The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets/Volume 1/Roscommon

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WENTWORTH DILLON, earl of Roscommon, was the son of James Dillon and Elizabeth Wentworth, sister to the earl of Strafford. He was born in Ireland during the lieutenancy of Strafford, who, being both his uncle and his godfather, gave him his own surname. His father, the third earl of Roscommon, had been converted by Usher to the Protestant religion; and when the Popish rebellion broke out, Strafford thinking the family in great danger from the fury of the Irish, sent for his godson, and placed him at his own seat in Yorkshire, where he was instructed in Latin; which he learned so as to write it with purity and elegance, though he was never able to retain the rules of grammar.

Such is the account given by Mr. Fenton, from whose notes on Waller most of this account must be borrowed, though I know not whether all that he relates is . The instructor whom he assigns to Roscommon is one Dr. Hall, by whom he cannot mean the famous Hall, then an old man and a bishop.

When the storm broke out upon Strafford, his house was a shelter no longer; and Dillon, by the advice of Usher, was sent to Caen, where the Protestants had then an university, and continued his studies under Bochart.

Young Dillon, who was sent to study under Bochart, and who is represented as: having already made grat proficiency in literature, could not be more than nine years old. Strafford went to govern Ireland in 1633, and was put to death eight years afterwards. That he was sent to Caen, is certain; that he was a great scholar, may be doubted.

At Caen he is said to have had some preter-natural intelligence of his father's death.

"The lord Roscommon, being a boy of ten years of age, at Caen in Normandy, one day was, as it were, madly extravagant in playing, leaping, getting over the tables, boards, &c. He was wont 294 ROSC,OMMGN. “to be sober, enough ; they said, God “grant this bodes no ill-luck to him . In “ the heat of this extravagant fit, he cries “ out, My father is dead. A fortnight af “ter, news came from Ireland that his fa “ ther was dead. This account I had from “Mr. Knolles, who was his governor, and “ then with him, since secretary to the “earl of Strafford; and I have heard his “lordship's relations confirm the same.” Aubrey's Miscellamy. The present age is very little inclined to favour any accounts of this kind, nor will the name of Aubrey much recommend it to credit: it ought not, however, to be omit ted, because better evidence of a fact can not easily be found than is here offered, and it must be by preserving such relations that we may at last judge how much they are to be regarded. If we stay to examine this account, we shall sce difficulties on both sides : here is the relation of a fact ceive, and who could not be deceived him self; and here i s , o n the other hand, a miracle which produces n o effect; the or der o f nature i s interrupted t o discover not -- - -

a fu ROSCOMMON. 295 a future but only a distant event, the know ledge of which is of no use to him to whom it is revealed. Between these difficulties, what way shall be found Is reason or testimony to be rejected I believe what Osborne says of an appearance of sanétity may be applied to such impulses or antici pations as this: Do not wholly slight them, because they may be true; but do not easily trus; them, because they may be false. . . . The state both of England and Ireland was at this time such, that he who was absent from either country had very little temptation to return ; and therefore Ros common, when he left Caen, travelled into Italy, and amused himself with i t s an tiquities, and particularly with medals, i n which h e acquired uncommon skill. At the Restoration, with the other friends o f monarchy, h e came t o England, was made captain o f the band o f pensioners, and learned s o much o f the dissoluteness of the court, that h e addicted himself im moderately t o gaming, b y which h e was engaged i n frequent quarrels, and which undoubtedly brought upon him i t s usual concomitants, extravagance and distress. U 4 - After 296 ROSCOMMON. or 7...Troop After some time, a dispute about part of his estate forced him into Ireland, where he was made by the duke of Ormond cap tain of the guards, and met with an ad venture thus related by Fenton: “He was at Dublin as much as ever dis “tempered with the same fatal affection “for play, which engaged him in one ad “ venture that well deserves to be related. “As he returned to his lodgings from a “gaming-table, he was attacked in the “ dark by three ruffians, who were em “ployed to assassinate him. The Earl “ defended himself with so much resolu “tion, that he dispatched one of the ag “gressors : whilst a gentleman, acciden “tally passing that way, interposed, and “ disarmed another : the third secured “ himself by flight. This generous assist “ ant was a disbanded officer, of a good fa “mily and fair reputation; who, by what “we call the partiality of fortune, to avoid “ censuring the iniquities of the times, “wanted even a plain suit of cloaths to “make a decent appearance at the castle. “But his lordship, on this occasion, pre “senting him to the Duke of Ormond, - - - &4 with ROSCOMMON. 297 “with great importunity prevailed with “his grace, that he might resign his post “ of captain of the guards to his friend; “which for about three years the gentle “man enjoyed, and, upon his death, the “duke returned the commission to his ge “nerous benefactor.” When he had finished his business, he returned to London ; was made Master of the Horse to the Dutchess of York; and married the Lady Frances, daughter of the Earl of Burlington, and widow of Colonel Courteney. He fiow busied his mind with literary projećts, and formed the plan of a society for refining our language,and fixing i t s stan dard

