JOHN LANGHORNE, the son of a clergyman beneficed in Lincolnshire, was born at Kirkby Steven, in Westmoreland, in the month of March 1735. His father dying when he was only four years of age, the care of his education devolved on his mother, who initiated him in the first principles of knowledge with such tender anxiety as left a pleasing and indelible impression on his memory. He celebrated her virtues on her tomb, and more particularly by a beautiful monody inserted among his poems.
When of sufficient age, he was placed at a school at Winton, and afterwards at Appleby, where he recommended himself to the good opinion of Mr. Yates, his master, not only by speedily dispatching the usual school tasks, but by performing voluntary exercises, which he submitted to his revisal. By this employment of his leisure hours, he probably excelled his companions, and we are told that at the age of thirteen he was able to read and construe the Greek Testament.
He did not leave this school until his eighteenth year, when, having no means of defraying the expences of an university education, he engaged himself as private tutor in a family near Ripon. He had attained a thorough knowledge of the classical languages, and during his residence in this neighbourhood, began to write verses, the greater part of which his more mature judgment led him to destroy. One of these pieces, however, Studley Park, has been very properly snatched from oblivion by his biographer, and now stands at the head of this collection, not indeed as the best, but as the earliest specimen of his powers. It appears that he had some expectations from the possessor of this beautiful place, which were not gratified; and he therefore thought proper to omit it in the subsequent editions of his poems.
His next occupation was that of an assistant at the free-school of Wakefield, then superintended by Mr. Clarke; and while here he took deacon's orders, and became, it is said, "a popular preacher." In 1759, Mr. Clarke recommended him as preceptor to the sons of Robert Cracroft, esq. of Hackthorn, near Lincoln. Mr. Cracroft had nine sons, and Mr. Langhorne must have been fully employed in the family; yet he added to theirs the tuition of Mr. Edmund Cartwright, a young gentleman of a poetical turn, who afterwards published an elegy, entitled Constantia, on the death of his preceptor's wife.
During his residence at Hackthorn, our author published a volume of his poems, for the relief of a gentleman in distress; and in the same year a poem, entitled The Death of Adonis, from the Greek of Bion. Public opinion gave him no encouragement to reprint this last, but he derived from it the advantage of being noticed as a critic of considerable acumen in Greek poetry.
In 1760 he entered his name at Clare-hall, Cambridge, in order to take the degree of bachelor of divinity, which he supposed, by the statutes of the university, any person in orders is impowered to do without residence; but in this it is probable he did not succeed, as his name is not to be found among the Cambridge graduates. His being included in Mr. Cole's list is, however, a proof that he entered of Clare-hall; and while here, he wrote a poem on the King's Accession, and another on the Royal Nuptials, which he afterwards inserted in Solyman and Almena. In the same year, he published The Tears of the Muses, a poem to the memory of Handel, with an Ode to the River Eden, 4to.
While employed on the education of the sons of Mr. Cracroft, he became enamoured of the amiable disposition and personal charms of Miss Anne Cracroft, one of that gentleman's daughters. He had given her some instructions in the Italian language, and was often delighted by her skill in music, for which he had a very correct ear. A mutual attachment was the consequence of these many opportunities and coincidences in polite accomplishments, which Mr. Langhorne was eager to terminate in marriage. But the lady, who knew that a match so disproportioned as to fortune would be opposed by her family, gave him a denial, as firm and as gentle as her good sense and secret attachment would permit.
For this, however, Mr. Langhorne was not prepared, and immediately left his situation, in hopes of recovering a more tranquil tone of mind in distant scenes and different employment. In 1761, he officiated as curate to the rev. Abraham Blackburn of Dagenham, and obtained the friendship of the Gillmans, a very amiable family in that place. While endeavouring to forget his heart's disappointment, he found some relief in penning a Hymn to Hope, which he published this year in London, 4to; and in the course of the next, he gave further vent to his thoughts in The Visions of Fancy, four elegies, 4to; Letters on Religious Retirement, 8vo; and Solyman and Almena, a fiction in the manner of the Eastern Tales, but not much to be praised for invention. The Letters are of a sentimental, melancholy cast, with a considerable mixture of lighter and more entertaining matter. — In the same year he published The Viceroy, a poem in honour of lord Halifax, then lord lieutenant of Ireland. Here, as in the case of Studley Park, our author appears to have expected to find a patron, but lord Halifax did not condescend to notice what, it must be confessed, flatters him with too much artifice; and Langhorne, when he collected his poems, retained only a favourite fragment of this unlucky piece, omitting altogether the name of Halifax, or Viceroy. The whole, however, is given in the present edition as originally written.
