As an extreme tenderness and liberality of brotherly affection formed the most striking feature in the character of the departed Author, whose collected poems are here presented to the Reader, it is hoped the public will receive with indulgence a brief memorial of his life from the hand of a surviving Sister. She ventures to speak, not only for herself, but for three of her fellow-sufferers in his death. It is their united wish to render all the little honour in their power to his memory, by a faithful declaration, that all of them have had abundant reason to contemplate the endearing character of the protector they have lost, with indelible gratitude and veneration. It is not my intention to indulge myself in such praises of the deceased, as might appear likely to arise from the partiality of a sister. I shall merely endeavour to record, as briefly as I can, the principal incidents of his life, and to illustrate his feelings, and his virtues, by selected passages from a few of his letters to the illustrious object of his esteem and imitations, the Author of the Task.
The Rev. James Hurdis was born at Bishopstone in the county of Sussex, in the year 1763. He was the third child and only son of James Hurdis, Gent. by his second wife, whom he married in the year 1759. His father dying, and leaving his mother in no affluent circumstances, with seven children, our Author was at her expence sent to school in the city of Chichester, at the age of eight years, first under the tuition of the Rev. Richard Tireman, an instructor whom he sincerely respected; and afterwards under the Rev. John Atkinson, for whose memory and literary abilities he had the highest veneration. And as a mark of Mr. Atkinson's esteem for his pupil, he bequeathed to him at his death a handsome legacy of valuable books. Here our Author also experienced the protection of his affectionate uncle, the Rev. Thomas Hurdis, D.D. Canon Residentiary of Chichester, and Canon of Windsor.
Being of a delicate frame and constitution, our Author seldom partook in the juvenile sports of his school companions, but generally employed his hours of leisure in reading such books as are more attractive to a youth who has an early passion for literature. His inclination to poetry soon made its appearance in many poetical compositions, amongst which was a tragedy of five acts, entitled Panthea, founded on the story in Xenophon's Cyropaedia. This was afterwards transformed into a poem, a juvenile work so long, that it has been thought prudent to omit it in this collection.
Music was the only amusement which could induce him to relax from his study of books: the love of that enchanting science seems to have been naturally united with his disposition, even from an infant. As he advanced in life, he became a proficient upon almost every musical instrument: but the organ appears to have been his favourite; and during the time of his being at school, he nearly completed the building of a small one, a work interrupted by his quitting school for Oxford.
In 1780 he was entered a Commoner of St. Mary Hall, Oxford: and at the election in 1782 he was chosen a Demy of St. Mary Magdalene College. Now finding himself freed from the restrictions of a school-boy, and a more ample field opening to the encouragement of his poetical taste, his application to books and poesy became almost unlimited.
His friends in Oxford were few and select, and only such as were endeared to him by good-nature, conformity of opinion, and fellowship in study. Amongst those who contributed to his support and encouragement, we must not omit to mention, with much respect, the Right Rev. George Home, D.D. late Bishop of Norwich, and President of Magdalene College; the Rev. Dr. Routh, President of the same College; the Rev. Thomas Sheppard, D.D. of Amport and Basingstoke; and his esteemed friend and tutor at St. Mary Hall, the Rev. John Rathbone, D.D. of Buckland.
At the commencement of every vacation, he returned to his mother at Bishopstone, and devoted this interval of relaxation from his own studies, to the assiduous instruction of his four younger sisters in those branches of literature, which he thought might he most beneficial to them. To his application and industry they owe all which they have ever acquired.
About the Year 1784 he went to Stanmer in Sussex, where he resided for some considerable time, as tutor to the late Earl of Chichester's youngest son, Mr. George Pelham, now the Right Rev. Lord Bishop of Bristol; of whose literary attainments, and good qualities, I cannot more justly express his opinion, than by making the following extract from one of his letters, written to William Cowper, Esq. dated 1792. "Mr. George Pelham is preferred to the valuable living of Bexhill, about twelve miles from Burwash. He is just turned of five and twenty, and is already in possession of two livings. If he mount with such rapidity, it cannot be long before he obtains, what his good qualities cannot fail to adorn, a mitre. Whatever his fortune, I am satisfied I shall never feel myself less than proud to own he was once my pupil. Indeed, of the whole family I could draw a picture, which even the most cynical judgement would allow had traits of the truest nobility."
In May 1785, having obtained the degree of Bachelor of Arts, he retired to the curacy of Burwash in Sussex, his Rector being the Rev. John Courtail, Archdeacon of Lewes. In this situation he resided six years.
In 1780 he was elected Probationer Fellow of Magdalene College; and the following year took his Matter of Arts degree. Now finding himself sufficiently enabled to assist his mother in the support of her family, he hired a small house, and took three of his sisters to reside with him.
