Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/D'Urfey, Thomas
D'URFEY, THOMAS (1653–1723), poet and dramatist, generally known as ‘Tom Durfey,’ was born at Exeter in 1653. The date usually given, 1649, appears to be erroneous. He was of Huguenot descent, and maintained his protestantism to his last hour. His grandfather quitted La Rochelle before the siege ended in 1628, bringing his son with him, and settled in Exeter, where D'Urfey's father married Frances, a gentlewoman of Huntingdonshire, of the family of the Marmions, and thus connected with Shackerley Marmion the dramatist. Tom's uncle was Honoré D'Urfé, author of the romance of ‘Astrée,’ so much admired by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, a relationship which is proudly referred to in D'Urfey's own writings. He had been intended for the law, but says: ‘My good or ill stars ordained me to be a knight-errant in the fairy field of poetry.’ His first play was produced at the King's Theatre in 1676, and printed in 4to, a bombastic tragedy entitled ‘The Siege of Memphis; or, the Ambitious Queen.’ He pleased the town more with his comedies of ‘The Fond Husband; or, the Plotting Sisters,’ licensed 15 June 1676, and ‘Madam Fickle; or, the Witty False One,’ 1677. Two more followed in 1678, ‘The Fool turn'd Critic’ and ‘Trick for Trick; or, the Debauched Hypocrite.’ His ‘Squire Oldsapp; or, the Night Adventurers,’ 1679; ‘The Virtuous Wife; or, Good Luck at Last,’ 1680; ‘Sir Barnaby Whig; or, No Wit like a Woman's,’ 1681; and two others in 1682, ‘The Royalist’ and ‘The Injured Princess; or, the Fatal Wager,’ which he called a tragi-comedy, were full of bustle and intrigue, lively dialogue, and sparkling songs set to music by his friends Henry Purcell, Thomas Farmer, and Dr. John Blow. These songs increased his popularity. He was in demand to write birthday odes, epithalamia, prologues and epilogues, many of which are extant. He had joined Richard Shotterel on an heroic poem, ‘Archerie Revived,’ and brought out his ‘New Collection of Songs and Poems,’ 1683, among which was the memorable one beginning ‘The night her blackest sables wore,’ long afterwards erroneously claimed for Francis Semple of Beltrees. Amid all the commotion of the sham popish plot D'Urfey preserved the favour of both the court and the city. He was utterly devoid of malice, his satirical spirit was mirthful and never revengeful. Even when bitterly lampooned by the quarrelsome Tom Brown (1663–1704) [q. v.], as ‘Thou cur, half French, half English breed,’ who mocked him regarding a duel at Epsom in 1689 with one Bell, a musician, ‘I sing of a Duel, in Epsom befell, 'twixt Fa-sol-la D'Urfey and Sol-la-mi Bell,’ Tom made no angry rejoinder, but took the abuse as a joke. He knew that the laugh was always on his side against the heavier hand. Both D'Urfey and Tom Brown were represented as subjected to a mock-trial in the ‘Sessions of the Poets, holden at the foot of Parnassus Hill, before Apollo, July the 9th, 1696.’ It was only by Jeremy Collier [q. v.] that he could be provoked to reply, and even then it was chiefly in a song, ‘New Reformation begins through the nation!’ which he embedded in the preface to his ‘Campaigners,’ a comedy of 1698. Collier had first assailed him in ‘A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage,’ &c., 1698, chiefly on account of D'Urfey's play of ‘Don Quixote.’ Of all the combatants the lightest-hearted and least harmed was Tom. Before this date he produced on the stage and in quarto, seriatim, ‘The Commonwealth of Women,’ 1686; ‘Banditti,’ 1686; ‘A Fool's Preferment,’ 1688; ‘Bussy d'Amboise,’ adapted from Chapman's tragedy, and ‘Love for Money; or, the Boarding School,’ both in 1691; ‘The Marriage Hater Matched,’ concerning which he wrote a letter to Mr. Gildon, 1692; and ‘The Richmond Heiress; or, A Woman Once in the Right,’ 1693. His ‘Comical History of Don Quixote’ was in three parts, two of which appeared in 1694, the third in 1696. His ‘Cynthia and Endymion,’ an opera, and ‘The Intrigues of Versailles,’ a comedy, belonged to 1697. On Thursday, 12 May 1698, the justices of Middlesex took proceedings against Congreve and D'Urfey (Luttrell, iv. 379). In the preface to his ‘Campaigners,’ 1698, he fairly encountered his assailant the nonjuror, and says that ‘the first time he saw Collier was under the gallows, where he pronounced the absolution to wretches justly condemned by law to die for the intended murder of the king [William III] and the subversion of the protestant religion.’ This refers to the execution of Sir John Friend and Sir William Parkyns, in April 1696. D'Urfey's ‘Famous History of the Rise and Fall of Massaniello’ was a play in two parts, the first of which was printed next year, 1699, the second in 1700. His comedy of ‘The Bath; or, the Western Lass,’ followed in 1701. In his burlesque, ‘Wonders in the Sun; or, the Kingdom of the Birds,’ a comic opera, the music composed by Giovanni Battista Draghi [q. v.], he brought on the stage actors dressed as parrots, crows, &c., and the business was farcical in the extreme. This justified the remark of Dryden, that ‘You don't know my friend Tom so well as I do. I'll answer for it he will write worse yet!’ But Dryden, after his own conversion to Romanism, could not feel pleased at D'Urfey's protestant zeal. Moreover, he had in 1693 written a prologue to ‘The Volunteers; or, the Stockjobbers,’ of Dryden's rival, Tom Shadwell; and again in 1694 to J. Lacy's ‘Sir Hercules Buffoon.’ The republication of D'Urfey's own songs, with the music, both in single sheets and in volumes, three collections between 1683 and 1685, had been continually bringing money from John Playford and presents from private patrons. Most of these songs appeared in successive editions of ‘Wit and Mirth; or, Pills to Purge Melancholy,’ the earliest volume of which, but without music, is dated 1684; the proper series, dated 1699 and 1700, was followed at short intervals in 1706, 1710, &c., by similar collections, some entitled ‘Songs Compleat [sic], by Tom D'Urfey,’ until in 1719, with a supplementary sixth volume in 1720, the whole were reissued in what may be called a standard edition, whereof D'Urfey's own songs filled the first two volumes, with a few of his poems and prologues at the end. The title of ‘An Antidote against Melancholy, made up in Pills,’ was first used in 1661. In 1704 had been issued his ‘Tales, Tragical and Comical,’ dedicated to the Duke of Argyll, six in number, and in verse, respectively adapted from Xenophon's ‘Cyropædia,’ Straparola, Machiavelli's ‘Belphegor,’ and Boccaccio. His ‘Tales, Moral and Comical,’ followed in 1706, comprising ‘The Banquet of the Gods,’ ‘Titus and Gissippus,’ ‘The Prudent Husband,’ and ‘Loyalty's Glory.’ A new ode, ‘Mars and Plutus,’ in an entertainment made for the Duke of Marlborough the same year, was but one of the innumerable loyal ditties with which he hailed the victories of the army; another being ‘The French Pride abated,’ of the same date. Two of his comedies in 1709 were intended ‘to ridicule the ridiculers of our established doctrine’ and the pretenders of his day; one was ‘The Modern Prophets,’ the other was entitled ‘The Old Mode and the New; or, the Country Miss and her Furbelow.’ Hitherto he had not fared ill, with the profits of benefit nights, but his dramatic works no longer attracted the public, and he seems to have fallen into poverty, although he had never married or indulged in prodigal expenditure. Four successive monarchs had been amused by him and had shown him personal favour. Charles II had leaned familiarly on his shoulder, holding a corner of the same sheet of music from which D'Urfey was singing the burlesque song, ‘Remember, ye Whigs, what was formerly done.’ James II had continued the friendship previously shown when he was Duke of York, and had often found benefit from the song-writer's attachment to his person, despite differences in religious opinions. D'Urfey wrote ‘An Elegy upon Charles II and a Panegyric on James II’ in 1685. William and Mary gave solid marks of favour, D'Urfey writing ‘Gloriana, a funeral Pindarique Ode,’ in Mary's memory, 1695. Queen Anne delighted in his wit, and gave him fifty guineas when she admitted him to sing to her at supper, because he lampooned the Princess Sophia (then next in succession to herself), by his ditty, ‘The Crown's too weighty for shoulders of 'Eighty!’ The Earl of Dorset had welcomed him at Knole Park, and had his portrait painted there. He was often at the Saturday reception of poets at Leicester House. At Winchendon, Buckinghamshire, Philip, duke of Wharton, enjoyed his company and erected a banqueting-house in the garden, called Brimmer Hall, chiefly on his account. He sang his own songs, with vivacity, most effectively, although he stammered in ordinary speech. He said, ‘The Town may da-da-da-m me as a poet, but they sing my songs for all that.’ Writing to Henry Cromwell, 10 April 1710, Alexander Pope mentions the having ‘learned without book a song of Mr. D'Urfey's, who is your only poet of tolerable reputation in this country. He makes all the merriment in our entertainments. Any man of any quality is heartily welcome to the best toping-table of our gentry who can roundly hum out some fragments or rhapsodies of his works. … Dares any one despise him who has made so many men drink? … But give me your ancient poet, Mr. D'Urfey’ (Pope, Correspondence, v. infra). Pope refers to D'Urfey in the ‘Dunciad,’ bk. iii. lines 145–148, when addressing Ned Ward, ‘Another D'Urfey, Ward, shall sing in thee!’ He also wrote ‘a drolling prologue’ for what was said to be D'Urfey's last play. When Rowe died, in 1718, Arbuthnot wrote to Swift: ‘I would fain have Pope get a patent for the [laureate's] place, with a power of putting D'Urfey in as deputy.’ Gay mentions that Tom ran his muse with what was long a favourite racing song, ‘To horse, brave boys, to Newmarket, to horse!’ (first printed in 1684 in D'Urfey's Choice New Songs). Addison or Steele praises the same song, but D'Urfey wrote another Newmarket song, ‘The Golden Age is come!’ which was sung before Charles II. ‘Mr. Dryden's boy’ had been talked about, but Tom D'Urfey ‘was the last English poet who appeared in the streets attended by a page’ (Notes to the Dunciad). D'Urfey fell into distress, soon after he had produced his song on ‘The Moderate Man,’ although ‘living in a blooming old age, that still promises many musical productions; for if I am not mistaken,’ says Joseph Addison [q. v.], ‘our British swan will sing to the last.’ A friendly notice on Thursday, 28 May 1713, in No. 67 of the ‘Guardian,’ brought before the public the condition of their ‘good old friend and contemporary.’ Addison and Sir Richard Steele, whose affection for D'Urfey was the stronger, induced the managers of Drury Lane to devote 15 June 1713 to a performance of D'Urfey's ‘Fond Husband; or, the Plotting Sisters,’ a comedy which Charles II had witnessed thrice out of the first five nights. Steele had in No. 82 of the ‘Guardian’ written to remind his readers ‘that on this day, being the 15th of June, “The Plotting Sisters” is to be acted for the benefit of the author, my old friend Mr. D'Urfey.’ Another benefit for D'Urfey was given at Drury Lane on 3 June 1714, when he appeared and spoke an ‘Oration on the Royal Family and the prosperous state of the Nation,’ being his second appearance, before the performance of ‘Court Gallantry; or, Marriage a-la-Mode.’ In 1721 William Chetwood, at the Cato's Head, Covent Garden, published a volume entitled ‘New Operas and Comical Stories and Poems on Seueral Occasions, neuer before printed. Being the remaining pieces written by Mr. D'Urfey.’ Among these were ‘The Two Queens of Brentford; or, Bayes no Poetaster,’ a comic opera, a sequel to ‘The Rehearsal,’ ‘The Grecian Heroine,’ ‘The Athenian Jilt,’ ‘Ariadne,’ and a few miscellanies.
