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LIFE OF ROSCOMMON,
BY DR. JOHNSON
Wentworth Dillon, earl of Rosconmon, was the son of James Dillon and Elizabeth Wentworth, sister to the earl of Strafford. He was born in Ireland during the lieutenancy of Strafford, who, being both his uncle and his godfather, gave him his own surname. His father, the third earl of Roscommon, had been converted by Usher to the protestant religion; and when the popish rebellion broke out, Strafford, thinking the family in great danger from the fury of the Irish, sent for his godson, and placed him at his own seat in Yorkshire, where he was instructed in Latin : which he learned so as to write it with purity and elegance, though he was never able to retain the rules of grammar.
Such is the account given by Mr. Fenton, from whose notes on Waller most of this account must be borrowed, though I know not whether all that he relates is certain. The instructor whom he assigns to Roscommon is one Dr. Hall, by whom he cannot mean the famous Hall, then an old man and a bishop.
When the storm broke out upon Strafford, his house was a shelter no longer; and Dillon, by the advice of Usher, was sent to Caen, where the protestants had then an university, and continued his studies under Bochart.
Young Dillon, who was sent to study under Bochart, and who is represented as having already made great proficiency in literature, could not be more than nine years old. Strafford went to govern Ireland in 1633, and was put to death eight years afterward. That he was sent to Caen is certain: that he was a great scholar may be doubted.
At Caen he is said to have had some preternatural intelligence of his father's death.
"The lord Roscommon, being a boy of ten years of age, at Caen in Normandy, one day was, as it were, madly extravagant in playing, leaping, getting over the tables, boards, &c. He was wont to be sober enough; they said, .God grant this bodes no
"The Biog. Britan. says, probably about the year 1632; but this is inconsistent with the date of Strafford's viceroyalty in the following page, C.
ill luck to him ! In the heat of this extravagant fit he cries out, “My father is dead!' A fortnight after, news came from Ireland that his father was dead. This account I had from Mr. Knolles, who was his governor, and then with him,-since secretary to the earl of Strafford; and I have heard his lordship's relations confirm the same." Aubrey's Miscellany.
The present age is very little inclined to favour any accounts of this kind, nor will the name of Aubrey much recommend it to credit; it ought not, however, to be omitted, because better evidence of a fact cannot easily be found than is here offered; and it must be by preserving such relations, that we may at last judge how much they are to be regarded. If we stay to examine this account, we shall see difficulties on both sides : here is the relation of a fact given by a man who had no interest to deceive, and who could not be deceived himself; and here is, on the other hand, a miracle which produces no effect; the order of nature is interrupted, to discover not a future but only a distant event, the knowledge of which is of no use to him to whom it is revealed. Between these difficulties, what way shall be found? Is reason or testimony to be rejected ? I believe what Osborne says of an appearance of sanctity may be applied to such impulses or anticipations as this: “ Do not wholly slight them, because they may be true; but do not wholly trust them, because they may be false.”
The state both of England and Ireland was at this time such, that he who was absent from either country had very little temptation to return; and therefore Roscommon, when he left Caen, travelled into Italy, and amused himself with its antiquities, and particularly with medals, in which he acquired uncommon skill.
At the Restoration, with the other friends of monarchy, he came to England, was made captain of the band of pensioners, and learned so much of the dissoluteness of the court, that he addicted himself immoderately to gaming, by which he was engaged in frequent quarrels, and which undoubtedly brought upon him its usual concomitants, extravagance and distress.
After some time, a dispute about part of his estate forced him into Ireland, where he was made by the duke of Ormond captain of the guards, and met with an adventure thus related by Fenton :
“ He was at Dublin as much as ever distempered with the same fatal affection for play, which engaged him in one adventure, that well deserves to be related. As he returned to his lodgings from a gaming-table, he was attacked in the dark by three ruffians, who were employed to assassinate him. The earl defended himself with so much resolution, that he dispatched one of the aggressors; whilst a gentleman, accidentally passing that way, interposed, and disarned another : the third secured himself by flight. This generous assistant was a disbanded officer, of a good family and fair reputation ; who, by what we call the partiality of Fortune, to avoid censuring the iniquities of the times, wanted even a plain suit of clothes to make a decent appearance at the castle. But his lordship, on this occasion, presenting him to the duke of Ormond, with great importunity prevailed with his grace, that he might resign his post of captain of the guards to his friend; which for about three years the gentleman enjoyed, and, upon his death, the duke returned the commission to his generous benefactor.”
When he had finished his business, he returned to London; was made master of the horse to the dutchess of York, and married the lady Frances, daughter of the earl of Burlington, and widow of colonel Courteney.
He now busied his mind with literary projects, and formed the plan of a society for refining our language and fixing its standard; “ In imitation,” says Fenton, “ of those learned and polite societies with which he had been acquainted abroad." In this design his friend Dryden is said to have assisted him.
