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His poetical powers, which had lain in some degree dormant at least in compositions of length, by the continued struggle for existence that works in prose enabled him better to maintain, were about this time called into action in the composition of an Oratorio. Two copies in his own hand-writing are still extant, though without a name, but it has been usually known to the few who possessed any information on the matter, as the "Captivity;" and that which appears the most correct transcript will be given in the edition of his Works that accompanies these volumes.
One of the inducements to the undertaking was the prevailing popularity of such performances, in consequence of the admiration excited by the music of Handel. Another was perhaps the success of his friend Christopher Smart, in a similar
composition named "Hannah," which with the music by Mr. Worgan, was performed at the King's Theatre on the 3d April 1764. A third and more probable cause, was an acquaintance formed shortly before with Doctor Boyce, the eminent musician, by whom he had been either promised, or led to expect, it would be set to music, and whose compositions in this way enjoyed a just celebrity. Whatever ground there may have been for this expectation it was not fulfilled, from what cause is not known. Neither is any notice taken of the work by his friends or by memoir writers, not even by Dr. Percy or by Isaac Reed, the latter of whom wrote two sketches of his life, one for the Biographia Dramatica, and another for the edition of the Essays collected by Wright; yet the fact of his having written it was well known to both. Their accounts indeed being cursory, it was not probably deemed necessary to enumerate all his productions.
The manuscript, now lying before the writer, seems to be a clean copy, having few erasures, but two of the songs vary slightly from what they appear in the first collection of his poetical works. To the Poet it probably proved, what he no doubt considered it from the labour employed and the little return received, an indifferent speculation. He retained it in his own possession for some months, when being either pressed for money, or despairing of having it introduced to the world in the manner originally designed, he sold the copy to Dodsley, with a right also to Newbery, as
appears by the following receipt, transcribed from the original, now in the possession of Mr. Murray. It thus became of no more value to him than the small sum which the mere copyright produced :
"Received from Mr. Dodsley ten guineas for an Oratorio, which he and Mr. Newbery are to share.
"Oct. 31st, 1764."
The composition of an Oratorio is not perhaps a very difficult thing in itself, for though dramatic in form, it is not so in spirit; we expect no involvement of plot, exhibition of character, or working of passion; neither the pomp of tragedy, nor the verisimilitude of life expected from comedy; neither is the poetry usually of the highest order, because the first consideration in all such compositions is the music. Without this be excellent, or
at least of a superior description, all efforts of the poet will be vain; and the consciousness of being dependent upon the labours of another for the success of his own, may render him more careless of excellence.
Besides, musicians think themselves authorised to take great liberties with verses; and no writer would willingly permit such as have cost him much thought and labour, to be excruciated upon even a musical bed of torture. Such works therefore seldom exhibit, and possibly do not require, the display of pre-eminent genius.
The subject is the captivity in Babylon, and the period of time that immediately preceding the capture of the city by Cyrus. It is in three acts; the persons are, -First and second Jewish ProphetsIsraelitish Woman - First and second Chaldean Priests Chaldean Woman - Chorus of Youths and Virgins. The Scene, The Banks of the River Euphrates near Babylon.
It opens in a strain of lamentation for their lost country and captive state by the Jewish prophets, who although in bondage by a nation of idolaters, find consolation in the knowledge and worship of the true God. While occupied with their griefs, the Chaldean priests enter with an invitation to strike the lyre in honour of a festival day to their gods, and join in the general revelry; the invitation is scornfully declined.
The second act continues the attempt of the Chaldeans to persuade the Jews to join in their worship, when the chief prophet at length pouring a strain, imprecates the judgment of Heaven on the blasphemers of Babylon, and in return is threatened with more ponderous chains and a darker dungeon than such as encircle his blind and captive king Zedekiah.
In the third act the Chaldeans express assurance of the continuance of their empire, notwithstanding the Jewish denunciations of woe; in the meantime a corse is seen borne to the bank of the river, which proves to be that of Zedekiah, and while the Jews are praying for signal punishment on the
authors of his sufferings and death, a loud shout is heard, the army of Cyrus suddenly pours into the city, and the kingdom of Babylon is overthrown.
The two songs which were not so connected with the business of the piece as to prevent being detached from it, found their way into circulation previous to his death. By comparing their construction in the Oratorio with the state in which they were afterwards printed, it will be seen by the lines in Italics that the same judicious revision applied to more elaborate productions, was not neglected even in songs: on what occasion the alterations were made, does not appear, probably for some compilation of Davies, as he possessed the corrected copies.
"O Memory, thou fond deceiver,
To former joys recurring ever,
And turning all the past to pain.
"Hence intruder, most distressing,
Seek the happy and the free;
The wretch who wants each other blessing,