Rev. Charles Churchill

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 9:313-23.

CHARLES CHURCHILL, an English poet of unquestionable genius, was born in Vine-street, in the parish of St. John the Evangelist, Westminster, some time in February, 1731. His father was for many years curate and lecturer of that parish, and rector of Rainham, near Grays in Essex. He placed his son, when about eight years of age, at Westminster-school, which was then superintended by Dr. Nichols and Dr. Pierson Lloyd. His proficiency at school, although not inconsiderable, was less remarkable than his irregularities. On entering his nineteenth year he applied for matriculation at the university of Oxford, where it is reported by some, he was rejected on account of his deficiency in the learned languages, and by others, that he was hurt at the trifling and childish questions put to him, and answered the examiner with a contempt which was mistaken for ignorance. It is not easy to reconcile these accounts, and, perhaps, not of great importance. Churchill, however, was afterwards admitted of Trinity college, Cambridge, but immediately returned to London, and never visited the university any more.

The reason of his abandoning the university may have been an attachment which he formed while at Westminster-school, and which ended in a clandestine marriage at the Fleet. This was a severe disappointment to his father's hopes, but he wisely became reconciled to what was unavoidable, and entertained the young couple in his house about a year, during which his son's conduct was irreproachable. In 1751 he retired to Sunderland, in the north of England, where he applied himself to such studies as might qualify him for the church, and at the customary age he received deacon's orders from Dr. Willes, bishop of Bath and Wells, and in 1756 was ordained priest by Dr. Sherlock, bishop of London. He then exercised his clerical functions at Cadbury in Somersetshire, and at Rainham, his father's living, but in what manner, or with what display of abilities, is not remembered. A story was current some time after his death that he received a curacy of £30 a year in Wales, and kept a public house to supply his deficiencies, but for this there appears to have been no other foundation than what the irregularities of his more advanced life supplied. So regardless was he of character, that his enemies found ready credit for any fiction at his expence. While at Rainham, he endeavoured to provide for his family by teaching the youth of the neighbourhood, an occupation which necessity rendered eligible, and habit might have made pleasing; but in 1758 his father's death opened a more flattering prospect to him in the metropolis, where he was chosen his successor in the curacy and lectureship of St. John's. For some time he performed the duties of these offices with external decency at least, and employed his leisure hours in the instruction of some pupils in the learned languages, and was also engaged as a teacher at a ladies' boarding-school.

He was in his twenty-seventh year when he began to relax from the obligations of virtue, and more openly to enter into those dissipations, which, while they ruined his character and impaired his health, were, not indirectly, the precursors to his celebrity in public life. He was immoderately fond of pleasure; a constant attendant at the theatres, and the associate of men who united wit and profligacy, and qualified themselves for moral teachers by practising the vices they censured in others. Lloyd, the poet, had been one of his school-fellows at Westminster, and their intimacy, renewed afresh, became now a close partnership in debt and dissipation. In one respect this proved beneficial to Churchill. Dr. Lloyd, his companion's father, persuaded Churchill's creditors to accept of five shillings in the pound, and to grant releases; nor ought it to be concealed, that there is some reason for believing that Churchill, as soon as he had acquired money by his publications, voluntarily paid the full amount of the original debts.

At what period he made the first experiment of his poetical talents is not known. He had, in conjunction with Lloyd, the care of the poetical department in the "The Library," a kind of magazine, of which Dr. Kippis was editor, and he probably wrote some small pieces in that work, but they cannot now be distinguished. About the year 1759 or 1760, he wrote a poem of some length, entitled "The Bard," which was rejected by an eminent bookseller, perhaps justly, as the author did not publish it afterwards, when it might have had the protection of his name. He wrote also "The Conclave," a satire levelled at the dean and chapter of Westminster, which his friends prevailed upon him to suppress. Thus disappointed in his first two productions, his constant attendance at the theatres suggested a third, levelled at the players. This was his celebrated "Rosicad," in which the professional characters of the performers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres were examined with a severity, yet with an acuteness of criticism, and easy flow of humour and sarcasm, which rendered what he probably considered as a temporary trifle, a publication of uncommon popularity. He had, however, so little encouragement in bringing this poem forward, that five guineas were refused as the price he valued it at; and be printed it at his own risk when he bad scarcely ready money enough to pay for the necessary advertisements. It was published in March 1761, and its sale exceeded all expectation, but as his name did not appear to the first edition, and Lloyd had not long before published "The Actor," a poem on the same subject, the Rosciad was generally supposed to be the production of the same writer; while, by others, it was attributed to those confederate wits, Coirnan and Thornton. Churchill, however, soon avowed a poem which promised so much fame and profit, and as it had been not only severely handled in the Critical Review, but positively attributed to another pen, be published "The Apology: addressed to the Critical Reviewers," 1761. In this he retaliated with great bitterness of personal satire.

