1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Richard Polwhele

John Bowyer Nichols, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine NS 9 (May 1838) 545-49.



March 12. At Truro, aged 78, after an illness of nearly eight months, the Rev. Richard Polwhele, of Polwhele, (a mansion about two miles from Truro,) historian of Devonshire and Cornwall, of which latter county he was a magistrate.

The subject of this memoir was born at Truro, on the 6th of Jan. 1760, the only son of Thomas Polwhele, esq. of Polwhele, by Mary, dau. of R. Thomas, alderman of Truro. His father was a Magistrate and deputy Lieutenant for Cornwall, and was a gentleman much respected both in public and private life; he died an early victim to the gout in Feb. 1777. Young Polwhele was sent to the grammar school at Truro, then under the care of the Rev. Dr. Cardew. Here, encouraged by the approbation of his master, his father, and the Rev. Mr. Penrose, and with the occasional assistance of Dr. Wolcot, then a physician at Truro, and afterwards so well known as Peter Pindar, young Polwhele wrote some poetical pieces, far beyond the productions of boys of the same age. Two of these were published whilst he was at school, viz. The Genius of Karnbre, written in 1776, before his father's death, (a flight of poetical enthusiasm, composed on a romantic hill near Redruth, called Karnbre); and the Fate of Lewyllyn, or the Druid's Sacrifice, a Legendary Tale, written in 1777, during a journey to Bath, with his mother, after the loss of his father. At the recommendation of Mr. Rack, of Bath, the quaker poet, and author of Mentor's Letters, these two, poems were printed and published at that city in 1777, and were favourably noticed by the Reviews. Whilst at Bath, he was encouraged to present an Ode to Mrs. Catharine Macaulay, on the celebration of her birthday, April 2, 1777; and at the same period was introduced to Miss Hannah More, who was rising into notice as the young dramatic poetess of Bristol.

In 1778 Mr. Polwhele was entered a commoner of Christ Church, Oxford, then under the care of Dean Bagot, with whose estimable character he was much charmed; but appears to have stood in great awe of the College tutors, Dr. Randolph, afterwards Bishop of London, and Dr. Cyril Jackson. Two of Fell's exhibitions were conferred on him, and had he confined himself to the College exercises, it was the opinion of the late Bishop Bathurst (at that time a Canon of Christ Church), that he would have won academical honours; but his poetical friends had unfortunately flattered the schoolboy's muse, and he continued to accumulate stanzas upon stanzas. Some of these were published: The Cave of Lemorna was spoken well of by Tom Warton; and a poetical Epistle from Rosamund to Henry, was inserted among Mrs. Macaulay's Miscellaneous Works. He also invoked The Spirit of Frazer in an ode to General Burgoyne; laughed at The Follies of Oxford in a satiric sketch, and translated Claudian's Rape of Proserpine. These poetical amusements so interfered with his severer studies, that on leaving the University he put on a civilian's gown to avoid the expenses of a Grand Compounder, though he went through all his examinations for his Bachelor's degree, without which no member of Christ Church was permitted to put on the civilian's gown.

In 1782 Mr. Polwhele was ordained into Deacon's orders by Dr. Ross, Bishop of Exeter, and served for a short time the cure of Lomorran near Truro. Here he shortly after married Miss Warren, and removed to Kenton to become Curate to Archdeacon Sleech near Powderham Castle, the seat of Viscount Courtenay, where he resided about ten years, and produced many of his works, both in verse and prose. Among his poems of this period, The English Orator was the most important, and his Translations from the Idyllia of Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus, and the Elegies of Tyrtaeus, were deservedly commended.

At Kenton, too, he planned his History of Devonshire, of which the second Volume (the first published) appeared in 1793. In this work his talents as a writer were more conspicuous than his fitness for the minute detail so necessary as a county historian and antiquary. The second and third volumes consist of a Chorographical Description or Parochial Survey; but the most curious and striking particulars usually interwoven in county histories Mr. Polwhele reserved for his first volume, intending there to have discussed the most interesting points in antiquities or history; the civil, military, and religious notices, and architectural description of castles and monasteries, and the memoirs of remarkable persons.

