1764 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Aaron Hill

David Erskine Baker, in Companion to the Play-House (1764) 2:Sigs Q5-R2v.



This Gentleman, who was born in Beaufort Buildings in the Strand, February 10 1684-84, was the eldest Son of George Hill Esq. of Malmsbury Abbey, in Wiltshire; and, in consequence of this Descent the legal Heir to an entailed Estate of about 2000 per Annum; but the Indiscretions and Misconduct of his Father having, by a Sale of the Property, which he had no Right to execute, rendered it of no Advantage to the Family to which it justly belonged, our Author was left, together with Mr. Hill's other Children, to the Care of, and Dependence on, his Mother and Grand-Mother; the latter of whom (Mrs. Anne Gregory) was more particularly anxious for his Education and Improvement. — The first Rudiments of Learning he received from Mr. Reyner, of Barnstaple in Devonshire, to whom he was sent at nine Years old, and on his Removal from thence, was placed at Westminster school, under the Care of the celebrated Dr. Knipe. — Here his Genius soon rendered itself conspicuous, and, by enabling him at times to perform the Tasks of others as well as his own, frequently procured for him, from some of his School-Fellows of more limited Abilities, an ample Amends for the very scanty Allowance of Pocket-Money which the Circumstances of his Family laid him under the Necessity of being contented with.

Our Author left Westminster School in the Year 1699, being then only fourteen Years of Age; and having heard his Mother frequently make warm Mention of the Lord Paget, who was a pretty near Relation of hers, and was at that time at Constantinople, in the Rank of Ambassador from the English to the Ottoman Court, he conceived a very strong Inclination for paying a Visit, and making himself known, to that Nobleman. — This Design he communicated to Mrs. Gregory, and, meeting with no Opposition from her in it, he embarked on the 2d of March 1700, being then but just fifteen, on board a Vessel that was going to Constantinople, in which City he arrived after a safe and prosperous Voyage.

On his Arrival, he was received with the utmost Kindness and Cordiality by the Ambassador, who was no less pleased than surprised at that Ardour for Improvement, which could induce a Youth of his tender Years to adventure such a Voyage, on a visit to a Relation whom he knew by Character only. He immediately provided him a Tutor in the House with himself, under whose Tuition he very soon sent him to travel, being desirous of indulging to the utmost that laudable Curiosity and thirst of Knowledge, which seemed so strongly impressed on the amiable Mind of our young Adventurer. — With this Gentleman, who was a learned Ecclesiastic, he travelled through Egypt, Palestine and the greater Part of the East; and on Lord Paget's returning Home, as that Nobleman chose to take his Journey by Land, Mr. Hill had an Opportunity of seeing great Part of Europe, at most of the Courts of which the Ambassador made some little stay.

With Lord Paget our Author continued in great Estimation; and, it is not improbable, that his Lordship might have provided genteelly for him at his Death, had not the Envy and Malevolence of a certain Female, who had great Influence with him, by Falsehoods and Misrepresentations, in great Measure, prevented his good Intentions towards him. — Fortune, however, and his own Merits, made him Amends for the Loss of this Patronage; for his known Sobriety and good Understanding recommended him soon after to Sir William Wentworth, a worthy Baronet of Yorkshire, who being inclinable to make the Tour of Europe, his Relations engaged Mr. Hill to accompany him as a sort of Governor or travelling Tutor; which Office, though himself of an Age which might rather be expected to require the being put under Tuition itself; than to become the Guide and Director of others, he executed so well as to bring Home the young Gentleman, after a Course of two or three Years, very greatly improved, to the entire Satisfaction, not only of himself, but of all his Friends.

