1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Hayley

John Hodgson, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 90 (November 1820) 469-70.



Nov. 12. At his house at Felpham, near Chichester, William Hayley, esq. who for upwards of fifty years had been well known to the Literary World as the author of many works both in prose and verse. Of the former, the most celebrated were the Lives of Milton, Romney, and Cowper, with the two last of whom Mr. Hayley was upon terms of intimacy. Of his productions in verse, the most considerable were, an "Essay on Painting," published in 1778, and addressed to Romney; an "Epistle to Admiral Keppel," in 1779; an "Essay on History," addressed to Gibbon, in 1781; an "Essay on Epic Poetry," and "The Triumphs of Temper." He also published three Comedies in Rhyme, and a Tragedy on the subject of Lord Russell. Some of these were acted, but without much success; and, in addition to the above original works, he also published translations of the select passages from "Dante" and "Ercilla," with whose works, as well as with the general range of Italian and Spanish Literature, he was familiarly acquainted. These translations were introduced in the Notes on his "Essay on Epic Poetry." An Edition of Mr. Hayley's Poems and Plays, in 6 vols. 8vo. was published by Cadell in 1784. At a later period he published the "Triumph of Music," a poem founded on the well-known venture of Stradella, the composer; and some smaller works. Mr. Hayley resided on his patrimonial, property at Eartham, in Sussex, till about the year 1800, when having lost his son, to whom he was fondly attached, and who at an early age displayed the promise of great excellence in Sculpture (which he studied under his father's intimate friend, the inimitable Flaxman) he removed to a house at Felpham, which he had recently built. From this time his life, which till then had been passed in free intercourse with many of those who were most distinguished in Literature and in Art, was spent in comparative retirement; and with his familiar friends, he always adopted the title and signature of the Hermit. He was, however, in the habit of occasional intercourse with most of the Noblemen and Gentlemen who resided in the neighbourhood of Felpham, and the proximity of his residence to Bognor, brought him visits from most of those who, in the season, frequented that place of fashionable resort; by many of whom his placid and benevolent character, and the courteous elegance of his manners, will no doubt be remembered with esteem and regard. Amongst the latest and most successful of Mr. Hayley's Works was, his "Life of Cowper," to whom he was particularly attached, and for whom he had at an earlier period the satisfaction of procuring a pension. The exertions which he made for this object displayed his benevolence and zeal in a very favourable point of view, and it is hoped an account of them may some time be made public. Mr. Hayley lived for many years upon terms of friendship with the late Lord Thurlow, and when his Lordship quitted the Seals, kept up a correspondence with him on many subjects of Grecian Learning. He was also much connected with Mr. Gibbon, to whom he addressed his "Epistle on History." His friendship, indeed, for the celebrated Historian subjected Mr. Hayley to the imputation of favouring the same free notions on religious subjects which were imputed to that author; but the fact was undoubtedly the reverse, as as known most satisfactorily to his intimate friends. The suspicion seemed to be confirmed by Mr. Hayley's continued absence from public worship, but this was owing to the infirmity of his health, and to a complaint in his eyes, which was always aggravated by the smallest damp or vapour. But Mr. Hayley, every Sunday, read the service of the Church to such of his domestics as were detained at home, and seldom passed a day without, a perusal of some portion of the Scriptures. Indeed he considered as he expressed it in the concluding lines of his Epitaph upon Collins, as the most precious of all compositions, and he grounded his hope of justification and forgiveness on the death and resurrection of his Saviour. In a Bible which he had diligently used for near sixty years, he had transcribed the following beautiful lines of Bernardo Tasso as expressive of his sincerity and faith:

Da cui s'impara
La via di gir al ben perfetto e vero!
Fuggir l'ira di tempo e della morte.
Felice lui, che con si fide scorte,
Mandando al ciel il suo gentil pensiero
Vive la sua vita soave e chiara.

Mr. Hayley completed his 75th year on the 9th of Nov. three days before his death. He had for some years past suffered from a very distressing malady, under an attack of which he closed his long life on the day already mentioned. It will doubtless be a satisfaction to all who knew this amiable man to learn that he retained his faculties to the last moment, and that his death was gradual, and not accompanied by pain. He was indeed one of those of whom it may be justly said, in the words of Hesiod, [Greek characters].

It is impossible, in the short limits of an Obituary, to take a satisfactory view of the Literary character and pretensions of an Author whose works have spread over so large a space of time, and so great a variety of subjects. Mr. Hayley's Poetical Works, when compared with more modern productions of the English Muse, certainly appear deficient in vigour; but his taste had been formed on the models of an earlier age, and he seems to have studied a chaste and classical correctness, rather than indulged an inborn fire and spirit. His Essays on History, and on Epic Poetry, as they are the most considerable of his works, will probably be accounted the best; and the notes are replete with valuable information. But Mr. Hayley may, perhaps, be better appreciated as the Poet of the drawing-room, as, an elegant writer of what the French term "Vers de Societe," than as an author whose works will go down to posterity as elevating the character and displaying the vigour of our national genius. His prose works are written in an easy unaffected style, and in all his works a spirit of benevolence and good humour is apparent, which was in fact the most prominent feature in his character. Few libraries are without his Life of Cowper; and a judicious selection from his Poems would, we think, be acceptable to a numerous class of readers.