In July 1797 appeared the first part of his first volume, containing the Natural History and the British Period, from the first settlements in Danmonium, to the Arrival of Julius Caesar. These subjects are entered into at considerable length, in 176 pages. To this portion is appended a querulous Postscript, complaining of his subscribers withdrawing their patronage; of his friend Mr. Prebendary John Swete interfering with his account of Cromlechs, Logan Stones, &c.; of the publications of Watkins's History of Bideford, and Dunsford's Tiverton, of the publication of Sir John de la Pole's Collections, &c. In all this Mr. Polwhele acted very injudiciously, disgusting those who were inclined to continue his friends. The first volume was ultimately completed by giving a sketch of the Roman, British, Saxon, and German periods the period from Edward I. to Charles I.; the period of the Rebellion and Revolution from Charles I. to the present time; the whole compressed in 350 pages, being a mere outline of what Mr. Polwhele seems originally to have contemplated, as exhibited in the proposed contents of the first volume. Much matter also collected for the third volume, with the Domesday, &c. was omitted, and this unfortunate work was concluded neither to the satisfaction of its author, or his subscribers. But, after all, Mr. Polwhele's History of Devonshire will ever be consulted with pleasure by the man of genius, who will he sure to find much that is congenial to his taste, in the poetical descriptions of scenery, choice biographical notices, &c.

In 1793 Mr. Polwhele published in quarto, the first volume of Historical Views of Devonshire, embracing the British period; discussing the same subjects as in the first volume of the History of Devon; and announcing four other volumes, of which he printed the proposed contents, bringing the history down to the present time. These four volumes never appeared, we suppose for want of encouragement.

To a third edition of The English Orator, entitled Poems, &c. were added, An Address to Pennant, an Ode on the Susceptibility of the Poetical Mind, An Epistle to a College Friend, &c.

About the same time, whilst resident at Kenton, Mr. Polwhele also published in two volumes 8vo. Discourses on different Subjects.

In 1793 Mr. Polwhele had the misfortune to lose his first wife, and having seen her remains deposited at Kenton (where two of their children had been interred), he went to his mother's house in Cornwall; whence, after sometime, he removed to Exeter, in order to superintend the printing of his History of Devonshire. In the following year he was married to his second wife, a daughter of Capt. Rob. Tyrrell, of Starcross, and removed to Exmouth, of which he served the cure. Here he was scarcely settled, before Dr. Buller, Bishop of Exeter, collated him to the small vicarage of Manaccan in Cornwall, "not worthy (as the Bishop said) of your acceptance, but as an earnest of something better." To this little parish Mr. Polwhele immediately removed, undertook also the curacy of St. Anthony, and was appointed a magistrate. In this domestic retirement Mr. Polwhele passed the happiest of his days. Here also Mr. Polwhele published numerous poems, one of which, The Influence of Local Attachment, is perhaps the best of Mr. Polwhele's poetical productions. This originally appeared anonymously in 1796. In the same year also Mr. Polwhele edited a selection of Essays and Poems by Gentlemen of Devon and Cornwall, and several of his pieces enrich the work; which led to jealousies between the writers, and controversial letters, as may be seen in the Gentleman's and European Magazines of that day; or in a Memoir of Mr. Polwhele, in The Public Characters for 1802-3, p. 263.

In 1797 Mr. Polwhele published The Old English Gentleman, a Poem, in which he exhibited the manners of the 17th century in a country gentleman of family. And in 1798, The Unsex'd Females, addressed to the author of the Pursuits of Literature. In this poem the author notices the most distinguished literary characters among the British fair. This satirical sketch, was republished by Cobbett in America in 1800, with a commendatory preface.

In 1799 appeared Grecian Prospects, a poem in two cantos, by Mr. Polwhele. In this poem, a Welsh Bard in the Isle of Lesbos, laments the then degraded situation of the Grecian States.

