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Eighteenth Century



Earl of Rochester

John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, 1688. NMM.

An Epistolary Essay from M. G. to O. B. upon
Their Mutual Poems

[Shortly after 21 Nov. 1679]

Apparently attempting to repeat the technique he had used earlier in "A Very Heroical Epistle in Answer to Ephelia", Rochester in "An Epistolary Essay" satirizes John Sheffield, Earl of Mulgrave, by depicting him as person. In the later poem, the self-centered speaker renders himself ridiculous by unconsciously violating traditional conceptions of good writing. The initials "M. G." are the first letters of the two syllables of Mulgrave's name; "O. B.," whatever the initials may stand for, represents John Dryden.

The "Epistolary Essay" seems to be Rochester's principal retort to the attack on him in Mulgrave's "An Essay upon Satyr," which he mentions in a letter of 21 November 1679. Most contemporaries, including Rochester in his letter, believed that Dryden was at least part-author of "An Essay upon Satyr." The lampoon aroused considerable resentment, which expressed itself most forcibly in the beating of Dryden in Rose Alley on the night of 18 December 1679.

Dear friend,
             I hear this town does so abound
With saucy censurers, that faults are found
With what of late we, in poetic rage
Bestowing, threw away on the dull age.
But howsoe'er envy their spleen may raise
To rob my brow of the deservèd bays,
Their thanks at I least I merit, since through me
They are partakers of your poetry.
And this is all I'll say in my defence:
T' obtain one line of your well-worded sense,
I'd be content t' have writ the British Prince.
      I'm none of those who think themselves inspired,
Nor write with the vain hopes to be admired,
But from a rule I have upon long trial:
T' avoid with care all sort of self-denial.
Which way soe'er desire and fancy lead,
Contemning fame, that path I boldly tread.
And if, exposing what I take for wit,
To my dear self a pleasure I beget,
No matter through the censuring critic fret.
Those whom my muse displeases are at strife
With equal spleen against my course of life,
That least delight of which I'd not forgo
For all the flattering praise man can bestow.
If I designed to please, the way were then
To mend my manners rather than my pen.
The first's unnatural, therefore unfit,
And for the second, I despair of it,
Since grace is not so hard to get as wit.
      Perhaps ill verses ought to be confined
In mere good breeding, like unsavory wind.
Were reading forced, I should be apt to think
Men might no more write scurvily than stink.
But 'tis your choice whether you'll read or no;
If likewise of your smelling it were so,
I'd fart, just as I write, for my own ease,
Nor should you be concerned unless you please.
I'll own that you write better than I do,
But I have as much need to write as you.
What though the excrement of my dull brain
Runs in a costive and insipid strain,
Whilst your rich head eases itself of wit:
Must none but civet cats have leave to shit?
      In all I write, should sense and wit and rhyme
Fail me at once, yet something so sublime
Shall stamp my poem, that the world may see
It could have been produced by none but me.
And that's my end, for man can wish no more
Than so to write, as none e'er writ before.
      But why am I no poet of the times?
I have allusions, similes, and rhymes,
And wit—or else 'tis hard that I alone
Of the whole race of mankind should have none.
Unequally the partial hand of heaven
Has all but this one only blessing given.
The world appears like a large family
Whose lord, oppressed with pride and poverty,
That to a few great plenty he may show,
Is fain to starve the numerous train below:
Just so seems Providence, as poor and vain,
Keeping more creatures than it can maintain;
Here 'tis profuse, and there it meanly saves,
And for one prince it makes ten thousand slaves.
In wit alone 't has been munificent,
Of which so just a share to each is sent
That the most avaricious is content:
Who ever thought—the due division's such—
His own too little, or his friend's too much?
Yet most men show, or find great want of wit,
Writing themselves, or judging what is writ.
But I, who am of sprightly vigor full,
Look on mankind as envious and dull.
Born to myself, myself I like alone
And must conclude my judgment good, or none.
For should my sense be nought, how could I know
Whether another man's be good or no?
Thus I resolve of my own poetry
That 'tis the best, and that's a fame for me.
If then I'm happy, what does it advance
Whether to merit due, or arrogance?
"Oh! but the world will take offense by thereby."
Why then, the world will suffer for 't, not I.
Did e'er this saucy world and I agree
To let it have its beastly will of me?
Why should my prostituted sense be drawn
To every rule their musty customs spawn?
"But men will censure you." 'Tis ten to one
Whene'er they censure, they'll be in the wrong.
There's not a thing on earth that I can name
So foolish and so false as common fame.
It calls th' courtier knave, the plain man rude,
Haughty the grave, and the delightful lewd,
Impertinent the brisk, morose the sad,
Mean the familiar, the reserved one mad.
Poor helpless woman is not favored more:
She's a sly hypocrite, or public whore.
Then who the devil would give this to be free
From th' innocent reproach of infamy?
      These things considered make me, in despite
Of idle rumor, keep at home and write.





















11. British Prince: Edward Howard's epic The Brittish Princes, published about May 1669, became a byword in the Restoration for bad poetry. Howard was Dryden's brother-in-law.
45. Sublime: a surprisingly early allusion to Longinus, whose Peri Hupsous was first made generally available to Englishmen in Boileau's French translation published in 1674.
64-68: Cf. Descartes, Discourse on Method, the opening sentence of Part I: "Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess."
97. this: probably implying a gesture such as snapping the fingers.

The Complete Poems of the Earl of Rochester. David M. Vieth, ed.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002. 144-7.


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