The success of the "Rosciad," and of "The Apology," opened new prospects to their author, he saw in his genius a source of plentiful emolument, but unfortunately also he contemplated it as an object of terror, which might be employed against the friends of virtue, with whom he no longer thought it necessary to keep any terms. While insulting public decency by the grossest immorality, he aimed his vengeance on those who censured him, with a sprightliness of malignity and force of ridicule which he deemed irresistible. His conduct, as a clergyman, had long shocked his parishioners, and incurred at length the displeasure of Dr. Pearce, the dean of Westminster, who remonstrated as became his station. But Churchill was now too far gone in profligacy, and being, as his friends have been pleased to say, too honest to dissemble, he resigned his curacy and lectureship, and with this acknowledged sacrifice to depravity, threw off all the external restraints which his former character might be thought to impose. That his contempt for the clerical dress might be more notorious, he was seen at all public places habited in a blue coat with metal buttons, a gold-laced waistcoat, a gold-laced hat, and ruffles.

In February 1761 a separation took place between him and his wife, whose imprudence is said to have kept pace with his own; but from a licentious passage in one of his letters to Wilkes, it appears that he was tired of her person, and probably neglected her in pursuit of vagrant amours. As his conduct in this and other matters was too notorious to pass without animadversion, he endeavoured to vindicate it in a poem entitled "Night," addressed to his wretched partner Lloyd. The poetical beauties of this poem, which are very striking, can never atone for the absurdity as well as immorality of his main argument, that avowed vice is more harmless than concealed; and did not prevent his readers from perceiving, that he who maintains it, must have lost shame as well as virtue.

His next publication was "The Ghost," 1762, extended, at irregular intervals, to four books. This wits founded on the well-known imposture of a ghost having disturbed a family in Cock-lane; but our poet contrived to render it the vehicle of many characteristic sketches, and desultory thoughts on various subjects unconnected with its title. About this time he appears to have formed a connection with the celebrated John Wilkes, an impostor of more ingenuity, who encouraged him to add faction to profligacy, and increase the number of his enemies by reviling every person of rank or distinction with whom Wilkes chose to be at variance. His pen is said to have been also employed in Wilkes's "North Briton," and in "The Prophecy of Famine." Churchill's next production was originally sketched in prose for that paper. What other contributions he made cannot now be ascertained, but it may be suspected that Churchill's satirical talent would ill submit to the tameness of prose, nor indeed was such an employment worthy of the author of "The Rosciad," and "The Apology." — Wilkes suggested "The Prophecy of Famine," as a more suitable vehicle for the bitterness of national scurrility, and he was not mistaken.

The "Epistle to Hogarth" which followed, was occasioned by that artist's having taken some liberties in his political engravings, with the characters of the earls Temple and Chatham. The only revenge he now took was a paltry print representing Churchill as a Russian bear, but whether this preceded or followed the "Epistle" is not quite clear. The parties had been once intimate, and Churchill paid due reverence to the talents of Hogarth, but in his present humour he stuck at nothing which could vex and irritate. Hogarth died soon after, and some of Churchill's friends asserted, with malicious satisfaction, that the poem had accelerated that event. Mr. Nichols, in his copious life of Hogarth, starts some reasonable doubts on this subject.

In 1763 Churchill formed an intimacy with the daughter of a tradesman in Westminster, and prevailed with her to live with him, but within a fortnight his passion was satiated, and she had leisure to repent. Her father received her back, and she might probably have been reformed had she not been insulted by a sister, and her situation rendered so disagreeable that she preferred the company of her seducer. Churchill thought himself bound in honour and gratitude to receive her, and perpetuate her wretchedness by a more lengthened connexion. While this affair was the general subject of public indignation, he wrote "The Conference," in which he assumes the language of repentance and atonement with such pathetic effect, that every reader must hope he was sincere.

