1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Mitford

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 206 (July 1859) 84-86.



April 27. At Benhall, Suffolk, aged 77, the Rev. John Mitford, B.A., Vicar of that parish, well known as the editor of Gray, and formerly one of the editors of the GENTLEMAN'S MAGAZINE.

Mr. Mitford was descended from the Mitfords of Mitford Castle in Northumberland, and nearly related to Lord Redesdale, and the historian of Greece. His father, John Mitford, esq., was a commander in the East India Company's China trade, and latterly resident at Richmond in Surrey, where the subject of this memoir was born, on the 13th of August, 1781: he lost his father in May, 1806. He went first to school at Richmond, and afterwards to the grammar school at Tunbridge, during the mastership of the celebrated Dr. Vicesimus Knox; from Tunbridge he removed to Oriel College, Oxford, where Dr. Copleston (afterwards Bishop of Llandaff) was his tutor; and his intimate associate was Reginald Heber, afterwards Bishop of Calcutta. In 1803, when Heber's poem on Palestine won the prize for English poetry, Mitford, who had already shewn his taste and talents for versification, was the most distinguished of his competitors. Mr. Mitford graduated B.A. in 1809, and in 1810 he obtained the living of Benhall, in Suffolk, through the interest of Lord Redesdale, within three months of his taking holy orders, having during the interval served the neighbouring church of Kelsale. On taking up his residence at Benhall, he at once indulged his fondness for arboriculture, by planting around the vestry a great variety of foreign and ornamental trees, which he lived to see arrive at high perfection and beauty, and built a new parsonage house, and exchanged the whole glebe which previously lay in distant and distinct places.

In August, 1815, Mr. Mitford was appointed Domestic Chaplain to Lord Redesdale, and presented to the rectory of Weston St. Peter's, and in 1817 to that of Stratford St. Andrew, both in Suffolk, and both in the patronage of the King; and in 1824 those livings were united during his incumbency.

The following is a list of his publications:—

1. Agnes, the Indian Captive, with other Poems. 1 vol. 12mo. 1811.

2. The Works of Gray, with a Memoir and Notes, first published in 1814 in 1 vol. 8vo., by White and Cockrane. From the hands of those publishers this work passed to Mawman, who gave Mr. Mitford 500 for a new edition, which was printed in 1815 in 2 vols. 4to. Mr. Warton had then recently communicated to Mr. Mitford 100 fresh letters of Gray, and the opportunity was then taken to restore the letters which Mason had formerly published in his Life of the Poet, but mutilated, garbled, and patched together, sometimes with fictitious dates. Mr. Mitford afterwards, in 1835, edited the Aldine edition of Gray's Works, the Poems in one, and the Letters in four volumes, for which be received 105 from W. Pickering. There have been still later editions of the Poems in 1847 and 1852.

3. The Poems of Spenser, Milton, Dryden, Butler, Prior, Swift, Young, Parnell, Goldsmith, and Falconer, with memoirs, forming other volumes of the Aldine Poets; to the Parnell is prefixed one of Mr. Mitford's most elaborate attempts in verse, — an epistle to his friend, the Rev. A. Dyce.

4. The Life of Milton, prefixed to his Works, in 8 vols. 8vo.

5. The Latin Poems of Vincent Bourne, with a memoir and notes, 1 vol. 12mo. 1840.

6. Sacred Specimens, selected from early English Poets, 1 vol. 12mo.; with a poetical Proem by the editor, of which the late Charles Lamb thought highly.

7. The Correspondence of Walpole and Mason, 2 vols. 8vo. 1851.

8. The Correspondence of Gray and Mason, 8vo. 1853.

9. Cursory Notes on various Passages in the Text of Beaumont and Fletcher, as edited by the Rev. A. Dyce, and on his "Few Notes on Shakspeare." 8vo. 1856.

10. Miscellaneous Poems, 1 vol. 12mo., 1858, published about six months before his death. This is a very pleasing selection of his fugitive pieces, but by no means containing the whole of them.

At the end of the last was announced, as "in the press," a work as yet unpublished, entitled "Passages of Scripture, illustrated by Specimens from the Works of the Old Masters of Painting."

