1834 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Beilby Porteus

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 7:457-62.



BEILBY PORTEUS, one of the youngest of a family of nineteen children, was born at York in 1731. His parents, of English extraction, were natives of North America. He had no other advantage of education in early life than that which was afforded by a common north-country grammar-school. At the usual age he removed to Cambridge, where he recommended himself by his studiousness and regularity, and gave no unpromising proof of talents and industry. The year after he took his bachelor's degree he was elected fellow of the college to which he belonged. He supplied the deficiency of his income at this time by undertaking the care of some private pupils; and, as he became more known, he acquired an increasing character for respectability of conduct and literary talents. His only publications during the academical part of his life seem to have been his poem on Death, which obtained the Seatonian prize, and a sermon preached before the university on the character of King David. The poem is one amongst the very few written for the Seatonian prize which have not sunk into oblivion soon after their appearance. It is written in all parts with feeling and in many with taste: the plan of it is well conceived; the descriptions are strong, glowing, and spirited; the language now and then borders on the harsh and uncouth, and the rhythm is at times not quite harmonious. Few poems so good ever proceeded from any person who has remained without celebrity for poetical merit. The sermon on King David was occasioned by a licentious pamphlet, called The History of the Man after God's own heart, which had made a dangerous impression on the public mind, by a false representation of David's character, and of the reasons for which he was approved by God. This sermon introduced him to the notice of Archbishop Secker, who appointed him one of his domestic chaplains.

Here, then, in 1762, commenced a new era in his life. At Lambeth he had the advantage of pursuing his studies with the assistance of a good library. Archbishop Secker proved a kind friend and a liberal benefactor; he gave him some preferment after he had resided with him two years, by which he was enabled to marry, and shortly after he added the rectory of Lambeth. At this time he took his doctor's degree at Cambridge, and preached a sermon before the university, which was afterwards sent to the press. The preacher had lamented the want of sufficient attention to theology amongst the different academical studies. These observations happened to catch the attention of a gentleman in Norfolk, Mr. Norris, who was induced to form and endow a permanent-professorship for the purpose of giving theological lectures to the students, and also to institute an annual premium for the best essay on some theological subject. Archbishop Secker died in 1768. Dr. Porteus, actuated by grateful remembrance of a person who had proved to him the kindest and the best of friends, and in discharge of a trust reposed in him by will, revised and edited his sermons, lectures, and other writings. To these he prefixed a review of the archbishop's life and character, written with elegance and judgment.

After the death of Archbishop Secker, Dr. Porteus divided his residence between Lambeth and another living which he held in Kent, and performed with exemplary diligence the duties of a parish priest. He was promoted in 1776 to the bishopric of Chester. This preferment was perfectly unsolicited, and wholly unexpected till a short time before it took place. Another biographer informs us that his promotion was owing to the queen, who obtained much popularity by contributing to elevate so deserving a character. Having performed the diocesan duties of Chester for eleven years he was promoted, in 1787, to the bishopric of London. He is said to have left his former diocese with reluctance, having attached himself to it by much intercourse of civility amongst the clergy and other inhabitants, and projected several plans of improvement which he was unwilling to break off. His appointment appears to have been owing to the express recommendation of Mr. Pitt, who considered him to possess the best qualifications for the situation. Subjoined to a copy of Mr. Pitt's letter, informing him of his appointment, the following words were found written with the bishop's own hand: "I acknowledge the goodness of a kind Providence, and am sensible that nothing but this could have placed me in a situation so infinitely transcending my expectations and deserts."

