CHARLES CHURCHILL was born, some time in the month of February, 1731, in Vine Street, in the parish of St. John's, Westminster, of which parish his father, who was also rector of Rainham, in Essex, was for many years the curate and evening lecturer. When he was about eight years of age he was placed at Westminster School, which was then under the direction of Dr. Nichols and Dr. Pierson Lloyd; and, in his hours of absence from the seminary, he enjoyed the benefit of tuition from his father, who was fully competent to the task of instructing him. It appears, however, that his progress, though not inconsiderable, was less rapid than might have been expected from the advantages which he possessed. With parts which were allowed to be good, he seems to have been deficient in steadiness and attention.
At the age of fifteen he was admitted upon the foundation. Soon after this event a circumstance occurred which gave him a favourable opportunity of showing that he had talents which, on an emergency, might be roused into honourable action. "Having (says his biographer, Mr. Tooke) by some trifling misdemeanor incurred the displeasure of his masters, he was by them enjoined to compose a poetical declamation, and speak it publicly in the school room, by way of apology for his misbehaviour. This task he acquitted himself of in so proper yet spirited a manner as to obtain the unqualified approbation of his masters, without forfeiting the esteem of his schoolfellows by any undue concessions."
When he entered in his nineteenth year, be quitted Westminster, and applied to be matriculated at the University of Oxford. His application was a fruitless one. For his failure two very different causes are assigned. It is said by some, that he was rejected on account of his deficiency in the learned languages. But this it is difficult to believe; for, however negligent he may occasionally have been, it is improbable that he could have remained eleven years at Westminster without acquiring perfectly the learned languages, or that his father, a competent judge, would have suffered him to incur the disgrace of proceeding to Oxford in an unqualified state. By Churchill himself it was affirmed, that he was fully competent to pass the ordeal of being examined; but that despising the abilities of the examiner, and the trivial questions which were asked, he replied in a contemptuous and satirical manner, which, either mistakenly or revengefully, was construed into a proof of his ignorance. This story may, perhaps, safely be credited. It is not unlikely that, even in his youth, he had a keen perception of the ridiculous, and a propensity to satire; and we know that college examinations have often afforded a subject of laughter to sarcastic wits. It must, nevertheless, he owned that, though we may vindicate the learning of Churchill, little can, in this instance, be said in favour of his prudence and regard to decorum. That he was not really deficient in the former, seems to be proved by the fact of his basing, shortly after his rejection at Oxford, been admitted as a member of Trinity College, Cambridge. He, however, derived no benefit from his nominal connexion with Cambridge; for, as soon as he had gone through the ceremony of admission, he returned to London, and appears thenceforth to have cherished a rooted dislike and contempt of the universities.
At this early period of his existence an event occurred which had a powerful influence over his future destiny. While he was at Westminster School, and not more than seventeen, he became attached to the daughter of a tradesman in the neighbourhood. As the lovers were convinced that the sanction of their parents was not to be hoped for, they now, with all the thoughtless impatience of youth, contracted a clandestine marriage at the Fleet. Though severely pained by this rash step, the father of Churchill forgave the offending pair, and received them into his house, where they resided for twelve months, during which time the conduct of his son was of the most exemplary kind.
Family reasons, but of what nature is not known, are said to have induced Churchill to retire, in 1751, to Sunderland, in the county of Durham; where, for a while, he devoted himself to poetical amusements. Either his own good sense, however, or the advice of his friends, at length awakened him to the necessity of acquiring that theological knowledge without which he could not properly discharge the duties of the sacred profession for which he was intended. He, therefore, gave up the charms of poetry, and pursued, with indefatigable ardour, the study of divinity, till, in his twenty-second year, he returned to the metropolis, for the purpose of receiving a small fortune in right of his wife.
In London, Churchill steadily continued in the course which he had begun, and at the usual age he was ordained deacon, by Dr. Willes, the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Immediately after this he removed to Cadbury, in Somersetshire, where he acted as curate, and gained the respect of his flock by his assiduous performance of the clerical functions. So high did his character stand for piety and learning, that, although he had not studied at an university, or taken a degree, he was, in 1756, ordained priest on his father's curacy of Rainham, by Dr. Sherlock, the Bishop of London. On this event taking place, he went to reside at Rainham; and, as his salary was but small, and his family was increasing, he endeavoured to add to his means by establishing a school. Hard necessity alone could have driven him to this resource, for he had confessedly an antipathy to the business of tuition.
