William Duncomb, esq; has obliged the world with an entire edition of this author's poetical and prose works, to which he has prefixed some account of his life, written with candour and spirit. Upon his authority we chiefly build the following narration; in which we shall endeavour to do as much justice as possible to the memory of this excellent poet.
Our author was the son of a worthy citizen of London, and born at Marlborough in the county of Wilts, on the 29th of January 1677; but received the rudiments of his learning at private schools in London.
In the earliest years of his youth, he applied himself with ardour to the pursuit of the sister arts, poetry, drawing and music, in each of which by turns, he made a considerable progress; but for the most part pursued these and other polite studies, only as agreeable amusements, under frequent confinement from indisposition, and a valetudinary state of health. He had some time an employment in the office of ordinance; and was secretary to two or three commissioners under the great seal, for purchasing lands for the better securing the docks and harbours at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Harwich.
In the year 1717 the lord chancellor Cowper, (to whom Mr. Hughes was then but lately known) was pleased, without any previous sollicitation, to make him his secretary for the commissions of the peace, and to distinguish him with singular marks of his favour and affection; And upon his lordship's laying down the great seal, he was at his particular recommendation, and with the ready concurrence of his successor, continued in the same employment under the earl of Macclesfield.
He held this place to the time of his decease, which happened on the 17th of February 1719, the very night in which his tragedy, entitled the Siege of Damascus, was first acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane.
He was cut off by a consumption, after a painful life, at the age of 42, when he had just arrived at an agreeable competence, and advancing in fame and fortune. So just is the beautiful reflexion of Milton in his Lycidas;
Fame is the spur, that the clear spirit doth raise,
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days;
But the fair guerdon, when we hope to find,
And think to burst out into sudden blaze,
Comes the blind fury with th' abhorred shears,
And slits the thin-spun life.
He was privately buried in the vault under the chancel of St. Andrew's Church in Holborn.
Mr. Hughes, as a testimony of gratitude to his noble friend, and generous patron, earl Cowper, gave his lordship a few weeks before he died, his picture drawn by Sir Godfrey Kneller, which he himself had received from that masterly painter. The value lord Cowper set upon it will be best shown, by the letter he wrote upon this occasion to Mr. Hughes. As such a testimony from so eminent a person, was considered by himself as one of the highest honours he was capable of receiving, we shall therefore insert it.
"24th Jan. 1719-20.
I thank you for the most acceptable present of your picture, and assure you that none of this age can set a higher value on it than I do; and shall while I live, tho' I am sensible posterity will out do me in that particular.
I am with the greatest esteem, and sincerity
Your most affectionate, and oblig'd humble servant
Mr. Hughes was happy in the acquaintance and friendship of several of tho greatest men, and most distinguished genius's of the age in which he lived; particularly of the nobleman just now mentioned, the present lord bishop of Winchester, lord chief baron Gilbert, Sir Godfrey Kneller, Mr. Congreve, Mr. Addison, Sir Richard Steele, Mr. Southern, Mr. Rowe, &c. and might have justly boasted In the words of Horace
Cum magnis vixisse, invita satebitu usque
Having given this short account of his life, which perhaps is all that is preserved any where concerning him; we shall now consider him, first, as a poet, and then as a prose writer.
The Triumph of Peace was the earliest poem he wrote of any length, that appeared in public. It was written on occasion of the peace of Ryswick, and printed in the year 1677 [sic]. A learned gentleman of Cambridge, in a letter to a friend of Mr. Hughes's, dated the 28th of February 1697-8, gives the following account of the favourable reception this poem met with there, upon its first publication. "I think I never heard a poem read with so much admiration, as the Triumph of Peace was by our best critics here; nor a greater character given to a young poet, at his first appearing; no, not even to Mr. Congreve himself. So nobly elevated are his thoughts, his numbers so harmonious, and his turns so fine and delicate, that we cry out with Tully, on a like occasion, Nostrae spes altera Romae!"
