Read MRS. LAETITIA PILKINGTON of The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) Vol. V, free online book, by Theophilus Cibber, on

This unfortunate poetess, the circumstances of whose life, written by herself, have lately entertained the public, was born in the year 1712.  She was the daughter of Dr. Van Lewen, a gentleman of Dutch extraction, who settled in Dublin.  Her mother was descended of an ancient and honourable family, who have frequently intermarried with the nobility.

Mrs. Pilkington, from her earliest infancy, had a strong disposition to letters, and particularly to poetry.  All her leisure hours were dedicated to the muses; from a reader she quickly became a writer, and, as Mr. Pope expresses it,

  ‘She lisp’d in numbers, for the numbers came.’

Her performances were considered as extraordinary for her years, and drew upon her the admiration of many, who found more pleasure in her conversation, than that of girls generally affords.  In consequence of a poetical genius, and an engaging sprightliness peculiar to her, she had many wooers, some of whom seriously addressed her, while others meant no more than the common gallantries of young people.  After the usual ceremony of a courtship, she became the wife of Mr. Matthew Pilkington, a gentleman in holy orders, and well known in the poetical world by his volume of Miscellanies, revised by dean Swift.  As we have few materials for Mrs. Pilkington’s life, beside those furnished by herself in her Memoirs published in 1749, our readers must depend upon her veracity for some facts which we may be obliged to mention, upon her sole authority.

Our poetess, says she, had not been long married, e’er Mr. Pilkington became jealous, not of her person, but her understanding.  She was applauded by dean Swift, and many other persons of taste; every compliment that was paid her, gave a mortal stab to his peace.  Behold the difference between the lover and the husband!  When Mr. Pilkington courted her, he was not more enamoured of her person, than her poetry, he shewed her verses to every body in the enthusiasm of admiration:  but now he was become a husband, it was a kind of treason for a wife to pretend to literary accomplishments.

It is certainly true, that when a woman happens to have more understanding than her husband, she should be very industrious to conceal it; but it is like wise true, that the natural vanity of the sex is difficult to check, and the vanity of a poet still more difficult:  wit in a female mind can no more cease to sparkle, than she who possesses it, can cease to speak.  Mr. Pilkington began to view her with scornful, yet with jealous eyes, and in this situation, nothing but misery was likely to be their lot.  While these jealousies subsisted, Mr. Pilkington, contrary to the advice of his friends, went into England, in order to serve as chaplain to alderman Barber during his mayoralty of the city of London.

While he remained in London, and having the strange humour of loving his wife best at a distance, he wrote her a very kind letter, in which he informed her, that her verses were like herself, full of elegance and beauty; that Mr. Pope and others, to whom he had shewn them, longed to see the writer, and that he heartily wished her in London.  This letter set her heart on flame.  London has very attractive charms to most young people, and it cannot be much wondered at if Mrs. Pilkington should take the only opportunity she was ever likely to have, of gratifying her curiosity:  which however proved fatal to her; for though we cannot find, that during this visit to London, her conduct was the least reproachable, yet, upon her return to Ireland, she underwent a violent persecution of tongues.  They who envied her abilities, fastened now upon her morals; they were industrious to trace the motives of her going to London; her behaviour while she was there; and insinuated suspicions against her chastity.  These detracters were chiefly of her own sex, who supplied by the bitterest malice what they wanted in power.

Not long after this an accident happened, which threw Mrs. Pilkington’s affairs into the utmost confusion.  Her father was stabbed, as she has related, by an accident, but many people in Dublin believe, by his own wife, though some say, by his own hand.  Upon this melancholy occasion, Mrs. Pilkington has given an account of her father, which places her in a very amiable light.  She discovered for him the most filial tenderness; she watched round his bed, and seems to have been the only relation then about him, who deserved his blessing.  From the death of her father her sufferings begin, and the subsequent part of her life is a continued series of misfortunes.

Mr. Pilkington having now no expectation of a fortune by her, threw off all reserve in his behaviour to her.  While Mrs. Pilkington was in the country for her health, his dislike of her seems to have encreased, and, perhaps, he resolved to get rid of his wife at any rate:  nor was he long waiting for an occasion of parting with her.  The story of their separation may be found at large in her Memoirs.  The substance is, that she was so indiscreet as to permit a gentleman to be found in her bed-chamber at an unseasonable hour; for which she makes this apology.  ’Lovers of learning I am sure will pardon me, as I solemnly declare, it was the attractive charms of a new book, which the gentleman would not lend me, but consented to stay till I read it through, that was the sole motive of my detaining him.’  This indeed is a poor evasion; and as Mrs. Pilkington has said no more in favour of her innocence, they must have great charity indeed with whom she can stand exculpated.

While the gentleman was with her, the servants let in twelve men at the kitchen window, who, though they might, as she avers, have opened the chamber door, chose rather to break it to pieces, and took both her and the gentleman prisoners.  Her husband now told her, that she must turn out of doors; and taking hold of her hand, made a present of it to the gentleman, who could not in honour refuse to take her, especially as his own liberty was to be procured upon no other terms.  It being then two o’clock in the morning, and not knowing where to steer, she went home with her gallant:  but she sincerely assures us, that neither of them entertained a thought of any thing like love, but sat like statues ’till break of day.