The death of his worthy and amiable father, in 1758, once more called Churchill to the metropolis. His deceased parent was so much beloved, and his own conduct had been so exemplary, that the parishioners of St. John's testified their esteem by unanimously electing him to the vacant curacy and lectureship. As the emolument arising from these did not reach a hundred pounds, he was again compelled to apply his leisure hours to teaching. He, however, now avoided the fatigue and responsibility of keeping an academy, by attending a female boarding school, where he taught English, and by giving to young gentlemen the finishing lessons of education.
For a while he lived with the esteem of his parishioners as a clergyman, and of his employers as a tutor. But, at length, circumstances arose which clouded his prospects and blemished his reputation. The regularity and decorum which had hitherto marked his conduct, gave place to negligence and convivial folly. He renewed his acquaintance with Robert Lloyd, the son of Dr. Pierson Lloyd, and with other thoughtless men of gaiety and wit, and their time was constantly passed together, at the theatre, the tavern, and a variety of scenes of dissipated pleasure.
Domestic infelicity is said to have been the cause of this lamentable change in the habits of Churchill; and a cause more adequate to the production of such an effect cannot possibly be assigned. It is in the power of a wife to make the home of her husband, especially if he be devoted to literary pursuits either a paradise or a place of torment. In that exulting language which the occasion was well suited to inspire. Burke used to declare, that, however he might be harassed abroad by political and other vexations, they never crossed his threshold, for they were banished by the smiles and the tenderness of his wife. Insensible or base must be the man who does not, with unvarying fondness, cherish such a mate, as the best blessing of Heaven, his consolation and his pride. But it is not every one who is thus happily mated; and severe is the destiny of him who is not. Even should his partner forbear to sting his heart with the worst of matrimonial injuries, she may poison his existence, and palsy the exercise of his talents, by alternate sullenness and violence, by cavils, taunts, and groundless reproaches, by breaking in upon his hours of study, and disturbing with clamour the current of his thoughts, and by all those thousand other arts which her perversity can so dexterously and incessantly employ. At what point Mrs. Churchill stopped in her misconduct, it is too late to ascertain. We are told by Dr. Kippis, who wrote at a period when information on the subject was more accessible than it now is, that "it was always understood in Westminster that Mrs. Churchill's imprudence kept too near a pace with that of her husband." It is certain that, after a considerable time had been spent in the misery of domestic quarrels, they finally separated in 1761, and that there remained alive not a single spark of that affection which he had once felt.
The natural consequences of his imprudence were not slow to manifest themselves. In a few months his resources were diminished and his debts increased, the prudent part of his acquaintance looked coolly upon him, his creditors became importunate, his footsteps were dogged by the beagles of legal rapine, a jail seemed to be opening to receive him, and, as he saw no prospect of relief, his spirits and patience began to fail him. At this crisis of his affairs he was saved by the benevolent exertions of a friend. Dr. Pierson Lloyd, his former tutor, and the father of his most intimate companion, prevailed upon the creditors of Churchill to accept a composition of five shillings in the pound, and is said even to have advanced a part of the money which was wanted to carry the agreement into effect. For this noble and opportune act of kindness Churchill after wards proved that he was not ungrateful.
It was while he was struggling with his embarassments, that Churchill, probably with the view of extricating himself from them, resolved to try whether be might not derive benefit from his poetical talents. In his first effort he failed. It was a poem called The Bard, written in Hudibrastic verse. This he offered to a bookseller of the name of Waller, who instantly rejected it, as a contemptible performance. We may well doubt the capability of a bookseller to pronounce on the merit of poetry; but as, at a time when he had the means of procuring for it an extensive circulation, Churchill himself consigned the work to oblivion, we may conclude that, though above contempt, it did not approach to excellence.
The Conclave was his next production. It was in anapestic verse, and is said to have been pungently satirical. The objects of the satire were the Dean and Chapter of Westminster. The Dean was Zachary Pearce, Bishop of Rochester, a man of learning, but whose narrowness of mind is demonstrated by the circumstance of his having, on the ground that it was Popish and idolatrous, insisted, though luckily in vain, that the parishioners of St. Margaret's should remove a splendid window of painted glass, with which they had adorned their church. For the present, however, he escaped the shafts of Churchill. By some of the long robe, to whose opinion it was submitted, The Conclave was declared to be actionable, and it was therefore suppressed.
