Read SIR GEORGE ETHEREGE of The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) Vol. III, free online book, by Theophilus Cibber, on ReadCentral.com.

A Celebrated wit in the reign of Charles and James ii.  He is said to have been descended of an ancient family of Oxfordshire, and born about the year 1636; it is thought he had some part of his education at the university of Cambridge, but in his younger years he travelled into France, and consequently made no long stay at the university.  Upon his return, he, for some time, studied the Municipal Law at one of the Inns of Court, in which, it seems, he made but little progress, and like other men of sprightly genius, abandoned it for pleasure, and the gayer accomplishments.

In the year 1664 the town was obliged with his first performance for the stage, entitled the Comical Revenge, or Love in a Tub, the writing whereof brought him acquainted, as he himself informed us, with the earl of Dorset, to whom it is by the author dedicated.  The fame of this play, together with his easy, unreserved conversation, and happy address, rendered him a favourite with the leading wits, such as the duke of Buckingham, Sir Charles Sedley, the earl of Rochester, Sir Car Scroop.  Being animated by this encouragement, in 1668, he brought another comedy upon the stage, entitled She Would if She Could; which gained him no less applause, and it was expected, that by the continuance of his studies, he would polish and enliven the theatrical taste, and be no less constant in such entertainments, than the most assiduous of his cotemporaries, but he was too much addicted to pleasure, and being impelled by no necessity, he neglected the stage, and never writ, till he was forced to it, by the importunity of his friends.  In 1676, his last comedy called the Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter, came on the stage, with the most extravagant success; he was then a servant to the beautiful duchess of York, of whom Dryden has this very singular expression, ’that he does not think, that at the general resurrection, she can be made to look more charming than now.’  Sir George dedicates this play to his Royal Mistress, with the most courtly turns of compliment.  In this play he is said to have drawn, or to use the modern cant, taken off, some of the cotemporary coxcombs; and Mr. Dryden, in an Epilogue to it, has endeavoured to remove the suspicion of personal satire, and says, that the character of Flutter is meant to ridicule none in particular, but the whole fraternity of finished fops, the idolaters of new fashions.

His words are,

  True fops help nature’s work, and go to school,
  To file and finish God Almighty’s fool: 
  Yet none Sir Fopling, him, or him, can call,
  He’s Knight o’th’ Shire, and represents you all.

But this industry, to avoid the imputation of personal satire, but served to heighten it; and the town soon found out originals to his characters.  Sir Fopling was said to be drawn for one Hewit, a beau of those times, who, it seems, was such a creature as the poet ridiculed, but who, perhaps, like many other coxcombs, would never have been remembered, but for this circumstance, which transmits his memory to posterity.

The character of Dorimant was supposed to represent the earl of Rochester, who was inconstant, faithless, and undetermined in his amours; and it is likewise said, in the character of Medley, that the poet has drawn out some sketch of himself, and from the authority of Mr. Bowman, who played Sir Fopling, or some other part in this comedy, it is said, that the very Shoemaker in Act I. was also meant for a real person, who, by his improvident courses before, having been unable to make any profit by his trade, grew afterwards, upon the public exhibition of him, so industrious and notable, that he drew a crowd of the best customers to him, and became a very thriving tradesman.  Whether the poet meant to display these characters, we cannot now determine, but it is certain, the town’s ascribing them to some particular persons, was paying him a very high compliment; and if it proved no more, it at least demonstrated, a close imitation of nature, a beauty which constitutes the greatest perfection of a comic poet.

Our author, it seems, was addicted to some gay extravagances, such as gaming, and an unlicensed indulgence in women and wine, which brought some satirical réflexions, upon him.  Gildon in his Lives of the Dramatic Poets, says, that upon marrying a fortune, he was knighted; the circumstances of it are these:  He had, by his gaming and extravagance, so embarrassed his affairs, that he courted a rich widow in order to retrieve them; but she being an ambitious woman, would not condescend to marry him, unless he could make her a lady, which he was obliged to do by the purchase of a knighthood; and this appears in a Consolatary Epistle to captain Julian, from the duke of Buckingham, in, which this match is reflected on.  We have no account of any issue he had by this lady, but from the information of Mr. Bowman we can say, that he cohabited, for some time, with the celebrated Mrs. Barry the actress, and had one daughter by her; that he settled 5 or 6000 l. on her, but that she died young.

