Sir Charles Sedley

Anonymous, in Cibber-Shiels, Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) 3:94-103.

This gentleman, who obtained a great name in the world of gallantry, was son of Sir John Sedley, of Aylesford in Kent. When our author was about the age of 17, he became a fellow of Wadham college in 1656, but he took no degree. When he quitted the university, he retired into his own country, and neither went to travel nor to the inns of court. As soon as the restoration was effected, Sir Charles came to London, in order to join in the general jubilee, and then commenced wit, courtier, poet, and gallant.

He was so much applauded in all conversations that he began to be the oracle of the poets; and it was by his judgment every performance was approved or condemned; which made the King jest with him, and tell him, that nature had given him a patent to be Apollo's viceroy. Lord Rochester bears testimony to this, when he puts him foremost among the judges of poetry.

I loath the rabble, tis enough for me
If Sedley, Shadwell, Shepherd, Wycherly,
Godolphin, Butler, Buckhurst, Buckingham,
And some few more whom I omit to name,
Approve my sense, I count their censure fame.

It happened by Sir Charles, in respect of the king, as is said of the famous cardinal Richlieu, viz. That they who recommended him to the Royal favour, thereby supplanted themselves, and afterwards envied him; but with this difference between the Cardinal and Sir Charles, that the latter was never ungrateful. When he had a taste of the court, as the King never would part with him, so he never would part from the King; and yet two things proved particularly detrimental to him in it, first his estate, so far from being improved was diminished; and secondly his morals were debauched. The King delighted in his conversation, and he was the dearer to his Majesty on this account, that he never asked a favour; whereas some other courtiers by their bold importunity exhausted the prince's treasures, who could not deny a man who craved, tho' he hated his forwardness; nor could remember the silent indigence of his friend, tho' he applauded the modesty of it. He was deeply immersed in the public distractions of the times, and is said to have committed many debaucheries, of which the following instance has not been recorded.

In the month of June 1663 our author, Charles lord Buckhurst, and Sir Thomas Ogle, were convened in a public house in Bow-street, Covent-Garden, and being enflamed with strong liquors, they went up to the balcony belonging to that house, and there shewed very indecent postures, and gave great offence to the passengers in the street by very unmannerly discharges upon them; which done, Sedley stripped himself naked, and preached to the people in a gross and scandalous manner; whereupon a riot being raised, the mob became very clamorous, and would have forced the door next to the street; but being opposed, the preacher and his company were driven off the balcony, and the windows of a room into which they retired were broken by the mob. The frolic being soon spread abroad, and as persons of fashion were concerned in it, it was so much the more aggravated. The company were summoned to appear before a court of justice in Westminster-Hall, where lord chief justice Sir Robert Hyde, lord chief justice of the Common Pleas, they were all fined, and Sir Charles being sentences to pay £500, he used some very impertinent expressions to the judge; who thereupon asked him if he had ever read a book called the Compleat Gentleman; to which Sir Charles made answer, that he had read more books than his lordship.

The day for payment being appointed, Sir Charles desired Mr. Henry Killegrew, and another gentleman to apply to his Majesty to have the fine remitted, which they undertook to do; but in place of supplicating for it, they represented Sir Charles's frolic rather in an aggravating light, and not a farthing was abated.

After this affair, Sir Charles's mind took a more serious turn, and he began to apply himself to the study of politics, by which he might be of some service to his country. He was chosen, says Wood, a recruiter of that long parliament, which began at Westminster the 8th of May 1661, to serve for New Romney in Kent, and sat in three succeeding Parliaments since the dissolution of that.

Sir Charles, considered as an author, has great delicacy in his turns, and Eachard observes in his dedication of Plautus's three comedies to Sir Charles, that the easiness of his stile, the politeness of his expressions in his Bellamira, and even those parts of it which are purely translation, are very delightful, and engaging to the reader.