By his third attempt he was amply compensated for his past disappointments. He chose a subject of general attraction, and which was level to the capacity of every one; or, at least, which every one was willing to consider as being so. The players were his theme. Having long been an assiduous frequenter of the theatre, and possessing sound judgment and taste, Churchill was thoroughly qualified to estimate their merits and defects. He accordingly produced The Rosciad, and was encouraged by the warm praise of the few literary friends to whom he showed it in manuscript. Yet his work narrowly escaped from being stifled before its birth. It was offered, at the mean price of five guineas, to several of those judicious critics and excellent patrons, the booksellers, and was refused by them all. Fortunately, Churchill resolved to publish it at his own risk, though he is said to have possessed scarcely money enough to pay the cost of the advertisements. It was published in March, 1761, but without the name of the author.
The booksellers had abundant reason to lament the stupidity which they had displayed. Never did any poem become more rapidly popular than did The Rosciad. The public were enchanted with its wit, satire, and keen discrimination, and with the freedom and spirit of its numbers. Edition after edition was sold, and the poet soon avowed an offspring which was received with such striking marks of favour. The actors, too, contributed to spread his fame, by running about the town to bemoan their misfortune, and give vent to their spleen. Equal service was rendered to him by a crowd of assailants, who, inspired by rage or hunger, issued forth with Churchilliads, Anti-Rosciads, Odes, Epistles, and Apologies. While themselves they gained nothing but contempt for their puny hostility, they kept attention fixed on the writer against whom they hurled their abuse.
When he reprinted the poem, Churchill, in some instances, pointed his satire with additional severity. But it must also be mentioned, to his credit, that he expunged several lines which were injurious to private character. He did more; for, in a subsequent work, he himself candidly censured the fault which he had committed.
But if the Muse, too cruel in her mirth,
With harsh reflections wounds the man of worth;
If wantonly she deviates from her plan,
And quits the action to expose the man;
Ashamed, she marks that passage with a blot,
And hates the line where candour was forgot.
By the manner in which, on its first appearance, the Critical Reviewers treated The Rosciad, they awakened the formidable anger of Churchill. Not daring to affirm that the poem was destitute of merit, they blended with an awkward and grudging praise a large portion of pert, sneering, and petulant remark. It was evident that they were "willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike." At the same time they were unfortunate enough to lay themselves open to ridicule, by an absurd guess at the author. With a ludicrous affectation of discernment, they declared that, though young authors might aim at concealment, by appearing in different shapes, their arts were fruitless; as such writers were "easily to be discovered by a veteran in the service." To prove their veteran skill, they almost positively attributed the work to Lloyd, who had recently published The Actor; but, wishing to leave open a loop hole, at which they might escape, they added, "we will pot pretend, however, absolutely to assert, that Mr. L. wrote this poem; but we may venture to affirm, that it is the production, jointly or separately, of the new triumvirate of wits (Lloyd, Colman, and Bonnel Thornton), who never let slip an opportunity of singing their own praises. Caw me, caw thee, as Sawney says, and so to it they go, and scratch one another like so many Scotch pedlars."
The language and the critical acumen of the reviewer are worthy of each other. The style of Churchill bears no resemblance to that of Lloyd; and he who could err on this point must have had an intellect more than commonly clouded. It is probable that Churchill was not sorry to be attacked by such an adversary, as the circumstance afforded him an opportunity of at once chastising the critics, and giving to the actors a parting blow. He, in consequence, published The Apology, addressed to the Critical Reviewers, and he was completely successful in confirming his own reputation, and exposing his enemies to the laugh of the public. The laugh against them was not diminished by their answer, which, destitute of talent, was remarkable for nothing but its coarseness and arrogance.
In Churchill's former production, Garrick alone had escaped the lash. In his present, there was a pointed allusion to him, which exceedingly alarmed the sensitive manager, who feared that it was the prelude to serious hostility. With the view of propitiating the satirist, Garrick wrote to him a long letter, eulogizing his genius, apologizing for the players, and deprecating his future wrath. From sending it he was, however, dissuaded by a friend, who assured him that his self-abasement and flattery were likely to defeat their purpose, by exciting only contemptuous feelings in the high-spirited Churchill.
The profit arising from The Rosciad, and The Apology was very considerable. A part of it Churchill applied in a manner which did him honour. Though he was legally freed from the claims of his creditors, he did not think that he was morally so; and there is reason to believe that, unsolicited, he now paid them to the full amount of the sums which he owed.
