Though born, as I have said, a Londoner, his childhood was spent in the pleasant village of Cleobury Mortimer, in the neighbourhood of "green fields and pleasant sheltered lanes," in the way and under the circumstances described in the first canto of The Dream of Life, a poem which might almost supersede, as it amply supplements, the present Memoir. What is so well told there will not be repeated here. He was the eldest son in a numerous family, having four brothers, all of whom he outlived, and two sisters, who still survive (1875).
Here, "in this delicious region" — so he afterwards accounted it — he remained till he went to a school, in early boyhood, at Ramsbury, in Wiltshire, six miles from Marlborough. To the excellent instruction which he there received he attributed whatever proficiency he eventually attained in classical knowledge. Thence in due time he proceeded to Eton (then under the masterly guidance and vigorous control of Dr. Keate), fully ripe for the inspiring influences of that famous seminary. Some sixty years have passed, and Eton has changed, not only, as all things else, silently and gradually with the lapse of time: it has been markedly changed. In obedience to a loud call of public opinion, it has been what is called, seldom if ever correctly, "re-formed," and doubtless improved. May it never be "transformed"! May it never lose its enduring corporate life, or part with its historic continuity. What it is now, with whatever needful correction and additional advantages, it was then, — a nursery in which, during the years of maturer boyhood, the powers both of mind and body received a healthful and gracious development: — a school in which talent with ordinary diligence, or it may be without much regular industry, attained a high and suitable cultivation, — a theatre in which were rehearsed the brilliant preludes of many an after triumph; — which provided strength, suitable accomplishment and adornment, whether for public or to private life. Such assuredly it proved to John Moultrie and to the long and shining list of his distinguished associates.
The poet Shelley, who was seven years his senior, had left behind him the memory of a name which had already become famous, but his school-life was shared and his genius fostered by the companionship of Lord Morpeth, afterwards Lord Carlisle; by the highly-gifted, but eccentric and unfortunate Sidney Walker; by Richard Okes, now Provost of King's College, Cambridge; by J. L. Petit, then known as an elegant scholar, subsequently as an accomplished Antiquarian and Architectural Critic; by Henry and Edward Coleridge, and by Winthrop Mackworth Praed. The list is far from complete, the above names being selected as among those best known to fame. — With Mr. Stanley, afterwards Lord Derby, father of the present Earl, he was not, I believe, particularly acquainted, but the great power of the future statesman was not unmarked and cannot have been without influence on the school. The estimation in which Moultrie was held by his contemporaries was strikingly attested at the time by perhaps the most brilliant of their number, in the last number of the Etonian — "And what should I say of Moultrie? the humorous Moultrie, — the pathetic Moultrie, — the Moultrie of Godiva and the Moultrie of My Brother's Grave? — Truly I should say nothing of him, for his genius is so incomprehensible and his capacities so various, that if I were to attempt to draw his character or define his powers, it would be ten to one that the next effort of his pen would disprove my every word." So in the glow of an early friendship that never waned, spake one precocious boy of another, whose early ripeness did but anticipate an advancing and fuller maturity. Life, as we shall see, threw a sober colouring over the picture, but did not obliterate its outlines.
It will be seen from the above sketch that his main distinction in the eyes of his schoolfellows, lay out of the line of scholastic study. He was however an elegant and accomplished scholar, of the Eton type, and as such his name will be handed down in the Musae Etonenses. He says of himself in the autobiographical poem to which I must again and again refer:
Yet among my peers,
(Albeit no sleepless student) I enjoyed
A scholar's reputation, nor disdained
The accomplishment of verse, and now, methinks,
Amidst the preludings of boyish thought
And those young classic studies, I discern
The germs of much which, growing with my growth,
And strengthened with my strength, hath since become
A portion of my Being — If my song
Hath ever found a way to gentle hearts,
'Twas by the nurture and development
Of dormant powers, then first and only found,
That its wild notes were fashioned to express
A natural tenderness.
For a testimony to the like effect I am indebted to his school and college friend, Dr. James Chapman, which I gladly record, as well for its own sake as for the characteristic anecdote by which it is accompanied.
"John Moultrie was never a hard worker, even before you knew him, but his easy and graceful composition, both in English and Latin verse, was without a rival. There he shone from earliest days 'facile princeps.' Only last week I was reading over some of his MS. exercises preserved in our own library. We incurred our first punishment at Eton together, or rather risked it, very soon after our entrance, by a pilgrimage to Gray's monument at Stoke, which was much too far for the limited time, and made us very late: but in out simplicity we promptly told Dr. Keate where we had been, and he good-humouredly said that in hope we should try to turn out as good poets as Gray, he would excuse our absence."
