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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

§ 12. Buckhurst: To all you Ladies now at Land

The reputation of Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst and then earl of Dorset, is a puzzle of literary history. An age lavish of panegyric exhausted in his praise all its powers of flattery. In no other poet will you find so vast a disproportion between his works and the eulogies they evoked. Some specimens of Dryden’s adulation have already been quoted. And Dryden did not stand alone. Prior was his friendly rival in exaggeration.

  • “The manner in which he wrote,” said he of Buckhurst, “will hardly ever be equalled.… Every one of his pieces is an ingot of gold, intrinsically and solidly valuable; such as wrought or beaten thinner, would shine thro’ a whole book of any author.”
  • For every virtue of his friend’s writings Prior found a happy image. “There is a lustre in his verses,” he wrote, “like that of the sun in Claude Lorraine’s landskips; it looks natural, and is inimitable.” And when we turn from the encomiasts to the poet’s own works, we find them to be no more than what Johnson called them, “the effusions of a man of wit, gay, vigorous, and airy.”

    Buckhurst was, above all, a satirist. He had the mordant humour, the keen eye, the perfect concision of phrase, essential to one who lashes the follies of his age. He knew not how to spare the objects of his contempt. He left upon his enemies not the flicker of irony, but the indelible mark of his scorn. Rochester, in a line of praise, not of ill-nature, as Dryden took it, called him “the best good man with the worst natur’d Muse,” a line which Buckhurst’s addresses To Mr. Edward Howard seem to justify. Of their skill and energy, there can be no doubt. Their victim, assuredly, found them deficient in good taste. “The gentleman,” says Prior, “had always so much the better of the satirist, that the persons touched did not know where to fix their resentments, and were forced to appear rather ashamed than angry.” It was more anger than shame, I imagine, that attacked Edward Howard, when he read Buckhurst’s ferocious lines upon his plays.

    The best known of all his works is the celebrated song, To all you Ladies now at Land, a true ballad in form and rhythm, touched in every line with the inborn wit and sentiment of its author, who sees the sea with the eye of a landsman and courtier, and who sends his tears a speedier way than the post: “The tide shall bring them twice a day.” Tradition has persuaded the world to believe that they were “written at sea, in the first Dutch war, 1665, the night before an engagement.” As Johnson says, “seldom any splendid story is wholly true,” and this splendid story must be abandoned. The hereditary intelligence of the earl of Orrery made Johnson suspicious, and to-day we have surer intelligence even than lord Orrery.

  • “By coach to my Lord Brunker’s,” wrote Pepys on 2 January, 1665, “by appointment, in the Piazza in Covent-Guarding; where I occasioned much mirth with a ballet I brought with me, made from the seamen at sea to their ladies in town.”
  • Though Pepys says that Sir W. Pen, Sir G. Ascue and Sir J. Lawson “made them,” it is evident that it is Buckhurst’s “ballet” that is in his mind, and as Pepys knew it six months before the battle, clearly Buckhurst did not write it at sea, with the expectation of an engagement upon him. The time and place of its writing, however, do not lessen the admirable quality of the ballad, which keeps its place in our anthologies by its own shining merits.

    Nevertheless, not his ballad, not his satires, not his songs, quick as they are with epigram and wit, justify the praises which have been generously bestowed upon their author. It may be that we have but a fragment of his work; that, as Prior suggests, he cared not what became of his verses when the writing of them had amused his leisure. Many of his happiest efforts may have been preserved only by memory, like the sayings of the ancient Druids. If that be so, they have perished as utterly as the Druids and their wisdom. The mere rumour of them cannot affect our judgment, and we are driven to conclude that it was Buckhurst the man, not Buckhurst the poet, who won the universal esteem. The follies of his youth were easily forgiven, or, rather, the excellences of his maturer years showed the brighter with his follies for a background. His character was as amiable as his pen was acrid. Rochester, never lavish of compliments, paid him the highest, that ingenuity could devise. “He did not know how it was,” said he, “but my Lord Dorset might do anything, yet was never to blame.” His skill in diplomacy, his tact in affairs, are acknowledged by all, and he was evidently one of those who, without effort, claim and keep the respect and affection of their fellows. Prior’s eulogy of his virtues is as sincere as it is eloquent, and if we estimate his poetry more modestly than his contemporaries, we may still echo their praises of his character and person.

    It would be difficult to find a greater contrast to Buckhurst than John Sheffield, earl of Mulgrave, and duke of Buckinghamshire, who was as little able to hold the sympathy of his age as to preserve the reputation of poet which once was his. Not even the tongues of flatterers can defend him successfully against the assault of truth.

  • “He is a nobleman of learning,” wrote Macky, “and good natural parts, but of no principles. Violent for the High Church, yet seldom goes to it. Very proud, insolent, and covetous, and takes all advantages. In paying his debts unwilling; and is neither esteemed, nor beloved: for notwithstanding his great interest at court, it is certain he has none in either House of Parliament, or in the country.”