In the Poetical Register, Vol. 1. appeared Lines on the Scarlet Fever, Sept. 15, 1801; and in the Spirit of Anti-jacobinism, 1802, Sir Aaron, and other pieces.

Whilst at Manaccan Mr. Polwhele violently attacked methodism in Letters to Dr. Hawker, of Plymouth, and in Anecdotes of Methodism, 1800. He also published the following professional works: A Discourse preached at Manaccan, Aug. 27, 1797, in consequence of two melancholy events, — a violent storm and a murder; An Assize Sermon, printed at the request of the judges; and A Visitation Sermon, printed at the request of the Archdeacon, 1801; Illustrations of Scriptural Characters, 1802, a judicious and pleasing publication. He also contributed notes to Flindell's Family Bible, 1800; of which the Introduction by the Rev. John Whitaker, is admirably written.

In 1806 an increasing family, at a distance from school, induced Mr Polwhele to leave his little vicarages of Manaccan and St. Anthony, (to the latter of which he was presented by the Lord Chancellor in 1809, at the instance of Bishop Pelham and Lord De Dunstanville; and which living he resigned some years ago to his son, the Rev. William Polwhele), to the care of others, and removed himself to the curacy of Kenwyn, a populous parish in the vale of Truro. Here Mr. Polwhele was very active in his ministerial and magisterial capacities, being ever ready to come forward on all loyal and other occasions with his person and his pen. In the meanwhile the ardour of publication (unfortunately, perhaps, become habitual) was not abated. Indeed it was so great, that we can scarcely enumerate all his works. In poetry appeared Poems by Mr. Polwhele, 3 vols. in 1806; The Family Pictures, a Poetic Epistle, in 1808; Poems, 5 slight 8vo. vols., in 1810; The Minstrel, a continuation of Beattie's Poem in the Poetical Register, vol. VIII. p. 48; The Deserted Village School, a poem, 1812; The Fair Isabel, 8vo. 1815; and Specimens of the Picturesque, 1819.

In History Mr. Polwhele published, besides the Devonshire,

The History of Cornwall; civil, military, religious, architectural, agricultural, commercial, biographical, and miscellaneous, in 7 vols. 4to. 1803.

The first volume is dedicated to the Prince of Wales; and contains the Civil History from Caesar to Vortigern. Vols. II. and III. continue the Civil History from Vortigern to Edward I. To these volumes is appended "A Supplement by his friend the Rev. John Whitaker, containing 1. Remarks on St. Michael's Mount, Penzance, the Land's End, and the Sylleh Isles, 1804; 2. Remarks on the Roman Architecture and Castrametation, by Bishop Benett; 3. Account of Four Roman Urns, by the Rev. Malachy Hitchins; 4. Cursory Remarks on the Romance of Morte Arthur. In this article appears a long and interesting letter on the subject from Sir Walter Scott.

Vol. IV. contains The Civil and Military History of Cornwall, with Illustrations from Devonshire; with Chapters on religion; on civil, military, and religious architecture; on air, water, and agriculture, mining, manufactures, commerce, &c.

Vol. V. is on The Language, Literature, and Literary Characters of Cornwall, with Illustrations from Devonshire. In this volume is contained a vast fund of biographical information, not easily accessible for want of an index.

Vol. VI. is a Cornish-English Vocabulary, a Vocabulary of Local Names, chiefly Saxon, and a Provincial Glossary.

Vol. VII. relates to the population, "the health, strength, activity, longevity, and diseases of its inhabitants, with illustrations from Devonshire," abounding in curious statistical information.

We shall dismiss Mr. Polwhele's labour on the history of his native county with the opinion of his highly-gifted and liberal fellow-labourer Mr. Drewe, who speaks of them as "volumes containing an almost inexhaustible fund of valuable materials," and as "a work evincing considerable industry, and displaying an ample field of resources, over which the author (Mr. Drewe) has ranged with sufficient care to enrich himself with its spoils." "The language (he continues) is perspicuous, easy, and expressive, frequently elegant, and sometimes sublime."