(From a Letter of Bishop Chapman to the Rev. Derwent Coleridge.)
"It was not my lot to share with Moultrie the culture of Eton, or the companionship of his earlier years. Other scenes and other influences prepared me for the friendship in which we were so soon to be united, with marked, but harmonising difference.... I have now to speak of the full-grown youth, as I first knew him in the spring and early summer of his genius. He was my senior at the University by one twelvemonth, a period nearly corresponding to the difference in our years, he having entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a commoner in the October of 1819. He had already gained the second Bell's Scholarship and a Scholarship in his own College, the only academical honours for which he ever seriously strove. For mathematical study he had no liking, though I have no reason to believe that it lay beyond the reach of his powers. Classical distinction he might readily have obtained, had he devoted himself with the requisite earnestness to the pursuit, and had he mastered that modicum of mathematical proficiency which was then required for a place in the Classical Tripos. His thoughts, his feelings, his powers of mind were otherwise engaged — not without self-reproach: and yet it may well be said they were all directed unwittingly and against his will into the right channel, and that this was a fitting seed-time for the future harvest, bearing as it did a plenteous out-growth of spring flowers. He would have been the last, however, to plead this as an excuse or justification. He had to struggle, and eventually did struggle more or less successfully, with a constitutional indolence keenly felt and bitterly deplored. Few men in after life have trodden the path of duty with a firmer step; but at college, in the eyes of men, and for the immediate object, he was an idler. And here I must perforce again refer to his own poetic record, as a sufficient, and by far the most appropriate account which can be handed down of his doings and associations in these last years of his early youth. I say perforce, for now I am met with a peculiar difficulty. The third canto of The Dream of Life is dedicated to myself. I know not how to disclaim, without the semblance of affectation, what yet I cannot suffer to pass without a comment, the portraiture there delineated by the pencil of a too partial friend, of all men that I ever knew the most disposed to set others above himself. I have often thought that this characteristic modesty was somewhat in excess, leading him to a false estimate of his own powers, and so to a want of self-assertion, at least in the ordinary intercourse of life. If it were so, it was indeed 'the infirmity of a noble mind,' in a more gracious sense than this was affirmed of ambition, and to which it stood in a sort of contrast."
A few sentences may suffice to supply whatever he has left untold of this part of his history. My introduction to Moultrie and to the "Eton set" with which he was connected, took place immediately upon my arrival at the University, through the kindness of a near relation, Henry Nelson Coleridge, then a Scholar of King's. His portrait, with that of his other schoolmates, Winthrop Praed and Sidney Walker, has been drawn by Moultrie himself "in numerous verse," and to that "band of brothers" were now added Thomas Babington Macaulay and his school friend Henry Maldon, Charles Austin, (the only one of our associates who could hold his own in argument or intellectual display with Macaulay,) Chauncey Hare Townshend and his friend Charles Taylor, — a society to which it was indeed a privilege to belong. Together with most of these he was, I believe, a member of a select debating society, soon merged in the Cambridge Union. But in neither of these was he a speaker, not at all it is believed from want of power, had he chosen to cultivate or to exercise it. Afterwards, when occasion not merely served, but demanded the necessary effort, he showed that he possessed the faculty of ready and impressive speech; — but he was from first to last, a listener not a talker — noticeably, and it may be said, notably, silent. It is not sufficient — and it would not be correct — to attribute this to preoccupation with his own thoughts and feelings. He was not self-absorbed. He lived with others, as he lived for others, far more than most men. His was a companionable silence. The truth is it cost him an effort to break through a habit to which he was constitutionally predisposed, and this effort he was seldom inclined to make; the less so, as the modesty of which I have already spoken, the self-depreciation, which I never ceased to regret and against which I have sometimes ventured to remonstrate, always induced him in the presence of those whom he loved and respected, rather to receive from the stores of others, than to impart from his own. He had nothing which, in his own estimate, it was worth while to add; and it was not for him to correct, even when he could not wholly approve.
It was indeed a period of active enquiry and hardy speculation, ably, and I must add relentlessly if not recklessly, pursued within that circle of friends, by which he was deeply moved, but to which he never openly assented, and which certainly never won his inward consent, alien as it was to his nature and utterly opposed to his dearest hopes and highest aspirations, while yet it encouraged and fed his doubts and fears.
The hard-eyed spectre, by the will of man
Engendered — altogether of the earth,
And earthy — which the laws of human realms
Create, and can at pleasure uncreate.
Dream of Life, Canto III.
