Bp. Beilby Porteus

Richard Alfred Davenport, in Chiswick British Poets (1822) 58:261-77.

BEILBY PORTEUS, the youngest but one of nineteen children, was born in the city of York, on the eighth of May, 1731. His parents, both of whom were descended from respectable families, were natives of Virginia, in which province his father possessed a considerable estate, consisting chiefly of plantations of tobacco. Being somewhat impaired in health, and being likewise laudably anxious to obtain for his offspring a better education than America could then furnish, his father removed, in 1720, to England, and fixed his residence at York. Though the negligence or the knavery of his agents, and his growing expenses, diminished his income to little more than a fourth of what it ought to have been, he, nevertheless, steadily persisted in, and ultimately accomplished, his honourable object.

From a small school at York, where he had been for several years. Beilby, at the age of thirteen, was removed to Rippon, and placed under the tuition of Mr. Hyde, a sensible and learned man, who was ever after gratefully remembered by his pupil. So well did he profit by the instructions of his tutor that, at an earlier age than is usual, he was sent to Cambridge, where he was admitted a sizer at Christ's College.

In mathematical studies, to which, while he was an under-graduate, his attention was chiefly directed, he acquired such a proficiency as to gain for him the situation of tenth wrangler among the honorary degrees of his year. Mathematics, however, did not wholly absorb his time. In 1752, having taken the degree of Bachelor of Arts, he became a candidate for one of the gold medals, which were given by the chancellor, the Duke of Newcastle, as rewards for superior excellence in classic literature. After having passed through the ordeal of a long and rigid examination, he received the second medal, the first being adjudged to Mr., now Baron, Maseres, who was then a student at Clare Hall.

The election of Mr. Porteus to a fellowship of his college, which occurred in the spring of the same year, placed him in the situation which of all others he most coveted; but the joy excited by this event was soon damped by the death of his mother, whom he tenderly loved, and by a severe illness, arising from a cold caught in his hastily travelling into Yorkshire to receive her last blessing. While he was absent, his friends solicited for him the office of Esquire Beadle, which then chanced to become vacant. Though this was an office which he disliked, he accepted it, partly in compliance with the desire of his friends, but, still more, for the purpose of relieving his father from any further expense. At the end of two years, however, he resigned it. The deficiency thus occasioned in his income he made up by taking private pupils, which his established reputation rendered it easy for him to obtain.

Led to enter the church, no less by his own choice than by the wishes of his family, Mr. Porteus took orders at the age of twenty-six; being ordained deacon at Buckden, by the Bishop of Lincoln, and shortly after priest, at York, by Archbishop Hutton. He then returned to Cambridge, where he gained the Seaton prize for his poem of Death. The recent decease of his father, whom he deeply lamented, doubtless made this solemn subject peculiarly congenial to his wounded feelings. It is perhaps singular that, in his poem, he has introduced no allusion to this heavy loss, though it was capable of being touched upon with pathetic effect.

The first step in his progress towards that elevation which he at length attained, may be traced to a sermon, preached before the University, in refutation of a profane pamphlet, entitled, The History of the Man after God's own Heart. By this sermon, his literary and theological character, already eminent, was considerably raised. It procured for him, early in 1762, the appointment of domestic chaplain to Archbishop Secker. In the summer of that year, after having lived happily at college for fourteen years, he quitted it, to reside at Lambeth. During his residence there, he, on the thirteenth of May, 1765, married Margaret, the eldest daughter of Brian Hodgson, Esq. of Asbbourne, in Derbyshire. The friendship of the archbishop had already been demonstrated by his presenting Mr. Porteus to a prebend of Peterborough, and he now gave him the two small livings of Rucking and Wittersham, in Kent, which were soon resigned for the more valuable rectory of Hunton, in the same county. Upon the death of Dr. Denne, in 1767, he obtained the rectory of Lambeth, and he then took the degree of Doctor in Divinity. The Commencement Sermon, which he preached upon this occasion, was, though not till some years afterwards, productive of very beneficial consequences. It recommended to the University "to pay a little more attention to the instruction of their youth, especially those designed for orders, in the principles of revealed religion. "I proposed," says he, "that these should have a place allotted to them among the other initiatory studies; that they should have the same encouragement given to them as all the other sciences; that they should be made an indispensable branch of academical education, and have their full share of academical honours and rewards." The University heard without attending to this judicious advice; but, fortunately, an individual had less apathy. Some extracts from the discourse having, long subsequently, fallen into the bands of Mr. Norris, a gentleman of Norfolk, he endowed a professorship at Cambridge, and also at his death bequeathed a premium, for the purpose of carrying into effect the plan of Dr. Porteus.