Lord Rochester, in his imitation of the 10th satire of the first book of Horace, has the following verses in his commendation.

Sedley has that prevailing gentle art,
That can with a resistless charm impart
The loosest wishes to the chastest heart:
Raise such a conflict, kindle such a fire,
Betwixt declining virtue and desire;
That the poor vanquish'd maid dissolves away
In dreams all night, in sighs and tears all day.

Before we give an account of our author's works, it will not be amiss to observe, that he was extremely active in effecting the revolution, which was thought the more extraordinary, as he had received favours from King James II. That Prince, it seems, had fallen in love with a daughter of Sir Charles's, who was not very handsome; for James was remarkable for dedicating his affections to women who were not great beauties; in consequence of his intrigue with her, and in order to give her greater lustre in life, he created Miss Sedley countess of Dorchester. This honour, so far from pleasing, greatly shocked Sir Charles. However libertine he himself had been, yet he could not bear the thoughts of his daughter's dishonour; and with regard to this her exaltation, he only considered it as rendering her more conspicuously infamous. He therefore conceived a hatred to James, and readily joined to dispossess him of his throne and dominions.

Being asked one day, why he appeared to warm against the King, who had created his daughter a Countess? It is from a principle of gratitude I am so warm, returns Sir Charles; for since his Majesty has made my daughter a Countess, it is fit I should do all I can to make his daughter a Queen.

Our author's works are,

1. The Mulberry Garden, a Comedy, acted by his Majesty's servants at the theatre-royal 1668, dedicated to the duchess of Richmond and Lennox.

2. Anthony and Cleopatra, a Tragedy, acted at the Duke of York's theatre 1667. This play was acted with great applause. The Story from Plutarch's Life of Anthony.

3. Bellamira; or the Mistress, a Comedy, acted by his Majesty's servants, 1687. It is taken from Terence's Eunuch. While this play was acting, the roof of the play-house fell down, but very few were hurt, except the author: whose merry friend Sir Fleetwood Shepherd told him, that there was so much fire in the play, that it blew up the poet, house and all: Sir Charles answered, No, the play was so heavy it brought down the house, and buried the poet in his own rubbish.

4. Beauty the Conqueror; or the Death of Mark Antony, a Tragedy.

Besides these plays, Mr. Coxeter says, he is author of the two following, which were never printed till with his works in 2 vols. 8vo. 1719, dedicated by Briscoe the bookseller to the duke of Chandois.

The Grumbler, a Comedy of three acts, scene Paris.

The Tyrant King of Crete, a Tragedy.

Sedley's poems, however amorously tender and delicate, yet have not much strength; nor do they afford great marks of genius. The softness of his verses is denominated by the Duke of Buckingham, Sedley's Witchcraft. It was an art too successful in those days to propagate the immoralities of the times, but it must be owned that in point of chastity he excels Dorset, and Rochester; who as they conceived lewdly, wrote in plain English, and did not give themselves any trouble to wrap up the ribbaldry in a dress tolerably decent. But if Sedley was the more chaste, I know not if he was the less pernicious writer: for that pill which is gilded will be swallowed more readily, and with less reluctance, than if tendered in its own disgustful colours. Sedley insinuates greatly into the heart, without giving any alarm, but is not less fraught with poison, than are those whose deformity bespeaks their mischief.

It would be tedious to enumerate here all the poems of Sir Charles Sedley; let it suffice to say, that they are printed in two small volumes along with his plays, and consist of translations of Virgil's Pastorals, original Pastorals, Prologues, Songs, Epilogues, and little occasional pieces.

We shall present the reader with an original pastoral of Sir Charles's, as a specimen of his works.

He lived to the beginning of Queen Anne's reign, and died at an age near 90; his wit and humour continuing to the last.

