1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Henry More

Robert Aris Willmott, in Lives of Sacred Poets (1834) 326-34.



HENRY MORE was born at Grantham, in Lincolnshire, on the 12th of October, 1614. His parents, who were rigid Calvinists, placed him under the care of a private tutor of their own persuasion, with whom he remained till his fourteenth year, when, by the advice of his uncle, he was removed to Eton, with strict injunctions to preserve his religious tenets. But More soon began to manifest an antipathy to the doctrines of Calvin. These symptoms of dissatisfaction did not escape the observation of his uncle, who expressed his displeasure in very angry terms. More was not an ordinary boy, and the threats of his relation only stimulated him to a deeper investigation of the belief in which which he had been educated. Often, he tells us, while he took his solitary walk in the play-ground of the school, with his head on one side, and kicking the stones with his feet, as he was wont to do, the subject of religion occupied his thoughts; "for even in my first childhood," he continues, "an inward sense of the Divine Presence was so strong upon my mind, that I did then believe that there could no deed, word, or thought, be hidden from Him." From Eton, where he stayed three years, he was sent to Christ's College, Cambridge, and to his great delight was admitted under a tutor who was not a Calvinist. Here he immersed himself head over ears in the study of philosophy, and devoted nearly four years to the perusal of Aristotle, Cardan, Scaliger, &c., but he reaped no harvest for his toil.

After he had taken his Bachelor's degree, he entered on a new course of study, replacing his former favourites with the Platonic writers. He was also captivated by the Theologica Germanica of John Tauler, which he styled a golden little book. The writings of this individual were admired by Luther and Melancthon; and some of his sermons were approved by Bossuet, who considered him one of the most solid and correct of the mystics. More laboured with indefatigable perseverance, and the effects of his researches were quickly visible in a mind attenuated to the highest pitch of enthusiasm, and a frame attenuated to skin and bone. He indulged in a belief that his soul had communicated some of its newly-acquired ethereality to his body, which, he assured his friends, at particular seasons exhaled the perfume of religion. His theory of the divine body is developed in his Dialogues. "The oracle of God," he said, "is not to be heard but in his Holy Temple, that is to say, in a good and holy man, thoroughly sanctified."

In 1640, he began to form his mystical speculations into the Psycho Zoia, a picture of Platonic life in the soul, to the composition of which he thought himself impelled by some heavenly impulse. He was now in his twenty-sixth year, and appears to have been regarded as a melancholy student, for some opposition was at first offered to his election to a fellowship, on account of his silent and uncheerful disposition. He was, however, by nature inclined to excessive mirth, which he accounted one of his greatest infirmities.

In the civil war, More was allowed to retain his fellowship; and the severe inquisitors who ejected Crashaw and Cowley, left the philosopher to dream with Plato in his academic bower. But he was not without anxiety for the fate of his country; and once, on being informed of a great defeat sustained by the royal army, in the words of his biographer, his spirit sat itself down, and with tears bewailed the evils of his native land.

He occasionally passed a few days at Ragley, in Warwickshire, the residence of his enthusiastic friend, Lady Conway, where he wrote several of his treatises. In 1675 he was presented, by the brother of this lady, to a Prebend in the Cathedral of Gloucester; but he quickly resigned it in favour of Dr. Fowler, for whose sake alone he is supposed to have accepted it. Preferment, indeed, was almost thrust upon him. Ward says, he had seen letters courting him to occupy some of the highest ecclesiastical offices in Ireland. The Deanery of Christ Church, and the Provostship of Trinity College were among the number. He was, however, inexorable in declining them. One nobleman, after tempting him in vain with two Bishoprics, prayed him not to be so morose or humoursome as to refuse all things he had not known so long as Christ's College. And when an English Bishopric had been procured for him, and his friends had succeeded in bringing him to Whitehall to kiss the King's hand, on discovering their real object, he resolutely insisted on returning to Cambridge immediately. These anecdotes show the simple and contented nature of the man.

The evening of his life was as peaceful as the dawn. Having his mind enlightened with the noblest views in the morning of his years, he went on shining more and more unto the perfect day. In his last sickness, he declared, with the tears in his eyes, that he had given his writings to the world with great sincerity, and that all his days had been spent in seeking after the good and true. The day before his death, he replied to the question of one who watched by his bed-side, in that affecting passage of Cicero, beginning "O praeclarum illum diem." He said, that he was going to be united to that company with whom he should be as well acquainted in a quarter of an hour, as if he had known them for years. This idea he has enlarged in a letter to a friend, who had requested from him some topics of consolation, to administer to a young lady in ill health.

It may be desirable to caution the reader that More did not employ the phrase of a pagan writer, in this closing scene of his existence, to the exclusion of the more delightful consolations of the Bible; he only borrowed the words to apply them to the expression of the Christian faith and reliance in the atonement of a Redeemer. Thus he gave them a new spirit and a new signification.

He died on the 1st of September, 1687, in the seventy-third year of his age, and was buried in the chapel of the College, where the ashes of Mede and Cudworth rest by his side. In person he was tall and thin, and in early life, of an agreeable florid countenance, thought he intensity of his application in after-times imparted a more palid hue to his features; but his complexion was always clear and healthful, and his eye hazel and vivid as an eagle. The nature of his occupations did not encourage the cultivation of the lighter accomplishments; but he had some skill in music, and played a little on the lute, till the painful ecstacy of the pleasure compelled him to relinquish it. His conversation was serious and pleasant, and Bishop Burnet, who visited him at Cambridge, spoke of him as an open-hearted Christian philosopher, who studied to establish men in the great principle of religion against Atheism.