In 1768, Dr. Porteus lost his patron, with whom he had lived in habits of close and affectionate intimacy for six years. By the will of the primate he was left joint executor, with his fellow chaplain, Dr. Stinton. To them was also committed the revision and publication of the works of the deceased prelate; a duty which was faithfully performed. The prefixed Review of the Archbishop's Life and Character, an excellent specimen of biography, was from the pen of Dr. Porteus. Nor did his pious care of the reputation of his friend ever suffer any abatement. Many years after, he promptly stepped forward to vindicate his fame against the calumnies of Lord Orford, and the depreciating remarks of Hurd, whose idolatry of Warburton had led him greatly to undervalue the talents and learning of Secker. It is honourable to him that, while he repelled injustice, he was not, as is too often the case, guilty himself of the same fault which he censured in another; for, while he zealously defended the memory of Secker, he paid due respect to the piety and abilities of Hurd. This is a lesson which, unhappily for the dignity and the interests of literature, very many writers have yet to learn.

After the death of the archbishop, all the time of Dr. Porteus was devoted to his two rectories of Lambeth and Hunton. The latter, situated near the confluence of the Buelth with the Medway, was his favourite residence, and he has left of it a glowing and almost poetical description. There, surrounded by beautiful scenery, amidst virtuous, polished, and hospitable neighbours, blest in his domestic life, and beloved and revered by his parishioners, he performed all the pastoral duties in an exemplary manner. Nothing was neglected which could in any way conduce to the spiritual and temporal benefit of those who were committed to his care. The winter months were spent at Lambeth, where he displayed equal zeal, and with equal effect. It was to the inhabitants of the latter parish that he addressed his letter on the more religious observance of Good Friday; a tract which has had a far more extensive influence than he ventured to expect.

In 1769 he was appointed chaplain to his majesty. The mastership of the hospital of St. Cross, near Winchester, was shortly after given to him, on which occasion he resigned his prebend of Peterborough to Dr. Stanton. He sometimes resided at the hospital; and, with his accustomed benevolence, he improved the condition of the poor brethren, by making a small increase to the salary of each.

Too enlightened to think that because erroneous forms or opinions had long been current they had, therefore, acquired a prescriptive right to remain for ever untouched, Dr. Porteus, about this time, lent his aid to an attempt which will be best described in his own words, "At the close of the year 1772, and the beginning of the next, an attempt," says he, "was made by myself and a few other clergymen, among whom were Mr. Francis Wollaston, Dr. Percy, now Bishop of Dromore, and Dr. Yorke, now Bishop of Ely, to induce the Bishops to promote a review of the Liturgy and Articles, in order to amend in both, but particularly in the latter, those parts which all reasonable persons agreed stood in need of amendment. This plan was not in the smallest degree connected with the petitioners at the Feathers Tavern; but, on the contrary, was meant to counteract that and all similar extravagant projects; to strengthen and confirm our ecclesiastical establishment; to repel the attacks which were at that time continually made upon it by its avowed enemies; to render the seventeenth article on Predestination and Election more clear and perspicuous, and less liable to be wrested by our adversaries to a Calvinistic sense, which has been so unjustly affixed to it; to improve true Christian piety amongst those of our own communion, and to diminish schism and separation, by bringing over to the national church all the moderate and well-disposed of other persuasions. On these grounds, we applied in a private and respectful manner to Archbishop Cornwallis, requesting him to signify our wishes (which we conceived to be the wishes of a very large proportion both of the clergy and the laity) to the rest of the Bishops, that every thing might be done, which could be prudently and safely done, to promote these important and salutary purposes.

