Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by E. J. Payne
Charles Churchill (17311764)
[Charles Churchill was born in Westminster in 1731, and died at Boulogne in 1764. A poor London curate, who eked out his salary by teaching, he made a hit by his Rosciad, a satire on contemporary actors, in 1761, and during the brief residue of his life abandoned himself to literature and dissipation.]
THE CELEBRITY of the smart versemaking of Churchill marks a low point in English taste. It nearly secured him a poets monument in Westminster Abbey; and it actually secured a poets rank for a petulant rhymer without a spark of the poets imagination, of cold heart, natural bad taste, and very little knowledge of that narrow world which he so impudently lampooned. Nothing in Churchill reveals a gleam of genial feeling, or justifies the suspicion that he could take any pleasure in what refines or elevates. If we may believe his own account of himself, nature had given him little enough, beyond an ugly face, a sour temperament, and a bitter tongue. Yet he was not dissatisfied. He was very willing to be taken for what he was: and if he could not win liking and respect, he was content to be feared. In all this there must have been something of affectation. Yet it is only too clear that the coarse texture of his mind was impermeable to the kindlier and worthier influences of his time. What it most readily absorbed was that hatred of authority in general which keen observers saw widely spread in England long before it convulsed society in France: and poverty, obscurity, and habits of monotonous toil, sadly evinced by the industry with which he practised his new-found trade, had even in youth embittered a sour nature, and made him a Jacobin at heart. At all aristocracy, social, political, and intellectual, Churchill railed with vicious delight. The artificiality of his times revolted him with better reason. But with all his boasting of nature and originality, few writers have less of the true spirit of either. The nature which he really followed was the coarse and narrow nature within him; and his originality consisted mainly in ostentatiously abandoning proportion and propriety. His success was due to his capacity of absorption and imitation. He had studied Dryden and Pope minutely, and learnt the trick of octosyllabic singsong from Butler and Swift. But the knowledge of man, the power of burlesque, the skilful play of jest and earnest, which are the essentials of true satire, were denied to Churchill. His whole stock in trade was his volubility, his bitterness of soul, and his knack of rhyme: and he cast over what he wrote something of the ungenial seriousness of his clerical calling. His address to Truth suggests that he knew where his strength and his weakness lay.
The description of his muse, with which the following selection commences, is truthful enough. The neglect of his style was no studied air, but arose from natural slovenliness, from imperfect command over brain and pen, and no doubt from unwillingness to strike out lines which produced him half-a-crown a copy when the total of a sheet was made up. The poverty of Churchills mind is curiously illustrated by the poem on the Cock Lane Ghost, a subject which might perhaps have supplied Dryden with materials for a hundred lines. Churchill spins it out to over four thousand. His field was limited to the narrow topics of the town: and his ambition was to be the censor of its manners and the scourge of its vices. But he failed to become the Dryden or the Juvenal of his age. All interest in his writings has disappeared with their ephemeral incidents and conditions: and that which has redeemed him from oblivion is his boisterous energy, his brazen effrontery, his extraordinary command of common pedestrian English, and the sharp relief in which he stands out among the formal poetasters of his day, and which perhaps entitles him to be regarded as a precursor of the better school of poetry which arose with Burns, Cowper, and Wordsworth. Cowper, we know, had a real admiration for him. His earliest work, the Rosciad, is his best, because in it he most adhered to good models. His later works will serve the student as a rich mine of all sorts of errors in taste and judgment. In proportion as he abandoned himself to his own guidance, his work degenerated, and the poverty of his thought appeared; and in three years he had literally written himself out. But in all that he wrote there is a certain fierce manliness which wins attention, and even sympathy for his untutored brain and unsoftened heart, and this effect is heightened by the story of his life and death. No writer requires to be read with more caution by those who seek in literature a reflection of history and politics. The exaggerated Whiggism of Churchill betrays a want of political knowledge and judgment, and it did not save him from being deceived by the gross imposture of The Patriot King. His adulation of Pitt was part of the cant of the day: but Wilkes, the idol of the mob, was the object of his real sympathies, and Wilkes repaid him with patronage. The pair were well matched, and Churchill might be described as the Wilkes of poetry.