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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

§ 8. His Quarrel with Mulgrave and Dryden

Two episodes in Rochester’s career have involved him in charges of dishonour, from one of which he cannot emerge with credit. In both, Mulgrave was engaged, and it is easy to believe that the antipathy which separated the two men was innate and profound. When neither of them was of age, Mulgrave, being informed that Rochester had said something malicious of him, sent colonel Aston to call him to account. Rochester proved, even to Mulgrave’s satisfaction, that he had not used the words, but Mulgrave thought himself compelled by the mere rumour to prosecute the quarrel. He owned his persistence foolish, and Rochester, as it was his part to choose, elected to fight on horseback. They met at Knightsbridge, and Rochester brought with him not his expected second, but “an errant life-guards-man, whom nobody knew.” Aston objected to the second as an unsuitable adversary, “especially considering how well he was mounted.” And, in the end, they agreed to fight on foot. Whereon, Rochester declared that “he had at first chosen to fight on horseback, because he was so weak with a certain distemper, that he found himself unfit to fight at all any way, much less on foot.” Accordingly, no fight took place, and Mulgrave’s second lost no time in spreading a report injurious to Rochester, upon whom henceforth was fostered a reputation for cowardice. The charge is not fully sustained. Rochester, it seems, was too weak to fight a-foot, Mulgrave objected to fight on horseback, being worse mounted. A little ingenuity might have turned the blame on either side, and Mulgrave, by his own confession, was persisting in a quarrel which had no justification. But Rochester, with his customary cynicism, shrugged his shoulders, and replied to the charge of cowardice with a famous couplet:

  • Merely for safety, after Fame they thirst,
  • For all men would be Cowards if they durst.
  • The origin of his quarrel with Dryden is by no means creditable to his honour or his generosity.

  • “He had a particular pique to him,” says St. Évremond, “after his mighty success in the Town, either because he was sensible, that he deserved not that applause for his Tragedies, which the mad, unthinking audience gave him, … or out of indignation of having any rival in reputation.”
  • Whatever might be the cause of Rochester’s malice, its effect was to set up Crowne in opposition to Dryden, a piece of impudence which nothing but Rochester’s influence at court could have carried off. And no sooner had Crowne enjoyed his unwarranted success than Rochester withdrew his favour, “as if he would still be in contradiction with the Town, and in that,” says St. Évremond with uncontested truth, “he was generally in the right, for of all Audiences in polite Nations, perhaps there is not one which judges so very falsely of the drama.” With this piece of injustice Rochester was not content. If he had been, An Essay on Satire soon gave him, as he thought, another ground of anger. That he should have attributed this piece of weak and violent spite to Dryden speaks ill of his criticism. He might have discerned the hand of Mulgrave in every line. Perhaps he believed them accomplices. At any rate, as Dryden was going home one night from Will’s to his lodging, he was waylaid by a pack of ruffians and soundly beaten. There is no doubt that Rochester was guilty of the outrage. His guilt stands confessed in a letter to Savile. “You write me word,” says he, “that I am out of favour with a certain poet.… If he fall on me at the Blunt, which is his very good Weapon in Wit, I will forgive if you please, and leave the Repartee to Black Will, with a Cudgel.” The punishment he meted out to Mulgrave was better deserved, and delivered in verse. As for Dryden, whose genius, as whose age, should have protected him, he passed by Rochester with a single reference. “An author of your own quality, whose ashes I will not disturb,” he wrote to Buckhurst, with a magnanimity which, even at this distance of time, it is hard to condone.

    At the age of thirty-one, Rochester died, his wild oats sown, and his mind turned to ampler purposes. Though his cynical temper was still unconquered, his wit began “to frame and fashion itself to public business.” As one of his friends tells us, he was “informing himself of the Wisdom of our Laws and the excellent Constitution of the English Government, and spoke in the House of Peers with general Approbation.” That he would ever have grown into a statesman is unlikely. The scandal of his life had destroyed his authority. Besides, he was a poet, to whom politics would ever have seemed a base trade. What he did for the solace of his reputation was to make an edifying end, and to prove a chance of exhortation to two divines. That these worthy men made him out rather worse than he was is probable. Burnet, at any rate, told us something of him by the way and set forth his views with impartiality. So much may not be said of the Rev. Robert Parsons, who merely handed him over, as an inverted hero, to the authors of the chapbooks.

    Such was the life and death of one who set forth his character in his writings with the utmost candour. Though he was never at the pains to gather together his flying sheets, though he is said on his deathbed, one hopes falsely, to have desired the destruction of his poems, it is his poems which still give us the true measure of his genius. Yet, even here, misunderstanding has pursued him. The worst that he wrote has been acclaimed to be the best. Johnson declares that the strongest effort of his muse is his poem entitled Nothing, a piece of ingenuity, unworthy his talent. Still more foolish has been the common assumption that Rochester’s poems are unfit to be read. In some few, he reached a height of outspoken cynicism rarely scaled by an English poet. But the most of his works may be studied without fear, and judged upon their very high merits. Tonson’s collection contains more than 200 pages, and amply justifies the claim, made for it by Rymer, that it consists “of such pieces only as may be received in a virtuous court, and not unbecome the Cabinet of the severest Matron.”

    It was in satire above all that Rochester excelled. For this kind, he was richly endowed by nature and art. He had studied the ancient models with constancy and understanding. The quenchless vigour of his mind found its best expression in castigating the vices and foibles of humankind, which he knew so well. His daring and malice equalled his vigour, and he attacked Charles II, the Royal Angler, or Nelly, the reigning favourite, with as light a heart as he brought to the demolition of Sir Car Scroop, the purblind knight. He wrote the heroic couplet with a life and freedom that few have excelled, and the most that can be said in his dispraise is that, like the rest of the courtiers, he knew not the use of the file. “Rochester,” said Andrew Marvell, with the voice not of flattery but of criticism, “is the only man in England who has the true vein of Satire,” and Marvell, in speaking of satire, spoke of an art which he himself had practised with success. And that Rochester looked upon satire as an art is evident from the answer, which he gave to Burnet, who objected that revenge and falsehood were its blemishes.

  • “A man,” said he, “could not write with life, unless he were heated with Revenge, for to make a Satire without Resentments, upon the cold Notions of Philosophy, was as if a man would in cold blood cut men’s throats, who had never offended him. And he said, the lyes in these Libels came often in as ornaments that could not be spared without spoiling the beauty of the Poem.”