"The answer given by the Archbishop, February 11, 1773, was in these words: 'I have consulted severally my brethren the bishops, and it is the opinion of the bench in general, that nothing can in prudence be done in the matter that has been submitted to our consideration.'"

In this decision Dr. Porteus, of course, acquiesced; though it is manifest, from the tone of his language, that he had doubts of its wisdom. Those doubts might well be entertained. It has been defended on the ground of the danger of change, the impossibility of making such an alteration as should leave no one unsatisfied, and the transcendent abilities of those venerable characters who were the framers of our Articles and Liturgy. To examine the validity of these reasons may not be improper. That any change may, under some circumstances, be productive of peril, and should, therefore, be resisted, he must indeed be ignorant who does not know; but it yet remains to be proved that, in 1773, there existed circumstances by which such a moderate reform as Dr. Porteus and his friends then called for might be rendered dangerous. That none are to be conciliated, because all cannot be conciliated, is an argument, if so by courtesy it may be named, which is not worthy of being refuted. What would be thought of a sovereign who, assailed on all sides, should refuse to free himself by honourable treaty from a part of his enemies; or of an individual, who should decline to rid himself of three suits of law, because one of his pertinacious opponents persisted in carrying on a fourth? That applause is due to the learning, respect to the opinions, and reverence to the virtues, of the fathers of our church, may cheerfully be granted; but unless, in contradiction to our principles and theirs, we invest them with papal infallibility, we ought not to conclude that every thing which was done by them is so perfect as to be incapable of being amended by succeeding generations. To repose all our confidence on the knowledge of one particular age, and to treat with contempt the accumulated knowledge of the following ages, is the best plan that human ingenuity can devise to dry up the very sources of improvement, and to stop the march of mind.

The talents and piety of Dr. Porteus at length received their due reward; and happy is it for the church when talents and piety like his are so rewarded. Unsolicited for by himself, and almost unexpectedly, he was promoted, on the 20th of December, 1776, to the bishoprick of Chester. The living of Lambeth he might still have retained, but, fearing that he could not thenceforth attend properly to so large a benefice, his high sense of duty induced him to resign it. In his office of bishop, he was vigilant, active, and zealous; but his vigilance and activity were tempered by benevolence, and his zeal was undebased by intolerance. While he omitted no opportunity of inculcating their duties to the clergy of his diocese, he was equally attentive to the increase of their comforts. Among other proofs which he gave of this, he strenuously exerted himself to establish a subscription for the poorer classes of them; an object in which he at last succeeded. It is well said of him by Mr. Hodgson, that "a very conspicuous feature in his character was the eagerness with which his mind always seized a benevolent object. It was not a mere compliance with judgment. It was not a frigid, dilatory, reluctant charity, extorted by the occasion. On the contrary, I never yet saw any one, who appeared to me to possess in a more exalted degree the true spirit of beneficence. It came warm from the heart, unchecked by cold calculation; whilst the good he did became doubly valuable by his manner of doing it."

One of the benefits which he conferred on his diocese was the promoting the establishment of Sunday schools, in which, after having satisfied himself of their utility, he zealously concurred.

In the attainment of another object, which he had much at heart, and in which humanity as well as religion was deeply interested, he failed, through the strange conduct of those on whom success depended, and who ought to have been eager to ensure it. Anxious to bring about the civilization and conversion of the negroes in the British West Indies, he proposed to the Society for the propagation of the Gospel to begin, on their own trust estate in Barbadoes, a regular system of religious instruction. By this means, he hoped that an example would be set, which virtue or shame would prompt the planters to follow. The plan was referred to a committee, which, after deliberating upon it only four hours, thanked his lordship for "the great pains and trouble which he had taken, but declared that circumstances rendered it at that time unadvisable to adopt it." Thus did a Society, instituted for the sole purpose of diffusing the blessings of Christianity, present to the astonished world the disgraceful and unaccountable phenomenon of refusing, almost without discussion, to extend those blessings to the benighted and unfortunate beings who were subject to their absolute authority.

