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THE BIRTH OF THE PRINCE,
(BORN ON THE 10TH JUNE, 1688.)
Di patrii indigetes, et Romule, Vestaque mater,
VIRG. Georg. 1.
THE remarkable incident, which gave rise to the following poem, was hailed by the Catholics with the most unbounded joy. That party, whose transient prosperity depended upon the declining life of James II., could hardly enjoy their present power, embittered as it was by the reflection, that it must end with the reign of the king and the succession of the Princess of Orange. Many circumstances seemed to render the hopes of the king having a male heir of his body extremely precarious. His system was said to have been injured by early dissipation, and he was now advanced in life. The queen, also, had been in a bad state of health; had lost all her children soon after they were born; and had now, for several years, ceased to have any. Amidst these discouraging considerations, the queen's pregnancy was announced in 1687; and even before his birth, addressers and panegyrists in verse hailed the future prince, as a pledge for the maintenance of liberty of conscience, and the security of the royal line.*
But the Catholics were so transported with this unexpected happiness, that they could not refrain from spreading an hundred follies, tending to connect the queen's pregnancy with the efficacy of the king's faith. Some said, that the queen's conception took place at the very time when her mother made a vow to the Lady of Loretto, that her daughter might by her means have a son: Others attributed it to the queen's personal influence with Saint Xavier: Others to the intercessions of the Jesuits, among
*The addresses of the grand juries of the counties of Monmouth, Stafford, Glocester, Yorkshire, &c. &c., all pressed forward upon this occasion, and are all positive that the blessed hope of the queen's womb must necessarily prove a son, since the king seemed to have very little occasion for more daughters. Edmund Arwaker is of the same opinion, in his poem humbly dedicated to the Queen, on occasion of her majesty's happy conception.
whom the king had enrolled himself: All ascribed so happy and unhoped an event to something more than mere natural causes, and ventured to presage, that the joyful fruit of the queen's conception would prove a son, since otherwise, it was said, God would have done his work by halves.* It is dangerous for a religious sect to cry, A miracle! for it is always echoed by their adversaries, shouting out, An imposture! The same circumstances which induced the Catholics to believe that this happy event was owing to a peculiar divine interposition, led the nation to ascribe so unexpected and opportune an occurrence to artifice and imposition; and they were prepared to pronounce a birth spurious, which their adversaries had incautiously pushed to the verge of miraculous.
On the 10th of June, 1688, the prince was born, under circumstances which ought to have removed all suspicion of imposture. But these suspicions were too deeply rooted in party prejudices and fears; and it became a distinguishing mark of a true Protestant, to hold for spurious the birth of a prince, which took place in the presence of more people than is either consistent with custom or decency.
In the mean while, public rejoicings, of the most splendid kind, were solemnized at home and abroad; † and the poets flocked with their addresses of congratulation‡ on the birth of
"That which does us most harm with the lords and great men, is the apprehension of a heretic successor : For as a lord told me lately, assure me of a Catholic successor, and I assure you I and my family will be so too. To this purpose the Queen's happy delivery will be of very great moment. Our zealous Catholics do already lay two to one that it will be a prince. God does nothing by halves, and every day masses are said upon this very occasion."-Letter from Father Petre to Father La Chaise. This letter is a forgery, but it distinctly expresses the hopes and apprehensions of both parties.
+ The most remarkable were celebrated at the Hague, by the Marquis of Abbeville, his majesty's ambassador there. On one side of a triumphal arch were the figures of Truth and Justice, with this inscription: Veritas et Justitia fulci, mentum throni Patris et erunt mei: On the other side were Religion and Liberty embracing, with this motto, Religio et Libertas amplexatæ erant. On the portico was painted the conquest of the dragon by St George, and the delivery of St Margaret, explained to allude to the liberty of conscience procured by James's abolition of the test and penal laws. These decorations, remarkable for their import, and the place in which they were exhibited, were accompanied with the discharge of fire-works, and other public rejoicings. There are particular accounts of the splendid rejoicings at Ratisbon and Paris, &c. &c. in the Gazettes of the period.
As for example, the poets of Isis, in a collection called "Strenæ Natalitiæ in Celcissimum principem.-Oxoni; E Theatro Shedoniano, 1688." Consisting of Latin, Greek, Arabic, and Turkish, pastoral; heroic, and lyrical pieces, on this happy topic.
a Prince of Wales, who was doomed shortly to be distinguished through the English dominions by the ignominious appellation of Pretender, and abroad, by the dubious title of Chevalier de St George. It was peculiarly the part of our author, as poet-laureat, and a good Catholic, to solemnize an event of so much importance to the king, and those of his religion, and to bear down, if possible, the popular prejudice by the exertion of his poetical "Britannia Rediviva" was written, nine days after the event celebrated, and published accordingly. It is licensed on
the 19th of June.
In this poem, our author assumes the tone and feeling which we have described as general among the Catholics, upon this happy and unexpected event. It is less an address of congratulation than a solemn devotional hymn; and, even considered as such, abounds with expressions of awful gratitude, rather for a miraculous interposition of heaven and the blessed saints, than for a blessing conferred through the ordinary course of nature. Dryden, who knew how to assume every style that fitted the occasion, writes here in the character of a devout and grateful Catholic, with much of the unction which marks the hymns of the Roman church. In English poetry, we have hardly another example of the peculiar tone which the invocation of saints, and an enthusiastic faith in the mystic doctrines of the Catholic faith, can give to poetry. To me, I confess, that communion seems to offer the same facilities to the poet, which it has been long famous for affording to the painter; and the "Britannia Rediviva," while it celebrates the mystic influence of the sacred festivals of the Paraclete and the Trinity, and introduces the warlike forms of St Michael and St George, has often reminded me of one of the ancient altar-pieces, which it is impossible to regard without reverence, though presenting miracles which never happened, or saints who never existed. These subordinate divinities are something upon which the imagination, dazzled and overwhelmed by the contemplation of a single Omnipotent Being, can fairly rest and expand itself. They approach nearer to humanity and to comprehension; yet are sufficiently removed from both, to have the
The following poems are in the Luttrell Collection :
"Votum pro Principe.
"To the King, upon the Queen's being delivered of a Son; by John Baber, Esq.
To the King, on ditto; by William Niven, late master of the music school of Inverness, in Scotland." Surely the very ultima Thule of poetry.
"A Congratulatory Poem on ditto, by Mrs Behn.
“A Pindarique Ode on ditto, by Calib Calle."