Mr. Mitford wrote some articles in the Quarterly Review. One of them was upon one of the early works of his namesake, Miss Mitford, of Reading: it was so spiced by Mr. Gifford the editor, that Dr. Mitford (her father) went in consequence to Mr. Murray, and challenged him to mortal combat. Mr. Mitford was afterwards on friendly terms with the lady; but she was not a relation, unless a very distant one. It is true that she claimed to be descended from the Mitfords of Mitford Castle; but her father had at one time written his name Midford.

Mr. Mitford began to be a considerable contributor to the GENTLEMAN'S MAGAZINE in the year 1833. He first supplied a series of articles on our old English poets, — Peele, (whose works had then been recently published by his friend the Rev. Alexander Dyce,) Greene, and Webster; and one on Sacred Poetry, particularly the works of Prudentius.

Before the end of the same year Mr. Mitford had induced the proprietors of the Magazine to transfer a share of it to the late Mr. William Pickering, then of Chancery-lane, and afterwards of Piccadilly, at whose suggestion a new series was commenced in January 1834. Mr. Mitford therefore became the principal writer, and for the next seven yews he every month, with very few exceptions, wrote the leading article, as well as the majority of the reviews. This arduous task he very assiduously and successfully pursued until the end of 1850, when he relinquished his post, and his subsequent contributions were only few and occasional.

He varied the graver departments of his labours by frequent pieces of occasional poetry, which was usually signed by his own initials, J. M.

A peculiar feature which Mr. Mitford maintained for many years may also be pointed out as having proceeded from his pen; we mean the article of Retrospective Review, the subject of which was usually old English poetry, or some other scarce relic of our early literature.

It may be safely affirmed that during the considerable period that Mr. Mitford was editor of the GENTLEMAN'S MAGAZINE, his "leading articles," critiques, and verses, all evinced, more or less, his great abilities and the vast extent of his knowledge. Indeed, it may he said that he made a near approach to his favourite Gray in the variety of his learning and acquirements, for he was an indefatigable student of the Greek and Roman classics, well acquainted with Italian, French, and German authors, most deeply read in every department of English literature, a skilful ornithologist and botanist, and a passionate lover of painting, especially that of the Italian school. In order to indulge his taste in some of these matters, and more particularly in paintings and landscape gardening, which he had cultivated sedulously, he visited, as leisure permitted, almost every part of England, and Mr. Mitford perhaps has left no survivor who has examined a larger number of the best furnished mansions of our nobility and gentry. Nor was he less alive to all that was worthy of observation in the metropolis, whether in public or private custody. When in London, to which he paid frequent visits, Mr. Mitford was always a welcome guest at many tables, and especially at that of the late Samuel Rogers, who used to take much pleasure in his conversation.

In the days of his health and vigour, and indeed to a period beyond middle age, Mr. Mitford was an ardent admirer of the athletic sport of cricket: and we may refer to a very curious memoir on this true English game, in our number for July, 1833, p. 41, in which he investigated its origin and progress with great research and enthusiasm. (On the etymology of cricket, see also Mr. Mitford's opinion in our New Series, 1837, vol. vii. p. 338.)

Mr. Mitford had formed in early life a very valuable library of the classic authors of all countries; and many of his books are remarkable for the MS. notes of their authors or former owners. We are informed that this collection is about to be sold by auction by Messrs. Leigh Sotheby and Wilkinson.

Mr. Mitford married, Oct. 21, 1814, Augusta, second dau. of E. Boodle, esq., of Brook-street, Grosvenor-square; and has left one son, Robert Henry Mitford, esq., who married, Aug. 12, 1847, Anne, youngest daughter of the late Lieut.-Colonel William Henry Wilby, and niece of the Rev. Charles Paul, Vicar of Wellow, Somerset.

The several branches of the Mitford family are thus enumerated by Mr. Mitford himself in Nichols's Illustrations of Literature, vol. vii. p. 840: — "First branch, Bertram Mitford, of Mitford Castle. Second branch, Rev. John Mitford, of Benhall, Suffolk. Third branch, William Mitford, of Pittshill, Sussex. Fourth and last branch, Lord Redesdale, and his elder brother, the historian of Greece. The whole Mitford family are included in these four branches and the off-sets. J. W."