The same design, it is well known, was revived by Dr. Swift in the ministry of Oxford; but it has never since been publicly mentioned, though at that time great expectations were formed by some of its establishment and its effects. Such a society might, perhaps, without much difficulty, be collected ; but that it would produce what is expected from it may be doubted.
The Italian academy seems to have obtained its end. The language was refined, and so fixed, that it has changed but little. The French academy thought that they refined their language, and doubtless thought rightly; but the event has not shown that they fixed it; for the French of the present time is very different from that of the last century.
In this country an academy could be expected to do but little. If an academician's place were profitable, it would be given by interest; if attendance were gratuitous, it would be rarely paid, and no man would endure the least disgust. Unanimity is impossible, and debate would separate the assembly.
But suppose the philological decree made and promulgated, what would be its authority ? In absolute governments, there is sometimes a general reverence paid to all that has the sanction of power, and the countenance of greatness. How little this is the state of our country needs not be told. We live in an age in which it is a kind of public sport to refuse all respect that cannot be enforced. The edicts of an English academy would probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them.
That our language is in perpetual danger of corruption cannot be denied; but what prevention can be found? The present manners of the nation would deride authority; and therefore nothing is left but that every writer should criticise himself.
All hopes of new literary institutions were quickly suppressed by the contentious turbulence of king James's reign; and Roscommon, foreseeing that some violent concussion of the state was at hand, purposed to retire to Rome, alleging, that “ it was best to sit near the chimney when the chamber smoked ;” a sentence, of wbich the application seems not very clear.
His departure was delayed by the gout; and he was so impatient either of hinderance or of pain, that he submitted himself to a French empiric, who is said to have repelled the disease into his bowels.
At the moment in which he expired, he uttered, with an energy of voice that expressed the most fervent devotion, two lines of his own version of Dies Iræ:
My God, my Father, and my friend,
He died in 1684 ; and was buried with great pomp in Westminster Abbey.
“ In his writings," says Fenton, " we view the image of a mind which was naturally serious and solid; richly furnished and adorned with all the ornaments of learning, un
affectedly disposed in the most regular and elegant order. His imagination might have probably been more fruitful and sprightly, if his judgment had been less severe. But that severity (delivered in a masculine, clear, succinct style) contributed to make bim so eminent in the didactical manner, that no man, with justice, can affirm he was ever equalled by any of our nation, without confessing, at the same time, that he is inferior to none. In some other kinds of writing his genius seems to have wanted fire to attain the point of perfection; but who can attain it?"
From this account of the riches of his mind, who would not imagine that they had been displayed in large volumes and numerous performances ? Who would not, after the perusal of this character, be surprised to find, that all the proofs of this genius, and knowledge, and judgment, are not sufficient to form a single book, or to appear otherwise than in conjunction with the works of some other writer of the same petty size?? But thus it is that characters are written : we know somewhat, and we imagine the rest. The observation, that his imagination would probably have been more fruitful and sprightly, if his judgment had been less severe, may be answered, by a remarker somewhat inclined to cavil, by a contrary supposition, that his judgment would probably have been less severe, if his imagination had been more fruitful. It is ridiculous to oppose judgment to imagination ; for it does not appear that men have necessarily less of one as they have more of the other.
We must allow of Roscommon, what Fenton has not mentioned so distinctly as he ought, and what is yet very much to his honour, that he is perhaps the only correct writer in verse before Addison ; and that, if there are not so many or so great beauties in his compositions as in those of some contemporaries, there are at least fewer faults. Nor is this his highest praise : for Mr. Pope has celebrated him as the only moral writer of king Charles's reign :
Unhappy Dryden! in all Charles's days,
Roscommon only boasts unspotted lays. His great work is his Essay on Translated Verse; of which Dryden writes thus in his preface to his Miscellanies :
“ It was my lord Roscommon's Essay on Translated Verse,” says Dryden, " which made me uneasy, till I tried whether or no I was capable of following his rules, and of reducing the speculation into practice. For many a fair precept in poetry is like a seeming demonstration in mathematics, very specious in the diagram, but failing in the mechanic operation. I think I have generally observed his instructions: I am sure my reason is sufficiently convinced both of their truth and usefulness; which, in other words, is to confess no less a vanity than to pretend that I have, at least in some places, made examples to his rules."
This declaration of Dryden will, I am afraid, be found little more than one of those cursory civilities which one author pays to another; for when the sum of lord Roscommon's precepts is collected, it will not be casy to discover how they can qualify their
2 They were published, together with those of Duke, in an octavo volume, in 1717. The editor, whoever he was, professes to have taken great care to procure and insert all of his lordship's poems that are truly genuine. The truth of this assertion is flatly denied by the author of an account of Mr. John Pomfret, prefixed to his Remains; who asserts, that the Prospect of Death was written by that person many years after lord Roscommon's decease; as also, that the paraphrase of the Prayer of Jeremy was written by a gentleman of the name of Southcourt, living in the year 1724. H.