Distinguished as John Langhorne was by his cotemporaries, and admired as he will be to the latest posterity, few are the incidents of his life that have survived him.
It appears that he was born at Kirkby-Stephen in Westmoreland, and that his father, who was a clergyman, dying while he was young, left him and his brother William to the care of his mother; but where he received his education and his degree is unknown. It is evident, however, that he was at Clare Hall, in Cambridge, in 1760, and that he had previously written some exquisite pieces of poetry, which opened to him the paths of fame on his removing to London, about the time of the accession of his present majesty.
In town, he seems to have enlisted himself as a writer by profession, and espoused the cause of Lord Bute with some effect, though it is probable with little emolument to himself. He was likewise a writer in the Monthly Review, which, with his political attachments, exposed him to the censure of Churchill.
It would extend too far, to enumerate all the avowed productions of Dr. Langhorne, both in verse and prose. Suffice it to say, that the principal poems he had composed appeared in two volumes 12mo. in 1766, with a dedication to the Honourable Charles Yorke. Among his poetical effusions, the Fables of Flora are the most esteemed; and indeed if he had produced nothing else, his fame would have been as durable as the language in which he wrote. These fables exhibit an union of imagery, description, and sentiment; and bear incontestable marks of poetic invention and enthusiasm. Several of his other poems are eminently beautiful, and we have carefully selected the best.
In 1767, he married Miss Cracroft, sister to a gentleman whose education he had superintended; but soon after had the misfortune to lose her in childbed of a daughter, which occasioned some pathetic verses to the Memory of a Lady, written at Sandgate-castle. He had previously obtained the valuable living of Blagdon in Somersetshire, and was appointed a prebendary of Wells, as well as a justice of the peace. In the latter capacity, he distinguished himself as an useful and active magistrate, and wrote a poem called The Country Justice, but in too didactic a manner to be generally pleasing.
His health gradually declining, he died after a lingering illness at Blagdon-house, in 1779, leaving his only daughter to the care of Mrs. Gillman, a lady whom he has frequently celebrated in his poems.
Dr. Langhorne was a man of a social and convivial spirit, as well as an excellent poet; and his loss was sincerely lamented by those who best knew him.
His compositions are distinguished by undoubted marks of genius, a fine imagination, and a sensible heart. Imagery and enthusiasm, the great essentials of poetry, inspirit all his works, and place them far above the strain of vulgar composition.
The tenderness of love, and the soft language of complaint, were adapted to his genius, as well as elevation of thought, opulence of imagery, and the highest beauties of poetry. But the qualities for which he is chiefly distinguished, are imagination, pathos, and simplicity animated sentiment, apt allusion, warmth and vivacity of expression, and a melodious versification.
His chief fault is redundant decoration, an affectation of false and unnecessary ornament. He is not always contented with that concise and simple language which is sufficient to express his sentiments, but is tempted to indulge in superfluous diction, by the fascinations of novelty.
His sentiments, however, are always just, and generally striking. A great degree of elegance and classical simplicity runs through all his compositions; and his descriptions of nature, rural imagery, pictures of private virtue, and pastoral innocence, have a judicious selection of circumstances, a graceful plainness of expression, and a happy mixture of pathos and sentiment, which mark the superior poet.