Thomas Tickell’s Christmas Tree
Alexander Pope’s verse translation of Homer’s Iliad became the standard English translation soon after he finished publishing it, and was unchallenged for centuries. But the publication of the first book in 1715 encountered unexpected difficulties. His plan had been to serialize the translation book by book through his friend Joseph Addison, one of the founders and editors of the Spectator and himself a poet, essayist, and translator. After all, Addison had guided and encouraged Pope during the work of translation. Imagine Pope’s surprise, then, when Addison refused to either publish or promote the translation of book one. Because, Addison revealed, he was already in possession of a translation of book one of the Iliad, rendered by one Thomas Tickell.
Thomas Tickell was born in 1686, educated at Oxford, received an MA in 1708, and became a fellow of Queen’s College soon after. He had met Addison through a poem he had written praising one of Addison’s operas, and the two became friends. After the matter of the Iliad, Addison travelled to Ireland eventually becoming secretary of state, and he took Tickell with him in his continued patronage. When Addison died he left high recommendations for Tickell, and Tickell rose to the rank of secretary to the Lords Justices of Ireland, a post he held until his own death in 1740.
Tickell had made his name as a poet by writing a long poem On the Prospect of Peace in honour of the series of treaties collectively known as the Treaty of Utrecht, completed in 1713. The treaty contained major concessions by the French, who in the face of a rival coalition gave up, among other things, substantial portions of what would become Canada. One of Tickell’s biographers notes that Tickell’s intent was to quiet the martial spirit of his fellow Englishmen, and thus prepare them for peace. But a glance at the opening verses makes it difficult to see just how Tickell intended to accomplish this.
The haughty Gaul in ten campaigns o’erthrown,
Now ceas’d to think the western world his own.
Oft’ had he mourn’d his boasting leaders bound,
And his proud bulwarks smoking on the ground.
In vain with pow’rs renew’d he fill’d the plain,
Made tim’rous vows, and brib’d the faints in vain,
As oft’ his legions did the fight decline,
Lurk’d in the trench, and sculk’d behind the line. (p. 14)
The poem was widely praised, and ran to six printings. Discerning readers, however, were less than enthusiastic. Samuel Johnson wrote of it that he “found it a piece to be approved rather than admired,” and opines that in putting the poem into the Spectator Addison must have been primarily motivated by friendship (The poetical works of Thomas Tickell p. ii). With this as Tickell’s poetic calling card, it is perhaps not surprising that Pope grew more and more suspicious of the translation that had so unexpectedly appeared at the very same moment as his own.
Johnson includes Tickell among his Lives of English poets, but with reservations. In the end he concludes that Tickell deserves a place as a minor poet (Johnson 163). Of Tickell’s longest poem, entitled Kensington Gardens, Johnson writes: “the versification is smooth and elegant, but the fiction unskilfully [sic\ compounded of Grecian Deities and Gothick Fairies. Neither species of those exploded Beings could have done much; and when they are brought together they only make each other contemptible.” (Johnson 163).
Pope’s suspicions grew after he met an old friend of Tickell’s. Addison had told Pope that the translation dated from Tickell’s time at Oxford. But the old friend had never heard of such a translation. Pope, certain that he had been betrayed, came to believe that the translation was Addison’s own, produced out of envy and malice. Pope concluded that Addison, envying his fame but unwilling to personally oppose him, had contrived this awkward situation by using his lackey Tickell. Pope broke off his friendship with Addison, and later wrote of him:
Blest with each talent, and each art to please,
And born to write, converse, and live with ease:
Should such a man, too fond to rule alone,
Bear, like the Turk, no brother near the throne,
View him with scornful, yet with jealous eyes,
And hate for arts that caus’d himself to rise;
Damn with faint praise, assent with civil leer,
And without sneering, teach the rest to sneer;
Willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike,
Just hint a fault, and hesitate dislike;
Alike reserv’d to blame or to commend,
A tim’rous foe, and a suspicious friend;
Dreading e’vn fools, by Flatterers besieg’d,
And so obliging, that he ne’er oblig’d; (The works of Alexander Pope Esq. p. 28-30)
Many took Pope’s side. Addison however did not admit to any wrongdoing, and his unexpected death in 1719 made reconciliation impossible.
The figure of Thomas Tickell that slinks out of history is then an unpleasant one. Tickell owed almost everything to Addison. Was he then Addison’s assassin, a minor poet aimed at the growing fame of a truly great one? The philosopher and clergyman George Berkeley recorded an anecdote about Tickell which nicely captures the man’s elusive nature. Writing to his own patron and friend Sir John Percival, Berkeley says
For want of other news you must give me leave to tell you a very remarkable story I heard the other morning from the Provost and Mr. Molyneux [the son of Locke’s correspondent\. Mr. Tickel [sic\, fellow of Oxford, an ingenious, credible and sober person, author of the poem on the approaching peace, gave them the following account. That there is in a forest in Hampshire an oak which buds and shoots forth leaves every Christmas day. A year or two ago he went himself to make the experiment. He saw it in a light night about two hours before day, at which time it had not the least appearance of bud or leaf, but when day came was covered with both: several of the leaves about as large as sixpence he plucked and carried to Oxford, where about forty persons saw them. (58-9)
The controversy about the Iliad lay in the future. But afterwards, Pope would doubtless have found a caustic verse to describe the poet who emerged from the still shadowy forest bringing news of a private miracle.
As for the matter of the two translations, the outcome was never really in doubt. Pope’s translation overshadowed Tickell’s from the first, and eventually eclipsed it altogether. Johnson could write less than seventy years later that “the palm is now given universally to Pope” (Johnson, The lives of the most eminent English poets p. 161). Pope’s works are still printed today, but the last edition of Tickell’s poems was published in 1796.
But it was left to Samuel Johnson to point out an interesting fact. Tickell’s best work was never his jingoistic poem on the peace, nor was it his plodding first book of the Iliad. By far the best poem that Tickell ever wrote was written to mark the death of Addison. It was this poem that called forth Johnson’s praise and seems to be the real justification for Tickell’s inclusion in Johson’s Lives. Of the poem, Johnson writes “neither [Tickell\ nor Addison ever produced nobler lines than are contained in the third and fourth paragraphs; nor is a more sublime or more elegant funeral poem to be found in the whole compass of English Literature.” (Johnson 163).
The poem brings us back to that morning forest. But now we find that for Tickell, it was Addison who waited there.
If pensive to the rural shades I rove,
His shape o’ertakes me in the lonely grove,
‘Twas there of just and good he reason’d strong,
Cleared some great truth, or rais’d some serious song;
There patient show’d us the wise course to steer,
A candid censor, and a friend sincere;
There taught us how to live; and (oh! too high
The price for knowledge) taught us how to die.
As Johnson pointed out, there was little danger that Addison had penned these lines (Johnson 162). And so the irony of Tickell’s career was that the death of his patron finally called forth the real talent that Addison had always seen in his younger friend.
By the time Tickell the translator was beginning to be vindicated, Tickell the poet was being forgotten. It mattered less and less that a printer who had seen the manuscript of Tickell’s Iliad revealed that it was in Tickell’s hand, though all over corrected and amended by Addison. But this humbled, half-forgotten Thomas Tickell who emerges from the dappled morning forest with a handful of leaves is not without significance. For this Thomas Tickell bears the news that a man’s patron may be his true friend, that at times minor poets may briefly touch greatness, and that even frozen oaks may burst with leafy joy on Christmas day.