Narrative Summary of The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) Volume IV


This volume is a collection of biographies of poets from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. It’s written in a conversational, almost gossipy tone, focusing on personal anecdotes, relationships, and scandals as much as literary achievements. It delves into the lives of these writers, exploring their personal struggles, political affiliations, loves, and ambitions, offering a glimpse into the social and intellectual landscape of their time.

Main Parts:

The text is divided into biographies of various poets, each providing:

  • Early Life: This section details their birth, family background, and early education.
  • Early Career: It focuses on their initial literary attempts and any early patronage they might have received.
  • Main Works: The text highlights their most important works, including plays, poems, and prose writings.
  • Political Affiliations: The text analyzes their political leanings, how they engaged in public discourse, and any controversies they faced due to their political views.
  • Personal Life: The text describes their relationships, loves, marriages, and scandals, often adding personal observations and judgments on their character.
  • Later Life and Death: This section describes their later years, including any changes in fortune, their final writings, and their deaths.

View on Life:

The text reveals various views on life through the perspectives of the poets and their biographers:

  • The Power of Patronage: Many poets relied heavily on patronage from wealthy individuals and political figures. This highlights the importance of social connections and financial support for literary success.
  • The Struggle between Virtue and Vice: Several poets struggled with balancing their desires for pleasure and their aspirations for virtue. This highlights a moral dilemma within the context of social expectations and personal ambition.
  • The Importance of Fame and Reputation: The pursuit of fame and recognition is a recurring theme, often driving the poets’ creative output and choices, even at the expense of personal well-being.
  • Political Engagement and Loyalty: The text reveals how the poets often found themselves caught in political conflicts, demonstrating the intertwined nature of literature, power, and society.
  • The Importance of Integrity and Moral Compass: Some poets like Andrew Marvel and Edmund Smith are lauded for their unwavering integrity and moral convictions, showcasing a commitment to principles even when faced with great hardship.

Scenarios and Situations:

The text describes several scenarios and situations:

  • Political Upheavals: The biographies are set against the backdrop of significant historical events such as the Glorious Revolution, the reign of Queen Anne, and the Jacobite uprisings. These events shaped the lives and choices of the poets.
  • Literary Contests and Feuds: The text reveals several literary feuds and rivalries, including those between Pope and his critics, and between poets with different political beliefs. These conflicts often fueled creative output and sharpened literary critiques.
  • Social Mobility and Class Conflict: The biographies highlight the challenges faced by writers from different social classes, demonstrating the influence of wealth and social standing on career opportunities and acceptance.
  • Patronage and Financial Dependence: Many poets depended on patrons for financial support and advancement. This dependence, at times, came with compromises and risks to their independence and creative freedom.

Challenges Faced:

  • Financial Struggles: Many poets faced financial hardships due to their profligate spending, lack of patronage, or the fickleness of the literary market.
  • Political Persecution: Poets who criticized the government or supported opposing factions often faced imprisonment, prosecution, or loss of patronage.
  • Personal Relationships: The poets’ love affairs, marriages, and scandals often caused them distress and influenced their creative work.
  • The Impermanence of Fame: The text reveals how even those poets who achieved significant success during their lifetimes were often forgotten by posterity.


The text presents several conflicts:

  • Individual versus Society: Many poets struggled with the conflicting demands of their personal desires and societal expectations.
  • Politics versus Art: The text explores how political affiliations and controversies influenced the reception of literary works.
  • Individual versus Institution: Some poets clashed with religious and political authorities, challenging established norms and power structures.


While the text is primarily biographical, several plot elements emerge:

  • Rise and Fall: The biographies often follow an arc of rise, success, and sometimes decline, reflecting the unpredictable nature of fame and fortune.
  • Loss of Innocence: The lives of some poets are marked by a journey from youthful idealism to disillusionment and hardship, showcasing the complexities of human experience.
  • Political and Social Struggles: The text weaves a narrative of political and social battles, with the poets playing different roles, sometimes heroes, sometimes victims, and sometimes both.

