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An eminent instance of the not uncommon phenomenon in life, and especially in literature, of popularity quickly won, and as quickly lost. The world, from its own point of view, I do not suppose was wrong in either case. Churchill packed into the three years and a half of his poetical career enough to storm the interest of a single generation, and no more. In a play-going age the Rosciad was like a spark in a heap of shavings. His subsequent treatment of social and political scandals kept at fever-heat public curiosity about the self-unfrocked priest, the confidant and mouthpiece of Wilkes. He hated whatever and whoever happened to be the especial bugbear of the hour. Fiery revilings of Bute and Scottish office-mongers, Ministerial and Legislative usurpations, and the shamelessness of vice in high places were sure to be read. The fearlessness of his onslaughts, against a mitred Warburton, or a thinly disguised 'Lothario', the unbridled recklessness always of his rage, worked like a spell. Whether it were generous indignation at the vulgar grossness of eighteenth-century sensuality, spite at fate for having deferred for thirty poverty-stricken years his personal wallowing in its joys, or resentment of the reproaches of his conscience for present indulgence-perhaps exaggerated by scandal—or a medley of all three, mattered nothing. The doubts and the controversies about the private character of the executioner simply added a zest to coffee-house gossip as it diverted itself with the contortions of his victims.
Not that a tempest of vindictiveness against circumstances, despotism, imposture, effrontery, lust, fortune, and self, would have been sufficient to explain the fascination of public opinion, had there been nothing besides. Real greatness there was not. Such could not have sold itself for a mess of pottage, for the coarse tribute of a mob's wonder and applause. But, at the back of all, a particle of genius, not too pure to admit of base companionship, must have been present.
In his earliest publication he manifested, along with not a little brutality, some insight, and much epigrammatic smartness. He sums up admirably the respective merits of the two chief rival actors. There is Quin, too invariably himself for true impersonation ; 'happy in art', and
In all the labour'd artifice of speech ; but apt to
Neglect the heart to compliment the head; forgetful that:
spite of all the criticizing elves,
He was at once the actor, and the man." Between him and one in whom the characters were always united, real competition was impossible. Such was
Garrick; and to him Shakespeare as judge awards, of right, the succession to Roscius :
'If manly sense, if Nature link'd with Art;
Nor quit it—till thou place an equal there.' 2 He was less judicial in his political satires, and far more violent; though occasionally there also he was right in his censures. Imagining himself a Sovereign, the Ruler of Gotham, in a spirit which has a show of nobility, notwithstanding the acrid innuendo at Bute and the Princess his Patroness, he prescribes and accepts the obligations of his Royalty :
I know it duty, and I feel it Fame.3 Much more habitually he was satisfied to dispense with any pretence of argument, to wield no instruments of fancy but the bludgeon and the sledge-hammer. Passionateness is a primary attribute of poetry. A poet ought to have it at command. It was a quality of Churchill's; only it had him at command, not he it. He was perpetually in a passion, boiling over with it. The temper suited his readers who were eager for a summons to boil over in unison. His
verses were battle-songs like Tyrtaeus's. Had they passed away like those with the struggles which gave them birth, the tradition of them might have preserved his memory fresh as Tyrtaeus's has been kept through a legend of fire in his melodies which extant fragments do not justify. It was Churchill's misfortune that productions naturally ephemeral should survive for posterity coldly to scrutinize, and wonder why the writer was extolled for matter stale and dead.
The measurement, indeed, whether of his influence, or of his fame, by a reference to posterity is, I am aware, far too complimentary to either. His writings were never anything but a display of fireworks. Their discharge had in his lifetime scared none from their lusts or knaveries. No Parliament or Prince was cured by his invectives of plotting against the liberty of the subject. His voice was not likely to be more effectively audible posthumously. Wilkes himself, whose name he was so sure that
future ages shall adore, When he can act, and I can write no more, desired to forget the extravagances in which they had been allies. No friends of the Protestant Succession remembered to set in the scales against denunciations of the young king's early advisers the satirist's equally vehement indictment of the exiled Stuarts.5 The curtain fell upon the whole stage of his glory or notoriety before admirers or enemies were really aware that he was dead. It was not necessary for the Muse of a contemporary versifier to goad herself into something a little beyond her customary gentle dullness in protest against the erection of a monument to him in Westminster Abbey. He was all but forgotten before a sculptor could have carved the stone. He had chosen to be the comet of a day';? to hurry
a life into three years; and his reputation was as casual and fleeting.
It surprises, though it should not, that he himself had cherished very different anticipations. Few estimates of posthumous renown read more pathetically than this penned by himself in the year he died :
Let one poor sprig of bay around my head
Reading my Works, he cries—'Here Churchill lives ’: 8
The Poems of Charles Churchill (Johnson's Poets, vols. lxvi and lxvii). London, 1790. 1 The Rosciad.
2 Ibid. 3 Gotham, Book III. 4 The Candidate. 5 Gotham. 6 Beattie's Poems. Report of a monument to be erected. 'Byron : Churchill's Grave (1816). Occasional Pieces. 8 The Candidate.