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Early poems by - and not by - Fielding.

On November 1727 appeared a pair of poems, advertised as "The Coronation. A Poem. And an Ode on the Birth-day. By Mr. Fielding," printed for Benjamin Creake and sold by James Roberts. We know of this publication only from the newspaper advertising, as no copy has been found. Since David Foxon first listed the advertisements,(1) the authorial "Mr. Fielding" named there has been taken to be Henry Fielding--really the only plausible candidate--and the poems therefore his earliest known work in print, frustratingly represented however by these bodiless titles alone. Fielding did not reprint the poems with other early verse he collected for the first volume of his Miscellanies (1743)--though they were not the only omissions--and Fielding specialists have poked unhappily for some years now through nonce volumes of poems on the 1727 coronation, looking for this one, with no luck. Chances are a copy does survive somewhere, in its original issue or (less likely) a newspaper extract or other such republication, or (just conceivably) in the pages of somebody's commonplace book or album. Meanwhile, here is a slight bit more than we have seen of Fielding's effort, in the epigraph he applied to the coronation poem. It appears with one of the advertisements (as poetical epigraphs often did), in this case an unrecorded notice in the St. James's Evening Post (11 November 1727), giving the same particulars as the other advertisements previously recorded, but also including these lines from Virgil immediately following the title "The Coronation":

Tot. [sic] Ante leves ergo pascentur in AEthere cervi,

Et freta destituent nudos in littore Pisces:

Ante, pererratis amborum finibus exul.

Aut Ararium Parthus bibet, aut Germania Tigrim:

Quam nostro illius labatur, pectore vultos.

Virgil I quote the lines as they appear in the newspaper advertisement. The speech tag "Tot." is an evident misprint for "Tit.," abbreviating Tityrus. Otherwise the lines do not differ substantively from the accepted text of this passage, which is Eclogue 1.59-63.(2)

Having added this very modest scrap to the record on "The Coronation," where we have an author but no text, I would now like to consider another poem from Fielding's early days, where we have a text but suddenly now no more author, or rather no author we can depend on. Fifty years ago Howard P. Vincent published two poems ascribed to Fielding in eighteenth-century printed sources.(3) One was "A Dialogue between a Beau's Head and his Heels," published in the sixth volume of Watts's Musical Miscellany (1731), an authoritative source (Fielding's own publisher), carefully and expensively produced, and published within Fielding's view. This "Dialogue" also got left out of the Miscellanies collection, but there is no reason to doubt its authenticity. Vincent in 1943 called the poem "hitherto unnoted," but Helen S. Hughes had published and discussed it in 1922, in Philological Quarterly.(4) Such is the memory of scholarship.

The other item Vincent reproduced was "An Original Song," so called, "Written on the first Appearance of the Beggar's Opera," and beginning, "Now Sally Salisbury's dead and gone." Vincent found the text printed in the March 1787 number of The County Magazine, a West Country monthly published in Salisbury, which ran for three years from January 1786, plus another three under an altered title (The Western County Magazine, January 1790-December 1792).(5) The song title as quoted above was clearly a retrospective heading given by the magazine. In full it runs: "An Original Song, Written on the first Appearance of the Beggars Opera, by the late Henry Fielding, Esq. Author of Tom Jones, &c. then resident in Salisbury." The magazine gives no basis for this ascription, and we do not know whether it dates from Fielding's lifetime, or the lifetime of anybody in a position to know, or what its source might have been. Some material in the magazine is dated and signed as from contributing correspondents, though most, including this material, is not. So it is impossible to tell whether the poem was a contributed item, or had any meaningful provenance, or was published from manuscript or print copy.

In the preface to his Miscellanies Fielding said in so many words that he had no gift for poetry. But even by that confessedly humble standard of verse-making, these verses are terrible. For example:

Shakespeare divine was cut to the soul;

Addison and Dryden ran their heads into a hole.... But on the magazine's sole authority, through Vincent's citation and republication, the "Song" has been accepted and occasionally discussed as Fielding's work.(6)

The same poem appears in contemporary print in 1731, however, as the work of Tony Aston. It is part of a pamphlet entertainment called The Fool's Opera; or, the Taste of the Age, the title of which continues: "Written by Mat. Medley. And Performed by his Company in Oxford.... To which is prefix'd, A Sketch of the Author's Life, Written by Himself" (London, n.d.). In the separate internal title, the life subject is identified as Aston: "A Sketch of the Life, &c. of Mr. Anthony Aston, Commonly call'd Tony Aston. Written by Himself..." (p. 15). The pamphlet was published in April 1731.(7)

