It has been often remarked, that the life of an hero could never be written with candour till envy or adulation slept with him in the grave; and that those actions only become the object of history, which it was not in the power of succeeding misconduct to tarnish.
Mr. Charles Churchill was the son of the Reverend Mr. Charles Churchill, Curate and Lecturer of St. John's in Westminster; he was also educated in Westminster-School, and received some applause for his abilities from his tutors in that famous seminary. His capacity however was greater than his application, so that he acquired the character of a boy who could do good if he would. As the slightest accounts of persons so noted are agreeable, it may not be amiss to observe, that having one day got an exercise to make, and from idleness or inattention, having failed to bring it at the time appointed, his master thought proper to chastise him with some severity, and even reproach his stupidity: what the fear of stripes could not effect, the fear of shame soon produced, and he brought his exercise the next day finished in such a manner, that he received the public thanks of all the masters.
Still, however, it is to be supposed that his progress in the learned languages was but slow, nor is it to he wondered at, if we consider how difficult it was for a strong imagination, such as he was possessed of, to conform and walk tamely forward in the trammels of a school education: minds like his are ever starting aside after new pursuits, desirous of embracing a multiplicity of amusing objects, eager to come at the end without the painful investigation of the means; and, if we may borrow a term from the mercantile world, a genius like his, disdaining the painful assiduity of earning knowledge by retail, aimed at being an wholesale dealer in the treasures of literature. This much was necessary to premise, in order to palliate his being refused admittance into the University of Oxford, to which he was sent by his father, for want of proper skill in the learned languages. He has often mentioned his repulse upon that occasion; but whether his justification of himself is to be admitted, we will not undertake to determine. Certain it is, that both he and his companions have often asserted, that he could have answered the college examination had he thought proper; but he so much despised the trifling questions that were put to him, that instead of making the proper replies, he only launched out in satyrical reflections upon the abilities of the Gentleman who office it was to judge of his.
Be this as it will, Mr. Churchill was rejected from Oxford, and probably this might have given occasion to the frequent invectives we find in his works against that most respectable University. Upon his returning from Oxford, he again applied to his studies at Westminster-school; and there, at the age of seventeen, contracted an intimacy with the lady to whom he was married, and who still survives him. This was one of those imprudent matches which generally begin in passion and end in disgust. However, the beginning of this young couple's regards for each other were mutual and sincere, and so continued for several years after. At the usual age for going into orders, Mr. Churchill was ordained by the late Bishop of London, notwithstanding he had taken no degree, nor studied in either of our Universities; and the first place he had in the church, was a small curacy of thirty pounds a year in Wales. To this remote part of the kingdom he brought his wife; they took little house, and he went through the duties of his station with chearfulness and assiduity. Happy had it been for him in this life, perhaps more happy in that to which he has been called, if he had still continued here in piety, simplicity and peace. His parishioners all loved and esteemed him; his sermons, though rather raised above the level of his audience, were however commended and followed. In order to eke out his scanty finances, he entered into a branch of trade which he thought might end in riches, but which involved him in debts that pressed him for some years after; this was no other than keeping a cyder cellar, and dealing in this liquor through that part of the country. A poet is but ill qualified for merchandise, where small gains are patiently to be expected, and carefully accumulated. He had neither patience for the one, nor oeconomy for the other; and a sort of rural bankruptcy was the consequence of his attempt.
Upon leaving Wales, he came up to London, and his father soon after dying, he stept into the church in which he had officiated. In order to improve his income, which in this situation did not produce full an hundred pounds yearly, he undertook to teach young ladies to read and write English, and was employed for this purpose in the boarding school of Mrs. Dennis, where he behaved with that decency and piety which became his profession: nor should we here omit paying proper deference to a mode of female education, which seems new amongst us; for while in other schools our young misses are taught the arts of personal allurements only, this sensible governess pays the strictest attention to the minds of her young pupils, and endeavours to fit them for the domestic duties of life, with as much assiduity as they are elsewhere formed to levity and splendor.
While Mr. Churchill was in this situation, his method of living bearing no proportion to his income, several debts were contracted in the city, which he was not in a capacity of paying; and a gaol, the continual terror of indigent genius, seemed now ready to close upon his miseries. From this wretched state of uneasiness he was relieved by the benevolence of Mr. Lloyd, father to the poet of that name, who paid has debts, or at least satisfied his creditors.
