1773 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Charles Churchill

A Sincere Friend, "New and Genuine Memoirs of Mr. C. Churchill" Westminster Magazine 1 (March 1773) 181-85.



Mr. Charles Churchill was the son of the Rev. Mr. Churchill, of St. John's, Westminster, where he lived the regard of his parishioners, and an honour to the human race. He was a good man, an exemplary pious preacher, a dignity to the church, and an orthodox Christian. Under such a father, our Author could not fail to imbibe instruction and learning; but he very early gave signs of a vigorous constitution, and an eccentricity peculiar to a genius.

When a youth, he was giddy and lively, and inattentive to those scholastic rules which formal pedagogues endeavour solemnly to enforce. But so quick and so ready was he in his part, that he would perform more in an hour than half the other scholars in a day; and, to indulge his extravagance and pleasures, he made Exercises for those who had money to purchase what their own heads could never furnish; by which means, many boys in Westminster-school obtained high reputations at his expence: For, in those puerile circumstances, he was even so generous to make the best themes for those who paid him the best; and he would often give up his own compositions so inferior as even to merit some chastisement.

The first boyish disgrace which he brought upon himself, and which the head-master then appeared to resent, was for being detected in an amour with the celebrated Lucy Cooper (then a little girl) in the Cloysters of the Abbey; from which circumstance, when advanced to more mature years, there continued a connection between them peculiar to the votaries of love and wit.

Churchill, being intended for Oxford, was obliged to undergo those necessary examinations demanded by the college; but the questions which were put to his genius were so trivial and petite, that he burlesqued them; and that so highly as even to incense the Professors against him, so as to refuse him the advantage and credit of succeeding before them.

Soon after this period he obtained holy orders; and falling violently in love, stole his Dulcinea over the wall of a boarding-school and bore her off in triumph to the church, where they were soon united. Such hasty and impetuous matches too often end in misfortune. It was this inconsiderate union which proved the source of his future misfortunes; and though the Biographical Dictionary has traduced Mr. Churchill's memory most ungenerously, yet the sequel of this history will shew that he was not to blame, but his lady.

After the celebration of his nuptials, he obtained a small living of thirty pounds a-year, at Rainham in Essex, where he lived some years, the darling of his parishioners, the tenderest husband, and the most affectionate parent. In this situation, Mrs. Churchill bore him three children, two boys and one girl; and the death of the latter was the first cause of animosity between this happy pair. The child being dangerously ill of the small-pox, and he fearing the dissolution of the beloved babe, walked out for a few hours, to avoid the affecting scene of death. Upon his return, he found Mrs. Churchill playing at cards with a neighbour; which so roused his sensations and resentments, that he could not forbear bursting out into invectives and rage. This was such a stab to his sensible mind, that he never forgot it.

Mr. Churchill's pittance was so small that the income of the living would not support his family; and he has assured me, that many times when their diet was scanty, he has gone without victuals, for fear of depriving his wife and children of their meals. He therefore, to help out his little fortune, undertook the making of cyder; and his scheme not succeeding, only loaded him with new distresses. He also made some plantations of potatoes, which he used to till with his own hands, and even load the horse with the sacks for market. Was this honest and industrious virtue, or not?

Such were his many accumulated distresses, in spite of his sobriety and industry, that he had scarce a gown and cassock to appear in upon the Sabbath; but loving his family, it made him vigorously bear up against the iron hand of blind and erring Fortune.

From this retreat, he was called up to town, to be reader of St. John's Church, where he acquitted himself with the highest reputation. But, alas! we here arrive at that fatal period which involved him in so many subsequent misfortunes. He had too many convincing reasons to be informed of his wife's incontinency. The proofs were not to be controverted; but as she is living, and the housekeeper of a general officer, we will spare her blushes. He forsook his house, his wife, but not his children, who do honour to their father. He next sought the jovial and the gay, in hopes to dissipate the oil of care, which ever flowed at top; and his wife, wanton too on the other hand, loaded him with debts to a great amount, which obliged him to make a compromise with his creditors. He paid them two shillings and sixpence in the pound, and even, upon his poetical compositions meeting with so much success, convened his creditors again, and paid them all their dues. Was this honest, or was it not? Does it not mark him of a peculiar and a glorious nature?

The fame of the Actor began to warm his fancy; and as he had only tried his poetic strength in magazines, &c. he began to think of something more capital. The stage drew his attention; and the characters produced the poem of the Rosciad, which is one of the most perfect of his works; though different men allow a superior fame to different poems, which is a striking test of their universal merit. — some severe strictures from those leaden Maevii the Reviewers provoked the Apology (a poem of high colouring and poetical merit), wherein he is rather severe upon the Roscius of Drury-Lane. Mr. G— had lent him money; but whether any difference happened upon that subject, we never were able to understand perfectly.

Politics now running very high, in which Mess. Murphy, Smollet, &c. took a part, particularly in the conduct of two weekly papers, named the Auditor and the Briton, determined Mess. Churchill, Lloyd, and Wilkes, to undertake a literary opposition, which was commenced with such fury and spirit in the North Briton, that their pens and their cause carried all before them. It was during this period, Mr. Hogarth drew down the resentment of our Author upon him, by publishing a caricature print of Mr. Wilkes, though often importuned to forbear; but no intreaties could restrain his pencil; and in return Mr. Churchill, in his Epistle to that Painter, so severely satirized him, that there is not a doubt that it hastened his exit to another world; for Mr. Hogarth certainly died broken-hearted.