The Court of Neptune, was written on king William's return from Holland, two years after the peace, in 1699. This Poem was admired for the versification, however, the musical flow of the numbers is its least praise; it rather deserves to be valued for the propriety, and boldness of the figures and metaphors, and the machinery [quotation omitted].
A friend of Mr. Hughes's soon after the publication of this poem, complimented him upon the choice of his subject, and for the moral sentiments contained in it. "I am sure (says he) virtue is most for the interest of mankind, and those poets have ever obtained the most honour in the world, who have made that the end and design of their works. A wanton Sappho, or Anacreon, among the ancients, never had the same applause, as a Pindar, or Alexis; nor in the judgment of Horace did they deserve it. In the opinion of posterity, a lewd and debauch'd Ovid, did justly submit to the worth of a Virgil; and, in future ages, a Dryden will never be compared to Milton. In all times, and in all places of the world, the moral poets have been ever the greatest; and as much superior to others in wit, as in virtue. Nor does this seem difficult to be accounted for, since the dignity of their subjects naturally raised their ideas, and gave a grandeur to their sentiments."
The House of Nassau, a Pindaric Ode (printed in 1702) was occasioned by the death of king William. "In Pindaric and Lyric Poetry (says Mr. Duncomb) our author's genius shines in its full lustre. Tho' he enjoyed all that fire of imagination, and divine enthusiasm, for which some of the ancient poets are so deservedly admired, yet did his fancy never run away with his reason, but was always guided by superior judgment; and the music of his verse is exquisite."
The Translation of the third Ode of the third Book of Horace, and the Paraphrase of the twenty-second Ode, of the first book, were both written when he was very young; and the latter of them was his first poetical Essay, which appeared in print. Mr. Hughes, in a private letter sent to one of his friends, gives it as his opinion, that the Odes of Horace, are fitter to be paraphrased, than translated.
The Tenth Book of Lucan, was translated by Mr. Hughes, long before Mr. Rowe undertook that author. The occasion of it was this: Mr. Tonson the bookseller, sollicited a translation of Lucan, by several hands. Mr. Hughes performed his part, but others failing in their promises, the design was dropp'd; and Mr. Rowe was afterwards prevailed upon to undertake the whole, which he performed with great success.
In the year 1709 Mr. Hughes obliged the publick, with an elegant translation of Moliere's celebrated Comedy, the Misanthrope. This has been since reprinted, with the other plays of that admirable author, translated by Mr. Ozell; but care is taken to distinguish this particular play.
In the year 1712 his Opera of Calypso and Telemachus, was performed at the Queen's Theatre in the Hay-Market. Perhaps it may be worth while to mention here, one circumstance concerning this Opera, as it relates to the History of Music in England, and discovers the great partiality shewn at that time to Opera's performed in Italian. After many such had been encouraged by large subscriptions, this, originally written, and set in English, after the Italian manner, was prepared with the usual expence of scenes and decorations; and being much crowded and applauded at the rehearsals, a subscription was obtained for it as usual.
This alarmed the whole Italian band, who, apprehending that their profession would suffer thereby, procured an order from the duke of Shrewsbury, then lord chamberlain, the day before the performing of this Opera, to take off the subscription for it, and to open the house at the lowest prices, or not at all. This was designed to sink it, but failed of its end. It was performed, though under such great discouragement: and was revived afterwards at the theatre in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields. Mr. Addison, in the Spectator, Numb. 405, speaking of the just applause given this opera, by Signior Nicolini (who he says was the greatest performer in dramatic music, that perhaps ever appeared upon a stage) has these words, "The town is highly obliged to that excellent artist, for having shewn us the Italian music in its perfection, as well as for that generous approbation he gave to an Opera of our own country, in which Mr. Galliard the composer endeavoured to do justice to the beauty of the words, by following that noble example which has been set him by the greatest foreign masters of that art."
