Read MR. THOMAS SOUTHERN of The Lives of the Poets of Great Britain and Ireland (1753) Vol. V, free online book, by Theophilus Cibber, on

This eminent poet was born in Dublin, on the year of the Restoration of Charles the IId. and received his early education at the university there.  In the 18th year of his age, he quitted Ireland, and as his intention was to pursue a lucrative profession, he entered himself in the Middle-Temple.  But the natural vivacity of his mind overcoming considerations of advantage, he quitted that state of life, and entered into the more agreeable service of the Muses.

The first dramatic performance of Mr. Southern, his Persian Prince, or Loyal Brother, was acted in the year 1682.  The story is taken from Thamas Prince of Persia, a Novel; and the scene is laid in Ispahan in Persia.  This play was introduced at a time when the Tory interest was triumphant in England, and the character of the Loyal brother was no doubt intended to compliment James Duke of York, who afterwards rewarded the poet for his service.  To this Tragedy Mr. Dryden wrote the Prologue and Epilogue, which furnished Mr. Southern with an opportunity of saying in his dedication, ’That the Laureat’s own pen secured me, maintaining the out-works, while I lay safe entrenched within his lines; and malice, ill-nature, and censure were forced to grin at a distance.’

The Prologue is a continued invective against the Whigs, and whether considered as a party libel, or an induction to a new play, is in every respect unworthy of the great hand that wrote it.  His next play was a Comedy, called the Disappointment, or the Mother in Fashion, performed in the year 1684. After the accession of king James the IId to the throne, when the duke of Monmouth made an unfortunate attempt upon his uncle’s crown, Mr. Southern went into the army, in the regiment of foot raised by the lord Ferrers, afterwards commanded by the duke of Berwick; and he had three commissions, viz. ensign, lieutenant, and captain, under King James, in that regiment.

During the reign of this prince, in the year before the Revolution, he wrote a Tragedy called the Spartan Dame, which however was not acted till the year 1721.  The subject is taken from the Life of Agis in Plutarch, where the character of Chelonis, between the duties of a wife and daughter was thought to have a near resemblance to that of King William’s Queen Mary.  ’I began this play, says Mr. Southern, a year before the Revolution, and near four acts written without any view.  Many things interfering with those times, I laid by what I had written for seventeen years:  I shewed it then to the late duke of Devonshire, who was in every regard a judge; he told me he saw no reason why it might not have been acted the year of the Revolution:  I then finished it, and as I thought cut out the exceptionable parts, but could not get it acted, not being able to persuade myself to the cutting off those limbs, which I thought essential to the strength and life of it.  But since I found it must pine in obscurity without it, I consented to the operation, and after the amputation of every line, very near to the number of 400, it stands on its own legs still, and by the favour of the town, and indulging assistance of friends, has come successfully forward on the stage.’  This play was inimitably acted.  Mr. Booth, Mr. Wilks, Mr. Cibber, Mr. Mills, sen.  Mrs. Oldfield, and Mrs. Porter, all performed in it, in their heighth of reputation, and the full vigour of their powers.

Mr. Southern acknowledges in his preface to this play, that the last scene of the third Act, was almost all written by the honourable John Stafford, father to the earl of Stafford.  Mr. Southern has likewise acknowledged, that he received from the bookseller, as a price for this play, 150 l. which at that time was very extraordinary.  He was the first who raised the advantage of play writing to a second and third night, which Mr. Pope mentions in the following manner,

   Southern born to raise,
  The price of Prologues and of Plays.

The reputation which Mr. Dryden gained by the many Prologues he wrote, induced the players to be sollicitous to have one of his to speak, which were generally well received by the public.  Mr. Dryden’s price for a Prologue had usually been five guineas, with which sum Mr. Southern presented him when he received from him a Prologue for one of his plays.  Mr. Dryden returned the money, and said to him; ’Young man this is too little, I must have ten guineas.’  Mr. Southern on this observ’d, that his usual price was five guineas.  Yes answered Dryden, it has been so, but the players have hitherto had my labours too cheap; for the future I must have ten guineas .

