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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume VIII. The Age of Dryden.

VIII. The Court Poets

§ 10. Sir Charles Sedley

Sir Charles Sedley, if he lacked Rochester’s genius, was more prosperously endowed. He was rich as well as accomplished, and outlived his outrageous youth, to become the friend and champion of William III. Born in 1639, he preceded Rochester at Wadham college, and came upon the town as poet and profligate at the restoration. Concerning his wit, there is no doubt. Pepys pays it a compliment, which cannot be gainsaid. He went to the theatre to hear The Maides Tragedy, and lost it all, listening to Sedley’s discourse with a masked lady “and a more pleasant rencontre I never heard,” and his exceptions “against both words and pronouncing very pretty.” Dryden describes Sedley as “a more elegant Tibullus,” whose eulogy by Horace he applies to him:

  • Non tu corpus eras sine pectore: Dii tibi formam,
  • Dii tibi divitias dederant, artemque fruendi.
  • He applauds above all the candour of his opinions, his dislike of censoriousness, his good sense and good nature, and proclaims the accusations brought against him as “a fine which fortune sets upon all extraordinary persons.” It is certain that, with the years, his gravity increased, and the quip which he made to explain his hostility to James II, who had taken his daughter for his mistress, and made her countess of Dorchester, was but an echo of his lost youth. “I hate ingratitude,” said he, “the King has made my daughter a countess; I can do no less than try to make his daughter a Queen.”

    As a poet, he followed obediently the fashion of the time. He wrote The Mulberry Garden, which failed to please Pepys or to provoke a smile from the king, and The Tyrant King of Crete. He perverted Antony and Cleopatra into rime, and permits the Egyptian queen to speak these last words:

  • Good asp bite deep and deadly in my breast,
  • And give me sudden and eternal rest.[She dies.
  • He translated Vergil’s Fourth Georgic as well as the Eclogues, and composed a poem on matrimony called The Happy Pair, which was long ago forgotten. Such reputation as he has guarded depends wholly upon his songs. What Burnet said of him might be applied to them with equal truth: “he had a sudden and copious wit, but it was not so correct as lord Dorset’s, nor so sparkling as lord Rochester’s.” He had far less faculty than either Rochester or Dorset of castigating his idly written lines. He was content with the common images of his day, with the fancy of Gradus ad Parnassum. The maids and shepherds of his songs like their “balmy ease” on “flowery carpets” under “the sun’s genial ray.” Their only weapons are “darts and flames.” In the combination of these jejune words there can be no feeling and no surprise.