The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Reverend Laurence Eusden


Shadwell was the first of the second-rate laureates under whose dynasty the wits were in opposition. But his plays manifest considerable ability, and he was a brilliant conversationalist.

Tate enjoyed a good reputation among contemporaries. Rowe was a first-rate translator, and a man of genius and taste. We must now descend a great many steps, ay, almost to the bottom of the ladder. Horace Walpole has observed that nations are most commonly saved by the worst men in them, and so the Laureateship was in this instance preserved and handed down by perhaps our worst poet. In a small biographical dictionary he is described as no "inconsiderable versifier," and a writer must be in the last state of the "lues Boswelliana," did he give any lengthened account of works which had so justly merited oblivion, or were he very enthusiastic in speaking of the Rev. Laurence Eusden. Of good Irish family, and the son of Dr. Eusden, of Spotisworth, in Yorkshire, he was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, entered holy orders, and was chaplain to Lord Willoughby de Broke. At Rowe's death, December 1718, Eusden was appointed his successor. The Duke of Newcastle was Lord Chamberlain at the time. The "versifier" had won the favour of that nobleman, by a poem addressed to him on his marriage with Lady Henrietta Godolphin. He had, however, other claims to the office of "the birthday fibber," for, besides propitiating the Lord Chamberlain by his far-fetched flatteries of him and his bride, he had published a poetical epistle to Mr. Addison, on the accession of the King to the throne. It is a tedious panegyric on George II. That monarch, he tells us, was, as a child, marvellously precocious; as a man, glorious from his heroic exploits. The banks of the Rhine are said to echo his praises. He had given names to mountains by his warlike deeds. The eulogy terminates with this sublime couplet:

"Streams which in silence flowed obscure before,
Swell'd by thy conquests, proudly learn'd to roar."

He had also, in 1717, followed this up with three poems of a similar character. The first, "Sacred to the Memory of the Late King," is an apotheosis of George I. The second, another laudation of George II., and as full of fulsome fustian as the former one. Take, for example, the four following lines:

"Hail, mighty Monarch! whom Desert alone
Would, without Birthright, raise up to the throne;
Thy virtues shine peculiary nice,
Ungloom'd with a confinity to vice."

The third is to the Queen, and teems with servile adulation and tiresome triplets.

His appointment has very justly filled with indignation contemporaneous and succeeding writers. It is asserted by some, that no better man would accept office. More correctly is it stated by others that he owed his preferment to his unblushing flatteries of royalty and to the favour of the Lord Chamberlain. At any rate he did not escape the usual quantity of sarcasms, which have ensued on even fairer appointments to the laurel. Pope put him into "The Dunciad." Cooke, the translator of Hesiod, who has himself a place in Pope's great satire, assailed him in "The Battle of the Poets," a clever poem, which deserves to be better known than it now is. The author was a man of considerable ability, a poet, scholar, and political pamphleteer. He is the man of whom Dr. Johnson said, that he lived twenty years on a translation of Plautus, for which he was always taking in subscriptions. It is also told of him, that he once presented Foote to a club, with the following introduction: "This is the nephew of the gentleman who was lately hung in chains for murdering his brother." "The Battle of the Poets," though different in plan, may have been suggested to Cooke by the Frogs, of Aristophanes, or "The Rehearsal." It is a contest of the poets of his day for precedence.

Hermes is sent to invite them to the struggle.

"He spoke, and Hermes, quick at his command,
Conveyed the message to the Muse's land,
All thank'd the God for his indulgence shown,
For all were certain of the Laurel Crown."

Then follows an invocation, quite after the epic fashion; and throughout a mock-heroic dignity is sustained in a very diverting manner.

Pope is thus described:

"First on the plain a mighty General came,
In merit great, but greater still in fame,
In shining arms advanced, and Pope his name.
A ponderous helm he wore, adorn'd with care,
And for his plume Belinda's ravish'd hair.
Arm'd at all points the warrior took the field,
With Windsor's forest painted on his shield."

The Second Book opens with the attack on our Laureate versifier:

"While in the Camp retir'd both armies lay,
Some panting, others fearful of the day,
Eusden, a laurell'd Bard by fortune rais'd,
By very few been read, by fewer prais'd,
From place to place forlorn and breathless flies,
And offers bribes immense for strong allies.
In vain he spent the day—the night in vain,
For all the Laureate and his bribes disdain.
With heart dejected he return'd alone,
Upon the banks of Cham to make his moan,
Resolv'd to spend his future days in ease,
And only toil in verse himself to please;
To fly the noisy Candidates of Fame,
Nor ever court again so coy a Dame."

Eusden has not been spared in prose or verse. Oldmixon, who was in all probability chagrined at not being preferred to the Bays himself, speaks thus of him in his "Art of Logic and Rhetoric:" "That of all the galimatias he ever met with, none came up to the verses of this poet, which have as much of the Ridiculum and Fustian in them as can well be jumbled together, and are of that sort of nonsense which so perfectly confounds all ideas that there is no distinct one left in the mind." Again he tells us "that the putting the Laurel on the head of one who writ such verses, will give futurity a very lively idea of the judgment and justice of those who bestowed it."

