Wilkes Churchill and the Nonsense Club

Gray's "The Candidate" was one of numerous squibs on the sexually decadent Earl of Sandwich, the government candidate for the High Stewardship of Cambridge. Charles Churchill, ardent supporter of the radical MP John Wilkes, also attacked

Sandwich in an identically titled poem of the same year, provoked by Sandwich's blatant hypocrisy in denouncing Wilkes in the House of Lords for his obscene Essay on Women.

Charles Churchill's emergence on the political scene of the 1760s as an outspoken, confident, and successful public satirist influenced by Pope skews the critical narrative which depicts eighteenth-century poetry as a movement from public to private, satire to lyric, urban to provincial. Like poets of a century earlier, Churchill participated in a vigorous paper war — this time, the campaign against John Stuart, Earl of Bute, who had succeeded the elder Pitt as first minister after the latter's resignation in 1761 on failing to win parliamentary support for declaring war on Spain. Bute's closeness to the new monarch, George III, and his suspected over-familiarity with the dowager Princess Augusta, gave rise to anti-Bute and anti-Scottish satire, much of which hinged on what lay under Scotsmen's kilts. The phallic jokes about Bute's monstrous sexual organs and Augusta's feigned coyness sexualized monarchical politics in a manner not witnessed since the reign of Charles II. Indeed, Churchill could have belonged to the century before his own. His scandalous reputation as a libertine, hard-drinking frequenter of the Hellfire Club, his early death (perhaps from venereal disease), and his visceral satires, unsparing of physical illness, recall the 1660s rather than the 1760s. The literary coterie to which he belonged — the "Nonsense Club," a group of Old Westminster schoolfriends including Bonnell Thornton, George Colman, William Cowper, and Robert Lloyd — recalls the dynamics of earlier urban literary coteries such as the Scriblerus Club of Pope, Swift, and Gay. Yet the Scrib-lerians — a conservative, witty elite pitted against the forces of low culture — were a far cry from Churchill's deliberate self-presentation as a poet of a demotic lower order, appealing to a "gen'rous public." In the extraordinary body of work which he produced in the years 1763—4 — "The Prophecy of Famine," the "Epistle to Hogarth," "The Duellist," "Gotham," and "The Candidate" — the presence of Pope is everywhere felt in verbal echoes. Both satirists are bent on self-promotion, and both explore in their political satires the construction of a public self. Yet whereas Pope insists on defending his moral character, presenting his "best side" to the public, Churchill, with an almost louche frankness, exposes his own personal shortcomings, thereby authenticating his sincerity and lack of hypocrisy. In their length and digressiveness, Churchill's satires express a spontaneity at odds with Pope's concern with precision, revision, and "correctness." Whereas Pope feared anarchy, Churchill embraced the challenges anarchy posed to hypocrisy and political complacency. Yet to depict Churchill as Pope's polar opposite would be too simple: such oppositional distinctions do not fit his verse. Churchill's ironic satires are the product of a very different political climate from that which produced the satiric certainties of the Walpole years. Even "The Candidate" established two opposed poetic portraits of its satirical target — one of Sandwich's "virtuous" self, the other of the corruptly decadent "Lothario" — thereby introducing a complexity and relativism alien to satire. In poems such as "The Prophecy of Famine," Churchill has apparently a clear enough target — Bute in particular and Scots in general — yet even here his satiric mode is ill-suited to the kind of head-on bipartisan conflict that characterized anti-Walpole satire. Instead, the poem plays with the multiple ironies attached to political slogans and labels such as "Patriot" and "Briton," with the Scottish Bute promoting himself in his newspaper The Briton and the English Wilkes producing a journal called The North Briton. As Lance Bertelsen observes, "Churchill captures rhetorically the essential ambiguity of reference and confusion of meaning that characterised the political and social theatre of the 1760s" (Bertelsen 1986: 179). Although Churchill represents a resurgence of political satire twenty years after its supposed "death," the relativistic, skeptical voice of his satires represents either a new direction for satire or possibly the implosion of the genre. Of such generic melting points are new directions forged: to catch echoes of Churchillian irony in Byron and Churchillian demotic urban anti-authoritarianism in Blake would not compromise his legacy.