His Letters on Religious Retirement were dedicated, with rather more success, to bishop Warburton, who returned a complimentary letter, in which he encouraged our author to make some attempt in the cause of religion. This is supposed to have produced, in 1763, The letters that passed between Theodosius and Constantia, a fiction founded on a well-known story in The Spectator. The style of these letters is in general elegant, but in some parts too florid. The Letter on Prayer is very equivocal in its tendency. This year also gave birth to a poem, meant to be philosophical, entitled The Enlargement of the Mind, part first, in which we find some noble sentiments expressed in glowing and elevated language. His next publication, about the same time, called Effusions of Friendship and Fancy, 2 vols. 12mo, was a work of considerable popularity: it is indeed a very pleasing miscellany of humour, fancy, and criticism, but the style is often flippant and irregular, and made him be classed among the imitators of Sterne, whom it was the fashion at that time to read and to admire.
In the year 1764, having obtained the curacy and lectureship of St. John's Clerkenwell, he was enabled to reside in London, where only literary talents meet with ready encouragement, and where he was already ranked among the elegant and pleasing poets of the day, and had given ample proof of ease and versatility in the choice and management of his subjects. His first publication this year was a continuation of Theodosius and Constantia, of much the same character as the former work, but enlivened by more variety. As he appears to have aspired to promotion through the popularity of his talents in the pulpit, he now gave a specimen of what had pleased his congregation, in two volumes of Sermons. His biographer has taken some pains to defend these against the censure of the late Mr. Mainwaring of St. John's, Cambridge, in his Dissertation prefixed to his Sermons (1780). But it appears to us that they abound in the false pathos, and that the reasoning, where any occurs, is very superficial. They have, however, the advantage to those who dislike sermons of every kind, that they are perhaps the shortest ever published.
About this time his son informs us that he engaged with Mr. Griffiths as a writer in the Monthly Review; and that this engagement, with scarcely any intermission, continued to his death. We suspect there is some mistake in this account, although the secresy which very properly prevails in the management of a Review, will not allow me to rectify it. That Mr. Langhorne was a writer in the Monthly Review has been repeated from so many quarters, that there seems no reason to doubt it, but a dispute relating to a work hereafter mentioned, which took place between Mr. Langhorne and the editor of the Review, affords some ground to think that his connexion with it had ceased about 1769.
But whatever may be in this, his employment as a critic we are told, procured him many acquaintances among literary men, while the vein of ridicule which he indulged in treating several of the subjects that fell under his consideration, created him many enemies, who, in their turn, endeavoured to depreciate his performances. As no judgment can now be pronounced on the articles which he wrote, it is impossible to say whether this vein of ridicule was employed as the just chastisement of arrogance and immorality, or substituted for fair and legitimate criticism. Illiberality has not often been imputed to the journal in which he wrote; and as to his enemies, I know of none more formidable than Churchill, Kelly, and Kenrick, two of whom were libellers by profession. Smollet, whose jealousy of the Monthly Review led him often to disgrace his talents by invidious attacks on the supposed writers belonging to it, bestows almost uniform praise on Langhorne's various works.
In 1765, his productions were, The second Epistle on the Enlargement of the Mind; an edition of the poems of the elegant and tender Collins, with a criticism and some memoirs; and letters on that difficult subject, The Eloquence of the Pulpit. He had now occasion to exert his own talents before a more enlightened auditory than he had ever yet addressed, having been appointed by Dr. Hurd (bishop of Worcester) to the office of assistant preacher at Lincoln's-Inn chapel.
In the following year, we do not find that any thing original came from his pen. He prepared for the press, however, an enlarged edition of his Effusions of Friendship and Fancy, and a collection of his poems, in 2 vols. 12mo. The principal article of these, not before published, is a dramatic poem, or tragedy, entitled The Fatal Prophecy. This was his only attempt in this species of poetry, and was universally accounted unsuccessful. He had the good sense to acquiesce in the decision, and neither attempted the drama again, nor reprinted this specimen.
