Mr. John Hughes, the eldest son of a citizen of London, by Anne, the daughter of Isaac Burges, esq; of an ancient family in Wiltshire, was born at Marlborough in that country, January 28, 1677, but was educated at London, and received the first rudiments of learning in private schools. The weakness, or, at least, the delicacy, of his constitution, diverted him, perhaps, from severer studies, and induced him to cultivate as an amusement the sister-arts of poetry, music, and drawing. At the age of nineteen he imitated in paraphrase one of the most difficult odes of Horace. At the same age he wrote a tragedy, entitled, Amalafont, Queen of the Goths, which displays a fertile genius and masterly invention; but as it was not revised and corrected by the author in his riper age, it was never brought on the stage, and still remains in manuscript. By the Muses, however, he was not wholly engrossed. He had a place in the office of ordnance, and was secretary to several commissions under the great seal, for purchasing lands for the better securing the royal docks and yards, at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Harwich. The Triumph of Peace was his first poem of any length that appeared in public. It was written on occasion of the peace of Ryswick, and printed in the year 1697. It was received, in particular, with great applause, by the best critics at Cambridge, as appears by a letter to a friend of the author. In the following year he addressed some verses to the author of Fatal Friendship, a tragedy. This writer, then Mrs. Trotter, was afterwards well known to the literary world by the name of Mrs. Cockburn. His Court of Neptune, on the return of king William from Holland, and a song on the duke of Gloucester's birth-day, were both printed in 1699. On the death of king William, in 1702, he published a Pindaric ode, entitled, The House of Nassau. His sentiments on the properest manner of translating Horace, may be collected from a letter to a friend, dated the same year, inclosing a translation of the ode in Grosphus. His ode in praise of music, was performed with great applause at Stationers-hall in 1703. His skill in music peculiarly qualified him for such compositions, and he was no less fortunate in having his pieces set by Dr. Pepusch, Mr. Galliard, Mr. Handel, and other great masters. Studies more serious, and more important, had also their share of his attention; in particular, a thanksgiving sermon, preached before the queen at St. Paul's, in Aug. 1705, by Dr. Willis, dean of Lincoln, gave rise to a letter to the dean from our author, entitled, A review of the case of Ephraim and Judah, and its application to the case of the church of England and the dissenters.
A new translation of the advices from Parnassus, and the political touchstone of Trajano Boccalini, being published in 1706, Mr. Hughes was prevailed with to revise and correct it, and to add a preface. In the same year a Complete History of England being undertaken by the booksellers, on a plan recommended some years before by Sir William Temple, our author undertook to collect the materials for the two first volumes, and gave an account of them in a very judicious introduction. This work was continued and completed by Dr. Kennet, whose name it bears. In the succeeding year, Mr. Hughes's ode to the memory of William, duke of Devonshire, was performed at Stationers-hall by the celebrated Signora Margarita and Mrs. Tofts. In 1708, his translation of Fontenelle's Dialogues of the Dead, after having lain by him six years, was permitted to see the light. This translation had the unusual honour of being mentioned with applause in the Journal des Scavans. Prefixed is a discourse in defence of his author, and two original dialogues are annexed. Some years after, he translated Fontenelle's Discourses concerning the ancients and moderns, and also the celebrated Letters of Abelard and Heloise. The latter was so well received as to pass through several editions in a few years, though the name of the translator was long unknown.
Thomas earl of Wharton, on his being appointed lord lieutenant of Ireland, in 1708, expressed his regard for Mr. Hughes by offering to provide for him in that kingdom. But depending on the more flattering but probably less sincere promises of another great man at home, he declined that offer, which afterwards he had reason to regret. His translation of the Misanthrope of Moliere, with an excellent preface (omitted in Ozell's edition) appeared in 1709. He afterwards translated the first act of the Miser, but did not finish that play. In 1711, at the desire of Sir Richard Steele, he made some alterations in Dryden's Alexander's feast, but Mr. Clayton's composition of it was far, it seems, from satisfying the connoisseurs. In 1712, his opera of Calpyso and Telemachus was performed at the king's theatre in the Haymarket. The particular discouragements under which it laboured, and its triumph over them, are mentioned in the following work. Mr. Hughes's translation of Vertot's History of the Revolutions in Portugal, though printed in 1712, was not published till after his death. The share that he took in the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian is specified at the bottom of the page. In 1713, after the Guardian was dropped, he was a large contributor to a paper undertaken by Sir Richard Blackmore, styled The Lay Monk. In the same year, his Ode to the Creator of the world, occasioned by the fragments of Orpheus, was printed at the particular instance of Mr. Addison, and was mentioned by him with applause in the Spectator. The tenth book of Lucan was translated by our author at the desire of Mr. Tonson, before Mr. Rowe undertook to translate the whole. That Cato was finished and brought upon the stage is said to have been owing to Mr. Hughes; that gentleman representing to Mr. Addison the great support which the principles of liberty there inculcated would give to the old English public spirit at that dangerous crisis. At this hint, Mr. Addison, after having asked Mr. Hughes to finish it, took fire himself, and went through with the vth act. On its appearing, Mr. Hughes sent the author a copy of verses, which were afterwards prefixed to it, with several other poems. Two letters that passed on that occasion are inserted in this collection. To the poetical miscellanies published by Sir Richard Steele, in 1714, he was at first a large contributor, but finding, before publication, that Mr. Pope's Wife of Bath's Tale, and some other pieces, which were inconsistent with his ideas of decency and decorum, had been admitted, he immediately withdrew most of his own, and would allow