From the same intelligence, it also appears, that Sir George was, in his person, a fair, slender, genteel man, but spoiled his countenance with drinking, and other habits of intemperance.  In his deportment he was very affable and courteous, of a generous disposition, which, with his free, lively, and natural vein of writing, acquired him the general character of gentle George, and easy Etherege, in respect of which qualities, we often find him compared to Sir Charles Sedley.  His courtly and easy behaviour so recommended him to the Duchess of York, that when on the accession of King James ii. she became Queen, she sent him ambassador abroad, Gildon says, to Hamburgh; but it is pretty evident, that he was in that reign a minister at Ratisbon, at least, from the year 1686, to the time his majesty left this kingdom, if not later, but it appears that he was there, by his own letters wrote from thence to the earl of Middleton.

After this last comedy, we meet with no more he ever wrote for the stage; however, there are preserved some letters of his in prose, published among a collection of Familiar Letters, by John earl of Rochester; two of which, sent to the duke of Buckingham, have particular merit, both for the archness of the turns, and the acuteness of the observations.  He gives his lordship a humorous description of some of the Germans, their excessive drunkenness; their plodding stupidity and ostensive indelicacy; he complains that he has no companion in that part of the world, no Sir Charles Sedleys, nor Buckinghams, and what is still worse, even deprived of the happiness of a mistress, for, the women there, he says, are so coy, and so narrowly watched by their relations, that there is no possibility of accomplishing an intrigue.  He mentions, however, one Monsieur Hoffman, who married a French lady, with whom he was very great, and after the calamitous accident of Mr. Hoffman’s being drowned, he pleasantly describes the grief of the widow, and the methods he took of removing her sorrow, by an attempt in which he succeeded.  These two letters discover the true character of Etherege, as well as of the noble person to whom they were sent, and mark them as great libertines, in speculation as in practice.

As for the other compositions of our author, they consist chiefly of little airy sonnets, smart lampoons, and smooth panegyrics.  All that we have met with more than is here mentioned, of his writing in prose, is a short piece, entitled An Account of the Rejoicing at the Diet of Ratisbon, performed by Sir George Etherege, Knight, residing there from his Majesty of Great Britain, upon Occasion of the Birth of the Prince of Wales; in a Letter from himself, printed in the Savoy 1688.  When our author died, the writers of his life have been very deficient; Gildon says, that after the Revolution, he followed his master into France, and died there, or very soon after his arrival in England from thence.  But there was a report (say the authors of the Biograph.  Brit. which they received from an ingenious gentleman) ’that Sir George came to an untimely death, by an unlucky accident at Ratisbon, for, after having treated some company with a liberal entertainment at his house there, when he had taken his glass too freely, and, being through his great complaisance too forward, in waiting on his guests at their departure, flushed as he was, he tumbled down stairs, and broke his neck, and so fell a martyr to jollity and civility.’

One of the earliest of our author’s lesser poems, is that addressed to her Grace the Marchioness of Newcastle, after reading her poems, and as it is esteemed a very elegant panegyric, we shall give the conclusion of it as a specimen.

  While we, your praise, endeavouring to rehearse,
  Pay that great duty in our humble verse;
  Such as may justly move your anger, now,
  Like Heaven forgive them, and accept them too. 
  But what we cannot, your brave hero pays,
  He builds those monuments we strive to raise;
  Such as to after ages shall make known,
  While he records your deathless fame his own: 
  So when an artist some rare beauty draws,
  Both in our wonder there, and our applause. 
  His skill, from time secures the glorious dame,
  And makes himself immortal in her fame.

Besides his Songs, little panegyrical Poems and Sonnets, he wrote two Satires against Nell Gwyn, one of the King’s mistresses, though there is no account how a quarrel happened between them; the one is called Madam Nelly’s Complaint, beginning,

  If Sylla’s ghost made bloody Cat’line start.

The other is called the Lady of Pleasure, with; its Argument at the Head of it, whereof the first line is,

  The life of Nelly truly shewn.

Sir George spent a life of ease, pleasure, and affluence, at least never was long, nor much, exposed to want.  He seems to have possessed a sprightly genius, to have had an excellent turn for comedy, and very happy in a courtly dialogue.  We have no proof of his being a scholar, and was rather born, than made a poet.  He has not escaped the censure of the critics; for his works are so extremely loose and licentious, as to render them dangerous to young, unguarded minds:  and on this account our witty author is, indeed, justly liable to the severest censure of the virtuous, and sober part of mankind.