In the Year 1709 he commenced Author by the Publication of an History of the Ottoman Empire, compiled from the Materials which he had collected in the course of his different Travels and during his Residence at the Turkish Court. — This Work, though it met with Success, Mr. Hill frequently afterwards repented the having printed, and would himself; at times, very severely criticize on it; and indeed, to say the Truth of it, there are in it a great Number of Puerilities which render it far inferior to the Merit of his subsequent Writings; in which Correctness has ever been so strong a Characteristic that his Critics have even attributed it to him as a Fault. — Whereas, in this Work, there at best appears the Labour of a juvenile Genius, rather choosing to give the full Reign to fiery Fancy, and indulge the Imagination of the Poet, than make Use of the Curb of cooler Judgment, or aim at the Plainness and Perspicuity of the Historian. — About the same Year he published his first poetical Piece, entitled Camillus, in Vindication and Honour of the Earl of Peterborough, who had been General in Spain. This Poem was printed without any Author's Name; but Lord Peterborough, having made it his Business to find out to whom he was indebted for this Compliment, appointed Mr. Hill his Secretary; which Post, however, he quitted the Year following, on Occasion of his Marriage.

In 1709 he was also made Master of the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, and, at the Desire of Mr. Booth, wrote his first Tragedy of Elfrid; or, The Fair Inconstant. — This Play was composed in little more than a Week, on which Account it is no wonder that it should be, as he himself has described it, "an unpruned Wilderness of Fancy, with here and there a Flower among the Leaves; but without any Fruit of Judgment." — This, however, he altered, and brought on the Stage again about twenty Years afterwards, under the Title of Athelwold. — Yet, even in its first Form, it met with sufficient Encouragement to induce him to a second Attempt in the dramatic Way, tho' of another Kind, viz. the Opera of Rinaldo, the Music of which was the first Piece of Composition of that admirable Master Mr. Handel, after his Arrival in England. — This Piece, in the Year 1710, Mr. Hill brought on the Stage at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket, of which he was at that Time director, and where it met with very great and deserved Success.

It appears, from the above Account, that Mr. Hill was, at this Period, Manager of the Theatre, which he conducted entirely to the Satisfaction of the Public; and, indeed, no Man seemed better qualified for such a Station, if we may be allowed to form our Opinion from that admirable Judgment in theatrical Affairs, and perfect Acquaintance both with the Laws of the Drama and the Rules of Acting, which he gives Proof of, not only in a Poem, entitled The Art of Acting, and in the Course of his periodical Essays, entitled The Prompter, which appeared in his Lifetime, but also in many Parts of an epistolary Correspondence which he maintained with various Persons of Taste and Genius and which have since been published among his posthumous Works, in four Volumes inOoctavo. — This Post, however, he relinquished in a few Months, from some Misunderstanding; and though he was not long after very earnestly solicited, and that too by a Person of the first Distinction and Consequence to take the Charge on him again, yet he could not be prevailed on, by any Means, to re-accept it.

It is probable however, that neither Pride, nor any harboured Resentment, were the Motives of this Refusal, but one much more amiable, viz. an ardent Zeal for general Improvement, and an Earnestness for the Public Good which ever attended him through Life, in which he was at all Times indefatigable, and to which he, on different Occasions, frequently sacrificed not only his Ease and Satisfaction, but even large Sums of Money also; and, indeed, this valuable Property of Pubic Spirit seems to have his Soul's Darling Passion; for he himself, in one of his Prefaces, speaking of Poetry, tells us, "that he has no better Reason for wishing it well, than his Love for a Mistress whom he should never be married to; for that, whenever he grew ambitious, he would wish to build higher, and owe his Memory to some Occasion of more Importance than his Writings." — To this Motive, therefore, I say, it is probable that we ought to attribute his declining the Theatrical Direction; for, in the same Year he married the only Daughter of Edward Norris, Esq. of Stratford, in Essex; and, as the Fortune that Lady brought him was very considerable, he was now better able to pursue some of his more public Designs than he had before been.