In attending to the immediate business of his diocese his diligence was unwearied. The charge which he delivered to the clergy at his first visitation in the diocese of Chester is printed among his tracts. In this he enlarges with earnestness on the studies and habits most suited to the clerical character, enforces particularly the advantages of personal residence, and recommends an attention to decorum as to dress and appearance, no less than to matters of more essential importance. The personal residence of the clergy, indeed, was at all times a primary object of his consideration. By keeping this constantly in view during the long period of his presiding over the diocese of London, he effected an important change in this respect; insomuch, that, at the time of his decease, where accidental circumstances did not interpose, an adequate accommodation was provided in every parish, and the proper minister was actually resident. In his primary charge to the diocese of London, which was also printed, he recommended, besides this momentous object of parochial residence, an increase of salary to the curates employed, and he also wished to direct the attention of the clergy to an improvement in church psalmody, as he knew that the dissenters made great use of music to allure congregations. Another subject, which he was always earnest in recommending, was the instruction of the poorer classes: as a means of effecting this, he promoted the establishment of Sunday schools; and, while he was bishop of Chester, addressed a letter to his clergy, forcibly pointing out the advantages of such institutions, and the good effects to be expected from their more extensive adoption. That attention, moreover, to the calls of duty which Bishop Porteus was so earnest in enforcing upon others, he was most forward to pay himself. In particular, for the purpose of checking indifference to religious duties and dissipation of manners, which appeared to him to be fixing themselves by firmer roots in our national character, he determined to deliver, at St James' church, his course of lectures upon St. Matthew's gospel. The success which attended them exceeded his expectations: the church was always crowded, the audience appeared to feel what he said, and went away gratified and improved. He ever after expressed great satisfaction at the effect which these lectures appeared to have on the public. The last public act of his life was directed towards the observance of the Sabbath. The account shall be given in his own words: "I had for some time past observed in several of the papers an account of a meeting, chiefly of military gentlemen, at a hotel at the west end of the town, which was regularly announced as held every other Sunday during the winter season. This appeared to me, and to every friend of religion, a needless and wanton profanation of the Christian Sabbath, which, by the laws both of God and man, was set apart for very different purposes; and the bishops and clergy were severally censured for permitting such a glaring abuse of that sacred day to pass without notice or reproof. I determined that it should not, and therefore thought it best to go at once to the fountain-head, to the person of the highest and principal influence in the meeting, the prince of Wales. I accordingly requested the honour of an audience, and a personal conference with him on the subject. He very graciously granted it, and I had a conversation with him of more than half an hour. He entered immediately into my views, and confessed that he saw no reasons for holding the meeting on Sundays more than on other days of the week; and he voluntarily proposed that the day should be changed from Sunday to Saturday, for which he said he would give immediate orders."

Of the more public transactions to which he devoted his zeal and attention, the most important were the improvement of the condition of the West India slaves, and the abolition of that inhuman trade itself. The first step towards the latter measure, was Sir William Dolben's bill in 1788, for regulating the number of slaves conveyed in each ship, and alleviating the miseries of the voyage. The bishop was so anxious during the progress of the bill, that he attended the house of lords, from Fulham, every day for a month. And in the long and arduous struggle which preceded the final abolition, he was always foremost amongst the strenuous supporters of the cause. "Next to the great and paramount concern of religion," says Mr. Hodgson, "it was the object of all others nearest to his heart. He never spoke of it but with the utmost enthusiasm and animation. He spared no pains, no fatigue of mind or body, to further its accomplishment. He not only expressed his sentiments on every occasion that presented itself publicly and strongly in parliament, but was indefatigable in urging all, over whom he had any influence, to conspire and co-operate in what he considered the general cause of civilized man against a most intolerable system of cruelty and oppression. In short, the best years of his life, and all his talents and powers were applied and devoted to it, and I believe the happiest day beyond comparison, that he ever experienced, was the day of its final triumph." The bishop himself in his reflections on the final abolition, says: "The act which has just passed will reflect immortal honour on the British parliament and the British nation. For myself, I am inexpressibly thankful to a kind Providence for permitting me to see this great work, after such a glorious struggle, brought to a conclusion. It has been for upwards of four and twenty years the constant object of my thoughts; and it will be a source of the purest and most genuine satisfaction to me during the remainder of my life, and above all, at the final close of it, that I have had some share in promoting to the utmost of my power the success of so important and so righteous a measure."

Such were the unwearied exertions of the bishop to fulfil the duties of his high station in the church, to extend the influence of religion, and to compass the ends of the purest philanthropy. He lived to his 78th year, and retained the full possession of his faculties.