Had every part of Churchill's conduct been like this, his character might be contemplated with unalloyed pleasure. But, in some instances, be forgot what was due to decorum, and perhaps even, though his faults may have been overrated, what was due to virtue. As a minister of the gospel, it was his duty, and ought to have been his glory, to teach by example as well as by precept those who were entrusted to his spiritual care. He failed both in precept and example. In the performance of his clerical functions, he is said to have been at least negligent, if not wholly forgetful of them; and his midnight hours were spent with wits and convivialists, in revels, which are by his enemies affirmed to have degenerated into downright licentiousness. Nor did he stop here. With a strange disregard of propriety, he laid aside the sober garb of his order, and arrayed himself in a blue coat with metal buttons, a gold laced waistcoat, a gold laced hat, and ruffles.
It was not possible that this unseemly mode of acting could pass uncensured, either by his parishioners or his superiors in the church. When Churchill prefixed his name to The Rosciad, Dr. Pearce, whom he already disliked, reprimanded him for writing on a subject so inconsistent with his profession; but the poet retorted that, if he were so culpable, Dr. Pearce himself, who had translated Longinus, could not be entirely blameless. The bishop renewed his attack, on ground that was more tenable, and censured Churchill's style of dress, which he desired him to alter for one that was suitable to his condition. To this good advice Churchill paid no attention; nor did he become more assiduous in his sacred office. The result was, that the parishioners appealed to Dr. Pearce, who repeated his remonstrance; and Churchill, impatient of control, chose rather to resign his curacy and lectureship than to comply with the reasonable terms on which he might have continued to retain them.
To vindicate to the public his fondness for nocturnal parties, Churchill published Night, an Epistle to Robert Lloyd. If he left his enemies unconverted by it, he at least succeeded in supporting his poetical fame. The purport of this epistle has been misrepresented by every writer who has alluded to it. One of Churchill's traducers, under the guise of a biographer, declares, that the "beauties of this poem, which are very striking, can never atone for the absurdity as well as immorality of his main argument, that open vice is more harmless than concealed, and did not prevent his readers from perceiving that he who maintains it must have lost shame as well as virtue." This is an accusation which is wholly unfounded, and, therefore, the reader will probably be of opinion that he who made it has himself forgotten to blush. Churchill does not assert that avowed vice is better than that which is concealed. He merely lashes the hypocrites who claim the honours which belong to virtue, while, in secret, they sacrifice to vice. Churchill does not plead guilty to the charge of being vicious. He pleads guilty to late hours and a love of company; but to nothing more. Far from admitting that he is criminal, he boldly asserts that he is "steadfast and true to virtue's sacred laws;" his protracted sittings at the festive board he defends on the plea that "all hours are good, if virtuously employed;" and, in another place, he eloquently exclaims,
Thus have we lived, and whilst the Fates afford
Plain plenty to supply the frugal board,
Whilst Mirth, with Decency his lovely bride,
And wine's gay god, with Temperance by his side,
Their welcome visit pay; whilst Health attends
The narrow circle of our chosen friends,
Whilst frank Good Humour consecrates the treat,
And Woman makes society complete,
Thus will we live, though in our teeth are hurl'd
Those hackney strumpets, Prudence and the World.
A doubt may be honestly felt, whether Churchill did not place his errors in the fairest light; but no doubt can exist, that those who have adduced his epistle to Lloyd as a proof of his guilt, have acted the part of calumniators; some through carelessness, and some through malignity.
In the spring and summer of 1762, Churchill published the first three books of The Ghost, the fourth book of which did not appear till the following summer. The largest portion of the opening book is said to have been written while be resided at Cadbury, and then intended for the press, with the title of The Fortune Teller. The celebrated imposture of the Cock Lane Ghost is the ostensible subject of this work; but, in reality, it only furnishes a sort of connecting link to his satire on various individuals. This poem is composed in eight syllable verse, and is the most desultory of all his poems. Some of the critics not unaptly characterized it as "Shandy in Hudibrastics." Among those at whom the author aimed his shafts was Dr. Johnson, who was designated under the name of Pomposo. This unjust attack Johnson resented by language which was equally unjust. Ho denied that Churchill was a poet, and predicted that his works would sink into oblivion; and he coarsely added, "I called the fellow a blockhead at first, and I will call him a blockhead still." In this instance, the reason of the lexicographer was clouded by his passion; for, whatever else Churchill might be, he was undoubtedly not a blockhead.
It appears to have been in the year 1762 that he became acquainted with Wilkes, and their acquaintance soon ripened into an ardent friendship. He joined with that daring politician in producing The North Briton, but his share in it has never been ascertained; he received a part of the profits arising from the paper; and he was included among the persons connected with it, for the arrest of whom the ministers gave to the messengers a verbal order. He was sitting with Wilkes when the latter was apprehended; and he owed his escape to the messengers being ignorant of his person, and to his friend having the presence of mind to address him as Mr. Thompson.
