Jerome Betts: From Silken Umbrage To Fulsome Fustian

(December 2018 sees the 300th anniversary of the appointment of the fifth official Poet Laureate, one of the most derided and obscure.)

This was the Reverend Laurence Eusden (1688–1730). Although not usually reckoned among the ranks of light versifiers, his life and career certainly generated a good deal of it. But, if his laurels lacked lustre, Eusden did gain one distinction, unsurpassed notoriety as a polished patron-butterer, dunce, and drunk.

A contemporary remarked that some of his verses were “of that sort of nonsense, which so perfectly confounds all ideas, that there is no distinct one left in the mind.” However, rather than confounding ideas Eusden, as a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge since 1712, had started by raising eyebrows with the fifteen or so rather risqué minutes of Verses at the last Publick Commencement at Cambridge Written and Spoken by Mr Eusden. This university ceremony took place in July 1714 in the last days of Queen Anne’s reign, three weeks before the accession of George the First.

Addressed to ‘British Fair Ones’, Eusden’s 260 lines seize on the fashion for hoops, large whalebone-supported wide skirts and petticoats, which, three years earlier, No. 127 of The Spectator had suggested made women look pregnant. Eusden roguishly claims hoops could be covers for light behaviour, with many classical allusions, such as to the story of Penelope awaiting the return of Odysseus:

She, for State-reasons, was the first Beginner
Of Hoops; a sly, discretionary Sinner!
What! tho’ She heath’nish swell’d about the Waste,
The Silken Umbrage still proclaim’d her chaste.
The Prude in Sun-Shine sickened at a Spark,
But was a very Woman in the Dark.

After three pages on the dalliances of Penelope and her husband, Eusden turns to “British Cynthias, in Laconick Dress” and there ensues much arch ado about purple stockings, green garters, well-turned shoulders, tender limbs revealed by immodest winds, snowy necks and heaving etceteras. He mock-solemnly warns that:

A naked Prospect wantonly inspires
Our beardless Novices with strange desires.
Where will you stop? Already we can see
Below the Bosom, and above the Knee.
If from your Heads and Feet such Dangers rise,
Ah! whither whither shall I point my Eyes?

Whatever the British Cynthias present made of such literary leering, not even decently veiled in the academic Latin they were considered unlikely to understand, it was probably appreciated by some of his male colleagues, for, as Eusden noted:

Where am I by uxorious fancies led?
We Fellows want the privilege to wed

Four years later, Eusden was still merely the author of a few minor poems, like one in 1717 on the marriage of the rising Whig Thomas Pelham-Holles, Duke of Newcastle. This was well-timed; the duke became Lord Chamberlain two weeks after his wedding and on Christmas Eve 1718 was thus able to reward Eusden with the laureateship left vacant by the death of Nicholas Rowe the dramatist, Shakespeare’s first biographer. The Cambridge don was barely thirty, an unbeaten record for the post with its famous perquisite of a butt of sack. While some of his verse translations from Latin were well-regarded, "Eusden, we have a problem" might have been today's phrase, and indeed the under-qualified appointee was subsequently pilloried as :

Eusden, a laurel’d Bard by fortune rais’d
Who has by few been read, by fewer prais’d.

His new position doomed the super-sycophant to churning out royal odes, containing sentiments like the following about George the Second:

Hail, mighty Monarch! whom desert alone
Would, without birthright, raise up to the throne.
Thy virtue shines particularly nice
Un-gloom’d with a confinity to vice.
What strains shall equal to thy Glories rise,
First of the World, and borderer to the Skies?
How exquisitely great, who can’st inspire
Such joys that Albion mourns no more thy sire;
Thy Sire! a prince she loved to that degree
She almost trespass’d on the Deity.
Avaunt! Degenerate grafts, or spurious breed,
‘Tis a George only can a George succeed!

Such eulogies were regarded as virtual blasphemy by some, and the occasional note of regal admonition in his predecessors’ panegyrics was completely abandoned. His florid treatment of Queen Caroline in 1727 was a far cry from the lively though louche lines of the 1714 Publick Commencement:

Soon as the Meads thy tender Prints could know
There spring the Lilies! there the Roses blow!
There Vi’lets rise, and purple Clusters spread!
True Omens of the future Royal Bed! . . .

