1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Vicesimus Knox

Anonymous, "Memoirs of Vicesimus Knox" European Magazine 81 (March 1822) 195-99.



The lives of distinguished authors have rarely possessed incidents sufficiently numerous to furnish materials for interesting biography. To arrive at that perfection, which every writer must attain, who commands the attention of the public, requires a long course of studies in seclusion from the active pursuits of the world: and although victories, obtained over difficulties in learning and science, demand a degree of intellectual force greater than is necessary to obtain fame in the field, yet they are glories of an unostentatious kind, and make no figure in a Memoir. A few dates are generally all that can be given in the history of those, who, as divines, moralists, historians, or poets, have instructed and delighted mankind, while they have acquired for themselves a less renown. A laudable curiosity is nevertheless felt to know its much as can be communicated of those, who have contributed to establish sound Principles of morality and religion; to diffuse a correct taste in the fine arts; to extend the sources of innocent amusement to augment the bounds of science; to encourage a love of civil liberty; and to inspire sentiments of universal benevolence; — "Quique sui memores alios fecere merendo."

DR. VICESIMUS KNOX was the only son of the Rev. Knox; a fellow of St. John's College, Oxford; afterwards a Master of Merchant Taylors' School; and, lastly, Head Master of Tunbridge School. He was himself a respectable scholar, and greatly esteemed in the exercise of his clerical functions. It has been observed, that there is much injustice in withholding the names of those from whom eminent characters have received their education. Dr. Knox's father took the care of his son's classical instruction entirely upon himself until the age of fourteen. Having then made a considerable proficiency, he was entered in a high class at Merchant Tailors' School, under the Rev. James Townley, who, though not deeply learned, possessed a refined taste for the charms of literature, as well as much urbanity, which he was very successful in imparting among his pupils. At this time that amiable man and elegant scholar, Dr. Jortin, took great notice of the subject of this Memoir, frequently inviting him to pass his holidays at the vicarage at Kensington: and, together with Oliver Goldsmith, whom at this period he also often visited, probably confirmed that strong literary turn in his youthful mind, which never forsook him in after life.

From school he was elected to a fellowship at St. John's, Oxford, where Dr. Dennis was then President; and of him he always spoke with grateful respect. At the university he immediately distinguished himself; and his exercises, particularly in Latin prose and verse, were greatly admired, in consequence of which, he was appointed one of the speakers at the Encenia, when Lord North was installed Chancellor of the University, and received much applause. He also amused himself in the intervals from his severer pursuits with English composition, and shortly before he finally left Oxford, sent the manuscript of the first volume of Essays Moral and Literary, as a present, without a name, to Dilly, the publisher. It was shewn to that eminent critic, Dr. Johnson, who spoke of the style and matter in terms of high panegyric, and predicted the future fame of the author; while the favourable reception given to it by the public has been almost unexampled. The work was subsequently extended to three volumes, and the name of the author no longer concealed. It has been translated into most of the European languages; and at once ranked the writer with the English Classics. Our limited space does not allow of a detailed examination of the different papers, and we therefore merely state, that they contain a happy mixture of the best style of our most celebrated authors, with an harmony, polish, and force, that are entirely the writer's own.

Dr. Knox next published his celebrated treatise on Liberal Education, in two volumes, the success of which was not less than that of his former work; it having long superseded all others upon this important subject. In pointing cut the defects in the education of youth, he could not pass over the gross relaxation of discipline in the universities which at that time prevailed, more especially at Oxford. Whatever resentment was felt in the university at the moment, the suggestions of the author have been since attended to; — a reform has taken place, and he lived to express great satisfaction at the admirable spirit of emulation among the students which the recent statutable regulations have produced. Had his life been spared, he would, probably, in a new edition of this work, have expunged many of those strictures, which he, happily, considered no longer applicable.

Shortly before the appearance of Liberal Education, Dr. Knox, having taken his degrees, upon the resignation of his father, was elected to the Head-Mastership of Tunbridge School. This step was taken against the urgent remonstrances of Dr. Dennis and Dr. Wheeler, the learned public orator, both of whom feared, without foundation as it proved in the result, that so laborious an undertaking would interfere with the literary career he had so successfully commenced. Mrs. Montague also, and several other eminent characters of that day, took considerable pains to persuade him to devote himself entirely to the academic life at Oxford, where, they represented, the most brilliant prospects were before him.

In 1787, Dr. Knox published a series of miscellaneous papers, under the title of Winter Evenings, in three volumes, 8vo. They have also passed through many editions; and in this work the author has successfully combined moral instruction with elegant entertainment.

