1813 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry James Pye

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 83 (September 1813) 293-96.



HENRY-JAMES PYE, esq. (whose death is recorded in p. 197,) was descended from a very antient and respectable family, who are stated to have come into England with the Conqueror, and settled at a place called the Meerd in Herefordshire. His great-great-grandfather was Auditor of the Exchequer to James I.; and, by virtue of that office, paid the salary of the Poetlaureat, as appears from the subsequent verses of Ben Jonson:—

Father John Barges,
Necessity urges
My mournful cry
To Sir Robert Pye;
And that he would venture
To send my debenture.
Tell him, his Ben
Knew the time when
He loved the Muses,
Though now be refuses
To take apprehension
Of a year's pension.

His son, Sir Robert Pye, a knight also, married Anne, the eldest daughter of John Hampden, the patriot, of whom the late Poet-laureat was consequently the representative by the female line. The last male heir left the estate in Herefordshire and the name to the Trevors, descended from the second daughter; but Sir Robert Pye purchased Faringdon in Berkshire, which county he twice represented in Parliament. Our author's father, Henry Pye, esq. who occasionally resided there, was elected no less than five times, without opposition, for the same county.

Henry James Pye was born in London in 1745, and educated at home under a private tutor until he had attained the age of seventeen, when he entered a gentleman commoner of Magdalen college, Oxford, under the care of Dr. Richard Scroup, where he continued four years, and had the honorary degree of M.A. conferred on him July 3, 1766. In 1772, at the installation of Lord North, he was also created Doctor of Laws. Within ten days after he came of age his father died, (March 2, 1766,) at Faringdon; and Mr. Pye married, in the same year, the sister of Lieut.-col. Hooke, and lived chiefly in the country, making only occasional visits for a few weeks to London, dividing his time between his studies, the duties of a magistrate, and the diversions of the field, to which he was remarkably attached. He was for some time in the Berkshire militia. In 1784 he was chosen Member of Parliament for Berkshire; but the numberless expences attending such a situation, and the contest to obtain it, reduced him to the harsh, yet necessary, measure, of selling his paternal estate. In 1790 Mr. Pye was appointed to succeed his ingenious and worthy friend Tom Warton, a Poet-laureat; and in 1792 he was nominated one of the magistrates for Westminster, under the Police Act; in both of which situations he conducted himself with honour and ability.

From his earliest days Mr. Pye was devoted to reading. When he was about ten years old, his father put Pope's Homer into his hand: the rapture which be received from this exquisite paraphrase of the Grecian Bard was never to be forgotten, and it completely fixed him a rhymer for life, a he has pleasantly expressed it. To this early love of reading Mr. Pye was indebted for the various learning he possessed. His first literary production, probably, was an "Ode on the Birth of the Prince of Wales," published in the Oxford Collection; and the following distinct publications have successively appeared from his prolific pen:

"Beauty, a Poetical Essay," 1766.

"Elegies on different Occasions," 1768, 4to.

"The Triumph of Fashion, a Vision," 1771, 4to.

"Faringdon Hill, a Poem in Two Books," 1774, 4to.

"Six Olympic Odes of Pindar, being those omitted by Mr. West, translated into English Verse, with Notes," 1775, 12mo.

"The Art of War, a Poem, translated from the French of the King of Prussia," written and published in 1778, at his leisure hours during the encampment, at Coxheath.

"The Progress of Refinement, a Poem, in Three Parts," 1783, 4to; (reviewed in our vol. LIII. p. 513.) It is, in fact, a history of the procedure of the human mind, in manners, learning, and taste, from the first dawnings of cultivated life to the present day. The poem displays the great knowledge of the Author, the elegance of his genius, and the soundness of his judgment. His descriptions are just and beautiful, and his versification correct, polished, and harmonious.

"Shooting, a Poem," 1784, 4to.; (reviewed in vol. LIV, p. 911.)

"Poems on various Subjects," in two octavo volumes, in which several of the before-mentioned pieces were collected, and a few new ones added; 1787. An elegant and very faithful English Translation of the Song of Harmodius and Aristogeiton, is to be found, among other excellent pieces, in this Collection.

A Translation of the Poetics of Aristotle, first published in an octavo volume in 1788, and afterwards prefixed to a Commentary on that Work, published in a quarto volume.

"Amusement, a Poetical Essay," 1790, (reviewed in our vol. LX. p. 544.)

"The Siege of Meaux, a Tragedy, in three Acts," acted at Covent-garden Theatre, 1794, 8vo.; the story of which is interesting, and the language poetical.

