JOHN SHEFFIELD, created Duke of Buckinghamshire, and son of the Earl of Mulgrave, was born in 1649. His father died when he was only nine years of age; and being dissatisfied with his tutor, in his twelfth, he formed the singular resolution of pursuing a course of studies according to his own plan. This he successfully prosecuted; and by his own application, without which all advantages are vain, raised himself to a high character as a polite scholar.
At the age of seventeen, he entered as a volunteer against the Dutch, and on his return, obtained the command of a troop of horse. Again he made an expedition to Holland, and having shewn distinguished bravery, was promoted to the command of the Catherine man of war, which shewed his amphibious talents. He afterwards raised a regiment of foot; was appointed Colonel of the Old Holland regiment; made a campaign under Marshall Turenne; and in 1680, was sent to the relief of Tangier, in which he displayed his usual courage and conduct.
At this period, he was one of the Lords of the Bedchamber to Charles II. and Knight of the Garter; but incurred a temporary disgrace by aspiring to the affections of the Princess Anne, to which it is said she would not have been averse, had she been allowed to follow her own inclinations. Indeed, Sheffield possessed abundant address, and was eminently qualified to be a courtier. In the reign of Charles II. he added to the licentious verses of that reign; under James II. he attended the mass; he was pensioned and made Marquis of Normanby by William III. and the former object of his love, Queen Anne, made him Lord Privy Seal and Duke of Normanby and Buckinghamshire.
The ascendancy of the Duke of Marlborough disgusted Sheffield; and retiring from court, he built Buckingham House. On the change of administration, however, he accepted the office of Lord Chamberlain of the Household; but the Queen's death following soon after, he ceased to be a courtier, and devoted most of his time to literary amusements.
The Duke of Buckingham was thrice married; but left only one son, in whom the line became extinct.
The father died in 1721, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. His epitaph is his own composition.
The rank of Duke of Buckingham caused his merits to be over-rated, but time has reduced him to his proper level. His Essay on Poetry and the Comedy of the Rehearsal entitle him to no mean praise as a man of genius, independent of adscititous qualities. "His verses," says Johnson who was never biassed by rank, "are often insipid, but his memoirs are lively and agreeable: he had the perspicuity and elegance of an historian, but not the fire and fancy of a poet."
Anderson, who is on all occasions a liberal check on more fastidious critics, has observed, and truly, on his Essay on Poetry, that though the versification is careless, the sense is always clear, the rules are commonly just, often delivered with ease, and sometimes with energy; and is, upon the whole, justly ranked among our best didactic poems. Dryden, Addison, and Pope, concur in giving it this character: which has been disputed by Drs. Warton and Johnson.