During Churchill's career, our author endeavoured to counteract the scurrility he had thrown out against Scotland in his Prophecy of Famine, by an elegant poem entitled Genius and Valour. This provoked Churchill to introduce his name once or twice with his usual epithets of contempt, which Langhorne disregarded, and disregarded his own interest at the same time, by dedicating this poem to lord Bute, a minister going out of place! It produced him, however, a very flattering letter, in 1766, from Dr. Robertson, the celebrated historian, and principal of the university of Edinburgh, requesting him to accept a diploma for the degree of D.D. He was farther consoled by the approbation of every wise and loyal man, who contemplated the miseries of disunion, and the glaring absurdity of perpetuating national prejudices.
In 1767, after a courtship of five years, Dr. Langhorne obtained the hand of Miss Cracroft, to whom he had ever been tenderly attached, and with whom he had kept up a correspondence since his departure from Hackthorn. By what means her family were reconciled to the match, we are not told, but some fortune accompanied it, as the living of Blagdon in Somersetshire, was purchased for him, and there he went immediately to reside. His happiness, however, with this lady, was of short duration, as she died in child-birth of a son, May 4, 1768. She was interred in the chancel of Blagdon-church, with the following lines on her monument, written by her husband:
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.
He afterwards composed a more elegant and pathetic tribute to her virtues, which may be found among his poems. The allusion to the cause of her death is an original thought, introduced with great skill and tenderness.
During Mrs. Langhorne's life, he produced one poem only, entitled Precepts of Conjugal Happiness, addressed to Mrs. Nelthorpe, a sister of his wife. To this lady he committed the care of his infant child, who lived to acknowledge her friendship, and to discharge the duties of an affectionate son, by the late Memoirs of his Father, prefixed to an elegant edition of his poems. — In the Precepts of Conjugal Happiness, there is more good sense than poetry. It appears to have been a temporary effusion on which he bestowed no extraordinary pains.
Not long after Mrs. Langhorne's death, our author went to reside at Folkstone, in Kent, where his brother; the Rev. William Langhorne, then officiated as minister, a man of a very amiable character. He was born in 1721, and presented by the archbishop of Canterbury to the rectory of Hakinge, with the perpetual curacy of Folkstone, in 1754, and on this preferment he passed the remainder of his life. He published Job, a poem; and a poetical Paraphrase on a part of Isaiah, neither of which raised him to the fame of a poet, although they are not without the merit of correctness and spirit. He died Feb. 17, 1772, and his brother wrote some elegant lines to his memory, which are inscribed on a tablet in the chancel of Folkstone church.
Between these brothers the closest affection subsisted; each was to the other "more the friend than brother of his heart." During their residence together at Folkstone, they were employed in preparing a new translation of Plutarch's Lives: and our poet, who became about this time intimate with Scott, the poet of Amwell (who likewise had just lost a beloved wife from a similar cause) paid him a visit at Amwell, where he wrote the monody inscribed to Mr. Scott.
Amidst these engagements he found leisure to give to the world two productions strongly marked by the peculiarities of his style and turn of thinking; the one entitled Frederick and Pharamond, or, The Consolations of Human Life, 8vo; the other, Letters supposed to have passed between M. de St. Evremond and Waller. In this last, while he was allowed to have preserved their characters tolerably, he was at the same time accused, by the critic in the Monthly Review, of taking frequent opportunities to compliment himself on the merit of the letters he had written for St. Evremond and Waller. This produced a complaint from Langhorne, which was answered by the Reviewer, respectfully indeed, but not in the manner that might have been expected from an associate. It is from this circumstance that we have been led to conjecture that his connexion with the Review ceased when he left London in consequence of his obtaining the living of Blagdon. — Frederick and Pharamond was begun with a view to alleviate the afflictions of a friend, and pursued perhaps to alleviate his own. It attempts that by argument which is rarely accomplished but by time.