It is, however, to be lamented that this excellent man submitted his religious feelings to the direction of his imagination, or suffered them to assume even the faintest hue of a romantic or poetical character. He built, indeed, upon the Rock of Ages, yet he unintentionally defaced the majestic simplicity of Sacred Truth by the unlicensed indulgence of his fancy. He never for a moment suspected that he might be injuring by his conduct the cause he laboured so zealously to promote. But the purity and tranquility which he enjoyed are given to few. A spectator of the world only through his "loop-holes of retreat;" unseduced by its allurements, uncorrupted by its pleasures — he did not consider that every heart was not like his own. The orthodoxy of his belief can alone be vindicated by a careful perusal of his writings. In them it will be seen how firmly he grasped the promises of the Gospel, and with what a sleepless eye of faith he waited for their accomplishment. From the declaration of the Scripture, as from a lofty tower, he looked afar into a happier and more peaceful future. "This, or such-like rhapsodies," he says in his Dialogues, "do I often sing to break of day; subjoining always that of our Saviour as a suitable Epiphonema to all, — Abraham saw my day afar off, and rejoiced at it. At this window I take breath, while I am choked and stifled with the crowd and stench of the daily wickedness of this present evil world; and am almost quite wearied out with the tediousness and irksomeness of this my earthly pilgrimage."

The mysticism of More's works was only the reflection of his life. He saw visions, and dreamed dreams. At one time, for ten days, he was, in his own phrase, nowhere, continuing all the time in a trance; yet during this period he ate, drank, slept, and went into Hall as usual, but the thread of his ruminations was never broken. While in this state, he affirmed that his thoughts possessed a singular clearness; his devotional feelings were not less ardent or powerful in their influence. Mr. Ward, when he occasionally met him coming from his chamber after prayer, discerned an illumination over his countenance, "as if his face had been wholly overcast with a golden shower of love and purity." Let us recollect that this was said of one whom some of the most eminent of his contemporaries pronounced the holiest person on the face of the earth. Though he was fond of solitude, and regretted that he had sacrificed so many hours to conversation, there was nothing selfish in his character; his love embraced every object. "A good man," he said, "would sometimes, in his own private reflections, be ready to kiss the very stones in the street." He was fond of meditating in the cool-summer evenings, when the air fanned "itself through the leaves of the arbour," and many incidental remarks in his prose works show him to have been a disciple of nature.

He was charitable and benevolent to all. His chamber-door, we are told by one who knew him familiarly, was an hospital. In one of his Discourses on several Texts, he touches upon the sentiments with which a good man regards the unhappiness he is unable to remove.

"And even the most miserable objects in this present state of things cannot divest him of his happiness, but rather modify it; the sweetness of his spirit being melted into a kindly compassion in the behalf of others, whom, if he be able to help, it is a greater accession to his joy; and if he cannot, the being conscious to himself of so sincere a compassion, and so harmonious and suitable to the present state of things, carries along with it some degree of pleasure, like mournful notes of music exquisitely well fitted to the sadness of the ditty." The sequestered paths of his own life were not much frequented by these melancholy sufferers, but a disregard of money marked all his actions, and one of the wished nearest to his heart was the bequest of a valuable legacy to his beloved College.

His philosophical works were all composed with the noblest intentions. The Leviathan of Hobbes, by its startling paradoxes and its bold assertion of truth, had gained many votaries, and it was in the hope of counteracting its pernicious tendency, that "a set of men at Cambridge" undertook to examine and publicly assert the principles of religion and morality, on simple grounds, and upon a philosophical plan. The most distinguished of these illustrious champions were Cudworth, whom to name is to praise; the scientific Wilkins, whom Burnet declared the wisest clergyman he ever knew; and our poet, who led the way, the Bishop says, to many that came after him.

More has been dethroned from his literary supremacy, and from the most popular of authors, has become one of the most obscure. Yet, for many years after the Restoration, his works were held in extraordinary esteem. His philosophic writings are full of ingenuity and learning. He believed that the sacred knowledge of the Hebrews descended from Pythagoras, by whom it had been communicated to Plato, and this delusion affected everything he wrote and did. He imagined himself to be attended by a genius, like the Daemon of Socrates, and would sometimes remark, in reference to this unearthly agent, that "there was something about us that knew better than ourselves what we would be at." It is impossible to suppress a smile at the philosopher who gravely assures us, that "Otho was pulled out of his bed by the ghost of Galba." His chapter on the employments of the "Aerial People," in the Treatise on the Immortality of the Soul, is equally singular. But, when his fancy was not heated, he argued with great acuteness and precision, and no man ran the spear through his own shadows with greater dexterity. He frequently pleases, though he rarely convinces; and it should always be remembered, that his antagonist, Hobbes, declared his admiration of his philosophy, and that Addison commended his system of ethics in the Spectator. The vanity of Hobbes, and the taste of Addison, speak powerfully in his cause.

As a scholar, he was widely and deeply read, but learning he valued only as subservient to the higher and weightier matters of wisdom and truth. He constantly asserted that piety was the only key of true knowledge, which could proceed alone out of purity of life. He rejoiced that he was no wholesale man, for he said that a little armour was sufficient, if well placed.

His prose is superior to his verse. No successful appeal can be made from Dr. Southey's severe judgment upon the Song of the Soul. His ears were first tuned to poetry by the music of the Fairy Queen, which his father often read aloud on the winter evenings: the harp of Spenser was never touched by a ruder hand. But to he few who were willing to accept the grandeur of the conception for the poverty of the execution, the poems of More will not be destitute of interest. He did not wander along the Great Sea of Beauty without beholding the forms that rose from its waters; and from the intricacies of his harsh and gnarled phraseology, thoughts of grace and tenderness often come out to meet us. Mr. Campbell has compared his poetry to some strange grotto, whose gloomy labyrinthes we might be curious to explore for the strange associations they excite.