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LIFE OF JOHN BYROM.
BY MR. CHALMERS.
THE life of Mr. Byrom was written for the Supplement to the Biographia Britannica by Dr. Nichols, with some inaccuracies, and has been copied into Dr. Kippis's edition of that work, without much improvement. By more attention to dates and to contemporary notices than these gentlemen appear to have bestowed, a few additional particulars have been recovered, and the general narrative, it is hoped, rendered more
John Byrom, a younger son of Edward Byrom, a linen-draper of Manchester, was born at Kersall in the neighbourhood of that town, in 1691, and after receiving such education as his native place afforded, was removed to Merchant Taylor's-school in London, where he made such extraordinary progress in classical learning, as to be deemed fit for the university, At the age of sixteen, he was admitted a pensioner of Trinity College, Cambridge, under the tuition of Mr., afterwards Dr. Baker. During his residence here, the proficiency he had made in classical knowledge was probably neither remitted, nor overlooked, but he is said to have paid no greater share of attention to logic and philosophy than was necessary to enable him to pass his examinations with credit. In 1711 he was admitted to his degree of bachelor of arts.
His inclination to poetry appeared very early, but was imparted principally to his friends and fellow-students. The first production, which brought him into general notice, was probably written in his twenty-third year. At this time the beautiful pastoral of Colin and Phebe appeared in the eighth volume of the Spectator, and was, as it continues to be, universally admired.
The Phebe of this pastoral was Joanna, daughter of the celebrated Dr. Bentley, master of Trinity College. This young and very amiable lady was afterwards married to Dr. Dennison Cumberland, bishop of Clonfert and Killaloe in Ireland, and was the mother of Richard Cumberland, esq. the well-known dramatic writer, who in his Memoirs, lately published, has honoured her memory with genuine filial affection. It has been asserted, but without any foundation, that Byrom paid his addresses to Miss Bentley. His object was rather to recommend himself to the notice of her father, who was an admirer of the Spectator, and likely to notice a poem of so much merit coming, as he
would soon be told, from one of his college. Byrom had before this sent two ingenious papers on the subject of dreaming to the Spectator, and these specimens of promising talent introduced him to the particular notice of Dr. Bentley, by whose interest he was chosen fellow of his college, and soon after admitted to the degree of master of arts.
Amidst this honourable progress, he does not appear to have thought of any profession, and as he declined going into the church, the statutes of the college required that he should vacate his fellowship. Perhaps the state of his health created this irresolution, for we find that in 1716, it became necessary for him to visit Montpelier upon that account, and his fellowship being lost, he returned no more to the university.
During his residence in France, he met with Malebranche's Search after Truth, and some of the works of Mademoiselle Bourignon, the consequence of which, Dr. Nichols informs us, was, that he came home strongly possessed with the visionary philosophy of the former, and the enthusiastic extravagancies of the latter. From the order of his poems, however, which was probably that of their respective dates, he appears to have been at first, rather a disciple of the celebrated Mr. Law, and a warm opponent of those divines who were termed latitudinarian. His admiration of Malebranche, and of Bourignon, afterwards increased, but he never followed either so far as to despise human learning, in which his acquirements were great; and the delight which he took in various studies, ended only with his life.
By what means he was maintained abroad, or after his return, are matters of conjecture, His biographer tells nothing of his father's inclination or abilities to forward his pursuits, It is said that he studied medicine in London for some time, and thence acquired, among his familiar friends, the title of Dr. Byrom. But this pursuit was interrupted by his falling in love with his cousin, Elizabeth, daughter of Joseph Byrom, a mercer at Manchester, then on a visit in London. To this young lady he disclosed his passion, and followed her to Manchester, where the ardour of his addresses soon procured a favourable return. Her father, however, was extremely averse to the match, and when it took place without his consent, refused the young couple any means of support. Dr. Nichols assigns two reasons for this conduct, which are not very consistent: the one that the father was in opulent circumstances: the other that he thought our poet out of his senses, and therefore would not permit him to superintend the education of his children, but took that care upon himself. If so, however wrong his reasons might be, he could not be said to withdraw his support; and I suspect he was soon convinced that he had formed an erroneous estimate of his son-in-law's understanding and general character.
