The father of this writer was a fellow of Pembroke college, Oxford, prebendary of Wells, and vicar of St. Mary's at Taunton, in Somersetshire. When Judge Jefferies came to the assizes at Taunton, to execute vengeance on the sharers of Monmouth's rebellion, Mr. Harte waited upon him in private, and remonstrated against his severities. The judge listened to him attentively, though he had never seen him before. It was not in Jefferies' nature to practise humanity; but, in this solitary instance, he showed a respect for its advocate; and in a few months advanced the vicar to a prebendal stall in the cathedral of Bristol. At the Revolution the aged clergyman resigned his preferments, rather than take the oath of allegiance to King William; an action which raises our esteem of his intercession with Jefferies, while it adds to the unsalutary examples of men supporting tyrants, who have had the virtue to hate their tyranny.
The accounts that are preserved of his son, the poet, are not very minute or interesting. The date of his birth has not even been settled. A writer in the Gentleman's Magazine fixes it about 1707; but by the date of his degrees at the university, this supposition is utterly inadmissible; and all circumstances considered, it is impossible to suppose that he was born later than 1700. He was educated at Marlborough college, and took his degree of master of arts at Oxford, in 1720. He was introduced to Pope at an early period of his life; and, in return for the abundant admiration which he offered to that poet, was rewarded with his encouragement, and even his occasional assistance in versification. Yet admirer as he was of Pope, his manner leans more to the imitation of Dryden. In 1727 he published, by subscription, a volume of poems which he dedicated to the Earl of Peterborough, who, as the author acknowledges, was the first patron of his muse. In the preface it is boasted, that the poems had been chiefly written under the age of nineteen. As he must have been several years turned of twenty, when he made this boast, it exposes either his sense or veracity to some suspicion. He either concealed what improvements he had made in the poems, or showed a bad judgment in not having improved them.
His next publications, in 1730 and 1736, were an Essay on Satire, and another on Reason, to both of which Pope is supposed to have contributed many lines. Two sermons, which he printed, were so popular as to run through five editions. He therefore rose, with some degree of clerical reputation, to be principal of St. Mary Hall, Oxford; and was so much esteemed, that Lord Lyttelton recommended him to the Earl of Chesterfield, as the most proper tutor and travelling companion to his son. Harte had indeed, every requisite for the preceptorship of Mr. Stanhope, that a Graevius or Gronovius could have possessed, but none of those for which we should have supposed his father to have been most anxious. He was profoundly learned, but ignorant of the world, and awkward in his person and address. This pupil and he, however, after having travelled together for four years, parted with mutual regret; and Lord Chesterfield showed his regard for Harte by procuring for him a canonry of Windsor.
During his connection with Lord Peterborough, that nobleman had frequently recommended to him to write the life of Gustavus Adolphus. For this historical work he collected, during his travels, much authentic and original information. It employed him for many years, and was published in 1759; but either from a vicious taste, or from his having studied the idioms of foreign languages till he had forgotten those of his own he wrote his history in a style so obscure and uncouth, that its merits, as a work of research, were overlooked, and its reception from the public was cold and mortifying. Lord Chesterfield in speaking of its being translated into German, piously wishes "that its author had translated it into English; as it was full of Germanisms, Latinisms, and all isms but Anglicisms." All the time, poor Harte thought he war writing a style less laboured and ornate than that of his cotemporaries; and when George Hawkins, the book-seller, objected to some of his most violent phrases, he used to say, "George, that is what we call writing." This infatuation is the more surprising, that his Sermons, already mentioned, are marked by no such affectation of manner; and he published in 1760 Essays on Husbandry, which are said to be remarkable for their elegance and perspicuity.
Dr. Johnson, according to Boswell, said, "that Harte was excessively vain: that he left London on the day his Life of Gustavus was published, to avoid the great praise he was to receive; but Robertson's History of Scotland having come out the same day, he was ashamed to return to the scene of his mortification." This sarcastic anecdote comes in the suspicious company of a blunder as to dates, for Robertson's History of Scotland was published a month after [before] Harte's Life of Gustavus; and it is besides rather an odd proof of a man's vanity, that he should have run away from expected compliments.
The failure of his historical work is alleged to have mortified him so deeply, as to have affected his health. All the evidence of this however, is deduced from some expressions in his letters, in which he complains of frequent indisposition. His biographers, first of all take it for granted, that a man of threescore could not possibly be indisposed from any other cause than from reading harsh reviews of his Life of Gustavus; and then, very consistently, show the folly of his being grieved at the fate of his history, by proving that his work was reviewed, on the whole, rather in a friendly and laudatory manner. Harte, however, was so far from being a martyr, either to the justice or injustice of criticism, that he prepared a second edition of the Life of Gustavus for the press; and announced, in a note, that he had finished the History of the thirty Years War in Germany. His servant Dore, afterward an innkeeper at Bath, got possession of his MSS. and this work is supposed to be irrecoverably lost. In the mean time, he was struck with a palsy in 1766, which attacked him again in 1769, and put a period to his life five years after. At the time of his death he was vicar of St. Austel and Blazy in Cornwall.
His poetry is little read, and I am aware of hazarding the appearance of no great elegance of taste, in professing myself amused and interested by several parts of it, particularly by his Amaranth. In spite of pedantry and grotesqueness, he appears, in numerous passages, to have condensed the reflection and information of no ordinary mind. If the reader dislikes his story of Eulogius, I have only to inform him, that I have taken some pains to prevent it being more prolix than is absolutely necessary, by the mechanical reduction of its superfluities.