The translation of Plutarch, by the brothers, appeared in 1770, and soon became a very popular book. In 1771, Dr. Langhorne gave another proof of the variety on which he exercised his fancy in a favourite little volume, entitled the Fables of Flora. In this, although he claimed too hastily the merit of combining for the first time imagery, description, and sentiment, yet he has certainly enlarged the province of fable, and given proof of a wide range of imagination. It cannot however be denied that the moral is not always sufficiently pointed, that the style is too much ornamented, and the general cast of sentiment too obscure for the persons into whose hands Fables are usually placed. In answer to the objection made to the language of flowers, his son very justly remarks that "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."
Towards the latter end of the year 1771, Dr. Langhorne went to reside for a few months at Potton in Bedfordshire, where he wrote his Origin of the Veil, which, however, was not published for some time after. In 1772, he paid a visit to his native country, and married a second wife, the daughter of — Thomson, esq. a magistrate near Brough, and soon after took her with him on a tour through part of France and Flanders, the scenery of which afforded new topics for his muse.
Late in the spring he returned to Blagdon, where he was put into the commission of the peace; and having considered the usual practice of the duties of that office, he imparted his sentiments on the subject in a species of didactic and satirical poem, entitled The Country Justice, in three parts, published in 1774, 1775, and 1777. This humane endeavour to plead the cause of the poor and wretched against oppression and neglect does great honour to his feelings, which, indeed, in all his works, are on the side of benevolence and virtue. It is said to have been written in consequence of the suggestion, and as to facts, probably with the assistance, of Dr. Burn, the well-known author of a digest of the laws relating to justices of the peace. — In 1773 Dr. Langhorne presented the public with a liberal translation of that part of Denina on the ancient republics of Italy, which contains the author's reflections on the admission of the Italian states to the franchises of Rome.
In 1776, he lost his second wife, who died, like the former, in child-bed, five years after her marriage, and left a daughter, whom he consigned by his will to the protection of his friend, Mrs. Gillman. What impression this second interruption to domestic happiness produced on his mind we are not told. In this year, however, we find him again employing the press on a translation of Milton's Italian Sonnets, and on two occasional sermons. In 1777, at the request of the Bouverie family (who highly respected Mr. Langhorne) Dr. Moss, bishop of Bath and Wells, presented him with a prebend in the cathedral of Wells.
His last production was the tale of Owen of Carron, which, with some beauties, has less of his usual energy and vigour; it is uncertain whether this was owing to the nature of the poem, in which he conceived it necessary to imitate the ballad simplicity, or to a languor of body and mind. The death of the hon. Charles Yorke, from whom he had great expectations, is said to have made a lasting impression on him, but as Mr. Yorke died in 1770, this seems wholly improbable.
His biographer passes over his last days without notice of his situation or employments. We are merely told that he died on April 1, 1779, in the forty-fifth year of his age.
In 1804, his son published an edition of his poems, in two elegant volumes 12mo, with memoirs of the author. To these I am indebted for the principal part of this sketch.
If we may judge from his writings, Dr. Langhorne was a man of an amiable disposition, a friend to religion and morals, and, though a wit, he never descends to grossness or indelicacy. His memory has not been followed by any worse objection than that he was of a social turn, and during the latter part of his life more addicted to convivial indulgences than is consistent with health. This, however, is a serious objection, and not much lessened by the supposition that he was driven to this unhappy species of relief by having twice lost the chief source of domestic happiness.
Incidental notice having been already taken of his pieces, it will not be necessary to enlarge on the subject in this place. Ease, elegance, and tenderness, are the most striking features of his poetry: nor is he deficient in invention; an attentive perusal will discover many original sentiments, and spirited flights, which the critics of his day pointed out with high praise. He is very seldom a copyist; his style, as well as his sentiments, whatever their merit, are his own.
His prose works are various enough to convince us that he was either a laborious writer, or possessed of great fertility of imagination, and the latter will probably be the safest conjecture. But, although a scholar of high attainments, he has rarely brought learning to his aid. His mind was stored with remarks on men and manners, which he expressed in various and desultory modes, so as to give an air of novelty to every thing he wrote, but we find nothing very profound. He appeared so frequently before the public as to secure a considerable degree of fame what he announced was expected with eagerness, and what he published was read with pleasure; but as his abilities were confined to the lighter provinces of literature, there are few of his productions which will be honoured by permanent popularity.