Thursday, November 3, 2011

Drunk, Naked, Starving, Dying -- Johnson's Poets

Having your poem so much loved that it was even quoted by the King was no guarantee that you wouldn't starve to death. Ask Samuel Butler, the author of Hudibras. Samuel Butler may not actually have starved to death. But he did die in a condition of want, so much so that future poets equated his death to a starving death.

Butler died in the reign of Charles the Second, who took the throne when it was restored to England, after the usurpation and protectorship of Oliver Cromwell.

If Samuel Johnson, in his Lives of the Poets, criticizes the harshness of Puritan life which took place under Cromwell, he doesn't seem to be much more positive about licentiousness of life under Charles II. As well as poets like Samuel Butler starving, other poets died from simply living too rowdy a life. Many people, including many of the poets, were addicted to gambling.

It certainly seems, from my understanding of Johnson's view, like the only way to live well after the throne was restored was to have been close to the people who had usurped the throne in the first place.

As far as I can tell, the biggest success story of the first volume of Johnson's Lives is the story of Edmund Waller. Waller, being born in 1605, was also, as far as I can tell, the oldest poet in the first volume (and, therefore, likely the whole opus) of Johnson's Lives.

Waller's father left his family with an annual estate of three-thousand pounds. This is by far the handsomest living that any of the poets has been born with, as far as I can tell. But not only was Waller born well-off. He was also a cousin to Oliver Cromwell.

From the age of eighteen, Waller served at Court. Through his life, he ended up either serving or knowing King James I, Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, and Charles II.

At Court, Waller heard King James ask, "My Lords, cannot I take my subjects' money, when I want it, without all this formality of parliament?"

Before the Civil Wars, Waller led a relatively calm life. He married into more money than he already had. His wife died while in the birth of Waller's second child. Waller spent some time wooing ladies of the court, but wasn't very successful.

Waller mainly wooed women through his poetry. This poetry is largely the poetry by which Waller is known. It's known for its smoothness, elegance, and gaiety. And Johnson believes that Waller's poetry did a lot to give a sense of taste to English poetry.

But it all seems, to me, like it stands a pretty good chance of being all fluff. Waller names one of his women "Sacharissa," or "Sugary." His writes poems on the occasion of being given a pen or having a card torn up by the Queen.

Nevertheless, one of his statements, praising the Queen, has the kind of outrageous style that Johnson finds disgusting and I find tremendously interesting. Waller says the Queen "saves lovers by cutting off hope, as gangrenes are cured by lopping the limb."

In one poem, Waller expresses to a lover his wish that he may come to her, "And banquet sometimes on thy face," which kind of reminds me of something Hannibal Lecter would do.

After being spurned by all these Ladies, Waller ended up marrying a woman who seemed to make him happy. They had thirteen children together.

Waller took a couple of interesting political stands in his life. In 1640, when King Charles I made a call for money to landowners, Waller, representing Admondesham in parliament, made a speech against giving the King money. Waller's arguments were based on those of the great Richard Hooker. Waller stated that before anybody gave the King money, the King should address the grievances of his people.

But Waller soon found himself standing up for the King, and for Episcopacy, when parliament was trying to abolish Episcopacy. Waller gave a very good speech for retaining, but reforming Episcopacy in England. He then went home and, as a landowner, pulled together the money that the King had requested, so that the King could form an army.

The Civil Wars had started, and now the Puritans were demanding money for building an army of their own, against the King. Waller, trying to do what he could to maintain what he believed was the rightful order of the throne, created a plot to spread propaganda that would quell sedition and keep people from funding an army against the King.

Little known to Waller, however, another man, Sir Nicholas Crispe, was forming a plan to stage a provocation in London. This provocation would encourage the King's friends to stand up and fight for the King. Crispe would provide these newly inspired men with a leader.

A few of the main people involved in Waller's plot were also involved in Crispe's plot, although the two plots were largely unknown to each other. In fact, Waller had no idea of Crispe's plot.

Nevertheless, the two plots were discovered, with Waller at the center of them. Waller, who'd so bravely stood up against, and then for, the King, now confessed absolutely everything to his captors. Johnson paints a picture of Waller grovelling and snivelling, as he gives away friend after friend, including a brother-in-law, who was eventually hung near the front door of his own house.

