Critical Introduction to Doctor Syntax and its Major Themes

Despite its massive popularity and extensive presence in consumer culture of the nineteenth century, The Tour of Doctor Syntax: In Search of the Picturesque has largely escaped critical attention. Until very recently, academics had considered the poems to be of inconsequential value. William Combe’s prolific publications have been diminished by his enduring reputation as a “hack.”[1] Thomas Rowlandson has earned a spot in the art history canon of his period, but his work on the Tours of Doctor Syntax are typically regarded as mere notes of interest. Much more interest is registered in his political cartoons than his social satires.[2] Some of this negligence derives from the dubious reputation of satire as a low form of social commentary. Others from the seemingly simple style of Combe’s lines. Yet there is still value to be gleaned from critical analysis of this work.

The Tours of Doctor Syntax are unusual in a number of ways. Their publication inverted the typical business model of the day, wherein a writer submitted verse and the publisher commissioned an artist to compose the accompanying image. In this situation, Thomas Rowlandson devised the character of Doctor Syntax, and through Rudolph Ackermann, William Combe, the poet, was commissioned to create verse. While unusual for the print industry at large, it was a typical practice in Ackermann’s print selling business; Ackermann always preferred receiving plates before verse.[3] Pickford indicates that this shift occurred as a result of aquatint, which allowed images to be privileged for the first time over text.[4] Because the engraving was always produced before the text, there is a unique relationship between image and text. So far as is known, Combe and Rowlandson never met to discuss their collaboration, and thus there is an organic composition of the text as derived purely from the image. At the same time, this method appeared to have worked seamlessly. Even when Rowlandson and Combe had different targets, the verse and the engravings always circle back around to the same pointed observations. Furthermore, the situation of text and image often elaborate on the absurd qualities of one another. Rowlandson’s skill in expanding beautiful, lined landscapes starkly contrasts the grotesque, misshapen forms of his character. For example, Plate 2 “Doctor Syntax Losing his Way” shows a typical landscape background–the terrain broken into a tripartite structure beneath the sky–with picturesque donkeys looking on.

Pl 2 Losing His Way

The soft gradient coloring of the background comes to a rocky and abrupt dirt road. Doctor Syntax and Grizzle, in black and white respectively, are a harsh distinction against this landscape. Syntax, with his jutting chin and nose, braces himself on Grizzle, who has not yet lost her ears and tail. Syntax’s wig is so big that it is spilling out of his cap, and his cheeks are  painted an exaggerated red. Grizzle’s flanks are darkly shaded to emphasize her starvation.This image augments the humorous situation of the townsman lost in the countryside.

Furthermore, while the simple meter of the poems may detract from their aesthetic value, the compact language and sharp rhymes pack a strong punch. For example:

“For the good Doctor means to pop
“Into my stomach all his shop.
“I think, dear Sir, that I could eat,
“And physic’s but a nauseous treat:–
“If all that stuff’s to be endur’d,
“I shall be kill’d in being cur’d.”

Canto Ten

In Search of the Picturesque is also representative of periodical literature of its own day. While periodical literature has typically been examined “in terms of its superficiality, vulgarity and general dealing in ‘trash’”[5], it has been receiving renewed attention by scholars such as Kirsty Blair, Ed Cohen, David Finkelstein, and Laurel Brake. The Tours of Doctor Syntax, as one of the most popular and profitable productions of nineteenth century periodical verse, is a perfect example of how such seemingly “low” verse can yield fruitful observations and memorable jabs at the follies of society.

While much of the humor of In Search of the Picturesque is timeless–such as Combe’s keen ability to rhyme his insults or Rowlandson’s depiction of Syntax’s oft-lost wig–, some of its more topical targets are constrained by the historical context. Combe and Rowlandson relentlessly picked apart the fads and fashions of their era, and while their primary target was travel literature, they also sprung off their tour to explore the minutiae and humor of everyday British life. To a twenty-first century reader of Doctor Syntax, the acute satire of the picturesque, the mutable genre, and its keen gaze on social archetypes and industries of the day may be lost. While In Search of the Picturesque is certainly enjoyable without this context, understanding these contemporaneous movements can enhance its reading. This essay will investigate four critical points of note: the picturesque aesthetic, the imitation of genre, the parody of the archetypal “man of taste”, and the ruthless critique of the bookselling industry.

