William Hogarth – The Distressed Poet

The Distressed Poet is a picture belonging to the same year as the last-named. Mr. Austin Dobson’s note as to its history (I am indebted to his book for particulars as to private owners throughout) states that it was given by Hogarth to a Mrs. Draper, at whose death it was bought for five guineas by a solicitor named Ward. On his death the picture became the property of Lord Grosvenor, with whose descendant, the Duke of Westminster, it remains. The painting is full of amusing satire, cleverly interwoven with pathos. The scene is that of the Poet’s humble garret-humble in many senses of the word, for the plastering on the walls is cracked and fallen in a score of places. He, poor man, enveloped in a dressing-gown, seeks inspiration by candle-light in order to finish a poem on ” Riches.” Inspiration, apparently, is not easily attainable, even with the assistance of Bysshe’s “Art of Poetry,” which is part of a library of four volumes. With grim irony a map of the ” Gold Mines of Peru ” is immediately over his head. A copy of the ” Grub Street Journal” lies on the floor, together with his sword and coat, the latter forming also a bed for the cat and kittens. Near him sits his wife, mending the Poet’s nether garment ; a careful, thrifty soul, ” the most loveable figure that ever Hogarth drew,” who looks up with some surprise at the entry of an irate milkwoman, who with tally extended demands payment of her score. But payment seems a remote contingency under the circumstances, for the open larder is empty, save for a prowling mouse ; and to add to the domestic misfortunes, the. piece of meat, heedlessly left upon a chair, is being stolen by a dog. The creditor’s shrill tones wake the infant, whose cries, joined to the disputation, wellnigh distract the votary of Parnassus. On the wall at the left hand hangs the wife’s long, hooded cloak. Above the mantel is a set of circular mirrors,’ and on the shelf itself, a loaf of bread, a book, the teapot and cups, and a sauce-pan. Several other details will be noticed, such as the empty pewter, etc. The whole scene is evidently typical of many such in real life. It not infrequently happens, even in these times, that an author’s subject is foreign to his experience. And, after all, with such a theme as Riches, our Poet has magnificent exercise for his imaginative powers.

The engravings of The Distressed Poet differ slightly in some of the details. In the first impression (1736) the Poet is writing on “Poverty”; a picture of Curll, the notorious bookseller, being thrashed by Pope (see ” The Dunciad “) occupies the wall in place of the Gold Mines ; and the Poet’s library is larger by two volumes.