1763
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Review of Charles Churchill's Prophecy of Famine.

St. James's Magazine 1 (January 1763) 345-52. [Robert Lloyd, ed.]

Robert Lloyd


The anonymous reviewer, probably Charles Churchill's friend Robert Lloyd, offers high praise for the poem, while observing of pastoral that "from VIRGIL to CALPURNIUS and NEMEIANUS, from SPENSER to POPE, PHILLIPS, AND GAY, 'tis but the standing dish of THEOCRITUS, served up, over and over and over again" p. 347. While generally damning imitations, the critic praises not only Churchill but "the elegant and spirited Dr. Akenside, who seem to feel themselves, and fully possess'd of their subject, their imitations come rather by accident than by design, and have therefore all the grace of propriety, without the stiffness of labour" pp. 346-47.

William Tooke: "The St. James's Magazine proceeded no farther than two volumes, and never having had a sale adequate to his expectations and consequent mode of living, poor Lloyd was immured by his creditors in the Fleet prison, where his confinement was the more irksome, owing to the circumstance of his bosom friend, and prime seducer from the paths of prudence, Bonnell Thornton, refusing to become his security for the liberty of the rules: this giving rise to some ill-natured altercation, farther irritated Thornton, who became an inveterate enemy, in the quality of his most inexorable creditor. In prison, Lloyd was principally supported by the bounty of Churchill" Poetical Works of Charles Churchill (1804) 2:347n.

Alexander Chalmers: "In 1762, he attempted to establish a periodical work, The St. James's Magazine, which was to be the depository of his own effusions, aided by the contributions of his friends: the latter, however, came in tardily; Churchill, from whom he had great expectations, contributed nothing, although such of his poems as he published during the sale of the magazine were liberally praised. Thornton gave a very few prose essays, and poetical pieces were furnished by Dennis and Emily, two versifiers of forgotten reputation. Lloyd himself had none of the steady industry which a periodical work requires, and his magazine was often made up, partly from books, and partly from the St. James's Chronicle, of which Colman and Thornton were proprietors and regular contributors" Works of the English Poets (1810) 15:72.




It is the misfortune of most writers, who amuse themselves, and endeavour to entertain the public, in the poetical way, that they form in their minds some model of real or fancied excellence, which they continually work after, without having even the hopes of equaling, much less the prophane ambition of surpassing their original. An imitation of MILTON, of SPENSER, or of POPE (an author who, notwithstanding his own superior excellence, has made the mechanism of numbers so plain, that it is impossible for a rhymist to miss resemblance) is the utmost of their aim, and provided their pieces are allowed not to be totally destitute of all likeness, they hug themselves in their own abilities, and toss about their poetical dictums, quasi EX CATHEDRA.

How many idle poems, full of trite imagery, and affected personification, have the ALLEGRO and PENSEROSO given birth to? and how many cantos of unintelligible allegories in imitation of SPENSER, have sent the reader to his dictionary for an explanation of the words, without ever coming at the sentiment? What a deal of sound morality and dull prose has been stretch'd, squeez'd, and par'd into verse, and at length "walk'd the town a while," as Essays after the manner of POPE? There is scarce a satire in HORACE, which has not undergone, what they call Imitation, nor a moral virtue which has not run the gauntlope of an Ethic Epistle. In short, the success of one real genius, produces a thousand miserable copyists; and pedantry never makes herself more notoriously ridiculous, than by fondly imitating what she implicitly admires, and half understands.

Our author, indeed, seems by no means willing to enlist himself into the class of authors, and disdains to court a comparative reputation. Strong in himself, he bows to no modern idol of fantastical TASTE, and scorns to bend

—To fashion, and obey the rules
Impos'd at first, and since observ'd by fools.

Almost all other modern authors have their prototypes, one writes with the antithetical poignancy of YOUNGE, another with the familiar ease of a PRIOR, &c. whilst our poet, with the elegant and spirited DR. AKENSID, seem to feel themselves; and fully possess'd of their subject, their imitations come rather by accident than design, and have therefore all the grace of propriety, without the stiffness of labour.

Of all the poems this gentleman has offer'd to the public, The PROPHECY of FAMINE is the most perfect, whether we consider the invention, disposition, numbers, or expression. Pastoral, we know, can sometimes admit of satire, and the celebrated line

Qui Bavium non odit, amet tua carmina Maevi,

must occur to the memory of every reader. DRYDEN, indeed, has somewhere observ'd from this and another passage in the Eclogues, that VIRGIL, had he been dispos'd to indulge himself in that species of poetry, would probably have been as great a satyrist as an epic writer.

Non tu in triviis, indocte solebas?—
Stridenti miserum stipula disperdere carmen?

What would he have said, had he seen the whole SCOTS PASTORAL? or rather what would he have felt from so formidable a rival?

From the meek title of pastoral, a reader would naturally expect to meet with the usual abundance of pure description in the place of sense, and a deal of harmonious versification upon stale worn-out sentiments. For the adage,

Nil dictum quod non dictum prius,

is no where more applicable than to this sort of writing. From VIRGIL to CALPURNIUS and NEMESIANUS, from SPENSER to POPE, PHILLIPS and GAY, 'tis but the standing dish of THEOCRITUS, served up, over and over and over again.

The poem before us begins with a short and humorous history of the origin of modern pastoral writing, which is generally the amusement of the promising genius of sixteen, when smitten by "his mistress's eyebrow." So, as the poet says, in love with his Amaryllis and his Muse at the same time,

to the sacred mount he takes his way,
Prunes his young wings, and tunes his infant lay,
His oaten reed to rural ditties frames,
To flocks and rocks, to hills and rills proclaims,
In simplest notes and all unpolish'd strains,
The loves of nymphs, and eke the loves of swains.