The first Project which Mr. Hill set on Foot, for which he obtained a Patent, and of which he was himself the sole Discoverer, was the making an Oil, as sweet as that from Olives, from the Beech Nuts, which are a very plentiful Produce of some Parts of these Kingdoms. — This was an Improvement apparently and acknowledgedly of great Utility, and must have turned out to equal Advantage had the Conduct of it continued in the Hands of the original Inventor. But being an Undertaking of too great Extent for his own Fortune singly to pursue, he was obliged to call in the Assistance of others; and took a Subscription of twenty-five thousand Pounds on Shares and Annuities, in Security of which he assigned over his Patent in Trust for the Proprietors, forming from among themselves a Body, who were to act in concert with the Patentee, under the Denomination of the Beech Oil Company. However, as Mankind are apt to be over-sanguine in their Expectations, and too impatient, under any the least Disappointment of those Expectations, there soon arose Disputes among them which obliged Mr. Hill in Vindication of some Misrepresentations concerning himself, to publish a fair State of the Case, by which it appeared plainly, that all the Money that had hitherto been employed, had been fairly and candidly expended for the Public Benefit, and that the Patentee had even waved all the Advantages, to which by Agreement, he had been entitled to. — These Disputes, however, terminated in the Overthrowing the whole Design, without any Emolument either to the Patentee or the Adventurers, at a Time when Profits were already arising from it, and, if pursued with vigour, would in all Probability, have continued increasing and permanent. — Mr. Hill procured his Patent for this Invention in October 1713, and the Date of his public Appeal, in regard to the Affair is the 30th of November 1716. Thus, exclusive of the Time employed in bringing the Invention itself to Maturity, we see a full three Years labour of a Gentleman of Abilities and Ingenuity entirely frustrated, through the Inequality of his own Fortune to carry his Plan into Execution singly, and the erroneous Warmth and impatience of those various Tempers with which he was, in consequence of that Insufficiency obliged to unite himself for the Perfection of it.

He was also concerned with Sir Robert Montgomery, in a Design for establishing a Plantation of a vast Tract of land in the South of Carolina; for which purpose, a Grant had been purchased from the Lords Proprietors of that Province; but here again the want of a larger Fortune than he was Master of, stood as a Bar in his Way; for, tho' it has many Years since been extensively cultivated, under the Name of Georgia, yet it never proved of any Advantage to him

Another very valuable Project he set on Foot about the year 1727, which was, the turning to a great Account many Woods, of very large Extent, in the north of Scotland, by applying the Timber, produced by them, to the Uses of the Navy, for which it had been long erroneously imagined it was totally unfit. — The Falsity of this Supposition, however, he clearly evinced; for one entire Vessel was built of it; and, on Trial, was found to be of as good Timber as that brought from any Part of the World; and although, indeed, there were not many Trees in these Woods large enough for Masts to Ships of the largest Burden, yet there were Millions fit for those of all smaller Vessels, and for every other Branch of Ship-building. — In this Undertaking, however, he met with various Obstacles, not only from the Ignorance of the Natives of that Country, but even from Nature herself; yet, Mr. Hill's Assiduity and Perseverance surmounted them all. For when the Trees were, by his Order, chained together into Floats, the inexperienced Highlanders refused to venture themselves on them down the River Spey; nor would have been prevailed on, had he not first gone himself to convince them that there was no Danger. — And now the great Number of Rocks, which choked up different Parts of this River, and seemed to render it impassable, were another Impediment to his Expedition. — But, by ordering great Fires to be made upon them at the low Tide, when they were most exposed, and throwing great Quantities of Water upon them, they were, by the help of the proper Tools, broken to Pieces and thrown down, and a free Passage opened for the Floats.

This Design was, for some Time, carried on with great Vigour, and turned out to very good Account; till some of the Persons concerned in it thought proper to call off the Men and Horses from the Woods of Abernathy, in order to employ them in their Lead Mines in the same Country, from whence they promised themselves a still more considerable Advantage. — Of what private Emolument Mr. Hill received from this Affair, or whether any at all, we are uninformed of. — However, the Magistrates of Inverness, Aberdeen, &c. paid him the Compliment of the Freedom of their respective Towns, and entertained him with all imaginable Honours. — Yet, notwithstanding these Honours, which were publicly paid to our Author, and the distinguished Civilities which he met with from the Duke and Dutchess of Gordon, and other Persons of Rank to whom he became known during his Residence in the Highlands, this northern Expedition was near proving of very unhappy consequences to his Fortune; for, in his Return, his Lady being at that Time in Yorkshire, for the Recovery of her Health, he made so long a Continuance with her in that County as afforded an Opportunity to some Persons to whose Hands he had confided the Management of certain important Affairs, to be guilty of a Breach of Trust, that aimed at the Destruction of the greater Part of what he was Worth. — However, he happily returned Time enough to frustrate their villainous Intentions.