This failure made a deep and painful impression on the mind of the bishop. He had, however, at a subsequent period, the satisfaction to obtain a chancery decree, by which the rents of an estate of nearly a thousand a year, purchased a century before by a legacy from the great Mr. Boyle, were appropriated, on his suggestion, to the purpose of affording religious instruction to the negroes. He likewise procured missionaries, corresponded with them, and made a selection of such parts of Scripture as were best adapted to the understandings of the blacks. It is painful to relate that his exertions were palsied by the reluctance of the great body of the planters to allow the minds of their slaves to be in any degree enlightened. Perhaps these persons were apprehensive that their character, as Christians, might suffer, if their slaves became acquainted with the divine precept, "all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."

As a spiritual peer, he was attentive to every thing which affected the interests of religion. When, in 1779, the bill for the relief of Protestant Dissenters was brought in, he was favourable to it; but, in common with the rest of the bench, he thought it necessary that those who claimed the benefit of the act should formally acknowledge themselves to he Christians and Protestants, and declare that they made the Scriptures the rule of their faith and practice. A clause to this effect was accordingly inserted.

He was equally friendly to a relaxation of the laws against the English Catholics; and he saw with disgust and abhorrence the proceedings of those real or pretended zealots, who, with the torch and the bludgeon in their bands, and calumnies and invectives in their mouths, persecuted while they declaimed against persecutors, and spread confusion and conflagration through the terrified metropolis. In the meanwhile he was alive to the errors of popery, and did not neglect to guard his flock against them. For this purpose he published a small tract, which placed in a clear light all the points at issue between the Protestant and the Popish churches.

In 1780, he obtained an act for preventing abuses and profanations on the Lord's Day; an act which the formation of various Sunday societies, for debating and other purposes, appeared to him to make indispensably necessary. To put a stop to abuses similar to those against which this act was intended to guard, was, indeed, a prominent object of his care, to the latest moment of his existence. He endeavoured to prevail on the higher classes to act at least more decorously on the Sabbath-day; be firmly remonstrated against public Sunday concerts by professional performers, at the houses of persons of rank; and his last public effort was to obtain an interview with the Prince Regent, to request him to discourage a Sunday meeting of military officers, a request which was readily granted. But, though he wished Sunday to be duly reverenced, he was not one of those who seek to convert it into a day of lamentation and gloom, and imagine that a smile upon the face of man is an insult to his Creator. On the contrary, he declared it to be "a festival, a joyful festival, to which we ought always to look forward with delight, and enjoy with a thankful and a grateful heart."

The see of London becoming vacant, by the death of Dr. Lowth, it was conferred on Dr. Porteus, who kissed the king's hand on the 7th of November, 1787. Gratifying as this event was, he quitted with unfeigned reluctance a diocese by all the inhabitants of which he was regarded with love and respect. It was a still harder trial to him to give up the living of Hunton, in the calm seclusion of which he had spent so many happy years, and which so many circumstances conspired to endear to him. "When," says he, "I took my leave of it early in the morning, and cast a parting look on the vale below, (the sun shining gloriously upon it, and lighting up all the beauties of that enchanting scene) my heart sunk within me."

In this new station, with a wider sphere of action and more extensive duties to perform, his exertions were commensurate to the magnitude of his task. He strenuously co-operated as President of the Society for enforcing the king's proclamation against immorality and profaneness; he four times performed the visitation of his diocese, and delivered admirable charges to his clergy; he inculcated the duty of constant residence; he put a stop to simoniacal practices; he improved the condition of the clergy of the metropolis, by procuring an addition to their incomes; he warmly patronized the British and Foreign Bible Society; he encouraged learning and talents, and relieved distress, wherever he found them; he instituted three liberal prizes at Christ's College, Cambridge, to reward good elocution and good composition on religious subjects; and, with a splendid generosity which has not often been equalled, he transferred the sum of 6,700 into the hands of the four archdeacons of the diocese, as a fund, the interest of which was annually to be distributed, in sums not exceeding twenty pounds, to the poorer clergy of his see. Among the most conspicuous of his efforts in the cause of religion may be reckoned his Lectures on the Gospel of St. Matthew, which were commenced at St. James's Church, in February, 1798, and continued for four successive years. They were eagerly attended by all classes of society, and it is to be hoped that, in many cases, those who came only to listen to eloquence, went away deeply impressed with the precepts which that eloquence was intended to adorn.

