1786 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hayley

Anonymous, "Account of the Writings of William Hayley, Esq." European Magazine 9 (June 1786) 385-87.



This gentleman has afforded so much entertainment to the public, and his works have been so universally read and applauded, that we feel some satisfaction in being able to gratify the wishes of his numerous admirers, who have, by various applications, solicited us to present them with a portrait of him.

The life of a recluse author seldom affords incident, and that of Mr. Hayley, perhaps, less than most other writers. We shall therefore, on the present occasion, confine ourselves to his works, from which we profess to draw the only circumstances relating to him, which are either important, or which we can communicate with any degree of confidence.

Sussex has the honour of ranking Mr. Hayley among its worthies, and Eaton of having given him the rudiments of his education. His infancy was marked with misery, and but for the attention of an affectionate mother, he had probably gone to the grave unknown. To this excellent parent he has addressed the following invocation, which we are happy to select, as well as an evidence of an extraordinary fact, as a proof of filial piety and gratitude:

O Thou, fond Spirit, who with pride hast smil'd,
And frown'd with fear on thy poetic child,
Pleas'd, yet alarm'd, when in his boyish time
He sigh'd in numbers, or he laugh'd in rhyme;
While thy kind cautions warn'd him to beware
Of penury, the Bard's perpetual snare;
Marking the early temper of his soul,
Careless of wealth, nor fit for base controul:
Thou tender Saint, to whom he owes much more
Than ever child to parent ow'd before!
In life's first season, when the fever's flame
Shrunk to deformity his shrivell'd frame,
And turn'd each fairer image in his brain
To blank confusion and her crazy train,
'Twas thine, with constant love, thro' ling'ring years,
To bathe thy idiot orphan in thy tears;
Day after day, and night succeeding night,
To turn incessant to the hideous sight,
And frequent watch, if haply at thy view
Departed reason might not dawn anew.
Tho' medicinal art with pitying care
Cou'd lend no art to save thee from despair,
Thy fond maternal heart adher'd to hope and prayer:
Nor pray'd in vain; thy child from pow'rs above
Receiv'd the sense to feel and bless thy love.
O might he thence receive the happy skill,
And force proportion'd to his ardent will,
With Truth's unfading radiance to emblaze
Thy virtues, worthy of immortal praise!

Nature, who deck'd thy form with Beauty's flowers,
Exhausted on thy soul her finer powers;
Taught it with all her energy to feel
Love's melting softness, friendship's fervid zeal.
The generous purpose, and the active thought,
With charity's diffusive spirit fraught;
There all the best of mental gifts she plac'd,
Vigour of judgment, purity of taste,
Superior parts without their spleenful leaven,
Kindness to earth, and confidence in Heaven.

While my fond thoughts o'er all thy merits roll,
Thy praise thus gushes from my filial soul;
Nor will the public with harsh rigour blame
This my just homage to thy honour'd name;
To please that public, if to please be mine,
Thy virtue's train'd me — let the praise be thine.

Since thou hast reach'd that world where love alone
Where love parental can exceed thy own;
If in celestial realms the blest may know
And aid the objects of their care below,
While in this sublunary scene of strife
Thy son possesses frail and feverish life,
If Heaven allot him many an added hour,
Gild it with virtuous thought and mental power,
Power to exalt, with every aim refin'd,
The loveliest of the arts that bless mankind.

From Eaton Mr. Hayley went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge; and while there, printed the first poem known to be written by him. This was on the royal marriage in 1761, and appeared in the collection of verses published by the University on that occasion. From that time to the year 1778, he lived out of the observation of the world. Delicate or inconstant health, or the love of literary retirement, prevented him form serving the community in scenes of active life; he therefore devoted himself to pursuits more pleasing, though less profitable.