But the more powerful people involved in the plot were let go. And Waller himself was allowed, after having paid out almost all his estate in bribe-money, to "recollect himself in another country."

Waller went to France for a while, then came back to England out of necessity. He needed to live off the remains of his estate.

Thankfully Waller was the cousin of Cromwell, who granted Waller clemency and even held private audience with Waller on a number of occasions. Waller repaid Cromwell with a poem. Many people believe this is Waller's greatest poem.

But when Cromwell was defeated and Charles II restored the throne to England, Waller wrote a poem in praise of Charles II.

The poem in praise of Charles II wasn't as great as the poem in praise of Cromwell. Even Charles II noticed this. King Charles asked Waller why the poem in praise of Cromwell was better. Waller replied that poets write fiction better than truth, and that since Cromwell's poem was a fabulous fiction, and Charles' poem an honest truth, it couldn't help but be less skilfully made.

Johnson feels this is a silly thing to claim. But he figures it's in character for Waller:

"Poets, indeed, profess fiction; but the legitimate end of fiction is the conveyance of truth; and he that has flatter ready for all whom the vicissitudes of the world happen to exalt, must be scorned, as a prostitued mind, that may retain the glitter of wit, but has lost the dignity of virtue."

And Johnson has another argument for the difference in the qualities of the poems to Cromwell and Charles:

"The Congratulations [of Charles] is, indeed, not inferior to the Panegyrick [of Cromwell], either by decay of genius, or for want of diligence; but because Cromwell had done much, and Charles had done little. Cromwell wanted nothing to raise him to heroick excellence but virtue; and virtue his poet thought himself at liberty to supply. Charles had yet only the merit of struggling without success, and suffering without despair. A life of escapes and indigence could supply poetry with no splendid images."

This statement casts a heavy shadow over the character of Charles II. The reign of the Puritans was harsh for the people living under it. In fact, it was absurdly stringent. But the reign of Charles II, through Johnson's imagination of it, was nothing but licentiousness for the rich and misery for the poor. Unfortunately the poets were often among the poor.

Waller was not one of the poor. As soon as parliament was restored, Waller was employed to represent various lands. He represented there basically until the end of his life. He was known for his speeches, which were either filled with gaiety or applaudable arguments. But applause, Johnson claims, was the main motive for any speech Waller gave in parliament. He didn't make speeches for any altruistically political reasons.

What's kind of interesting about this, though, is that Johnson doesn't seem to make any comment about parliament, or government in general, being, in itself, a form of theatre. If Johnson had seen government as theatre, and had seen what general applause Waller had been getting for his speeches, he might have paid a bit more attention to them. Johnson seems to say, over and over again, throughout his Lives, that public approbation, especially in the theatre, should be the writer's first concern, and that technique should aim toward public entertainment.

Waller died when he was eighty-two years old. Johnson's telling of the story of Waller's last days is chillingly told here:

"Towards the decline of his life, he bought a small house, with a little land, at Coleshill; and said, 'he should be glad to die, like the stage, where he was roused.' This, however, did not happen. When he was at Beaconsfield, he found his legs grown tumid; he went to Windsor, where Sir Charles Scarborough then attended the kind, and requested him, as both a friend and a physician, to tell him, 'What that swelling meant.' 'Sir,' answered Scarborogh, 'Your blood will run no longer.' Waller repeated some lines of Virgil, and went home to die."

But after Waller's life, it's hard to find, in Johnson's first volume of the Lives, a story with more success written in it. Many of the poets were, at one time or another, familiar with one or more of the Kings in this period of history. But none were as fortunate, overall, as Waller. Of course, Waller's success had more to do with being born rich, marrying rich, and holding seats in parliament, than it had to do with being a poet.

In fact, if Waller were only a poet, his life story would likely have been a lot more like Dryden's. Dryden, whose life takes up about half the first volume of the Lives, lived from 1631 to 1710. And, from at least 1658, he was constantly writing something. He was writing because he needed the money. And his writing never really gathered that much money for him.

In 1663, Dryden started writing for the stage. And, for a long while, Dryden wrote mostly for the stage. The amount of work he produced for the stage is pretty incredible. Johnson largely dislikes the work of the stage. He calls many of Dryden's plays immoral. In fact, some of Dryden's plays were immoral enough to get taken off the stage. Johnson bewails the times when he mentions the success of Dryden's plays -- the public likes immoral entertainment.

