1804 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Langhorne

J. T. Langhorne (son), Memoir in Langhorne, Poetical Works (1804) 1:5-15.



JOHN LANGHORNE was born at Kirkby Stephen, in the county of Westmorland, in the month of March, 1735. His father, Joseph Langhorne, was a clergyman, and held a living in Lincolnshire; but dying in the early part of life, the care of our Author, who was then but four years of age, and the youngest of four children, devolved on his widow. Though far from being left in affluent circumstances, this good woman neglected no means, that were in her power, of giving to her son a good education. Sensible that he would owe his advancement in life solely to his own ingenuity and literary merit, she endeavoured to qualify him for the part he was to act, and industriously provided for his future establishment. Under her direction he learned to write and the rudiments of the English language; as appears by some lines written by him after her decease, and engraved upon her tomb, which were as follows:

Her, who to teach this trembling hand to write,
Watch'd the whole day, and wak'd the live-long night,
I mourn — tho' number'd with the heav'nly host,
With her the means of gratitude are lost.

Though there is not any thing very elegantly descriptive or pathetic in the above quotation, I have availed myself of it to confirm the position I advanced. The Author has paid a grateful tribute to the memory of his mother by a monody, which is inserted in the following collection of his Poems. After having received what instruction she was capable of giving him, he was placed first at a school at Winton, and was from thence removed to Appleby, where he completed his education. Here he very early distinguished himself by his eager desire of attaining knowledge, and soon attracted the notice of Mr. Yates, who was then at the head of that seminary, and greatly assisted him in the prosecution of his studies. So zealous was he in the pursuit of learning, that, while he was but a child, he employed the intervals of play in performing voluntary exercises, which, when his master was at leisure, he used to offer him for correction. Mr. Yates was not only skilful and indefatigable in his profession, but was also a man of great taste, and an elegant and accomplished scholar. Under his auspices he made so good an improvement of his time that, as I have heard him say, at the age of thirteen he was able to read and construe the Greek Testament. To the kindness strewn him by his learned preceptor he bore the most affectionate regard, and ever spoke in the most affectionate manner of him during his life.

On his quitting school, when he was about eighteen years of age, having attained a thorough knowledge of the classics, and not finding his circumstances adequate to supporting him at college, he engaged himself as private tutor in a family near Ripon. During his residence in this neighbourhood he wrote Studley Park, a poem addressed to his friend the Rev. Mr. Farrer, which was the first essay of his muse that he ventured to make public. In the Ode to the River Eden we find that, while he resided in Westmorland, he had been enamoured of Delia, and that he used to entertain his mistress with the sallies of his genius; but these juvenile flights of fancy were probably rejected by his maturer judgment, and consigned to oblivion as unworthy of being ranked among the severer productions of his pen. Studley Park, considered as a descriptive poem, and the effort of a young mind, will be found entitled to a considerable degree of merit. Although we must allow the poet to have had a subject worthy of his muse, since travellers are agreed that art and nature have conspired to render Studley a most delightful spot; yet the scenes have not suffered by the descriptions, and seem to give the Author a claim to some attention from the possessor, which I do not hear that he ever acquired. Possibly, from this consideration, he did not think proper to retain it in a small collection of his poems, published in 1766; but I have here prefixed it to his other works, that the public might be enabled to judge of the early effusions of his genius.

On quitting his engagements with the family above alluded to, he removed to Wakefield, where he became an assistant at the free school, at that time in high repute from the celebrity of its then master, Mr. Clarke; a gentleman, to whose learning, talents, and politeness, many of the first characters in Yorkshire can bear witness, from receiving their education under him. While at Wakefield, he took deacon's orders, and became a very popular preacher. On Mr. Clarke's retiring from his employment, Mr. Langhorne, by his recommendation, in the year 1759, went to reside at the village of Hackthorn, near Lincoln, as preceptor to the sons of Robert Cracroft, esq. of whom at that time he had nine. Here he undertook, in addition to his tuition, Mr. Edmund Cartwright; a gentleman, who at an early period of life was favoured by the muses, and who has since that time published several ingenious poems; particularly an elegy, entitled Constantia, on the death of Mrs. Langhorne, that must ever reflect honour on himself, and credit to his early friend and preceptor; from whose ray, it may be presumed, he first caught that glow of fancy and enthusiasm which so evidently distinguish his writings.