Point of View:

The text is written from a variety of perspectives:

  • The Biographer: The biographers often offer personal judgments and interpretations of the poets’ lives and works, reflecting their own biases and beliefs.
  • The Poet: The text presents the poets’ own accounts of their lives, often through letters, speeches, and writings, giving direct insight into their thoughts and motivations.
  • The Public: The text conveys the public perception of the poets, their successes, their scandals, and their ultimate legacy.

How It’s Written:

The text is written in a conversational and often gossipy tone, making use of anecdotes and personal details. The style is straightforward and informative, with a focus on entertaining the reader. The use of direct quotes from letters and poems gives the text a sense of immediacy and authenticity.


“The duke of Wharton, who was constant in nothing but inconstancy, again changed sides, opposed the court, and endeavoured to defeat all the schemes of the ministry.”


The tone is generally informal and engaging, with a mixture of admiration, amusement, and judgment. The biographers often exhibit a sense of moral outrage when discussing the poets’ transgressions.

Life Choices:

The poets made various choices, often shaped by their ambition, their financial circumstances, and their political beliefs.

  • Pursuit of Patronage: Many poets sought patronage from powerful individuals, compromising their independence in exchange for financial support and opportunities.
  • Political Engagement: Some poets actively engaged in political discourse, writing satires, pamphlets, and speeches to express their views.
  • Embrace of Pleasure: Several poets indulged in a lavish lifestyle, often leading to financial ruin and social disgrace.
  • Retirement and Solitude: Some poets sought solace and inspiration in solitude, choosing to withdraw from the public sphere.


The text offers several life lessons:

  • The Importance of Prudence: The downfall of many poets highlights the importance of good judgment, financial responsibility, and moderation in pursuing pleasure.
  • The Futility of Political Ambition: The text showcases how excessive ambition and political maneuvering can lead to personal downfall and destruction.
  • The Importance of Moral Compass: The biographies of poets like Andrew Marvel and Edmund Smith demonstrate the value of integrity, honesty, and a strong moral framework.
  • The Complexities of Human Nature: The text reveals the contradictions within the poets, showcasing the struggle between virtue and vice, ambition and contentment, and idealism and disillusionment.


