Amhurst, Nicholas (DNB00)

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AMHURST, NICHOLAS (1697–1742), poet and political writer, was born at Marden in Kent 16 Oct. 1697 (C. J. Robinson's Register of Merchant Taylors' School, ii. 22). He was educated at Merchant Taylors' School, whence he was elected (16 June 1716) to a scholarship at St. John's College, Oxford. He published, whilst at Oxford, an ‘Epistle from a Student at Oxford to the Chevalier;’ a ‘Congratulatory Epistle to Addison on his being made Secretary of State;’ and a translation of Addison's poem on the resurrection; but on 29 June 1719, when he would have proceeded in due course to a fellowship, he was expelled from the university, on account, it was alleged, of his libertinism and misconduct. According, however, to Amhurst's own account of the affair, the action of the authorities was prompted solely by their dislike of his persistent whig principles, and of his openly expressed hatred of toryism and of the extreme high-church party. In the ironical dedication to Dr. Delaune prefixed to his poems, he gives the following reasons why ‘one Nicholas Amhurst of St. John's College was expelled. Imprimis, for loving foreign turnips and presbyterian bishops. Item, for ingratitude to his benefactor, that spotless martyr, William Laud. Item, for believing that steeples and organs are not necessary to salvation. Item, for preaching without orders and praying without a commission. Item, for lampooning priestcraft and petticoat-craft. Item, for not lampooning the government and the revolution. Item, for prying into secret history.’ It is impossible to say how much truth there is in this and other narratives of the transaction given by Amhurst; but it is tolerably certain that he was an enthusiastic whig at Oxford and a member of the Constitution Club, which was in much disfavour with the heads of colleges and leading members of the university, who were nearly all violent tories. This, and a faculty for detecting and satirising the abuses which were rife in the university, might have been sufficient in themselves to cause the authorities of St. John's to grasp eagerly at an opportunity of getting rid of him. In 1718 he had published a poem in five cantons, called ‘Protestant Popery; or the Convocation’ (printed by Curll, without the author's name), in which Bishop Hoadly is eulogised, and the same year he wrote a shorter poem called ‘Strephon's Revenge; a Satire on the Oxford Toasts,’ which deals severely with the license and profligacy prevailing in the university town. He was also the author (in all probability) of a poem called ‘The Protestant Session. . . . By a member of the Constitution Club at Oxford,’ printed by Curll in 1719, in which Stanhope is addressed in a strain of excessive adulation. On his expulsion from Oxford in June 1719, Amhurst seems to have settled in London, and to have adopted literature as his profession. In 1721 he began a series of fifty periodical papers called ‘Terræ Filius,’ which appeared every Wednesday and Saturday from 11 January to 6 July. The ‘Terræ Filius’ was Amhurst's revenge on the university, which it satirises very severely. It is written with much liveliness, and occasionally with a good deal of humour, and though no doubt greatly exaggerated it is of considerable value owing to the ample description it gives of life at Oxford in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. No. 45 of the series contains the narrative of Amhurst's expulsion from the university, and No. 50 an account of the Oxford Constitution Club. A second edition, with a letter to the vice-chancellor, appeared in 1726. In 1720 Amhurst published a small volume of ‘Poems on Several Occasions,’ which include paraphrases of the first chapter of Genesis and the fourteenth chapter of Exodus; a number of imitations of Catullus; several epigrams on the author's Oxford enemies; and an account of the invention of the cork-screw. Without displaying any high poetical power, Amhurst knew how to turn out smooth and fluent verses, not deficient in a certain wit and liveliness, although occasionally disfigured by a good deal of coarseness. The ‘Poems’ were successful enough to call for a second edition in 1723, to which was added ‘The Test of Love.’ In 1722 Amhurst published ‘The British General, a Poem sacred to the memory of John Duke of Marlborough,’ in 1722 ‘The Conspiracy,’ inscribed to Lord Cadogan, and in 1724 ‘Oculus Britanniæ,’ a satirical poem on his old enemy the university of Oxford. Of his subsequent literary career we have few particulars. He contributed largely to a periodical called ‘Common Sense,’ and gradually became prominent among the group of pamphleteers and journalists who assailed the government of Sir Robert Walpole. On 5 Dec. 1726 he issued, under the Pseudonym of ‘Caleb D'Anvers of Gray's Inn,’ the first number of the famous ‘Craftsman,’ the most successful of all the political journals of this age. Bolingbroke and Pulteney contributed very largely to the pages of the ‘Craftsman,’ and it was to them (and to the former in particular) that it chiefly owed both its literary merit and its great reputation; Amhurst, however, appears to have had from the beginning the editorial conduct of the paper, and to have managed it with much ability. Its success was remarkable. It was said to have attracted more attention than any periodical of the kind hitherto published in Great Britain , and as many as ten thousand copies were sold in one day. On 2 July 1737 there appeared in the ‘Craftsman’ an ironical letter purporting to come from Colley Cibber, the poet laureate, in which it was suggested that the new act for licensing plays should be extended to old as well as new works, and pointed out that there was a good deal which might be construed as seditious in the works of Shakespeare and other writers. The letter concludes by suggesting that the ostensible writer, Cibber, should be made licenser and corrector of old plays. For this ‘suspected libel,’ as it was called, the printer of the ‘Craftsman’ was arrested by warrant from the secretary of state; but Amhurst surrendered himself in his stead, and was kept in custody some days. He only obtained his release on suing out his Habeas Corpus before the judges; and the matter was then dropped by the government. Two pamphlets against the excise were reprinted from the ‘Craftsman’ in 1733, and are ascribed to Amhurst. The last years of Amhurst's life were unfortunate. When Pulteney and his friends made their peace with the government, they did nothing for their useful associate; and the closing portion of his life appears to have been spent in much poverty and distress. He died at Twickenham, 12 April 1742, of a broken heart, it is said, and according to one account was indebted to the charity of his printer, Richard Francklin, for a tomb.

[Cibber's Lives of the Poets, 1753, v. 335; Ralph's Case of Authors by Profession, 1758, p. 32; Davis's Lord Chesterfield's Characters Reviewed; Gent. Mag. vii. 430, 573; Kippis's Biographia Britannica; H. B. Wilson's History of Merchant Taylors' School.]

S. J. L.