1810 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Habington

Alexander Chalmers, in Works of the English Poets (1810) 6:329-41.



The admission of Habington's poems into this collection has been suggested by many modern critics, and will unquestionably be sanctioned by every man of taste and feeling. He was, beyond most of his contemporaries, an honour to the fraternity of poets. It is easier, however, to revive the memory of his poems, than of his personal history. Wood's account of his family is not unsatisfactory, but he says little of our poet, although that little is commendatory. A few particulars are now added from Nash's History of Worcestershire and other authorities, but not enough to gratify our curiosity respecting one who was not only an excellent poet, but a virtuous and amiable man.

His family were Roman catholics. His great-grand-father was Richard Habington, or Abington, of Brockhampton, in Herefordshire. His grand-father, John, second son of this Richard Habington, and cofferer to queen Elizabeth, was born in 1515, and died in 1581. He bought the manor of Hindlip, in Worcestershire, and rebuilt the mansion about the year 1572. His father, Thomas Habington, was born at Thorpe, in Surrey, 1560, studied at Oxford, and afterwards travelled to Rheims and Paris. On his return he involved himself with the party who laboured to release Mary queen of Scots, and was afterwards imprisoned on a suspicion of being concerned in Babington's conspiracy. During this imprisonment, which lasted six years, he employed his time in study. Having been at length released, and his life saved, as is supposed, on account of his being queen Elizabeth's godson, he retired to Hindlip, and married Mary, eldest daughter of Edward Parker, lord Morley, by Elizabeth, daughter and sole heir of sir William Stanley, lord Monteagle.

On the detection of the gun-powder plot, he again fell under the displeasure of government, by concealing some of the agents in that affair in his house, and was condemned to die, but pardoned by the intercession of his brother-in law, lord Morley, who discovered the plot by the famous letter of warning, which Mrs. Habington is reported to have written. The condition of his pardon was, that he should never stir out of Worcestershire. With this he appears to have complied, and devoted his time, among other pursuits, to the history and antiquities of that county, of which he left three folio volumes of parochial antiquities, two of miscellaneous collections, and one relating to the cathedral. These received additions from his son and from Dr. Thomas, of whom bishop Lyttelton purchased them, and presented them to the Society of Antiquaries. They have since formed the foundation of Dr. Nash's elaborate history. Wood says he had a hand in the history of Edward IV. published afterwards under the name of his son, the poet, whom he survived, dying in 1647, at the advanced age of eighty-seven.

William Habington, his eldest son, was born at Hindlip, November 5, 1605, and was educated in the Jesuits' College at St. Omer's, and afterwards at Paris, with a view to induce him to take the habit of the order, which he declined. On his return from the continent, he resided principally with his father, who became his preceptor, and evidently sent him into the world a man of elegant accomplishments and virtues. Although allied to some noble families, and occasionally mixing in the gaieties of high life, his natural disposition inclined him to the purer, pleasures of rural life. He was probably very early a poet and a lover, and in both successful. He married Lucy, daughter of William Herbert, first lord Powis, by Eleanor, daughter of Henry Percy, eighth earl of Northumberland by Katherine, daughter and co-heir of John Neville, lord Latimer. It is to this lady that we are indebted for his poems, most of which were written in allusion to his courtship and marriage. She was the Castara who animated his imagination with tenderness and elegance, and purified it from the grosser opprobria of the amatory poets. His poems, as was not unusual in that age, were written occasionally, and dispersed confidentially. In 1635, they appear to have been first collected into a volume, which Oldys calls the second edition, under the title of Castara. Another edition was published in 1640, which is by far the most perfect and correct. The reader to whom an analysis may he necessary, will find a very judicious one in the last volume of the Censura Literaria.

His other works are, the Queen of Arragon, a Tragi-comedy, which was acted at Court and at Blackfriars, and printed in 1640. It has since been reprinted among Dodsley's Old Plays. The author having communicated the manuscript to Philip, earl of Pembroke, lord chamberlain of the household to king Charles I, be caused it to be acted, and afterwards published, against the author's consent. It was revived, with the revival of the stage, at the Restoration, about the year 1666, when a new prologue and epilogue were furnished by the author of Hudisbras.

Our author wrote also Observations upon History, Lond. 1641. 8vo. consisting of some particular pieces of history in the reigns of Henry II. Richard I, &c. interspersed with political and moral reflections, similar to what he had introduced in his larger history. This was entitled The History of Edward IV. fol. 1640, which, as Wood asserts was both written and published at the desire of Charles I. He also insinuates that Habington "did run with the times, and was not unknown to Oliver the Usurper," but we have no evidence of any compliance with a system of political measures so diametrically opposite to those which, we may suppose, belonged to the education and principles of a Roman Catholic family. It is, indeed, grossly improbable that he should have complied with Cromwell who was as yet no usurper, and during the life of his royal master whose cause was not yet desperate. Of his latter days we have no farther account than that he died Nov. 13, 1645, and was buried at Hindlip in the family vault. He left a son, Thomas, who, dying without issue, bequeathed his estate to sir William Compton.

His poems are distinguished from those of most of his contemporaries, by delicacy of sentiment, tenderness, and a natural strain of pathetic reflection. His favourite subjects, virtuous love and conjugal attachment, are agreeably varied by strokes of fancy and energies of affection. Somewhat of the extravagance of the metaphysical poets is occasionally discernible, but with very little affectation of learning, and very little effort to draw his imagery from sources with which the Muses are not familiar. The virtuous tendency and chaste language of his poems form no inconsiderable part of their merit, and his preface assures us that his judgment was not inferior to his imagination.