While Mr. Langhorne was at Hackthorn, he gave a proof of that philanthropy which was the characteristic of his heart, by publishing a volume of poems for the relief of a gentleman in distress. In my selection of these, I have been guided by the opinion of the Author, and have omitted such as he himself afterwards rejected; except that I have added Studley Park to the collection, which will not, I think, discredit the place which I have given it.

In the year 1760 Mr. Langhorne entered his name at Clare Hall, in Cambridge, for the purpose of taking the degree of bachelor of divinity, which, by the statutes of the university, any person in orders is empowered to do without the necessity of residence. Here he wrote a poem on the King's accession, and another on the marriage of their Majesties, which he afterwards published in Solyman and Almena.

There were three young ladies at Hackthorn, who were coheiresses, the daughters of Mr. Cracroft by a former wife, and all of them eminently distinguished for their elegant and polite accomplishments. Miss Ann Cracroft, who was the second, was particularly remarkable for a studious and contemplative turn of mind, which led her to an unwearied pursuit after knowledge, and which was attended with considerable attainments. It is not therefore to be wondered that, with a disposition fraught with an ardour after learning, she should endeavour to avail herself of those opportunities of instruction which an acquaintance with our Author afforded. He taught her the Italian language, and gave her such an insight into the customs of antiquity, as is necessary for understanding the modern writers. This accomplished lady, who appropriated much of her time to the cultivation of those arts, which serve to polish and adorn the world, possessed an almost unrivalled excellence in the science of music, which was her favourite study. The opportunities which Mr Langhorne had of being alone and conversing with her, brought on a declaration of love on his part, which doubtless was supported by all the eloquence and embellishments of language with which a poet can adorn the tender passion. There are some elegies extant, expressive of his regard, which in the following collection are inscribed with her name; and it is more than probable that the Ode to Hope was composed on the same occasion.

It might be expected that the early taste for science, which Miss Cracroft displayed, and her love for literary acquirements, would inspire her with a similar passion for our Author. Although this was really the foundation of an attachment, which afterwards effected an union between them; yet the great disproportion of their circumstances induced the lady to believe that such a match would never be agreeable to her family, and determined her to give a refusal to his solicitations.

On meeting with this denial, he suddenly (though undismissed by his patron) quitted Hackthorn, after he had lived there three years with credit and reputation, in hopes of acquiring by absence that relief which philosophy could not afford: In the latter part of the year 1761 he retired to Dagenham, in Essex, where he officiated as curate to the Rev. Abraham Blackburn, and was happy to date from that period the intimacy he formed with the respectable family of the Gillmans, who resided at that place, and whose friendship and esteem he retained to the latest hour of his life.

However conducive his retirement at Dagenham might be to heal the wounds which love had made in his breast, such a situation was but ill calculated for a person who depended chiefly on his genius for support, which had already soared above the level of toleration, and was distinguished by several literary productions. The Death of Adonis, which was written in the year 1759; The Tears of Music, a poem to the memory of Mr. Handel, written in the year 1760; The Hymn to Hope, in 1761; The Viceroy and The Visions of Fancy, published in 1762, had sufficiently established his poetical reputation. The Viceroy was written in consequence of an augmentation being voted in the Irish House of Commons to the income of the lord lieutenant, and addressed to lord Halifax, who then held that honourable appointment: but so little influence had the muses with that nobleman, that he did not even condescend to thank the Author for the compliment that was paid him.

The Visions of Fancy are a real representation of the state of the Author's mind when he composed them, and very forcibly express the sentiments of a despairing lover. The first and third elegy are particularly beautiful; and for the propriety of the images that are introduced, elegance of expression, and harmony of numbers, are not surpassed by any thing of their kind. In the same year that The Visions of Fancy made their appearance, he also published his Letters on Religious Retirement and Solyman and Almena, the latter of which he dedicated to the queen.

Having dedicated his Letters on Religious Retirement, Melancholy, and Enthusiasm, to bishop Warburton, he became noticed by that prelate, from whom, in the year 1763 (while he resided at Dagenham), he received a letter, charging him with being able to serve the cause of religion. This was what first induced him to write the Letters supposed to have passed between Theodosius and Constantia, which have been so deservedly admired for their purity of style as well as of doctrine.

