, published some sermons, and brought his writing career to an end with two works, Lectures on the Truly Eminent English Poets (1807) and the self-adulatory Memoirs of the life and writings of Percival Stockdale, containing many interesting anecdotes of the illustrious men with whom he was connected. Written by himself (2 vols., 1809). Sir Walter Scott, who saw Stockdale in London in 1809 or 1810, and who described him as ‘a thin, vivacious, emaciated spectre, fluttering about book-sellers’ shops, eager to attract attention’, characterized the Memoirs as an ‘extraordinary effusion of egotism and vanity’ (Weinbrot, 113–14). Stockdale died at Lesbury on 14 September 1811 and was buried at Cornhill-on-Tweed. Possibly only Jane Porter remembered him with any affection, and he is now a largely forgotten figure. There is no modern biography of him and little secondary literature.

A final thought: apparently when he was still friends with Samuel Johnson, Stockdale wrote a poem entitled: “An Elegy on the Death of Dr Johnson’s Favourite Cat”!

(Adapted principally from the Dictionary of National Biography)


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