1753 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas D'Urfey

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 3:331-36.



THOMAS D'URFEY born in the county of Devon, and was first bred to the law; but we have not heard from what family he was descended, nor in what year he was born. He has written upwards of thirty plays, with various success, but had a genius better turned to a ballad, and little irregular odes, than for dramatic poetry. He soon forsook the profession of the law, and threw himself upon the public, by writing for the stage.

That D'Urfey was a man of some abilities, and enjoyed the esteem and friendship of men of the greatest parts in his time, appears from the favourable testimony of the author of the Guardian: And as the design of this work is to collect, and throw into one view, whatever may be found concerning any poet of eminence in various books, and literary records, we shall make no scruple of transcribing what that ingenious writer has humorously said concerning our author.

In Numb. 29. Vol. I. speaking of the advantages of laughing, he thus mentions D'Urfey. "A judicious author, some years since published a collection of Sonnets, which he very successfully called Laugh and be Fat; or Pills to purge Melancholy: I cannot sufficiently admire the facetious title of these volumes, and must censure the world of ingratitude, while they are so negligent in rewarding the jocose labours of my friend Mr. D'Urfey, who was so large a contributor to this Treatise, and to whose humorous productions, so many rural squires in the remotest parts of this island are obliged, for the dignity and state which corpulency gives them. It is my opinion, that the above pills would be extremely proper to be taken with Asses milk, and might contribute towards the renewing and restoring decayed lungs."

Numb. 67. He thus speaks of his old friend. — "It has been remarked, by curious observers, that poets are generally long lived, and run beyond the usual age of man, if not cut off by some accident, or excess, as Anacreon, in the midst of a very merry old age, was choaked with a grape stone. The same redundancy of spirits that produces the poetical flame, keeps up the vital warmth, and administers uncommon fuel to life. I question not but several instances will occur to my reader's memory, from Homer down to Mr. Dryden; I shall only take notice of two who have excelled in Lyrics, the one an antient, the other a modern. The first gained an immortal reputation by celebrating several jockeys in the Olympic Games; the last has signalized himself on the same occasion, by the Ode that begins with — To horse brave boys, to New market, to horse. The reader will by this time know, that the two poets I have mentioned are Pindar, and Mr. D'Urfey. The former of these is long since laid in his urn, after having many years together endeared himself to all Greece, by his tuneful compositions. Our countryman is still living, and in a blooming old age, that still promises many musical productions; for if I am not mistaken our British Swan will sing to the last. The best judges, who have perused his last Song on the moderate Man, do not discover any decay in his parts, but think it deserves a place among the finest of those works, with which he obliged the world in his more early years.

"I am led into this subject, by a visit which I lately received from my good old friend and cotemporary. As we both flourished together in king Charles the IId's reign, we diverted ourselves with the remembrance of several particulars that pass'd in the world, before the greatest part of my readers were born; and could not but smile to think how insensibly we were grown into a couple of venerable old gentlemen. Tom observed to me, that after having written more Odes than Horace, and about four times as many Comedies as Terence; he was reduced to great difficulties, by the importunities of a set of men, who of late years had furnished him with the accommodations of life, and would not, as we say, be paid with a song. In order to extricate my old friend, I immediately sent for the three directors of the Playhouse, and desired they would in their turn, do a good office for a man, who in Shakespear's phrase, often filled their mouths; I mean with pleasantry and popular conceits. They very generously listened to my proposal, and agreed to act the Plotting Sisters (a very taking play of my old friends composing) on the 15th of next month, for the benefit of the author.

"My kindness to the agreeable Mr. D'Urfey will be imperfect, if, after having engaged the players in his favour, I do not get the town to come into it. I must therefore heartily recommend to all the young ladies my disciples, the case of my old friend, who has often made their grandmothers merry; and whose Sonnets have perhaps lulled asleep many a present toast, when she lay in her cradle. The gentleman I am speaking of, has laid obligations on so many of his countrymen, that I hope they will think this but a full return to the good service of a veteran Poet.

