Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. II. The Seventeenth Century: Ben Jonson to Dryden
Critical Introduction by Edmund W. Gosse
Charles Sackville, Earl of Dorset (16381706)
[Immediately after the Restoration he was elected to represent East Grinstead in parliament, and distinguished himself in the House of Commons. He went as a volunteer to the First Dutch War in 1665, and after this devoted himself to a learned leisure. He succeeded to the earldom in 1677, and again took a part in public business till 1698, when his health failed.]
IT is recorded of Lord Dorset that he refused all offers of political preferment in early life that he might give his mind more thoroughly to study. He was the friend and patron of almost all the poets from Waller to Pope; Dryden adored him in one generation, and Prior in the next: nor was the courtesy that produced this affection mere idle complaisance, for no one was more fierce than he in denouncing mediocrity and literary pretension. Of all the poetical noblemen of the Restoration, Lord Dorset alone reached old age, yet with all these opportunities and all this bias towards the art, the actual verse he has left behind him is miserably small. A splendid piece of society verse, a few songs, some extremely foul and violent satires, these are all that have survived to justify in the eyes of posterity the boundless reputation of Lord Dorset.
The famous song was written in 1665, when the author, at the age of twenty-eight, had volunteered under the Duke of York in the first Dutch war. It was composed at sea the night before the critical engagement in which the Dutch admiral Opdam was blown up, and thirty ships destroyed or taken. It may be considered as inaugurating the epoch of vers-de-société, as it has flourished from Prior down to Austin Dobson.