Samuel Boyse 1702/3-1749: A Tale of Old Grub Street

He was the son of a dissenting minister in Dublin and clever enough for school and even university (Glasgow), though lacking in sobriety and diligence.  He dropped out after two years and married a tradesman’s daughter; the two events are presumably connected.

In any event, there he was, aged twenty, liberally educated and in his own mind deserving of the patronage of others. What to do with his life?  He started off by moving back home with his new with and his sister-in-law to live off his long suffering father until that man died in 1728.

Times, if not great, were at least adequate.  He wrote  poetry and even managed to sell subscriptions for it (sort of an 18th century Kickstarter arrangement).  Scottish aristos were an obvious audience.   On the occasion of the death of the Viscountess Stormont, Boyse wrote “The Tears of the Muses” for which a grateful widower gave him a considerable sum.*

As business models go, it was perhaps not the best.  Aristocratic taste is fickle, dead wives are not always beloved (nor do they die on a predictable schedule) and wealth and generosity do not always go hand in hand.  Perhaps he could find a real job?

It seemed he could.  A friend of the Viscount Stormont procured him a sinecure with the customs department.  Boyse, however, missed the interview on account of rain and lost the position.

That’s the story, at any event, and you might think  the window of opportunity might have been just a bit larger.  You might also think that he would not have been much good at it anyway.  Certainly that was his opinion; he wrote that he thought the job would expect “a Strength and Application beyond my Capacity”.  Bone idle, you might think.

But not frugal.  By 1734,  he had left Edinburgh on the heels of his creditors  (this was still a time when bad debts put you in jail) but surprisingly with a pocketful of recommendations to the likes of the Lord Chancellor and the solicitor general.  Of course he muffed it.  Nothing but art would do for him.

To be fair, it was not as if he wouldn’t put in the hours.  It was a problem of over supply and under demand.  And of hard-boiled publishers as well.  Soon enough his literary talents turned to the begging letter (grant applications, as it were).  Men who held his father in esteem were a good source,at least for a while.  Eventually, however,  his scrounging was too much even for them.  Boyse was soon reduced to hack work, occasional poems for the magazines (thruppence a line), translations from the French (two guineas for a spot of Voltaire). He even worked at indexing (a job which must have made that sinecure at the tax office look pretty good).

In 1740, he hit the nadir for which he is chiefly remembered.  “Mr Boyse, reduced to the last extremity of human wretchedness, had not a shirt, a coat, or any kind of apparel to put on; the sheets in which he lay were carried to the pawnbroker’s, and he was obliged to be confined to bed, with no other covering than a blanket…through which he had cut a hole large enough to admit his arm, and placing the paper upon his knee scribbled, in the best manner he could, the verses he was obliged to make.”

Fellow writers, among them Samuel Johnson,  only slightly better off than he and appalled at his condition, took to collecting money sufficient to get his clothing out of hock.  “The sum,” said Johnson, “was collected by sixpences , at a time when to me sixpence was a serious consideration.”

Boyse’s first action was to blow it all on a four star meal for one.  The clothes were back in hock the next day.

Mrs. Boyse, often tasked with collecting the loans Mr Boyse’s letters earned them,  and  said to have found comfort in other men’s beds,  died in 1745 and buried on charity.  Two years later he somehow managed to convince another woman, a widow herself, that he was a good bet.  It was another case of marrying down, and for a while at least, she did him a world of good.  Apparently not one to put up with much nonsense,  the second Mrs. Boyse got Samuel to stay dressed and keep better accounts.  He turned out some light history (An Impartial History of the Jacobite Rising of 1745) and despite a new found dependence on drink was able to keep things more or less on an even keel

Not for long, alas.  Too much for the slacker in him, it appears, or at least the drinker.  He died in 1949 of phthisis, brought on it was said by a drunken encounter with first a horse drawn coach, then with a trio of off-duty soldiers.  What friends and acquaintances remained,  worn out by his constant touch, could not be induced to contribute to his burial.  What happened to his widow perhaps can be found in the archives.

In a world of taps and drains, he was by all accounts a drain.  At least to his friends and family.  We can only hope the second wife managed her own affairs better than she was able to do for his.


*(Not without difficulty – Boyse had no fixed address, and was more likely to associate with lowlifes than with respectable folk.  Only putting an advertisement in the papers discovered the young poet.)

There is no likeness of Boyse.  The above engraving is by Samuel Boyce, no relation, and entitled, appositely:  Fortune obstructing the genius of poetry  in the grounds of the temple of Learning and Fame.”  It will have to do.


One thought on “Samuel Boyse 1702/3-1749: A Tale of Old Grub Street

  1. Pingback: Dr. James Grainger, 1721-1767; “Come, Muse, Let’s Sing of Rats” | A History Blog by Bruce Ware Allen

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