1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Neele

Anonymous, Memoir in Neele, Remains (New York, 1829) iii-xi.



The present volume, like almost every other Posthumous publication, has to solicit its readers' indulgence towards those unavoidable inaccuracies, for which he who alone could have corrected them, is no longer responsible. The hand that traced the following pages now moulders in the grave; the wreath which should have garlanded the poet's brow, is now twined around his sepulchre and the chaplet of his living fame, "Is hung upon his hearse, to droop and wither there!"

To the last work which will bear the name of HENRY NEELE upon its title-page, it becomes an act of duty to prefix some few particulars of his writings, and of their author: and though this tribute to the departed comes late and unavailing; though, like the custom of placing flowers in the cold hands of the dead, praise now but wastes its sweetness upon ears which can no longer listen to its melody; still, to give perpetuity to the memory of genius is one of the most grateful offices of humanity; nor does man ever seem more deserving of immortality himself, than when he is thus endeavouring to confer it worthily upon others.

The late Henry Neele was the second son of a highly respectable map and heraldic Engraver in the Strand, where he was born January 29th, 1798; and upon his Father removing to Kentish Town, was there sent to School, as a daily boarder, and continued at the same Seminary until his education was completed. At this Academy, though he became an excellent French scholar, yet he acquired "little Latin, and less Greek;" and, in fact, displayed no very devoted application to, or even talent for, study of any sort: with the exception of Poetry; for which he thus early evinced his decided inclination, and produced several specimens of extraordinary beauty, for so juvenile a writer. Henry Neele's inattention at School was, however, amply redeemed by his unassisted exertions when he better knew the value of those attainments which he had neglected; and he subsequently added a general knowledge of German and Italian, to the other languages in which he became a proficient. Having made choice of the profession of the Law, he was, upon leaving School, articled to a respectable Attorney; and, after the usual period of probationary experience, was admitted to practice, and commenced business as a Solicitor.

It was during the progress of his clerkship, in January,1817, that Henry Neele made his first appearance as an Author, by publishing a Volume of Poems; the expenses of which were kindly defrayed by his Father: who had the judgment to perceive, and the good taste to appreciate, and encourage, the dawning genius of his Son. Though this work displayed evident marks of youth and inexperience, yet it was still more decidedly characterized by a depth of thought and feeling, and an elegance and fluency of versification, which gave the surest promises of future, excellence. Its contents were principally Lyrical, and the ill-fated Collins was avowedly, his chief model. The publication of this Volume introduced the young Poet to Dr. Nathan Drake, Author of Literary Hours, &c., who, though acquainted with him "only through the medium of his writings," devoted a chapter of his Winter Nights, to a critical examination and eulogy of these Poems; "of which," says the Doctor, the merit strikes me as being so considerable, as to justify the notice and the praise which I feel gratified in having an opportunity of bestowing upon them." And in a subsequent paragraph, he observes, that, "when beheld as the very firstlings of his earliest years, they cannot but be deemed very extraordinary efforts indeed, both of taste and genius; and as conferring no slight celebrity on the author, as the name next to be pronounced, perhaps, after those, of Chatterton and Kirke White."

The duties and responsibility of active life, however, necessarily withdrew much of his attention from writing: yet though his professional avocations were ever the objects of his first regard, he still found frequent leisure to devote to composition. In July, 1820, Mr. Neele printed a new Edition of his Odes, &c., with considerable additions; and in March, 1823 published a Second Volume of Dramatic and Miscellaneous Poetry, which was, by permission, dedicated to Miss Joanna Baillie, and at once established its Author's claims to no mean rank among the most popular writers of the day. The minor Poems, more especially the Songs and Fragments, were truly beautiful specimens of the grace and sweetness of his genius; and amply merited the very general approval with which they were received.