Dr. Syntax and The Picturesque Aesthetic

When Doctor Syntax is first inspired to write a tour book, he describes the creation process: “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” (Canto 1). Utilizing “picturesque” as a verb, Dr. Syntax’s language satirizes the picturesque tourist’s alteration of landscape to accord with the picturesque elements popularized in William Gilpin’s many tour books from the close of the eighteenth century. When Combe and Rowlandson’s work was re-titled to Tour of Dr. Syntax in search of the Picturesque for the 1812 book edition, the text’s satirization of the picturesque tour was emphasized. Doctor Syntax’s choices of where he travels, the landscape scenes he seeks, his alterations of those scenes, and intent to publish the tour in a book all show influence of Gilpin’s famous tours, but, in both Combe’s text and Rowlandson’s images, picturesque aesthetics were constantly and consistently satirized. Rather than continuing the tradition of the picturesque tour objectively depicted by an unseen viewer, the picturesque tourist is objectified in In Search of the Picturesque by Combe and Rowlandson’s contrast of picturesque ideals with real world views and sentiments.

An amusing moment of comparison between Gilpin’s texts and Dr. Syntax’s tour occurs in the second installment of his tour, first published in June 1809. As Syntax starts out on his tour, he is soon ambushed by bandits:

For now, with loud impetuous rush
Three ruffians issued from a bush;
One Grizzle stopp’d, and seiz’d the reins,
While they all threat the Doctor’s brains.

Certainly, this unfortunate experience is not what Syntax had in mind when setting out on tour, but Rowlandson’s inclusion of this print interestingly echoes a reflection Gilpin has in his Observations on some parts of England on the improvement that bandits could give to his view of a vale: “With regard to the adorning of such a scene with figures, nothing could suit it better than a group of banditti…The imagination can hardly avoid conceiving a band of robbers lurking under the shelter of some projecting rock; and expecting the traveler, as he approaches the valley below” (Vol. 1, 166). Whereas Gilpin celebrates the picturesque attributes of banditti, Syntax’s actual encounter mocks the picturesque pleasure of imagined dread. In other moments, Syntax rhapsodies on the specific elements of the picturesque. In Canto Fourteen, for example, Dr. Syntax exonerates picturesque qualities, including the subject matter, figures, and composition that qualify the picturesque: “The first, the middle, and the last, in picturesque, is bold contrast.” While this statement identifies the importance of contrast, particularly regarding lightness and darkness; expanse and variety, it also mirrors Gilpin’s insistence that a proper landscape composition is three-tiered, including a foreground, middleground, and background (See Gilpin’s Essay on Prints, pp. 67-68, 81), or, the first, middle, and last parts of a composition.

Throughout the tour, Syntax also searches for the figures and elements of a landscape scene that add picturesque qualities, including a castle, a lake scene, and farm animals. Syntax, for example, “Must fly off to Windermere” (Canto 13), the Lake District area also visited by Gilpin in his 1786 Observations, Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, and expands his travels to Keswick, the area in northern England visited by Gilpin in the same tour. During his travels along the recognizable picturesque tour itinerary, Syntax also encounters objects commonly recognized for their picturesque qualities. In Canto Nine, for example, Syntax reaches a ruined castle but is intent on adding trees and shrubs to improve the composition.

The palace of the feudal victor
Now serves for nought but for a picture.
Plenty of water here I see,
But what’s a view without a tree?
There’s something in yonder tow’r,
But not a shrub to make a bow’r;
Howe’er, I’ll try to take the view,
As well as my best art can do.

