Sir George Etherege’s reputation as an accomplished dramatist is, without question, secure. In modern times, however, his poetry has been little noticed. This lack of recognition is puzzling in view of the fact that in his own age Etherege’s poetry enjoyed a great deal of popularity. Many of his short lyrics were set to music by the best composers of the time, notably Henry Purcell. James Thorpe, Etherege’s modern editor, points out that his poems can be found in fifty contemporary manuscripts and in 150 printed books. In his own time, Etherege was considered as accomplished a poet as the earls of Dorset and Buckingham and Thomas Sedley, Etherege’s best friend, all of whom are much more frequently anthologized. His “soft lampoons,” as one fellow poet expressed it, were “the best of any man.” He was noted especially for his concise expression and confident control of metaphor, and for these reasons, he clearly deserves the attention of the modern reader.
Critics often speak of a particular writer as “a man of his times,” and this epithet certainly applies to Etherege. His poems can be best understood and appreciated by viewing them as near-perfect reflections of the age in which he was writing. Restoration tastes, recorded so vividly in the drama of the period, emphasized wit, elegance, and sophistication, qualities which characterize Etherege’s poems. If one had to characterize Etherege’s poems in one word, the best choice would be “effortless.” Like so many of his Restoration contemporaries, particularly his friend Sedley, Etherege mastered an art of stylish ease and naturalness. There are no jagged edges to his poetry, no profound explorations of troublesome personal questions. Instead, the reader encounters traditional, familiar themes, graced by a polished elegance.