In the hatred of the Scottish people, which was cherished by Wilkes, Churchill fully participated; though his mother being a native of Scotland, it might have been supposed that, inheriting some of their blood, his prejudices would rather have leaned in their favour. His formidable powers were now tasked to the utmost to cover the Scotch, and the land of their birth, with contempt and ridicule. In July, 1763, be sent forth The Prophecy of Famine, a Scots Pastoral, inscribed to Mr. Wilkes; the materials of which were originally intended to form a paper in The North Briton. Wilkes predicted that "it would certainly take, as it was at once personal, poetical, and political." That his prediction was correct was proved by the event. The sale of even The Rosciad was surpassed by that of The Prophecy of Famine. Sparkling with wit, abounding with beautiful imagery, as well as with caustic satire, and more elaborately finished than any of his former pieces, this effort of his genius deserved the complete success which it obtained. It gave rise to innumerable lampoons and verses in answer; but the only one of them which remains in existence is Dr. Langhorne's pastoral of Genius and Valour.
Such was the antipathy of Churchill to his northern fellow subjects, that be dressed his youngest son in a plaid, like a little Highlander, and look him about everywhere in that garb. "The boy being asked (says Dr. Kippis) by a gentleman with whom I was in company, why he was clothed in such a manner, answered with great vivacity, "Sir, my father hates the Scotch, and does it to plague them."
At this distance of time, when the two nations are nearly amalgamated, such attacks as those which were reiterated by Wilkes and Churchill, wear an appearance of unpardonable illiberality. But though, on the score of generosity or policy, they were never wholly defensible, some allowance must be made for them, when we take into consideration the peculiar circumstances of that period. The Scotch possessed, or were believed to possess, unbounded influence in the government; though, less than twenty years before, a large portion of them had risen in rebellion, and even invaded England, for the hateful purpose of seating on the British throne the descendant of a tyrant. They were considered as being still the ready partisans of arbitrary power, and were, therefore, naturally objects of suspicion to a country which then could riot endure any thing that bore the semblance of an infringement on its liberties. Whether, during the lapse of more than half a century, they have acquired a love of freedom is a question which I am not called upon to discuss.
The next victim immolated on the altar of politics was Hogarth, and he himself provoked the sacrifice. He was intimate with Wilkes and Churchill, and he knew that they were men who would never suffer the party to which they belonged to be attacked with impunity. Yet, from motives either of pique or of interest, he publicly declared his intention of employing his talents on a series of pictures, to expose to the public contempt Wilkes, Churchill, Mr. Pitt, and Lord Temple. Through the medium of two of their mutual friends, Wilkes remonstrated with Hogarth on this design, as being in the highest degree unfriendly, and no less injudicious, since a pencil like his "ought to be universal and moral, to speak to all ages and to all nations, not to be dipped in the dirt of the faction of a day, of an insignificant part of the country, when it might command the admiration of the whole." Instead of acting according to this salutary advice, Hogarth thought it sufficient to say, that, into the print, which was on the eve of appearing, only Mr. Pitt and Lord Temple were introduced. This reply was not satisfactory to Wilkes, who, with a spirit which is deserving of praise, informed the artist that, though he should not descend to notice any reflexions upon himself, he would not fail to avenge the wrongs which were offered to those with whom he was in habits of friendship. He at the same time warned him that the publication of the print would instantly be followed by literary chastisement. Hogarth, however, persisted; the engraving called The Times came forth; and, the consequence was that, in the next number of The North Briton, he was lashed with unsparing severity. He retaliated by a wretched caricature of Wilkes; and this additional insult drew on him a still heavier punishment than that which he had already undergone. It provoked Churchill to publish, in August, 1763, his Epistle to Hogarth, the scorpion sting of which mortally wounded the peace of the artist, and is supposed to have accelerated his death. Hogarth made a weak attempt to return the blow, by a print of The Bruiser, C. Churchill (once the Reverend!) in the character of a Russian Hercules; a production which proved only how acutely he felt, and how much his powers had declined. It was the feeble lance of Priam tinkling against the shield of Achilles.