The title opera is a one-scene ballad farce making a rather nasty allegorical take-off on Gay in the character of a nonsense poet and Queensberry house pet. Sandwiched in between the opera and the concluding prose "Life" of Aston is the song, "A Ballad, Called, A Dissertation on the Beggar's Opera" (pp. 12-14). The text in places differs considerably from the version printed fifty years later in The County Magazine--particularly at stanza five, where the two texts do not correspond at all, and again at the end, where the 1731 text continues with a seventh and eighth stanza, the latter being a reprise, with variation, of the sixth, which concludes the 1787 version. For the record, and let us hope for the last time, here are the two texts of this poem, reprinted together to make comparison easier. The transcription from the 1787 County Magazine also corrects a few minor errors from Vincent's print of that text in Notes and Queries.









AN ORIGINAL SONG, Written on the first Appearance of the BEGGARS OPERA, by the late HENRY FIELDING, Esq. Author of Tom Jones, &c. then resident in Salisbury.



Now Sally Sals'bury's dead as Drum, Up started fav'rite Polly Peachum. She was'nt half so rare; She was'nt half so fair: None e're cou'd compare With Charming Sall.



Now Sally Salisbury's dead and gone, Up starts fav'rite Polly Peachum; Now Sally Salisbury's dead and gone, Up starts fav'rite Polly Peachum; She is not half so fair, she is not half so rare, Nothing cou'd e'er compare with charming Sall.



Sally she lodg'd at the Chequer Inn, Where Polly Peachum had often been. Farewel Poll she cry'd, Sigh'd, drank a Dram and dy'd; Fairer Nymph I never spy'd, Than charming Sall.



Sally she lodg'd at the Chequer inn, Where Polly Peachum had often been; Sally she lodg'd at the Chequer inn, Where Polly Peachum had often been; Farewell, dear Poll, she cried, sigh'd, drank a dram, and died: Fairer nymph I never spied than charming Sall.



Polly she grew extensive fair; She put in to be a Player In that same famous Play, Which ran Night and Day, Call'd the Beggar's Opera. O brave Gay!



Polly she grew extensive fair, She put in to be a player; Polly she grew extensive fair, She put in to be a player, In that same famous play, which ran both night and day, Call'd the Beggars Opera--O brave Gay!



Shakespear divine was cut to the Soul; Addison and Dryden ran their Heads in a hole; Z--ds, quo' Wycherly; Steel swore bitterly, He'd kill him, which is He? So said Lee.



Shakespear divine was cut to the soul; Addison and Dryden ran their heads into a hole; Shakespear divine was cut to the soul; Addison and Dryden ran their heads into a hole; Steel swore bitterly; zwoons! cry'd Whicherly, I'll kill 'en; which is he? which is he?



Up started Gay then, I'll tell what, quo' He, My new turn'd Stile diverts the Quality; I shall be a Fav'rite still, Tho' to wit a bitter Pill; That's Novimus esse Nil, Beyond my Skill.



Then all the Mob from the City and Court Ran to see this Hodge-podge Sport: This same famous Play, Which ran Night and Day, Call'd the Beggar's Opera. O brave Gay!



Then for the character of Captain Macheath,

It made Walker a player in spite of his teeth;

Then for the character of Captain Macheath,

It made Walker a player in spite of his teeth;

To act their parts they cou'd not fail, All the actors liv'd in jail, Soaking jugs of nappy ale, mild and stale.



Now all the mob from the town and court,

Came for to see this hotch potch sport;

Now all the mob from the town and court,

Came for to see this hotch potch sport;

To see this famous play, which ran both night and day,

Call'd the Beggars Opera--Oh! brave Gay!



Well, good Folks, since for Wit you're not, That nothing but by Nonsense a Penny's to be got; Pray subscribe before you go, (For my Wit runs very low,) For a Musick-booth or Puppet-show; Come let's go.



Then all the Mob from the City and Court, Came to see this ingenious Sport: This same famous Strain, Which brought Rich his Gain, And maul'd Drury-Lane, Shine or Rain. The line in the fifth stanza repeats a joke (of sorts) from his note "To the Reader" prefixed to the opera: "Like Mr. Rowe, I own I had my mighty Bard in View; --Tho' for Similes, Allusions, Smoothness of Stile, and Novelty of Thought, will venture to say, with that Great Poet; Hoc nil esse novimus. Paejr.(8) The 1731 verses are perfectly consistent with the Astonian spirit of the whole pamphlet--conscious doggerel, barely distinguishable even at that from unconscious doggerel. The evident integrity of the material in the Fool's Opera, and its publication only three years after the event of the Beggar's Opera, make this imprint a considerably more convincing document for the authorship of the song than the long-belated Salisbury ascription.