In the year 1764 the metropolis, that mart for genius and learning, claimed him as an inhabitant. Having obtained the curacy and lectureship of St. John's, Clerkenwell, he went to reside in London for the convenience of being near his booksellers, and of exercising in a more public sphere those powers of eloquence and persuasion for which he was remarkable. In this year he published his Sermons, in two volumes, which have been admired by most for elegance of diction, but condemned by some, who have been envious of their merit, for their natural and unaffected method of composition.

I cannot here pass by unnoticed a censure which has been passed on them by Mainwaring, who, speaking of specimens of false pathos, refers to Sermons "by writers of little judgment and no genius — to those of Dr. Langhorne in particular, and of the methodists in general;" where he plainly insinuates that the Doctor was a methodist. Had the author of this hasty and unjustifiable remark given himself the trouble of reading more attentively the discourses which he has taken on himself the liberty so boldly to condemn, he would have found in them several passages particularly levelled against the delusions of that sect. The Letters on Religious Retirement, Melancholy, and Enthusiasm, are alone sufficient to acquit their Author of the frenzy Mr. Mainwaring complains of.

But not content with traducing his religious principles, Mr. Mainwaring has not allowed the Doctor to possess one spark of genius, and but a very small portion of judgment. The former rests on too secure a basis to be affected by a superficial observation; and if judgment consists in the due exercise of the reasoning powers, the very sermons, which in Mr. Mainwaring's opinion entitle their Author to so small a share, will, when duly considered, be found sufficient to establish his claim in no inferior degree to that particular power of intellect. These discourses are termed, by their Author, Tracts of Religious Philosophy; and their chief excellence consists in the chain of reasoning which connects them. He has there endeavoured, and I think successfully, to prove the necessity of practicing virtue in this state of mortality, from the pleasures arising from its immediate exercise, exclusive of the sanctions and interpositions of the Divine Will; that piety and happiness are necessarily connected upon earth, and that "the voice of joy and health is in the dwelling of the righteous."

On our Author's removing into the south, he engaged with Mr. Griffiths as a writer in the Monthly Review; and this engagement, with scarcely any intermission, continued to his death. His employment as a critic, procured him many acquaintance among literary men; and the vein of ridicule which he exercised, in treating several of the subjects that fell under his consideration, created him many enemies, who, in their turn, endeavoured to depreciate his performances. I think it has been observed, that the merit of an author may, in some sort, be fairly estimated by the number of his opponents; and when we consider the long catalogue of antagonists of Pope, who called forth his satiric powers in the Dunciad, we must allow its due weight to the observation.

The only dramatic performance of our Author is the Fatal Prophecy, which he wrote in the year 1765. I must confess that I think he has been less successful in this species of writing than in any other, and it was probably from being sensible himself that his genius had not a turn for the drama, that he did not exercise it in forming other pieces of the like kind. From the length of the play, I am inclined to suppose that it was never intended by its Author for the stage; besides, the scene is laid in a spot that cannot be particularly interesting to a British audience.

In the latter part of the year 1765, Mr. Langhorne was appointed preacher assistant at Lincoln's Inn, by Dr. Hurd (the present venerable bishop of Worcester), in which honourable station he continued to the time of his leaving London. In this year he published his Letters on the Eloquence of the Pulpit, and the year succeeding an enlarged edition of Letters to and from select Friends, or the Effusions of Friendship and Fancy, together with a small collection of his poems.

Genius and Valour, a pastoral poem, was written to vindicate the honours of Scotland from the false odium that was thrown on that nation by Churchill, in his Prophecy of Famine. In consequence of this publication, he provoked the enmity of that satirist, who afterwards vented his malevolence in a lampoon upon the Author, which can in no wise affect his reputation: for whatever merit Churchill might have as a versifier and a wit, he certainly possessed very little as a critic, being himself the dupe of a faction which he so frequently declaims against, and indiscriminately attaching his cotemporary writers, without paying any regard to the merit of their works. The Author of Genius and Valour was abundantly recompensed by the credit which the poem procured him from the unprejudiced, and the honour conferred on him by the university of Edinburgh, who, by their principal, Dr. Robertson, in the year 1766, wrote him a polite letter, highly complimenting him on his talents, and requesting him to accept of a diploma for the degree of doctor in divinity, by which he was from this period distinguished.

