"On A High Horse"
Context: Several figures important in Georgian literature had a share in the "high horse" expression. The Reverend John Brown phrased it in a letter to the great actor David Garrick (1717–1779), referring to Dr. Samuel Johnson (1709–1784). Someone, probably Garrick with his great vanity, preserved the letter, possibly with a view to writing his autobiography in his declining years. There is no indication of the assembler of this and hundreds of other letters into a huge two-volume folio edition published in London by Colburn and Bentley in 1831, long after the death of all of the writers. The concept of a leader astride a tall horse far above his followers is not new. Mark Antony declared of Julius Caesar that he "sits high on all people's hearts." Oliver Wendell Holmes quotes Elsie Venner: "It makes a man imperious to sit a horse." Even today's scorner tells any would-be important man: "Come off your high horse!" Rivalries were involved in John Brown's eighteenth century use of the phrase. The clergyman was an erratic who shortly afterward committed suicide by cutting his throat when bad health prevented his trip to Russia for work on education. He had been acquainted with the famous actor, David Garrick, for whom he wrote two plays whose Prologues and Epilogues were added by the actor. First came Barbarossa (1754), with the popular Mossop in the title role and Garrick as Achmet. Then two years later Brown completed Athelstan, in which Garrick played the lead. It was somewhat better theater, though still a turgid tragedy. Following its performance, bickering among various companies of actors, combined with the illness of both Garrick and his beloved wife, decided "Roscius," as Garrick's admirers called him, to spend a year or so on the continent. Brown, who remained in England, completed The History of the Rise and Progress of Poetry in 1764, and Samuel Johnson in 1765 finally published his eight-volume edition of Shakespeare. Most scholars greeted its Preface as one of the finest pieces of criticism of the great poet-dramatist's work. But Johnson sometimes criticized Garrick, as when he commented upon one of the actor-playwright's satirical attacks that it lacked the vigor of the bow, but that he dreaded the venom of the shafts. Therefore Brown, friend and collaborator of Garrick, took up the battle, shortly after the Garricks' return to England. He accused Johnson of assuming a high and mighty position from which to comment on Shakespeare. His letter to Garrick, dated Newcastle, October 27, 1765, begins:
MY DEAR SIR:Visits and engagements have prevented me from sooner answering yours. I am glad to hear of your recovery from your illness, and hope you will have no occasion for your epitaph these fifty years, except to give your friends the pleasure of reading it, which I desire you will do the next time you write to me. I think you were a little quick two or three times in your last letter, which I do not much dislike in a friend, by-the-by, especially when there is not much reason for it, as I look upon it as a proof of his regard–at least it is so with me . . .I have seen some extracts from Johnson's Preface to his "Shakespeare." In my humble opinion, he is as improper a critic for that great poet as any that have yet appeared. No feeling nor pathos about him! Altogether upon the high horse, and blustering about Imperial Tragedy! How is this work relished by the public? . . .. . . with compliments to Mrs. Garrick, I remain,Dear SIR, always most truly yours,J. Brown.