Read WILLIAM WYCHERLEY of The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) Vol. III, free online book, by Theophilus Cibber, on

This Gentleman was son of Daniel Wycherley, of Cleve in Shropshire, Esq; and was born (says Wood) in the year 1640.

When he was about fifteen years of age, he was sent to France, in the western parts of which he resided upon the banks of the Charante; where he was often admitted to the conversation of the most accomplished ladies of the court of France, particularly madam de Montaufieur, celebrated by mons.  Voiture in his letters.

A little before the restoration of Charles the IId, he became a gentleman commoner of queen’s college in Oxford, and lived in the provost’s lodgings; and was entered in the public library, under the title of philosophiae studiosus, in July 1660.  He quitted the university without being matriculated, having, according to the Oxford antiquary, been reconciled to the protestant religion, which he had renounced during his travels, probably by the person of those gay ladies, with whom he conversed in France.  This circumstance shews how dangerous it is to engage in a debate with a female antagonist, especially, if that antagonist joins beauty with understanding.

Mr. Wycherley afterwards entered himself in the Middle-Temple; but making his first appearance in town, in a reign when wit and gaiety were the favourite distinctions, he relinguished the study of the law, and engaged in pursuits more agreeable to his own genius, and the gallant spirit of the times.

Upon writing his first Play, entitled Love in a Wood, or St. James’s Park; and acted at the Theatre-royal, in 1672, he became acquainted with several of the most celebrated wits, both of the court and town; and likewise with the duchess of Cleveland.  Mr. Dennis, in his Letters quoted above, has given a particular relation of the beginning of his acquaintance with this celebrated beauty of the times, which is singular enough. One day Mr. Wycherley riding in his chariot through St. James’s Park, he was met by the duchess, whose chariot jostled with his, upon which she looked out of her chariot, and spoke very audibly, “You Wycherley, you are a son of a whore,” and then burst into a fit of laughter.  Mr. Wycherley at first was very much surprized at this, but he soon recovered himself enough to recollect, that it was spoke in allusion to the latter end of a Song in his Love in a Wood;

  When parents are slaves,
  Their brats cannot be any other;
  Great wits, and great braves,
  Have always a punk for their mother.

During Mr. Wycherley’s surprize, the chariots drove different ways, they were soon at a considerable distance from each other; when Mr. Wycherley recollecting, ordered his coachman to drive back, and overtake the lady.  As soon as he got over against her, he said to her, “Madam, you was pleased to bestow a title upon me, which generally belongs to the fortunate.  Will your ladyship be at the play to night?  Well, she replied, what if I should be there?  Why then, answered he, I will be there to wait on your ladyship, though I disappoint a fine woman, who has made me an assignation.  So, said she, you are sure to disappoint a woman who has favoured you, for one who has not.  Yes, he replied, if she who has not favoured me is the finer woman of the two:  But he who will be constant to your ladyship, till he can find a finer woman, is sure to die your captive.”

The duchess of Cleveland, in consequence of Mr. Wycherley’s compliment, was that night, in the first row of the king’s box in Drury-Lane, and Mr. Wycherley in the pit under her, where he entertained her during the whole play; and this was the beginning of a correspondence between these two persons, which afterwards made a great noise in the town.

This accident, was the occasion of bringing Mr. Wycherley into favour with George duke of Buckingham, who was passionately in love with that lady, but was ill-treated by her, and who believed that Mr. Wycherley was his happy rival.  The duke had long sollicited her, without obtaining any favour:  Whether the relation between them shocked her, for she was his cousin-german; or, whether she apprehended that an intrigue with a person of his rank and character, must necessarily in a short time come to the king’s ears; whatever was the cause, she refused so long to admit his visits, that at last indignation, rage, and disdain took place of love; and he resolved to ruin her.  When he took this resolution, he had her so narrowly watched by his spies, that he soon discovered those whom he had reason to believe were his rivals; and after he knew them, he never failed to name them aloud, in order to expose the lady to all those who visited her; and among others, he never failed to mention Mr. Wycherley.  As soon as it came to the knowledge of the latter, who had all his expectations from court, he apprehended the consequences of such a report, if it should reach the King; and applied himself therefore to Wilmot earl of Rochester, and Sir Charles Sedley, entreating them to remonstrate to the duke of Buckingham, the mischief he was about to do to one who had not the honour to know him, and who had not offended him.  Upon opening the matter to the duke, he cried out immediately, that he did not blame Wycherley, he only accused his cousin.  ’Ay, but they replied, by rendering him suspected of such an intrigue, you are about to ruin him; that is, your grace is about to ruin a man, whose conversation you would be pleased with above all things.’

