The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 15. Force of his invective
We find, in fact, that Churchill’s talent remained almost stationary during the four years of his poetic industry. Crab-apples, according to Johnson, he produced from the first; and such his fruits remained to the end. He never shows the greater qualities of either of his two chief English predecessors in satire—either those of Pope whom he underrated, or those of Dryden whom he admired. His wit, though strong, is never exquisite. His characters are vividly and trenchantly described; but they do not live to our imagination. His good sense cannot be said to rise to wisdom; and he is deficient in constructive skill. The Prophecy of Famine is, after all, an ill-proportioned mixture of satiric epistle and satiric eclogue; while his other satires have little unity except what is provided by the main object of their attack. Although he justly ridicules some of the current phrases of contemporary lesser poetry, he cannot be said himself to rise superior to eighteenth-century conventions. His incessant personifications, “Gay Description,” “Dull Propriety,” are, in the end, wearisome; and many of his humorous couplets, constructed after the fashion of the time, rather seem like epigrams than are such. His real forte consisted in a steady pommelling of his adversary; with all his fierceness and prejudice, acidity and spite were foreign to his nature.
As a metrist, Churchill can claim some originality. He uses the heroic couplet of the day with fresh freedom and effectivity. At first, in The Rosciad, he can hardly be said to form his paired lines into periods. Then, in The Epistle to William Hogarth, the last line of his paragraph has a closing sound and really ends a period. Perhaps, it was his long involved sentences, compiled of many clauses, which led him, in later pieces, to a further change. From time to time, he uses enjambement, and even, by means of it, breaks up his couplets.
Churchill so overtops his rivals in political verse that they scarcely seem worth mentioning. Mason, his frequent butt as a writer of pastorals—“Let them with Mason bleat and bray and coo”—shrouded himself in political satire under the name Malcolm Macgregor. Falconer, a naval officer, attacked Pitt from the court point of view. But both of these, and even Chatterton in his Consuliad, merely illustrate their inferiority to Churchill.