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Chapter 93

Peregrine commits himself to the Public, and is admitted Member of a College of Authors.

The bitterness of this explanation being passed, our young gentleman began to revolve within himself schemes for making up the deficiencies of his yearly income, which was now so grievously reduced; and determined to profit, in some shape or other, by those talents which he owed to nature and education. He had, in his affluence, heard of several authors, who, without any pretensions to genius or human literature, earned a very genteel subsistence by undertaking work for booksellers, in which reputation was not at all concerned. One, for example, professed all manner of translation, at so much per sheet, and actually kept five or six amanuenses continually employed, like so many clerks in a counting-house, by which means he was enabled to live at his ease, and enjoy his friend and his bottle, ambitious of no other character than that of an honest man and a good neighbour. Another projected a variety of plans for new dictionaries, which were executed under his eye by day-labourers; and the province of a third was history and voyages, collected or abridged by understrappers of the same class.

Mr. Pickle, in his comparisons, paid such deference to his own capacity, as banished all doubts of his being able to excel any of those undertakers in their different branches of profession, if ever he should be driven to that experiment; but his ambition prompted him to make his interest and glory coincide, by attempting some performance which should do him honour with the public, and at the same time establish his importance among the copy-purchasers in town. With this view, he worshipped the muse; and, conscious of the little regard which is in this age paid to every species of poetic composition, in which neither satire nor obscenity occurs, he produced an imitation of Juvenal, and lashed some conspicuous characters, with equal truth, spirit, and severity. Though his name did not appear in the title-page of this production, he managed matters so that the work was universally imputed to the true author, who was not altogether disappointed in his expectations of success; for the impression was immediately sold off, and the piece became the subject of conversation in all assemblies of taste.

This happy exordium not only attracted the addresses of the booksellers, who made interest for his acquaintance, but also roused the notice of a society of authors, who styled themselves “The College,” from which he was honoured with a deputation, offering to enroll him a member by unanimous consent. The person employed for this purpose being a bard who had formerly tasted of our hero’s bounty, used all his eloquence to persuade him to comply with the advances of their fraternity, which he described in such a manner as inflamed the curiosity of Pickle, who dismissed the ambassador, with an acknowledgment of the great honour they conferred upon him, and a faithful promise of endeavouring to merit the continuance of their approbation.

He was afterwards, by the same minister, instructed in the ceremonies of the college; and, in consequence of his information, composed an ode, to be publicly recited on the evening of his introduction. He understood that this constitution was no other than a body of authors, incorporated by mutual consent, for their joint advantage and satisfaction, opposed to another assembly of the same kind, their avowed enemies and detractors. No wonder, then, that they sought to strengthen themselves with such a valuable acquisition as our hero was likely to prove. The college consisted of authors only, and these of all degrees in point of reputation, from the fabricator of a song, set to music, and sung at Marylebone, to the dramatic bard who had appeared in buskins upon the stage: nay, one of the members had actually finished eight books of an epic poem, for the publication of which he was at that time soliciting subscriptions.

It cannot be supposed that such a congregation of the sons of Apollo would sit a whole evening with order and decorum, unless they were under the check of some established authority; and this inconvenience having been foreseen, they had elected a president, vested with full power to silence any member or members that should attempt to disturb the harmony and subordination of the whole. The sage, who at this time possessed the chair, was a person in years, whose countenance was a lively portraiture of that rancorous discontent which follows repeated damnation. He had been extremely unfortunate in his theatrical productions, and was, to use the words of a profane wag, who assisted at the condemnation of his last play, by this time d — d beyond redemption. Nevertheless, he still tarried about the skirts of Parnassus, translating some of the classics, and writing miscellanies, and by dint of an invincible assurance, supercilious insolence, the most undaunted virulence of tongue, and some knowledge of life, he made shift to acquire and maintain the character of a man of learning and wit, in the opinion of people who had neither; that is, thirty-nine in forty of those with whom he associated himself. He was even looked upon in this light by some few of the college; though the major part of those who favoured his election, were such as dreaded his malice, respected his experience and seniority, or hated his competitor, who was the epic poet.

The chief end of this society, as I have already hinted, was to assist and support each other in their productions, which they mutually recommended to sale, with all their art and influence, not only in private conversation, but also in occasional epigrams, criticisms, and advertisements, inserted in the public papers. This science, which is known by the vulgar appellation of puffing, they carried to such a pitch of finesse, that an author very often wrote an abusive answer to his own performance, in order to inflame the curiosity of the town, by which it had been overlooked. Notwithstanding this general unanimity in the college, a private animosity had long subsisted between the two rivals I have mentioned, on account of precedence, to which both laid claim, though, by a majority of votes, it had been decided in favour of the present chairman. The grudge indeed never proceeded to any degree of outrage or defiance, but manifested itself at every meeting, in attempts to eclipse each other in smart sayings and pregnant repartee; so that there was always a delicate mess of this kind of wit served up in the front of the evening, for the entertainment and example of the junior members, who never failed to divide upon this occasion, declaring themselves for one or other of the combatants, whom they encouraged by their looks, gestures, and applause, according to the circumstances of the dispute.

This honourable consistory was held in the best room of an ale-house, which afforded wine, punch, or beer, suitable to the purse or inclination of every individual, who separately paid for his own choice; and here was our hero introduced in the midst of twenty strangers, who, by their looks and equipage, formed a very picturesque variety. He was received with a most gracious solemnity, and placed upon the right hand of the president, who, having commanded silence, recited aloud his introductory ode, which met with universal approbation. Then was tendered to him the customary oath, obliging him to consult the honour and advantage of the society as far as it should he in his power, in every station of life; and this being taken, his temples were bound with a wreath of laurel, which was kept sacred for such inauguration.

When these rites were performed with all due ceremony, the new member cast his eyes around the place, and took a more accurate survey of his brethren; among whom he observed a strange collection of periwigs, with regard to the colour, fashions, and dimensions, which were such as he had never seen before. Those who sat on each side, nearest the president, were generally distinguished by venerable ties, the foretops of which exhibited a surprising diversity; some of them rose slanting backwards, like the glacis of a fortification; some were elevated in two distinct eminences, like the hills Helicon and Parnassus; and others were curled and reflected, as the horns of Jupiter Ammon. Next to these, the majors took place, many of which were mere succedanea, made by the application of an occasional rose to the tail of a lank bob; and in the lower form appeared masses of hair, which would admit of no description.

Their clothes were tolerably well suited to the furniture of their heads, the apparel of the upper bench being decent and clean, while that of the second class was threadbare and soiled; and at the lower end of the room, he perceived divers efforts made to conceal their rent breeches and dirty linen; nay, he could distinguish by their countenances the different kinds of poetry in which they exercised the muse. He saw Tragedy conspicuous in a grave solemnity of regard; Satire louring in a frown of envy and discontent; Elegy whining in a funeral aspect; Pastoral dozing in a most insipid languor of face; Ode-writing delineated in a distracted stare; and Epigram squinting wi............

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