'IN the year 1730, there were many Authors, whose Merit wanted nothing but Interest to recommend them to the vacant Laurel, and who took it ill, to see it at last conferred upon a Comedian. . . .' So wrote Colley Cibber in his autobiography, and he gives a lively glimpse of the rough-and-tumble that went on among the crowd of poets to whom a pension of £100 represented a fortune.
Colley Cibber, a man of almost sixty when Eusden died, was certainly not an obvious choice for the office. He was a very indifferent poet, as he knew. This certainly set him apart from his rivals, who were indifferent too, and unaware of it. But he was at least a man of some standing: a celebrated actor, a successful dramatist, the manager of a theatre.
It was his play The Non-Juror ( 1718) with its brisk satire on the Jacobites which now, over twelve years later, brought him the Laureateship. This Cibber himself tells us: 'I have reason to think,' he wrote in An Apology for the Life of Colley Cibber ( 1740) '. . . (however unequal the Merit may be to the Reward) that part of the bread I now eat, was given me, for having writ the Nonjuror.'
Cibber was the son of Caius Gabriel Cibber, the sculptor, who is best remembered now for his graphic bas-relief at the base of the Monument in London (a work of art which is being allowed to perish amid the varied and unattractive vapours of Billingsgate Market). Colley, his eldest son, was born in London on November 6th, 1671. His schooling, he tells us, he got at the free school, Grantham, which was near the home of his mother's family, the Colleys, from whom he got his unusual first name.
At school he seems to have been somewhat unpopular; his fellows called him 'a pragmatical bastard,' although he earned a holiday for the whole school by writing a coronation ode for James II. He had just previously written a 'funeral oration' for Charles II and thereby been raised to the top of the class, 'a preferment dearly bought' for it