The Duke of Buckingham made his appointment the subject of some amusing stanzas, called, in the third edition of that nobleman's works, published in 1740, "The Election of a Poet-Laureat," but better known as "The Session of the Poets." A few of the verses we must quote:

"A famous Assembly was summoned of late,
To crown a new Laureat came Phœbus in state,
With all that Montfaucon himself could desire,
His Bow, Laurel, Harp, and abundance of Fire.

"At Bartlemew Fair ne'er did Bullies so justle,
No country Election e'er made such a bustle:
From Garret, Mint, Tavern, they all post away,
Some thirsting for Sack, some ambitious of Bay."

Pope, Prior, Cibber, and Durfy arrive. Then

"Lampooners and Criticks rush'd in like a tide,
Stern Dennis and Gildon came first side by side,
Apollo confess'd that their lashes had stings,
But Beadles and Hangmen were never chose Kings."

There follows a description of Steele; and then

"Lame Congreve, unable such things to endure,
Of Apollo begg'd either a crown or a cure;
To refuse such a writer Apollo was loth,
And almost inclin'd to have granted him both."

The Duke next describes his own arrival:

"When Buckingham came he scarce car'd to be seen,
Till Phœbus desir'd his old friend to walk in,
But a Laureat Peer had never been known,
The Commoners claim'd that place as their own.

"Yet if the kind God had been e'er so inclin'd
To break an old rule, yet he well knew his mind,
Who, of such preferment, would only make sport,
And laugh'd at all suitors for places at Court."

Apollo is so perplexed by the various conflicting claims of the congregated Bards, that in despair he confers the laurel on a spectator, described as

"A hater of verse, a despiser of plays,"

And while all stand astounded at the election, this nodus is untied by the sudden advent of our "not inconsiderable versifier:"

"At last rush'd in Eusden, and cried, who shall have it
But I the true Laureat, to whom the King gave it?
Apollo begg'd pardon, and granted his claim,
But vowed, that till then, he had ne'er heard his name."

And so the squib goes off.

Before Eusden gave the world the poems which have been mentioned as probably gaining for him this office, he published in 1714 a set of verses, which he had written and recited at the Public Commencement at Cambridge. When it is remembered that these limping heroics were spoken to an audience, partly composed of ladies, and chiefly addressed to them, their licence seems astonishing. Any extract we might give, would in this age of refinement infallibly place this work in the Index Expurgatorius of all fathers of families. And yet these prurient lines which we dare not quote, but which the curious may see in the Library of the British Museum, were specially composed and repeated for the edification and amusement of some of the noblest and fairest of our great-great-grandmothers. In 1718, Eusden addressed a poem to Her Royal Highness on the birth of a Prince. He soon after produced an "Ode for the New Year." In 1722 three pieces followed; one to the Lord Chancellor on his being created Earl of Macclesfield; the second to Lord Parker on his return from his travels; the third to that nobleman on his matrimonial alliance with Mrs. Mary Lane. What the character of these lucubrations is, some idea may be formed from the nature of their subjects. The warmth of admiration and fervour of flattery is always above fever-heat: the merit below zero.

In Nicholl's select collection his best poems are to be found, and among them some of his translations. Had he employed himself in giving versions of a few of the master-pieces of antiquity, he would have merited a better fame than can be acquired by feeble flatteries of kings and nobles. In translation, he displays some command of language and smoothness of versification. He assisted in a version of Ovid's "Metamorphoses," in which Dryden, Congreve, Addison, Tate, and others were his coadjutors. The whole of one book is by his hand, and so is the story of "Venus and Adonis" in the tenth. Early in life, he had gained the esteem and patronage of Lord Halifax by translating into Latin his poem "On the Battle of the Boyne." He also gave a Latin version of Lord Roscommon's "Essay on Translated Verse." He contributed to "The Guardian" two translations from Claudian. In "The Spectator" he wrote a "Letter on Idols."

Little is known of the life of Eusden; he appears to have retired to the living of Coningsby in Lincolnshire, where he took to drinking and translating Tasso. Gray, in a letter to Mason, writes: "Eusden was a person of great hopes in his youth, though at last he turned out a drunken parson." However much "bemused with beer," his inebriety did not altogether obstruct his literary labours, for he left behind him a manuscript translation of Tasso, with a Life of that Poet.

He died September 27, 1730.

The reader will, we fear, agree with us that more than enough has been said of this versifier. Though a clumsy courtier, his flatteries gained for him in that era patronage. In the present one, his powers of puffery would have been turned to a different account. He might have exhausted imagination in celebrating the virtues of blacking, or the praises of cheap clothing.