The Ode to the Creator of the World, occasioned by the fragments of Orpheus, was printed in the year 1713, at the particular instance of Mr. Addison; and is mentioned with applause in the Spectator. This, and the Extasy, (published since the death of the author) are justly esteemed two of the noblest Odes in our language. The seventh Stanza of the last mentioned piece, is so sublimely excellent, that it would be denying ourselves, and our poetical readers, a pleasure not to transcribe it. The whole of this Ode is beautifully heightened, and poetically conceived. It furnished a hint to a living Poet to write what he entitles the Excursion, which tho' it has very great merit, yet falls infinitely short of this animated Ode of Mr. Hughes.
After having represented the natural and artificial calamities to which man is doomed, he proceeds [quotation omitted]. The author of an Essay on Criticism, printed in the year 1728, informs us, that the Tragedy of Cato being brought upon the stage in 1713 was owing to Mr. Hughes. The circumstances recorded by this author are so remarkable, that they deserve to be related; and as they serve to shew the high opinion Mr. Addison entertained of our author's abilities as a Poet, I shall therefore transcribe his own words.—
"It has been often said by good judges, that Cato was no proper subject for a dramatic poem: That the character of a stoic philosopher is inconsistent with the hurry and tumult of action, and passions which are the soul of tragedy. That the ingenious author miscarried in the plan of his work, but supported it by the dignity, the purity, the beauty, and justness of the sentiments. This was so much the opinion of Mr. Maynwaring, who was generally allowed to be the best critic of our time; that he was against bringing the play upon the stage and it lay by unfinished many years. That it was play'd at last was owing to Mr. Hughes. He had read the four acts which were finished, and really thought it would be of service to the public, to have it represented at the latter end of queen Anne's reign, when the spirit of liberty was likely to be lost. He endeavoured to bring Mr. Addison into his opinion. which he did, and consented it should be acted if Mr. Hughes would write the last act, and he offered him the scenery for his assistance, excusing his not finishing it himself, upon account of some other avocations. He press'd Mr. Hughes to do it so earnestly, that he was prevailed upon, and set about it. But, a week after, seeing Mr. Addison again, with an intention to communicate to him what he thought of it, he was agreeably surprized at his producing some papers, where near half of the act was written by the author himself, who took fire at the hint, that it would be serviceable; and, upon a second reflexion, went through with the fifth act, not that he was diffident of Mr. Hughes's abilities; but knowing that no man could have so perfect a notion of his design as himself, who had been so long, and so carefully thinking of it. I was told this by Mr. Hughes, and I tell it to shew, that it was not for the love-scenes, that Mr. Addison consented to have his Tragedy acted, but to support public spirit; which in the opinion of the author was then declining."
In the year 1720 the Siege of Damascus was acted at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, with universal applause. His present majesty honoured it with his presence, and the late queen distinguished it with marks of favour.
Mr. Hughes drew up the dedication of this Tragedy to the late Earl Cowper, about ten days before he died. It is indeed surprising, that he should be able to form a piece so finely turned, and at such an hour; when death was just before him, and he was too weak to transcribe it himself. Mr. Pope, in a letter to Mr. Hughes's brother, written soon after his death, in answer to one received from him, with the printed copy of the play, has the following pathetic passage.
"I read over again your brother's play, with more concern and sorrow, than I ever felt in the reading any Tragedy. The real loss of a good man may be called a distress to the world, and ought to affect us more, than any feigned distress, how well drawn soever. I am glad of an occasion of giving you under my hand this testimony, both how excellent I think this work to be, and how excellent I thought the author."
It is generally allowed that the characters in this play are finely varied and distinguished; that the sentiments are just, and well adapted to the characters; that it abounds with beautiful descriptions, apt allusions to the manners, and opinions of the times where the scene is laid, and with noble morals; that the diction is pure, unaffected, and sublime; and that the plot is conducted in a simple and clear manner.
