Thomas D’Urfey – earthy elitist for an extravagant era EDWARD DUTTON

Cavalier Soldier, Frans Hals, 1624

Thomas D’Urfey – earthy elitist for an extravagant era

EDWARD DUTTON rescues a larger-than-life character from undeserved obscurity


In an extreme reaction against the Puritanism that preceded it, the English Restoration was characterized by all that the gentlemen of the time held dear: flamboyant dress, sexual licence, more poetry than is necessarily healthy, unashamed snobbery, and a rabid attachment to King and tradition. Nobody better epitomized these attitudes than the bawdy song writer and children’s nursery rhymist, Thomas D’Urfey. Quite how the man who stuttered the immortal lines, ‘All animals, except man, know that the principal business of life is to enjoy it’ could have been so comprehensively forgotten by history should make us wonder what historians are smoking. D’Urfey deserves his very own Restoration.

Born in Devon in 1653, a penchant for fine apparel and wistful poetry coursed through D’Urfey’s veins. A descendent of French Huguenot refugees, D’Urfey’s people combined austere Calvinism with an unrivalled ability for weaving opulent fabrics and lace-making. It seems probable that D’Urfey was related to mercenary soldier Honore D’Urfe, Marquis de Valromey (1568-1625), the author of the ludicrously complicated novel L’Astree, described by one French philosopher as ‘the embodiment of spiritual love.’

Too distantly related to benefit from Honore’s family fortune, D’Urfey had to make his own way in the world. It seems the unappreciable dullness of working as a solicitor’s clerk began the young lyricist on his journey, which would culminate in 32 plays and over 500 songs, including ‘Over the hills and far away’ and ‘Quoth she, “What is this, so stiff and warm?”‘ D’Urfey made the initial error of attempting to write something serious, causing his first play, The Siege of Memphis, in September 1676, to be an abject failure. Realising his mistake, his spent all of two months penning a comedy, Madame Fickle, the prologue of which includes the line, ‘An Authors Wit lies buried in his Fear.’ By all accounts, D’Urfey’s script was pretty fearless. Produced by the Dorset Garden Theatre, it was so lung-burstingly funny that Charles II came to see it. D’Urfey was introduced to the womanizer, all-night partier, and Puritan hang-drawer-and-quarterer that was his head-of-state and they immediately hit it off. Charles commented that D’Urfey stuttered heavily, except when swearing or singing, and the King admired his ‘good natured willingness to be the butt of a jest as much as the author of one.’ D’Urfey became the de facto court jester to Charles II and every subsequent monarch until his death.

Backed by wealthy patrons, D’Urfey was free to write whatever he liked, as long as it entertained, and indulge in his passion for comical levels of snobbery and social pretension. In 1683, he changed his name from Durfey to ‘D’Urfey’ and began insisting he was related to the proto-Dadaist novelist we’ve already met. Despite being unable to afford it, he also went everywhere accompanied by a page boy in livery, and, in 1689, ended up fighting a duel with a musician named Bell, who had the temerity to criticize his sense of taste. History does not record who won the duel, only that,

With a Scratch on the Finger the Duel’s dispatch’d,

Thy Clineas (Oh Sidney!) was never so match’d.

But it must say something about D’Urfey’s quite proper inclination to run a mile from a ruffian and protect himself from fisticuffs that he apparently spent the rest of the year keeping his head down, teaching singing at an all-girls school.

Other poets took great pleasure in attacking D’Urfey for his penchant for resplendent dress and turning pomposity into an art-form; his play Love of Money was lampooned with the wildly successful pamphlet, Wit for Money, Or Poet Stutterer. But by about 1710, D’Urfey’s songs – a mixture of sexual innuendo, wittily abusing people he didn’t like, and his own children’s nursery rhymes (crammed full of sexual innuendo) – were so popular that no-one dared criticize him. Alexander Pope summed up the situation in that very year:

Dares any Man speak against him who has given so many Men to eat? So may it be said of Mr. Durfey to his Detractors: What? Dares any one despise him, who has made so many Men drink? Alas, Sir! This is a Glory which neither you nor I must ever pretend to.

D’Urfey’s songs were so amusing that grown men and children alike had no choice but to forget their woes and religiously follow D’Urfey’s advice in Madam Fickle:

For he that is sad/ Grows wretched or mad/ Whilst Mirth like a Monarch does sit/ It cherishes life in the Old and the Young/ And makes every day be both happy and long.

Unsurprisingly, D’Urfey was best known for his song book Wit and Mirth Or Pills to Purge Melancholy. Indeed, gentleman of a more technological inclination may be interested to know that this was released, in part, on CD by the band ‘City Waites’ in 1990, with a follow-up CD, Bawdy Ballads of Old England, in 1995. Fascinatingly, quite a few of our most beloved nursery rhymes were penned by D’Urfey and began life as humorous ditties about baby-making, before being unconvincingly sanitized by the Victorians. ‘Lavenders Green, Lavenders Blue’ originally included the line, ‘While you and I – diddle, diddle – keep the bed warm,’ while some of the language in ‘Over the Hills and Far Away’ shouldn’t be revealed to a child until he’s old enough to marry, and perhaps not then. Finding just a few lines to sum up the essence of Pills to Purge Melancholy is not easy but the song ‘Oyster Nan’ gives a pretty good taste. Sung in profound bass and with deadly earnestness, the satire (seemingly of Queen Anne) begins,

As Oyster Nan stood by her tub/ To show her vicious inclination/ She gave her noblest parts a scrub/ And sighed for want of copulation.

Or ‘Oh, Mother, Roger with his Kisses’ asserts,

He sits me in his lap all hours/ Where I feel . . . I know not what/ Something I never felt in yours . . . / Oh, tell me, Mother, what is that?

But D’Urfey moved beyond being witty, puerile, and amusingly school-boyish just for the sake of it. He was a man of strong passions, ardently fighting for a world focused on the transcendent, the sublime, and the interestingly waggish. His 1698 play The Campaigners was a wry satire of the fanatically humourless bishop Jeremy Collier’s anti-comedy/theatre campaign, which wanted to censor plays and cut out all the sex, violence, fun and neo-pagan philosophizing. Historians have commented that D’Urfey might have been more successful in his counter-campaign if he’d been more serious, and actually tried to grapple with the issues, but, alas, his mind was centred on creating comedy at all costs.

Alexander Pope could only marvel in envy at D’Urfey’s ability to make Restoration London laugh its plague-riddled socks off. And his rivals couldn’t avoid employing his raw talent. Ten of the 68 songs in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera were penned by D’Urfey and a number of his ballads were set to music by Henry Purcell himself. Those who saw themselves as high artists sneered at D’Urfey’s comedy, but as he rejoindered,

The Town may da-da-damn me for a poet, but they si-si-sing my songs for all that.

Friends with the founders of both Spectator and Tatler, D’Urfey moved in thoroughly salubrious circles and when he died, he was buried in the epicentre of the then up-and-coming St James’ – St James’ Church, Piccadilly.

Thomas D’Urfey deserves to be better known. Perhaps those of us with children or grandchildren can remember Mr. D’Urfey by lulling the little one to bed with the original versions of his nursery rhymes.

Dr. EDWARD DUTTON writes from Finland. His latest book is Religion and Intelligence (Ulster Institute for Social Research, 2014)


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