Lives of the Poets, by Samuel Johnson

Halifax.

The life of the Earl of Halifax was properly that of an artful and active statesman, employed in balancing parties, contriving expedients, and combating opposition, and exposed to the vicissitudes of advancement and degradation; but in this collection poetical merit is the claim to attention; and the account which is here to be expected may properly be proportioned, not to his influence in the State, but to his rank among the writers of verse.

Charles Montague was born April 16, 1661, at Horton, in Northamptonshire, the son of Mr. George Montague, a younger son of the Earl of Manchester. He was educated first in the country, and then removed to Westminster, where, in 1677, he was chosen a King’s Scholar, and recommended himself to Busby by his felicity in extemporary epigrams. He contracted a very intimate friendship with Mr. Stepney; and in 1682, when Stepney was elected at Cambridge, the election of Montague being not to proceed till the year following, he was afraid lest by being placed at Oxford he might be separated from his companion, and therefore solicited to be removed to Cambridge, without waiting for the advantages of another year.

It seemed indeed time to wish for a removal, for he was already a schoolboy of one-and-twenty.

His relation, Dr. Montague, was then Master of the college in which he was placed a Fellow–Commoner, and took him under his particular care. Here he commenced an acquaintance with the great Newton, which continued through his life, and was at last attested by a legacy.

In 1685 his verses on the death of King Charles made such an impression on the Earl of Dorset that he was invited to town, and introduced by that universal patron to the other wits. In 1687 he joined with Prior in “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse,” a burlesque of Dryden’s “Hind and Panther.” He signed the invitation to the Prince of Orange, and sat in the Convention. He about the same time married the Countess Dowager of Manchester, and intended to have taken Orders; but, afterwards altering his purpose, he purchased for 1,500 pounds the place of one of the clerks of the Council.

After he had written his epistle on the victory of the Boyne, his patron Dorset introduced him to King William with this expression, “Sir, I have brought a MOUSE to wait on your Majesty.” To which the King is said to have replied, “You do well to put me in the way of making a MAN of him;” and ordered him a pension of 500 pounds. This story, however current, seems to have been made after the event. The King’s answer implies a greater acquaintance with our proverbial and familiar diction than King William could possibly have attained.

In 1691, being member of the House of Commons, he argued warmly in favour of a law to grant the assistance of counsel in trials for high treason; and in the midst of his speech falling into some confusion, was for a while silent; but, recovering himself, observed, “how reasonable it was to allow counsel to men called as criminals before a court of justice, when it appeared how much the presence of that assembly could disconcert one of their own body.”

After this he rose fast into honours and employments, being made one of the Commissioners of the Treasury, and called to the Privy Council. In 1694 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer; and the next year engaged in the great attempt of the recoinage, which was in two years happily completed. In 1696 he projected the GENERAL FUND and raised the credit of the Exchequer; and after inquiry concerning a grant of Irish Crown lands, it was determined by a vote of the Commons that Charles Montague, Esq., HAD DESERVED HIS MAJESTY’S FAVOUR. In 1698, being advanced to the first Commission of the Treasury, he was appointed one of the regency in the King’s absence: the next year he was made Auditor of the Exchequer, and the year after created Baron Halifax. He was, however, impeached by the Commons; but the Articles were dismissed by the Lords.

At the accession of Queen Anne he was dismissed from the Council; and in the first Parliament of her reign was again attacked by the Commons, and again escaped by the protection of the Lords. In 1704 he wrote an answer to Bromley’s speech against occasional conformity. He headed the inquiry into the danger of the Church. In 1706 he proposed and negotiated the Union with Scotland; and when the Elector of Hanover received the Garter, after the Act had passed for securing the Protestant Succession, he was appointed to carry the ensigns of the Order to the Electoral Court. He sat as one of the judges of Sacheverell, but voted for a mild sentence. Being now no longer in favour, he contrived to obtain a writ for summoning the Electoral Prince to Parliament as Duke of Cambridge.

At the Queen’s death he was appointed one of the regents; and at the accession of George I. was made Earl of Halifax, Knight of the Garter, and First Commissioner of the Treasury, with a grant to his nephew of the reversion of the Auditorship of the Exchequer. More was not to be had, and this he kept but a little while; for on the 19th of May, 1715, he died of an inflammation of his lungs.

Of him, who from a poet became a patron of poets, it will be readily believed that the works would not miss of celebration. Addison began to praise him early, and was followed or accompanied by other poets; perhaps by almost all, except Swift and Pope, who forbore to flatter him in his life, and after his death spoke of him — Swift with slight censure, and Pope, in the character of Bufo, with acrimonious contempt.

He was, as Pope says, “fed with dedications;” for Tickell affirms that no dedication was unrewarded. To charge all unmerited praise with the guilt of flattery, and to suppose that the encomiast always knows and feels the falsehoods of his assertions, is surely to discover great ignorance of human nature and human life. In determinations depending not on rules, but on experience and comparison, judgment is always in some degree subject to affection. Very near to admiration is the wish to admire.

Every man willingly gives value to the praise which he receives, and considers the sentence passed in his favour as the sentence of discernment. We admire in a friend that understanding that selected us for confidence; we admire more, in a patron, that judgment which, instead of scattering bounty indiscriminately, directed it to us; and, if the patron be an author, those performances which gratitude forbids us to blame, affection will easily dispose us to exalt.

To these prejudices, hardly culpable, interest adds a power always operating, though not always, because not willingly, perceived. The modesty of praise wears gradually away; and perhaps the pride of patronage may be in time so increased that modest praise will no longer please.

Many a blandishment was practised upon Halifax which he would never have known had he no other attractions than those of his poetry, of which a short time has withered the beauties. It would now be esteemed no honour, by a contributor to the monthly bundles of verses, to be told that, in strains either familiar or solemn, he sings like Montague.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38