"I myself, remember king Charles the IId. leaning on Tom D'Urfey's shoulder more than once, and humming over a song with him. It is certain, that monarch was not a little supported, by joy to great Caesar; which gave the Whigs such a blow, as they were not able to recover that whole reign. My Friend afterwards attacked Popery, with the same success, having exposed Bellarmine, and Portocarero, more than once, in short satirical compositions, which have been in every body's mouth. He made use of Italian Tunes and Sonato's, for promoting the Protestant interest; and turned a considerable part of the Pope's music against himself: In short, he has obliged the court with political Sonnets; the country wish Dialogues, and Pastorals; the city with Descriptions of a lord Mayor's Feast; not to mention his little Ode upon Stool-Ball; with many others of the like nature.

"Should the very individuals he has celebrated make their appearance together, they would be sufficient to fill the play-house. Pretty Peg of Windsor, Gilian of Croydon; with Dolly and Molly; and Tommy and Johny; with many others to be met with in the musical Miscellanies, would make a great benefit.

"As my friend, after the manner of the old lyrics, accompanies his words with his own voice; he has been the delight of the most polite companies and conversations, from the beginning of king Charles the IId's reign, to our own times; Many an honest gentleman has got a reputation in his country, by pretending to have been in company with Tom D'Urfey.

"I might here mention several other merits in my friend, as his enriching our language with a multitude of rhimes, and bringing words together, that without his good offices, would never have been acquainted with one another, so long as it had been a tongue; but I must not omit that my old friend angled for a trout, the best of any man in England.

"After what I have said, and much more that I might say, on this subject, I question not but the world will think that my old friend ought not to pass the remainder of his life in a cage, like a singing bird; but enjoy all that Pindaric liberty, which is suitable to a man of his genius. He has made the world merry, and I hope they will make him easy, as long as he stays amongst us. This I will take upon me to say, they cannot do a kindness, to a more diverting companion, or a more chearful, honest, good-natur'd man."—

The same author, Numb. 82. puts his readers in mind when D'Urfey's benefit came on, of some other circumstances favourable to him. "The Plotting Sisters, says he, is this day to be acted for the benefit of the author, my old friend Mr. D'Urfey. This comedy was honoured with the presence of King Charles II. three of the first five nights. My friend has in this work shewn himself a master, and made not only the characters of the play, but also the furniture of the house contribute to the main design. He has made excellent use of a table with a carpet, and the key of a closet; with these two implements, which would perhaps have been over-looked by an ordinary writer, he contrives the most natural perplexities (allowing only the use of these household goods in poetry) that ever were represented on a stage. He also made good advantage of the knowledge of the stage itself; for in the nick of being surprized, the lovers are let down, and escape at a trap door. In a word, any who have the curiosity to observe what pleased in the last generation, and does not go to a comedy with a resolution to be grave, will find this evening ample food for mirth. Johnson, who understands what he does as well as any man, exposes the impertinence of an old fellow who has lost his Senses still pursuing pleasures with great mastery. The ingenious Mr. Pinkethman is a bashful rake, and is sheepish, without having modesty with great success. Mr. Bullock succeeds Nokes in the part of Bubble, and, in my opinion, is not much below him, for he does excellently that kind of folly we call absurdity, which is the very contrary of wit; but next to that is, of all things, properest to excite mirth. What is foolish is the object of pity, but absurdity often proceeds from an opinion of sufficiency, and consequently is an honest occasion for laughter. These characters in this play, cannot but make it a very pleasant entertainment, and the decorations of singing and dancing, will more than repay the good-nature of those, who make an honest man a visit of two merry hours, to make his following year unpainful."

These are the testimonies of friendship and esteem, which this great author has given in favour of D'Urfey, and however his genius may be turned for the Sing-song, or Ballad, which is certainly the lowest species of poetry, yet that man cannot be termed contemptible, who was thus loved, and, though in jocular terms, praised by Mr. Addison.

There are few, or no particulars relating to the life of this poet preserved. He was attached to the Tory interest, and in the latter part of Queen Anne's reign frequently had the honour of diverting her with witty catches, and songs of humour suited to the spirit of the times. He died, according to Mr. Coxeter, February 26, 1723, in a good old age, and was buried in the Church-yard of St. James's, Westminster [list of works omitted].