1758 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Sheffield

Horace Walpole and Thomas Park, in Catalogue of Royal and Noble Authors (1758; 1806) 4:99-107.



The life of this peer takes up fourteen pages and a half in folio in the General Dictionary, where it has little pretensions to occupy a couple. But his pious relict was always purchasing places for him, herself, and their son, in every suburb of the temple of fame, — a tenure, against which, of all others, quo-warrantos are sure to take place. The author of the article in the Dictionary calls the duke "one of the most beautiful prose-writers and greatest poets of this age;" which is also, he says, proved by the finest writers, his cotemporaries — certificates, that have little weight, where the merit is not proved by the author's own works. It is certain that his grace's compositions in prose have nothing extraordinary in them; his poetry is most indifferent, and the greatest part of both is already fallen into total neglect. It is said that he wrote in hopes of being confounded with his predecessor in the title; but he would more easily have been mistaken with the other Buckingham, if he had never written at all. He was descended from lord Sheffield, the author mentioned above, had a great deal of bravery, and understood a court. Queen Anne, who undoubtedly had no turn to gallantry, yet so far resembled her predecessor Elizabeth, as not to dislike a little homage to her person. This duke was immediately rewarded on her accession, for having made love to her before her marriage. Though attached to the House of Stuart and their principles, he maintained a dignity of honour in some points, independent of all connexions; for he ridiculed king James's religion, though he attended him to his chapel; and warmly took the part of the Catalans against the Tory ministry, whom he had helped to introduce to the queen. His works are published in two large volumes, 4to. In Prior's posthumous works is a little poem to Mrs. Manley on her first play, not printed with the rest of the duke's compositions.

[John Sheffield, son of Edmund, earl of Mulgrave, was born about 1650. Having the misfortune to lose his father before he was ten years old, and his mother soon marrying again, he was put into the hands of a tutor, with whom he was so little satisfied, that he got rid of him in a short time, and resolved to educate himself. Such a purpose, observes Dr. Johnson, formed at such an age, and successfully prosecuted, delights as it is strange, and instructs as it is real. His literary acquisitions are the more wonderful, as those years in which they are commonly made were spent by him in the tumult of a military life, or the gaiety of a court. In 1665, when war was declared against the Dutch, he went on board the ship in which prince Rupert sailed; and volunteered his services a second time on a similar occasion, in 1672, when his zeal was rewarded by an appointment to the command of the best second-rate ship in the navy. He afterwards raised a regiment of foot, and commanded it as colonel. He was made a gentleman of the bedchamber, and had the promise of a garter, which he obtained in his twenty-fifth year. He afterwards made a campaign in the French service, under Turenne. Being opposed by the duke of Monmouth in his pretensions to the first troop of horse-guards, he in return made Monmouth suspected by the duke of York: and when Monmouth fell into disgrace, he obtained the lieutenancy of Yorkshire and the government of Hull. Coming very young to the possession of a plentiful fortune, says Dr. Anderson, and in an age when pleasure was more in fashion than business, he prosecuted his studies amid the allurements of dissipation, and in making his way to military honours and civil employments, was never wholly negligent of literature, but at least cultivated poetry; in which he must have been early considered as a critic, if it be true, which is reported, that his recommendation advanced Dryden to the laurel. At the accession of James the second, with whom he lived in great familiarity, he was admitted into the privy-council, and made lord-chamberlain. Though he was in some respects a man of honour, he was "apt to comply with any thing that he thought might be acceptable." In the revolution he acquiesced, though he did not promote it. When the crown was settled upon William and Mary, he voted for the conjunctive sovereignty: this vote gratified king William; yet either by the king's distrust, or his own discontent, he lived some years without favor. But in 1694 he was made marquis of Normanby, and soon after obtained a pension of 3000. When Anne succeeded to the throne, he was made lord-privy-seal, duke of Normanby, and then of Buckinghamshire. Soon after, becoming jealous of the duke of Marlborough, he resigned the seals, and retiring from business, built that house in St. James's Park which is now the queen's, upon ground granted by the crown. On the succession of George the first he became a constant opponent of the court, and having no public employ, is supposed to have amused himself with writing his two tragedies, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Brutus. He died Feb. 24, 1721, and was buried in Westminster-Abbey, where a monument is placed to his memory, with an epitaph written by himself.

His character, says Dr. Johnson, is not to be proposed as worthy of imitation. His religion he may be supposed to have learned from Hobbes, and his morality was such as naturally proceeds from loose opinions. His sentiments with respect to women he picked up in the court of Charles, and his principles concerning property were such as a gaming-table supplies. He is said, however, to have had much tenderness, and to have been very ready to apologize for his violences of passion. As a statesman, says Dr. Anderson, he is characterized by a steady attachment to Tory principles of government. As a courtier he is distinguished by personal dignity, gracefulness, and good breeding. As a poet he has been eulogized by Dryden, Garth, Prior, Addison, and Pope; but this praise has received a critical counterpoise from the pens of Dr. Johnson, Dr. Warton, and lord Orford: whence a writer in the New Biog. Dict. has taken occasion to exclaim, "What a precarious and uncertain thing is literary reputation, and how miserably may many an author flatter and delude himself with dreams and visions of immortal fame!" The following effort of his grace's muse has been chosen more from admiration of the theme than the poetry:

ODE ON THE DEATH OF HENRY PURCELL.
Good angels snatch'd him eagerly on high;
Joyful they flew, singing and soaring through the sky,
Teaching his new-fledg'd soul to fly;
While we, alas lamenting lie.
He went musing all along,
Composing new their heav'nly song.
Awhile his skilful notes loud hallelujahs drown'd,
But soon they ceas'd their own, to catch his pleasing sound.
David himself improv'd the harmony,
David, in sacred story so renown'd
No less for musick than for poetry:
Genius sublime in either art!
Crown'd with applause surpassing all desert,
A man just after God's own heart!
If human cares are lawful to the blest,
Already settled in eternal rest;
Needs must he wish that Purcell only might
Have liv'd to set, what he vouchsaf'd to write
For sure the noblest thirst of fame
With the frail body never dies,
But with the soul ascends the skies,
From whence at first it came.
'Tis sure no little proof we have
That part of us survives the grave,
And in our fame below still bears a share:
Why is the future else so much our care,
Ev'n in our latest moments of despair,
And death despis'd for fame, by all the wise and brave?
Oh! all ye blest harmonious choir
Who Pow'r Almighty only love, and only that admire!
Look down with pity from your peaceful bower
On this sad isle perplex'd, And ever, ever vex'd
With anxious care of trifles, wealth, and power.
In our rough minds due reverence infuse
For sweet melodious sounds, and each harmonious muse!
Music exalts man's nature, and inspires
High elevated thoughts, or gentle, kind desires.]