The gentleman who was found with her, was obliged to fly, leaving a letter and five guineas inclosed in it for her.  She then took a lodging in some obscure street, where she was persecuted by infamous women, who were panders to men of fortune.

In the mean time Mr. Pilkington carried on a vigorous prosecution against her in the Spiritual Court; during which, as she says, he solemnly declared, he would allow her a maintainance, if she never gave him any opposition:  but no sooner had he obtained a separation, than he retracted every word he had said on that subject.  Upon this she was advised to lodge an appeal, and as every one whom he consulted, assured him he would be cast, he made a proposal of giving her a small annuity, and thirty pounds in money; which, in regard to her children, she chose to accept, rather than ruin their father.  She was with child at the time of her separation, and when her labour came on, the woman where she lodged insisted upon doubling her rent:  whereupon she was obliged to write petitionary letters, which were not always successful.

Having passed the pains and peril of childbirth, she begged of Mr. Pilkington to send her some money to carry her to England; who, in hopes of getting rid of her, sent her nine pounds.  She was the more desirous to leave Ireland, as she found her character sinking every day with the public.  When she was on board the yacht, a gentleman of figure in the gay world took an opportunity of making love to her, which she rejected with some indignation.  ’Had I (said she) accepted the offers he made me, poverty had never approached me.  I dined with him at Parkgate, and I hope virtue will be rewarded; for though I had but five guineas in the world to carry me to London, I yet possessed chastity enough to refuse fifty for a night’s lodging, and that too from a handsome well-bred man.  I shall scarcely ever forget his words to me, as they seemed almost prophetic.  “Well, madam, said he, you do not know London; you will be undone there.”  “Why, sir, said I, I hope you don’t imagine I will go into a bad course of life?” “No, madam, said he, but I think you will sit in your chamber and starve;” which, upon my word, I have been pretty near doing; and, but that the Almighty raised me one worthy friend, good old Mr. Cibber, to whose humanity I am indebted, under God, both for liberty and life, I had been quite lost.’

When Mrs. Pilkington arrived in London, her conduct was the reverse of what prudence would have dictated.  She wanted to get into favour with the great, and, for that purpose, took a lodging in St. James’s Street, at a guinea a week; upon no other prospect of living, than what might arise from some poems she intended to publish by subscription.  In this place she attracted the notice of the company frequenting White’s Chocolate-House; and her story, by means of Mr. Cibber, was made known to persons of the first distinction, who, upon his recommendation, were kind to her.

Her acquaintance with Mr. Cibber began by a present she made him of The Trial of Constancy, a poem of hers, which Mr. Dodsley published.  Mr. Cibber, upon this, visited her, and, ever after, with the most unwearied zeal, promoted her interest.  The reader cannot expect that we should swell this volume by a minute relation of all the incidents which happened to her, while she continued a poetical mendicant.  She has not, without pride, related all the little tattle which passed between her and persons of distinction, who, through the abundance of their idleness, thought proper to trifle an hour with her.

Her virtue seems now to have been in a declining state; at least, her behaviour was such, that a man, must have extraordinary faith, who can think her innocent.  She has told us, in the second volume of her Memoirs, that she received from a noble person a present of fifty pounds.  This, she says, was the ordeal, or fiery trial; youth, beauty, nobility of birth, attacking at once the most desolate person in the world.  However, we find her soon after this thrown into great distress, and making various applications to persons of distinction for subscriptions to her poems.  Such as favoured her by subscribing, she has repaid with most lavish encomiums, and those that withheld that proof of their bounty, she has sacrificed to her resentment, by exhibiting them in the most hideous light her imagination could form.

From the general account of her characters, this observation results, That such as she has stigmatized for want of charity, ought rather to be censured for want of decency.  There might be many reasons, why a person benevolent in his nature, might yet refuse to subscribe to her; but, in general, such as refused, did it (as she says) in a rude manner, and she was more piqued at their deficiency in complaisance to her, than their want of generosity.  Complaisance is easily shewn; it may be done without expence; it often procures admirers, and can never make an enemy.  On the other hand, benevolence itself, accompanied with a bad grace, may lay us under obligations, but can never command our affection.  It is said of King Charles I. that he bestowed his bounty with so bad a grace, that he disobliged more by giving, than his son by refusing; and we have heard of a gentleman of great parts, who went to Newgate with a greater satisfaction, as the judge who committed him accompanied the sentence with an apology and a compliment, than he received from his releasment by another, who, in extending the King’s mercy to him, allayed the Royal clemency by severe invectives against the gentleman’s conduct.

We must avoid entering into a detail of the many addresses, disappointments and encouragements, which she met with in her attendance upon the great:  her characters are naturally, sometimes justly, and often strikingly, exhibited.  The incidents of her life while she remained in London were not very important, though she has related them with all the advantage they can admit of.  They are such as commonly happen to poets in distress, though it does not often fall out, that the insolence of wealth meets with such a bold return as this lady has given it.  There is a spirit of keenness, and freedom runs through her book, she spares no man because he is great by his station, or famous by his abilities.  Some knowledge of the world may be gained from reading her Memoirs; the different humours of mankind she has shewn to the life, and whatever was ridiculous in the characters she met with, is exposed in very lively terms.

