1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Neele

Barbara Hofland, "Biographical Sketch of Mr. Henry Neele" 1828; in Hofland, Life and Literary Remains (1849) 77-83.



Henry Neele was the son of an eminent letter-press engraver, many years settled in the Strand. He was brought up as a solicitor, and enjoyed a respectable share of business in that profession, up to the time of his death; being remarkable for his great regularity in the dispatch of all concerns committed to his care, and for the soundness and comprehensiveness of his views in cases committed to his examination. His poetical talents were developed very early, and first announced to the world by the celebrated Dr. Drake, who, in his Literary Hours gave a very excellent critique on the small volume then collected, which was, I believe, written when he was about seventeen. He was wisely in no haste to follow up this volume, choosing rather to give his whole mind to the arduous profession he had chosen; and some years, at least, had elapsed, when his Poems, Dramatic and appeared, and won for him so much applause, that he soon ventured a second volume. He engaged in periodical works, and composed a course of Lectures on Poetry, which displayed extraordinary research, fine taste, sound judgment, and the most commanding eloquence. They were delivered by him at the Russell Institution, and are now going to be published. Soon after giving these lectures, he engaged to write the Romance of History, and being an excellent modern linguist, it was his intention to carry the work through all the countries of Europe. The high approbation this work obtained, proved his ruin. The publishers pressed him to engage immediately in a new series of the Romance of French History; and having made the agreement, with his usual zeal and punctuality he entered on the task at a time when his spirits were absolutely exhausted by past efforts. He had for many months risen at five in the morning, and written in his mother's house till nine; he then went to his office, where he remained till eight, when he resumed his labours as an author till one or two. Nature at length could endure no more; about nine days before his death, he became confused, absorbed, deranged — then terrible ideas took possession of his mind — he said he had embezzled property, and should be transported, etc. During this time his mother became dangerously ill, and his family thought his peculiarities arose from this cause, when they noticed them, but in the greater distress they were commonly overlooked. Such was his situation, when the rash act of momentary phrenzy, caused, undoubtedly, by some new and agonizing idea, plunged into eternity this truly amiable and estimable man.

It appears from notes taken at the inquest, that his uncle, (a respectable barrister) had seen his situation, and warned his family against leaving him alone, and that on the night when the fatal act was committed, he had tried in vain to read family prayers — being too much agitated to proceed. The situation of the family, in their anxiety for the life of their only surviving parent, accounts for both circumstances, and he was found by his sister the next morning with his throat cut, and, from the situation of the corpse, there is reason to believe the terrific deed had taken place immediately on his retiring to his room the night before.

For several days previous to this horrible catastrophe, Mr. Neele had been wandering about the streets of London, and was met the day before it occurred by two friends, who remarked upon the wildness of his looks, and were astonished by the singularity of his manners; but both were in haste, and neither comprehended the cause, although they now recollect it with a terrible conviction that help for his sad situation might have been administered. His clerk saw his state clearly, but delicacy, and hope that he would be better, kept him silent. This young man is inconsolable for his loss; he told me, with bitter tears flowing, as he spoke: — "I have lived with Mr. Neele six years, and during that time, let the hurry of the hour be what it might, I can truly say I never received from him one unkind or hasty word." How much of good is comprehended in this simple testimony! Within two years, poor Neele had suffered dreadfully from a complaint in his head, which threatened him with total blindness, and for many weeks actually deprived him of sight. This severe affliction he bore with the courage of a man, and the resignation of a Christian, and with returning health entered on his too numerous avocations with a cheerful gratitude to Heaven, which will be long remembered by his friends as a delightful and affecting trait of character, and one which proves that his mind was not lightly overthrown; indeed they knew that he was a man of religious principles, and though undetermined as to opinion, never shrank from acknowledging his faith, and ascribing to it his hopes for the future, and his moral obligation in the present world.

Continually employed as he was, it will be evident that he had as little time, as inclination, for the pleasures and dissipation of the metropolis. He generally dined at six, in company with two or three friends whose pursuits resembled his own, and whose company was well calculated to give a zest to the social meal. With them he was full of playful badinage, lively argument, or eloquent discourse; but he always left them at eight, even when he was not pressed — as of late — with literary business; and when he was visiting at the house of a friend, although he was the life, of the party, and could not fail to enjoy the pleasure he inspired with that "gout" which is peculiar to the man of genius, he was always the first to depart, being alike temperate in all his enjoyments. He united in a singular degree that best quality of the mind, common sense, with that fine imagination and sparkling vivacity, we so frequently see opposed to it. In the sudden and unhappy overthrow of intellect under which he sank, unquestionably this brilliant imagination became the active source of suffering, and eventually the cause of death.

In person, Mr. Neele was below the common size, having very short legs; but when seated, his personal appearance was agreeable, his face full of sensibility, and the form of his head indicative of mental power. His manners were gentle, and somewhat reserved with strangers, but to his friends, frank and gay, though utterly incapable of all boisterous mirth. His fine practical perception of all that is most beautiful in nature, and endearing in the affections of humanity, was felt in his conversation, and even when he had been sporting the liveliest sallies of wit, he would utter sentiments of compassion, or make observations of a melancholy tendency, in a tone of such deep feeling, as to indicate a mind of singular construction, and intense sensibility of heart.

How far these powers might be connected with the disease which occasioned derangement and death, I have no means of judging. 'Tis enough to know, that "we are fearfully and wonderfully made," and that the most highly-endowed human being is called upon, even "for conscience sake," to guard his health from the effects of that excitement, which sleepless nights and anxious days never fail to produce. Towards all connected with him, Henry Neele was not only just, but generous; he was the best of sons and brothers; the kindest of friends; the most considerate of creditors; and to the utmost of his power humane and charitable to his poor brethren; but to himself, he was unmerciful, for he carried his honourable sense of punctuality to a fault: — but I dare not, I cannot condemn him for an error arising through the very exercise of virtues rarely found in the present state of society, in which selfishness may be termed the easily besetting sin.

Henry Neele was in his thirty-first year. His Romance of History is now going into the second edition; of the second series two tales are, I believe, finished, and he has also written one for the next year's Forget Me Not, of great ability, but of a mournful character. His great personal regard for Mr. Ackermann induced him to interrupt his important work, in order to furnish this article. He had promised to write a prologue for Miss Mitford's forthcoming tragedy, but I cannot learn that it has been found amongst his papers. His poetry will probably soon appear in a collected form, and be published in an uniform manner with his lectures, and it will then be seen that we have probably no records of one who had done so much and so well, who died so soon, and was besides employed in pursuits so uncongenial, yet demanding all the energies of the mind.

B. H.