Syntax’s reflection closely echoes advice in Three Essays: “We must ever reflect that nature is most defective in composition; and must be a little assisted…I take up a tree here, and plant it there. I pare a knoll, or make an addition to it” (Gilpin, Three Essays 67-68). Syntax will use his “best art” to improve the castle scene. However, as always, Syntax’s misadventures satirize and mock the ideal of the picturesque tour. Rowlandson’s illustrative plate in the canto depicts Syntax tumbling headfirst into the water, his sketchbook and pencil with him. With the picturesque castle and bank in the background, Rowlandson subverts the picturesque composition by centering Syntax’s fall in the foreground, continuing his subjection of Dr. Syntax to the realities of the otherwise idealized picturesque tour. Combe expands on Rowlandson’s image in the text, writing that Syntax situates himself on a rocky shore to draw the castle, but, “The stones gave way, and sad to tell,/Down from the bank he headlong fell” (Canto 9). Rowlandson’s image and Combe’s text both encapsulate the running joke of In Search of the Picturesque: ridiculing the picturesque tour by making it the framework narrative, and the picturesque tourist’s misadventures the persistent joke.

In Canto Fourteen, Syntax is invited to a farm to draw its animals, which allows him to exhibit his knowledge of the rules of the picturesque, a sequence that precisely reflects Gilpin’s own hierarchy of picturesque animals outlined in his Three Essays. Specifically comparing the horse and the cow, Gilpin concludes that the cow is the most picturesque animal because its form is more jagged than the smooth, round, horse. Gilpin writes, “But as an object of picturesque beauty, we admire more the worn-out cart-horse, the cow, the goat, or the ass; whose harder lines, and rougher coats, exhibit more the graces of the pencil” (Gilpin, Three Essays Vol. II, 14). Syntax’s mare Grizzle, of course, reflects the “worn-out cart-horse” that Gilpin describes, and thus is added as a picturesque ornament to many of the scenes that Rowlandson depicts, but Syntax parrots Gilpin’s words when saying, “A well-fed horse, with shining skin,/Form’d for the course and plates to win,/May have his beauties, but not those/That will my graphic art disclose” (Canto Fourteen). Furthermore, when drawing the animals on the farm Syntax explains, “To the fine steed you sportsmen bow,/But picturesque prefers a cow” (Canto Fourteen) because her horns and bony form better contrasts light and shade. Similar to Syntax’s fall into the lake when drawing the castle, however, the picturesque ideals are not easily played out; Syntax realizes that farm animals do not stay still in order to be drawn. Rowlandson’s image depicts Syntax in front of an array of cows, horses, pigs, sheep, geese, and dogs, holding sketchbook and pencil. Combe imagines Syntax’s frustration with the noisy, moving animals: “Tho’, by the picturesquish laws,/You’re better too with open jaws” (Canto Fourteen). Again, we see Syntax conforming his scene and experiences to the rules of the picturesque.

Pl 17 Drawing After Nature

Combe’s image of Syntax himself embodies the aesthetics that Gilpin expounds on. Gilpin writes “But would you see the human face in its highest form of picturesque beauty, examine that patriarchal head…What is it, but the forehead furrowed with wrinkles? the prominent cheek-bone, catching the light? (10), and Syntax’s gangly, bony figure certainly visualizes Gilpin’s words. As Syntax observes, “I am myself, without a flaw;/The very picturesque I draw” (Canto Thirteen). This, indeed, was Rowlandson’s aim. His friend John Bannister advised him to draw a “skin and bone hero”[6], and this description of the central hero supposedly led to Dr. Syntax’s creation. By making the gangly Syntax himself exhibit picturesque qualities Rowlandson’s inclusion of Syntax in the landscape scenes both center on picturesque aesthetics, and subvert those aesthetics by placing the traveler, Syntax, as the main object of attention in the prints.

