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Follow the Bear: today we mourn a Churchill. Charles Churchill

November 4, 2014


Yes, Churchill died on this day in 1764.  Or at least, my Churchill did.  Sometimes I find myself talking about Churchill for ages before the strange looks on people’s faces remind me that I’m not in fact among eighteenth-centuryists.

Charles Churchill, poet, satirist and not very credible clergyman, died 253 years ago today, just over a week after the death of William Hogarth.  Hogarth and Churchill were engaged in an ongoing dispute that only the death of one or both of them could have resolved.

This engraving is of Churchill, by Hogarth.  As you can see – Hogarth regards Churchill as a bear, albeit a bear with the tattered remains of clerical bands falling around his neck. Hogarth includes his own dog in this engraving, who is pissing on a copy of Churchill’s “Epistle to Hogarth”.   Churchill was best friends with John WIlkes so when Hogarth attacked Wilkes, battle was joined.   Charles Churchill was in fact co-editor of the North Briton with Wilkes and wrote several numbers himself.  When Wilkes was arrested under a notorious “General Warrant” following the forty-fifth issue of the North Briton, Churchill was liable for arrest himself.  It’s said that Churchill walked in on Wilkes while he was being arrested but Wilkes addressed Churchill rather pointedly as “Mr Johnson” as a way of putting Churchill on guard.

Things that Churchill could not escape, however, were STDs.  If Wilkes was the ugliest man in London, then Churchill was the second ugliest, and they both used their physical strangeness as a way of upping the stakes when seeing  how many women they could bed.  They could talk their way to sex.

(For a really complex and politically informed view of Wilkes and Churchill’s aggressive sexuality – read Declan Kavanagh – Effeminate Years –

Churchill died in Dover still in his early thirties.  Byron visited his tomb and wrote a rather impressive short poem about Churchill.  Famous between 1760 and 1764 for poems such as The Rosciad (a review of the acting scene), Night, Prophecy of Famine, The (homophobic) Times, Independence, The Ghost, Gotham, The Duellist, The Candidate and several more I’ve not bothered to remember or look up, Samuel Johnson said that the sheer topicality – the “fill in the blanks” quality of Churchill’s scurrilous verse would mean that long term canonicity was never likely for Churchill.  Once people were no longer concerned to insult Lord Bute or Justice Mansfield, the appeal of the poetry would inevitably fade.

It was Yvor Winters who declared that Churchill’s “Dedication to Warburton” was the greatest English poem of the eighteenth-century – an eccentric choice but one that has its own rationale and compels some attention.  Warburton, one of the most influential and reviled literary figures of his day wonderfully inflated by Churchill’s poem.   When Churchill addresses him after his Bishopric – “GLOSTER” – one cannot help but be reminded of Richard III.  But Churchill, like Wilkes, has that kind of Ricardian punk sensibility – he loves to descant on his own deformity.  By the end of this short (by eighteenth-century standards) poem, you meet a Warburton who is oddly kin to Churchill – lucky kith and kin to an unfortunate reprobate cousin.

Charles Churchill is a patron poet for anyone who lived fast and died young.  He did everything in a hurry and assembled more poetry in four years than Thomas Gray managed in forty.  Indeed Thomas Gray – the great poetry of vatic sublimity and sequestered meditation – is the great opposite of Charles Churchill, and it is small wonder that Churchill’s friends Lloyd and Colman took such delight in mocking Gray and Gray’s annoying friend Mason.

Charles Churchill is also a patron poet for anyone who loves the bitchy complexity of “epistle to” type satirical verse in the eighteenth century.  Anyone who likes to get down and dirty with the poets, poetasters and parasites must love Charles Churchill.

In any case “Shine on You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd will be playing in my head for the rest of the day.

Follow the bear.


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