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

XVII. Political Literature

§ 9. His beginnings as a Satirist; The Rosciad

Such is the outline of Churchill’s earlier life—bald enough, if stripped of the malicious inventions which gathered round it. His later career is full of evidence both of his good and of his bad qualities. Burdened with two children and an extravagant wife, himself completely unsuited for his clerical profession and inclined to the pleasures of the town, in two years he became bankrupt, and owed the acceptance by his creditors of a composition to the generosity of his old schoolmaster, Pierson Lloyd. Afterwards, Churchill was to show his natural honesty and good feeling, not only by a constant friendship to his benefactor’s son, Robert Lloyd, a poet of secondary rank, but, also, by paying his own debts in full, in disregard of his bankruptcy. That he was able to do this was due to his own new profession of poetry. He began, unluckily, with a Hudibrastic poem, The Bard, in 1760, which could not find a publisher. His second effort, The Conclave, contained matter against the dean and chapter of Westminster so libellous that the intending publisher dared not bring it out. A more interesting subject of satire presented itself in the contemporary stage, and, in March, 1761, there appeared, at the author’s own risk, The Rosciad. Its success was immediate and extraordinary, Churchill was enabled to pay his debts, to make an allowance to his wife, from whom he had now been for some time estranged, and to set up in glaringly unclerical attire as a man about town. But the penalty, too, for indulging in bitter criticism—a penalty, perhaps, welcome to the combative poet—was not long in coming; and, for the rest of his life, he was involved in an acrid literary warfare. Yet, in these tedious campaigns he was a constant victor. Few escaped unbruised from the cudgel of his verse, and, vulnerable though his private life made him to attack, the toughness of his fibre enabled him to endure.

In consequence of this literary celebrity, Churchill made the acquaintance of Wilkes, whose friendship was responsible for the turn his life took in his few remaining years. The last shred of the poet’s respectability was soon lost in the Medmenham orgies; yet, his political satires, which, unlike those of his friend Wilkes, do not admit doubt of their sincerity, gave him a permanent place in English literature. Quite half of The North Briton was written by him; his keenest satiric poem was The Prophecy of Famine, which, in January, 1763, raised the ridicule of Bute and his countrymen to its greatest height. Thanks to Wilkes’s adroitness, Churchill escaped the meshes of the general warrant, and was afterwards let alone by government: he had not written No. 45. But he ceased to reside permanently in London. We hear of him in Wales in 1763, and, later, he lived at Richmond and on Acton common. The stream of his satires, political and social, continued unabated throughout. His days, however, were numbered. He died at Boulogne, on 4 November, 1764, while on his way to visit Wilkes at Paris, and was buried at Dover.

“Life to the last enjoyed, here Churchill lies.” This line of his own was placed on his gravestone, and not inaccurately sums up the man. The burly poet’s faults are too manifest to need insisting upon. It is pleasanter to remember that, as already stated, he supported his brother rake, Robert Lloyd, when the unlucky man was dying beggared in the Fleet. His devotion to Wilkes, like the rest of him, was unbounded and whole-hearted. Nor is any mean action recorded of him.

There is no denying that his verse is truculent and loud. What most distinguishes it from contemporary couplets is its spirit and strength. He may ramble, he may prose; but he never exhibits the neat, solemn tripping which tires us in his contemporaries. The Rosciad, with which he first won reputation, consists chiefly of a series of severe sketches of the leading actors in 1761. Few, save Garrick, escape unblamed; but the poet, although censorious, can hardly be called unfair. His verse maintains a steady level of force and skill, just within the bounds of poetry, lighted up, now and then, by such shrewd couplets as:

  • Appearances to save his only care;
  • So things seem right, no matter what they are;
  • and, occasionally, phrases of stinging wit intensify the ridicule.