William King was born in London in 1663; the son of Ezekiel King, a gentleman. He was allied to the family of Clarendon.
From Westminster school, where he was a scholar on the foundation, under the care of Dr. Busby, he was, at eighteen, elected to Christ church, in 1681; where he is said to have prosecuted his studies with so much intenseness and activity, that before he was eight years standing he had read over, and made remarks upon, twenty-two thousand odd hundred books and manuscripts. The books were certainly not very long, the manuscripts not very difficult, nor the remarks very large; for the calculator will find that he despatched seven a day for every day of his eight years, with a remnant that more than satisfies most other students. He took his degree in the most expensive manner, as a grand compounder; whence it is inferred that he inherited a considerable fortune.
In 1688, the same year in which he was made master of arts, he published a confutation of Varillas's account of Wickliffe; and, engaging in the study of the civil law, became doctor in 1692, and was admitted advocate at Doctors' Commons.
He had already made some translations from the French, and written some humorous and satirical pieces; when, in 1694, Molesworth published his Account of Denmark, in which he treats the Danes and their monarch with great contempt; and takes the opportunity of insinuating those wild principles, by which he supposes liberty to be established, and by which his adversaries suspect that all subordination and government is endangered.
This book offended prince George; and the Danish minister presented a memorial against it. The principles of its author did not please Dr. King; and, therefore, he undertook to confute part, and laugh at the rest. The controversy is now forgotten; and books of this kind seldom live long, when interest and resentment have ceased.
In 1697, he mingled in the controversy between Boyle and Bentley; and was one of those who tried what wit could perform in opposition to learning; on a question which learning only could decide.
In 1699, was published by him, a Journey to London, after the method of Dr. Martin Lister, who had published a Journey to Paris. And, in 1700, he satirized the Royal Society, at least sir Hans Sloane, their president, in two dialogues, entitled The Transactioneer.
Though he was a regular advocate in the courts of civil and canon law, he did not love his profession, nor, indeed, any kind of business which interrupted his voluptuary dreams, or forced him to rouse from that indulgence in which only he could find delight. His reputation, as a civilian, was yet maintained by his judgments in the courts of delegates, and raised very high by the address and knowledge which he discovered in 1700, when he defended the earl of Anglesea against his lady, afterwards dutchess of Buckinghamshire, who sued for a divorce, and obtained it.
The expense of his pleasures, and neglect of business, had now lessened his revenues; and he was willing to accept of a settlement in Ireland, where, about 1702, he was made judge of the admiralty, commissioner of the prizes, keeper of the records in Birmingham's tower, and vicar-general to Dr. Marsh, the primate.
But it is vain to put wealth within the reach of him who will not stretch out his hand to take it. King soon found a friend, as idle and thoughtless as himself, in Upton, one of the judges, who had a pleasant house called Mountown, near Dublin, to which King frequently retired; delighting to neglect his interest, forget his cares, and desert his duty.
Here he wrote Mully of Mountown, a poem; by which, though fanciful readers, in the pride of sagacity, have given it a political interpretation, was meant originally no more than it expressed, as it was dictated only by the author's delight in the quiet of Mountown.
In 1708, when lord Wharton was sent to govern Ireland, King returned to London, with his poverty, his idleness, and his wit; and published some essays, called Useful Transactions. His Voyage to the Island of Cajamai is particularly commended. He then wrote the Art of Love, a poem remarkable, notwithstanding its title, for purity of sentiment; and, in 1709, imitated Horace in an Art of Cookery, which he published, with some letters to Dr. Lister.
In 1710, he appeared as a lover of the church, on the side of Sacheverell; and was supposed to have concurred, at least, in the projection of The Examiner. His eyes were open to all the operations of whiggism; and he bestowed some strictures upon Dr. Kennett's adulatory sermon at the funeral of the duke of Devonshire.
The History of the Heathen Gods, a book composed for schools, was written by him in 1710. The work is useful; but might have been produced without the powers of King. The same year he published Rufinus, an historical essay; and a poem, intended to dispose the nation to think as he thought of the duke of Marlborough and his adherents.
In 1711, competence, if not plenty, was again put into his power. He was, without the trouble of attendance, or the mortification of a request, made gazetteer. Swift, Freind, Prior, and other men of the same party, brought him the key of the gazetteer's office. He was now again placed in a profitable employment, and again threw the benefit away. An act of insolvency made his business, at that time, particularly troublesome; and he would not wait till hurry should be at an end, but impatiently resigned it, and returned to his wonted indigence and amusements.
One of his amusements at Lambeth, where he resided, was to mortify Dr. Tenison, the archbishop, by a publick festivity, on the surrender of Dunkirk to Hill; an event with which Tenison's political bigotry did not suffer him to be delighted. King was resolved to counteract his sullenness, and, at the expense of a few barrels of ale, filled the neighbourhood with honest merriment.
In the autumn of 1712, his health declined; he grew weaker by degrees, and died on Christmas day. Though his life had not been without irregularity, his principles were pure and orthodox, and his death was pious.
After this relation it will be naturally supposed that his poems were rather the amusements of idleness than efforts of study; that he endeavoured rather to divert than astonish; that his thoughts seldom aspired to sublimity; and that, if his verse was easy and his images familiar, he attained what he desired. His purpose is to be merry; but, perhaps, to enjoy his mirth, it may be sometimes necessary to think well of his opinions.
[Footnote 137: Dr. Johnson appears to have made but little use of the life of Dr. King, prefixed to his works, in three vols. 1776; to which it may not be impertinent to refer the reader. His talent for humour ought to be praised in the highest terms. In that, at least, he yielded to none of his contemporaries.]