As to that evidence, I can find nothing about The County Magazine itself to suggest that its contents have any authority. The March 1787 number is a compilation from other sources, uncredited, along with some apparently original contributions from correspondents. The European Magazine for February 1787, for example, looks to have been a silent help to the March County Magazine, supplying a "Song" by Maria Falconer, and new letters supposedly by Sterne, though actually forgeries by William Combe.(9) The County Magazine for this month also ran anecdotes from the newly-published Hawkins edition of Johnson's works, including Sir John's notoriously stupid footnote on Fielding, "one of the most motley of literary characters," and a lengthy extract of verse from The Seasons, unreassuringly identified in large capitals as "By William Thomson."(10)

I did not try to analyze the material or the editing in any of the other numbers, but even a little testing of this one month's provision is enough to show how unwise it would be to count the magazine as a source of any independent value. Martin Battestin says that the success of the Beggar's Opera prompted Fielding to "dash off" this song, "which one of his Salisbury acquaintance preserved and published years later."(11) But we have no evidence for any such assertion. How or why the verses got connected with Fielding there is no telling, at least on the evidence we do have in hand. Maybe the connection is based on something real; though "William Thomson" is enough to make me wonder--looking again at the syntax of the song title heading--if the magazine compiler could have been identifying not the "Original Song" but the "Beggar's Opera" as the work supposedly written "by the late Henry Fielding." Surely not: but surely not William Thomson, either. And what circumstance of authorship or transmission might be signified by the variant stanzas? Again there is no telling, without more information.

If anyone should be anxious to save this poem for Fielding, I suppose it could be argued that Aston went to Salisbury and took it from him in manuscript, then published it as his own; but somebody else will have to make that argument. The Salisbury ascription conceivably could still mean something, though I'm not sure what, and the chances are now against it. So unless better evidence turns up, it looks to me as if this song should be subtracted from Fielding's poetical canon--you could almost call it an addition--and pencilled in under Tony Aston's name. Little as he can afford to lose poetically, Fielding won't suffer anything by this loss; nor for that matter will Aston suffer much by the gain.

There must be some modest professional lesson in all this too: for half a century here we have been complacently passing along this unexplained and unexamined attribution, of no known credit, dated 33 years after the supposed author's death and 59 years after the occasion of the work. Eventually the attribution is seen to be false, or at any rate highly questionable, and this steadily lengthening (and steadily thus more creditable?) tradition of error gets broken--but only because chance puts a better document in the way of somebody's notice. Of course we know that such things happen all the time: which seems to me the lesson.

University of Washington


(1)English Verse 1701-1750 (Cambridge U. Press, 1975), 1:F119.

(2)There are some differences, as "vultos" for "voltus," but whether these readings originate with Fielding or with the newspaper printshop is impossible to say. In English the lines are: "Sooner, then, shall the nimble stag graze in air, and the seas leave their fish bare on the strand--sooner, each wandering over the other's frontiers, shall the Parthian in exile drink the Arar, and Germany the Tigris, than that look of his shall fade from my heart" (Loeb trans.). He of the unfading image is Octavian; hence, by enthusiastic transference, King George II.

(3)"Early Poems by Henry Fielding," Notes and Queries 184 (13 March 1943): 159-60.

(4)Vincent, p. 160. Helen S. Hughes, "A Dialogue--Possibly by Henry Fielding," Philological Quarterly 1 (1922): 49-55.

(5)The magazine numbers for 1786 and 1787 were included in the first collected volume of the County Magazine, published in 1788. I take my text of the "Original Song" from this volume (p. 239).

(6)The New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature (Cambridge U. Press, 1971) lists it with his works (2:931). It has been discussed most recently in Martin Battestin's Henry Fielding: A Life (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), pp. 61-62.

(7)Monthly Chronicle (April 1731), p. 83. The Fool's Opera is No. 2394 in J. F. Arnott and J. W. Robinson, English Theatrical Literature 1559-1900 (London: Society for Theatre Research, 1970), p. 228. The best account of Aston is that in the Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses ... ed. Highfill, Burnim, and Langhans (Carbondale: Southern Illinois U. Press, 1973), 1:151-59.

(8)A misquotation of the title page motto of the Beggar's Opera.

(9)The Falconer "Song" in the February European Magazine is on p. 108; in the March County Magazine, p. 231. The Sterne letters are pp. 62-64 in the European, pp. 231-32 in the County Magazine.

(10)The County Magazine (March 1787), 235-36, 232.

(11)Henry Fielding: A Life, p. 61.
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Title Annotation:Henry Fielding
Author:Lockwood, Thomas
Publication:Philological Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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