  • Peter Motteaux: A French gentleman and playwright who enjoyed a comfortable life but died under suspicious circumstances.
  • Mrs. Manley: A talented playwright and novelist who suffered a tragic early marriage and lived a controversial life marked by scandals and political satire.
  • Henry Needler: A gifted poet and scholar whose life was tragically cut short by illness and misfortune.
  • John Hughes: A poet and writer whose talent shone in both poetry and prose, who was also a respected contributor to the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian.
  • Matthew Prior: A celebrated poet and diplomat who rose from humble beginnings to a position of power and influence.
  • Mrs. Centlivre: A successful playwright known for her comedic wit and clever plots.
  • Dr. Nicholas Brady: A clergyman and poet best known for his work on the New Version of the Psalms of David.
  • George Stepney: A diplomat and poet whose literary contributions were modest but who achieved significant success in his political career.
  • Major Richardson Pack: A soldier and poet whose work often celebrated the heroic virtues of others, particularly those of the Duke of Argyle.
  • Sir William Dawes: A clergyman who achieved the highest ecclesiastical position in England, Archbishop of York, but whose writings were primarily in prose.
  • William Congreve: A brilliant playwright, satirist, and poet, whose comedies were considered some of the finest of his age but also sparked controversy for their scandalous themes.
  • Sir John Vanbrugh: A playwright and architect whose comedies were characterized by their wit and humor, but also their bawdy and sometimes scandalous content.
  • Sir Richard Steele: A writer, essayist, and playwright, known for his contributions to the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, and for his advocacy for moral principles and social reform.
  • Andrew Marvel: A poet, statesman, and satirist, renowned for his unwavering integrity and his political opposition to the corrupt practices of the Stuart monarchy.
  • Mrs. Elizabeth Thomas: A poet and writer who endured a life plagued by misfortune, poverty, and betrayal.
  • Elijah Fenton: A poet known for his elegant and melodious style, who was also a friend and associate of Alexander Pope.
  • Barton Booth: A celebrated actor and poet, who excelled in tragedy, particularly in the role of Cato.
  • Dr. George Sewel: A physician and poet whose works often reflected his political convictions and literary talents.
  • Anthony Hammond: A poet and statesman whose work showcased a blend of wit, humor, and political commentary.
  • The Revd. Mr. Laurence Eusden: A poet appointed Poet Laureate by the Duke of Newcastle, whose work, though not highly regarded by his contemporaries, reflects a certain skill in versification.
  • The Revd. Mr. Lawrence Eachard: A clergyman, historian, and poet whose works included translations of classic plays.
  • Mr. John Oldmixon: A writer and historian known for his acerbic criticisms and his strong Whig political affiliations.
  • Leonard Welsted: A poet whose work was often criticized for its lack of depth and originality, but whose life was marked by a love of pleasure and a sense of ambition.
  • James More Smyth: A playwright and politician whose work often involved satire and political commentary.
  • Mr. John Dennis: A critic and playwright who was a staunch advocate for Whig principles and a vocal critic of Alexander Pope and his work.
  • G. Granville, L. Lansdowne: A nobleman, poet, and politician, who demonstrated a strong sense of loyalty to the Stuart monarchy and later played a significant role in the Revolution.
  • Mr. John Gay: A playwright, poet, and humorist whose works, particularly the Beggar’s Opera, achieved tremendous success.
  • Philip, Duke of Wharton: A nobleman, politician, and poet, whose remarkable intelligence and charisma were often eclipsed by his profligacy and lack of prudence.
  • Colonel Codrington: A gentleman of wit and gallantry who made a significant contribution to All Souls College, Oxford.
  • Edward Ward: A writer known for his Hudibrastic style and satirical work.
  • Sir Roger L’Estrange: A writer, politician, and licenser of the press who was a strong advocate for the Tory cause.
  • Mr. Edmund Smith: A poet, scholar, and critic who achieved great success in his early career but was tragically cut short by illness and misfortune.
  • Daniel De Foe: A prolific writer, journalist, and satirist, best known for his novel Robinson Crusoe.
  • Mrs. Elizabeth Rowe: A poet and writer whose devotional writings and prose works achieved significant popularity.
  • The Revd. Dr. Thomas Yalden: A clergyman and poet who was a friend of Alexander Pope and Henry Sacheverel.
  • Mr. Joseph Mitchel: A poet whose work often reflected his political convictions and his close association with Sir Robert Walpole.
  • Mr. John Ozell: A translator of numerous plays and works from French, Spanish, and Italian, whose work was often criticized for its lack of elegance.


  • The Nature of Fame: The text explores the pursuit of fame, the fickleness of public opinion, and the impermanence of reputation.
  • The Role of Patronage: Patronage, its influence on creative freedom and artistic integrity, and the power dynamics involved in such relationships are discussed at length.
  • The Struggle for Morality: The text explores the tension between personal desires and moral obligations, especially in a society where wealth, power, and social standing often dictated behavior.
  • The Power of Politics: The text reveals how political affiliations and conflicts profoundly affected the lives and careers of the poets, shaping their choices and artistic output.
  • The Value of Integrity: The biographies of some poets, like Andrew Marvel and Edmund Smith, showcase the importance of upholding moral principles, even in the face of adversity.
  • The Complexity of Human Nature: The text reveals the contradictions and inconsistencies within the poets, demonstrating the duality of human nature and the struggle between conflicting desires.