It is the general custom of those who describe the life of an Author, to deliver a critical opinion upon each of his works. Many reasons induce me not to attempt what I trust I may with propriety decline. Yet in my zeal to promote the reputation of a dear departed brother, I hope it may not be improper for me to cite in this memoir a most respectable authority in his favour. I mean those expressions of friendly praise on several of his publications, which I have selected from the letters addressed to him by his favourite friend, the late Mr. Cowper; because he himself used to consider the praise of that excellent person, as the most delightful reward of his literary labour.
It was at this time our Author first appeared to the public as a poet. In 1788 he published his Village Curate, the reception of which far exceeded his expectations, a second edition being called for the following year.
I shall here quote a passage from a letter which he afterwards received from Mr. Cowper.
"I have always entertained, and have occasionally avowed, a great degree of respect for the abilities of the unknown author of the Village Curate, unknown at that time, but now well known, and not to me only, but to many. You will perceive, therefore, that you are no longer an Author incognito: the writer, indeed, of many passages, which have fallen from your pen, could not long continue so. Let genius, true genius conceal itself where it may, we may say of it, as the young man in Terence of his beautiful mistress, 'diu latere non potest.'"
In 1790 he sent to the press his second production, a poem entitled Adriano, or the first of June, which was followed in a short time by the several poems, Panthea, Elmer and Ophelia, and the Orphan Twins. He next proceeded on a biblical research, in comparing the Hebrew with the English version of the Bible, and in the same year published A critical Dissertation on the true Meaning of the Hebrew Word [Hebrew characters], found in Genesis i. 21.
In 1791, through the interest of the Earl of Chichester, he was appointed to the living of Bishopstone. In this year he wrote the Tragedy of Sir Thomas More; and his select critical Remarks upon the English Version of the first ten Chapters of Genesis.
I shall here again cite a short passage found in a letter from Mr. Cowper to Lady Hesketh, relative to this tragedy.
"To Mr. Hurdis I return Sir Thomas More tomorrow, having revised it a second time. He is now a very respectable figure, and will do my friend, who gives him to the public, considerable credit."
But here a sudden and melancholy incident occurred, which for a time entirely abstracted the mind of our Author from every literary pursuit. In 1792 he was deprived by death of his favourite sister Catharine, whose elegancies of mind are so frequently, and justly, pourtrayed in his works, under the different appellations of Margaret and Isabel.
And here I think I may, with much propriety, and justness to the affection which the Author always testified for his sister Catharine, transcribe a letter, which was since found in the possession of Mr. Cowper, relative to her death.
Could I have found a moment free from anxiety, I should certainly have spent it in writing to you. But my mind has been totally absorbed in attention to my poor little girl, whom I have at last been unable to save. I watched by her nine and thirty nights: I neglected nothing which might have proved a source of relief: but all my endeavours were ineffectual, and I have been obliged to seek her a grave, where I may rest beside her. How painful an interval has passed since I last wrote to you, you will be able to judge from your own feelings. My eye has been fixed day and night upon a little sufferer, who was better to me than the best of daughters; and I have marked the slow but certain progress of death, prevailing over a life, which was ever dearer to me than my own. If expressions of impatience have escaped me while contemplating a prospect so distressing, I hope God will forgive me. It has been his pleasure to wound me where I was most sensible, and my reason has not always been able to support it. I have seen my amiable and affectionate Catharine gradually put to death by a disease at once painful and lingering. I have lived to behold the hour in which her existence, was grievous to me: nay, I have lived to look upon her in the hour of death, without shedding tears at her dissolution. Indeed her departure was a relief to me. She had suffered extremely, and, for nearly a week before her death, had only short intervals of sense, in which she was unable to articulate her wants. In the evening on which she died, her senses returned, and she acknowledged us all, rewarding us with many thanks for our attention to her. She was then seized with a difficulty of breathing and slight convulsion, which did not appear very alarming to me, because I had seen her recover from the same symptoms before. I was the only person in the room when these began to abate, and the seemed to fall into a sound sleep, breathing without difficulty. I sat beside her, looking in her face; and the ease with which she slept soon inclined me to nod. I almost fell from my chair more than once; and being apprehensive that I might disturb her if I persisted, I went into the next room, to lie down upon a mattress which was on the floor. I met my eldest sister at the door, and desired her to give me notice when I was wanted. I had scarce laid myself down, when she came and informed me that her breath had ceased. I returned immediately into the room, and was witness to two slight efforts made by nature of the lungs, which not being to recover the action attended with success, she gave up the contest without deranging a single feature. The eyelid was still closed, the hand reclined upon the side of the easy-chair, into which the had been partly raised from the bed, and not one attitude of the composure in which I left her had been disturbed. If I had thought myself forsaken by my Maker in the former stages, of my calamity, here I became sensible of his goodness. I saw in the strongest light the peculiar blessing of a peaceful end, and I saw that end bestowed upon a little girl, for whom I should more earnestly have petitioned it than for myself.
