Dr. Syntax, Part One

Dr. Syntax at a Review, 1812  Thomas Rowlandson, artist

My introduction to The Tour of Dr. Syntax in Search of the Picturesque  came from this old hand-colored etching.  Though I don’t remember when or where I found it, it must have been in a bin of prints at a London dealer — one of several I like to visit when in Town. Something appealed to me and I bought it, brought it home and framed it.  I look at it everyday in my office.

Title page, 1812
Note the way the word Picturesque is written into a drawing — something that our friends at Google seem to do more and more with the title of their search page.  My first post on the Picturesque (October 24, 2012) was concerned with my attempt to understand the precise nature of the term “picturesque” as used in the title. As delineated by the writer and traveler William Gilpin in the late 18th century, it referred to a landscape with handsome irregularities such as twisted tree limbs, craggy mountains and so forth.
Dr. Syntax and his three series of adventures were meant to be something of a satire on Gilpin. his travel books, and his theory of picturesque.  Written in rhyme, the Syntax stories tell of a ne-er do well parson and schoolteacher who tries to make his fortune by imitating Gilpin, traveling, sketching and publishing books. Here are the opening lines of the first book, published in 1812.
The School was done, the business o’er,
When Tired of Greek and Latin lore,
Good Syntax sought his easy chair,
And sat in calm composure there.
His wife was to a neighbor gone,
To hear the chit-chat of the town;
And left him the unfrequent power
Of brooding through a quiet hour.
Dr, Syntax, frontispiece, Rowlandson, 1812

For a number of lines, the good Dr. S thinks about his situation, various unlikely prospects, and of his need for income.


This if the times refused to mend,

He to his school must put an end. How hard his lot! How blind his fate!
What shall he do to mend his state?
Thus did poor Syntax ruminate.
After considerable cogitation (and many rhyming lines), his wife returns.  She is not sympathetically described:
Good Mrs. Syntax was a lady
Ten years, perhaps, beyond her heyday;
But through the blooming charms had flown
That graced her youth; it still was known
The love of power she never lost,
As Syntax found it to his cost:
After a discussion in which both husband and wife decry their poverty, Dr. Syntax makes his proposal to earn a fortune.  His reference to Dr. Pompous is a barely disguised reference to Gilpin.


“I’ll make a tour—and then I’ll write it.

You well know what my pen can do,
And I’ll employ my pencil too:–
I’ll ride and write, and sketch and print,
And thus create a real mint;
I’ll prose it here, I’ll verse it there,
And picturesque it everywhere.
I’ll do what all have done before;
I think I shall—and somewhat more.
At Doctor Pompous give a look
He made his fortune by a book:
And if my volume does not beat it,
When I return, I’ll fry and eat it.

Dr. Syntax Setting out on his Tour to the Lakes, Rowlandson, 1812

Mrs. Syntax eagerly enters into his preparations for his tour and in a few weeks he is ready to depart.  Ralph is his stableman, and Grizzle is his horse (the gray palfrey, later an important character in the story).   

At length the lingering moment came

That gave the dawn of wealth and fame.
Incurious Ralph, exact at four,
Led Grizzle, saddled, to the door;
And soon, with more than common state,
The Doctor stood before the gate;
Behind him was his faithful wife;–
“One more embrace, my dearest life!”
Then his gray palfrey he bestrode,
And gave a nod, and off he rode.
“Good luck! Good luck!” she loudly cried,
“Vale! O Vale!” he replied.

Thus ends Canto One. We will continue with more of the poem in weeks to come.

Dr. Syntax was produced by the famous Rudolph Ac
kermann (1764-1834), who published a number of periodicals, including his famous Repository of the Arts, Literature, Commerce, Manufactures, Fashion and Politics from 1809 to 1828.

Rudolph Ackermann, 1814, by Francois Mouchet, NAG, London

The pictures were by artist Thomas Rowlandson and the copy was written by a fascinating character, William Combe, who had an intriguing career  We will bring you more about them in the next installment.

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