In the mean time, while Mr. Lloyd, the father, was thus relieving Churchill by his bounty, Mr. Lloyd the son began to excite him by his example. The Actor, a poetical epistle, written by this Gentleman, and addressed to Mr. Bonnel Thornton, was read and relished by all the judges of poetical merit, and gave the author a distinguished place among the writers of his age. Mr. Churchill soon undertook to write the Rosciad, a work tho' upon a more confined plan, yet was more adapted to engage the public attention. It first came out without the name of the author; but the justness of its remark, and particularly the severity of the satire, soon excited public curiosity. Though he never disowned his having written this piece, and even openly gloried in it; yet the Publick, unwilling to give so much merit to one alone, ascribed it to a combination of wits: nor were Messrs. Lloyd, Thornton, or Colman left unnamed upon this occasion. This misplaced praise soon induced Mr. Churchill to throw off the mask, and the second edition appeared with his name at length; and now the fame which before was diffused upon many objects, became centered to a point. As the Rosciad was the first of this poet's performances, so many are of opinion that it is his best; and indeed, I am inclined to concur in the same sentiment. In it we find a very close and minute discussion of the particular merit of each performer; their defects pointed out with candour, and their merits praised without adulation. This poem, however, seems to be one of those few works which are injured by succeeding editions: when he became popular, his judgment began to grow drunk with applause; and we find, in the latter editions, men blamed whose merit is incontestable, and others praised that were at that time in no degree of esteem with the judicious, and whom at present even the mob are beginning to forsake.
His next performance was his Apology to the Critical Reviewers; this work is not without its peculiar merit; and as it was written against a set of critics, whom the world was willing enough to blame, the Public read it with their usual indulgence. In thus performance he shewed a peculiar happiness of throwing his thoughts, if we may so express it, into poetical paragraphs; so that the sentence swells to the break or conclusion, as we find in prose.
His fame being greatly extended by these productions, his improvement in morals did not seem by any means to correspond; but while his writings amused the town, his actions in some measure disgusted it. He now quitted his wife, with whom he had cohabited for many years, and resigning his gown, and all clerical functions, commenced a complete man of the town, got drunk, frequented stews, and, giddy with false praise, thought his talents a sufficient atonement for all his follies. Some people have been unkind enough to say, that Mrs. Churchill gave the first just cause for separation, but nothing can be more false than this rumour; and we can assure the Public, that her conduct in private life, and among her acquaintances, was ever irreproachable.
In some measure to palliate the absurdities of his conduct, he now undertook a poem called Night, written upon a general subject indeed, but upon false principles; namely, that whatever our follies are, we should never undertake to conceal them. This, and Mr. Churchill's other poems, being shewn to Mr. Johnson, and his opinion being asked concerning them, he allowed them but little merit; which being told to the author, he resolved to requite this private opinion with a public one. In his next poem therefore of the Ghost, he has drawn this gentleman under the character of Pomposo; and those who disliked Mr. Johnson, allowed it to have merit. But our poet is now dead, and justice may he heard without the imputation of envy; though we entertain no small opinion of Mr. Churchill's abilities, yet they are neither of a size nor correctness to compare with those of the author of the Rambler; a work which has, in some places, enlarged the circle of moral enquiry, and fixed more precise land-marks to guide philosophy in her investigation of truth. Mr. Johnson's only reply to Mr. Churchill's abuse was, that he thought him a shallow fellow in the beginning, and that he could say nothing worse of him still.
The poems of Night, and of the Ghost, had not the rapid sale the author expected; but his Prophecy of Famine soon made ample amends for the late paroxysm in his fame. Night was written upon a general subject, and for that reason no way alluring; the Ghost was written in eight syllable verse, in which kind of measure he was not very successful; but the Prophecy of Famine had all those circumstances of time, place, and party to recommend it, that the author could desire; or, let us use the words of Mr. Wilkes, who said, before its publication, that he was sure it must take, as it was at once personal, poetical, and political. It had accordingly a rapid and extensive sale; and it was often asserted by his admirers, that Mr. Churchill was a better poet than Mr. Pope. This exaggerated adulation, as it had before corrupted his morals, now began to impair his mind; several succeeding pieces were published, which being written without effort, are read without pleasure. His Gotham, Independence, The Times, seem merely to have been written by a man who desired to avail himself of the avidity of the public curiosity in his favour, and are rather aimed at the pockets than the hearts of his readers.
How shall I trace this thoughtless man thro' the latter part of his conduct; in which, leaving all the milder forms of life, he became entirely guided by his native turbulence of temper, and permitted his mind to harass his body through all the various modes of debauchery? His seducing a young lady, and after living with her in shameless adultery; is beating a man, formerly his friend, without any provocation, are well known. Yet let us not be severe in judging; happy were it for him, if ours were the only tribunal at which he was to plead for those irregularities, which his mental powers rendered but more culpable.