Of course, Syntax’s persistent aim throughout In Search of the Picturesque is to publish his tour as a book. He makes this known to a number of his encounters throughout the tour, and collects subscriptions from many for the advertised book. In Canto Twenty-two, Syntax sells his book to a London bookseller, although was initially unsuccessful because of the over-abundance of tour books being sold. The bookseller cries, “A Tour, indeed!––I’ve had enough/Of Tours, and such-like flimsy stuff” and describes Dr. Syntax’s tour as a “fool’s errand” to travel throughout the country “and write what has been writ before!” Combe acknowledges here, of course, what the contemporary reader was well-aware of: the extreme popularity of picturesque tour books. However, the bookseller agrees to publish the book when he reads Syntax’s letter of endorsement from the Lord. Combe’s commentary on the picturesque tour industry proves Syntax’s initial belief true: that a man of learning, with the proper connections, can capitalize on the picturesque tour trend. We see this satirization of trends and popular culture, including the publishing industry, “the man of taste”, and genre trends, throughout In Search of the Picturesque, but certainly, satirization of picturesque aesthetics and the picturesque touring industry is the most direct and continuous topic attended to by Combe and Rowlandson.

Satirizing Genre and Structure in In Search of the Picturesque

In Search of the Picturesque made an effective satire because the poems’ genre inhabited the same forms and rules of the very literature that it was parodying. By emulating various genres of poetry in its day, In Search of the Picturesque not only made light of the picturesque but of literary culture at large. The mutable style of the poem, as well as the frame narrative of Doctor Syntax’s travels, mimicked various forms of poetry that were prevalent in late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

At first glance, the structure of In Search of the Picturesque may appear to be uniform. Its meter is typically broken into tetrameter lines with rhyming couplets, with occasional narrative breaks for dialogue or epitaphs. This seemingly unsophisticated meter was typical of periodical verse through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The exact end rhyme maintains a “sing-song” beat throughout the poems, again a feature characteristic of this time period. This mode is typical not just of periodical verse but of Combe’s own style.

As a caricature of the picturesque, the most frequent target of In Search of the Picturesque is what is known as the loco-descriptive poem. The loco-descriptive poem elaborates a specific named topographical feature, such as a local mountain or river, and illustrates its environment within stylistic language. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these poems were extremely popular, as they were frequently used to carve out a local space that fulfilled elements of either the sublime or picturesque. [7] Loco-descriptive poems are also part of travel literature as a way of documenting the poetical landscape through which the traveler moved. The Romantics in particular latched on to this type of poetry, producing such classic works as Wordsworth’s Descriptive Sketches, and Shelley’s Mont Blanc. In In Search of the Picturesque, features are rarely named, perhaps as Combe himself had not taken a tour to the lakes, but there are plenty of moments in which Syntax aspires to write such a poem, such as here in Canto Eighteen:

The vary’d landscape here combin’d
To fascinate the eye and mind,
To charm the gazer’s ev’ry sense
From the commanding eminence.
Th’ expanding plain, with plenty crown’d,
Diffuses health and fragrance round;
While, on a lofty, craggy height,
A castle rises to the sight,
Which, in its day of strength and pride,
The arms of threat’ning foes defy’d.
Beneath the mouldering abode
In mazy course a riv’let flow’d,
And, free from the tempestous gale,
Its silent stream refresh’d the vale.

In this scene, nature is displayed much as a picturesque scene would be laid. There is a rough, craggy line that maneuvers to a castle ruin, broken through by a winding river. In this canto, there is no engraving of this natural scene; rather, Syntax is displayed chatting up a young dairy maid.

Pl 21 Syntax and the Dairy Maid

This relationship marks the discord between Syntax’s intent to capture the picturesque and his actual activities. It should be noted that in the original publication of The Schoolmaster’s Tour, this canto was followed by a poem called Denbigh Castle, which evoked a similar castle ruin:

The Castle’s lofty strength no more
O’erawes the natives of the vale;
Nor on th’ embattled walls are seen
The banners floating in the gale.[8]

So even within the space of the periodical, In Search of the Picturesque, through its proximal relationship to the engraving and other poems, at once imitates the popular forms of loco-descriptive poetry but deviates from the expectation of a picturesque travel. Because while the picturesque reader might want the poet to ruminate on objects of “lofty strength,” the plate demonstrates that he is, in reality, more interested in the image of the young woman.