Upon this occasion, they said so much of the shining qualities of Mr. Wycherley, and the charms of his conversation, that the duke, who was as much in love with wit, as he was with his cousin, was impatient, till he was brought to sup with him, which was in two or three nights.  After supper, Mr. Wycherley, who was then in the height of his vigour, both in body and mind, thought himself obliged to exert his talents, and the duke was charmed to that degree, that he cried out with transport, and with an oath, ‘My cousin’s in the right of it.’ and from that very moment made a friend of a man he before thought his rival.

In the year 1673 a comedy of his called the Gentleman Dancing-Master, was acted at the duke’s Theatre, and in 1678 his Plain Dealer was acted with general applause.  In 1683 his Country Wife was performed at the same Theatre.  These Plays raised him so high in the esteem of the world, and so recommended him to the favour of the duke of Buckingham, that as he was master of the horse, and colonel of a regiment, he bestowed two places on Wycherley:  As master of the horse, he made him one of his equeries; and as colonel of a regiment, a captain lieutenant of his own company.  King Charles likewise gave our author the most distinguishing marks of favour, perhaps beyond what any sovereign prince had shewn before to an author, who was only a private gentleman:  Mr. Wycherley happened to be ill of a fever, at his lodgings in Bow-Street, Covent-Garden; during his sickness, the king did him the honour of a visit; when finding his fever indeed abated, but his body extremely weakened, and his spirits miserably shattered, he commanded him to take a journey to the south of France, believing that nothing could contribute more to the restoring his former state of health, than the gentle air of Montpelier, during the winter season:  at the same time, the king assured him, that as soon as he was able to undertake that journey, he would order five-hundred pounds to be paid him, to defray the expences of it.

Mr. Wycherley accordingly went to France, and returned to England the latter end of the spring following, with his health entirely restored.  The king received him with the utmost marks of esteem, and shortly after told him, he had a son, whom he resolved should be educated like the son of a king, and that he could make choice of no man so proper to be his governor as Mr. Wycherley; and, that for this service, he should have fifteen-hundred pounds a year allotted him; the King also added, that when the time came, that his office should cease, he would take care to make such a provision for him, as should set him above the malice of the world and fortune.  These were golden prospects for Mr. Wycherley, but they were soon by a cross accident dashed to pieces.

Soon after this promise of his majesty’s, Mr. Dennis tells us, that Mr. Wycherley went down to Tunbridge, to take either the benefit of the waters, or the diversions of the place; when walking one day upon the wells-walk, with his friend Mr. Fairbeard of Grey’s-Inn, just as he came up to the bookseller’s, the countess of Drogheda, a young widow, rich, noble and beautiful, came to the bookseller, and enquired for the Plain Dealer.  ’Madam, says Mr. Fairbeard, since you are for the Plain Dealer, there he is for you,’ pushing Mr. Wycherley towards her.  ’Yes, says Mr. Wycherley, this lady can bear plain dealing, for she appears to be so accomplished, that what would be a compliment to others, when said to her, would be plain dealing. No truly Sir, said the lady, I am not without my faults more than the rest of my sex; and yet, notwithstanding all my faults, I love plain dealing, and never am more fond of it, then when it tells me of a fault:’  Then madam, says Mr. Fairbeard, you and the plain dealer seem designed by heaven for each other.  In short, Mr. Wycherley accompanied her upon the walks, waited upon her home, visited her daily at her lodgings whilst she stayed at Tunbridge; and after she went to London, at her lodgings in Hatton-Garden:  where in a little time he obtained her consent to marry her.  This he did by his father’s command, without acquainting the king; for it was reasonably supposed that the lady having a great independent estate, and noble and powerful relations, the acquainting the king with the intended match, would be the likeliest way to prevent it.  As soon as the news was known at court, it was looked upon as an affront to the king, and a contempt of his majesty’s orders; and Mr. Wycherley’s conduct after marriage, made the resentment fall heavier upon him:  For being conscious he had given offence, and seldom going near the court, his absence was construed into ingratitude.

The countess, though a splendid wife, was not formed to make a husband happy; she was in her nature extremely jealous, and indulged it to such a degree, that she could not endure her husband should be one moment out of her sight.  Their lodgings were in Bow-street, Covent Garden, over against the Cock Tavern; whither if Mr. Wycherley at any time went, he was obliged to leave the windows open, that his lady might see there was no woman in the company.