"Thus, Sir, was I deprived of a gem, which has literally hung about my neck all the days of my life, and never lost its lustre. Thus did I bid adieu to a little motherly comforter, who has ever been as a part of myself, and without whom I know not how I shall exist. I pray that my days, if they are not few, may at least be speedy, that I may make haste to meet her in the grave. I have promised her that she shall sleep beside me, and have appointed her a place at my right hand, a situation she always loved, and from which, God knows, I never wished her to depart. Yes, my gentle Isabel, my invaluable Margaret, thou who haft been always in my eye,
Attentively regarding all I said,
And soothing all my pains with sweet concern,
thou shalt rest beside me in the grave, as well as in the cradle. I will come to thee, though thou art not able to return to me. I will endeavour to deserve, as well as thou hast done, and trust to God's mercy that I shall find thee again. And I pray him most devoutly, that, wherever thou art, the sense of my unhappiness may not reach thee.
"When I write again, I will give you some account of my little girl's natural endowments and of her attaininents."
The subject of which letter being closely connected with the one already transcribed, I shall present it also to the reader.
"I promised to give you some account of my little girl's natural endowments, and of her attainments. As to the former, you will perhaps be surprised to learn, that she was the plainest of all my family. Her figure was good, her action was graceful; but in her countenance there were many defects. She was sensible of it, and would never give me her profile. I was therefore driven to the painful necessity of stealing it after she was dead. But for her carelessness without, Nature had made ample amends by her liberality within. Her disposition was so friendly, humane, and gentle, that it was impossible to know her and not esteem her. She was always attended by good-humour, compassion, and pleasantry. Her genius was capable of the greatest undertakings, and she never lost an hour in improving it. Reading was her delight from her childhood, and you will scarce believe that at four and twenty she could have obtained the knowledge, of which I know she was possessed. Of historical, biographical, and moral writers, she read every thing she could lay her hands on, and retained facts and dates with the nicest accuracy. In any chronological doubt, in any family anecdote, in any connection formed among great men, whether princes or scholars, I know of no person who was better qualified to pass an immediate decision. In her earlier years she was extremely fond of figures. I observed the propensity, and encouraged it. She followed me with the greatest ease through the most arduous rules of arithmetic, through fractions, through decimals, through algebra, and the first rudiments of geometry. I then turned her aside to astronomical calculations; and when she was taken ill, she was upon the point of framing an almanack for the year 1793, upon a new construction, which was to be presented to Mr. Cowper, and to be called the Poet's almanack. The new and full moons, as well as the eclipses, were all to have been calculated, and the latter delineated by herself. In matters of this kind she had long since been expert, and could be certain of predicting any eclipse, however distant, without an error in time of more than two minutes. Her facility in music justly entitled her to the name which I gave her, 'the leader of my band.' It was her office to play the organ, while her two sisters sung, and I accompanied on the violoncello. I have often envied her the ease with which she acquired whatever the would. I practised much more than she did, but found she could always overtake me. It she chose, she could be rapid; but she wished rather to be scientific and expressive. She once entertained a desire to engage in the pursuit of languages. I told her I did not think it the province of a woman. It could never he useful or ornamental for the graces of a linguist are masculine. At my request she refrained, but not altogether; for some time after I had become a student of Hebrew, I found she had followed me through all my grammatical memoranda, and was able to read and to construe the original Scriptures as well as myself. She was at the same time the most expert botanist, save one, of all my sisters, and a considerable proficient in physic.
"I should weary you with my story, was I to detail every little accomplishment and every good quality for which I esteemed her. Indeed I believe that to some parts of her character I am still a stranger. She was extremely shy, and hid every thing she could. In her last illness, I often read to her sermons at her request. I was surprised to find that few were unknown to her. I asked one of her Sisters the reason. She told me, it had always been her custom, when left at home on a Sunday, (as she often was,) to read the Psalms, the Lessons, and two or three Sermons. This, Sir, was a voluntary exercise: I was not the occasion of it; for I think it an employment of more gravity than youth can generally relish. I deem it the consequence of a well-grounded assurance of the truth of Christianity, which I have never failed to inculcate, by recommending such writers as have been most lively and entertaining in the support of it.