D'Urfey died, ‘at the age of seventy,’ on 26 Feb. 1723, and was buried at St. James's Church, Piccadilly, where a Yorkshire slab tablet to his memory was placed on the south wall outside, with the concise inscription, ‘Tom D'Urfey, dyed Febry ye 26th, 1723.’ He was buried handsomely at the expense of the Earl of Dorset (Le Neve, MS. Diary; Genest writes ‘on March 11’). On the 17th D'Urfey's ‘Don Quixote’ was revived for Miss Willis's benefit, her mother resuming her old favourite part of Mary the Buxom.
A good copper-plate portrait of D'Urfey, handsome and good-humoured, in a full-bottomed wig, is prefixed to vol. i. of the ‘Pills,’ 1719, engraved by G. Vertue, after a painting by E. Gouge. E. Gouge adds these lines below the portrait:—
Whilst D'Urfey's voice his verse does raise,
When D'Urfey sings his tunefull lays,
Give D'Urfey's Lyrick Muse the bayes.
In another print, engraved from a sketch taken at Knole, he is represented looking at some music, with two large books under his arm. Although of convivial habits he was never drunk. His love and reverence for his mother are shown in his ‘Hymn to Piety, to my dear Mother, Mrs. Frances D'Urfey, written at Cullacombe, September 1698,’ beginning ‘O sacred Piety, thou morning star, that shew'st our day of life serene and fair.’ She was then living, ‘to age example, and to youth a guide,’ and it ends,
Still may your blessing, when your life is done,
As well as now, descend upon your son.
Abraham de la Pryme in 1697 recorded that he had been that day with a bookseller at Brigg, who had been ‘apprenticed to one who printed that scurrilous pamphlet against Sherlock intitled “The Weesels” (the author of which was Durfee). He says it is certain that his master got about 800l. for it. He says that Durfee was forced to write an answer to it intitled “The Weesel Trapped.”’ D'Urfey made frequent attacks on ‘Popery,’ subjecting Bellarmine and Porto-Carrero to short satirical attacks. He satirised the Harley-Bolingbroke ministry, taking the Huguenot ‘refugee view of the peace of Utrecht as a bad bargain for Britain and for the protestant interest,’ saying that they deserved a ballad because they had ‘given all to Louis for a song.’
His comedies were not more licentious than Dryden's or Ravenscroft's, or others of their day, but few kept possession of the stage, although ‘The Plotting Sisters’ was revived in 1726, 1732, and 1740. Three editions of it appeared in his lifetime, but no modern reprint of his dramas has been attempted, the contemporary issue having been large enough to keep the market supplied. His songs have never lost popularity, and many are still sung throughout Scotland under the belief that they were native to the soil. D'Urfey certainly visited Edinburgh, perhaps more than once, and made close acquaintance with Allan Ramsay, early in the eighteenth century, at his shop in the Luckenbooths. Addison's testimony is complete: ‘He has made the world merry, and I hope they will make him easy so long as he stays among us. … They cannot do a kindness to a more diverting companion, or a more cheerful, honest, good-natured man.’ Again in the ‘Tatler’ he is praised: ‘Many an honest gentleman has got a reputation in this country by pretending to have been in the company of Tom D'Urfey. Many a present toast, when she lay in her cradle, has been lulled asleep by D'Urfey's sonnets.’ Steele followed him to the grave, and wore the watch and chain which D'Urfey bequeathed to him. Printed three years later in ‘Miscellaneous Poems,’ i. 6, 1726, is an ‘Epitaph upon Tom D'Urfey:’—
Here lyes the Lyrick, who, with tale and song,
Did life to three score years and ten prolong;
His tale was pleasant and his song was sweet,
His heart was cheerful—but his thirst was great.
Grieve, Reader, grieve, that he, too soon grown old,
His song has ended, and his tale is told.
Most fluent of song-writers, his verses long continued to fill the books of a later day.
Richard Steele praised him, and cold, stately ‘Atticus,’
Old Rowley lean'd on Tom's shoulder, our king!
D'Urfey, who mock'd all the noisy fanatic fuss;
Plot-bigots moved him to jest and to sing.