1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Henry More

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 22:352-57.



Dr. HENRY MORE, an eminent English divine and philosopher, was the second son of Alexander More, esq. and born at Grantham in Lincolnshire, Oct. 12, 1614. His parents, being zealous Calvinists, took especial care to breed up their son in Calvinistic principles; and, with this design, provided him with a private master of their own persuasion, under whose direction be continued till he was fourteen years of age. Then, at the instigation of his uncle, who discerned in him very uncommon talents, he was sent to Eton-school, in order to be perfected in the Greek and Latin tongues; carrying with him a strict charge not to recede from the principles in which he had been so carefully trained. Here, however, he abandoned his Calvinistic opinions, as far as regarded predestination; and, although his uncle not only chid him severely, but even threatened him with correction, for his immature philosophizing; in such matters; yet he persisted in his opinion. In 1631, after he had spent three years at Eton, he was admitted of Christ's college in Cambridge, and, at his own earnest solicitations, under a tutor that was not a Calvinist. Here, as he informs us, "he plunged himself immediately over head and ears in philosophy, and applied himself to the works of Aristotle, Cardan, Julius Scaliger, and other eminent philosophers;" all which he read over before he took his bachelor of arts' degree, which was in 1635. But these did not answer his expectations; their manner of philosophising did not fall in with his peculiar turn of mind; nor did he feel any of that high delight, which he had promised himself from these studies. This disappointment, therefore, induced him to search for what he wanted in the Platonic writers and mystic divines, such as Marsilius Ficinus, Plotinus, Trismegistus, &c. where his enthusiasm appears to have been highly gratified. Among all the writings of this kind, there was none which so much affected him as the "Theologia Germanica," once a favourite book with Luther. This was written by one John Taulerus, a Dominican monk, in the fourteenth century; and who, being supposed by the credulity of that age to be favoured with revelations from heaven, was styled the "illuminated divine." He preached chiefly at Cologne and Strasburg, and died in 1631. His book, written in German, was translated into Latin, first by Surius, and afterwards by Sebastian Castalio; and it went through a great number of editions from 1518 to 1700, when it was printed in French at Amsterdam.

The pretensions, which such authors as we have just mentioned, make of arriving at extraordinary degrees of illumination by their institutes, entirely captivated More's fancy; who pursued their method with great seriousness and intense application; and, in three or four years, had reduced himself to so thin a state of body, and began to talk in such a manner of experiences and communications, as brought him into a suspicion of being touched with enthusiasm. In 1640, he composed his Psycho-Zoia, or the Life of the Soul; which, with an addition of other poems, he republished in 1647, 8vo, under the title of Philosophical Poems, and dedicated to his father. He takes notice, in his dedication, that his father used to read to his children on winter nights Spenser's Fairy Queen, with which our author was highly delighted, and which, he says in the dedication, "first turned his ears to poetry." In 1639, he had taken his master of arts' degree; and, being chosen fellow of his college, became tutor to several persons of great quality. One of these was sir John Finch, whose sister lady Conway was an enthusiast of his own stamp, and became at length a quaker, although he laboured for many years to reclaim her. He still, however, had a great esteem for her; and drew up some of his Treatises at her particular request; and she, in return, left him a legacy of 400. He composed others of his works at Ragley, the seat of her lord in Warwickshire, where, at intervals, he spent a considerable part of his time. He met here with two extraordinary persons, the famous Van Helmont, and the no less famous Valentine Greatrakes; for, it seems, lady Conway was frequently afflicted with violent pains in her head, and these two persons were called in, at different times, to try their powers upon her; and, at last, Van Helmont lived in the family. There was once a design of printing some remains of this lady after her death; and the preface was actually written by our author under the person of Van Helmont; in which disguise he draws her character with so much address, that we are told the most rigid quaker would see every thing he could wish in it, and yet the soberest Christian be entirely satisfied with it. It is printed at large in his life.

In 1675, he accepted a prebend in the church of Gloucester, being collated to it by lady Conway's brother, lord Finch, who was then chancellor of England, and afterwards earl of Nottingham; but soon resigned it to Dr. Edward Fowler, afterwards bishop of Gloucester, on whom it was conferred at his request. It was thought to be with this view that Dr. More accepted of this preferment, it being the only one he could ever be induced to accept, after he had devoted himself to a college life, which he did very early; for, in 1642, he resigned the rectory of Ingoldsby in Lincolnshire, soon after he had been presented to it by his father, who had bought the perpetual advowson of it for him. Here be made himself a paradise, as he expresses it; and be was so fearful of hurting it by any change in his present situation, that be even declined the mastership of his own college, into which, it is said, he might have been elected in 1654, in preference to Dr. Cudworth. After this, we cannot be surprised that he withstood various solicitations, particularly to accept the deanery of Christ church in Dublin, and the provostship of Trinity college, as well as the deanery of St. Patrick's; but these he persisted in refusing, although he was assured they were designed only to pave the way to something higher, there being two bishoprics in view offered to his choice, one of which was valued at 1500 per annum. This attempt to draw him into Ireland proving insufficient, a very good bishopric was procured for him in England; and his friends got him as far as Whitehall, in order to kiss his majesty's hand for it; but as soon as he understood the business, which had hitherto been concealed from him, he could not be prevailed on to stir a step farther.