While Churchill was thus wringing the bosom of Hogarth, his own was far from being at ease. He had incurred the public censure by a criminal act, for which his own conscience also severely reproached him. Early in 1763, he seduced the daughter of a tradesman in Westminster, and prevailed on her to quit the paternal roof, and live with him in a state of concubinage. When a fortnight had elapsed, satiety on his side, it is said, and penitence on hers, though it is to be hoped that both were equally repentant, induced them to separate; and, on their joint entreaties, conveyed through the medium of a friend, her father benevolently consented to receive her. She might, perhaps, have atoned for her faults by a life of virtue, had not her situation been rendered intolerable by the taunts and reproaches of an elder sister. Driven to despair by this unchristianlike persecution, she saw no resource but in her seducer, and she implored his protection. Honour, he thought, imperiously commanded him to afford her a refuge; and, as there is reason to believe that he really loved her, it is probable that he was not sorry to find honour arrayed on the side of inclination. It must, however, be owned that, as Dr. Kippis has observed, the true point of virtue would have been to make an adequate provision for her, without renewing their illicit intercourse.
To disarm reproof there is nothing more effectual than the candid confession of error, and the manifesting of a contrite spirit. In his poem of The Conference, published in November, 1763, his recent fault was alluded to, in a strain of anguish and repentant sorrow, which, as he was no hypocrite, and disdained to court favour, we may believe to have been used with sincerity of heart. His worst enemies could scarcely desire that he should be chastised with greater severity of language than that which he dealt to himself.
In this poem he likewise took occasion to express the warmth of his gratitude to Dr. Pierson Lloyd, for the kind interference of that worthy man in his behalf, at a period when he seemed to be on the point of sinking under insuperable difficulties. Nor did he testify his gratitude by words alone. On his return from an excursion into the country, he found that his friend, the son of the doctor, was confined in the Fleet Prison, and abandoned by all his former companions. Churchill instantly hurried to his succour; strenuously, though ineffectually, endeavoured to raise a subscription for the purpose of liberating him; and contributed in no small degree to his comfort, by an allowance of a guinea weekly, and a servant to attend on him.
Towards the close of 1763, the fertile genius of Churchill gave birth to two more poems. One of these was The Duellist, in three books, pointed against Mr. Martin, by whom Wilkes had been recently wounded in a duel. The other was The Author, one of his best productions. For these poems Flexney and Kearsley paid him no less a sum than four hundred and fifty pounds; a circumstance from which an idea may be formed of the rapidity with which he was acquiring wealth. Yet so large was the price at which these pieces were sold, and so extensive was their sale, that the booksellers had no cause to murmur at the hardness of their bargain.
Churchill was now settled at Acton, where he purposed to spend his days in elegant and lettered retirement. That, in the year 1763, he had not wasted his time in habitual dissipation, a strong proof is afforded by the number and extent of his writings. The same proof exists with respect to the following year. In 1764, the close of which he did not live to see, he must have been too assiduously occupied to sacrifice much to pleasure. He began with the first book of Gotham, the title of which probably induced many to expect that the poem would be highly and personally satirical. In this they were disappointed; the satire being only occasional and general. It seemed, in this book, to be the design of Churchill, to try whether he could not obtain as ample success in personification and description, as he had already obtained in sarcasm and invective. The experiment appears to have decided the question in his favour. The two concluding books developed his plan, the main object of which was to brand wicked kings, and to delineate the character and duties of a patriotic monarch. In numerous passages he rises to a splendid degree of excellence. If Gotham do not contain a profusion of genuine poetry, I know not where genuine poetry is likely to be found.
Between February and October he committed to the press no fewer than four other poems; The Candidate, The Farewell, The Times, and Independence; some of them equal to the best of his preceding compositions, and none of them announcing, as they have absurdly been said to do, the decline of his powers. The Candidate, and The Times, stand foremost in merit; but in the latter poem he is unjust to his country, which was certainly not stained, as he asserted, with the disgusting vice which was the theme of his satire. In the poem of Independence, he treats the corporeal defects of Lord Lyttelton with indefensible harshness; though it must, in palliation of this, be noticed, that his own are not mentioned in a more indulgent manner.
Independence was the last poem which he lived to publish. Late in October, 1764, he went over to France, with his friend Humphry Cotes, to visit Wilkes, who was then at Boulogne. Churchill was no sooner landed than he was attacked by a military fever, and so rapid was its progress that, in spite of the efforts of two physicians, it terminated his existence on the fourth of November, in the thirty-fourth year of his age. He preserved to the last his courage unshaken, and his faculties unclouded. His remains were brought over to Dover, and interred there, in the old churchyard, which formerly belonged to the collegiate church of St. Martin. Over his grave is a stone, inscribed with his name, his age, and the following line, from one of his poems: "Life to the last enjoyed, here Churchill lies!" He left behind him two sons, Charles and James, to whom he bequeathed his property, subject to the payment of annuities to his wife, and to the female with whom he had lived. Sir Richard Jebb munificently took upon himself the charge of their education, and sent Charles, with a handsome allowance, to Cambridge. They are, however, said to have "inherited the faults without the virtues of their father," and to have died early, the victims of intemperance and imprudence.
