Elkanah Settle (16481724)



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Biographical details

Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)

SETTLE, ELKANAH (1648–1724), city poet, the son of Josias Settle and his wife Sarah, was born at Dunstable on 1 Feb. and baptised on 9 Feb. 1647–8 (Bedfordshire Notes and Queries, vol. iii. pt. vii. 206). He matriculated on 13 July 1666 from Trinity College, Oxford, where his tutor was Abraham Campian, but he left Oxford without taking a degree and proceeded to London. According to Gildon, he once possessed a good fortune, which he quickly dissipated. If Downes may be believed, it was in the same year (1666) that Settle, then barely eighteen, completed his first play, ‘Cambyses, King of Persia: a Tragedy.’ It was the first new play acted that season at Lincoln's Inn Fields. Betterton and his wife were in the cast, and, the other parts being ‘perfectly well acted,’ it ‘succeeded six days with a full audience’ (Downes, Roscius Anglicanus, 1886, p. 27). It was subsequently produced at Oxford, and was printed in 1671 and 1673. Wood states that Settle's fellow collegian, William Buller Fyfe, had some part in the composition, the plot of which was mainly derived from Herodotus. Settle was inflated by his success, and ‘Cambyses’ formed the first of a series of bombastic dramas, the scenario of which was discreetly laid in Persia or Morocco. Settle's triumph was eagerly adopted by Rochester as a means of humiliating Dryden. Through Rochester's influence Settle's next tragedy, ‘The Empress of Morocco,’ was twice acted at Whitehall, the prologues being spoken respectively by Rochester and by Lord Mulgrave. It seems to have been originally given in 1671, and revived at Dorset Garden in 1673, when Betterton played it for two weeks with great applause. Though highflown, it is not devoid of merit, and Genest called the plot ‘well managed.’ In his dedication to the Earl of Norwich, Settle says, ‘I owe the story of my play to your hands and your honourable embassy into Africa.’ It was published by Cademan in 1671, and again in 1673 with six engravings (one of which represents the front of Dorset Garden), at the enhanced price of two shillings. It is said to have been the first play ever published with engravings (later editions 1687 and 1698). The court was for the time completely won over by Settle's heroic tragedies, passages from which were quoted against Dryden's ‘Tyrannic Love’ and ‘Conquest of Granada;’ at the universities, where it was keenly discussed whether Dryden or Settle were the greater genius, the younger fry, said Wood, inclined to Elkanah. As his enemies had anticipated, Dryden's temper was stirred, and with Crowne and Shadwell he clubbed to crush the upstart by an unworthy and abusive pamphlet (Notes and Observations on the Empress of Morocco). Settle was undismayed, and retorted vigorously in ‘Notes and Observations on the Empress of Morocco Revised,’ 1674, 4to, to which he added, by way of counter-attack, ‘Some few Erratas to be printed, instead of the Postscript, with the next edition of the “Conquest of Granada.”’ Apart from his success, Settle appears to have given the poet small provocation; but Dryden nursed his jealousy, and gave vent to his resentment in the second part of his ‘Absalom and Achitophel,’ published about November 1682, where his former rival is described as

Doeg, though without knowing how or why, Made still a blundering kind of melody, Spurr'd boldly on, and dashed through thick and thin, Through sense and nonsense never out or in; Free from all meaning, whether good or bad, And, in one word, heroically mad.