In Divinity and professional subjects Mr. Polwhele published,—

1. A new vol. of Sermons, 1810, which were commended by the critics.

2. Twenty-five Sermons, 2 vols. 8vo.

3. The Church and Methodist contrasted, 1812.

4. A letter to the Rev. C. V. Le Grice on the Revivalism of the Methodists: to which are added Anecdotes of Methodism and a Sermon, 1814.

5. Sermon on the Death of the Princess Charlotte, 1817.

6. Essay on the Intermediate State of the Soul, published anonymously in the name of Eusebius Exoniensis, to which a donation of 50 from Lord Kenyon was adjudged.

7. A republication of Bishop Lavington on Enthusiasm, 1820.

8. Two Sermons preached at the opening of Kenwyn New Church, 1820, 1821.

In April 1820 Mr. Polwhele delivered to the Literary and Philosophical Institution of Truro, a Lecture on Taste, in which he read copious extracts from all unpublished poem on The Pleasures of Taste.

In 1821 Mr. Polwhele was presented by Dr. Carey, Bishop of Exeter, to the vicarage of St. Newlyn, (about eight miles from Truro,) a living to which one of his own family had been presented about a century and a half before. Here be resided till 1828, but though his pen was never idle, his publications were comparatively few.

On the establishment of the Royal Society of Literature, in 1823, Mr. Polwhele was appointed an honorary associate; and in 1824 appeared An Epistle to Archdeacon Nares, Vice President of the Royal Society of Literature, from Richard Polwhele, an honorary associate.

An Essay on Marriage, Adultery, and Divorce, now first printed: and An Essay on the State of the Soul between Death and the Resurrection, to both of which premiums have been adjudged by the Church Union Society. The outline of a Sermon, and a Lecture on Taste, with an appendix containing various illustrations, particularly The Deserted Village School, a poem, 1823; Outlines of Four Sermons, 1824, entitled, 1. The Sepulchre of Psammis; 2. The Knowledge of the Truth; 3 and 4. Insanity no Symptom of Conviction or Conversion. A long list of publications intended in 1825, may be seen in Traditions and Recollections, Vol. II. pp. 706, 707.

In 1826, Mr. Polwhele was induced to publish a work (originally compiled for the amusement of his own family circle,) entitled, Traditions and Recollections, domestic, clerical, and literary; in which are included, Letters of Charles II., Cromwell, Fairfax, Edgecumbe, Macaulay, Wolcot, Opie, Whitaker, Gibbon, Buller, Courtenay, Moore, Downman, Drewe, Seward, Darwin, Cowper, Hayley, Hardinge, Sir Walter Scott, and other literary characters. 2 vols. 8vo. From these amusing volumes we have gleaned our principal materials for this memoir.

In 1828 Mr. Polwhele removed his residence to his paternal seat at Polwhele near Truro; and in 1831 appeared Biographical Sketches in Cornwall, in three small volumes; containing anecdotes and correspondence of men eminent in mathematics, physic, medicine, law, divinity, history and antiquities, oratory, poetry, painting, and criticism. The third volume of this miscellaneous work is wholly occupied by the memoirs and correspondence of the Rev. John Whitaker.

In the same year was published The Rural Rector; or a Sketch of Manners, Learning, and Religion, in a Country Parish; tracing the March of Intellect from the Sunday to the Infant School, 3 vols. small 8vo. In this publication Mr. Polwhele endeavoured to place the "march of intellect" in as ludicrous a light as possible, hoping to arrest the revolutionary leaders in their mad career. In 1832 he published Letters of Sir Walter Scott, addressed to the Rev. Richard Polwhele, Davies Gilbert, esq. Francis Douce, esq. and others. Accompanied by an original autobiography of Lieut. Gen. Sir Hussey Vivian, Bart. K. C. B. (which last was afterwards, from the modesty of the gallant General, withdrawn).