The persecutions which pursued Mr. Wilkes only gave fresh vigor to Churchill's poetical flail; and when that gentleman was obliged to retreat to a foreign shore, Churchill did not cease to defend him at home. This zealous attachment, and the fame of his verse, brought him new and illustrious friends daily; among whom he numbered Lords Temple, Besborough, &c. But poetry and politics were not sufficient amusement for a mind so active. He saw and loved Miss E. K. of Westminster, whom he stole from a boarding-school, though with a warm inclination on the lady's part to elope. He bore the fair one off in triumph to the town of Monmouth in Wales, where he wrote the Duellist, and the concluding book of The Ghost; in which he very properly satirizes Mr. Samuel Johnson, under the title of Pomposo, who arrogantly and contemptuously insinuated, that he was a "shallow fellow," and would prove such in the end. This sarcasm Mr. Churchill resented; for which Dr. Johnson took a cowardly method of revenge, by attacking his character in Dodsley's Register, for 1764, after his death; where he insinuated, that it was Mr. Churchill's conduct, and not his lady's, that brought his misfortunes upon him; for that "she was in private life, and amongst her friends, irreproachable." This is known to be a fallacy.

At Monmouth our Poet passed by the name of Williams; where his wit was so brilliant, that the sons of Cambria soon discovered that ingenious visitor. From thence he returned to town; and afterwards took lodgings at Mr. Dell's, in Kew-Lane, where he composed many of his works. Capt. Thompson, who had long been acquainted with our Author, was at this time always with him; which gave the Court some reasons to think that he was concerned in some of his publications, because they were so rapidly shot off upon the town: But that was merely conjecture, and conferring a compliment upon the Captain which his Muse did not merit; though Mr. Churchill often used to compliment him by saying,

And Cretus, whom the Muses held so dear:
He fought with courage, and he sung the fight,
Arms where his business, verses his delight.

Mr. Churchill beginning now to grow weary of a town life, took a house upon Turnham-Green, where he passed his days soberly and regularly, undertaking himself the education of his children; for he was naturally of a domestic turn; and the intoxication of praise and adulation, after its first impression, beginning to wear off, he sought the joys of a rural life, which were the pleasure of his soul.

His expences encreasing daily, made him write to defray them. We have known him compose five hundred lines a-day, in his walk between Twickenham and Turnham-Green, till he had often worn his mind to be a perfect blank, and even without an idea. His method of retaining such a number of rhimes was by tagging of them with his pencil; and the next day, without a mistake, he would repeat them to an amanuensis, and commit them immediately to the press, without any farther correction. This made the world accuse him of being careless. He often said, he only wanted to compleat a certain sum of money, and then he would begin a work of length, to establish his poetic fame. The subject he chose was a satire on the Scots, in praise of the Duke of Cumberland, which he intended to call Culloden, to be composed of twelve books. Whether his flighty genius would have ever permitted him to undertake such a task, we cannot determine; but we own we never discovered so much application about him as to promise the completion of such a work.

After the publication of the Farewell and Journey, he thought of prosecuting his voyage to France, to meet Mr. Wilkes, to whom he had given such a promise; otherwise we do not believe he would have ever attempted it; for he was prejudiced, and prepossessed that he never should return. He was often hipped, and consequently low-spirited, and very superstitious; but he has many times told his friends, he knew he should die; and before he departed, he took a solemn leave of his mother and all his friends. He has also, in the Poem of the Farewell, written a prophecy of his own fate. What this superstition could arise from we know not. He had an apoplectic fit some few days before he went, when driving in his chaise through Kensington; for he was taken up by the passengers under the wheel of the carriage. With these low and dejected thoughts he passed to Boulogne, with Mr. Humphry Cotes; and there they lived in that elysian festivity which such souls were only capable of feeling and enjoying.

Upon his return, and not being well, a contrary wind obliged the Packet to put back, after they had gained the sight of England. This was a most discouraging circumstance to his mind; for he detested France, and adored his native land. Whether he caught fresh cold on the water or not, we cannot affirm; but he was seized with a violent fever on his landing, and the French surgeon not being acquainted with the disease, the complaint put a period to his life soon. He was brought over, and interred in Dover, by his own request. Thus fell this great and most illustrious genius, the ornament of the age he lived in; and though some blockheads will not even allow him the merit of writing verse, we will venture to pronounce, in spite of such empty, cold, invidious critics, "That we never shall look upon his like again."

He was a robust man, about five feet six inches high, with a lively piercing eye, of a black complexion, with a remarkable scowl. He was extremely good-natured; and so very charitable, that the greatest pleasure he ever expressed was in relieving of those who solicited his bounty. In these cases he would give a guinea, where a penny had satisfied: But, when accused of profuseness, he would answer, "In Charity, I love to make the heart bound with a surprized delight. I will ever send the poor happy from my hands." Perhaps, few men have ever lived who possessed so many virtues. His foibles were of the lightest nature; and none but such men as are foes to Humanity would ever attempt to censure a man, who was the friend of Virtue, the darling of the Muses, and an ornament to his Country.