There are other types of poetry sneaked into the larger narrative of In Search of the Picturesque. The elegiac melancholy of graveyard verse, wherein the poet contemplates his own morality through the space of the cemetery, developed into a school of poets in the eighteenth century, and such motifs continued into the nineteenth, perhaps most famously embodied by Wordsworth in “We Are Seven.” Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”, arguably the most popular of the eighteenth century graveyard poems, ends with this epitaph:

Here rests his head upon the lap of earth
A youth to fortune and to fame unknown.
Fair Science frowned not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy marked him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heaven did a recompense as largely send:
He gave to Misery all he had, a tear,
He gained from Heaven (’twas all he wished) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

In comparison, in Canto Eight, Doctor Syntax ruminates on a few graves, hoping to find a ghost that would make his tours more interesting. Instead, he finds the “muse” lurking among the tombstones.

No more the conscious Sexton said,
But urg’d his labours for the dead;
While Syntax cull’d, with critic care,
What the sad Muse had written there.

Here lie poor Thomas and his wife,
Who led a pretty jarring life;
But all is ended, do you see?
He holds his tongue, and so does she.
Within this tomb a lover lies,
Who fell and early sacrifice
To Dolly’s unrelenting eyes.
For Dolly’s charms poor Damon burn’d—
Disdain the cruel maid return’d;
But, as she danc’d in May-day pride,
Dolly fell down, and Dolly died,
And now she lives by Damon’s side.
Be not hard-hearted then, ye fair,
Of Dolly’s hapless fate beware:
For sure you’d better go to bed
To the living than the dead.

These poems, supposedly etched into the tombstones, pokes fun at the melancholy, nostalgic epitaphs found in poems like Gray’s. The humorous twist of these epitaphs arises from their wry reflections on the state of death. Rather than mourn death, these epitaphs lightly chide the dead and remark on the inconsequential moments of their lives that, through absurd poetical irony, contributed to their death.

Furthermore, the inclusion of visionary poetics appears time from time. In this style, which has classical roots, the poet is struck with an often abrupt revelation. Often visionary poetics is accompanied by a sense of deep tranquility, a meditative state wherein the imagination and reality are confused. One example is Doctor Syntax’s “metaphysic mood” in Canto Twenty-Two. Visionary poetry may also emphasize the power of its genius through accompanying natural violence, such as lightning strikes, a sudden sunbeam coming from behind the clouds, or a torrent of wind. In the very first poem, Syntax ideates his book in such a revelation.

When, as the vivid lightnings fly,
And instant light the gloomy sky,
A sudden thought across him came,
That told the way to wealth and fame.
And, as th’ expanding vision grew
Wide and wider to his view,
The painted fancy did beguile
His woe-worn phiz into a smile:
But, while he pac’d the room around,
Or stood immers’d n thought profound,
The Doctor, ‘midst his rumination,
Was waken’d by a visitation

I’ll make a TOUR,–and then I’ll WRITE it.

The absurdity of this instance is meant not only to tease out the true motivations of travel writers but to mock the serious bouts of inspiration that were supposedly derived from an almost-divine external genius.

In Search of the Picturesque also incorporates a host of character archetypes that are drawn from society. These archetypes are matched in the plates with Rowlandson’s distinctive caricature. The rhyming tetrameter reduces these characters to an essence, and the nonsense of their situations is expounded when illustrated by the grotesque figures in the images. Women, for example, are typically referred to as “Dolly”, which is an early slang term for a prostitute.[9] Female characters adhere to a typical crone/maiden dichotomy. Older women are always fat, loud shrews (Mrs. Syntax, the landlady), seen in these lines from Canto One:

Good Mrs. Syntax was a lady
Ten years or more beyond her hey-day;
And, with her other charms, inherits
A gentlemanly flow of spirits.