Thou first and fairest of the social arts!
Sovereign of liberal souls and feeling hearts,
If, in devotion to thy heavenly charms,
I clasp'd thy altar with my infant arms,
For thee neglected the wide field of wealth,
The toils of interest and the sports of health,
Enchanting poesy! that zeal repay
With powers to sing thy universal sway!
To trace thy progress from thy distant birth,
Heaven's pure descendant! dear delight of earth!
Charm of all regions! to no age confin'd!
Thou prime minister of th' aspiring mind!
ESSAY ON EPIC POETRY.

After a recess of many years from public observation, he in 1778 produced, without his name, A Poetical Epistle to an eminent Painter, 4to. a work which both merited and obtained so much applause, as probably encouraged him to avow himself the author, by putting his name to a second edition of it. In 1779, he joined the political clamour of the day, and published An Epistle to Admiral Keppel, 4to. congratulating that gentleman on his honourable acquittal; and in the same year attacked the Bishop of London for a desertion of his political principles in An Elegy on the Ancient Greek Model, 4to. Neither of these pieces, though known to be written by him, form any part of the collection of his works lately published. In the next year, he gave the public An Epistle to a Friend on the Death of John Thornton, Esq. 4to. With this gentleman he appears to have lived on terms of intimacy, at Cambridge, and the praise he bestows on him reflects the highest honour on both the deceased and the surviving friend. In 1780, he published An Essay on History, in three Epistles to Edward Gibbon, Esq.. 4to. and in 1781, An Ode inscribed to John Howard, Esq. F.R.S. author of the State of English and Foreign Prisons, 4to. In the same year also, The Triumphs of Temper, 4to. a poem, in six cantos, appeared; and in 1782, An Essay on Epic Poetry, in five Epistles to the Rev. Mr. Mason, 4to. To shew himself master of every species of poetry, he in 1780, published Plays of three Acts written for a private Theatre, 4to. Of these, The Two Connoisseurs and Lord Russel have been brought on the stage at the Hay-market, and acted with great success.

Since this publication, a very amusing work, intitled, An Essay on Old Maids, has been ascribed to Mr. Hayley, and we believe with truth, though it has not been owned by him. In the course of the last year, he collected such of his works as he had published with his name into six volumes, 8vo.

Mr. Hayley is married, and his lady seems to possess some portion of his taste and genius. She has published a translation of Madame de Lambert's Essays on Friendship and Old Age, which is executed with great spirit and fidelity.

The works of Mr. Hayley are calculated to impress the most favourable opinion of him as a man; and if we are not misinformed, his manners (which is not always the case with men of genius) are perfectly in unison with the sentiments occasionally exhibited in his works. He has observed, that it was a kind of duty incumbent on those who devote themselves to poetry, to raise, if possible, the dignity of a declining art, by making it as beneficial to life and manners, as the limits of composition and the character of modern times will allow. This rule seems to have been strictly adhered to by him. The subjects of his several performances are all important, and handled in such a manner, as to convey both entertainment and instruction, to mend the heart, refine the taste, and render mankind better, and, by consequence, more happy.

There are many pleasing traits of character scattered through Mr. Hayley's works. One of them we shall select to close this imperfect account.

For me, who feel whene'er I touch the lyre,
My talents sink below my proud desire;
Who often doubt, and sometime credit give,
When friends assure me that my verse will live;
Whom health too tender for the bustling throng,
Led into pensive shade and soothing song;
Whatever fortune my unpolish'd rhymes
May meet, in present or in future times,
Let the blest art my grateful thought employ,
Which soothes my sorrow and augments my joy;
Whence lonely peace and social pleasure springs,
And friendship dearer than the smile of kings!
While keener poets, querulously proud,
Lament the ills of poetry aloud,
And magnify, with irritation's zeal,
Those common evils we too strongly feel,
The envious comment, and the subtle style
Of specious slander, stabbing with a smile;
Frankly I wish to make her blessings known,
And think those blessings for her ills atone;
Nor wou'd my honest pride that praise forego,
Which makes malignity yet more my foe.
ESSAY ON EPIC POETRY.