The duel which took place between Wilkes and Martin gave rise to "The Duellist," 1763, which he extended to three books, and diversified, as usual, by much personal satire. In "The Author," published about the end of the same year, he gave more general satisfaction, as the topics were of a more general satire. His first publication in 1764 was "Gotham," which, without a definite object, or much connexion of parts, contains many passages of sterling merit. The "Candidate" was written soon after, to expose lord Sandwich, who was a candidate for the office of high steward of the university of Cambridge. His lordship's deficiencies in moral conduct were perhaps no unfair objects for satire; but this from the pen of a man now debilitated by habitual excess, served only to prove that Churchill was a profligate in contempt of knowledge and reason.

The "Farewell," "The Times," and "Independence," were hasty compositions that added little to his fame; and, except perhaps "The Times," announced the decline of his powers. "Independence" appeared in September 1764, and was the last of his productions published in his life-time. "The Journey," and "The Fragment of a Dedication to Dr. Warburton," were brought to light by his friends soon after his death.

Towards the end of October, 1764, he accompanies Humphrey Cotes, one of Wilkes's dupes, to visit this patriot in his voluntary exile in France. The party met at Boulogne, where Churchill, immediately on his arrival, was attacked by a military fever, which terminated his life, Nov. 4, in the thirty-fourth year of his age. It was reported, that his last words were, "What a fool have I been!" but Wilkes, who was present, thought it his duty, on all occasions, to contradict this. He considered it as a calumny on a man whose "firmness of philosophy," he gravely informs us, "shone in full lustre during the whole time of his very severe illness." His body was brought from Boulogne for interment at Dover, where it was deposited in the old church-yard, formerly belonging to the collegiate church of St. Martin. A stone was afterwards placed on his grave, on which are inscribed his age, the time of his death, and this line from his works

Life to the last enjoy'd, here Churchill lies.

Of the nature of his life and its enjoyments, enough has been said. — He left two sons, Charles and John, the charge of whose education was generously undertaken by sir Richard Jebb; but they soon died, like their father, victims to imprudence and intemperance.

The year after his death, a volume of Sermons was published, which he is said to have prepared for the press, but this seems wholly improbable. They bear no marks of his composition; and it has been conjectured by the editor of the Biographia, that they were some of his father's, which he had copied for his own use. Churchill was not a hypocrite, and would not have published sermons for a serious purpose; not could he be tempted by necessity to avail himself of public curiosity. His poetry supplied all his wants; and if we may credit his will, lie left behind him a considerable sum of money.

The merit of Churchill, as a poet, has but lately been appreciated with impartiality. During his life, his works were popular beyond all competition. While he continued to supply that species of entertainment which is more generally gratifying than a good mind can conceive, or a bad one will acknowledge, be was more eagerly and more frequently read than any of his contemporaries. Churchill was admirably suited to the time in which he lived. But if his poems were popular with those who love to see worth depreciated, and distinctions levelled, with the vulgar, the envious, and the malignant, they were no less held in abhorrence by those who were as much hurt at the prostitution, as charmed by the excellence of his talents, and who were afraid to praise his genius lest they should propagate his writings. Few men, therefore, made so much noise during their lives, or so little after their deaths. His partners in vice and faction shrunk from the task of perpetuating his memory, either from the fear of an alliance with a character so obnoxious as to injure their party, or from the neglect with which bad, men usually treat their associates, when they can be no longer useful. Lloyd, to whom he had been more kind than Colman or Thornton, did not survive him above a month. Colman and Thornton preserved a cautious silence about a man whom to praise was to engage with the many enemies he had created; and Wilkes, to whom he bequeathed the editorship and illustration of his poems by notes, &c. neglected the task, until he had succeeded in his ambitious manoeuvres, became ashamed of the agents who had supported him, and left his poorer partizans to shift for themselves. Even when Dr. Kippis applied to him for such information as might supply a life of Churchill for the Biographia, he seemed unwilling or unable to contribute much; and a comparison of that life with the scattered accounts previously published, may convince the reader that Dr. Kippis thanked him for more assistance than he received.