Her face was red, her form was fat,
A round-about, and rather squat;
And, when in angry humour stalking,
Was like a dumpling set a-walking.

Young women on the other hand are conceived as flirtatious and coy under the lustful gaze of Doctor Syntax. In one scene from Canto Five, Syntax buys kisses off his landlady’s maid:

“You’re a nice girl,” he smiling said,
“Am I?” replied the simp’ring maid.
“I swear you are, and if you’re willing
“To give a kiss, I’ll give a shilling.”
“If ‘tis the same thing, Sir, to you,
“Make the gift two-fold, and take two.”
He grimly grinn’d with inward pleasure,
And soon he seiz’d the purchas’d treasure.
“Your lips, my dear, are sweet as honey,
“So one smack more,–and there’s your money.”

Another common stock character is the ‘Squire, which represent the country landed gentleman who welcomes Syntax into his home, such as Squire Bounty (“One of the best men in the county”) in Cantos Seven and Eight and ‘Squire Hearty in Cantos Nine through Eleven. There are several men of the church, such as the Curate in Canto Seven and the Sexton in Canto Eight. Syntax, as a curate himself, identifies with the burdened position of the low-level priest in the Church of England, who is expected to tend to a large population of people and live in poverty while the Deacons and Bishops live in prosperity and wealth without much effort. These stock characters represent typically middle class or upper middle class society, where the individuals are educated but not necessarily bright. As Doctor Syntax encounters them, they become sounding boards for his own farce, often blindly echoing back his genius to him, despite the folly of his motives and method. That said, Doctor Syntax represents the most important archetype of them all in this work, that is, the man of taste.

Dr. Syntax and the “Man of Taste”

The original title of In Search of the Picturesque, The Schoolmaster’s Tour, immediately centralizes the learnedness of the central tourist, Dr. Syntax and thus identifies him as a “man of taste”. Shortly after setting out for his tour, Dr Syntax asks: “What man of taste my right will doubt, / To put things in, or leave them out?” While the second line voices the picturesque tourist’s tendency to alter the landscape to suit the picture, the first line draws on the eighteenth-century figure of educational refinement, “the man of taste”. Through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries “the man of taste” referred to an individual whose education endowed them with an elevated appreciation and ability of discernment; an expansive vocabulary and mental encyclopedia allowed a heightened appreciation of a scene through reference to poems and paintings. Dr. Syntax draws on his education and knowledge of “rules of taste” throughout his tour to properly judge landscape views, but Combe and Rowlandson’s depiction of Dr. Syntax tends to make his emphasis on his knowledge ridiculous, particular in comparison with the individuals he meets throughout his tour.

William Gilpin and others specifically figured the picturesque traveler as a man of taste because of his supposed ability to discern good and bad compositions. In Gilpin’s Three Essays, for example, he asks, “And shall we suppose it a greater pleasure to the sportsman to pursue a trivial animal, than it is to the man of taste to pursue the beauties of nature” (48), and in his Remarks on Forest Scenery he writes that the man of taste is the “best improver” of a scene because of his refined judgment (277). Certainly, the education level and culture of by the man of taste differentiated him from the inhabitants of the areas through which he traveled during a picturesque tour. Gilpin goes so far as to define “picturesque grace” as “an agreeable form given, in a picture, to a clownish figure” in his Essay Upon Prints… (3), demonstrating his desire to alter the appearance of rustic characters to add picturesque qualities to a picture.