To posthumous publications Churchill had a rooted dislike, and he promised in The Candidate, that he would not leave a single couplet to the mercy of his heirs. It is probable that the suddenness of his death, and the distance from home at which it occurred, prevented this promise from being literally performed. Yet he left not much, and what poetry he did leave was worthy of being preserved. It consisted of The Journey, an unfinished piece, which was inserted in a collective edition of his works, and of a dedication, also incomplete, addressed to Bishop Warburton, which is one of the best examples in our language, of grave and well sustained irony. The dedication was prefixed to his sermons, which were published after his death. It has been doubted whether these sermons are really from his pen; but there is the authority of his brother for declaring them to be genuine, and they were sold to Flexney the bookseller, for two hundred and fifty pounds, by Churchill himself. They are plain, practical discourses, in an unostentatious style, which we may suppose was adopted by the writer as most in unison with the solemnity of the subject. Besides, it is obvious, from some passages in his works, that he had no lofty opinion of his own pulpit eloquence.
That, at one period of his life, the moral character of Churchill was sullied by his transgressions, must be acknowledged, reprobated, and lamented. It is a subject of regret, that a man who was so eminently qualified to serve the cause of virtue should not have been uniformly virtuous. Yet, even here, he must not be suffered to lie under a heavier weight of blame than his conduct deserves. While truth demands that his faults shall be disclosed, justice equally demands that his repentance shall be recorded. If his letters may be believed, and, supported as they are, too, by collateral evidence, I see no reason to doubt what they assert, Churchill, for at least more than twelve months previous to his death, ceased to be guilty of those irregularities which had once grieved his friends, and rejoiced his enemies, and which, after the lapse of half a century, still afford to slaves and to hypocrites, a pretext for indulging, at his expense, their inherently malignant and slanderous propensities.
In private life, Churchill appears to have been generous to the needy and afflicted, grateful for benefits conferred on him, and not only susceptible of the most ardent friendship, but constant to his friends. Had he, at one time, been more happily situated, malice itself would, perhaps, have failed to find in his actions a plausible reason for censure.
As a public man, there is no cause whatever to doubt of the purity and sincerity of his principles. In the whole of his writings there is not, to the best of my recollection, a single passage which has a perverted or dubious political tendency. The doctrines which he teaches are those of the British constitution, and they can give offence to none but the sycophants and instruments of tyranny. By a biographer, whom the booksellers appear to have hired for the purpose of libelling the poets, it is said of Churchill, among other things of a similar kind, that "he had little veneration for truth, that he drew his characters in extravagant disproportion, and that he was regardless of any means by which be could bring temporary or lasting disgrace on the persons whom either faction or revenge made him consider as enemies!" He who brings a charge like this, without supporting it by abundant testimony, must himself submit to be branded as a wanton calumniator. That many of the objects of Churchill's satire were morally and politically obnoxious to it, few will have the hardihood to deny. That some of them were too severely treated, we may admit; but where is the proof that Churchill did not, however erroneously, imagine that he was justified in the language which he used? Who is there that believes the stupidity and worthlessness of every individual who suffered tinder the lash of Dryden and Pope; yet who ever thought that Dryden and Pope ought to be accused of wilful falsehood? With respect to Churchill, there is this powerful fact on his side, that bribes and preferments were vainly offered to purchase his silence; and he who resists such inducements is not likely to be a man who has "little veneration for truth!" He may be a mistaken fanatic, but he must be an honest one.
Looking at Churchill in his poetical capacity, it will be seen that few writers are more unequal. He does not labour his lines into an uniform smoothness. His own description of his materials is, that they are "rich, though rude, inflamed with thought." Accordingly, we find that his metre is occasionally rugged, and his rhymes are now and then feeble, and that his sense is frequently broken and embarrassed by numerous parentheses.