The next scene which opens in Mrs. Pilkington’s life, is the prison of the Marshalsea.  The horrors and miseries of this jail she has pathetically described, in such a manner as should affect the heart of every rigid creditor.  In favour of her fellow-prisoners, she wrote a very moving memorial, which, we are told, excited the legislative power to grant an Act of Grace for them.  After our poetess had remained nine weeks in this prison, she was at last released by the goodness of Mr. Cibber, from whose representation of her distress, no less than sixteen dukes contributed a guinea apiece towards her enlargement.  When this news was brought her, she fainted away with excess of joy.  Some time after she had tasted liberty, she began to be weary of that continued attendance upon the great; and therefore was resolved, if ever she was again favoured with a competent sum, to turn it into trade, and quit the precarious life of a poetical mendicant.  Mr. Cibber had five guineas in reserve for her, which, with ten more she received from the duke of Marlborough, enabled her to take a shop in St. James’s Street, which she filled with pamphlets and prints, as being a business better suited to her taste and abilities, than any other.  Her adventures, while she remained a shopkeeper, are not extremely important.  She has neglected to inform us how long she continued behind the counter, but has told us, however, that by the liberality of her friends, and the bounty of her subscribers, she was set above want, and that the autumn of her days was like to be spent in peace and serenity.

But whatever were her prospects, she lived not long to enjoy the comforts of competence, for on the 29th of August, 1750, a few years after the publication of her second volume, she died at Dublin, in the thirty ninth year of her age.

Considered as a writer, she holds no mean rank.  She was the author of The Turkish Court, or The London Apprentice, acted at the theatre in Caple-street, Dublin, 1748, but never printed.  This piece was poorly performed, otherwise it promised to have given great satisfaction.  The first act of her tragedy of the Roman Father, is no ill specimen of her talents that way, and throughout her Memoirs there are scattered many beautiful little pieces, written with a true spirit of poetry, though under all the disadvantages that wit can suffer.  Her memory seems to have been amazingly great, of which her being able to repeat almost all Shakespear is an astonishing instance.

One of the prettiest of her poetical performances, is the following Address to the reverend Dr. Hales, with whom she became acquainted at the house of captain Mead, near Hampton-Court.

To the Revd.  Dr. HALES.

    Hail, holy sage! whose comprehensive mind,
  Not to this narrow spot of earth confin’d,
  Thro’ num’rous worlds can nature’s laws explore,
  Where none but Newton ever trod before;
  And, guided by philosophy divine,
  See thro’ his works th’Almighty Maker shine: 
  Whether you trace him thro’ yon rolling spheres,
  Where, crown’d with boundless glory, he appears;
  Or in the orient sun’s resplendent rays,
  His setting lustre, or his noon-tide blaze,
  New wonders still thy curious search attend,
  Begun on earth, in highest Heav’n to end. 
  O! while thou dost those God-like works pursue,
  What thanks, from human-kind to thee are due! 
  Whose error, doubt, and darkness, you remove,
  And charm down knowledge from her throne above. 
  Nature to thee her choicest secrets yields,
  Unlocks her springs, and opens all her fields;
  Shews the rich treasure that her breast contains,
  In azure fountains, or enamell’d plains;
  Each healing stream, each plant of virtuous use,
  To thee their medicinal pow’rs produce. 
  Pining disease and anguish wing their flight,
  And rosy health renews us to delight.

    When you, with art, the animal dissect,
  And, with the microscopic aid, inspect
  Where, from the heart, unnumbered rivers glide,
  And faithful back return their purple tide;
  How fine the mechanism, by thee display’d! 
  How wonderful is ev’ry creature made! 
  Vessels, too small for sight, the fluids strain,
  Concoct, digest, assimilate, sustain;
  In deep attention, and surprize, we gaze,
  And to life’s author, raptur’d, pour out praise.

    What beauties dost thou open to the sight,
  Untwisting all the golden threads of light! 
  Each parent colour tracing to its source,
  Distinct they live, obedient to thy force! 
  Nought from thy penetration is conceal’d,
  And light, himself, shines to thy soul reveal’d.

    So when the sacred writings you display,
  And on the mental eye shed purer day;
  In radiant colours truth array’d we see,
  Confess her charms, and guided up by thee;
  Soaring sublime, on contemplation’s wings,
  The fountain seek, whence truth eternal springs. 
  Fain would I wake the consecrated lyre,
  And sing the sentiments thou didst inspire! 
  But find my strength unequal to a theme,
  Which asks a Milton’s, or a Seraph’s flame! 
  If, thro’ weak words, one ray of reason shine,
  Thine was the thought, the errors only mine. 
  Yet may these numbers to thy soul impart
  The humble incense of a grateful heart. 
  Trifles, with God himself, acceptance find,
  If offer’d with sincerity of mind;
  Then, like the Deity, indulgence shew,
  Thou, most like him, of all his works below.