The Rosciad "Learn'd Without Sense, And Venerably Dull"

Charles Churchill

"Learn'd Without Sense, And Venerably Dull"

Context: Deprived of remunerative church appointments by an early marriage, Churchill turned to poetry to support his wife and children. The success of The Actor, a poem by Robert Lloyd (1733–1764) that had been published in 1760, made him decide to turn his many nights in the first row seats in London's theaters into a poem. So he wrote The Rosciad, named from the Roman actor Quintus Roscius (126?–62 B.C.), friend of Cicero and regarded as Rome's greatest comic actor. He is mentioned in Hamlet. Imitating Pope's Dunciad (1728–43), Churchill called his work The Rosciad. No publisher would pay him the £20 he asked for it. The best offer was £5, so Churchill published it anonymously at his own expense. He had no need to advertise it. The agonizing cries of the theatrical people attacked made hundreds more troop to the book stores. One reviewer called it a well-written, ill-natured, ingenious, abusive poem. Many were the poets suspected of having been its author, but the second edition that same year, with a rise in price to one-and-six, carried his name to end doubts. The public enjoyed the actors' distress. Too many times, the stage folk had poked fun at audiences! Many said that Churchill's criticisms of the performers were repetitions of those heard in the coffee houses, but they were listened to. Among those attacked, Thomas Davis (1712?–1795) retired from the stage. The poet also handed out praise, especially to Kitty Clive (1711–1785), Jane Pope (1742–1818), Mrs. Pritchard (1711–1769), the great tragic actress Mrs. Cibber (1714–1766), and of course to David Garrick (1717–1779). However, today's readers need an annotated edition of the poem, since many stage people mentioned in its 1090 lines have long been forgotten. The poem starts: "Roscius deceas'd, each high aspiring play'r/ Push'd all his int'rest for the vacant chair." But how to choose the best? In London, says Churchill, the way to succeed on the stage is through bribery. S-T-R opens his house and feeds people; Y-T-S offers laughter and fun; F-TE serves tea. But this time they are to be judged by performance on the stage. They refuse to accept the verdict of any judge. J-HNS-N would be too serious; ST-NE, too gay, and F-KL-N appreciates only his own talent. Finally, Lloyd makes the acceptable suggestion of leaving the decision to Shakespeare and Dr. Johnson. Then begins the procession of the contestants, with description and criticism of each. About one, the poet goes into great detail. Apart from all the rest, comes the great M-RP-Y. This was Arthur Murphy (1727–1805) who played Othello at Covent Garden in 1754 and declared the next year that he was unsuited to be an actor. "The Shuffling Trade" is priesthood. About Murphy Churchill comments: "In cold-wrought scenes, the lifeless actor flags./ In passion, tears the passion into rags," then adds:

How few are found with real talents bless'd,
Fewer with Nature's gifts contented rest.
Man from his sphere eccentric starts astray;
All hunt for fame, but most mistake the way.
Bred at ST. OMER'S to the Shuffling trade,
The hopeful youth a Jesuit might have made,
With various readings stor'd his empty skull,
Learn'd without sense, and venerably dull;
Or at some Banker's desk, like many more,
Content to tell that two and two make four,
His name had stood in CITY ANNALS fair,
And PRUDENT DULLNESS mark'd him for a Mayor.