JOHN HUGHES, the son of a citizen of London and of Anne Burgess, of an ancient family in Wiltshire, was born at Marlborough, July 29, 1677. He was educated at a private school; and though his advances in literature are in the Biographia very ostentatiously displayed, the name of his master is somewhat ungratefully concealed.
At nineteen he drew the plan of a tragedy, and paraphrased rather too diffusely the ode of Horace which begins "Integer Vita." To poetry he added the science of Musick, in which he seems to have attained considerable skill, together with the practice of design or rudiments of painting.
His studies did not withdraw him wholly from business, nor did business hinder him from study. He had a place in the office of ordnance, and was secretary to several commissions for purchasing lands necessary to secure the royal docks at Chatham and Portsmouth; yet found time to acquaint himself with modern languages.
In 1697 he published a poem on The Peace of Ryswick, and in 1699 another piece, called The Court of Neptune, on the return of king William, which he addressed to Mr. Montague, the general patron of the followers of the Muses. The same year he produced a song on the duke of Gloucester's birth-day.
He did not confine himself to poetry, but cultivated other kinds of writing with great success; and about this time showed his knowledge of human nature by an Essay on the Pleasure of being deceived. In 1702 he published, on the death of king William, a Pindarick ode called The House of Nassau, and wrote another paraphrase on the "Otium Divos" of Horace.
In 1703 his Ode on Musick was performed at Stationers' Hall; and he wrote afterwards six cantatas, which were set to musick by the greatest masters of that time, and seem intended to oppose or exclude the Italian opera, an exotick and irrational entertainment, which has been always combated and always has prevailed.
His reputation was now so far advanced that the publick began to pay reverence to his name, and he was solicited to prefix a preface to the translation of Boccalini, a writer whose satirical vein cost him his life in Italy; but who never, I believe, found many readers in this country, even though introduced by such powerful recommendation.
He translated Fontenelle's Dialogues of the Dead, and his version was perhaps read at that time, but is now neglected; for by a book not necessary, and owing its reputation wholly to its turn of diction, little notice can be gained but from those who can enjoy the graces of the original. To the dialogues of Fontenelle he added two composed by himself; and, though not only an honest but a pious man, dedicated his work to the earl of Wharton. He judged skilfully enough of his own interest, for Wharton, when he went lord lieutenant to Ireland, offered to take Hughes with him, and establish him; but Hughes, having hopes or promises from another man in power of some provision more suitable to his inclination, declined Wharton's offer and obtained nothing from the other.
He translated the Miser of Moliere, which he never offered to the Stage; and occasionally amused himself with making versions of favourite scenes in other plays.
Being now received as a wit among the wits he paid his contributions to literary undertakings, and assisted both The Tatler, Spectator, and Guardian. In 1712 he translated Vertot's History of the Revolution of Portugal; produced an Ode to the Creator of the World, from [occasioned by] the Fragments of Orpheus; and brought upon the Stage an opera called Calypso and Telemachus, intended to shew that the English language might be very happily adapted to musick. This was impudently opposed by those who were employed in the Italian opera; and, what cannot be told without indignation, the intruders had such interest with the duke of Shrewsbury, then lord Chamberlain, who had married an Italian, as to obtain an obstruction of the profits, though not an inhibition of the performance.
There was at this time a project formed by Tonson for a translation of the Pharsalia by several hands, and Hughes englished the tenth book. But this design, as must often happen where the concurrence of many is necessary, fell to the ground; and the whole work was afterwards performed by Rowe.
His acquaintance with the great writers of his time appears to have been very general; but of his intimacy with Addison there is a remarkable proof. It is told, on good authority, that Cato was finished and played by his persuasion. It had long wanted the last act, which he was desired by Addison to supply. If the request was sincere it proceeded from an opinion, whatever it was, that did not last long; for when Hughes came in a week to shew him his first attempt he found half an act written by Addison himself.
He afterwards published the works of Spenser, with his Life, a Glossary, and a Discourse on Allegorical Poetry, a work for which he was well qualified as a judge of the beauties of writing, but perhaps wanted an antiquary's knowledge of the obsolete words. He did not much revive the curiosity of the publick; for near thirty years elapsed before his edition was reprinted. The same year produced his Apollo and Daphne, of which the success was very earnestly promoted by Steele, who, when the rage of party did not misguide him, seems to have been a man of boundless benevolence.
Hughes had hitherto suffered the mortifications of a narrow fortune; but in 1717 the lord chancellor Cowper set him at ease, by making him secretary to the Commissions of the Peace; in which he afterwards, by a particular request, desired his successor lord Parker to continue him. He had now affluence; but such is human life, that he had it when his declining health could neither allow him long possession nor quick enjoyment.
His last work was his tragedy The Siege of Damascus; after which "A Siege" became a popular title. This play, which still continues on the Stage, and of which it is unnecessary to add a private voice to such continuance of approbation, is not acted or printed according to the author's original draught, or his settled intention. He had made Phocyas apostatize from his religion; after which the abhorrence of Eudocia would have been reasonable, his misery would have been just, and the horrors of his repentance exemplary. The players, however, required that the guilt of Phocyas should terminate in desertion to the enemy; and Hughes, unwilling that his relations should lose the benefit of his work, complied with the alteration.
He was now weak with a lingering consumption, and not able to attend the rehearsal; yet was so vigorous in his faculties that only ten days before his death he wrote the dedication to his patron, lord Cowper. On February 17, 1719-20, the play was represented, and the author died. He lived to hear that it was well received; but paid no regard to the intelligence, being then wholly employed in the meditations of a departing Christian.
A man of his character was undoubtedly regretted; and Steele devoted an essay, in the paper called The Theatre, to the memory of his virtues. His life is written in the Biographia with some degree of favourable partiality and an account of him is prefixed to his works by his relation the late Mr. Duncombe, a man whose blameless elegance deserved the same respect.
The character of his genius I shall transcribe from the correspondence of Swift and Pope.
"A month ago," says Swift, "was sent me over by a friend of mine the works of John Hughes, Esquire. They are in prose and verse. I never heard of the man in my life, yet I find your name as a subscriber [too]. He is too grave a poet for me; and I think among the mediocrists, in prose as well as verse."
To this Pope returns: "To answer your question as to Mr. Hughes; what he wanted in genius, he made up as an honest man; but he was of the class you think him."
In Spence's collections Pope is made to speak of him with still less respect, as having no claim to poetical reputation but from his tragedy.