only two small poems, and those without a name, to appear there. The pieces thus withdrawn were inserted the same year in another miscellany, less brilliant perhaps, but more unexceptionable, printed for Pemberton. His edition of the Works of Spenser, in six volumes octavo, dedicated to lord Somers, in 1715, attracted the attention and gratified the expectation of the public. A short parallel between the editor and his author, drawn by a masterly hand, may be seen in the following work. His Apollo and Daphne was brought on the stage in the same year. The interest which Sir Richard Steele took in its success, will appear by letter xxxviii. Mr. Tickell's Prophecy of Nereus (imitated from Horace) and applied to a second-sighted Highland wizard, at the time of the rebellion, gave rise to some Critical remarks by Mr. Hughes (in a letter to Thomas Serjeant, esq;) in which he clearly shews, that though there are excellent lines in that imitation, "the serious destroys the burlesque; and the burlesque infects and debases the serious." Nor was our author, at that alarming crisis, an idle spectator of the danger of his country. Firm to the revolution and the protestant establishment, he unanswerably exposed The complicated guilt of the rebellion, in a pamphlet so styled, written in the year 1716. But as that insurrection was soon after quelled, this tract was not published 'till the year 1745, when, at a like crisis, it was first printed, with a preface, by Mr. Duncombe. Actuated by the same revolutional principles, in June 1717, though then ill of a fever, he "could not (as he expresses it) sit still and think himself unconcerned, while a person whom he much honoured, was barbarously treated;" and therefore drew his pen in defence of bishop Hoadly, from the charge brought against him by Dr. Snape and others. In the same year, lord chancellor Cowper (to whom Mr. Hughes had been but lately known) without any solicitation, appointed him secretary to the commissions of the peace, was ever afterwards his most sincere and cordial friend, and, in 1718, recommended him, and him only, to the succeeding lord chancellor, lord Parker, who very readily continued him in his employment. His satirical vision, entitled Charon, or the Ferry-boat, was published in the year 1708. The plan of this seems in some measure adopted in the dramatic satire styled Lethe. The dedication to Heidegger (the "Swiss count") is inserted in the appendix, having been omitted in the author's works. Sir Godfrey Kneller having painted his picture a few weeks before his death, Mr. Hughes presented it to earl Cowper. The dedication of our author's last work, dictated to his brother when he was too weak to write, but ten days before his death, was his final acknowledgment to his noble patron. This last work was his tragedy, the Siege of Damascus, in which the rays of his genius are, as it were, collected to a point. But this tragedy is so generally known and admired, and of the deviations, which, contrary to his judgment, the players obliged him to make from his original plan, so much is occasionally said in the following letters, that I shall only add, that it was brought upon the stage February 17, 1719-20, a few hours only before the author died; a most affecting circumstance to his friends, and indeed to the whole audience. Sir Richard Steele, with the humanity that distinguished his character, took the first opportunity of paying his debt of friendship and esteem, in a paper entitled The Theatre, No. 15, which not being collected into a volume is here annexed. Mr. Hughes's philosophical ode called The Ecstacy, in which there is a fine compliment to Sir Isaac Newton, was published after his death. In 1726, his only sister was married to William Duncombe, esq; who, in 1735, collected and published his poems in two volumes 12mo., adding to those that had before been printed some that were in the hands of the late Alexander Strahan, esq; the translator of the Aeneid. Prefixed are some pathetic verses by Miss Judith Cowper (now Mrs. Madan,) Mr. John Bunce, Mr. Lewis Duncombe, &c. Mrs. Duncombe died in 1735-36, leaving an only son, the editor of the present work. Of Mr. Hughes's brother, Jabez, a votary also of the Muses, some account is given in this volume, p. 160.
These memoirs cannot be better closed than with the following short character, annexed by Dr. Campbell to his accurate life of this writer, in the ivth volume of the Biographia Britannica:
"Mr. John Hughes was more sollicitous to deserve fame than ambitious to enjoy it. He was by nature addicted to study, and with a great genius had a vast fund of diligence, an exquisite taste, a correct judgment; but with all these qualities, was modest, and even diffident, to a surprising degree; which hindered him from collecting or publishing many valuable pieces of poetry, and some of prose. How well he was acquainted with the ancients, and how proper a use he made of that acquaintance, appears from his translations and imitations of Orpheus, Tyrtaeus, Pindar, Anacreon, and Euripides, amongst the Greeks; as well as of Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and Claudian, amongst the Romans. This did not, however, prejudice him against the moderns: he translated also from the French; and his Birth of the Rose, from a writer of that country, is not the least beautiful piece amongst his works. His skill in music, which was exquisite, gave him such an advantage over other poets, as might, with proper encouragement, have carried the English opera as high as the Italian. His talent for lyric poetry was justly admired, and his tragedy of The Siege of Damascus was an instance that pain and sickness could not abate the fire of his genius, or hinder him from giving marks of it as long as he lived. He did not write, at least he did not publish, much; but if we consider him as an invalid almost through his whole life, his avocations on account of business, and that he was but forty-two when he ceased to live, and also call to mind how correct every thing was that came from him, we must retract our assertion, and allow that he published a great deal. His character as a critic was at least equal to his character as a poet, but were both excelled by his character as a man and a Christian. His religion was sincere without severity, his morals strict but not austere, his conversation equally instructive and pleasant. To say all of him he deserved would be a hard task. Let it suffice then — the man whom the bishop of Winchester honoured as a friend, the man whom Mr. Addison admired as a poet, the man whose goodness and integrity Mr. Pope had in veneration, could be no ordinary man."