Ardent and enthusiastic in all his undertakings, Mr. Neele's Literary industry was now amply evidenced by his frequent contributions to the Monthly Magazine, and other Periodicals; as well as to The Forget Me Not, and several of its contemporary Annuals; the numerous Tales and Poems for which, not previously reprinted by himself, are all included in the present Volume. Having been long engaged in studying the Poets of the olden time, particularly the great masters of the Drama of the age of Queen Elizabeth, for all of whom, but more especially for Shakspeare, he felt the most enthusiastic veneration, he was well qualified for the composition of a series of Lectures on English Poetry, from the days of Chaucer down to those of Cowper, which he completed in the Winter of 1826; and delivered, first at the Russell, and subsequently at the Western Literary, Institution, in the Spring of 1827. These Lectures were most decidedly successful; and both public and private opinion coincided in describing them as "displaying a high tone of Poetical feeling in the Lecturer, and an intimate acquaintance with the beauties and blemishes of the great subjects of his criticism." Although written with rapidity, and apparent carelessness, they were yet copious, discriminative, and eloquent; abounding in well-selected illustration, and inculcating the purest taste. From the original Manuscripts these compositions are now first published and deeply is it to be deplored, that the duty of preparing them for the Press should have devolved upon any one but their Author: since in that case alone, could the plan which he had evidently proposed to himself have been fully completed; and where, in many instances, his intentions can now but be conjectured only, from the traces of his outline, his design would then have been filled up to its entire extent, and harmonized in all its proportions of light and shadow.

In the early part of 1827 Mr. Neele published a new Edition of his Poems, collected into two Volumes; and in the course of the same year produced his last and greatest Work, the Romance of English History, which was dedicated, by permission, to His Majesty; and though extending to three Volumes, and, from its very nature, requiring much antiquarian research, was completed in little more than six months. Flattering as was the very general eulogium which attended this publication, yet the voice of praise was mingled with the warnings of approaching evil; and, like the lightning which melts the sword within its scabbard, it is but too certain that the incessant labour and anxiety of mind attending its completion, were the chief sources of that fearful malady which so speedily destroyed him.

'Twas his own genius gave the final blow,
And help'd to plant the wound that laid him low;
So the struck Eagle, stretch'd upon the plain,
No more through rolling clouds to soar again,
View'd his own feather on the fatal dart,
Which wing'd the shaft that quiver'd in his heart!
Keen were his pangs, but keener far to feel
He nursed the pinion which impell'd the steel;
While the same plumage that had warm'd his nest,
Drank the last life-drop of his bleeding breast!

Of the work itself, which comprises a series of Tales, founded on some Romantic occurrences in every reign, from the Conquest to the Reformation, it is difficult to speak accurately. The subject, excepting in its general outlines, was one to which Mr. Neele was confessedly a stranger; and as he had to search for his materials through the obscure Chronicles of dry antiquity, and actually to "read up" for the illustration of each succeeding narrative, his exertions must have been equally toilsome and oppressive; and the instances of haste and inaccuracy, which, it is to be regretted, are of such frequent occurrence, are thus but too readily accounted for. On the other hand, the Tales are, in general, deeply interesting and effective; the leading historical personages all characteristically distinguished; and the dialogue, though seldom sufficiently antique for the perfect vraisemblance of History, is lively and animated. The illustrations of each reign are preceded by a brief chronological summary of its principal events; and amusement and information are thus most happily and inseparably united.

The Romance of History was very speedily reprinted in a Second Edition, and one Tale, Blanche of Bourbon, (inserted at page 167 of this Volume,) was written for its continuation; as Mr. Neele would most probably have prepared another series; though it was the Publisher's original intention that each Country should be illustrated by a different Author.

With the mention of a new edition of Shakspeare's Plays, under the superintendence of Mr. Neele as Editor, for which his enthusiastic reverence for the Poet of "all time," peculiarly fitted him, but which, for the want of patronage, terminated after the publication of a very few Numbers, closes the record of his Literary labours, and hastens the narration of that "last scene of all," which laid him in an untimely grave. All the fearful details of that sad event it were too painful to dwell upon; and if, the curtain of oblivion even for a moment be removed, it is to weep over them in silence, and close it again for ever. Henry Neele fell by his own hand; the victim of an overwrought imagination:

Like a tree,
That, with the weight of its own golden fruitage,
Is bent down to the dust.

