1763 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Charles Churchill

Horace Walpole, 1763; in Memoirs of the Reign of George III, ed. G. F. Russell Barker (1894) 1:142-44.



Associated with Wilkes in pleasure and in the composition of the North Briton was a clergyman named Churchill, who stepped out of obscurity about the same period, and was as open a contemner of decency as Wilkes himself, but far his superior in the endowments of his mind. Adapted to the bear-garden by his athletic mould, Churchill had frequented no school so much as the theatres. He had existed by the lowest drudgery of his function, while poetry amused what leisure he could spare, or rather what leisure he would enjoy; for his Muse, and his mistress, and his bottle were so essential to his existence, that they engrossed all but the refuse of his time. Yet for some years his poetry had proved as indifferent as his sermons, till a cruel and ill-natured satire on the actors had, in the first year of this reign, handed him up to public regard. Having caught the taste of the town, he proceeded rapidly, and in a few more publications started forth a giant in numbers, approaching as nearly as possible to his model, Dryden, and flinging again on the wild neck of Pegasus the reins which Pope had held with so tight and cautious a hand. Imagination, harmony, wit, satire, strength, fire, and sense crowded on his compositions; and they were welcome for him-he neither sought nor invited their company. Careless of matter and manner, he added grace to sense, or beauty to nonsense, just as they came in his way; and he could not help being sonorous, even when he was unintelligible. He advertised the titles of his poems, but neither planned nor began them till his booksellers, or his own want of money, forced him to thrust out the crude but glorious sallies of his uncorrected fancy. This bacchanalian priest, now mouthing patriotism, and now venting libertinism, the scourge of bad men, and scarce better than the worst, debauching wives, and protecting his gown by the weight of his fist, engaged with Wilkes in his war on the Scots; and sometimes learning, and as often not knowing, the characters he attacked, set himself up as the Hercules that was to cleanse the State, and punish its oppressors: and, true it is, the storm that saved us was raised in taverns and night-cellars; so much more effectual were the orgies of Churchill and Wilkes than the daggers of Cato and Brutus. The two former saved their country, while Catiline could not ruin his, — a work to which such worthies seemed much better adapted.

But while the wit and revelry of Wilkes and Churchill ran riot, and were diverted by their dissipation to other subjects of pleasantry or satire, they had a familiar at their ear, whose venom was never distilled at random, but each drop administered to some precious work of mischief. This was Earl Temple, who whispered them where they might find torches, but took care never to be seen to light one himself. Characters so rash and imprudent were proper vehicles of his spite; and he enjoyed the two points he preferred even to power, — vengeance, and a whole skin.

This triumvirate has made me often reflect that nations are most commonly saved by the worst men in them. The virtuous are too scrupulous to go the lengths that are necessary to rouse the people against their tyrants.