1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Charles Churchill

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:92-94.



A second Dryden was supposed to have arisen in Churchill, when he published his satirical poem, "The Rosciad," in 1761. The impression was continued by his reply to the critical reviewers, shortly afterwards; and his "Epistle to Hogarth," "The Prophecy of Famine," "Night," and passages in his other poems — all thrown off in haste to serve the purpose of the day — evinced great facility of versification, and a breadth and boldness of personal invective that drew instant attention to their author. Though Cowper, from early predilections, had a high opinion of Churchill, and thought he was "indeed a poet," we cannot now consider the author of the "Rosciad" as more than a special pleader or pamphleteer in verse. He seldom reaches the heart — except in some few lines of penitential fervour — and he never ascended to the higher regions of imagination, then trod by Collins, Gray, and Akenside. With the beauties of external nature he had not the slightest sympathy. He died before he had well attained the prime of life; yet there is no youthful enthusiasm about his works, nor any indications that he sighed for a higher fame than that of being the terror of actors and artists, noted for his libertine eccentricities, and distinguished for his devotion to Wilkes. That he misapplied strong original talents in following out these pitiful or unworthy objects of his ambition, is undeniable; but as a satirical poet — the only character in which he appears as an author — he is immeasurably inferior to Pope or Dryden. The "fatal facility" of his verse, and his unscrupulous satire of living individuals and passing events, had, however, the effect of making all London "ring from side to side" with his applause, at a time when the real poetry of the age could hardly obtain either publishers or readers. Excepting Marlow, the dramatic poet, scarcely any English author of reputation has been more unhappy in his life and end than Charles Churchill. He was the son of a clergyman in Westminster, where he was born in 1741. After attending Westminster school and Trinity college, Cambridge (which he quitted abruptly), he made a clandestine marriage with a young lady in Westminster, and was assisted by his father, till he was ordained and settled in the curacy of Rainham in Essex. His father died in 1758, and the poet was appointed his successor in the curacy and lectureship of St. John's at Westminster. This transition, which promised an accession of comfort and respectability, proved the bane of poor Churchill. He was in his twenty-seventh year, and his conduct had been up to this period irreproachable. He now, however, renewed his intimacy with Lloyd and other school companions, and launched into a career of dissipation and extravagance. His poetry drew him into notice; and he not only disregarded his lectureship, but he laid aside the clerical costume, and appeared in the extreme of fashion, with a blue coat, gold-laced hat, and ruffles. The dean of Westminster remonstrated with him against this breach of clerical propriety, and his animadversions were seconded by the poet's parishioners. Churchill affected to ridicule this prudery, and Lloyd made it the subject of an epigram:—

To Churchill, the bard, cries the Westminster dean,
Leather breeches, white stockings! pray what do you mean?
'Tis shameful, irreverent — you must keep to church rules.
If wise ones I will; and if not they're for fools.
If reason don't bind me, I'll shake off all fetters,
To be black and all black I shall leave to my betters.