But Dryden was also writing other works. He wrote occasional poems. He wrote Latin translations. And he wrote criticism, including, in 1668, his Essay on Dramatic Poetry, which Johnson really considers to be the birth of English poetic criticism. In addition to this great work of criticism, Dryden wrote prefaces to many of his plays, which, themselves, were more treatises of poetic criticism than actual statements on the dramatic works.

All through the reign of Charles II, Dryden experienced financial difficulty. This was partly due to the fact that the people in charge of distributing Charles' funds often were lax, if not altogether negligent in their duties. As I understand it, Dryden even had to harangue an Exchequer once, after not having received six months of the salary due to him as Poet Laureate.

However, Johnson also implies that Dryden's constant state of want was at least partly due to Dryden simply lived beyond his means:

"Whether by the world's neglect or his own imprudence I am afraid that the greatest part of his life was passed in exigencies. Such outcries were surely never uttered but in severe pain. Of his supplies or his expenses no probable estimate can now made. Except the salary of the Laureate [which was one-hundred pounds and a trice of wine a year, a pretty good sum], to which King James added the office of the Historiographer, perhaps with some additional emoluments, his whole revenue seems to have been casual; and it is well known that he seldom lives frugally, who lives by chance. Hope is always liberal, and they that trust per promises make little scruple of revelling today on the profits of tomorrow."

Nevertheless, Dryden's state of want doesn't seem to be due to intemperance, in the same sense as the intemperance of the other poets landed them in troubles. He does seem to have gotten more into drink in his later years. But he was never, as far as I can tell, a real abuser of alcohol. And he didn't seem to be addicted to gambling, like many people were, as Johnson tells the story, under the reign of Charles II.

But as far as I can tell, Dryden's life gains most of its interest, for Johnson, from the fact that Dryden was so focused on his art. And Dryden would likely not have been as interested in his art, according to Johnson, if he'd had more money. For, as Johnson likes to remind us, Dryden was no lover of work.

Dryden died in poverty. In fact, he died from gangrene in his legs. A weird story attends his funeral. A funeral, with great pomp, had been put together for him, but was diverted by a group of drunken Lords who wanted to get Dryden buried at Westminster Abbey. They caused a big scene, and stopped the first funeral from happening. It took three weeks, during which a number of arguments took place between the Lords and Dryden's family, before Dryden's body was finally buried in Westminster Abbey.

Again, looking back on this epidsode, which is not a completely verifiable story, Johnson laments the character of Charles II's reign:

"Supposing the story to be true we may remark that the gradual change of manners, though imperceptible in the process, appears great when different times, and those not very distant, are compared. If at this time a young drunken Lord should interrupt the pompous regularity of a magnificent funeral, what would be the event, but that he should be jostled out of the way, and compelled to be quiet?"

However, most interesting to me in Johnson's relation of the story of Dryden is the story of the rise and fall of Elkanah Settle. In 1663, Dryden became the greatest stage-writer of his time. But a few years later, Dryden's superior position was challenged by a man named Elkanah Settle, whose play The Empress of Morocco was wildly successful.

Dryden was terribly jealous of Settle's success. In some ways, who could blame him? As the most popular stage-writer of his time, Dryden was making only a little money from his writings. If someone took the top spot from Dryden, what would happen to Dryden's money? So, possibly just out of fear, Dryden may have felt like he had to condemn Settle's work.

Dryden wrote a scathing criticism of Settle's work. Dryden's criticisms of Settle were often overdone and, in my opinion, absurd, completely unreasonable.

Settle wrote a vindication of his work, and criticized Dryden's work at the same time. In my opinion, Settle's criticisms of Dryden are much more practical and reasonable than Dryden's criticisms of Settle.

In 1681, Dryden wrote his famous work Absalom and Achitophel, a poem in praise of King Charles II, comparing King Charles to King David. Of this poem, Johnson says:

"Of this poem, in which personal satire was applied in the support of publick principles, and in which therefore every mind was interested, the reception was eager, and the sale so large that my father, an old bookseller, told me he had no known it equalled but by Sacheverell's trial."

