Tom Brown (satirist)

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Tom Brown
Died18 June 1704 (aged 41)

Thomas Brown (1662 – 18 June 1704), also known as Tom Brown, was an English translator and writer of satire, largely forgotten today save for a four-line gibe he wrote concerning Dr John Fell.

Brown was born at either Shifnal or Newport in Shropshire; he is identified with the Thomas Brown, son of William and Dorothy Brown, who was recorded christened on 1 January 1663 at Newport.[1] His father, a farmer and tanner, died when Thomas was eight years old.[1] He took advantage of the free schooling offered in the county during his day by attending Adams' Grammar School at Newport, afterward continuing his education at Christ Church, Oxford and there meeting the college's dean, Dr Fell.

Fell was well known as a disciplinarian, and Brown throughout his life displayed a disdain for restrictions. The legend behind Brown's most recognised work is therefore plausible: it states that Brown got into trouble while at Oxford, and was threatened with expulsion, but that Dr Fell offered to spare Brown if he could translate an epigram from Martial (I, 32, 1):

Non amo te, Sabidi, nec possum dicere quare;
Hoc tantum possum dicere, non amo te.

According to the story, Brown replied immediately:

I do not love thee, Dr Fell,
The reason why I cannot tell;
But this I know, and know full well,
I do not love thee, Dr Fell.

Fell is said to have stayed Brown's dismissal from the college in admiration of this translation. However the story is of apocryphal provenance, and it is known that Brown left Christ Church without a degree, moving to Kingston upon Thames where he stayed three years as a schoolmaster, and later to London, where he took up residence on Aldersgate Street in the Grub Street district.

Brown made a modest living from his writing in Latin, French and English, in addition to offering services of translation. He refrained however from ever attaching himself to a patron, and expressed contempt toward those who did so. He pursued a libertine lifestyle, and his satirical works gained him several enemies in their subjects.

His best-known works, apart from the quatrain, are probably Amusements Serious and Comical, calculated for the Meridian of London (1700) and Letters from the Dead to the Living (1702), although his writings were quite prolific. Several works of the period whose author is unknown are suspected to be his.

Toward the end of his life he began to regret the licentiousness with which he had lived it, and on his deathbed he secured from his publisher (one Sam Briscoe) a promise that any posthumously published works would be censored of "all prophane, undecent passages". The promise was promptly reneged upon.

Many of Brown's works went unpublished until his death, and the publication date of many is in question, as is his stature as a writer. Contemporary opinion was mixed; Jonathan Swift spoke quite highly of Brown's work, and indeed parts of Gulliver's Travels and other of Swift's works may have been significantly influenced by Brown's writings. On the other hand, those whom Brown mercilessly lampooned during his lifetime understandably did nothing to further his good reputation after his demise.

The 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica gives this verdict: "He was the author of a great variety of poems, letters, dialogues and lampoons, full of humour and erudition, but coarse and scurrilous. His writings have a certain value for the knowledge they display of low life in London." Presently the best description of Brown's legacy may be that of Joseph Addison, who accorded him the appellation "T-m Br-wn of facetious Memory".

Brown was buried in the grounds of Westminster Abbey.


  1. ^ a b Dickins, Gordon (1987). An Illustrated Literary Guide to Shropshire. Shropshire Libraries. pp. 11, 104. ISBN 0-903802-37-6.

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