1887 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Richard Hurd

Charles J. Abbey, in The English Church and its Bishops (1887) 2:223-27.



Richard Hurd (Lichfield 1774-81; Worcester 1781-1808) was a bishop about whom opinions singularly differed. To judge from what is said of him by some of his contemporaries, he was an illustrious ornament of his Church and age. There are some, on the other hand, who represent him as among the most odious of mankind. Horace Walpole called him "a servile pedant." He was much worse than that, according to Dr. Parr, who describes him, in terms of bitter hostility, as a mean and time-serving sycophant. David Hume also has some very uncomplimentary remarks on what he calls his illiberal petulance and arrogance. But if there were some truth in these imputations against him, it is evident that there was also a very different and far more honourable side of his character, which would lead to quite another estimate. He is constantly spoken of in terms of more than usual praise. Such praise might naturally be expected from Warburton, to whom Hurd had attached himself as a devoted friend and a hearty admirer. We find, therefore, Warburton extolling his "candid manners his generosity of mind, his warmth of heart," and the ability with which, "in a miserable time, he adorned letters, and supported religion." But, apart from the testimony of an intimate companion, it cannot be denied that he had won marked regard and esteem from many good men. He was George III.'s favourite bishop, reverenced by him as a clergyman and spiritual counsellor, and much valued by him as a friend. Porteus said of him, "I always entertained high respect and veneration for the character of Bishop Hurd, whose piety, learning, taste, and genius rendered him the great ornament of literature and religion, and very justly gained him not only the esteem, but the affection, friendship, and confidence of his sovereign." Jones of Nayland, one of the best of men, says that he "honoured his character no less than he admired his writings." Miss Burney records the reverence she felt for him. "I felt quite sorry," says she, "to lose sight of him. Piety and goodness are marked upon his countenance.... Indeed, in face, demeanour, and conversation, he seems precisely what a bishop should be, and who would make a looker-on, were he not a bishop, and a see vacant, call out, 'Take Dr. Hurd; that is the man!'"

Notwithstanding such wide diversity of opinion, it does not seem hard to form a tolerably fair judgment as to Bishop Hurd. A considerable deduction may at once be made from the aspersions cast upon him by his enemies. To be, in any conspicuous degree, "the king's friend" was in those days a very invidious position; for though George III. was personally popular, faction, after a lull of some duration, was raging with virulence, and anyone high in favour at court was certain not to escape obloquy. In the case of Dr. Parr, there appears to have been not only strong political disagreement, but also offended personal feeling. Furthermore, Hurd had adopted much of Warburton's literary arrogance, and those who had smarted under it were not likely to look very favourably on his words and actions.

Hurd did not deserve to be called either a hypocrite or a sycophant, or any of the other opprobrious names which those who disliked him were accustomed to use. But he had faults which made him very unattractive to many of those whom he did not care to please. He was stiff and precise, and always on his guard. He was also a great stickler for the external dignities of his office; so that, although very simple and temperate in all his personal habits, he seemed ostentatious, vain, and fond of state. He could not move from place to place without a certain pomp of retinue. A scholar alike by nature and use, of cultivated and very refined tastes, he was strongly tinged with literary pride, and could scarcely dissimulate a sort of disdain for unlearned people, or his aversion to anything that offended a too sensitive perception of what was correct. He was grave and placid in manner, intelligent and thoughtful, and in later life venerable in aspect. Those who knew him intimately praised his warmth and generosity of feeling, as we have seen; but there were few who could converse quite freely with him, or wholly escape the chill of his polished and courteous reserve. Ambition, in the ordinary sense of the word, was no part of his character, though many imputed it to him. He loved above all things the peaceful seclusion of Hartlebury, where, after fulfilling with such moderate diligence as would satisfy his own conscience what was ordinarily expected of a bishop, he would spend the full remainder of his leisure in literary pursuits and elegant hospitalities. When, therefore, the primacy was offered to him he had no hesitation in declining it. So great a charge, he said, was not suited to his temper or his talents. It was far more congenial to read and write in his spacious library, whose ever increasing shelves bore witness to the delight with which he added to his collection each rare or valuable book. There he was most often to be found, as when Dibdin saw him in his eighty-first year, "in full-bottomed wig and brocaded morning gown." The talent with which he wrote on subjects which interested him, although it left no very lasting monument of itself, was very generally recognised both in England and on the Continent. Warburton speaks admiringly of "the curious, the ornamental, and profound literature of Dr. Hurd," and Wharton, who was no less able to give an opinion, calls him "the most judicious and competent of modern critics." He was an excellent preacher, if the hearer were contented with a calm and judicious piety, thoughtfully reasoned out in finished and well-balanced periods. The popularity of his Warburtonian lectures in Lincoln's Inn Chapel was well attested by the crowded audiences which flocked to hear them. But if any listener was unreasonable enough to expect that his feelings might be kindled, and the deeper emotions stirred, he would very certainly be disappointed. If there was one subject above all others on which Hurd would, in his sermons, most earnestly expatiate, it was the mischief and dangers of enthusiasm. There is little or nothing which can be actually objected to in what he says upon the subject; it is simply that he had no sympathy whatever with emotion as an element of religion. He does not deny that its influences may be valuable in minds of a certain complexion, but in general he doubted and suspected it.

Hurd was the son of humble parents, of whom he was wont to speak in the warmest and most grateful manner, and whom he treated throughout their life with marked respect and reverence. They were "very plain people, you may be sure," he writes to Warburton, "for they are farmers, but of a turn of mind that might have honoured any rank or any education. They never regarded any expense that was in their power, or almost out of it, in whatever regarded the welfare of their children." He went to Cambridge as "a poor scholar." He was afterwards Rector of Thurcastor, Preacher in Lincoln's Inn, Whitehall Preacher, and Archdeacon of Gloucester.