In the Year 1731 he met with a severe Shock by the loss of his Lady, with whom he had passed upwards of twenty happy Years and to whom he had ever had the sincerest and tenderest Attachment. — The Thought of the following Epitaph, which he wrote on her, though not original, is entirely poetical.

Enough, cold Stone! — Suffice her long-lov'd Name:
Words are too weak to pay her Virtue's Claim.—
Temples and Tombs, and Tongues, shall ware away;
And Pow'r's vain Pomp in mould'ring Dust decay;
But ere Mankind a Wife more perfect see,
Eternity, O Time! shall bury thee.

Mr. Hill, after this, continued in London and in Intercourse with the Public till about the Year 1738, when he, in a Manner withdrew himself from the World, by retiring to Plaistow, in Essex, where he devoted himself entirely to Study and the Cultivation of his Family and Garden. Yet the Concerns of the Public became by no Means a Matter of Indifference to him; for, even in this Retirement, he closely applied to the bringing to Perfection many profitable Improvements. — One more particularly he lived to complete, though not to reap any Benefit from it himself; viz. the Art of making Pot-Ash equal to that brought from Russia, to which place an immense Sum of Money used annually to be sent from these Kingdoms, for that Article alone. — In his Solitude he wrote and published several poetical Pieces, particularly an Heroic Poem, entitled The Fanciad, another of the same Kind, called The Imperial, a Poem upon Faith, and three Books of an Epic Poem, which he had many Years before begun, on the story of Gideon. — He also adapted to the English Stage Mons de Voltaire's Tragedy of Merope, which was the last Work he lived to complete; for, from about the Time he was soliciting the bringing it on the Stage, an Illness seized him, from the tormenting Pains of which he had scarce an Hour's Intermission; and, after trying in Vain all the Aids that Medicine could afford him, he at last returned to London, in hopes that his native Air might have proved beneficial to him; but alas! he was past Recovery, being wasted almost to a Skeleton, from some internal Cause, which had occasioned a general Decay, and was believed to be all Inflammation in the Kidneys, the Foundation of which, most probably, had been laid by his intense and indefatigable Application to his Studies. — He just lived to see his Tragedy introduced to the Public; but the Day before it was, by Command of Frederic Prince of Wales, to have been represented for his Benefit, he died, in the very Minute of the Earthquake, Feb. 8, 1749-50; of the Shock of which, though speechless, he appeared sensible. This Event happened within two Days of the full Completion of his sixty-fifth Year, the last Twelvemonth of which he had passed in the utmost Torment of Body but with a Calmness and Resignation that gave Testimony of the most unshaken Fortitude of Soul. — He was interred near Lord Godolphin's Monument, in the great Cloyster of Westminster Abbey, in the same Grave with her, who had while living, been the dearest to him.

