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LIFE OF CHURCHILL,
BY MR. CHALMERS.
Charles Churchill was born in Vine Street, in the parish of St. John the Evangelist, Westminster, some time in February 1731. His father was for many years curate and lecturer of that parish, and rector of Raiuham, near Grays in Essex1. He placed his son, when about eight years of age, at Westminster school, which was then superintended by Dr. Nichols and Dr. Pierson Lloyd. His proficiency at school, although not inconsiderable, was less remarkable than his irregularities. On entering his nineteenth year, he applied for matriculation at the university of Oxford, where, it is reported by some, he was rejected on account of his deficiency in the learned languages, and by others, that he was hurt at the trifling and childish questions put to him, and answered the examiner with a contempt which was mistaken for ignorance. It is not easy to reconcile these accounts, and perhaps not of great importance. The examinations at that time were not very strict, for Gibbon was admitted of Magdalen College with probably less classical knowledge than Churchill, and would not have thought his examination trifling, if he had been unable to answer it. Churchill, however, was afterwards admitted of Trinity College, Cambridge, but immediately returned to London, and never visited the university any more.
The reason of his abandoning the university, may have been an attachment which he formed while at Westminster school, and which ended in a clandestine marriage at the Fleet. This was a severe disappointment to his father's hopes; but he wisely became reconciled to what was unavoidable, and entertained the young couple in his house about a year, during which his son's conduct was irreproachable. In 1751, he retired to Sunderland in the north of England, where he applied himself to such studies as might qualify him for the church. Why he could not have done this under the eye of his father, we know not; but at the customary age, he received deacon's orders at the hands of Dr. Willes, bishop of Bath and Wells, and in 1756 was ordained priest by Dr. Sherlock, bishop of London.
He exercised his clerical functions at Cadbury in Somersetshire, and at Rainham, his father's living, but in what manner, or with what display of abilities, is not remembered.
1 His mother was a Scotch woman. Cole's MSS. in Brit Mus.
A story was current some time after his death that he received a curacy of 30/. a year in Wales, and kept a public house, to supply his deficiences, but for this there appears to have been no other foundation than what the irregularities of his more advanced life supplied. So regardless was he of character, that his enemies found ready credit for any fiction at his expense.
While at Raiuhain, he endeavoured to provide for his family, by teaching the youth of the neighbourhood, an occupation which necessity rendered eligible, and habit might have made pleasing, but in 1758 his father's death opened a more flattering prospect to him in the metropolis, where he was chosen his successor in the curacy and lectureship of St. John's. For some time he performed the duties of these offices with external decency at least, and employed his leisure hours in the instruction of some pupils in the learned languages, and was also engaged as a teacher at a ladies' boarding school. He was in his twenty-seventh year, when he began to relax from the obligations of virtue, and more openly to enter into those dissipations which, while they ruined his character and impaired his health, were, not indirectly, the precursors to his celebrity in public life. He was immoderately fond of pleasure, a constant attender at the theatres, and the associate of men who united wit and profligacy, and qualified themselves for moral teachers by practising the vices they censured in others. Lloyd, the poet, had been one of his school-fellows at Westminster, and their intimacy, renewed afresh, became now a close partnership in debt and dissipation. In one respect this proved beneficial to Churchill. Dr. Lloyd, his companion's father, persuaded Churchill's creditors to accept of five shillings in the pound, and to grant releases; nor ought it to be concealed, that there is some reason for believing that Churchill, as soon as he had acquired money by his publications, voluntarily paid the full amount of the original debts.
At what period he made the first experiment of his poetical talents is not known. He had, in conjunction with Lloyd, the care of the poetical department in The Library, a kind of magazine of which Dr. Kippis was editor, and he probably wrote, as Lloyd certainly did, some small pieces in that work, but they cannot now be distinguished. About the year 1759 or 1?6'0, he wrote a poem of some length, entitled The Bard, which was rejected by an eminent bookseller, and perhaps justly, as the author did not publish it afterwards, when it might have had the protection of his name. He wrote also The Conclave, a satire levelled at the dean and chapter of Westminster, which his friends prevailed upon him to suppress. Thus disappointed in his first two productions, his constant attendance at the theatres suggested a third, levelled at a class of men who seldom have the means of public resentment. This was his celebrated Rosciad, in which the professional characters of the performers of Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres were examined with a severity, yet with an acuteness of criticism, and easy flow of bin inour and sarcasm, which rendered what he probably considered as a temporary trifle, a publication of uncommon popularity. He had, however, so little encouragement in bringing this poem forward, that five guineas were refused as the price he valued it at; a nd he printed it at his own risk when he had scarcely ready money enough to pay for the necessary advertisements. It was published in March 1701, and its sale exceeded all expectation.
His name did not appear to the first edition, and Lloyd having not long before published The Actor, a poem on the same subject, if not with the same intentions, the Rosciad was generally supposed to be the production of the same writer, while, by others, it was attributed to those confederate wits, Colman and Thornton. Churchill, LIFE OF CHURCHILL. 267
however, soon avowed a poem which promised so much fame and profit, and as it had been not only severely handled in the Critical Review, but positively attributed to another pen, he published The Apology, addressed to the Critical Reviewers, 1761. In this he retaliated with that bitterness of personal satire which he displayed with additional malignity in his subsequent productions.