i n imitation, says Fenton, o f those /earned and polite societies with which A e Aad been acquainted abroad. I n this design his friend Dryden i s said t o have assisted him. The same design, i t i s well known, was revived b y Dr. Swift i n the ministry o f Ox ford; but i t has never fince been publicly mentioned, though a t that time great ex pectations were formed b y some o f i t s esta blishment and i t s effects. Such a society might, without much difficulty, b e col lečted; 298 ROSCOMMON. lcóted ; but that it would produce what is expected from it may be doubted. The Italian academy seems to have ob tained i t s end. The language was refined, and s o fixed that i t has changed but little. The French academy thought that they re fined their language, and doubtless thought rightly

but the event has not shewn that they fixed it; for the French o f the pre fent time i s very different from that o f the last century. I n this country a n academy could b e ex pe&ted t o d o but little. I f a n academician's place were profitable, i t would b e given b y interest; i f attendance were gratuitous, i t would b e rarely paid, and n o man would endure the least disgust. Unanimity i s im possible, and debate would separate the assembly. - ! But suppose the philological decree made and promulgated, what would b e i t s au thority

I n absolute governments, there i s sometimes a general reverence paid t o a l l that has the sanction o f power, and the countenance o f greatness. How little this i s the state o f our country needs not t o b e told. We live i n a n age i n which i t i s a - 5 kind ROSCOMMON. 299 kind of public sport to refuse a l l respect that cannot be enforced. The edićts o f an English academy would probably b e read b y many, only that they might b e sure t o disobey them. - That our language i s i n perpetual dan ger o f corruption cannot b e denied

but what prevention can b e found The pre sent manners o f the nation would deride authority, and therefore nothing i s left but that every writer should criticise himself." All hopes o f new literary institutions were quickly suppressed b y the contentious turbulence o f King James's reign

and Roscommon, foreseeing that some violent concussion o f the State was a t hand, pur posed t o retire t o Rome, alleging, that i t was beft t o s t near t h e chimney when t h e chamber smoked; a sentence, o f which the application seems not very clear. -- His departure was delayed b y the gout

and h e was s o impatient either o f hindrance o r o f pain, that h e submitted himself t o a French empirick, who i s said t o have re pelled the disease into h i s bowels. -- A t the moment i n which h e czpired, h e uttered, with a n energy o f voice that ex RO - > pressed 3oo ROSCOMMON. pressed the most fervent devotion, two lines of his own version of Dies Ira! : My God, my Father, and my Friend, Do not forsake me in my end. He died in 1684; and was buried with great pomp in Westminster-Abbey. His poetical character is given by Mr. Fenton : - “In his writings,” says Fenton, “we “view the image of a mind which was na “turally serious and solid: richly furnished “ and adorned with all the ornaments of “learning, unaffectedly disposed in the “most regular and elegant order. His “imagination might have probably been “more fruitful and sprightly, if his judge “ment had been less severe. But that fe “verity (delivered in a masculine, clear, “fuccinét style) contributed to make him “so eminent in the didaćtical manner, that “no man, with justice, can affirm he was “ever equalled by any of our nation, with “out confessing at the same time that he “is inferior to none. In some other kinds “ of writing his genius seems to have “wanted fire to attain the point of perfec “tion; but who can attain it f" - From ROSCOMMON. 3oI From this account of the riches of his mind, who would not imagine that they had been displayed in large volumes and numerous performances : Who would not, after the perusal of this charaćter, be sur prised to find that a l l the proofs o f this genius, and knowledge and judgement, are not sufficient t o form a single book, o r t o appear otherwise than i n conjunction with the works of some other writer of the same pretty size” But thus i t i s that cha raēters are written: we know somewhat, and we imagine the rest. The observation, that his imagination would probably have been more fruitful and sprightly, i f his judgement had been less severe, may b e answered, b y a remarker somewhat inclined t o cavil, b y a contrary supposition, that

They were published together with those o f Duke, i n a n oétavo volume, i n 1717. The editor, whoever h e was, professes t o have taken great care t o procure and insert a l l o f h i s lordship's poems that a r e truly genuine. The truth o f this assertion i s flatly denied b y the author o f a n account o f Mr. John Pomfret, prefixed t o his Remains; who asserts, that the Prospect o f Death was written b y that person many years after lord Roscommon's decease; a s also, that the pa raphrase o f the Prayer o f Jeremy was written b y a gentleman o f t h e name o f Southcourt, living i n the year 1724. H . his 3oz ROSCOMMON. his judgement would probably have been less severe, if his imagination had been more fruitful. It is ridiculous to oppose judgement to imagination; for it does not appear that men have necessarily less of one as they have more of the other. We must allow of Roscommon, what Fenton has not mentioned so distinétly as he ought, and what is yet very much to his honour, that he is perhaps the only correót writer in verse before Addison; and that, if there are not so many or so great beau ties in his compositions as in those of some contemporaries, there are at least fewer faults. Nor is this h i s highest praise; for Mr. Pope has celebrated him a s the only moral writer o f King Charles's reign