On the 23d of April, 1789, Dr. Porteus, by the king's express command, preached the thanksgiving sermon at St. Paul's, on his majesty's recovery.

In 1795 he presented to the king an address from the clergy of his diocese, on the outrage which had recently been offered to his majesty. On this occasion he asserted and established the right of the clergy to present addresses to the king on the throne, instead of presenting them to him at the levee, as, in this instance, he had been desired to do. Though untainted by pride, he did not deem himself at liberty to relinquish any of the rights and privileges of his order. It was this feeling which, at a later period, induced him to refuse to assign any specific reason for declining to confirm as chaplain a person who had been selected by the East India company, but whom he considered to be unfit for the appointment. He was threatened with a mandamus, but he was immoveable, and his resistance was successful.

Of his parliamentary duties he was not negligent. He took an active part in support of Sir William Dolben's slave-carrying bill; and at all times was eager to testify his abhorrence of a traffic which be justly termed the most inhuman and detestable that ever disgraced the Christian world. In 1800, he joined Lord Auckland in the attempt to prevent divorced persons from intermarrying with each other. Whether his arguments on the question of divorce are conclusive, may perhaps be a matter of serious doubt; there can be no doubt of the goodness of his intention. When Sir William Scott's bill was introduced in 1802, the bishop objected to the exemptions as being too numerous, and he suggested a clause, empowering the ordinary to require a resident curate, whenever the incumbent himself was exempted from residence. As it was feared that the clause might risk the safety of the bill, it was thought more advisable to bring it forward as a separate act. This was done by Sir William Scott, who, however, dropped the measure, in consequence of the opposition which was made. But, of so much importance did the bishop think it to be that such a law should exist, that, in 1808, when he was on the verge of the grave, he rallied all his remaining strength to bring it once more into the House, and to urge its adoption. He failed, nevertheless, and this failure be deeply regretted. In 1805 he gave a silent and unfavourable vote on the question of Catholic emancipation. Political power could not, he thought, be conceded to Catholics without endangering the state. Erroneous as this opinion may be, it is one which he conscientiously and deliberately formed.

Fond of rural retirement, which at the episcopal palace he could not enjoy, Dr. Porteus, soon after his elevation to the see of London, purchased a small cottage at Sundridge, in the beautiful vale of the Darent, between Westerham and Riverhead. There he spent a part of the autumnal months of each year. To the poor in the vicinity he soon became known by his diffusive benevolence. In one instance he conferred a benefit of extensive and permanent effect. The little hamlet of Ide-hill, about two miles from Sundridge, is situated in one of the most picturesque spots in the county of Kent; but at such a distance from the parish church as to prevent attendance upon public worship. The consequence was that the moral character of the inhabitants was at the lowest ebb. To remedy this evil, he built a chapel of ease, and a house for a constantly resident minister, and provided a liberal endowment. Industry, decency, and comfort, have now succeeded to squalid filthiness, idleness, and vice.

The time was now approaching when this venerable man was to rest from his earthly labours. His last sermon was preached at St. George's Church, in 1808, on the birth-day of his seventy-eighth year. A summer's residence at Clifton gave him a transient strength; but nature was too exhausted to be capable of receiving any effectual aid. On the 13th of May, 1809, he expired at Fulham. He died with that freedom from pain, and that tranquillity of mind, which, half a century before, he had prayed might be granted to his departing moments. " Without a pang or a sigh — by a transition so easy," says Mr. Hodgson, "as only to be known by a pressure of his band upon the knee of his servant who was sitting near him — the spirit of this great and good man fled from its earthly mansion to the realms of peace."

