Wit and Mirth: or Pills to Purge Melancholy

Wit and Mirth: or Pills to Purge Melancholy, being a collection of the best merry ballads and songs old and new, Vol. 1. By Thomas D’Urfey (1719)

Wit and Mirth; or Pills to Purge Melancholy, consisting of six volumes published between 1719 and 1720, has been described as “the most famous song-book of the age”¹. It was compiled by the comic dramatist and songwriter Thomas D’Urfey (1653-1723), but its origins can be traced to an earlier collection compiled by Henry Playford, entitled An Antidote Against Melancholy: Made up in Pills (1661). D’Urfey would expand Playford’s collection adding more contemporary material from broadside ballads, poetry, as well as his own compositions. The variety of songs in D’Urfey’s Pills ranged from political satire and court songs, to love songs, drinking songs, bawdy songs and folksongs. As one historian notes “Pills was thus primarily a collection of urban pop songs, new and old.”²

D’Urfey’s book appealed to a broad audience. During the 17th and 18th centuries hearing, reading and singing ballads was a form of entertainment shared by all classes of society. They could be heard in taverns, alehouses and inns, at fairs, in the streets and at marketplaces. They also appeared in theatrical productions and were performed at banquets and parties. As D’Urfey reminds the reader in Pills’ dedication, his work has entertained “Nobility, Gentry, and Commonalty” as well as royalty, including “King Charles II, King James, King William, Queen Mary, Queen Anne and Prince George.”

However, D’Urfey’s plays and songs did not enjoy a good literary reputation and were considered coarse and vulgar. This is perhaps understandable considering one of his most popular songs was entitled “The Fart, Famous for its Satyrical Humour in the Reign of Queen Anne”, which is about an attempt to discover who farted in the presence of the Queen. D’Urfey was often ridiculed in broadsides and by competing poets for his stutter, his flamboyant lifestyle and his pretensions, in 1683 he had added the apostrophe to his name to claim ties with the aristocracy.

He remained popular nonetheless. The poet Alexander Pope wrote in 1710:
“Any man, of any quality, is heartily welcome to the best toping-table of our gentry, who can roundly hum out some fragments or rhapsodies of his works … 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.”³

As D’Urfey himself is said to have remarked:

“The Town may da-da-damn me for a poet … but they si-si-sing my songs for all that.”4


¹Paul A. Scanlon and Adrian Roscoe (2017) The Common Touch: Popular Literature from 1660 to the Mid-Eighteenth Century, Volume II, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, p.10.
²E. David Gregory (2006) Victorian Songhunters: The Recovery and Editing of English Vernacular Ballads and Folk Lyrics, 1820-1883, Scarecrow Press, p.28.
³W. Roscoe (1847) The Works of Alexander Pope, with notes and illustrations by himself and others. To which are added, a new life of the author [&c.], Volume 6. Longman, Brown & Co., p.114.
4Tōru Mitsui (2016) Thomas D’Urfey. In Katherine Williams and Justin A. Williams, (eds) The Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter, Cambridge University Press, 2016 p.105.

In addition to D’Urfey’s Pills, the Layton Collection includes a number of other collections of ballads and broadsides. These include:

The Legendary Cabinet: A Collection of British National Ballads, J. D. Parry, 1829
Old Ballads Illustrating the Great Frost of 1683-4 and the Fair on the River Thames, Edward F. Rimbault, 1844
Political Ballads of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, edited by W. Walker Wilkins, 1860
The Legendary and Romantic Ballads of Scotland, edited by Charles Mackay, 1861
A Collection of Seventy-nine Black-letter Ballads and Broadsides, printed in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, compiled by Joseph Lilly, 1867
A Pedlar’s Pack of Ballads and Songs; edited by W. H. Logan, 1869
The Roxburghe Ballads, edited by Charles Hindley, 1873
Rump or, An Exact Collection of the Choycest Poems and Songs relating to the Late Times from anno 1639 to anno 1661, 1662 [Reprint 1874] Merry Drollery Compleat, being jovial poems, merry songs, &c. collected by W.N., C.B., R.S., and J.G., edited by J. Woodfall Ebsworth, 1875
Ancient Songs and Ballads, Compiled by Joseph Ritson, revised by W Carew Hazlitt, 1877
The Life and Times of James Catnach: Late of Seven Dials Ballad Monger by Charles Hindley, 1878
Olde ffrendes wyth newe faces, edited by Joseph Crawhal, 1883
In Praise of Ale, compiled by W. T. Marchant, 1888
English Folk-rhymes, A Collection of Traditional Verses Relating to Places and Persons, Customs, Superstitions, etc, compiled by G. F. Northall, 1892


Layton Collection 2774





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