During the rebellion he was suffered to enjoy the studious retirement he had chosen, although he had made himself obnoxious, by constantly refusing to take the covenant. He saw and lamented the miseries of his country, but, in general, Archimedes like, he was so busy in his chamber as to mind very little what was doing without. He had a great esteem for Des Cartes, with whom he held a correspondence upon several points of his philosophy. He devoted his whole life to the writing of books; and it is certain, that his parts and learning were universally admired. On this account he was called into the Royal Society, with a view of giving reputation to it, before its establishment by the royal charter; for which purpose he was proposed as a candidate by Dr. Wilkins and Dr. Cudworth, June 4, 1661, and elected fellow soon after. His writings became so popular, that Mr. Chishull, an eminent bookseller, declared, that, for twenty years together, after the return of Charles II. the Mystery of Godliness, and Dr. More's other works, ruled all the booksellers in London, and a very remarkable testimony of their esteem was given by John Cochshuit of the Inner Temple, esq. who, by his last will, left 300 to have three of his principal pieces translated into Latin. These were his Mystery of Godliness, Mystery of Iniquity, and his Philosophical Collections. This legacy induced our author to translate, together with these, the rest of his English works which he thought worth printing, into that language; and the whole collection was published in 1679, in three large volumes, folio. In undertaking the translation himself, his design was to appropriate Mr. Cockshuit's legacy to the founding of three scholarships in Christ's college, but as they could not be printed and published without consuming the greatest part of it, he made up this loss by other donations in his life-time, and by the perpetuity of the rectory of Ingoldsby, which he left to the college by will. He died Sept. 1, 1687, in his seventy-third year; and was buried in the chapel of his college, where lie also Mr. Mede and Dr. Cudworth, two other contemporary ornaments of that foundation.

Dr. More was in his person tall, thin, but well proportioned; his countenance serene and lively, and his eye sharp and penetrating. He was a man of great genius, and of very extensive learning, which may be discovered in his writings, amidst their deep tincture of mysticism. It was his misfortune to be of opinion, like many of his contemporaries, that the wisdom of the Hebrews had been transmitted to Pythagoras, and from him to Plato; and consequently, that the true principles of divine philosophy were to be found in the writings of the Platonists. At the same time, he was persuaded that the ancient Cabbalistic philosophy sprang from the same fountain; and therefore endeavoured to lay open the mystery of this philosophy, by strewing its agreement with the doctrines of Pythagoras and Plato, and pointing out the corruptions which had been introduced by the modern Cabbalists. The Cartesian system was, as we have noticed, embraced by More, as on the whole consonant to his ideas of nature; and he took much pains to prove that it was not inconsistent with the Cabbalistic doctrine. His penetrating understanding, however, discovered defects in this new system, which he endeavoured to supply.

With these opinions, he was accounted a man of the most ardent piety, and of an irreproachable life. Dr. Outram said "that he looked upon Dr. More as the holiest person upon the face of the earth." His temper was naturally grave and thoughtful, but at some times, he could relax into gay conversation and pleasantry. After finishing some of his writings, which had occasioned much fatigue, he said, "Now, for these three months, I will neither think a wise thought, nor speak a wise word, nor do any ill thing." He was subject to fits of extacy, during which he seemed so entirely swallowed up in joy and happiness, that Mr. Norris styles him the "intellectual Epicure." He was meek and humble, liberal to the poor, and of a very kind and benevolent spirit. He once said to a friend, "that he was thought by some to have a soft head, but he thanked God he had a soft heart," and gave at that time the sum of 50 to a clergyman's widow. Bishop Burnet calls him "an open-hearted and sincere Christian philosopher, who studied to establish men in the great principles of religion against atheism, which was then beginning to gain ground, chiefly by reason of the hypocrisy of some, and the fantastical conceits of the more sincere enthusiasts." His writings have not of late years been in much request, although all of them were read and admired in his day. Addison styles his Enchiridion Ethicum an admirable system of ethics; but none of his works appear to have been more relished than his Divine Dialogues concerning the attributes and providence of God. Dr Blair says of this work, that though Dr. More's style be now in some measure obsolete, and his speakers marked with the academic stiffness of those times, yet the dialogue is animated by a variety of character, and a sprightliness of conversation, beyond what are commonly met with in writings of this kind.