From the first he was disposed to view all things both in heaven and earth, in the soft light of human affection — and of human — more than human — hope. How this temper was matured and how it took intellectual shape and substance in the gradual building up of his mind, he has left behind him ample and abiding proof. Even in the literary discussions which were carried on with a flow of eloquence and a range of knowledge which I have never heard surpassed, he was for the most part content to enjoy, in silent sympathy, his own fine perceptions and keen appreciation. It was his part to furnish the material for such debate, though he was far from arrogating to himself this prerogative. He left others to lead, attaching far less than the true value to his own guidance. I will not say that this was wholly a merit, or that he might not have shewn with advantage more self-assertion then and throughout his life. Certainly he did not want the power — under a strong inducement.
His personal appearance was not then what it afterwards became; — such as it is now remembered and will be handed down in portraiture. He was indeed "a noticeable man" — tall and stalwart, with somewhat ungainly movements and a somewhat rugged cast of features. As years went on, these were softened and fell into harmony. His gait and figure acquired an air of gentle, unassuming dignity, while his countenance, always expressive, might be seen to answer to every play of fancy and every touch of feeling. To a close observer a passing gleam in the eye revealed from time to time the workings of poetic thought. His frame was large and soon filled out to somewhat portly dimensions. A similar, but much more rapid change took place in his character, at least in its outward show and semblance, for in his inner mind, and in the depths of his heart, he must have been from the first the same which he remained to the last, as will not be doubted by any reader of My Brother's Grave. Within him must have been the same spring, exhaustless as it proved, of meditative tenderness, the same yearning for the good, the beautiful and the loving. It has been said that young men have many skins to cast before they appear in their proper shape. The skin which he cast shortly after I first knew him was, it must be admitted, of a rougher texture than that which he afterwards assumed, or rather which was found beneath. The child is father of the man. But outwardly there was a change. His tastes became at once more refined and more elevated, to which a corresponding alteration in his habits of speech bore evidence. He was passing through, and just escaping from a period of uneasy distraction and turbulence of spirit — the ferment of youthful power and feelings, not yet settled and clarified. It would not perhaps have been worth while to mark so ordinary an occurrence, if it did not serve as a comment upon the poems now collected and presented in chronological order.
Of his literary career I shall speak hereafter in a general review. The mingled strains of jest and earnest, of pathetic and sportive humour which he produced at Cambridge, whether in connection with the Etonian or with Knight's Quarterly Magazine, were well suited to the turn of his mind and exhibited a variety of power to which it may perhaps be regretted that he did not afterwards give fuller scope. They were thrown off in the high spirits and unrestrained freedom of youth, and though a single specimen was republished under an altered name with his later poems, yet as a whole he would willingly have consigned them to that limbo of forgotten things, of which so many are in verse. They would not, I believe, in any case have been suffered to remain there, and certainly must be taken into account in any full estimate whether of the man or of his genius. But he had dedicated his muse to a higher and a stricter service.
Fondly as I linger over my own recollections of a period during which my own life was so closely and so constantly connected with that of my friend, whether in our daily walks or social meetings, whether in cap and gown under the shade of academic bowers, or at his own "Salopian" home and in the bosom of his pleasant family, I must yet leave the record as it has been preserved by himself, and pass to other scenes and other interests.
At the close of the year 1822 he took his degree. He had no prospect of a provision or sphere of duty at the University, and did not yet feel himself justified in taking upon himself the responsibilities of the sacred calling, for which, as it proved, he was so admirably fitted; withheld as he was by scruples of conscience, which, when they gave way to further inquiry and an interval of calm reflection, served to enhance and guarantee the depth and sincerity of the convictions under which his resolution was finally taken. He was indeed early intended for the law, and had begun to "eat his dinners" at the Middle Temple, but for the law, alike for the studies which it required and for the practice to which it was to lead, he had long entertained a growing and as it proved an unconquerable aversion. Fortunately he was saved from the necessity of making an immediate decision. Through the interest of his accomplished and excellent friend, Edward Hawtrey, afterwards headmaster and in due course Provost of Eton, but then and during the whole time Moultrie was in the college, an undermaster in the school, he was recommended to the tutorship of the three sons of Lord Craven, who were to be educated at Eton under his care. Accordingly, at Eton he took up his residence, and there, or in the neighbouring town of Windsor, he continued for the next six years; and there it was, in these fateful years that the two most important events of his life occurred; his change and final choice of a profession, and his marriage.