This was the cause of Mr. Wycherley’s disgrace with the King, whose favour and affection he had before possessed in so distinguished a degree.  The countess settled all her estate upon him, but his title being disputed after her death, the expence of the law, and other incumbrances, so far reduced him, that he was not able to satisfy the impatience of his creditors, who threw him at last into prison; so that he, who but a few years before was flourishing in all the gaiety of life, flushed with prospects of court preferment, and happy in the most extensive reputation for wit and parts, was condemned to suffer all the rigours of want:  for his father did not think proper to support him.  In this severe extremity, he fell upon an expedient, which, no doubt, was dictated by his distress, of applying to his Bookseller, who had got considerably by his Plain Dealer, in order to borrow 20 l. but he applied in vain; the Bookseller refused to lend him a shilling; and in that distress he languished for seven years:  nor was he released ’till one day King James going to see his Plain-Dealer performed, was so charmed with it, that he gave immediate orders for the payment of the author’s debts, adding to that bounty a pension of 200 1. per annum, while he continued in England.  But the generous intention of that Prince to him, had not the designed effect, purely through his modesty; he being ashamed to tell the earl of Mulgrave, whom the King had sent to demand it, a full state of his debts.  He laboured under the weight of these difficulties ’till his father died, and then the estate that descended to him, was left under very uneasy limitations, he being only a tenant for life, and not being allowed to raise money for the payment of his debts:  yet, as he had a power to make a jointure, he married, almost at the eve of his days, a young gentlewoman of 1500 l. fortune, part of which being applied to the uses he wanted it for, he died eleven days after the celebration of his nuptials in December 1715, and was interred in the vault of Covent Garden church.

Besides the plays already mentioned, he published a volume of poems 1704, which met with no great success; for, like Congreve, his strength lay only in the drama, and, unless on the stage, he was but a second rate poet.  In 1728 his posthumous works in prose and verse were published by Mr. Lewis Theobald at London in 8vo.

Mr. Dennis, in a few words, has summed up this gentleman’s character; ’he was admired by the men for his parts, in wit and learning; and he was admired by the women for those parts of which they were more competent judges.’  Mr. Wycherley was a man of great sprightliness, and vivacity of genius, he was said to have been handsome, formed for gallantry, and was certainly an idol with the ladies, a felicity which even his wit might not have procured, without exterior advantages.

As a poet and a dramatist, I cannot better exhibit his character than in the words of George lord Lansdowne; he observes, ’that the earl of Rochester, in imitation of one of Horace’s epistles, thus mentions our author;

  Of all our modern wits none seem to me,
  Once to have touch’d upon true comedy
  But hasty Shadwel, and slow Wycherley. 
  Shadwel’s unfinish’d works do yet impart
  Great proofs of nature’s force; tho’ none of art. 
  ’But Wycherley earns hard whate’er he gains,
  He wants no judgment, and he spares no pains.’

’Lord Lansdowne is persuaded, that the earl fell into this part of the character (of a laborious writer) merely for the sake of the verse; if hasty, says he, would have stood as an epithet for Wycherley, and slow, for Shadwel, they would in all probability have been so applied, but the verse would have been spoiled, and to that it was necessary to submit.  Those, who would form their judgments only upon Mr. Wycherley’s writings, without any personal acquaintance with him, might indeed be apt to conclude, that such a diversity of images and characters, such strict enquiries into nature, such close observations on the several humours, manners, and affections of all ranks and degrees of men, and, as it were, so true and perfect a dissection of humankind, delivered with so much pointed wit, and force of expression, could be no other than the work of extraordinary diligence, labour, and application; but in truth, we owe the pleasure and advantage of having been so well entertained, and instructed by him, to his facility of doing it; if it had been a trouble to him to write, I am much mistaken if he would not have spared that trouble.  What he has performed, would have been difficult for another; but a club, which a man of an ordinary size could not lift, was a walking staff for Hercules.  To judge by the sharpness, and spirit of his satires, you might be led into another mistake, and imagine him an ill-natur’d man, but what my lord Rochester said of lord Dorset, is applicable to him, the best good man with the worst natured muse.  As pointed, and severe as he is in his writings, in his temper he had all the softness of the tenderest disposition; gentle and inoffensive to every man in his particular character; he only attacks vice as a public enemy, compassionating the wound he is under a necessity to probe, or grieving, like a good natured conqueror, at the occasions which provoke him to make such havock.  King Charles ii. a nice discerner of men, and himself a man of wit, often chose him for a companion at his leisure hours, as Augustus did Horace, and had very advantageous views for him, but unluckily an amorous inclination interfered; the lover got the better of the courtier, and ambition fell a sacrifice to love, the predominant passion of the noblest mind.  Many object to his versification; it is certain he is no master of numbers, but a Diamond is not less a Diamond for not being polished.’

Mr. Pope, when very young, made his court to Mr. Wycherley, when very old; and the latter was so well pleased with the former, and had such an opinion of his rising genius, that he entered into an intimate correspondence with him, and submitted his works to Mr. Pope’s correction.  See the letters between Pope and Wycherley, printed in Pope’s works.