In In Search of the Picturesque, the reader certainly notices both the long tradition of the refined “man of taste” in its protagonist, as well as Combe and Rowlandson’s subversion of that idea through Dr. Syntax’s exaggerated arrogance regarding his judgment, drawings and prose, and his own status during his travels. The first stanza of the poem expands on Syntax’s education: tired of contemplating Greek and Latin texts, Syntax ponders what else he can do with his time. After realizing the monetary benefit of publishing a picturesque tour book, he, says to his wife, “You well know what my pen can do,/I’ll prove it with my pencil too” (Canto 1) and parts from his wife with the Latin farewell, “Vale! O Vale!” (Canto 1). In Canto Six, Syntax returns to his alma mater, Oxford, and after a romantic rhapsody over his time on the banks of “Isis and Cherwell’s stream”, Dr. Syntax meets with his old schoolmate and current provost of Oxford, Dicky Bend. Syntax tells Dicky his plan for a picturesque tour, and the provost appeals to Syntax’s education:

“I know full well that you have store
Of ancient and of classic lore;
And, surely, with your weight of learning,
And all your critical discerning,
You might produce a work of name,
To fill your purse, and give you fame.
How oft have we together sought
Whate’er the ancient sages taught?”

Dicky allies Syntax’s ability to “succeed” in his tour to his education because it has granted him “critical discerning.” The final line of the Provost’s response, though, shows Combe’s satiric injection: the phrasing of Syntax and Dickey Bend’s search for “whatever the ancient sages taught” mocks the man of taste’s fervent alliance with classical education and the belief that ancient knowledge is the highest pursuit of learning. Syntax of course, exhibit ancient knowledge through his landscape depictions. Canto XXV, added in 1812 and identified as “The Battle of the Books” by Combe in his preface to the 1812 edition, very explicitly pictures Dr. Syntax’s preoccupation with “higher” learning, as he dreams of a variety of print media flying through the air in battle, with Classical Literature proving the ultimate victor.

In addition to several references to Syntax’s education, Syntax seems determined to prove throughout the tour that his drawings can exhibit his skills in artistic discernment. In Canto Fourteen, Syntax and a rustic woman debate about the beauties of the animal life around them. While she observes the swallows, larks, wild fowls, kites, and rooks, Syntax laments his inability to control how wild birds are grouped: “And any man of taste ‘twould shock/To paint those wild geese in a flock.” Syntax, voicing his knowledge of the most pleasing rules of composition, says that he, like any man of taste, would be shocked by the opportunity to paint the geese as a flock, as grouped figures make for a more pleasing composition than a solitary figure.

Combe’s linguistic satirization of Dr. Syntax as a man of taste, of course, builds off of Rowlandson’s pictorial depiction. In a way, Rowlandson’s aquatints portray Syntax as a sort of “clownish figure” that Gilpin had previously used to describe rustic individuals. Dr. Syntax’s iconic white wig, for example, is constantly being lost (See plates 4, 7, 8, 9, 11, 12, 20). Certainly an image of comic relief, Rowlandson’s depictions of Syntax losing his wig, the symbol of a distinguished and wise older man, portray a superficial demonstration of refinement in the man of taste. The fact that Rowlandson’s depictions of Syntax pulling his white wig, his war-beaten mare Grizzle, and his Oxford education through the Lake District could prompt Combes to flesh out the text of In Search of the Picturesque suggests a popular recognition of the manners and style of the man of taste. Dr. Syntax believes his education endows him with the proper knowledge to judge landscapes, and readers of The Schoolmaster’s Tour and In Search of the Picturesque would appreciate both the truth of the picturesque traveler as a man of taste and the comic exaggeration of the man of taste relying on his education for artistic judgement.

The Representation of the Publishing Industry

Both Combe and Rowlandson were deeply entrenched within the publishing institutions of their day. By the time The Schoolmaster’s Tour was published in 1809, the two had at least sixty years of experience in publishing between them. It is not unsurprising that the book and print selling industry was one that they would target in this work. From the first canto, publishing is identified not as a production of genius or art but rather as a con to make money off unsuspecting readers. Syntax identifies to his wife that his primary economic competition is the local grocer. He will attain his wealth, he claims, by writing a picturesque travel book.

  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.