Bishop Porteus is said, by Mr. Hodgson, to have mixed with peculiar pleasantness and freedom in the private intercourse of society; he had particularly the talent of dissipating all reserve and restraint in persons around him, and of placing them perfectly at their ease. He was ever fond of promoting lively and cheerful conversation; he expressed himself in common society with facility and perspicuity, and his colloquial remarks were characterized by correct judgment and accurate information.

In estimating the moral qualities of his mind, his great characteristic was an unfeigned warmth of benevolence. The main plans and objects of his life were conceived and pursued in this spirit. He entered into them not merely from the cooler considerations of duty, but with an earnestness and a glow of feeling which showed that his whole heart and soul were in the business. In private acts of munificence, the same feeling seem to have marked his conduct. His charities, Mr. Hodgson tells us, were so extensive, that he can hardly speak of them without risking the charge of exaggeration. The poor and the necessitous always found in him a warm and ready friend; he was disposed to deal out his donations with discrimination, but often ran the risk of being imposed upon, for the chance of relieving real distress. He was ever a liberal contributor to charitable institutions. Besides this, he made some donations on a larger scale during his life, than is often observed in the example even of the most wealthy and munificent. Among these was the transferring of near 7000 stock for the relief of the poorer clergy in the diocese of London, and the erection and endowment of a chapel of ease at Tunbridge in Kent, at a very considerable expense.

He was unalterably attached to the church of England from principle, and the firmest persuasion of its superior excellence; and held its articles, homilies, and liturgy, to be essentially and fundamentally scriptural. He was a true friend to the discipline of the church, and supported it with firmness on just occasions. In the cant language of the day, he was often styled a Methodist: but as far as disapprobation of wild fanaticism and enthusiastic pretensions to immediate inspiration could exempt a man from this imputation, no one was ever more free from it. On some points connected with the relative state of the church and dissenters, he differed from many of his brethren; particularly in the zealous support which he invariably afforded the British and Foreign Bible society. That his views in this were truly benevolent, cannot admit of the slightest doubt; some, indeed, have questioned whether this conduct was as much guided by sound discretion as it was prompted by real goodness of heart; but this is foreign to our present business.

He was not friendly to the claims of the Irish Catholics, although he never publicly expressed his sentiments on the subject. The following opinion is produced from his private papers by Mr. Hodgson: "If the petition from the Catholics of Ireland had been for a more complete toleration in matters of religion, though it can hardly, I think, be more complete than it is, there was not an individual in the house who would have given a more cordial assent to the petition, than myself. I am, and ever have been, a decided friend to liberty of conscience. The truth is, it is an application for political power, and that power, I for one am not disposed to grant them, because I believe it would be difficult to produce a single instance where they have possessed political power in a Protestant country, without using it cruelly and tyrannically."

The bishop's reputation, as a preacher, was deservedly high. Independently of the sterling merit which his discourses possessed, he had the best external qualifications for excellence as a pulpit orator. His voice was clear and sonorous; he had the power of modulating it with good effect: his delivery was correct and chaste; his manner dignified and impressive. Above all, he appeared to feel as he spoke: there was an animation and earnestness about him, without the smallest tincture of art or affectation, which came home to the bosom of his hearers, and gave effect to every word.

Mr. Hodgson does not claim for him the credit of profound erudition or comprehensive research. He appears, indeed, to have possessed a mind, less formed for a close and patient investigation of any one subject, than for a diffused attention to several. We would characterize him rather as a just thinker, than a deep one. In regard to theological attainments, we should describe him as a clergyman well informed in the studies of his profession. He is said by his biographer to have been, to a certain degree, a Hebrew scholar, well versed in ecclesiastical history, in the evidences of religion, and in the different systems of theology: and we have no doubt that his knowledge in all these was sufficiently respectable. His apprehension seems to have been quick, his taste correct, and his memory retentive. The distinguishing and prominent feature of his mind, was a rich and exuberant imagination, which gives a peculiar warmth and colouring to his style. He did not excel in analysis or nice discrimination, nor was he remarkable for a keen penetrating sagacity. As a reasoner, he is not distinguished by a close and logical accuracy; still his arguments are generally so well conceived, and always so dressed out with expression, as forcibly to strike the attention.