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||John Byrom (1692 - 1763)|
English poet, hymnist, and inventor of a system of shorthand, student of religious mysticism. John Byrom's light-hearted and good-natured character is apparent in his journals. His shorthand was never widely used and it was too slow professional stenographers. 'Hymn for Christmas Day', with its uplifting words, is Byrom's best-known work. The phrase " Tweedledum and Tweedledee", about a silly battle between two men, may have been coined by Byrom. As the Tweedle boys, these names later appeared in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Class (1871).
Some say, that Signor Bononcini,
John Byrom was born near Manchester into a family of
prosperous merchants and linendrapers. He was educated at Chester, and
later he went to Merchant Taylors' School. Byrom studied at Trinity
College, Cambridge, under the reign of Richard Bentley (1662-1742) - he ruled the college with such despotic power
that his mastership was a succession of quarrels and scandals. In spite of this,
Byrom defended Bentley against his enemies. He may have addressed a pastoral published in
in 1714 to the daughter of the master. The poem,
'Colin and Phebe', became very popular. Phebe was Joanna Bentley, a
witty eleven year old young lady, who would draw the attention of many
of the college fellows.
At Trinity Byrom had a Fellowship, but he resigned it due to his Jacobite sympathies and mystical leanings and did not take the required holy orders. He also studied medicine for a short time at the University of Montpellier in France. Though he did not take a degree and never practiced he was afterward called 'doctor' by his friends. In 1721 he married his cousin, Elizabeth Byrom. Their daughter Beppy, who had a great love for everything that was Scottish, followed Jacobite fashion. She bought a blue and white dress to celebrate the rebel victory in October 1745. After the rebellion she wore plaid garters.
While in Cambridge, Byrom developed a new system of "tychygraphy" or
shorthand, and became its teacher. According to a story, Byrom made his
invention in a concert. His pupils, who called him the grand master,
were required to take an oath of secresy. Byrom
chiefly divided his time between Manchester and London, where he lived
by teaching his system of shorthand privately. Byrom charged five
guineas per person. Financially he was dependent on teaching until 1740 when he
inherited the family fortune after the death of his elder brother. One of his students was Captain
John Vere, a Jacobite spy. Joy Hancox, a music teacher from Mancester, has argued in The Queen's Chameleon
(1994) that Byrom was a lover of Queen Caroline, wife of George II, and
the father of Caroline's son, William, Duke of Cumberland. She
has further suggested that Byrom was involved in conspiracies to poison
George I and to murder Sir Robert Walpole.
Byrom's system was used by
John (1703-1791) and Charles Wesley (1707-1788), founders of Methodism,
who recorded their self-examinations in coded diaries. However, Timothy
Bright had been called the father of modern shorthand. Queen Elizabeth
granted him a patent for a "shorte and new kynde of writing by
character to the furtherance of good learning." Later on Samuel Pepys
(1633-1703) used the technique in his famous diary, so that no one
could read it while he was alive. William Mason first published his
system in 1672 under the title Pen plucked from an Eagles Wing;
it formed the basis of the Guerney system, used at least 200 years.
In 1724 Byrom was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. His varied acquaintances included the physician David Hartley, the Wesleys, devout Christians, J. Butler, writer of Fifteen Sermons, and William Law (1686-1761), of whom Byrom left accounts in his Private Journal and Literary Remains (1854-57). It is an important source of information on Law, a very religious writer, whose guide to the practice of Christian faith, A Serious Call, influenced deeply Samuel Johnson.
Byrom's Miscellaneous Poems (1773) include some modifications of Law's poem, and the well-known 'Hymn for Christmas Day' (Christians awake, salute the happy morn, / Whereon the saviour of the world was born) of which Byrom is best remembered for. Originally the poem was written for Byrom's daughter Dolly as a Christmas gift in 1749. A copy was given to John Wainwright, an organist, who composed music for it.
Most of Byrom's religious poems are now forgotten. In the epigram on King and Pretender, Byrom played with pro- and anti-Jacobite sentiments. The ambiguously loyal toast begins 'God bless the King! I mean the Faith's Defender...' In 'On Clergymen Preaching Politics' he wrote: "Were I a king (God bless me) I should hate / My chaplains meddling with affairs of state; / Nor would my subjects, I should think, be fond, / Whenever theirs the Bible went beyond." Byrom also wrote religious verse and a pastoral (1714), he had many varied linguistic, literary, religious, and scientific interests, and was attracted to the mysticism of writers like Jacob Boehme and Malebranche. He was a Freemason, a member of the 'Cabala Club,' and collected hundreds of drawings, many of which were concerned with mathematicall, astrological, alchemical and Masonic symbols. Byrom contributed two papers on shorthand to the Philosophical Transactions and copyrighted his 'tychygraphy' system in 1742, but his Universal English Shorthand did not appear during his life time. Byrom outlived most of the friends of his youth. He died in London on September 26, 1763.
For further reading: David Hartley on Human Nature by Richard Allen (1999); The Oxford Companion to English Literature, ed. Margaret Drabble (1998); The Queen's Chameleon: The Life of John Byrom by Joy Hancox (1994); The Byrom Collection: Renaissance Thought, the Royal Society and the Building of the Globe Theatre by Joy Hancox (1992); The Edges of Augustanism; The Aesthetics of Spirituality in Thomas Ken, John Byrom, and William Law by John Hoyles (1972); The Journal of Elizabeth Byrom, in 1745, edited by Richard Parkinson (1857)