On the morning of Thursday, February 7th, 1828, when he had scarcely passed his thirtieth birth-day, he was found dead in his bed, with but too positive evidences of self-destruction. The unhesitating verdict of the Coroner's Inquest was Insanity, as he had exhibited unquestionable symptoms of derangement on the day preceding. And thus, in the very Spring of life, with Fame and Fortune opening their brightest view's before him, he perished under the attacks of a disease, from which no genius is a defence, and no talent a protection; which has numbered among its victims some of the loftiest Spirits of humanity, and blighted the proudest hopes that ever waked the aspirings of ambition.—

Breasts, to whom all the strength of feeling given,
Bear hearts electric, charged with fire from Heaven,
Black with the rude collision, inly torn,
By clouds surrounded, and on whirlwinds borne,
Driven o'er the lowering atmosphere that nurst
Thoughts which have turn'd to thunder, scorch and burst!

In person, Mr. Neele was considerably below the middle stature; but his features were singularly expressive, and his brilliant eyes betokened ardent feeling and vivid imagination. Happily, as it has now proved, though his disposition was in the highest degree kind, sociable, and affectionate, he was not married. His short life passed, indeed, almost without events; it was one of those obscure and humble streams which have scarcely a name in the map of existence, and which the traveller passes by without inquiring either its source or its direction. His retiring manners kept him comparatively unnoticed and unknown, excepting by those with whom he was most intimate; and from their grateful recollection his memory will never be effaced. He was an excellent son; a tender brother; and a sincere friend. He was beloved most by those who knew him best; and at his death, left not one enemy in the world.

Of his varied talents this posthumous Volume will afford the best possible estimate; since it includes specimens of nearly every kind of composition which Mr. Neele ever attempted. The Lectures will amply evidence the nervous eloquence of his Prose; and the grace and tenderness of his Poetry are instanced in almost every stanza of his Verse. Still, with a mind and manners so peculiarly amiable, and with a gayety of heart, and playfulness of wit, which never failed to rouse the spirit of mirth in whatever society he found himself, it is, indeed, difficult to account for the morbid sensibility and bitter discontent, which characterize so many of his Poems; and which were so strongly expressed in a contribution to The Forget Me Not for 1826, (vide page 322 of these Remains,) that the able Editor, his friend, Mr. Shoberl, considered it his duty to counteract its influence by a "Remonstrance," which was inserted immediately after it. This is a problem, however, which it is now impossible to solve; and, with a brief notice of the present work, this Introduction will, therefore, at once be closed.

The following pages contain all the unpublished Manuscripts left with Mr. Neele's family; as well as most of those Miscellaneous Pieces which were scattered, very many of them anonymously, through various Periodicals, several of which are now discontinued; though the Tales and Poems alluded to were never printed in any former collection of his writings. From the facility with which Mr. Neele wrote, the ready kindness with which he complied with almost every entreaty, and his carelessness in keeping copies, it is, however, highly probable, that numerous minor Poems may yet remain in obscurity. It would., indeed, have been easy to have extended the present Volume, even very far beyond its designed limits, but the failure of more than one similar attempt was a caution to warn from the quicksand on which they were wrecked; and to contract, rather than to extend, the boundaries previously prescribed. The Satire of the Reverend Author of Walks in a Forest has, unluckily for its objects, been but too frequently deserved:—

When Genius dies,
I speak what Albion knows, surviving friends,
Eager his bright perfections to display
To the last atom, echo through the land
All that he ever did, or ever said,
Or ever thought:
Then for his writings, search each desk and drawer,
Sweep his Portfolio, publish every scrap,
And demi-scrap he penn'd beg, borrow, steal,
Each line he scribbled, letter, note, or card,
To order shoes, to countermand a hat,
To make inquiries of a neighbour's cold,
Or ask his company to supper. Thus,
Fools! with such vile and crumbling trash they build
The pedestal, on which at length they rear
Their huge Colossus, that, beneath his weight,
'Tis crush'd and ground; and leaves him dropt aslant,
Scarce raised above the height of common men!

Here, then, this Introduction terminates. To those who loved him living, and who mourn him dead, these Remains of Henry Neele are dedicated; in the assured conviction that his Genius will long "leave a mark behind," and not without a hope, that even this slight Memorial will serve

To pluck the shining page from vulgar Time,
And leave it whole to late Posterity.