The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VI. Lesser Verse Writers

§ 18. John Pomfret

A writer similar in calibre to Lady Winchilsea and, like her, destined to be raised too high by disproportioned praise, is John Pomfret, son of a vicar of Luton, whose studies were carried on at Bedford and at Queens’ college, Cambridge (where he graduated M.A. in 1688). His elegy upon the death of queen Mary was the prelude to his taking orders and was soon rewarded by two considerable Bedfordshire rectories. He was a good early example of the cultivated, poetising, archaeologising, chess-playing divines of the eighteenth century. In 1699, he gave to the world his Poems on Several Occasions, the sale of which was stimulated next year when he issued anonymously The Choice: A Poem written by a Person of Quality. The poem obtained adventitious fame. At first, it was held to have been composed by a personage of distinction. Then, it was said to have been modelled upon a study of Sir William Temple’s philosophic retirement among his peaches at Sheen. And the public was still more interested when it learned that the poet’s frankly expressed aspiration to “have no wife” had displeased the bishop of London (Compton), to whom he had been recommended for preferment. As a matter of fact, he married and had a son, shortly before his death, at thirty-five, in 1702. The Choice was no more and no less than a familiar exercise, adapted to the taste of the time, of the old Bonheur de ce Monde theme, sung to death by the French poets, and best known to us in the poems of Wotton and Samuel Rogers (“Mine be a cot”). The versification will strike no one to-day as being (that which the theme demands) exceptionally neat; and the best modern anthologists ignore the poem. But, when the scheme for the Lives of the Poets was submitted by the booksellers to Johnson, the name of Pomfret (together with three others) was added by his advice, chiefly, it seems, on the ground of Pomfret’s ineradicable popularity (half a century later, Robert Southey is found solemnly asking “Why is Pomfret’s ‘Choice’ the most popular poem in the language?”). Johnson said that probably no composition in our language had been so often perused and that it was the favourite of readers who, without vanity or criticism, seek only their own amusement. That Pomfret pleased many, surely argued some merit. Now, however, he pleases few, or is quite forgotten.