Strephon, O Strephon, once the jolliest lad,
That with shrill pipe did ever mountain glad;
Whilome the foremost of our rural plays,
The pride and envy of our holidays:
Why dost thou sit now musing all alone,
Teaching the turtles, yet a sadder moan?
Swell'd with thy tears, why does the neighbouring brook
Bear to the ocean, what she never took?
Thy flocks are fair, and fruitful, and no swain,
Than thee, more welcome to the hill or plain.

I could invite the wolf, my cruel guest,
And play unmov'd, while he on all should feast:
I cou'd endure that very swain out-run,
Out-threw, out-wrestled, and each nymph shou'd shun
The hapless Strephon.—

Tell me then thy grief,
And give it, in complaints, some short relief.

Had killing mildews nipt my rising corn,
My lambs been all found dead, as soon as born;
Or raging plagues run swift through every hive,
And left not one industrious bee alive;
Had early winds, with an hoarse winter's sound
Scatter'd my rip'ning fruit upon the ground:
Unmov'd, untoucht, I cou'd the loss sustain,
And a few days expir'd, no more complain.

E'er the sun drank of the cold morning dew,
I've known thee early the tuskt boar pursue:
Then in the evening drive the bear away,
And rescue from his jaws the trembling prey.
But now thy flocks creep feebly through the fields,
No purple grapes, thy half-drest vineyards yields:
No primrose nor no violets grace thy beds,
But thorns and thistles lift their prickly heads.
What means this change?

Enquire no more;
When none can heal, 'tis pain to search the sore;
Bright Galatea, in whose matchless face
Sat rural innocence, with heavenly grace;
In whose no less inimitable mind,
With equal light, even distant virtues shin'd;
Chaste without pride, and charming without art,
Honour the tyrant of her tender heart:
Fair goddess of these fields, who for our sports,
Though she might well become, neglected courts:
Belov'd of all, and loving me alone,
Is from my sight, I fear, for ever gone.

Thy case indeed is pitiful, but yet
Thou on thy loss too great a price does set.
Women like days are, Strephon, some be far
More bright and glorious than others are;
Yet none so gay, so temperate, so clear,
But that the like adorn the rowling year.
Pleasures imparted to a friend, increase,
Perhaps divided sorrow may grow less.

Others as fair, to others may seem,
But she has all my love and my esteem:
Her bright idea wanders in my thought,
At once my poison, and my antidote.

Our hearts are paper, beauty is the pen,
Which writes our loves, and blots 'em out agen.
Phillis is whiter than the rising swan,
Her slender waist confin'd within a span:
Charming as nature's face in the new spring,
When early birds on the green branches sing.
When rising herbs and buds begin to hide,
Their naked mother, and their short-liv'd pride,
Chloe is ripe, and as the autumn fair,
When on the elm the purple grapes appear,
When trees, hedge-rows, and every bending bush,
With rip'ning fruit, or tasteful berries blush,
Lydia is in the summer of her days,
What wood can shade us from her peaceful rays?
Her even teeth, whiter than new yean'd lambs,
When they with tender cries pursue their dams;
Her eyes as charming as the evening sun,
To the scorch'd labourer when his work is done,
Whom the glad pipe, to rural sports invites,
And pays his toil with innocent delights.
On some of these fond swain fix thy desire,
And burn not with imaginary fire.

The stag shall sooner with the eagle soar,
Seas leave their fishes naked on the shore;
The wolf shall sooner by the lambkin die,
Than I abandon Galatea's love,
Or her dear image from my thoughts remove.

Damon this evening carries home his bride,
In all the harmless pomp of rural pride;
Where, for two spotted lambkins, newly yean'd,
With nimble feet and voice, the nymphs contend:
And for a coat, thy Galatea spun,
The Shepherds wrestle, throw the bar, and run.

At that dear name I feel my heart rebound,
Like the old steed, at the fierce trumpet's sound:
I grow impatient of the least delay,
No bastard swain shall bear the prize away.

Let us make haste, already they are met;
The echoing hills their joyful shouts repeat.