What Johnson takes a jab at here, Settle had taken an opportunity to attack, in a poem of his own. Settle was quite successful.

In that same year, Dryden wrote another poem, The Medal. Johnson writes: "Elkanah Settle, who had answered Absalom, appeared with equal courage in opposition to The Medal, and published an answer called The Medal Reversed, with so much success in both encounters that he left the palm doubtful, and divided the suffrages of the nation."

However, Settle had been backed, while fighting for his popularity against Dryden, by an Earl. It appeared later on that this Earl had grown jealous of the popularity Settle was starting to gather. So he took his support away from Settle. Settle's fortune dwindled. Settle was reduced to poverty. And he died, basically forgotten by all, in a hospital.

Johnson, however, seems to wish for a better fate to have befallen Settle:

"The man whose works have not yet been thought to deserve the care of collecting them; who died forgotten in an hospital... -- might with truth have had inscribed upon his stone -- 'Here Lies the Rival and Antagonist of Dryden.'"

Another rival to Dryden on the stage was Thomas Otway. And, as Dryden rivalled Settle on the stage, Otway rivalled Settle in tragic poverty.

Thomas Otway first made his appearance on the stage as an actor for one of Aphra Behn's plays. But he wasn't a very good actor. He turned his attentions to writing, and, in 1675, when he was 24 years old, wrote his first play, Alcibiades.

He seemed to be successful from the moment he started writing plays. And his plays remained popular all the way into Johnson's day. Johnson says of Otway's play, "Venice regained":

"The striking passages are in every mouth; and the publick seems to judge rightly of the faults and excellencies of this play, that it is the work of a man not attentive to decency nor zealous for virtue; but of one who conceived forcibly by consulting nature from his own breast."

Nevertheless, Otway's plays were even more dissolute and licentious than Dryden's. And, in Johnson's time, Otway's play Friendship in Fashion was too much for the audience:

"Whatever might be its first reception [in 1678], was, upon its revival at Drury-Lane, in 1749, hissed off the stage for immorality and obscenity."

But, unlike Dryden, who lived a somewhat quiet life, writing in the daytime, dining at mid-day, and spending the evenings at Will's Coffee-House, acting as an arbiter of dramatic questions, Otway partook in the general character of his times. His life was just as rowdy, it appears, as his plays. This made him popular, as Johnson implies:

"Want of morals or decency did not in these days exclude any man from the company of the wealthy and the gay if he brought with him any powers of entertainment; and Otway is said to have been at this time a favorite companion of the dissolute wits."

But these wealthy people would drop a man, as well, as soon as they were no longer entertained by him. And Otway was often left, empty-handed, as the parties ended and he was no longer of any use.

Despite his success on the stage, Otway was left destitute at the age of thirty-four. Two accounts of his final end are related by Johnson.

In one account, which seems to be more widely related, Otway, loaded down with debt, ended up boarding in a public house on Tower Hill. Otway was so poor, he hadn't eaten in days. As Johnson says: "He went out, as is reported, almost naked, in the rage of hunger, and, finding a gentleman in a neighboring coffee-house, asked him for a shilling. The gentleman gave him a guinea, and Otway going away bought a roll, and was choked with the first mouthful."

The other story that Johnson tells finds Otway in the same state of destitution. Only, in this story, one of Otway's fellow boarders on Tower Hill had been attacked by a thief. Otway pursued and apprehended the thief. Then, hot from running, Otway drank from a river. He contracted some sickness from the river and died.

In either case, Otway died at a point in his life where he couldn't even afford to eat.

Otway's story is probably the most tragic of the first volume of the Lives. However, the story of the Earl of Rochester is likely the most lurid.

John Wilmot, who later became the Earl of Rochester, was an incredible prodigy. At the age of twelve, he entered Wadham College. At the age of 14, he attained his M.A.

From his academic achievements, Wilmot went on to display military bravery. He fought at Bergen for the Earl of Sandwich, and distinguished himself in a sea-battle. As Johnson relates:

"Sir Edward Spragge, who in the heat of the engagement, having a message of reproof to send to one of his captains, could find no man ready to carry it but Wilmot, who, in an open boat, went and returned amidst the storm of shot."

From these auspicious beginnings, Wilmot made his way to Court, where, living as a courtier, for Charles II, he took on the deplorable manners which, according to my understanding of Johnson, natually became the Court in those days.

