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Life And Habits Of A Literary Antiquary.–Oldys And His Manuscripts
by [?]

Oldys is chiefly known by the caricature of the facetious Grose; a great humourist, both with pencil and with pen: it is in a posthumous scrap-book, where Grose deposited his odds and ends, and where there is perhaps not a single story which is not satirical. Our lively antiquary, who cared more for rusty armour than for rusty volumes, would turn over these flams and quips to some confidential friend, to enjoy together a secret laugh at their literary intimates. His eager executor, who happened to be his bookseller, served up the poignant hash to the public as “Grose’s Olio!”[2] The delineation of Oldys is sufficiently overcharged for “the nonce.” One prevalent infirmity of honest Oldys, his love of companionship over too social a glass, sends him down to posterity in a grotesque attitude; and Mr. Alexander Chalmers, who has given us the fullest account of Oldys, has inflicted on him something like a sermon, on “a state of intoxication.”

Alas! Oldys was an outcast of fortune,[3] and the utter simplicity of his heart was guileless as a child’s–ever open to the designing. The noble spirit of a Duke of Norfolk once rescued the long-lost historian of Rawleigh from the confinement of the Fleet, where he had existed, probably forgotten by the world, for six years. It was by an act of grace that the duke safely placed Oldys in the Heralds’ College as Norroy King of Arms.[4] But Oldys, like all shy and retired men, had contracted peculiar habits and close attachments for a few; both these he could indulge at no distance. He liked his old associates in the purlieus of the Fleet, whom he facetiously dignified as “his Rulers,” and there, as I have heard, with the grotesque whim of a herald, established “The Dragon Club.” Companionship yields the poor man unpurchased pleasures. Oldys, busied every morning among the departed wits and the learned of our country, reflected some image from them of their wit and learning to his companions: a secret history as yet untold, and ancient wit, which, cleared of the rust, seemed to him brilliant as the modern!

It is hard, however, for a literary antiquary to be caricatured, and for a herald to be ridiculed about an “unseemly reeling with the coronet of the Princess Caroline, which looked unsteady on the cushion, to the great scandal of his brethren,”–a circumstance which could never have occurred at the burial of a prince or princess, as the coronet is carried by Clarencieux, and not by Norroy. Oldys’s deep potations of ale, however, give me an opportunity of bestowing on him the honour of being the author of a popular Anacreontic song. Mr. Taylor informs me that “Oldys always asserted that he was the author of the well-known song–

Busy, curious, thirsty fly.

and as he was a rigid lover of truth, I doubt not that he wrote it.” My own researches confirm it: I have traced this popular song through a dozen of collections since the year 1740, the first in which I find it. In the later collections an original inscription has been dropped, which the accurate Ritson has restored, without, however, being able to discover the writer. In 1740 it is said to have been “made extempore by a gentleman, occasioned by a fly drinking out of his cup of ale;”–the accustomed potion of poor Oldys![5]

Grose, however, though a great joker on the peculiarities of Oldys, was far from insensible to the extraordinary acquisitions of the man. “His knowledge of English books has hardly been exceeded.” Grose, too, was struck by the delicacy of honour, and the unswerving veracity which so strongly characterised Oldys, of which he gives a remarkable instance.[6] We are concerned in ascertaining the moral integrity of the writer, whose main business is with history.

At a time when our literary history, excepting in the solitary labour of Anthony Wood, was a forest, with neither road nor pathway, Oldys, fortunately placed in the library of the Earl of Oxford, yielded up his entire days to researches concerning the books and the men of the preceding age. His labours were then valueless, their very nature not yet ascertained, and when he opened the treasures of our ancient lore in “The British Librarian,” it was closed for want of public encouragement. Our writers, then struggling to create an age of genius of their own, forgot that they had had any progenitors; or while they were acquiring new modes of excellence, that they were losing others, to which their posterity or the national genius might return. (To know, and to admire only, the literature and the tastes of our own age, is a species of elegant barbarism.)[7] Spenser was considered nearly as obsolete as Chaucer; Milton was veiled by oblivion, and Shakspeare’s dramas were so imperfectly known, that in looking over the play-bills of 1711, and much later, I find that whenever it chanced that they were acted, they were always announced to have been “written by Shakspeare.” Massinger was unknown; and Jonson, though called “immortal” in the old play-bills, lay entombed in his two folios. The poetical era of Elizabeth, the eloquent age of James the First, and the age of wit of Charles the Second, were blanks in our literary history. Bysshe, compiling an Art of Poetry in 1718, passed by in his collection ” Spenser and the poets of his age, because their language is now become so obsolete that most readers of our age have no ear for them, and therefore Shakspeare himself is so rarely cited in my collection.” The best English poets were considered to be the modern; a taste which is always obstinate!