While the friends of Churchill were thus negligent of his fame, it was not to be expected that his enemies would be very eager to perpetuate the memory of a man by whom they had suffered so severely. Perhaps no writer ever made so many enemies, or carried his hostilities into so many quarters, without provocation. If we except the case of Hogarth, it is doubtful whether he ever attacked the character of one individual who did him an injury, or stood in his way. Such wantonness of detraction must have naturally led to the general wish that his name and works might be speedily consigned to oblivion. His writings, however, may now be read with more calmness, and his rank as a poet assigned with the regards due to genius, however misapplied. If those passages in which his genius shines most conspicuously were to be selected from the mass of defamation by which they are surrounded, he might be allowed to approach to Pope in every thing but correctness; and even of his failure in this respect, it may be justly said that he evinces carelessness rather than want of taste. But he despised regularity in every thing, and whatever was within rules, bore an air of restraint to which his proud spirit could not submit; hence he persisted in despising that correctness which he might have attained with very little care. The opinion of Cowper upon this subject is too valuable to be omitted. Churchill "is a careless writer for the most part, but where shall we find in any of those authors, who finish their works with the exactness of a Flemish pencil, those bold and daring strokes of fancy, those numbers so hazardously ventured upon, and so happily finished, the matter so compressed, and yet so clear, and the colouring so sparingly laid on, and, yet with such a beautiful effect? In short it is not his least praise, that he is never guilty of those faults as a writer which he lays to the charge of others. A proof that he did not judge by a borrowed standard, or from rules laid down by critics, but that he was qualified to do it by his own native powers, and his great superiority of genius."

The superiority of his genius, indeed, is so obvious from even a slight perusal of his works,'' that it must ever be regretted that his subjects were temporary, and his manner irritating, and that he should have given to party and to passion what might have so boldly chastised vice, promoted the dignity of virtue, and advanced the honours of poetry. His fertility was astonishing, for the whole of, his poems were designed and finished within the short 'space of three years and a half. Whatever he undertook, he accomplished with rapidity, although such was the redundancy of his imagination, and such the facility with which he committed his thoughts to paper, that he has not always executed what he began, and, perhaps delights too much in excursions from his principal subject. Of this "The Prophecy of Famine," which, for original creative power, may perhaps be preferred to all his other writings, appears to be a striking example. It consists of a long introduction which might suit any other subject, and detached parts which have no natural connexion, and of which the order might be changed without injury. "The Rosciad" seems to have owed its popularity more to its subject, and the clamour of the players and their friends, than to its poetry. In his other works, there are few of the essential qualities of a poet which he has not frequently exemplified. He has fully proved that he was not incapable of the higher species of poetry; he has given specimens of the sublime and the pathetic, "the two chief nerves of all genuine poesy." In personification he is peculiarly happy, and sometimes displays the fine fancy of Spenser united with great strength of colouring and force of expression. His bursts of indignation are wonderfully eloquent, and with a love of virtue, he might have been her irresistible advocate, and the first of ethic writers. Where he does put on the character of a moral satirist, he is perhaps inferior to none of the moderns. But unfortunately his genius was biassed by personal animosity, and where he surpasses all other writers, it is in the keenness, not of legitimate satire, but of defamation. His object is not to reform, but to revenge; and that the greatness of his revenge may be justified, he exaggerates the offences of his objects beyond all bounds of truth and decency.

In some cases, the poet may be considered separate from the man, and indeed of many eminent poets we know too little to be able to determine what influence their character had on their writings. But Churchill's productions are so connected with his turbulent and irregular life, that they must necessarily he brought in contact. He frequently alludes to his character and situation, and takes every opportunity to vindicate what seems to redound most to his discredit, his vices and his associates; and as his works will probably long be read with admiration as works of genius, or from curiosity as specimens of obloquy, it is necessary to be told that he had very little veneration for truth, that he drew his characters in extravagant disproportion, and that he was regardless of any means by which he could bring temporary or lasting disgrace on the persons whom either faction or revenge made him consider as enemies. Mr. Tooke, of Gray's-inn, lately published an edition of Churchill's works, illustrated by much contemporary history; and we owe some particulars of Churchill's life to the well-written memoirs prefixed to this work.