Johnson's distaste for this age seems reasonable. Probably the most repugnant story Johnson relates in this volume relates, not to Wilmot, but to Samuel Butler. The Duke of Buckingham had actually given an offer to Samuel Butler to be the Duke's Secretary, while the Duke was Chancellor of Cambridge. Butler a friend were supposed to meet the Duke at the Roebuck. And so they did. However, at the Roebuck, as Wycherley tells the story:

"Mr. Butler and his friend attended accordingly: the Duke joined them; but as the d---l would have it, the door of the room where they sat was open, and his Grace, who had seated himself near it, observing a pimp of his acquaintance (the creature too was a knight) trip by with a brace of Ladies, immediately quitted his engagement, to follow another kind of business, at which he was more ready than in doing good offices to men of desert, though no one was better qualified than he, both in regard to his fortune and understanding, to protect them; and from that time to the day of his death, poor Butler never found the least effect of his promise."

But, looking back to our current subject, Johnson says that John Wilmot, later the Earl of Rochester, after coming to court and being introduced to the manners there, took to the teachings quite well, and "was for four or five years together continually drunk."

Wilmot would conduct all kinds of "gay frolicks," which are not widely recorded, and which Johnson says history is better off forgetting.

Which, of course, makes me want to find them all...

One of Wilmot's "frolicks" was, as Johnson says, that he dressed as other people so that he could get away with having love affairs with people who were considered to be "low" at that time. However, while disguising himself in these ways, he'd often act the parts he played, regardless of what they were, so well that not even his friends would be able to tell who he was, and were amazed to hear that they had actually been in Wilmot's presence.

In one of his guises, Wilmot even lived for a while as a practising physician.

Another of Wilmot's pastimes was writing libellous poems. He would employs footmen to follow Ladies he knew were carrying on intrigues. The footmen would gather what information they could while eavesdropping. Once the footmen had passed Wilmot enough information about a number of Ladies, Wilmot would retire into th woods for a couple months. Returning, he'd have a whole body of literature libelling various notable Ladies for their lascivious actitivies.

Again -- this sounds exactly like something I'd like to read.

Nevertheless, Johnson wasn't impressed. And his discussion of Rochester's career is almost like a Satanic opposite of the praiseworthy-checklists he spouted off while discussing Milton:

"Thus in a course of drunken gaiety and gross sensuality, with intervals of study perhaps more criminal, with an avowed contempt of all decency and order, a total disregard for every moral, and a resolute denial of every religious obligation, he lived worthless and useless, and blazed out his youth and health in lavish voluptuousness, till, at the age of one and thirty, he had exhausted the fund of life, and reduced himself to a state of weakness and decay."

However, Rochester met Dr. Burnet, who helped Rochester mend his ways and take a more Christian mindset. Rochester maintained this mindset until he died at the age of thirty-four.

Charles Sackville, later Earl of Dorset, was also a member of Charles II's dissolute court. He was, like Rochester, a favorite of Charles. And he was part of the same circle of riotous friends as the Earl of Rochester.

These friends had the habit of stripping naked and running through the town, harrassing people. This habit eventually got Sackville in trouble. Sedley, one of Dorset's circle, got drunk at The Cock, in Barn-Street. He stripped naked, ran into the street, and harangued the crowd. The crowd wasn't taking it on this night. They forced Sedley, Dorset, and the rest back into The Cock. Dorset and his friends were arrested.

Dorset wasn't punished, but Sedley was fined five-hundred pounds. So Dorset and his friends went all around town, begging for the money, until they had the five-hundred pounds they needed for the fine.

However, Dorset shaped up not long after all this. He fought in the Dutch War in 1665, and even composed one of his most famous songs, tradition says, on the night before the great Battle of June 3rd, where Britain took eighteen Dutch ships and destroyed fourteen more.

When King James II took the throne, Dorset was given good notices. However, James' reign was soon seen to be a bad rule, and Dorset took part in the revolution against him.

King William succeeded King James, and Dorset was just as popular with him as he had been with James and Charles. However, as Johnson says, Dorset "happened to be among those that were tossed with the king in an open boat sixteen hours, in very rough and cold weather, on the coast of Holland." Dorset got sick and passed away in January of 1706.

