Home  »  Volume VIII: English THE AGE OF DRYDEN  »  § 3. The Pranks of the Wits

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

VIII. The Court Poets

§ 3. The Pranks of the Wits

At times, the courtiers broke through all the bonds of restraint. They thought it no shame to commit acts of violence in the streets. Once upon a time, Buckhurst and his friends killed a tanner at Stoke Newington whom they suspected of theft, and whose pockets they empited, as of stolen goods. A far worse scandal was caused by Sir Charles Sedley’s amazing apparition at Oxford Kate’s in Bow street. He came in open day, as Pepys tells us,

  • into the Balconie and showed his nakedness … and abusing of scripture and as it were from thence preaching a mountebank sermon from the pulpit, saying that there he had to sell such a powder as should make all the women run after him, 1,000 people standing underneath to see and hear him, and that being done he took a glass of wine, and drank it off, and then took another and drank the King’s health.
  • It is not surprising that the unbridled conduct of Sir Charles Sedley and of Buckhurst, who also was of the company, came near to causing a riot, brought the offenders before the court, and received from the lord chief justice “a most high reproof.” The news of these pranks, moreover, went abroad, and lost nothing, we may be sure, in the telling. The voice of scandal was noisy and unscrupulous, then as now; and, though it is evident that the “wits” were not innocent of brutality, it is unfair to judge all their lives by one or two episodes. Hasty generalisation is ever the foe of truth, and charges are more lightly made than refuted. No man, for instance, was ever so careless of his reputation as Rochester, and even he protests in a letter addressed to Savile against an unfounded indictment. Accused of the same folly as that of which Sedley and Buckhurst were guilty, he was eager in excuse.
  • “For the hideous deportment,” he writes, “which you have heard of, concerning running naked, so much is true, that we went into the river somewhat late in the year, and had a frisk for forty yards in a meadow, to dry ourselves.”
  • The trival adventure was instantly turned to his disgrace, and so deeply sensible was he of the public contempt that he confessed himself “extremely revived at the receipt of a kind letter from an old friend.” “I ever thought you an extraordinary man,” says he, “and must now think you such a friend, who, being a courtier, as you are, can love a man, whom it is the great mode to hate.”

    Nor was exaggeration the only foe of the wits. Many there were, without a spark of talent, who imitated the vices of Rochester and Sedley, and who, by their senseless extravagance, brought their betters into contempt. When wit became a fashion, the fools could ape it, and the poets have been compelled ever since to bear a weight of unmerited odium. Pepys once strayed into the society of these pretenders, and their talk made even his hard heart ache. “But, Lord! what cursed loose company was this,” says he, “that I was in to-night, though full of wit; and worth a man’s being in once to know the nature of it, and their manner of talk, and lives.” Pepys’s curiosity no doubt got the better of his judgment, and the wit of these men, who called themselves the “Ballers,” was probably as false as their pretence. They are memorable only because they did the poets an injustice—an injustice which no less a man than Dryden has removed. None knew better than he their talents and their lives, and he treated them as true Augustans, praising their eruditam voluptatem.

  • “We have,” said he, like the poets of the Horatian age, “our genial nights, when our discourse is neither too serious nor too light, but always pleasant, and for the most part instructive; the raillery neither too sharp upon the present, nor too censorious on the absent, and the cups only such as will raise the conversation of the night, without disturbing the business of the morrow.”
  • As in duty bound, he who had been admitted to these banquets of wit and sense defended them against the detraction of pedants. The wits, said he, were insulted by those who knew them not.
  • “As we draw giants and anthropophagi,” to cite his words, “in those vacancies of our maps, where we have not travelled to discover better, so those wretches paint lewdness, atheism, folly, ill-reasoning, and all manner of extravagances amongst us, for want of knowing what we are.”
  • It was not difficult to rebut precise charges. The wits, described by the ignorant, were the fops whom Dryden and his friends banished. As for blasphemy and atheism, even if they were not ill manners, they were worn threadbare. In other words, the true wits are blamed for the excesses of those who had never tasted the waters of Helicon.

    If the court poets needed a defence, they could not have found a wiser, juster defence than Dryden’s. But even when they have been relieved of the crimes of which others were guilty, there is another misunderstanding which should be dispelled. The brutalities of Rochester, Buckhurst and Sedley were the brutalities of a fierce, unscrupulous youth, and mere incidents in long and honourable careers. To pretend that these courtiers carried their pranks into a ripe old age is to endow them with perpetual strength and high spirits. Rochester, it is true, died on the very threshold of middle life. The rest grew sober with the years. Buckhurst was presently transformed into a grave and taciturn man, well versed in affairs, and entrusted, in William III’s absence, with the regency of the kingdom. Sedley, too, turned politician, was guilty of “reflections on our late proceedings” and delivered speeches upon ways and means. In brief, the court poets were like those who, in other times, shared their talent and temperament. They seized life with both hands, and wrung from it at each stage whatever of varying ease and pleasure it held.