The success of The Rosciad and of The Apology, opened new prospects to their author. He saw, in his genius, a source of plentiful emolument, but unfortunately also he contemplated it as an object of terrour, which might be employed against the friends of virtue with whom he no longer thought it necessary to keep any terms. While in. wiling public decency by the grossest immorality, he aimed his vengeance on those who censured him, with a sprightliness of malignity and force of ridicule which he deemed irresistible. His conduct, as a clergyman, had long shocked his parishioners, and incurred at length the displeasure of Dr. Pearce, the dean of Westminster, who remonstrated as became his station. Rut Churchill was now too far gone in profligacy, and being, as his friends have been pleased to say, too honest to dissemble, he resigned his curacy and lectureship', and with this acknowledged sacrifice to depravity, threw off all the external restraints which his former character might be thought to impose. That his contempt for the clerical dress might be more notorious, he was seen at all public places, habited in a blue coat with metal buttons, a gold laced waistcoat, a gold laced hat, and ruffles. It is singular that one who knew satire so well, should have thus inconsciously stript himself of a dress he was no longer worthy to wear, and put on one nliich made himself ridiculous.
In February 1761, a separation took place between him and his wife, whose imprudence is said to have kept pace with his own3. Rut from a licentious passage in one of his letters to Wilkes, it appears that he was tired of her person, and probably neglected her in pursuit of vagrant amours. As his conduct in this and other matters was too notorious to pass without animadversion, he endeavoured to vindicate it in a poem, entitled Night, addressed to his wretched partner Lloyd. The poetical beauties of this poem, which are very striking, can never atone for the absurdity as well as immorality of his main argument, that avowed vice is more harmless than concealed, and did not prevent his readers from perceiving, that he who maintains it, must have lost shame as well as virtue.
His next publication was The Ghost, 1762, extended, at irregular intervals, to four books. This was founded on the well-known imposture of a ghost having disturbed a family in Cock Lane; but our poet contrived to render it the vehicle of many characteristic sketches, and desultory thoughts on various subjects unconnected with its title. About this time he appears to have formed a connection with the celebrated John Wilkes, an impostor of more ingenuity, who encouraged him to add faction to profligacy, and increase the number of his enemies by reviling every person of rank or distinction with whom Wilkes chose to be at variance. His pen is said to have been also employed in Wilkes's North Briton, and The Prophecy of Famine. Churchill's next production was originally sketched in prose for that paper. What other contributions he made cannot now be ascertained, but it may be suspected that his satirical
* See a letter from him on this subject, in the Gentleman's Magazine, vol. xlviii. p. 471. C
i This has been denial. She survived him, however, and he bequeathed to her an annuity of 60/. a jrear. C
taleut would ill submit to the tameness of prose, nor indeed was such an employment worthy of the author of The Rosciad and The Apology. Wilkes suggested The Prophecy of Famine, as a more suitable vehicle for the bitterness of national scurrility, and he was not mistaken.
The Epistle to Hogarth, which followed, was occasioned by that artist's having taken some liberties, in his political engravings, with the characters of the earls Temple and Chatham. The only revenge he took was a paltry print representing Churchill as a Russian hear, hut whether this preceded or followed the Epistle is not quite clear. The parties had been once intimate, and Churchill paid due reverence to the talents of Hogarth, but in his present humour he stuck at nothing which could vex and irritate. Hogarth died soon after, and some of Churchill's friends asserted, with malicious satisfaction, that the poem had accelerated that event. Mr. Nichols, in his copious life of Hogarth, starts some reasonahle douhts on this subject.
In 1763, Churchill formed an intimacy with the daughter of a tradesman4 in Westminster, and prevailed with her to live with him, but within a fortnight his passion was satiated, and she had leisure to repent. Her father received her back, and she might probably have been reformed, had she not been insulted by a sister, and her situation rendered so disagreeable that she preferred the company of her seducer. Churchill thought himself bound in honour and gratitude to receive her, and perpetuate her wretchedness by a more lengthened connection. While this affair was the general subject of public indignation, he wrote The Conference, in which he assumes the language of repentance and atonement with such pathetic effect, that every reader must hope he was sincere.
The duel which took place between Wilkes and Martin gave rise to The Duellist, 1763, which he extended to three books, and diversified, as usual, by much personal satire. In The Author, puhlished ahout the end of the same year, he gave more general satisfaction, as the topics were of a more general nature. His first puhlication iia I764 was Gotham, which, without a defmite ohject, or much connection of parts, contains many passages of sterling merit. The Candidate was written soon after, to expose lord Sandwich, who was a candidate for the office of high steward of the university of Cambridge. His lordship's deficiencies in moral conduct were perhaps no unfair objects for satire, but this from the pen of a man now dehilitated hy hahitual excess, served only to prove that Churchill was a profligate in contempt of knowledge and reason.
The Farewell, The Times, and Independence were hasty compositions that added little to his fame, and, except perhaps The Times, announced the decline of his powers. Independence appeared in Septemher, I764, and was the last of his productions published in his lifetime. The Journey and The Fragment of a Dedication to Dr. Warburton were brought to light by his friends soon after his death.
Towards the end of Octoher, I764, he accompanied Humphrey Cotes, one of Wilkes's dupes, to visit this patriot in his voluntary exile in France. The party met at Boulogne, where Churchill, immediately on his arrival, was attacked by a miliary fever, which terminated his life, Nov. 4, in the thirty-fourth year of his age. It was reported, that his last words were, "What a fool have I heen l" hut Wilkes, who was present, thought it
* Of a celebrated statuary, says Mr. Cole, who was knighted by his majesty some years before. Mr. Cole adds the name, but it is not the name of a "spinster" mentioned in Churchill's will, and wh« was, if I am not mistaken, the lady he seduced. C