Dryden's intention to signalise him had doubtless reached Settle's ears, for he produced almost at the same time his ‘Absalom Senior, or Achitophel Transpros'd’ (published at the sign of Sir Edmondbury Godfrey, near Fleetbridge, 1682), a whig reply to the first part of Dryden's satire, with a free description of its author. In several of his later plays the laureate referred contemptuously to Settle, for whom he predicted an audience in Bartholomew Fair. Elkanah took leave of his tormentor in ‘Reflections on several of Mr. Dryden's Plays,’ 1687, 4to. In the meantime, notwithstanding the transference of Rochester's patronage to Crowne and Otway, Settle ‘rhymed and rattled’ persistently. His ‘Love and Revenge,’ founded upon the ‘Fatal Contract’ of William Hemings [q. v.], was produced at Dorset Garden in 1675 and printed. In the dedication the dramatist congratulates providence on lengthening the Duke of Newcastle's life, so that he might ‘witness the prosperous reign of a great and pious monarch.’ In a ‘postscript’ he attacked Shadwell, a much better writer than himself. His ‘Conquest of China by the Tartars’ was given at the same theatre, Jevon, who had a leading part, taking great liberties with its turgid periods (Downes, p. 35; printed London, 1676, 4to). His ‘Ibrahim, the Illustrious Bassa: a Tragedy’ (based on Georges de Scudéry's ‘L'Illustre Bassa’), was licensed on 4 May 1676 and printed (1677 and 1692, 4to), with a dedication to the Duchess of Albemarle, and his ‘Fatal Love; or the Forced Inconstancy,’ a fustian version of the legend of Clitophon and Leucippe, was given at the Theatre Royal (Drury Lane) in 1680. Neglected by the court, Settle made overtures to the opposition, and his political bias is sufficiently shown in his next play, ‘The Female Prelate, being the History of the Life and Death of Pope Joan,’ which was produced at the Theatre Royal in 1680, and printed immediately, with a dedication to Shaftesbury. The invective is outrageous, but the plot and incidents, says Genest, are good (Hist. i. 275). Settle's mastery of scenic effect and the violence of his protestantism led to his unanimous election as organiser-in-chief of the pope-burning procession on Queen Elizabeth's birthday (17 Nov. 1680); and Roger L'Estrange, in ‘Heraclitus Ridens’ (No. 50), described him as poet-laureate and master of ordnance to the whig party, who would vindicate Lucifer's first rebellion for a few guineas. Next year he wrote, at Shaftesbury's instance, his ‘Character of a Popish Successor’ (1681), which evoked a storm of remonstrance. Settle accentuated his remarks in a revised edition, which he afterwards alleged that Shaftesbury, dissatisfied by its moderation of tone, had retouched. His personal attacks upon the Duke of York are said to have involved him in a duel with Thomas Otway. Of these passages in his life he wrote: ‘I now grew weary of my little talent for Dramaticks, and forsooth must be rambling into politics … and much have I got by it’ (pref. to Distressed Innocence). Determined, at least, not to lose by politics, Settle, upon the dissolution of the Oxford parliament, promptly recanted, and wrote ‘A Narrative of the Popish Plot,’ 1683, fol., exposing the perjuries of ‘Doctor’ Oates, and covering with abuse Shaftesbury and his old associates at the ‘Green Ribbon Club.’ Written with a clever assumption of fairness, the ‘Narrative’ evoked a cloud of answers and letters, and a heated ‘Vindication of Titus Oats.’ Settle was undeterred from publishing hostile ‘animadversions’ upon the dying speeches of William, lord Russell, and Algernon Sidney, and he went so far as to issue ‘A Panegyrick on Sir George Jefferies’ (1683) on his elevation to the chief-justiceship, Jeffreys having been conspicuous as ‘Shimei’ in his satire of ‘Achitophel Transpros'd.’ His tory enthusiasm reached its climax in 1685, when he published an adulatory ‘Heroick Poem on the Coronation of the High and Mighty Monarch, James II’ (London, 4to), and shortly afterwards entered himself as a trooper in James's army on Hounslow Heath. He is said, moreover, to have published a weekly sheet in support of the administration. Upon the revolution Settle recommenced overtures to his whig friends; but, feeling that both parties were looking askance at him, he put in for the reversion of Matthew Taubman's post of city laureate, for which political consistency was not a necessary qualification. Taubman's last pageant was dated 1689; in 1690 the show was intermitted, but Settle was duly appointed city poet in the following year, and issued for lord-mayor's day ‘The Triumphs of London’ (for Abel Roper, London, 4to). His four pageants 1692–5 bear the same title. No pageants are known for 1696–7, but in 1698 Settle produced ‘Glory's Resurrection.’ He then reverted to the older title until 1702. The ‘Triumphs’ for the next five years are missing, but Settle issued one for 1708, though the exhibition of that year was frustrated by the death of Prince George of Denmark. It seems to have been the last lord-mayor's show to have been described in a separate official publication. In the meantime Settle had not abandoned his career as a playwright. His ‘Heir of Morocco’ (1694, 4to), forming a second part to his ‘Empress of Morocco,’ and based upon a slender substratum of facts furnished by the English occupation of Tangier, was produced at the Theatre Royal in 1682 (revived on 19 Jan. 1709). Then after a long interval came his ‘Distressed Innocence, or the Princess of Persia’ (1691, 4to), founded on the 39th chapter of the 5th book of Theodoret, but ‘warped’ in favour of the Christians. The piece was given at the Theatre Royal in 1691. His ‘New Athenian Comedy’ (1693, 4to) and ‘The Ambitious Slave,’ a tragedy (1694, 4to), were followed at Dorset Garden in 1697 by ‘The World in the Moon’ (1697, 4to), an opera, of which the first scene was formed by a moon fourteen feet in diameter. Of his ‘Virgin Prophetess, or the Fate of Troy’ (1701, 4to), Genest says that the language and the deviations from the accredited legend were ‘disgusting, but the spectacle must have been fine.’ ‘The City Ramble, or the Playhouse Wedding’ (1711, 4to), based to some extent upon the ‘Knight of the Burning Pestle’ and the ‘Coxcomb,’ with humorous additions of some merit, was produced at Drury Lane on 17 Aug. 1711. By this time Settle's reputation was so damaged that he determined to bring out the piece anonymously. But the secret ‘happened to take air,’ and he fell back upon producing it during the long vacation. His last play, ‘The Ladies' Triumph’ (1718, 12mo), produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1718, ended with a masque in which Settle skilfully introduced elaborate scenery and machinery. The theatre and the corporation proved only occasional resources, and very soon after the revolution Settle fulfilled various predictions by letting himself out to write drolls for Bartholomew Fair, love-letters for maid servants, ballads for Pye Corner, and epithalamiums for half a crown. In Bartholomew Fair he served under the show-woman, Mrs. Mynn, and produced at her booth his ‘Siege of Troy’ in 1707. At the same show he is said to have played a dragon in green leather, whence Pope puts into his mouth the couplet—