After a courtship of five years, Dr. Langhorne was made happy by an union with Miss Ann Cracroft, to which he had been long looking with anxious expectation, which took place in London in January 1767. From the time of his quitting Hackthorn, he had constantly kept up a correspondence with this amiable lady, who, from congenial sentiments, was easily inspired with a real passion for her lover. The letters which be addressed to her he published, after her decease, under the title of Letters to Eleanora, from a sacred compliance with her request (as the Author in his Advertisement declared), otherwise they would never have been made public.

A living was purchased at Blagdon, in Somersetshire, in the neighbourhood of the Chedder Cliffs, a spot formed by nature to suit the romantic ideas of two young people devoted to each other and the muses. The parsonage was a neat house, situated on an eminence, with beautiful hanging gardens, at the foot of which was an alcove, which, previous to the reception of his intended companion, he had decorated to receive her, and on which he had in scribed the following verses to meet her eye on her arrival:

Dear fond memorials of those tender hours,
That pass'd in Hackthorn's love-inspiring bowers
That love, which long represt in silence deep,
Slept like a child, and only wak'd to weep.
But joy for ever crown that gentle breast,
Which left not hope extinguish'd, tho' represt:
The life, the partner of my future days,
Lov'd at my soul, my passion, and my praise.

But how short, how transient, was all their expected felicity, which one year and a half terminated! Mrs. Langhorne, in presenting the Doctor with a son, sacrificed her own life. She died in child-bed; but her son (the editor of these poems) survived to lament the loss of so inestimable a parent on the 4th of May, 1768. Mrs. Langhorne was interred in the chancel of Blagdon church, and her monument is inscribed by the Doctor with the following verses:

With Sappho's taste, with Arria's tender heart,
Lucretia's honour, and Cecilia's art,
That such a woman died surprize can't give,
'Tis only strange that such a one should live.

During the time Dr. Langhorne was blessed with the endearments of connubial affection, he produced no poetical effusions, if we except the Precepts of conjugal Happiness, addressed to Mrs. Nelthorpe, who was the youngest Miss Cracroft, on her marriage; a lady as deservedly esteemed for the goodness of her heart, as she is admired for the elegance of her understanding; whose maternal care and tenderness have been sensibly experienced by the editor in conducting him through the early stages of his orphanage, and to whom he acknowledges his obligations for the communication of several of the particulars of these Memoirs.

Dr. Langhorne found himself a father and a widower. The loss of such a wife was as cruel as unexpected, and gave the severest shock to his sensibility, which was ever in the extreme. Unable to bear those scenes, which reminded him too forcibly of his loss, and impressed his mind with the recollection of past pleasures which he could not now recall, he retired to Folkestone, in Kent, where his elder brother, William Langhorne, then resided as minister, with whom he lived; a man highly esteemed for the simplicity of his life and rectitude of his manners. The affection subsisting between the two brothers was very great, as may be gathered from the second epistle of our Author's poem, The Enlargement of the Mind, addressed to the Rev. William Langhorne, where he calls William "more the friend than brother of his heart."

To divert his mind from brooding over its sorrows, he engaged with his brother, who was a man of learning, and well acquainted with the classics, in forming a new translation of Plutarch, a regular version of whose Lives had not before appeared in the English language. This arduous undertaking they executed with great ability, and it was published in the year 1771. During the first year of his widowhood Dr. Langhorne exerted his poetical powers only in bewailing the loss of his amiable partner, in some very pathetic verses written at Sandgate Castle. In these he has very properly rejected the flowers of poetry, and has been studious only to deck the feelings of his heart with the humble garb of sorrow.

The late Mr. Scot of Amwell, well known to the world by his literary fame, experienced the same severe loss as Dr. Langhorne, and in the same year. The wife of this worthy gentleman died also in child-bed, end Mr. Scot poured forth his complaints in an affecting monody. From the similitude of their misfortunes, and a congeniality of sentiment, an intimacy arose between the two poets, which continued unabated to the death of Dr. Langhorne. In the year 1769, while the Doctor was on a visit to his friend at Amwell, he wrote some beautiful stanzas, addressed to him, expressive of the same tender sorrow which influenced his muse at Sandgate Castle.