Canto One

Even if Doctor Syntax does not succeed in his plans to become rich, the book’s purpose is still not to inform, educate, or inspire beauty but rather to feed him and his family. This theme is carried throughout In Search of the Picturesque. Canto Five muses:

“A Bookseller may keep his carriage,
“And ask ten thousand pounds in marriage;
“May have his mansion in a square,
“And build a house for country air;
“And yet ‘tis odds the fellow knows
“If Horace wrote in verse or prose.
“Could Doctor G— in chariot Ride,
“And take each day his wine beside,
“If he did not contrive to cook,
“Each year, his Tour into a book.”

The publishing industry is thus characterized as a primarily mercenary pursuit.

No one better fulfilled this image of the wealthy bookseller than Rudolph Ackermann. Ackermann, the founder of The Poetical Magazine and a prominent print seller in London, had connected Rowlandson to Combe when Rowlandson first proposed his Syntax project. Ackermann was responsible for the production, publishing, and dissemination of Rowlandson’s Microcosm of London as well as a number of illustrated serial history books of various places throughout Great Britain such as the History of the Abbey Church of St. Peter’s, Westminster, The History of the University of Oxford (1814), and The History of the University of Cambridge (1815). His Repository of Arts, located at No. 101 on the Strand in London, operated as a print shop as well as a publishing house. In addition to the Poetical Magazine, he established the monthly Repository of Arts, Literature, Commerce, Fashions, and Politics in 1809. These serial publications—which came in both book and periodical format—were lucrative endeavors for Ackermann and other publishers like him. For example, for both The History of the University of Oxford and The History of the University of Cambridge, one thousand copies were made of each installment in its first run, and each installment cost between 12s 6d and 16s.[10] (16s in today’s currency is roughly equivalent to $72). Ackermann made his mark on In Search of the Picturesque well known, even having Combe advertise his magazine by name in Canto Eleven. His name and business were appended to the top of every engraving.

Considering that both Combe and Rowlandson were known for their extravagant lifestyles and frequent bankruptcy, it is no surprise that they viewed their own industry within financial terms and that they were cognizant of Ackermann’s flare for marketing. By skewing Gilpin as “Doctor Pompous” who “made his fortune by a book”, they mock the notion that such well-selling books began with honest intentions. This theme culminates when Doctor Syntax meets with a book seller in Canto Twenty-Two. The bookseller is identified as a drunk, angry man “whose ample paunch/was made of beef, and ham, and haunch.” He declares that that he has had too much of tours and calls Doctor Syntax a fool for making such a journey just to produce more of the same. This censure launches Doctor Syntax into a monologue about how booksellers thrive off the talent and hard work of their writers, only to abuse them: “Do you not know, and must I tell ye’/ ‘Tis they fill out your monstrous belly?” It is only when Doctor Syntax produces his letter of patronage from a lord that the Bookseller suddenly respects him. Indeed, the bookseller immediately sobers and begs for Doctor Syntax’s forgiveness. This interesting little scene indicates that the writer’s connections and prestige determine the publication of his text; it has nothing to do with his skill, talent, originality, or genius.


This article has surveyed only a sample of the social commentary of In Search of the Picturesque. While much of what has been examined has demonstrated the humor and outrageous qualities of the work, there is much more to be found. At times, Doctor Syntax becomes unusually contemplative, conveying ideas that are at once facetious in their triteness yet whimsical and profound in their simple philosophies. Rowlandson’s drawings demonstrate an appreciation for the art of the period, although his subjects tend towards the absurd and overdrawn. What can be determined is that while Combe and Rowlandson were satirizing these facets of their society, they were not denouncing them. Rather, there is a playful participation in the fashions of their era and a shrewd understanding of how their own art and industry functioned.

[1] Pickford 310

[2] Phagan

[3] Samuels 239-256.

[4] Pickford 317

[5] Campbell 40

[6] Bannister 290-1

[7] Potkay  177

[8] Poetical Magazine, May 1810, 243

[9] Chris Roberts, “Dolly”, in Lost English: Words And Phrases That Have Vanished From Our Language. (Michael O’Mara Books, 2012).

[10] Prideaux 125.