Yet lo! in me what authors have to brag on! Reduced at last to hiss in my own dragon

(Dunciad, iii. 285; cf. Young's Epistle to Mr. Pope, i. 261–8). As a laureate Settle celebrated with equal readiness the act of succession (‘Eusebia Triumphans,’ 1702 and 1707), the danger to the church (‘A New Memorial,’ 1706), the propagation of the Gospel in foreign parts (‘A Pindarick Ode,’ 1711), the tory peace of 1713 (‘Irene Triumphans,’ 1713), and the whig triumph two years later (‘Rebellion Display'd,’ 1715). He seems to have always had in hand a stock of printed elegies and complimentary verses under such titles as ‘Augusta Lacrimans,’ ‘Thalia Lacrimans,’ ‘Thalia Triumphans,’ ‘Memoriæ Fragranti,’ to which he affixed names and dedications in accordance with the demand. Resourceful as he was, however, Elkanah's income dwindled until, about 1718, his city friends procured him a retreat in the Charterhouse. He died there, a poor brother, on 12 Feb. 1723–4 (Hist. Reg. Chron. Diary, 1724, p. 11; the Charterhouse burial registers 1710–40 are missing). Five days after his death he was described in the ‘True Briton’ as a man ‘of tall stature, red face, short black hair,’ who ‘lived in the city, and had a numerous poetical issue, but shared the misfortune of several gentlemen, to survive them all.’ He married, on 28 Feb. 1673–4, Mary Warner, at St. Andrew's, Holborn (Notes and Queries, 8th ser. xii. 483). Settle was not deficient in promise as scholar, rhymester, and wit; but he wrecked his career by his tergiversation and by his inept efforts to measure his mediocre capacity against the genius of Dryden. He soon became a butt for caricature as a voluminous and reckless dunce. ‘Recanting Settle,’ wrote a critic, when his tragedies and libels could no more yield him penny loaves and ale, ‘bids our youth by his example fly, the Love of Politicks and Poetry’ (Poems on State Affairs, ii. 138). In one of his earliest satires Pope dubbed him Codrus, after the prolix poetaster of Juvenal (Lintot, Miscell. 1712, revised for Dunciad, i. 183), and in the ‘Dunciad’ are many jibes at his expense, notably the allusion to the lord-mayor's show, which ‘liv'd in Settle's numbers one day more’ (bk. i. 90). In 1776, on the occasion of his conversation with Johnson, Wilkes referred to Elkanah as the last of the city poets, and one whose poetry matched the queerness of his name (Boswell, Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 76). In addition to the works enumerated and minor complimentary pieces, Settle was author of: 1. ‘The Life and Death of Major Clancie, the grandest Cheat of this Age,’ 1680, 8vo. 2. ‘Insignia Bataviæ; or the barbarous behaviour of the Dutch towards the English in East India,’ 1688, 4to. 3. ‘The Compleat Memoirs of the Life of that Notorious Impostor, Will. Morrell, alias Bowyer, alias Wickham,’ 1694, 12mo; 1699, 8vo. 4. ‘Minerva Triumphans. The Muses' Essay. To the Honour of the Generous Foundation, the Cotton Library at Westminster,’ 1701, fol. 5. ‘Carmen Irenicum. The Happy Union of the Two East India Companies. An Heroic Poem,’ 1702, fol. (for 1, 4 and 5, see Hazlitt, Bibl. Coll. 3rd ser. pp. 229–30). Settle also edited the ‘Herod and Mariamne’ (1673, 4to) of Samuel Pordage [q. v.], and contributed to the popular translation of ‘Ovid's Epistles’ (1683, 8vo). He re-edited for the stage Sir R. Fanshaw's version of Guarini, which appeared at Dorset Garden in 1676 as ‘Pastor Fido, or the Faithful Shepherd’ (London, 1677, 4to); ‘a moderate pastoral’ (Genest, i. 196). He revised and rewrote the last two acts of Beaumont and Fletcher's ‘Philaster’ for the Theatre Royal in 1695 (London, 4to). The British Museum possesses Settle's ‘Triumphs of London’ for 1691, 1692, 1693, 1694, 1695, 1699, 1708, and his ‘Glory's Resurrection’ for 1698. The Guildhall Library has all these, with the exception of 1693, and, in addition, the ‘Triumphs’ for 1701 and 1702.

