Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pomfret, John

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POMFRET, JOHN (1667–1702), poet, born at Luton, Bedfordshire, in 1667, was the son of Thomas Pomfret, vicar of Luton, who married, at St. Mary's, Savoy, Middlesex, on 27 Nov. 1661, Catherine, daughter of William Dobson of Holborn (Harl. Soc. Publ. 1887, xxvi. 287). The father graduated M.A. from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1661, became chaplain to Robert Bruce, second earl of Elgin and first earl of Ailesbury [q. v.], and is probably identical with the Thomas Pomfret, author of the ‘Life of Lady Christian, Dowager Countess of Devonshire’ (privately printed 1685). The poet was educated at Bedford grammar school and at Queens' College, Cambridge, graduating B.A. in 1684, and M.A. in 1688. He took orders upon leaving Cambridge, and, having influential connections, he was instituted to the rectory of Maulden in Bedfordshire on 12 Dec. 1695, and to the rectory of Millbrook in the same county on 2 June 1702. He dabbled in verse at least as early as 1694, when he wrote an elegy upon the death of Queen Mary. This was published in 1699, with other pieces in heroic couplets, remarkable chiefly for their correctness, under the title of ‘Poems on Several Occasions.’ One of the longer poems, called ‘Cruelty and Lust,’ commemorates an act of barbarity said to have been perpetrated by Colonel Kirke during the western rebellion. Pomfret's treatment of the situation is prosaically tame. The sale of these ‘miscellany poems’ was greatly stimulated by Pomfret's publication in 1700 of his chief title to remembrance, ‘The Choice: a Poem written by a Person of Quality’ (London, fol.), which won instant fame. Four quarto editions appeared during 1701. In the meantime Pomfret issued ‘A Prospect of Death: an Ode’ (1700, fol.), and ‘Reason: a Poem’ (1700, fol.). A second edition of his poems, including ‘The Choice,’ appeared in 1702 as ‘Miscellany Poems on Several Occasions, by the author of “The Choice.”’ A third edition was issued in 1710; the tenth appeared in 1736, 12mo, and the last separate edition in 1790, 24mo. When the scheme for the ‘Lives of the Poets’ was submitted by the booksellers to Dr. Johnson, the name of Pomfret (together with three others) was added by his advice; Johnson remarks that ‘perhaps no poem in our language has been so often perused’ as ‘The Choice.’ It is an admirable exposition in neatly turned verse of the everyday epicureanism of a cultivated man. Pomfret is said to have drawn some hints from a study of the character of Sir William Temple (cf. Gent. Mag. 1757, p. 489). The poet's frankly expressed aspiration to ‘have no wife’ displeased the bishop of London (Compton), to whom he had been recommended for preferment. Despite the fact that Pomfret was married, the bishop's suspicions were not dispelled before the poet's death. He was buried at Maulden on 1 Dec. 1702 (Genealogia Bedfordiensis, ed. Blaydes, p. 414).

Pomfret married at Luton, on 13 Sept. 1692, Elizabeth Wingate, by whom he had one surviving son, John Pomfret, baptised at Maulden on 21 Aug. 1702, who became rouge croix pursuivant of arms in July 1725, and, dying on 24 March 1751, was buried at Harrowden in Bedfordshire (Hist. Regist. 1725; Noble, Hist. of the College of Arms, pp. 362, 394; Gent. Mag. 1751, p. 141).

Pomfret's poems were printed in Johnson's ‘English Poets’ (1779, vol. xxi.), Chalmers's ‘Poets’ (1810, vol. viii.), Park's ‘British Poets’ (1808, supplement, vol. i.), Roach's ‘Beauties of the Poets’ (1794, vol. ii.), and Pratt's ‘Cabinet of Poetry’ (1808, vol. ii.) The exclusion of Pomfret from more recent literary manuals and anthologies sufficiently indicates that Johnson's strange verdict finds few supporters at the present day. At the end of the fourth edition of ‘The Choice’ (1701) is advertised ‘A Poem in Answer to the Choice that would have no wife.’

[Cole's Athenæ Cantabr. (Addit. MS. 5878, f. 167); Graduati Cantabr.; Cibber's Lives of the Poets, vol. v.; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, ii. 3; Chalmers's Biogr. Dict.; Blaydes's Genealogia Bedfordiensis, pp. 186, 409, 414; Notes and Queries, 8th ser. ii. 27, viii. passim; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, ii. 239; works in British Museum; Bodleian and Huth Library Catalogues.]

T. S.