Of his disinclination to the law, and of the scruples which prevented him from embracing the sacred calling which appeared to be the only alternative, I have fortunately preserved an authentic record. How deeply these scruples had taken possession of his mind and for how long a time, though I was aware of their existence, I never knew till they were revealed in a letter when they had been happily overcome. A sore and anxious struggle had been going on in his mind, to which he never gave utterance. Whether he shrank from the subject as simply painful, or feared to infect others with the doubts from which he himself would gladly have been released, or deemed it wise to keep from an avowal which might commit him more deeply to the opinions which he entertained against his will, and render the change which he desired more difficult, certain it is that he suffered in silence. His heart was at variance with his head, and it was not till the former had obtained that mastery over the latter, which it ever afterwards resolutely maintained, that he made his unreserved confession. To have concealed or disguised this fact, the turning-point of his life, the life of a Christian poet and truly evangelical pastor would in my judgment have detracted from the entire truth of the narrative; — would have rendered it less real and less instructive. This consideration has led me to give his own account as taken from a letter addressed to myself, dated August 20th.
"To be serious — At the time when I was gravely employed in digesting my Temple dinners, I was tacitly abjuring the law for ever. I do not suppose that this information will surprise you very much — you partly know why the abjuration was not made years ago; and "par consequence" may partly guess why it is made now. However, if you will have the goodness to hold your tongue on the subject, I may as well say a few words about it on this and the next page, more especially as I shall want your guidance in the design which I am on the point of executing.
"I was about eight or ten years old when a habit which I had of making acute questions and equally acute answers (the fact, however incredible, is strictly true) induced my father to form the idea of breeding me to the law. He expressed a sort of hope or wish, or rather (as a certain great personage of your acquaintance says) something between the two, that I should become a lawyer; so from that moment I began to consider myself an embryo chancellor. Of course at that time I saw nothing of the profession but its wigs. Whether I ever had any talent which might have availed me in it, is, to say the truth, more than I can tell; but certain it is that, if I had, my subsequent education and habits have most satisfactorily obliterated all traces of them. Moreover from the first moment that I began seriously to consider the subject, the law has appeared to me as repulsive to my disposition as it is incompatible with my talents. My dislike to it has been increased in exact proportion to my attachment to the most opposite pursuits, till it amounts to little less than an absolute loathing. Nature, education and accident, have all combined to strengthen my antipathy. To be sure I had discovered the greater part of these misfortunes some time before I left Eton, and it may seem odd to most people that I did not at that time alter my intentions; but, much as I disliked the law, I disliked all the other professions more, except the church."
To the sacred ministry of the church he had, it appears, for many years entertained a decided predilection. It was, as he believed, and as it assuredly proved to be "every way suited to him." Of the doubts and scruples by which he was prevented from adopting a career so fully in accordance with his inclination, I have already spoken. It is a trial from which few thoughtful minds have been always and altogether spared, and to his sensitive conscience it was exquisitely painful. It is indeed more than probable that he took a mistaken and exaggerated view of the obstacles which stood in his way, and that his early faith, which he believed to be extinct, did but slumber. Certain it is that he taxed himself severely for his want of courage in grappling with the difficulty. Taking up again his own account of the matter, he proceeds to say:
"This objection might, to be sure, have been removed by a little serious enquiry; but I was at that time inclined to anything rather than to serious enquiries; and the evil day was so far off that a sullen acquiescence in my destiny, with the enjoyment of present pleasures, and a sort of vague hope that the law might prove on acquaintance more fascinating than it appeared at a distance, seemed to my wisdom the most eligible mode of proceeding. I need not detail the various changes of opinion I have undergone during the last two years and a half: — suffice it to say that I have been for many months a speculative, that is to say a sort of Paley's Evidence Christian, and am now becoming (I hope) essentially one; but it is only within the last few months that I have felt sufficient confidence in my religion, or in myself, to think of taking orders. Thank Heaven, all objections, except prudential ones, are now pretty we'll removed, and I have nearly resolved upon writing a letter to my father, stating my determination to change my profession, and my reasons for not having done so before. This last disclosure will be somewhat surprising to him, and a little disagreeable to both parties, but I must not shrink from it. I am of opinion that you will agree with me that I am more likely to make a preacher than a pleader, and that both from my own reasons and from others, you will approve of the step which I am about to take. I wish therefore that, partly for my own satisfaction, but more for that of my father and family, you would write to me immediately, and state distinctly your opinion on the subject, and the reasons on which they are grounded. I confess that, in a worldly point of view, my hopes from the church are very moderate; but my wishes are not very extravagant."
The letter from which the above extracts are taken was written in 1822, the year before Moultrie left Cambridge. From the resolution then formed he never swerved, but it was not till 1825 that the opportunity occurred of carrying it into effect. In that year he was presented by Lord Craven to the living of Rugby, to hold in commendam for his youngest son, in case he should take orders. As it turned out, the appointment was for life. Accordingly in that year he was ordained Deacon by the Bishop of Lincoln (Pelham), and Priest shortly afterwards by the Bishop of Ely (Sparke), but he did not enter into residence before 1828.