The dean and the congregation were, however, too powerful, and Churchill found it necessary to resign the lectureship. His ready pen still threw off at will his popular satires, and he plunged into the grossest debaucheries. These excesses he attempted to justify in a poetical epistle to Lloyd, entitled "Night," in which lie revenges himself on prudence and the world by railing at them in good set terms. "This vindication proceeded," says his biographer, "on the exploded doctrine, that the barefaced avowal of vice is less culpable than the practice of it under a hypocritical assumption of virtue. The measure of guilt in the individual is, we conceive, tolerably equal; but the sanction and dangerous example afforded in the former ease, renders it, in a public point of view, an evil of tenfold magnitude." The post's irregularities affected his powers of composition, and his poem of "The Ghost," published at this time, was an incoherent and tiresome production. A greater evil, too, was his acquaintance with Wilkes, unfortunately equally conspicuous for public faction and private debauchery. Churchill assisted his new associate in this North Briton, and received the profit arising from its sale. "This circumstance rendered him of importance enough to be included with Wilkes in the list of those whom the messengers had verbal instructions to apprehend under the general warrant issued for that purpose, the execution of which gave rise to the most popular and only beneficial part of the warm contest that ensued with government. Churchill was with Wilkes at the time the latter was apprehended, and himself only escaped owing to the messenger's ignorance of his person, and to the presence of mind with which Wilkes addressed him by the name of Thomson" [author's note: Life of Churchill prefixed to work, London, 1804]. The poet now set about his satire, the "Prophecy of Famine," which, like Wilkes's North Briton, was specially directed against the Scottish nation. The outlawry of Wilkes separated the friends, but they kept up a correspondence, and Churchill continued to be a keen political satirist. The excesses of his daily life remained equally conspicuous. Hogarth, who was opposed to Churchill for being a friend of Wilkes, characteristically exposed his habits by caricaturing the satirist in the form of a bear dressed canonically, with ruffles at his paws, and holding a pot of porter. Churchill took revenge in a fierce and sweeping "epistle" to Hogarth, which is said to have caused him the most exquisite pain. After separating from his wife, and forming an unhappy connexion with another female, the daughter of a Westminster tradesman, whom he had seduced, Churchill's career drew to a sad and premature close. In October 1764 he went to France to pay a visit to his friend Wilkes, and was seized at Boulogne with a fever, which proved fatal on the 4th of November. With his clerical profession Churchill had thrown off his belief in Christianity, and Mr. Southey mentions, that though he made his will only the day before his death, there is in it not the slightest expression of religious faith or hope. So highly popular and productive had his satires proved, that he was enabled to bequeath an annuity of sixty pounds to his widow, and fifty to the more unhappy woman whom he had seduced, and some surplus remained to his sons. The poet was buried at Dover, and some of his gay associates placed over his grave a stone on which was engraved a line from one of his own poems — "Life to the last enjoyed, here Churchill lies." The enjoyment may be doubted, hardly less than the taste of the inscription. It is certain that Churchill expressed his compunction for parts of his conduct, in verses that evidently came from the heart:—

Look back! a thought which borders on despair,
Which human nature must, yet cannot bear.
'Tis not the babbling of a busy world,
Where praise or censure are at random hurled,
Which can the meanest of my thoughts control,
Or shake one settled purpose of my soul;
Free and at large might their wild curses roam,
If all, if all, alas! were well at home.
No; 'tis the tale, which angry conscience tells,
When she with more than tragic horror swells
Each circumstance of guilt; when stern, but true,
She brings bad actions forth into review,
And, like the dread handwriting on the wall,
Bids late remorse awake at reason's call
Armed at all points, bids scorpion vengeance pass,
And to the mind holds up reflection's glass—
The mind which starting heaves the heart-felt groan,
And hates that form she knows to be her own.
THE CONFERENCE.

The most ludicrous, and, on the whole, the best of Churchill's satires, is his "Prophecy of Famine, a Scots pastoral," inscribed to Wilkes. The Earl of Bute's administration had directed the enmity of all disappointed patriots and keen partisans against the Scottish nation. Even Johnson and Junius descended to this petty national prejudice, and Churchill revelled in it with such undisguised exaggeration and broad humour, that the most saturnine or sensitive of our countrymen must have laughed at its absurdity. This unique pastoral opens as follows:—

Two boys whose birth, beyond all question, springs
From great and glorious, though forgotten kings,
Shepherds of Scottish lineage, born and bred
On the same bleak and barren mountain's head,
By niggard nature doomed on the cause rocks
To spin out life, and starve themselves and flocks,
Fresh as the morning, which, enrobed in mist,
The mountain's top with usual dulness kissed,
Jockey and Sawney to their labours rose;
Soon clad I ween, where nature needs no clothes;
Where from their youth inured to winter skies,
Dress and her vain refinements they despise.

Jockey, whose manly high cheek bones to crown,
With freckles spotted flamed the golden down,
With meikle art could on the bagpipes play,
Even from the rising to the setting day;
Sawney as long without remorse could bawl
Home s madrigals, and ditties from Fingal:
Oft at his strains, all natural though rude,
The Highland lass forgot her want of food,
And whilst she scratched her lover into rest,
Sunk pleased, though hungry, on her Sawney's breast.

Far as the eye could reach no tree was soon,
Earth, clad in russet, scorned the lively green:
The plague of locusts they secure defy,
For in three hours a grasshopper must die:
No living thing, whate'er its food, feasts there,
But the chameleon who can feast on air.
No birds, except as birds of passage flew;
No bee was known to hum, no dove to coo:
No streams, as amber, smooth, as amber clear,
Were seen to glide, or heard to warble here:
Rebellion's spring, which through the country ran,
Furnished with bitter draughts the steady clan:
No flowers embalmed the air, but one white rose,
Which, on the tenth of June, by instinct blows
By instinct blows at morn, and, when the shades
Of drizzly eve prevail, by instinct fades.