In this year Dr. Langhorne published his Letters supposed to have passed between St. Evremond and Waller, and Phrederic and Pharamond, or the Consolations of Human Life, a philosophical discourse, which was intended for the use of a friend under affliction; but with which the Author had not proceeded far, before he found it necessary to apply the precepts towards alleviating his own misfortunes.

I have already mentioned that, in 1771, the world of letters was enriched by a new translation of Plutarch. In the same year Dr. Langhorne added to his poetical reputation, by publishing his Fables of Flora. In these poems (as the Author very justly expresses himself) "the plan of the fable is enlarged, and the province so far extended, that the original narrative and moral may be accompanied with imagery, description, and sentiment. The scenery is formed in a department of nature, adapted to the genius and disposition of poetry; where she finds new objects, interests, and connections, to exercise her fancy and her powers." The rural imagery, on which the fables are grounded, had not been before adapted to that species of poetry; and the moral is so naturally interwoven with the narrative, that its effect is more forcible and more plea sing, than when unconnected with the relation. Impersonation may certainly be applied with as much reason to the vegetable as to the animal creation, if the characteristic attributes of each plant or flower are faithfully marked, and the unity of the fable is maintained. The beautiful fields of vegetative nature afford an ample range for the poet and the moralist; and since every avenue which leads to knowledge, and unlocks the sources of moral truth, require to be disclosed, the mode of conveying instruction, by allegorizing the scenery of nature, must be considered as an acquisition to literature, not only as it extends the province of the poetic genius, but as tending to inspire just and rational sentiments of virtue.

Towards the latter part of the year 1771, Dr. Langhorne went to reside for a few months at Potton, in Bedfordshire, where he wrote his poem The Origin of the Veil. In the beginning of the year 1772 he paid a visit to his native country, from whence he married his second wife, who was a lady of great personal charms, and a daughter of — Thompson, Esq. a magistrate near Brough. Soon after the marriage was solemnized, the Doctor took his bride with him in a tour through part of France and Flanders, and returned to England late in the spring.

From this time he seems to have lived retired at his parish of Blagdon, content with performing the duties of his station, and exercising the benevolence of his disposition in relieving the distresses of his poor. Being put into the commission of the peace, he became an acting magistrate in the county, and in that capacity, at the instigation of his friend Dr. Burn, wrote the Country Justice. In 1773, Dr. Langhorne published a translation from the Italian, entitled a Dissertation, historical and political, on the ancient Republics of Italy.

In February 1776, Dr. Langhorne lost his second lady, who died also in child-bed, five years after her marriage, and left a daughter, whom the Doctor consigned by his will to the protection of Mrs. Gillman.

The Doctor's genius and talents procured him several respectable connections among the great, in the number of whom was lord Lyttelton, who had strongly expressed his admiration of the Hymn to Hope, and who not only corresponded with but visited him. During the Doctor's residence at Blagdon he was highly honoured by the approbation and esteem of the Bouverie family, in consequence of which their respectable relation, the bishop of Bath and Wells, voluntarily presented him to a prebend in the cathedral of Wells, to which he was installed in October 1777. While our Author lived in the vicinity of London, he became acquainted with general Crawford, whom he visited at Belvidere on the most friendly terms, where he wrote his poem, The Enlargement of the Mind, addressed to the general. The honourable Charles Yorke also highly esteemed him; and, if a sudden fate had not taken Mr. Yorke from the honours that were intended him (by the gift of the seals), Dr. Langhorne would doubtless have experienced the effects of his friendship, by receiving the highest church dignities in the power of the chancellor to confer. But the Doctor's fate seemed tissued by misfortunes, and this stroke destroyed all his hopes, and dashed his cup with so much bitterness that he never wholly recovered it.

The last of our Author's performances is Owen of Carron, which, as he seems to have taken a greater length of time in composing it, may rank among the most finished of his poetical pieces. This poem abounds with many pleasing allusions and beautiful images, to discriminate which would require more room than can be allowed in the present narrative; and it would be anticipating the taste of the reader, who must doubtless receive a greater pleasure in discovering the beauties of an Author himself, than in having them pointed out to him. The story is of that tender kind that is most likely to excite his attention, and to interest him in the incidents of the piece, to which point, if the poet does not arrive, his rhyming has been thrown away and his labour lost.

Dr. Langhorne died on the first of April 1779, in the forty-fifth year of his age, and left two orphan children to deplore the loss of a truly affectionate parent and tender-hearted man.