Some critics have objected, that there is not a sufficient ground and foundation, for the distress in the fourth and fifth acts. That Phocyas only assists the enemy to take Damascus a few days sooner, than it must unavoidably have fallen into the hands of the Saracens by a capitulation, which was far from dishonourable. If Phocyas is guilty, his guilt must consist in this only, that he performed the same action from a sense of his own wrong, and to preserve the idol of his soul from violation, and death, which he might have performed laudably, upon better principles. But this (say they) seems not sufficient ground for those strong and stinging reproaches he casts upon himself, nor for Eudocia's rejecting him with so much severity. It would have been a better ground of distress, considering the frailty of human nature, and the violent temptations he lay under; if he had been at last prevailed upon to profess himself a Mahometan: For then his remorse, and self-condemnation, would have been natural, his punishment just, and the character of Eudocia placed in a more amiable light. In answer to these objections, and in order to do justice to the judgment of Mr. Hughes, we must observe, that he formed his play according to the plan here recommended: but, over-persuaded by some friends, he altered it as it now stands.
When our author was but in the nineteenth year of his age, he wrote a Tragedy, entitled, Amalasont Queen of the Goths, which displays a fertile genius, and a masterly invention. Besides these poetical productions Mr. Hughes is author of several works in prose, particularly,
The Advices from Parnassus, and the Poetical Touchstone of Trajano Boccalini, translated by several hands, were printed in folio 1706. This translation was revised and corrected, and the preface to it was written by Mr. Hughes.
Fontenelle's Dialogues of the Dead, translated by our author; with two original Dialogues, published in the year 1708. The greatest part of this had lain by him for six years.
Fontenelle's Discourse concerning the antients, and moderns, are printed with his Conversations with a Lady, on the Plurality of Worlds, translated by Glanville.
The History of the Revolutions in Portugal, written in French, by Monsieur L'Abbe de Vertot, was translated by Mr. Hughes.
The Translation of the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, was done by Mr. Hughes; upon which Mr. Pope has built his beautiful Epistle of Heloise to Abelard.
As Mr. Hughes was an occasional contributor to the Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian, the reader perhaps may be curious to know more particularly what share he had in those papers, which are so justly admired in all places in the world, where taste and genius have visited. As it is the highest honour to have had any concern in works like these, so it would be most injurious to the memory of this excellent genius, not to particularize his share in them [omitted].
In the year 1715 Mr. Hughes published a very accurate edition of the works of our famous poet Edmund Spenser, in six volumes, 12mo. to this edition are prefixed the Life of Spenser; an Essay on Allegorical poetry; Remarks on the Fairy Queen, on the Shepherd's Calendar, and other writings of Spenser; and a Glossary explaining the old and obsolete Words.
In 1718 he published a piece called Charon, or The Ferry-Boat, a Vision. This, and Mr. Walsh's Aesculapius, or Hospital of Fools, are perhaps two of the finest dialogues we have in English, as well as the most lively imitations of Lucian.
Sir Richard Steele, in a paper called The Theatre, No. 15. has paid a tribute to the memory of Mr. Hughes, with which as it illustrates his amiable character, we shall conclude his life.
"I last night (says he) saw the Siege of Damascus, and had the mortification to hear this evening that Mr. Hughes, the author of it, departed this life within some few hours after his play was acted, with universal applause. This melancholy circumstance recalled into my thought a speech in the tragedy, which very much affected the whole audience, and was attended to with the greatest, and most solemn instance of approbation, and awful silence. The incidents of the play plunge a heroic character into the last extremity and he is admonished by a tyrant commander to expect no mercy, unless he changes the Christian religion for the Mahometan. The words with which the Turkish general makes his exit from his prisoner are, "Farewel, and think of death." Upon which the captive breaks into the following soliloquy [omitted]. The gentleman (continues Sir Richard) to whose memory I devote this paper, may be the emulation of more persons of different talents, than any one I have ever known. His head, hand, or heart, was always employed in something worthy imitation; his pencil, his bow (string) or his pen, each of which he used in a masterly manner, were always directed to raise, and entertain his own mind, or that of others, to a more chearful prosecution of what is noble and virtuous. Peace be with thy remains, thou amiable spirit! but I talk in the language of our weakness, that is flown to the regions of immortality, and relieved from the aking engine and painful instrument of anguish and sorrow, in which for many tedious years he panted with a lively hope for his present condition. We shall consign the trunk, in which he was so long imprisoned, to common earth, with all that is due to the merit of its inhabitant."