In the same year and in connection with the prospect in life thus opened to him, he married Harriet Margaret Fergusson, the daughter of a physician then residing in Windsor, and sister of James Fergusson, now so well known as an architectural critic and historian; a young lady of Scottish extraction, distinguished alike by personal attractions, mental accomplishments, and force of character, the ornament, the stay, and the comfort of his future life — for many long years, though not to the end. How he wooed and how he won his "bright and beauteous bride" has been told by the poet-lover himself in the form best suited, it may almost be said, consecrated to such communications, and with all the particularity which the subject-matter requires or properly admits. It is the merit of such poems that they need no prosaic, no matter-of-fact explanation. It is an impertinence, and, to that "fit audience" to which poetry is addressed, a mere vexation, when such illustrations are forced upon his notice. Indeed from this time henceforth, Margaret Moultrie, with the diversified associations, domestic and parochial, which circled round her as a centre, became "the haunt and main-region" of the poet-pastor's songs. It is not however to be supposed that this was his first attachment, or, if this term expresses too close a relation, his first passion. His fancy, if not his heart, had for some years been occupied by another not unworthy Rosaline, before the Juliet appeared who was to take, and to retain her place. The name "Ione" will preserve to the readers of Moultrie's poetry the memory of a young lady, by whom some of the earlier and not the least beautiful offerings of his muse were inspired. It is no part of my duty to remove the halo which hides what it adorns.
The marriage took place on the twenty-eighth day of July, 1825, and for the next two years and five months he continued to reside at Eton or Windsor, still retaining his connection with Lord Craven's family, and occupied with its duties.
The fourth canto of The Dream of Life is inscribed by the married lover to his wife; and to this poem the reader must again be referred as an authentic comment upon the sixteen years (1825-1841), which it records with a particularity which leaves little to be added. During the period between his appointment to the living of Rugby and his entering into residence, the parsonage was partially rebuilt, and, as he says, "judiciously enlarged;" making it in his own eyes, as in those of his favoured friends to whom his hospitality was extended, "a comfortable mansion" of modest pretension, but fully equal to his wants and wishes. It was to be his home, as it proved, for life. And thither, at the beginning of the year 1828, he repaired, to engage with full purpose of heart in that course of ministerial duty which he pursued with unflagging zeal to the very last days allotted to him upon earth. Rugby, though then, as for ages past,
A seat of academic discipline
And classic education,
had not attained either the extent or the comparative importance which it has since acquired, partly from the increased attractions of the school, partly as a central station on the North-Western line, through which it is approached from the North;
To speak truth,
As insignificant a market-town
As may be seen in England.
Nor had the surrounding country much to recommend it, beyond the unfailing English beauty of green fields and meadow-walks. To the new rector, however, it was all in all: — it filled up the full measure of his contentment. He brought to it a name already distinguished, which was there to receive an "addition" of yet finer quality, the remembrance of which may well be placed side by side with other gracious memories, in close though unobtrusive association; for in such memories Rugby is and will be rich. The appointment of Dr. Arnold to the mastership of the school, on which he conferred so bright a lustre, corresponded exactly with that of Moultrie's arrival on the scene of his future labours, but for the first half-year its duties were still discharged by his predecessor, Dr. Wooll, of whom a striking portrait has been drawn by Moultrie's graphic pen. It bears no name, but is thus labelled:
One who, by me but little known, hath yet
Left in my memory the abiding trace
Of his urbane and cordial courtesy,
By scholarship and classic grace refined.
On either side of this picture hangs the counterfeit resemblance of two other contemporaries, local celebrities, the interest of which, as in the case of so many other portraits, named and unnamed, depends solely or mainly on the skill of the artist, fact as it were having passed into fiction, history into invention, with little or no loss while the truth of nature remains. And here we may notice, as a characteristic part of his character, the keen observation, the mental activity, ever astir, which lay hid, to all but the close observer, under the prevalent taciturnity under which Moultrie habitually concealed the workings whether of his heart or of his head. But now there enters upon our stage another personage who could not appear in any scene without taking a prominent part. In the August of the year at which we are now arrived, the great teacher, to whom I have already referred, entered upon his high career, not merely as master of a great public school, but as the author and example of a great educational reform, from which he was removed by what must appear to us as a too early death. With Dr. Arnold, and with his successors, Dr. Tait, Dr. Goulburn, and Dr. Temple, Moultrie was linked by ties of warm friendship and mutual esteem....