Such are the defects of Churchill's poetry, defects partly arising from circumstances and partly from system. The rapidity with which he wrote was one great cause of them. He is said to have often composed two hundred lines at a sitting; and within four years he published about fourteen thousand. In some instances, he was compelled to "catch the Cynthia of the minute," before her attractions had faded on the public eye, and he had then little time for revision. But it must be owned that, however little time he might have for that purpose, he had still less inclination, he not only abhorred the labour of correcting, but was also of opinion that, when pushed to a certain extent, it was productive of injury. The "unvaried excellence" of Pope's verses he despised, as being merely mechanical; he was an idolater of Dryden; and he thought, as seems to have been the case with our greatest poet, that "the generous roughness of a nervous line" is rather a grace than a blemish, and, like a discord in music, heightens the general effect. There seems, nevertheless, to be no analogy, or a very distant one, between the case of a discord in music, and that of a harsh line in a poetical composition.
These defects are, however, but as dust in the balance, when compared with his beauties. As a satirist he cannot be denied a place among the most eminent of those to whom this country has given birth. For humour, for wit, for irony, he has no superior; for vehemence and bitterness of invective he has scarcely an equal. When he strikes, he lends his whole soul to the blow, and seems to leave to his victim no chance of escape. In all his poems there is a fervour, an enthusiasm, an overpowering impetuosity, by which the reader is seized and hurried along. But it is not merely as a satirist that Churchill has a title to our admiration. He is likewise a descriptive poet of a very high class. His satire is, in reality, rendered more striking by the force of contrast. Over the darkest of his scenes he throws the light of a vivid fancy. His metaphors, images and prosopopeias, are bold and appropriate, and he often, by a single masterly stroke, places an object distinctly before our eyes. in his poems a painter might find numerous groups and figures, capable of being transferred to the canvass, without any change of attribute or attitude. To his versification, with the exception already slated, praise too liberal can hardly be awarded. It is richly varied, and sweeps grandly onward, like the profound and rapid waters of some majestic rivet. In its best parts, it at times reminds us of that of Dryden; but it is essentially different in its general texture.
The testimony which Cowper bears to the merit of Churchill is so conclusive and so felicitously expressed that it must not be omitted. It is a curious circumstance that the language, in which he mentions one of the former biographers of the departed poet, should be so exactly applicable as it is to some biographers of a much later date.
"It is (says he), a great thing to be indeed a poet, and does not happen to more than one man in a century. Churchill, the great Churchill, deserved the name of poet I have read him twice, and some of his pieces three times over, and the last time with more pleasure than the first. The pitiful scribbler of his life seems to have undertaken that task, for which he was entirely unqualified, merely because it afforded him an opportunity to traduce him. He has inserted in it but one anecdote of consequence, for which he refers you to a novel, and introduces the story with doubts about the truth of it. But his barrenness as a biographer I could forgive, if the simpleton had not thought himself a judge of his writings, and under the erroneous influence of that thought, informed his reader that Gotham, Independence, and The Times, were catchpennies. Gotham, unless I am a much greater blockhead than he, which I am far from believing, is a noble and beautiful poem, and a poem with which I make no doubt the author took as much pains as with any he ever wrote. Making allowance (and Dryden in his Absalom and Achitophel stands in need of the same indulgence) for an unwarrantable use of Scripture, it appears to me to be a masterly performance. Independence is a most animated piece, full of strength and spirit, and marked with that hold masculine character which I think is the great peculiarity of this writer. And The Times (except that the subject is disgusting to the last degree) stands equally high in my opinion. He is indeed a careless writer for the most part; but where shall we find in any of those authors who finish their works with the exactness of a Flemish pencil those bold and daring strokes of fancy, those numbers so hazardously ventured upon, and so happily finished, the matter so compressed, and yet so clear, and the colour so sparingly laid on, and yet with such a beautiful effect? In short, it is not his best praise that he is never guilty of those faults, as a writer, which he lays to the charge of others. A proof that he did not judge by a borrowed standard, or from rules laid down by critics, but that he was qualified to do it by his own native powers, and his great superiority of genius. For he that wrote so much, and wrote so fast, would through inadvertence and hurry unavoidably have departed from rules which he might have found in books, but his own truly poetical talent was a guide which could not suffer him to err. A racehorse is graceful in the swiftest pace, and never makes an awkward motion, though he is pushed to his utmost speed. A carthorse might perhaps be taught to play tricks in the riding school, and might prance and curvet like his betters, but at some unlucky time would be sure to betray the baseness of his original. It is an affair of very little consequence perhaps to the well being of mankind, but I cannot help regretting that he died so soon. Those words of Virgil, upon the immature death of Marcellus, might serve for his epitaph:
Ostendent terris hunc tantum fata, neque ultra