The character of Dr. Porteus, in its various points of view, social, moral, intellectual, and theological, has been drawn by Mr. Hodgson with an amplitude of detail, and a fidelity of execution, which leave nothing to be wished for. To this character, limited as I am in space, I shall refer the reader. On his poetical character, however, something must here be said. "Perhaps," says Mr. Hodgson, "if he had followed the natural bent of his genius, poetry would have been his favourite pursuit. He saw every thing with a poet's eye; he loved to dwell and expatiate on the wild scenes of nature; his fancy was easily fired, and his affections moved; and he had all that enthusiasm of feeling, which delights in warm and glowing description. As however he had other views in life, he very wisely checked this early impulse, and applied himself to graver studies."

In answer to this it may perhaps be urged, that it was no early impulse which made Porteus a writer of verse, the impulse not having been given till he was near thirty; that the Muse seldom waits till so late a period to visit those whom she adopts; and that, notwithstanding the rash vows which they may have uttered, few if any persons formed to be great poets have ever relinquished all connection with her, after having once been favoured with her smiles. The vows of poets on such occasions have notoriously a near relationship to the proverbial vows of lovers. Nor, indeed, is it an easy achievement to banish the Muse; for of her, as of Death, it may almost be said, that "she will come when she will come."

The poem of Death is the only poetical work which Bishop Porteus is known to have produced. Though undoubtedly a composition of merit, it does not entitle its author to stand in the first rank even among the second class of British poets. It owes less to the inspiration of genius than to labour and reading. In the description of the "dread ministers" of Death, he is certainly indebted, as, on a similar subject, Milton is supposed to have been, to "the vision of Piers Plowman." Old Age is introduced by Porteus, as well as by the author of the vision, in company with the numerous band of diseases, as the ally of Death. But, in energy of language, and distinctness of picture, the latter is superior to the former.

Age the hoore, he was in the vaw-ward,

And bore the banner before Death, by right he it claimed,

is far more spirited than

Foremost Old Age, his natural ally,
And firmest friend.

The one figure has life and motion, which the other has not. The lazar-house of Milton was also present to the memory of Porteus, while he was composing this part of his poem; the "joint-racking rheums" of the bard of Paradise being obviously the original of the "joint-torturing gout, and ever-gnawing rheum" of the competitor for the Seatonian prize. In the next paragraph, he seems likewise to have borne in mind a passage of the tenth book of the Paradise Lost, in which Adam expostulates with his Creator for having called him into existence. Instances might easily be adduced, in which ideas have been borrowed, no doubt unconsciously, from other poets.

In his blank verse he does not show himself to have been possessed of a delicately musical ear. There is in it no artful variety of pause, no peculiarly happy choice and collocation of well-sounding words. A redundant syllable is sometimes introduced, but, instead of adding a grace to the metre, it generally burthens it, and impedes its progress.

With respect to the poem as a whole, though I must dissent from the judgment of his nephew, Mr. Hodgson, that "as a juvenile performance there are few superior;" I readily admit that, generally speaking, "it displays correctness of taste, combined with a sublimity of thought, and a power and justness of expression;" and this is no despicable praise, even without adding, as he has done, "which have seldom been exhibited in the first effusions of poetry."

The poem, however, can scarcely be considered as a juvenile performance; for at the period when it was written the author had nearly attained his twenty-eighth year; long before which age several of our greatest poets gave to the world some of their finest works. The correctness of the assertion, that few better poems have been written so early in life, may also well be disputed, when, among many other instances, we remember that Milton wrote his exquisite Mask of Comus at the age of twenty-six; Pope his Rape of the Lock when he was only three-and-twenty; and Akenside his Pleasures of the Imagination at the same age. But in the praise bestowed by a grateful and affectionate relative on the abilities of so good and highly-gifted a man as Bishop Porteus, some excess of warmth is rather to be admired as a virtue, than pardoned as a fault.

Those parts of the poem which appear to me to rise above the rest are the description of the cave of Death, in which the figure of Palsy "half-warm with life, and half a clay-cold lump," is the most happily touched of the group; the picture of the venerable patriarch, "who guileless held the tenor of his way;" the severely-pointed censure on ambitious princes, which so often has been, and always will be, quoted; and, lastly, the thirty concluding lines, in which the dignity of the religious sentiment is not inadequately sustained by the spirit of the verse, and by the force and elegance of the language.