This poem is an “imitation” of the tenth poem in Horace’s first book of Satires, which was written in the first century B. C. E. Neoclassical poets like Rochester often did this kind of thing, a free translation of a Latin poem that updated all the references to contemporary people and events. Here, Rochester adapts Horace’s poem, originally talking about Roman satire and literature, to assess the state of contemporary English poetry, weighing the quality of some poets against others. This is Rochester acting as a maker of taste, passing judgement on contemporaries–all of them his social inferiors, of course–to in effect rank them. The poem was first written in late 1675 or 1676, and may have been a prompt to Dryden’s “Mac Flecknoe” in the way that it seems to describe Dryden as a dull if earnest writer compared to up and coming wits like Thomas Shadwell, George Etherege, and William Wycherley.
The poem circulated in numerous manuscript copies, each of which differs slightly from the others. It was first printed just after Rochester’s death in 1680 in a volume called Poems on Several Occasions, an edition of Rochester’s works (that included many poems not by him) whose title page says that it was printed in Antwerp, but that was almost certainly not; the printers, who are not named on the title page, were trying to disguise their identities. It was digitized by the Text Creation Partnership, and forms the basis of the text we print here. But it is always worth remembering that Rochester’s texts are particularly tricky, because the poems only circulated in manuscript versions, and there’s a great deal of variation between them. The 1680 printed text leaves many blanks in the space of the proper names of the poets to whom Rochester is referring, perhaps as a way of avoiding getting into trouble with some of the authors named here, who were all still around and active. Whether it was intentional or not, this also has the effect of turning the poem into a kind of game or puzzle, as the reader has to figure out the identities of the writers to whom Rochester is referring. Some of the manuscript versions do the same thing; others fill the names in, so it is hard to know exactly what Rochester’s original intentions were. Where the authors can reliably be identified, we do so in the pop-up annotations.
The 10th Satyr of the 1st. Book.
Nempe incomposito Dixi pede, &c
Well Sir, ’tis granted, I said D— Rhimes,
Were stoln, unequal, nay dull many times:
What foolish Patron, is there found of his,
So blindly partial, to deny me this?
But that his Plays, embroider’d up, and down,
With Wit, and Learning, justly pleas’d the Town,
In the same Paper, I as freely own.
Yet having this allow’d, the heavy Mass,
That Stuffs up his loose Volumns, must not pass:
For by that Rule, I might as well admit,
Crowns,tedious Scenes, for Poetry, and Wit.
‘Tis therefore not enough, when your false sense,
Hits the false Judgment, of an Audience:
Of clapping Fools, assembled a vast Crowd,
Till the throng’d Play-house, crack with the dull load;
Though ev’n that Talent, merits in some sort,
That can divert the Rabble, and the Court.
Which blundring S—, never cou’d attain,
And puzling O—, labours at in vain.
But within due proportions circumscribe
What e’re you write; that with a flowing Tide,
The Style may rise, yet in its rise forbear,
With useless words, t’ oppress the weary’d Ear.
Here be your Language lofty, there more light,
Your Rethorick, with your Poetry unite:
For Elegance sake, sometimes allay the force
Of Epithets, ’twill soften the discourse;
A jeast in scorn, points out, and hits the thing.
More home, than the Moros Satyrs sting.
Shake-spear, and Johnson, did herein excell,
And might in this be imitated well;
Whom refin’d E—, coppy’s not at all,
But is himself, a sheer Original.
Nor that slow Drudge, in swift Pindarick strains,
F—, who C— imitates with pains,
And rides a jaded Muse, whipt with loose Rains.
When Lee , makes temp’rate Scipio, fret, and rave
And Hannibal, a whining Amorous Slave,
I laugh, and wish the hot-brain’d Fustian Fool,
In B— hands, to be well lasht at School.
Of all our Modern Wits none seems to me,
Once to have toucht, upon true Comedy,
But hasty Shadwel , and slow Wicherley
Shadwells unfinish’d works do yet impart,
Great proofs of force of Nature, none of Art;
With just bold strokes he dashes here, and there,
Shewing great Mastery, with little Care;
And scorns to varnish his good Touches o’re,
To make the Fools, and Women, praise’em more.
But Wicherley, earnes hard, what e’re he gains,
He wants no judgment, nor he spares no pains;
He frequently excells, and at the least,
Makes fewer faults, than any of the best.
Waller, by Nature, for the Bays design’d,
With force, and fire, and fancy unconfin’d,
In Panegyricks , does excell Mankind.
He best can turn, enforce, and soften things,
To praise great Conquerors, or to flatter Kings.
For pointed Satyrs, I wou’d Buckhurst choose,
The best good Man, with the worst natur’d Muse.
For Songs, and Verses, mannerly, obscene,
That can stir Nature up, by spring unseen,
And without forcing blushes worm the Queen.
Sidley, as that prevailing, gentle Art,
That can with a resistless Charm impart,
The loosest wishes, to the chastest heart.
Raise such a conflict, kindle such a Fire,
Betwixt declining Vertue, and Desire;
Till the poor vanquish’t Maid dissolves away,
In Dreams all Night, in Sighs, and Tears, all day.
D—, in vain try’d this nice way of wit,
For he to be a tearing Blade, thought fit,
But when he wou’d be sharp; he still was blunt,
To frisk his frollique fancy, he’d cry C—t,
Wou’d give the Ladies, a dry Bawdy bob,
And thus got the name of Poet Squab.
But to be just, ’twill to his praise be found,
His Excellencies more than faults abound,
Nor dare I from his sacred Temples tear,
That Lawrel, which he best deserves to wear,
But does not D—, find ev’n Johnson dull?
Fletcher and Beaumont, uncorrect, and full,
Of lewd Lines, as he calls ’em? Shake-spears stile
Stiff and affected; to his own the while,
Allowing all the justness that his Pride,
So Arrogantly had to these deny’d?
And may not I, have leave impartially,
To search, and censure D— Works, and try,
If those gross faults, his choice Pen does commit,
Proceed from want of Judgment, or of Wit?
Or of his lumpish fancy, does refuse,
Spirit and Grace, to his loose slattern Muse?
Five hundred Verses, ev’ry Morning writ,
Proves you no more a Poet, than a Wit:
Such scribling Authors, have been seen before
Mustapha, the English Princess, Forty more,
Were things perhaps compos’d in half an hour,
To write what may securely stand the Test,
Of being well read over thrice at least;
Compare each Phrase, examine ev’ry Line,
Weigh ev’ry Word, and ev’ry Thought refine;
Scorn all applause, the vile Rout can bestow,
And be content to please those few who know.
Canst thou be such a vain mistaken thing,
To wish thy Works might make a Play-house ring.
With the unthinking Laughter, and poor praise,
Of Fops, and Ladies, Factious for thy Plays?
Then send a cunning Friend to learn thy doom,
From the shrewd Judges of the drawing Room.
I’ve no Ambition on that idle score,
But say with Betty M—, heretofore,
When a Court Lady, call’d her B—, Whore;
I please one Man of Wit, am proud on’t too,
Let all the Coxcombs, dance to Bed to you.
Shou’d I be troubled when the Pur-blind Knight,
Who squints more in his Judgment, than his sight,
Picks silly faults, and censures what I write?
Or when the poor-fed Poets of the Town
For Scraps, and Coach-room cry my Verses down?
I loath the Rabble, ’tis enough for me,
If S—, S—, S—, W—,
G—, B—, B—, B—,
And some few more, whom I omit to name,
Approve my sense, I count their censure Fame.