Mr. Southern was industrious to draw all imaginable profits from his poetical labours.  Mr. Dryden once took occasion to ask him how much he got by one of his plays; to which he answered, that he was really ashamed to inform him.  But Mr. Dryden being a little importunate to know, he plainly told him, that by his last play he cleared seven hundred pounds; which appeared astonishing to Mr. Dryden, as he himself had never been able to acquire more than one hundred by any of his most successful pieces.  The secret is, Mr. Southern was not beneath the drudgery of sollicitation, and often sold his tickets at a very high price, by making applications to persons of distinction:  a degree of servility which perhaps Mr. Dryden thought was much beneath the dignity of a poet; and too much in the character of an under-player.

That Mr. Dryden entertained a very high opinion of our author’s abilities, appears from his many expressions of kindness towards him.  He has prefixed a copy of verses to a Comedy of his, called the Wife’s Excuse, acted in the year 1692, with very indifferent success:  Of this Comedy, Mr. Dryden had so high an opinion, that he bequeathed to our poet, the care of writing half the last act of his Tragedy of Cleomenes, ’Which, says Mr. Southern, when it comes into the world will appear to be so considerable a trust, that all the town will pardon me for defending this play, that preferred me to it.’

Our author continued from time to time to entertain the public with his dramatic pieces, the greatest part of which met with the success they deserved.  The night on which his Innocent Adultery was first acted, which is perhaps the most moving play in any language; a gentleman took occasion to ask Mr. Dryden, what was his opinion of Southern’s genius? to which that great poet replied, ’That he thought him such another poet as Otway.’  When this reply was communicated to Mr. Southern, he considered it as a very great compliment, having no ambition to be thought a more considerable poet than Otway was.

Of our author’s Comedies, none are in possession of the stage, nor perhaps deserve to be so; for in that province he is less excellent than in Tragedy.  The present Laureat, who is perhaps one of the best judges of Comedy now living, being asked his opinion by a gentleman, of Southern’s comic dialogue, answered, That it might be denominated Whip-Syllabub, that is, flashy and light, but indurable; and as it is without the Sal Atticum of wit, can never much delight the intelligent part of the audience.

The most finished, and the most pathetic of Mr. Southern’s plays, in the opinion of the critics, is his Oroonoko, or the Royal Slave.  This drama is built upon a true story, related by Mrs. Behn, in a Novel; and has so much the greater influence on the audience, as they are sensible that the representation is no fiction.  In this piece, Mr. Southern has touched the tender passions with so much skill, that it will perhaps be injurious to his memory to say of him, that he is second to Otway.  Besides the tender and delicate strokes of passion, there are many shining and manly sentiments in Oroonoko; and one of the greatest genius’s of the present age, has often observed, that in the most celebrated play of Shakespear, so many striking thoughts, and such a glow of animated poetry cannot be furnished.  This play is so often acted, and admired, that any illustration of its beauties here, would be entirely superfluous.  His play of The Fatal Marriage, or The Innocent Adultery, met with deserved success; the affecting incidents, and interesting tale in the tragic part, sufficiently compensate for the low, trifling, comic part; and when the character of Isabella is acted, as we have seen it, by Mrs. Porter, and Mrs. Woffington, the ladies seldom fail to sympathise in grief.

Mr. Southern died on the 26th of May, in the year 1746, in the 86th year of his age; the latter part of which he spent in a peaceful serenity, having by his commission as a soldier, and the profits of his dramatic works, acquired a handsome fortune; and being an exact oeconomist, he improved what fortune he gained, to the best advantage:  He enjoyed the longest life of all our poets, and died the richest of them, a very few excepted.

A gentleman whose authority we have already quoted, had likewise informed us, that Mr. Southern lived for the last ten years of his life in Westminster, and attended very constant at divine service in the Abbey, being particularly fond of church music.  He never staid within doors while in health, two days together, having such a circle of acquaintance of the best rank, that he constantly dined with one or other, by a kind of rotation.