- Unhappy Dryden i n a l l Charles's days, Roscommon only boasts unspotted lays. His great work i s his Essay o n Translated Verse; o f which Dryden writes thus i n the preface t o h i s Miscellanies: - - - “It was my Lord Roscommon's Essay on “Translated Verse,” says Dryden, “which “made me uneasy, till I tried whether “ o r n o I was capable o f following his “rules, and o f reducing the speculation “ into ROSCOMMON. 303 “into practice. For many a fair precept “in poetry is like a seeming demonstration “in mathematicks, very specious in the “ diagram, but failing in the mechanick “operation. I think I have generally ob “served his instructions: I am sure my “reason is sufficiently convinced both of “ their truth and usefulness; which, in “other words, is to confess no less a vanity “ than to pretend that I have, at least in “some places, made examples to h i s rules.” This declaration o f Dryden will, I am afraid, b e found little more than one o f those cursory civilities which one author pays t o another

for, when the sum o f lord Roscommon's precepts i s colle&ted, i t will not b e easy t o discover how they can qua lify their reader for a better performance o f translation than might have been a t tained b y his own refle&tions. - He that can abstraćt his mind from the elegance o f the poetry, and confine i t t o the sense o f the precepts, will find n o other dire&tion than that the author should b e . suitable to the translator’s genius; that he should b e such a s may deserve a transla tion

that h e who intends t o translate him should 324 ROSCOMMON. should endeavour to understand him; that perspicuity should be studied, and unusual and uncouth names sparingly inserted ; and that the style of the original should be copied in i t s elevation and depression. These are the rules that are celebrated as s o definite and important; and for the de livery o f which t o mankind s o much ho nour has been paid. Roscommon has in deed deserved his praises, had they been given with discernment, and bestowed not on the rules themselves, but the art with which they are introduced, and the deco rations with which they are adorned. The Essay, though generally excellent, i s not without i t s faults. The story o f the Quack, borrowed from Boileau, was not worth the importation

h e has confound e d the British and Saxon mythology; I grant that from some mossy idol oak, I n double rhymes, our Thor and Woden spoke. The oak, a s I think Gildon has observed, belonged t o the British druids, and Thor and Woden were Saxon deities. Of the double rhymes, which h e s o liberally sup poses, h e certainly had n o knowledge. His T:OSCOMMON. 305 His interposition of a long paragraph of blank verses is unwarrantably licentious. Latin poets might as well have introduced a series of iambicks among their heroicks. His next work is the translation of the Art of Poetry; which has received, in my opinion, not less praise than it deserves. Blank verse, left merely to i t s numbers, has little operation o n the ear o r mind: i t can hardly support itself without bold f i gures and striking images. A poem frigidly didaćtick, without rhyme, i s s o near t o prose, that the reader only scorns i t for pretending t o b e verse. Having disentangled himself from the difficulties o f rhyme, h e may justly b e ex pected t o give the sense o f Horace with great exactness, and t o suppress n o subtilty o f sentiment for the difficulty o f expressing i t . This demand, however, his translation will not satisfy

what h e found obscure, I d o not know that h e has ever cleared. Among his smaller works, the Eclogue o f Virgil and the Dies Irae are well trans lated

though the best line i n the Dies Irae i s borrowed from Dryden. I n return, suc, ceeding poets have borrowed from Ros COIT, II, OIl. Vol. I . - X I n 306 ROSCOMMON. In the verses on the Lap-dog, the pro nouns thou and you are offensively con founded ; and the turn at the end is from Waller. His versions of the two odes of Horace are made with great liberty, which is not recompensed by much elegance or vigour. His political verses are spritely, and , when they were written must have been very popular. - Of the scene of Guarini, and the prologue of Pompey, Mrs. Philips, in her letters to Sir Charles Cotterel, has given the history. “Lord Roscommon,” says she, “is cer “tainly one of the most promising young “noblemen in Ireland. He has para “ phrased a Psalm admirably, and a scene “ of Pasior Fido very finely, in some places “much better than Sir Richard Fanshaw. “This was undertaken merely in compli “ment to me, who happened to say that “ it was the best scene in Italian, and the “worst in English. He was only two “ hours about i t . I t begins thus: - “Dear happy groves, and you the dark retreat “Of silent horrour, Rest’s eternal seat.” From these lines, which are since some what mended, i t appears that h e did not think ROSCOMMON. 397 - think a work of two hours fit to endure the eye of criticism without revisal. When Mrs. Philips was in Ireland, some ladies that had seen her translation of Pom pey resolved to bring it on the stage at Dublin ; and, to promote their design, Lord Roscommon gave them a prologue, and Sir Edward Dering an epilogue; “which,” says she, “are the best perfor “mances of those kinds I ever saw.” If this is not criticism, it is at least gratitude. The thought of bringing Caesar and Pom pey. into Ireland, the only country over which Caesar never had any power, is lucky. Of Roscommon's works, the judgement of the publick seems to be right. He is elegant, but not great; he never labours after exquisite beauties, and he seldom falls into gross faults. His versification is frnooth, but rarely vigorous, and his rhymes are remarkably exact. He improved taste, if he did not enlarge knowledge, and may be numbered among the benefactors to En glish literature. - - X2 OTWAY.