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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

§ 5. The Mark of the Amateur on their Writings

There is thus a strong uniformity in the lives of the wits; and poetry was even a closer bond between them than the service of their king. They essayed the same tasks, they sang the same tunes, each in accord with his own talent. They composed prologues for their friends; they laid sacrilegious hands upon the works of Shakespeare and Fletcher, which they changed to suit the humour of the “quality.” They wrote songs in honour of Corinna and Phyllis, Chloris and Olinda. They delighted in an insipidity of phrase which kept their passion harnessed to “good sense.” Only in satire did they give a free rein to their eager antipathies and generous impulses. They played with the counters of an outworn classicism, and attempted to pass off “Cupid,” “Bacchus” and the rest as the current coins of poetry. They bowed the knee to the same masters, and believed that originality consisted in the imitation of Horace and Boileau. Yet, for all their study, they were, for the most part, amateurs. “Wit is a good diversion but base trade,” said Sedley, and, with the exception of Rochester, a born man of letters, not one of them had the power of castigating his verses into perfection. It was not for these happy triflers to con their manuscripts by day and night, to guard them for ten years from the eager eye of the public. They threw them off in their hours of ease, and did not make them proof against the attack of time. They were precisians without being precise. They followed those whom they considered the best models. The Stagyrite was ever on their tongues, and if they could they would have obeyed his laws. Their highest ambition was to equal Horace. But they could not be at the pains to use his file. It is the true mark of the amateur to begin a work as a poet and to end it as a versifier. They had happy thoughts these court poets; they hit upon ingenious images; an elegance of phrase was not beyond their reach. What they found almost impossible was to sustain the level of their inspiration. When Sedley begins a song with the lines,

  • Love still has something of the sea,
  • From whence his mother rose,
  • you are reminded of the Greek anthology, and think you are in the presence of a little masterpiece. But the poet soon loses interest in his work, and relies upon the common words and familiar metaphors of his day. Even at the third line, “No time his slaves from doubt can free,” the illusion is dispelled. And it is this carelessness, characteristic of them all, which makes it difficult to distinguish the works of one from another, and explains the many false inscriptions, which perplex the reader. “Lord Dorset and Lord Rochester,” says Pope, “should be considered as holiday-writers, as gentlemen that diverted themselves now and then with poetry, rather than as poets.” From this condemnation, Rochester must be excluded. His energy and concentration entitled him to be judged by the highest standard. The others cannot resent a wise and just sentence.