"I will say no more. She is gone, and I must forget her. I am happy that I have been her friend, and that she has met with no calamity like this in passing through life. Death has not visited us before, since the death of my father. Had she buried a sister, I know not who could have comforted her: had she lived to see me in danger, I believe she would have died of apprehension. It is all well. She told me that she was satisfied, and why should I complain? She wished she could have carried me away with her to heaven; but comforted herself, that, if we were parted, we could none of us stay long behind her.
"Such was the esteem, which she had won of her whole family, that they have all been desirous of a place beside her, and I have enlarged the dimensions of my vault till it will hold seven. I have also been amusing myself in drawing up an inscription to be placed over her. I send it to you, that you may correct it at your leisure.
Farewell, sweet maid! whom, as bleak Winter sears
The fragrant bud of Spring, too early blown,
Untimely Death has nipt. Here take thy rest,
Inviolable here! while we, than thou
Less favour'd, through the irksome vale of life
Toil on in tears without thee. Yet not long
Shall Death divide us — Rapid is the flight
Of life, more rapid than the turtle's wing,
And soon our bones shall meet. Here may we sleep!
Here wake together! and, by his 'dear might,'
Who conquer'd Death for sinful man, ascend
Together hence to an eternal home!"
On this affliction he quitted his curacy, and with his two sisters returned to Bishopstone. Here the trouble of his mind was considerably alleviated by an affectionate invitation from his much esteemed and sincere friend, William Hayley, Esq. to visit Eartham; where he had the pleasing satisfaction of meeting and becoming personally known to William Cowper, Esq. author of the Task, with whom he had maintained a confidential correspondence for some years.
In 1792 he published his Cursory Remarks upon the Arrangement of the Plays of Shakespear, occasioned by reading Mr. Malone's Essay on the chronological Order of those celebrated Pieces. Mr. Cowper, in a letter to the Author, speaks of the above publication as follows. "I have read your Cursory Remarks, and am much pleased both with the stile and the argument. Whether the latter be new or not, I am not competent to judge: if it be, you are entitled to much praise for the invention of it. Where other data are wanting to ascertain the time when an author of many pieces wrote each in particular, there can be no better criterion, by which to determine the point, than the more or less proficiency manifested in the composition. Of this proficiency where it appears, and of those plays in which it appears not, you seem to me to have judged well and truly and consequently I approve of your arrangement."
In April, 1793, he went to Oxford, and, with two of his sisters, resided in a small house at Temple Cowley. In November the same year he was elected Professor of Poetry in that University; and in the year following took the degree of Bachelor in Divinity.
On being elected Professor, he published a Specimen of some intended Lectures on English Poetry. And it was in this year that he wrote his Tears of Affection; a poem occasioned by the lingering regret he still experienced from the death of his favourite sister.
In 1797 he took the degree of Doctor in Divinity. And in 1799 he married Harriet, daughter of Hughes Minet, Esq. of Fulham, Middlesex.
In 1800 he published his Favourite Village; and the same year his Twelve Dissertations on the Nature and Occasion of Psalm and Prophecy.
On Saturday, December 19, 1801, he went to Buckland in Berkshire, and on the day following performed the whole of Divine Service at that church. On the Monday evening he was attacked with a violent shivering, similar to that of an ague-fit. On the Tuesday be was unable to rise from his bed, complaining of great inability, and heaviness upon his eyes, which prevented him from opening them. Every medical assistance was procured, but to little effect, as he expired, apparently in a sound sleep, on the Wednesday evening, in his thirty-eighth year, at the house of his affectionate friend, the Rev. John Rathbone, D.D. His body, by his own desire, was conveyed to Bishopstone, and placed in the family vault, close by that of his sister Catharine.
He left a widow and two sons; James Henry, born June 5, 1800; and John Louis, born June 12, 1801; also a posthumous daughter, born August 1802.
He was tall, but well proportioned: his countenance serene and lively: of a fair complexion, with flaxen hair. His disposition was meek, affectionate, benevolent, and cheerful; yet occasionally irritable and impatient. With his intimate friends he was affable, polite, and familiar; but in mixed company generally reserved.
He was ever anxious to discharge the duties of his profession to the utmost of his abilities, for his piety was fervent and unaffected.
A small marble tablet is erected to his memory, by his four sisters, with the following Epitaph, by his friend, William Hayley, Esq.
Hurdis! ingenuous Poet and Divine!
A tender sanctity of thought was thine;
To thee no sculptur'd tomb could prove so dear,
As the fond tribute of a Sister's tear.
For Earth, who shelters in her vast embrace
The sleeping myriads of the mortal race,
No heart in all that multitude has known,
Whose love fraternal could surpass thine own.