About this time he had the honour of receiving from Philadelphia a diploma, conferring a Doctor's degree in that university, with an unanimous expression of the high sense that learned body entertained of the services his works, which had all been republished in America, had rendered to the cause of learning and virtue. For the use of his own school, which had risen to great reputation, he edited Horace and Juvenal, upon the "expurgata" plan; and superintended that useful series of compilations, the Elegant Extracts, Elegant Epistles, Domestic Divinity, &c. &c.; the prefaces of which were all written by himself.

In 1793 appeared — Personal Nobility, in one volume, "containing advice to a young Nobleman, in a series of Letters, on the conduct of his studies, and the best means of maintaining the dignity of the peerage." The abolition of nobility in France had taken place at this period, and given a particular interest to the subject of this work, which is written in a glowing strain of eloquence, and is not less replete with wise precepts than constitutional opinions. It was in this year also that he preached his famous sermon at Brighton. He had long been most conscientiously and deeply impressed with the folly and wickedness of war, and reprobated it with great earnestness upon all occasions.

The subject of this sermon was, "The Unlawfulness of Offensive War!" which he followed up by translating an adage of Erasmus, entitled, "Bellum dulce inexpertis." This translation was published under the title of Antipolemus; and a very respectable society has since been established under the appellation of "Antipolemists"; though the peculiar political state of the world that has existed ever since it's formation, has yet presented but few favourable opportunities for their labours of mercy.

At the commencement of the revolutionary war against France, several anonymous popular political works were attributed to Dr. Knox, but with what truth we have not been able to ascertain. He appears, from about the year 1796, to have devoted his labours principally to the interests of religion and education.

His admirable Sermons upon Faith Hope, and Charity, in one volume, 8vo. were published about this period; and were followed by Christian Philosophy, in two volumes, which was written chiefly as an antidote to Paine's irreligious writings. He next gave to the world, Considerations on the Nature and Efficacy of the Lord's Supper; the principal object of which was to assert the important truth, "that benefits are annexed to the reception of the Eucharist," in opposition to the opinions advanced by Bishops Hoadley and Pearce, Drs. Sykes, Balguy, and Bell. He also published several single sermons. In one, which he preached at the opening of the Chapel of the Philanthropic Society, in St. George's Fields, he first called attention to the necessity of encreasing the number of the places of public worship on the establishment. A very eloquent Sermon from his pen, "upon the, Duty and Advantage of educating the Poor," is also to be found at the end of the last edition of Domestic Divinity.

The reputation that Dr. Knox had acquired in the Belles Lettres was most fully sustained by his works in theology. They display an elevated tone of piety, his usual polished and powerful style, and most learnedly enforce doctrines of the soundest divinity.

That eminent polemic and celebrated divine, Bishop Horsley, with a liberality that did him honour, as his politics were known to be at variance with Dr. Knox's, publicly eulogized his treatise on the Lord's Supper in the Charges delivered to his Clergy, and recommended it to their particular perusal.

Perhaps, scarcely any of Dr. Knox's numerous writings will he read with so much delight as the last, which appeared a few months only before his death, — a pamphlet against the Degradation of Grammar Schools. It may be remembered, that a bill was pending in Parliament for the general Education of the Poor; among it's provisions was one, which would have had the effect of lowering the education now afforded in the ancient grammar-schools, by giving instruction in writing, reading, and arithmetic, under the same roof, to an humbler class or scholars, out of the funds already exclusively appropriated by the donors to the learned languages. This bill has been since withdrawn. It afforded, however, a subject for a splendid defence of classical education. Dr. Knox combated most powerfully the arguments of Milton, Locke, Bacon, and others, who recommend the teaching boys things in preference to the classics. There are few compositions in the English language, that for strength of reasoning and brilliancy of style can be compared with this pamphlet. It may be taken as a standard of his powers as a writer, and a specimen of the energy of his mind.

Dr. Knox left Tunbridge in 1812, where he was succeeded in the school by his younger son; and retired to London. He was rector of Runwell and Ramsden Crays, in Essex, of which livings he was the patron, and minister of Shipbourne, in Kent; at which latter place he performed the duties of a parish priest for nearly forty years, with great regularity. After his retirement, while he lived in London, the situation of his benefices in Essex not permitting residence, he never withheld his powerful aid from the pulpit, whenever it was solicited in favour of the various charities with which the metropolis abounds; and there are few of those institutions which have not benefitted by his exertions. As a preacher he will long be remembered; his matter was always excellent, and his manner possessed a dignity, propriety, and impressiveness, that invariably riveted the attention of his congregations.