Wentworth Dillon, the Earl of Roscommon is known, like Waller, for having improved the elegance of English poetry, though not so much as Waller had.

Roscommon's family's lands were in Ireland. Roscommon was removed from his lands when he was young, as the wars were making life there unsafe. Interestingly, Roscommon seems to have had a telepathic episode, where he saw that his father had died. Johnson included this episode of paranormal perception. He seems to have thought that "by preserving such relations that we may at last judge how much they are to be regarded.

After graduating from Caen in Ireland, Roscommon went to Italy. After Charles II restored the throne, Roscommon went to England. Roscommon was made Captain of a band of pensioners. Here Roscommon became addicted to gambling. Roscommon's gambling addiction led not only to poverty, but also to plenty of physical fights.

At one time, Roscommon's family lands in Ireland came into dispute. So Roscommon had to go back home to see to matters. The Duke of Ormond gave Roscommon the employment of Captain of Guards while he was in Ireland.

However, while in Dublin, Roscommon succumbed again to his gambling habit. He had a fight with three men, who then decided to stalk him and attack him near where he was staying for the night. All three men assailed Roscommon. Thankfully another man was nearby and took Roscommon's side. Roscommon and the man took care of two of the attackers, while the third fled.

Roscommon asked the Duke of Ormond to make this helping man Captain of the Guards in his place. The Duke of Ormond allowed this. Three years later this man died. Roscommon took the position back until he left Ireland.

In England, Roscommon, now having mended his ways, took on various offices for the Crown and court. He also made attempts at forming a society for refining the English language. Roscommon also wrote an Essay on Translated verse. John Dryden supported Roscommon in the attempts to form a society for refining the English language. But the attempts weren't very successful.

In this connection, Johnson, instead of only railing the times of Charles II, actually says something terrific about the times he himself lived in:

"We live in an age in which it is a kind of publick sport to refuse all respect that cannot be enforced. The edicts of an English academy would probably be read by many, only that they might be sure to disobey them."

Roscommon's dreams were further hampered when King James' accession to the throne was accompanied by an almost complete suppression of literary institutions. Roscommon saw that things in England were only going to get worse under King James.

So Roscommon decided to go back to Italy, to Rome. Roscommon seems to have thought that King James' Catholic leanings would make Rome a good place to take refuge. Johnson relates that Roscommon "alleged that it ws best to sit near the chimney when the chamber smoked, a sentence of which the application seems not very clear."

However, as Johnson states, Roscommon's "departure was delayed by the gout, and he was so impatient either of hindrance or pain that he submitted himself to a French empirick, who is said to have repelled the disease into his bowels." And, from this, Roscommon died, in 1684.

But of all the poets in the first volume of Johnson's Lives, the strangest one to me seems to have been John Philips. He seems to have been a golden child -- the only one in the whole volume. He must have been quite beautiful. At least his hair was. For as Johnson says:

"It is related that while he was at school he seldom mingled in play with the other boys, but retired to his chamber, where his sovereign pleasure was to sit hour after hour while his hair was combed by somebody, whose service he found means to procure."

During these hours of sitting and having his hair combed, Philips would read John Milton's Paradise Lost.

Philips later went to Christ Church, Oxford, where he was recognized as a genius. He studied phsyic and loved botany. But he also wrote poetry

The work for which he is most famous is called The Splendid Shilling, a kind of parody of Milton centered around a shilling-piece. This work itself created a whole genre of imitation-poems. He went on to write the poem Cider, about cultivating trees. For all its faults (and Johnson can find faults), Johnson seems to have liked this poem.

Philips suffered from consumption and asthma, and he died in 1708.

Philips also gets praise that not a lot of poets get from Johnson, after Milton: "Philips has always been praised without contradiction as a man modest, blameless, and pious; who bore narrowness of fortune without discontent, and tedious and painful maladies without impatioence; beloved by those that knew him, but not ambitious to be known. He was probably not formed for a wider circle."

It strange to imagine that there was this almost ethereal being floating around England at the same time that all this riotous behavior was going on. But I think Philips matches the environment somehow: an enshrined golden-boy. A mild genius, cloistered with another boy combing his hair, like a Lady and her Maid. And, after producing a few sweet works of genius, the boy passes away from a disease of the breath. His spirit leaves him.