1782 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas D'Urfey

Isaac Reed, in Biographia Dramatica (1782; 1812) 1:212-13.



This author, who is more generally spoken of by the familiar name of Tom, was descended from an ancient family in France. His parents, being Hugonots, fled from Rochelle before it was beseiged by Lewis XIII. in 1628, and settled at Exeter, where their son was born, but in what year is uncertain. He was originally bred to the law; but soon finding that profession too saturnine for his volatile and lively genius, he quitted it, to become a devotee of the Muses; in which he met with no small success. His dramatic pieces, which are very numerous, were in general well received; yet there is not one of them now on the muster-roll of acting plays; that licentiousness of intrigue, looseness of sentiment, and indelicacy of wit, which were their strongest recommendations to the audiences for whom they were written, having very justly been banished from the stage in this period of purer taste. Yet are they very far from being totally devoid of merit. The plots are in general busy, intricate, and entertaining; the characters not ill drawn, although rather too farcical; and the language, if not perfectly correct, is yet easy, and well adapted for the dialogue of comedy. But what obtained Mr. D'Urfey his greatest reputation, was a peculiarly happy knack he possessed in the writing of satires and irregular odes. Many of these were upon temporary occasions, and were of no little service to the party in whose cause he wrote; which, together with his natural vivacity and good humour, obtained him the favour of great numbers of persons of all ranks and conditions. The Duke of Albermarle, son of General Monk, had him frequently at his table to divert his company in that way; of which he was not a little vain, as we may gather from part of a song made upon him at that time:

—He prates like a parrot;
He sups with the Duke,
And he lies in a garret.

Nay, even crowned heads have condescended to admit him to their presence, and seemed not a little diverted by him. It is no wonder to hear this of so merry a monarch as Charles the Second; but even King William, who was of so reserved a temper, and so little fond of music, or any amusements of that kind, would needs have D'Urfey one night to sing to him; and a gentleman, who was commanded to accompany his voice with his instrument, related, that the King laughed very heartily, and ordered him a present; but not quite so much as Queen Anne afterwards gave him for singing a song to her, written on purpose to ridicule that worthy and respectable lady the Princess Sophia, Electress Dowager of Hanover; which began,

The crown is too weighty
For shoulders of eighty;

and for which Her Majesty ordered him fifty guineas.

He was strongly attached to the Tory interest; and, in the latter part of Queen Anne's reign, had frequently the honour of diverting that Princess with witty catches and songs of humour, suited to the spirit of the times, written by himself, and which he sung in a lively and entertaining manner: and the author of The Guardian, who, in No. 67, has given a very humorous account of Mr. D'Urfey, with a view to recommend him to the public notice for a benefit play, tells us, that he remembered King Charles II. leaning on Tom D'Urfey's shoulder more than once, and humming over a song with him.

He was certainly a very diverting companion, and a cheerful, honest, good-natured man; so that he was the delight of the most polite companies and conversations, from the beginning of Charles II.'s to the latter part of King Geo. I.'s reign; and many an honest gentleman got a reputation in his county be pretending to have been in company with Tom D'Urfey: yet, so universal a favourite as he was, it is apparent, that, towards the latter part of his life, he stood in need of assistance to prevent his passing the remainder of it in a cage like a singing-bird; for, to speak in his own words, as repeated by the above-mentioned author, "after having written more odes than Horace, and about four times as many comedies Terence, he found himself 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." Mr. Addison then informs us, that, in order to extricate him from these difficulties, he himself immediately applied to the directors of the playhouse, who very generously agreed to act The Plotting Sisters, a play of Mr. Durfey's, for the benefit of its author. What the result of this benefit was, does not appear; but it was probably sufficient to make him easy, as we find him living and continuing to writ with the same humour and liveliness to the time of his death, which happened on the 26th of February 1723. What was his age at this time is not certainly specified any where; but he must have been considerably advanced in life; his first play, which could scarcely have been written before he was twenty years of age, having made its appearance forty-seven years before. He was buried in the church-yard of St. James's, Westminster; against the wall of which church, on the outside, is erected a stone to his memory, with this inscription: "TOM DURFEY died Feb. 26, 1723."

Those who have a curiosity to see his ballads, sonnets, &c. may find a large number of them in a collection in six volumes in duodecimo, 1719, entitled Wit and Mirth; or, Pills to purge Melancholy; of which The Guardian, in No. 29, speaks in very favourable terms. The titles of his dramatic pieces may be found in the following list [omitted].