See also chs. 2, "Poetry, Politics, and Empire"; 13, "Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Six Town Eclogues and Other Poems"; 14, "James Thomson, The Seasons"; 18, "Samuel Johnson, London and The Vanity of Human Wishes"; 22, "Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village, and George Crabbe, The Village"; 27, "Verse Satire"; 28, "The Ode"; 29, "The Georgic"; 32, "Whig and Tory Poetics"; 33, "The Classical Inheritance"; 41, "Poetry Beyond the English Borders."

References and Further Reading

Barash, Carol (1996). English Women's Poetry, 1649-1714: Politics, Community, and Linguistic Authority. Oxford: Clarendon.

Bertelsen, Lance (1986). The Nonsense Club: Literature and Popular Culture, 1749—1764. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Clark, J. C. D. (1985). English Society, 1688-1832: Ideology, Social Structure and Political Practice during the Ancien Régime. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Colley, Linda (1982). In Defiance of Oligarchy: The Tory Party, 1714-60. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Colley, Linda (1992). Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Erskine-Hill, Howard (1981-2). "Alexander Pope: The Political Poet in His Time." Eighteenth-Century Studies 15, 123-48.

Erskine-Hill, Howard (1982). "Literature and the Jacobite Cause: Was There a Rhetoric of Jaco-bitism?" In Eveline Cruickshanks (ed.), Ideology and Conspiracy: Aspects of Jacobitism, 1689—1759. Edinburgh: John Donald.

Erskine-Hill, Howard (1984). "The Political Character of Samuel Johnson," In Isobel Grundy (ed.), Samuel Johnson: New Critical Essays. London: Vision.

Erskine-Hill, Howard (1996). The Poetry of Opposition and Revolution: Dry den to Wordsworth. Oxford: Clarendon.

Fairer, David, and Gerrard, Christine, eds. (2004). Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gerrard, Christine (1994). The Patriot Opposition to Walpole: Politics, Poetry, and National Myth, 1725-1742. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goldgar, Bertrand (1976). Walpole and the Wits: The Relation of Politics to Literature, 1722-1742. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press.

Griffin, Dustin (2002). Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

King, Kathryn R. (2003). "Political Verse and Satire: Monarchy, Party and Female Political Agency." In Sarah Prescott and David E. Shuttleton (eds.), Women and Poetry 1660—1750, 203—22. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mack, Maynard (1969). The Garden and the City: Retirement and Politics in the Later Poetry of Pope, 1731—1743. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Montagu, Lady Mary Wortley (1993). Essays and Poems, with Simplicity, A Comedy, rev. edn., ed. Robert Halsband and Isobel Grundy. Oxford: Clarendon.

Nicholson, Colin (1994). Writing and the Rise of Finance: Capital Satires of the Early Eighteenth Century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Orr, Clarissa Campbell, ed. (2002). Queenship in Britain 1660—1837: Royal Patronage, Court Culture and Dynastic Politics. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Pittock, Murray (1994). Poetry and Jacobite Politics in Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Prescott, Sarah (2005a). " ' The Cambrian Muse': Welsh Identity and Hanoverian Loyalty in the Poems of Jane Brereton (1685-1740)." Eighteenth-Century Studies 38: 4, 587-603.

Prescott, Sarah (2005b). "Elizabeth Singer Rowe: Gender, Dissent, and Whig Poetics." In D. Womersley (ed.), "Cultures of Whiggism": New Essays on English Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century, 173-99. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Rogers, Pat (2005). Pope and the Destiny of the Stuarts: History, Politics, and Mythology in the Age of Queen Anne. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Urstadt, Tone Sundt (1999). Sir Robert Walpole's Poets: The Use of Literature as Pro-Government Propaganda 1721—1742. Newark: University of Delaware Press; London: Associated University Presses.

Williams, Abigail (2005). Poetry and the Creation of a Whig Literary Culture, 1681—1714. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Womersley, David, ed. (1997). Augustan Critical Writing. London: Penguin.

Womersley, David, ed. (2005). "Cultures of Whiggism": New Essays on English Literature and Culture in the Long Eighteenth Century. Newark: University of Delaware Press.

Young, Edward (1745). The Complaint. . . Night the Eighth, including "Thoughts, Occasioned by the Present Juncture." London.

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