With regard to Mr. Hill's private Character, he was, in every Respect, perfectly amiable. — His Person was, in his Youth, extremely fair and handsome. — He was tall, not too thin, yet genteelly made. His Eyes were a dark Blue, bright and penetrating; his Hair brown, and his Face oval. — His Countenance was most generally animated by a Smile, which was more particularly distinguishable whenever he entered into Conversation; in the doing which his Address was most engagingly affable, yet mingled with a native unassumed Dignity, which rendered him equally the Object of Admiration and Respect, with those who had the Pleasure of his Acquaintance. — His Voice was sweet, and his Conversation elegant; and so extensive was his Knowledge in all Subjects, that scarcely any could occur on which he did not acquit himself in a most masterly and entertaining Manner. — His Temper, tho' naturally warm when roused by Injuries, was equally noble in a Readiness to forgive them; and so much inclined was he to repay Evil with Good, that he frequently exercised that Christian Lesson, even to the Prejudice of his own Circumstances. — He was a generous Master, a sincere Friend, an affectionate Husband, and an indulgent and tender Parent; and indeed, so benevolent was his Disposition in general, even beyond the Power of the Fortune he was blessed with, that the Calamities of those he knew, and valued as deserving, affected him more deeply than his own. — In Consequence of this, we find him bestowing the Profits of many of his Works for the Relief of his Friends, and particularly his dramatic Ones, for none of which he could ever be prevailed on to accept of a Benefit; till at the very Close of his Life, when, Oh Grief! his narrow Circumstances compelled him to solicit the Acting of his Merope, for the Relief of its Author from those Difficulties out of which he had frequently been the generous Instrument of extricating others. — His Manner of Living was temperate to the greatest Degree, in every Respect but that of late Hours, which, as the Night is less liable to Interruptions than the Day, his indefatigable Love of Study frequently drew him into. — No Labour deterred him from the Prosecution of any Design which appeared to him to be praiseworthy and feasible; nor was it in the Power of the greatest Misfortunes (and, indeed from his Birth, he seemed destined to encounter many) to overcome, or even shake his Fortitude of Mind.

As a Writer, he must be allowed to stand in a very exalted Rank of Merit. — The greatest Elevation of Thought and Dignity of Sentiment; the strongest Powers of affecting the Mind and alarming the Passions; a Fancy, which took its Flight on the most unlimited Pinions; and an Originality of Expression, which true Genius alone could be capable of, are the striking Characteristics of Mr. Hill's Writings. — And, altho' it may be confessed that the rigid Correctness, with which he constantly re-perused his Works for Alteration, the frequent Use of compound Epithets, and an "ordo verborum" in great Measure peculiar to himself, have justly laid him open to the Charge of being, in some Places, rather too turgid, and in others somewhat Obscure; yet the nervous Power we find in them will surely atone for the former Fault; and, as to the latter, the intrinsic Sterling Sense we constantly find on a close Examination of every Passage of his Writings, ought to make us overlook our having been obliged to take some little Pains in digging through the Rock in which it was contained. As we have, however in this Place; nothing to do with any but his dramatic Writings, the Reader may see a complete Catalogue of them in the following List [omitted].

Our Author seems to have lived in perfect Harmony with all the Writers of his time, excepting Mr. Pope, with whom he had a short Paper War, occasioned by that gentleman's introducing him in the Dunciad, as one of the Competitors for the Prize offered by the Goddess of Dulness, in the following Lines.

Then Hill essay'd scarce vanish'd out of Sight,
He buoys up instant, and returns to Light;
He bears no Token of the sabler Streams,
And mounts, far off, among the Swans of Thames.

This, though far the gentlest Piece of Satire in the whole Poem, and conveying at the same Time an oblique Compliment, in saying that he received no Taint from the Dirt and Filth, roused Mr. Hill to the taking some Notice of it, which he did by a Poem, written during his Peregrination in the North, entitled The Progress of Wit, a Caveat for the Use of an eminent Writer; which he begins with the following eight Lines, in which Mr. Pope's too well-known Disposition is elegantly, yet very severely characterized:

Tuneful ALEXIS, on the Thames' fair Side,
The Ladies Play-thing, and the Muses' Pride;
With Merit popular, with Wit polite,
Easy, though vain, and elegant, though light;
Desiring, and deserving, others' Praise,
Poorly accepts a Fame he ne'er repays;
Unborn to cherish, sneakingly approves,
And wants the Soul to spread the Worth he loves.

The "sneakingly approves," in the last Couplet, Mr. Pope was much affected by; and, indeed, through their whole Controversy afterwards, in which it was generally thought Mr. Hill had considerably the Advantage, Mr. Pope seems rather to express his Repentance, by denying the Offence, than to vindicate himself, supposing it to have been given.