The politics of Dr. Knox were decidedly those of the Whigs. His steadiness and consistency were remarkable, and he scorned any concealment of his opinions, however personally disadvantageous to himself might be the avowal of them. Mr. Fox, and other distinguished Leaders of the Whig Party, sought his acquaintance; and there is no doubt, if political events had afforded the opportunity, but that he would have filled one of the highest stations in the church. Preferment, however, was never his object, nor occupied his thoughts. He was from conscientious conviction a firm friend of the establishment; and his strenuous support of it excited the hostility of many of the most eminent separatists, who expressed, however, the highest respect for his motives; for though he forcibly exposed the absurdity of many of their tenets, especially those of the Methodists, he was ever the advocate of a liberal toleration. Entertaining much respect for the private character of the late Bishop Dampier, he felt it his duty to protest against an address which that bishop proposed for the adoption of the clergy, at a visitation of his diocese, thanking the Crown for requiring a pledge from administration, that they never would again agitate the Catholic question. He was aware that differences of opinion might very conscientiously be entertained upon what is called Catholic emancipation, but also thought, that, with proper securities, it was contrary to sound policy and justice, no less than to the benign spirit of the Gospel, to impose civil disabilities upon so many millions of the Christian subjects of the united kingdom, merely because they remained faithful to the religion of their forefathers.

Dr. Knox possessed extraordinary facility in composition. He wrote and spoke Latin with the most classical purity. He was singularly felicitous in epigrammatic point, and a very eminent Greek scholar, though he did not value merely verbal criticism. To pass years in investigating particles, he deemed an abuse of learning, justly subjecting it to the charge of pedantry. He was a great student of the harmony of language, invariably forming his sentences with a regard to rhythmical proportion. His reading may be said to have been nearly universal; as notwithstanding his almost idolatrous regard for the dead languages, he was not less conversant with the writers of France, Italy, and Spain, than with those of his own country.

It is unnecessary to attempt a delineation of the qualities that adorned his private character. The sentiments in all his works which exhibit so much amiable feeling, could only have flowed from a heart, which was indeed most exquisitely susceptible of all the charities of domestic life. His habits were unobtrusive and retired; and his whole demeanour in society was marked by a diffidence inseparable from his nature. His conversation was frequently distinguished by a delightful fervour of language and sentiment, and by an agreeable playfulness, when he was not under the influence of mental depression. From this cause, however, he was frequently silent in company, during the latter years of his life. He keenly felt the loss of a son in the flower of his age, and of his own wife shortly afterwards; and, lastly, of an only daughter in the prime of life; who was the wife of Rob. Clement Sconce, Esq. of Plymouth, and died in 1818. A succession of such calamities occasioned long seasons of sorrow, producing a degree of despondence, that disqualified him alike for conversation and composition.

Dr. Knox enjoyed remarkably fine health; the consequence of an excellent constitution, as well as of regular habits. He was always an early riser. He was enabled to follow his literary pursuits with unabated ardour till within the last three days of his life. The strength of his constitution seemed to promise an extreme old age, when he was seized with an inflammation of the intestines, while on a visit at his son's house at Tunbridge, which terminated his life on the 6th of September last, in the 69th year of his age. So little foreseen was this melancholy event, that he was under an engagement to the Rev. Dr. Rudge, to preach at Limehouse for the benefit of the National Schools early in October; when the clergyman who officiated on the occasion noticed his decease in the following feeling and elegant language:—

"I have now concluded my observations on this important subject. It was to have been recommended to your attention by a preacher of consummate ability, whose name stands high in the records of literature, and whose life was one continued course of ardent benevolence and usefulness to his fellow-creatures. The place now filled by his unworthy substitute on this occasion, he had for a considerable time, before his departure from this life, and while totally unconscious of the arrow that flieth in darkness, consented to occupy. But that Almighty Providence, to whose decrees all things in heaven and earth do bow and obey, thought proper, after a brief warning, to remove him from this state of existence to that reward, as we have reason to hope, which is reserved for those who have walked humbly and piously with their GOD, and enjoyed an unwearied delight in advancing the moral and intellectual happiness of their species. To him who has been appointed to supply the place of so eminent a pleader in the cause of charity, much indulgence is therefore necessary. He pretends neither to talent nor celebrity, and is content with simply expressing his hope that little needs be added to induce you to assist a cause so truly valuable."

His funeral took place at Tunbridge, when the inhabitants of the town and neighbourhood spontaneously assembled on the occasion in a very numerous body, in deep mourning, to pay their last tribute of reverential regret. — Dr. Knox married the only daughter of Thomas Miller, Esq. formerly of Tunbridge; — a lady not less distinguished for elegance of manners than mental endowments, and who died in 1809. His family who survive him, are his sons, Mr. Knox, the Barrister, and the Rev. Thomas Knox, the present Master of Tunbridge School; and two sisters, married to John Vade and William Child, Esqrs. of London.

Such is the brief Biographical Sketch of an individual, who, however some persons might differ from him in political sentiments, was universally respected as a most valuable member of society; as discharging his professional duties with peculiar honour to himself and usefulness to the public; as a faithful Minister of his God, and a firm friend to the best interests of the rising generation; a warm philanthropist upon the purest principles of Christianity, and an ornament of the era in which he lived.