[Wood's Athenæ Oxon. ed. Bliss, iv. 684; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1500–1714; Rawlinson MSS. (in Bodleian), iii. 407; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. i. 41 seq.; Nichols's Lord Mayors' Pageants, 1831; Fairholt's Hist. of Lord Mayors' Pageants, i. 109, 121–2; Langbaine's Dramatic Poets, 1698, p. 123; Dennis's Letters, 1721, vol. ii.; Dunton's Life and Errors, passim; The Session of the Poets, held at the foot of the Parnassian Hill, 9 July 1696; The Towne Displayed, 1701; Johnson's Poets, ed. Cunningham; Dryden's Works, ed. Scott and Saintsbury; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin; Rochester's Poems, 1707, p. 19; Oldham, ed. Bell, p. 234; Disraeli's Quarrels of Authors, pp. 206, 288; Masson's Milton, vi. 611; Morley's Bartholomew Fair; Lowe's Betterton, p. 137; Gissing's New Grub Street, 1891, p. 31 (Settle contrasted with Shadwell); Beljame's Public et les Hommes de Lettres en Angleterre 152, 207; Ward's English Dram. Lit. ii. 534; Doran's Annals of the Stage; Sitwell's First Whig, pp. 86–7, 101, 202; English Cyclopædia; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. (Bohn); Hazlitt's Bibl. Collections and Notes; Guildhall Libr. Cat. 1889; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.

Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)

SETTLE, ELKANAH (1648–1724), English poet and playwright, was born at Dunstable on the 1st of January 1648. He entered Trinity College, Oxford, in 1666, but left the university without taking a degree. His first tragedy, Cambyses, King of Persia, was produced at Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1667. The success of this play led the earl of Rochester to encourage the new writer as a rival to Dryden. Through his influence, Settle's Empress of Morocco (1671) was twice performed at Whitehall, and proved a signal success on the stage. It is said by Dennis to have been the "first play that was ever sold in England for two shillings, and the first play that was ever printed with cuts." These illustrations represent scenes in the theatre, and make the book very valuable. The play was printed with a preface to the earl of Norwich, in which Settle described with scorn the effusive dedications of other dramatic poets. Dryden was obviously aimed at, and he co-operated with Crowne and Shadwell in an abusive pamphlet entitled "Notes and Observations on the Empress of Morocco" (1674), to which Settle replied in "Some Notes and Observations on the Empress of Morocco revised" (1674). In the second part of Absalom and Achitophel, in a passage certainly by Dryden's hand, he figures as "Doeg." Neglected by the court party he took an active share in the anti-popish agitation. When this subsided he turned round to expose Titus Oates, and with the Revolution he veered towards the Whig party. But he had lost the confidence of both sides, "recanting Settle" accordingly abandoned politics for the appointment (1691) of city poet. In his old age he kept a booth at Bartholomew Fair, where he is said to have played the part of the dragon in a green leather suit devised by himself. He became a poor brother of the Charterhouse, where he died on the 12th of February 1724. Settle's numerous works include, beside numerous political pamphlets and occasional poems: Ibrahim, the Illustrious Bassa (1676), a tragedy taken from Madeleine de Scudéry's romance: The Female Prelate; being the History of the Life and Death of Pope Joan (1680), a tragedy; The Ambitious Slave: or A Generous Revenge (1694); The World in the Moon (1697), an opera, of which the first scene was formed by a moon fourteen feet across; and The Virgin Prophetess, or The Fate of Troy (1701), an opera.