  • The Importance of Education: The biographies highlight the importance of a sound education, not just in classical literature, but also in history, philosophy, and the knowledge of the world.
  • The Power of Patronage: The text demonstrates that literary success was often dependent on the favor of wealthy patrons, revealing the significant role of social connections and financial resources in the advancement of artistic careers.
  • The Need for a Moral Compass: The text, through the lives of several poets, underscores the importance of a strong moral compass and the potential consequences of abandoning virtue and integrity.
  • The Impermanence of Fame: The text shows that the pursuit of fame, while often a powerful motivator, ultimately offers no lasting security, leaving a reminder of the fleeting nature of worldly achievements.


  • Poets: The poets’ intentions varied, but often included a desire for fame, recognition, and influence. Some sought to express their political beliefs, while others sought to entertain, satirize, or inspire.
  • Readers: The intended readers of “The Lives of the Poets” likely included those interested in literary history, social commentary, and the lives of notable figures from the past. The text aims to inform, entertain, and perhaps even offer moral guidance.

Unique Vocabulary:

  • Amphitryon: A comedic play by Plautus, often used in the text to represent lightheartedness and entertainment.
  • Dunciad: A satirical poem by Alexander Pope, used to designate those considered fools or dullards in the literary world.
  • Hudibrastic: Referring to the style of Samuel Butler’s satirical poem Hudibras, characterized by wit, humor, and mock-heroic verse.
  • Whig and Tory: Political factions that often clashed in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the Whigs generally supporting liberal and reformist ideals and the Tories advocating for traditionalist and conservative values.


  • The Bear Cub: The Duke of Wharton, in his rebellious youth, left a bear cub with his tutor as a parting gift, highlighting his playful yet rebellious nature.
  • The Poisoned Cup: The plot of Elijah Fenton’s play, Mariamne, revolves around a poisoned cup intended for Herod and Mariamne, highlighting themes of betrayal, suspicion, and tragic love.
  • The Pillory: Daniel De Foe, facing persecution for his political writings, wrote a hymn to the pillory, demonstrating his defiance and courage.
  • The Glove Incident: The Duke of Wharton, driven by jealousy, challenges Lord C——d to a duel, only to discover that his rival is under arrest. This demonstrates his hot temper and recklessness.
  • Sir Edmundbury Godfrey’s Murder: The text recounts the mysterious circumstances surrounding the murder of Sir Edmundbury Godfrey, a key figure in the Popish Plot.


  • The Power of Poetry: The text celebrates the power of poetry to entertain, inspire, satirize, and even challenge societal norms.
  • The Importance of Character: The text emphasizes the importance of moral character and integrity, demonstrating how personal virtue or lack thereof can have profound effects on a person’s life.
  • The Relationship between Art and Politics: The text explores how political beliefs, ideologies, and events profoundly shaped the lives and creative works of the poets.
  • The Complexities of Human Nature: The biographies reveal the duality of human nature, the struggle between conflicting desires, and the unpredictable nature of human behavior.

Facts and Findings:

  • The Influence of Patronage: Patronage played a significant role in the careers of many poets, often shaping their artistic choices and political affiliations.
  • The Evolution of Literary Taste: The text reflects the changing tastes of the literary world, highlighting the rise of satire, the popularity of opera, and the enduring appeal of classic works.
  • The Role of Politics in Literature: The text demonstrates how political events and ideologies deeply influenced literary production, creating both opportunities and obstacles for writers.


  • The Beggar’s Opera: John Gay’s opera was a phenomenal success, running for 63 consecutive days in London and achieving widespread popularity throughout England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland.
  • The Run of Cato: The play Cato by Joseph Addison was a major success, running for many nights in London and receiving immense applause in Oxford, highlighting its political significance and the fervor of the period.

Points of View:

The text is primarily written from a third-person perspective, with the biographers offering their interpretations of the poets’ lives and works. However, the inclusion of letters, poems, and speeches allows the poets’ own voices to emerge, offering a more personal and direct perspective on their experiences and beliefs.


The text provides a multi-faceted perspective on the lives and works of these poets, blending biographical details, literary analysis, social commentary, and political insights. It offers a rich tapestry of individual stories that reflect the broader social, intellectual, and political landscape of the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

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