In the following century, Disraeli remarked of the art of royal flattery that a trowel should be used to lay it on, but Eusden anticipated him, with a shovel. If he had had a Diamond Jubilee to deal with, like Carol Ann Duffy, there might have been serious danger of a sort of bardic boiler explosion.

Further ‘fulsome fustian’ from Eusden included lyrics sung at royal birthday celebrations:

Genius! now securely rest
We shall ever now be blest
Thou thy guardianship may spare
Britannia is a Brunswick’s care!

However, George the First was probably immune to being troubled by such vacuously oleaginous offerings as he had little English, while his heavily-accented music-loving son may have been more aware of the songs’ settings than their words.

Not surprisingly, the politically adept but poetically deficient Eusden was a favourite target for the barbs of minor and major competitors. Alexander Pope substituted a different bodily fluid in a parody of Eusden’s ‘To A Lady that wept at the hearing of Cato read’ and remorselessly accused him of both dullness and drunkenness. He appeared in this guise in the 1728 version of The Dunciad:

How Eusden lay inspired beside a sink
And to mere mortals seem’d a Priest in drink.

In 1729, the reading of Eusden’s awful effusions provoked Jonathan Swift to 282 wittily scornful lines, though they were not published till 1765. In his Directions For A Birthday Song, Swift advises the incumbent Poet Laureate:

Then make this new Apollo sit
Sole patron, judge, and god of wit.
“How from his altitude he stoops
To raise up Virtue when she droops;
On learning how his bounty flows,
And with what justice he bestows;
Fair Isis, and ye banks of Cam!
Be witness if I tell a flam,
What prodigies in arts we drain,
From both your streams, in George’s reign,
As from the flowery bed of Nile” –
But here’s enough to show your style . . .
Present it boldly on your knee,
And take a guinea for your fee.

Pope, debarred by both religion and politics from the office that Eusden’s performances had rendered almost ridiculous, had sage counsel for his sovereign in the interval before the appointment of Eusden’s successor, Colley Cibber:

Great George! Such servants since thou well canst lack
Oh! save the Salary, and drink the Sack!

Eusden, the son of a Yorkshire rector, was ordained in the early 1720s and acted as chaplain to the antiquarian Lord Willoughby de Broke. About six months before his death in September 1730, he received the living of St Michael and All Angels, Coningsby, Lincolnshire, a church fifteen miles from Boston and famous for its large one-handed clock.

His Dictionary of National Biography entry says that it is unknown whether the accusations of drunkenness were well-founded, or, “the common taunt that a poet craves the laureateship solely for the perquisite of sack.” However, there are ominous letters of 1730 in the Lincolnshire archives from the agent of his Whig patron, a Mr Cotesworth, regarding Eusden’s debts, his difficulty in arriving at his living, his pursuit of his tithes, ill-health, a speech impediment preventing preaching, and heavy drinking.

Also in the archives, a letter of eleven years later by another hand alleges not only lack of religious belief but that he lay drunk for three weeks before his induction. Furthermore, it claims he had obtained the living at the insistence of the two brothers of his mistress, angered by his excuse of poverty for avoiding marriage. Both she and her clergyman father moved into the rectory at Coningsby. The lady herself forbade Eusden all strong drink so that he had to satisfy his ‘great thirst’ with water and small beer. This supposedly led to his death from dropsy (oedema), a sad end if the sensational account is true.

Only the drinking figured in his public reputation, and the emolument of well over 100 gallons that accompanied his royal role may have contributed to this, or, possibly, already existing alcoholism. He never replied to his critics, and the sole surviving likeness, an informal black chalk drawing of around 1720 by Jonathan Richardson, complete with a laurel wreath, shows a man with a rather amused expression, possibly reflecting a tongue-in-cheek approach to his duties.

But it is hard to imagine the state of mind of a once promising figure whose work attracted so much derision. Perhaps the Laureate’s annual butt of wine provided some compensation for being the annual butt of rhyming bile, until Pope could attach a last dismissive couplet to his name in the final edition of The Dunciad in 1743:

Know Eusden thirsts no more for sack or praise;
He sleeps among the dull of ancient days.

Charcoal dawing of Laurence Eusden