Clad, as your nymphs were always clad of yore,
In rustic weeds — a cook-maid now no more—
Beneath an aged oak LARDELLA lies—
Green moss, her couch; her canopy, the skies.
From aromatic shrubs the roguish gale
Steals young perfumes, and wafts them thro' the vale.
The youth, turn'd swain, and skill'd in rustic lays,
Fast by her side his amorous descant plays.
Herds lowe, Flocks bleat, Pies chatter, Ravens scream,
And the full chorus dies a-down the stream.
The streams, with music freighted, as they pass,
Present the fair LARDELLA with a glass,
And ZEPHYR, to compleat the love-sick plan,
Waves his light wings, and serves her for a fan.

Hence taking occasion to speak of those superior beings, who boast the true refin'd imitative CLASSICAL taste, he acknowledged his own insufficiency, as well as dislike to

fair nature's hue,
And bring the sober matron forth to view,
With all that artificial tawdry glare,
Which virtue scorns, and none but strumpets wear.

Therefore, as dedicating himself entirely to her law, he steers his course to Northern climes;

Where, undisturb'd by ART'S rebellious plan,
She rules the loyal Laird, and faithful Clan.

We will not overburthen the reader with quotations, but cannot forbear two extracts, the one of the beginning of the pastoral, with the description of Famine's Cave, the other (towards the end of it) of her person.

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

JOCKEY, whose manly high-bon'd cheeks to crown,
With freckles spotted flam'd the golden down,
With mickle art could on the bagpipes play,
E'en 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 tho' rude,
The Highland Lass forgot her want of food,
And, whilst she scratch'd her lover into rest,
Sunk pleas'd, tho' hungry, on her SAWNEY'S breast.

Far as the eye could reach, no tree was seen;
Earth, clad in russet, scorn'd 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 Camaeleon 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 thro' the country ran,
Furnish'd, with bitter draughts, the steady clan.
No flow'rs embalm'd 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.

One, and but one poor solitary cave,
Too sparing of her favours, nature gave;
That one alone (hard tax on Scottish pride)
Shelter at once for man and beast supplied.
There snares without entangling briars spread,
And thistles, arm'd against th' invader's head,
Stood in close ranks all entrance to oppose,
Thistles now held more precious than the rose.
All Creatures, which, on nature's earliest plan,
Were form'd to loath, and to be loath'd by man,
Which ow'd their birth to nastiness and spite,
Deadly to touch, and hateful to the sight,
Creatures, which, when admitted in the ark,
Their Saviour shunn'd, and, rankled in the dark,
Found place within; marking her noisome road
With poison's trail, here crawl'd the bloated Toad;
There webs were spread of more than common size,
And half-starved spiders prey'd on half-starv'd flies:
In quest of food, Efts strove in vain to crawl;
Slugs, pinch'd with hunger, smear'd the slimy wall;
The cave around with hissing serpents rung;
On the damp roof unhealthy vapour hung
And FAMINE, by her children always known,
As proud as poor, here fix'd her native throne.

After this follows an alternate lamentation between the two boys, which ended

from her throne of turf,
With boils emboss'd, and overgrown with scurf,
Vile humours, which, in life's corrupted well
Mix'd at the birth, not abstinence could quell,
Pale FAMINE rear'd the head; her eager eyes,
Where hunger e'en to madness seem'd to rise,
Speaking aloud her throes and pangs of heart,
Strain'd to get loose, and from their orbs to start;
Her hollow cheeks were each a deep-sunk cell,
Where wretchedness and horror loved to dwell;
With double rows of useless teeth supplied,
Her mouth, from ear to ear, extended wide,
Which, when for want of food her entrails pin'd,
She op'd, and, cursing swallow'd nought but wind;
All shrivel'd was her skin; and here and there,
Making their way by force, her bones lay bare:
Such filthy sight to hide from human view,
O'er her foul limbs a tatter'd Plaid she threw.

Cease, cried the Goddess, cease, &c.

And the whole pastoral concludes with Famine's prophetical assurance of a glorious exchange, and the full promise of a better land; where, as the goddess informs them,

Already is this game of fate begun
Under the sanction of my Darling Son,
That Son, whose nature royal as his name,
Is destin'd to redeem our race from shame.
His boundless pow'r, beyond example great,
Shall make the rough way smooth, the crooked straight,
Shall for our ease the raging floods restrain,
And sink the mountain level to the plain.
DISCORD, whom in a cavern under ground
With massy fetters our late Patriot bound,
Where her own flesh the furious Hag might tear,
And vent her curses to the vacant air,
Where, that she never might be heard of more,
He planted LOYALTY to guard the door,
For better purpose shall Our Chief release,
Disguise her for a time, and call her PEACE.

It would take up too much time, and in a work of this kind, which exists only by variety, too much room, to expiate on the many beauties, as well as severities contain'd in the satire. In short, whatever may be the political merit of the poem, in its poetical light, it stands unrivall'd. We cannot however help remarking, that our author seems to know how to employ half a line, as well as any of his predecessors, and has placed his Bavius in as lasting a nook as the satyrical VIRGIL, where speaking of HOME, he says he was

Disbanded from the house of pray'r
For loving plays, tho' no dull DEAN was there.

Who this Gentleman is, far be it from us to surmise, and for his sake, may posterity never take the pains to enquire.


[pp. 345-52]