In 1831 Mr. Polwhele published A Letter to the Bishop of Exeter, in which he appears to have thought more charitably towards the Wesleyan Methodists; as he proposes a plan by which they might coalesce with the Established Church.

In 1836 appeared Mr. Polwhele's last publication, Reminiscences in Prose and Verse, consisting of the Epistolary Correspondence of many distinguished characters, with Notes and Illustrations, 3 small 8vo. volumes; the two first of which may be considered supplementary to his former work, Traditions and Recollections; and the third consisted of Poetry, containing some of his early poems, 1. The Merchant of Smyrna, or Love and Gratitude, an interlude; 2. the Syrian Princess; 3. Dartmoor; 4. the Fall of Constantinople; and 35 specimens of miscellaneous verse, serious and ludicrous.

There have been few writers who were more constant in their labours, or who exhibited greater versatility than Mr. Polwhele. In his prose he was generally nervous and clear, in his verse forcible, descriptive, and frequently tender; in every one of his poems vice and virtue are properly contrasted, characters well opposed to each other, subjects well selected, and sentiments conveyed in appropriate language; though sometimes, to use the words of the Monthly Review, from a too-anxious desire of avoiding what is lame, prosaic, or mean, he becomes inflated and obscure, by a puzzling inversion of style, and too frequent use of obsolete and affected words. There is also observable a meretriciousness of splendour, arising from too profuse an introduction of gaudy epithets, and too liberal art accession of "alliteration's artful aid." As a divine, in his discourses he sketches the passions with great effect. Mr. Polwhele invariably manifested (says Drewe) "an attachment to the interests of the Established Church, without, however, that liberality which might have been expected from a gentleman of his erudition, acquaintance with human nature, strong intellectual powers, variety of acquirements, and high literary character." As an historian, he wanted neither perspicuity nor candour; and its a biographer and a discriminator of character, he is deserving of peculiar commendation.

In Mr. Davies Gilbert's lately-published History of Cornwall, his predecessor is thus handsomely spoken of: "Mr. Polwhele, the author of a History of Cornwall, is distinguished by his works in every department of literature; by his early poetical effusions, when 'He lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came'; by those of his maturer age; by sermons equally sound in learning and in diction, and persuasive by their eloquence; that no Cornishman of the present day can presume to place himself, I will not say in competition, but in the same class of excellence with Mr. Polwhele." His style of preaching was, indeed, excellent; one might speak of it as was said of Dr. Robertson:

Soft as the gentle dews of even,
Descending from the gate of Heaven,
Commission'd timely to dispense
On earth their healing influence,
Reviving many a pensive flower
That suffer'd by the noon-tide hour,
Like dews or soft descending snows
Thy tuneful elocution flows.

In addition to the numerous works with his name attached, enumerated in this memoir, his writings in the periodical publications of the day remain to be noticed. To the Gentleman's Magazine he was for many years a frequent correspondent both in prose and verse; and to the British Critic, the Anti-Jacobin, and other Reviews, he was a large contributor, as appears by his correspondence with the late Mr. Archdeacon Nares and John Gifford, esq. If we add to these labours his voluminous correspondence with the Literati of the day, as printed or noticed in his biographical volumes, it would be a difficult task to enumerate the immense mass of his writing.

In his domestic relations he was highly estimable. In the discharge of his clerical and magisterial duties he was correct and exemplary, and he was the best of husbands and fathers.

Mr. Polwhele's last illness was of long duration. He was first taken ill about the end of July 1837 at Polwhele, whither he removed from Truro for the summer. In the Sept. following he was removed from Polwhele to Truro, but with this exception he was never able to leave his bed from the commencement of his painful illness to his death. On the morning of the 12th of March he expired calmly and peacefully, and full of hope in Him, whose minister he was. On Saturday the 17th his remains were deposited in the family vault in St. Clement's, Truro.

He has left a large family, consisting of 13 children, 8 sons and 5 daughters.