In the same poem Churchill thus alludes to himself:

Me, whom no muse of heavenly birth inspires,
No judgment tempers, when rash genius fires;
Who boast no merit but mere knack of rhyme,
Short gleams of sense and satire out of time;
Who cannot follow where trim fancy leads
By prattling streams, o'er flower-impurpled meads;
Who often, but without success, have prayed
For apt Alliteration's artful aid:
Who would, but cannot, with a master's skill,
Coin fine new epithets which mean no ill:
Me, thus uncouth, thus every way unfit
For pacing poesy, and ambling wit,
Taste with contempt beholds, nor deigns to place
Amongst the lowest of her favoured race.

The characters of Garrick, &c., in the "Rosciad," have now ceased to interest; but some of these rough pen-and-ink sketches of Churchill are happily executed. Smollett, who he believed had attacked him in the Critical Review, he alludes to with mingled approbation and ridicule—

Whence could arise this mighty critic spleen,
The muse a trifler, and her theme so mean?
What had I done that angry heaven should send
The bitterest foe where most I wished a friend?
Oft hath my tongue been wanton at thy name,
And hailed the honours of thy matchless fame.
For me let hoary Fielding bite the ground,
So nobler Pickle stands superbly bound;
From Livy's temples tear the historic crown,
Which with more justice blooms upon thins own.
Compared with thee, be all life-writers dumb,
But he who wrote the Life of Tommy Thumb.
Whoever read the Regicide but swore
The author wrote as man ne'er wrote before?
Others for plots and under plots may call,
Here's the right method — have no plot at all!

Of Hogarth—

In walks of humour, in that cast of style,
Which, probing to the quick, yet makes us smile;
In comedy, his natural road to fame,
Nor let me call it by a meaner name,
Where a beginning, middle, and an end
Are aptly joined; where parts on parts depend,
Each made for each, as bodies for their soul,
So as to form one true and perfect whole,
Where a plain story to the eye is told,
Which we conceive the moment we behold,
Hogarth unrivalled stands, and shall engage
Unrivalled praise to the most distant age.

In "Night," Churchill thus gaily addressed his friend Lloyd on the proverbial poverty of poets:—

What is't to us, if taxes rise or fall?
Thanks to our fortune, we pay none at all.
Let muckworms, who in dirty acres deal,
Lament those hardships which we cannot feel.
His Grace, who smarts, may bellow if he please,
But must I bellow too, who sit at ease?
By custom safe, the poet's numbers flow
Free as the light and air some years ago.
No statesman e'er will find it worth his pains
To tax our labours and excise our brains.
Burthens like these, vile earthly buildings bear;
No tribute's laid on castles in the air!

The reputation of Churchill was also an aerial structure. "No English poet," says Southey, "had ever enjoyed so excessive and so short lived a popularity; and indeed no one seems more thoroughly to have understood his own powers; there is no indication in any of his pieces that he could have done any thing better than the thing he did. To Wilkes he said, that nothing came out till he began to be pleased with it himself; but, to the public, he boasted of the haste and carelessness with which his verses were poured forth.

Had I the power, I could not have the time,
While spirits flow, and life is in her prime,
Without a sin 'gainst pleasure, to design
A plan, to methodise each thought, each line,
Highly to finish, and make every grace
In itself charming, take new charms from place.
Nothing of books, and little known of men,
When the mad fit comes on I seize the pen;
Rough as they run, the rapid thoughts set down,
Rough as they run, discharge them on the town.

Popularity which is easily gained, is lost as easily; such reputations resembling the lives of insects, whose shortness of existence is compensated by its proportion of enjoyment. He perhaps imagined that his genius would preserve his subjects, as spices preserve a mummy, and that the individuals whom he had eulogised or stigmatised would go down to posterity in his verse, as an old admiral comes home from the West Indies in a puncheon of rum: he did not consider that the rum is rendered loathsome, and that the spices with which the Pharaohs and Potiphars were embalmed, wasted their sweetness in the catacombs. But, in this part of his conduct, there was no want of worldly prudence: he was enriching himself by hasty writings, for which the immediate sale was in proportion to the bitterness and personality of the satire."