1786 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Charles Churchill

William Cowper to Rev. William Unwin, 1786; Southey, Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 6:10-11.



Churchill, the great Churchill, deserved the name of poet: I have read him over twice, and some of his pieces three times over, and the last time with more pleasure than the first. The pitiful scribbler of his life [in Bell's Poets] seems to have undertaken that task, for which he was entirely unqualified, merely because it afforded him an opportunity to traduce him. He has inserted in it but one anecdote of consequence, for which he refers you to a novel, and introduces the story with doubts about the truth of it. But his barrenness as a biographer I could forgive, if the simpleton had not thought himself a judge of his writings, and under the erroneous influence of that thought, informed his reader that Gotham, Independence, and the Times, were catchpennies. Gotham, unless I am a greater blockhead than he, which I am far from being, is a noble and beautiful poem, and a poem with which I make no doubt the author took as much pains as with any he ever wrote. Making allowance, (and Dryden in his Absalom and Achitophel stands in need of the same indulgence,) for an unwarrantable use of Scripture, it appears to me to be a masterful piece, full of strength and spirit, and marked with that bold masculine character which, I think, is the great peculiarity of this writer. And the Times (except that the subject is disgusting to the last degree,) stands equally high in my opinion. He is indeed 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. For he that wrote so much, and so fast, would through inadvertency and hurry unavoidably have departed from rules which he might have found in books, but his own truly poetical talent was a guide which could not suffer him to err. A racehorse is graceful in his swiftest pace, and never makes an awkward motion though he is pushed to his utmost speed. A cart-horse might perhaps be taught to play tricks in the riding-school, and might prance and curvet like his betters, but at some unlucky time would be sure to betray the baseness of his original. It is an affair of very little consequence perhaps to the well-being of mankind, but I cannot help regretting that he died so soon. Those words of Virgil, on the immature death of Marcellus, might serve for his epitaph:

Ostendent terris hunc tantum fata, neque ultra
Esse sinent.