In this dilemma, however, Mr. Byrom had recourse to the teaching of short-hand writing, as a means of supporting himself and his wife, who adhered to him with affectionate tenderness in all his vicissitudes. Dr. Nichols informs us that he had invented his short-hand at Cambridge on the following occasion: some manuscript sermons being communicated to him, written in short-hand, he easily discovered the true reading, but observing the method to be clumsy and ill-contrived, he set about inventing a better. The account given by the editor of his System, published in 1764, is somewhat different. It is said that the first occasion of his turning his attention that way arose from his acquaintance with Mr. Sharp of Trinity College, son to archbishop Sharp. Mr. Sharp had been advised by his father to study the art, and Mr. Byrom joined him. All the systems then in vogue appearing inadequate to the end, he devised that which now goes by his name. This discovery was made, not without considerable exultation, and provoked Weston, then the chief stenographer, to a trial of skill, or rather
a controversy, which terminated in favour of Byrom. Weston published his system in 1725, and the dispute was carried on probably about that time.
Of the respective merits of these systems, I do not pretend to judge. Angel, another professor of the art, who prefixed a short history of Stenographers to his own system (published in 1758), considers Weston's method as one that few have either capacity, patience; or leisure to learn: he also tells us that Dr. Byrom" so far distinguished himself as a professor or teacher of the art of short-writing, that about the year1734, he obtained an act of parliament" (perhaps he means a patent) "for that purpose, as presuming he had discovered a wonderful secret: and great care has since been taken to preserve it inviolably such, except to his pupils, in hopes that by exciting a greater curiosity, it might increase their number:" and, as Mr. Angel had a new system to propose, it was necessary for him to add, "that he could discover no peculiar excellence in Byrom's, either in the form of the letters, the rules, or the application of them." Byrom, however, preserved his system in manuscript as long as he lived. When his friends wished to publish it after his death, they found no part of it finished for the press, although he had made some progress in drawing it up in form, enough, says his editor, to show the plan upon which he intended to proceed.
Among his scholars, of whom an ample list is given, in honour of his system, we find the names of many distinguished scholars, of Isaac Hawkins Browne, Martin Folkes, Dr. Hoadley, Dr. Hartley, lord Camden, &c. Lord Chesterfield, according to Dr. Nichols, was likewise taught by him, which appears to be doubtful. The same biographer informs us, that it was Byrom's practice to read a lecture to his scholars upon the history and utility of short-hand, interspersed with strokes of wit that rendered it very entertaining. About the same time he became acquainted with that irregular genius Dr. Byfield, with whom he used to have skirmishes of humour and repartee at the Rainbow-coffee-house, near Temple Bar. Upon that chemist's decease, who was the inventor of the sal volatile oleosum, Byrom wrote the following impromptu:
Hic jacet Dr. Byfield, diu volatilis, tandem fixus.
These circumstances are perhaps trifles, but they prove that the study of the mystic writers had not at this time much influence on our author's temper and habits, and I suspect that it was not until much later in life that he became an admirer of Jacob Behmen.
He first taught short-hand at Manchester, but afterwards came to London during the winter months, and not only had great success as a teacher, but became distinguished as a man of general learning. In 1723-4, he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and communicated to that learned body two letters; one containing some remarks on the elements of short-hand, by Samuel Geake, esq. which was printed in the Philosophical Transactions No. 488, and another letter, printed in the same volume, containing remarks on Mr. Lodwick's alphabet. The summer months he was enabled to pass with his family at Manchester.
By the death of his elder brother, Edward Byrom, without issue, the family estate at Kersall devolved to him. At what time this happened, his biographer has not informed us, but in consequence of this independence, he began to relax from teaching, and passed the remainder of his days in the enjoyment of the quiet comforts of domestic life, for which he had the highest relish, and which were heightened by the affectionate temper of his wife. It is said by Dr. Nichols, that he employed the latter part of his life in writing his poems, but an inspection of their dates and subjects will show that a