"The War Elegies of Tyrtaeus imitated, and addressed to the people of Great Britain; with some Observations on the Life and Poems of Tyrtaeus," 1795. (See vol. LXV. pp. 412, 636.)

"The Democrat; interspersed with Anecdotes of well-known Characters," 1795, 2 vols. 12mo.

"Lenore, a Tale, translated from the German of Gottfried Augustus Burger," 1796, 4to. Of the several translations of this Tale which have appeared, Mr. Pye's is esteemed the best; but neither English morals nor English taste are likely to be benefited by the translation of such Poems as "Lenore."

"Naucratia, or Naval Dominion, a Poem," 2d edit. 1798.

"The Inquisitor, a Tragedy in Five Acts, altered from the German by the late James Petit Andrews and Henry James Pye," 1798, 8vo.

"The Aristocrat, by the Author of the Democrat," 1799. 2 vols. 12mo.

"Carmen Seculare for the year 1800," (reviewed in our vol. LXX. P. 64, where we have extracted from the Preface his opinion on the disputed point respecting the actual period of the commencement of the new Century.)

"Adelaide, a Tragedy," acted at Drury-lane Theatre, 1800, 8vo. This piece is calculated rather for the closet than the stage. The story is drawn from the latter part of the reign of Henry II. whose last days were so much embittered by the disobedient and unnatural conduct of his sons.

"Alfred, an Epic Poem, in Six Books," 1802, 4to.

"Verses on several Subjects, written in the Vicinity of Stoke Park, in the Summer and Autumn of 1801," sm. 8vo. 1802.

A second Collection of his Poems, in two octavo volumes, comprising, besides several of those already mentioned, a volume of sketches on various subjects; and a translation of Xenophon's Defence of the Athenian Democracy, with notes.

"A Prior Claim, a Comedy," acted at Drury-lane Theatre, 1806, 8vo. in which he was assisted by Mr. Samuel James Arnold, his son-in-law. If there is but little interest in the plot, yet it is judiciously conducted, the piece has in it some excellent writing, and some of the characters are well sketched.

"Comments on the Commentators on Shakespear; with preliminary Observations on his Genius and Writings, and on the Labours of those who have endeavoured to elucidate them." 1807, 8vo. On which see Remarks by Francis Douce, esq. in our vol. LXXVII. pp. 922-927; and by another Correspondent in p. 1001.

A Translation of the "Hymns and Epigrams of Homer," 1810.

Many of Mr. Pye's occasional Poems, besides his Odes for the New Year, for his Majesty's Birthday, and for the Anniversary of the Literary Fund, are preserved in our former volumes.

The Poetry of Mr. Pye cannot, perhaps, upon the whole, be said to be of that very superior kind which has universally exacted the applause of first-rate excellence. Yet none can deny that he is generally the elegant scholar, the man of taste and fancy, and the writer of polished versification; while the great interests of virtue and public spirit have uniformly been countenanced by his pen. — Proposals to publish an elegant and uniform edition of the Select Writings of Mr. Pye, have lately been circulated.

An enumeration of the Poets who have successively enjoyed the honours of the Laurel, with a few observations on the office itself, may not improperly be subjoined to these Memoirs.

LIST OF POETS LAUREAT.
1. John Kay, temp. Edw. IV. (Selden. Tit. Hon. P. II. Ch. I. S. 43.)
2. Andrew Bernard, temp. Hen. VII. (see Rymer, tom. XII. 311; and Sir Bryan Tuke's Accounts in Remembrancer's Office. He was blind.)
3. John Skelton, temp. Henry VIII. died June 21. 1529.
4. Edmund Spenser (circa 1590); died 1598-9.
5. Samuel Daniel; died 1619, aged 57.
6. Ben Jonson, held the office 18 years. Died 1637, aged 63.
7. Sir William Davenant; died 1668, aged 63.
8. John Dryden. He was displaced on his turning Roman Catholick, 1688; and was succeeded by
9. Thomas Shadwell, who, being an old enemy to Dryden, was satirized by him in the poem styled "Mac Flecknoe." Died in 1692, aged 52. [Flecknoe was a very indifferent poet, who lived a little while before. See Dr. Johnson's Like of Dryden, p. 69.]
10. Nahum Tate. Having sheltered himself from his creditors in the Mint, where he died 1716, he was succeeded by
11. Nicholas Rowe. Dr. Johnson, in his Life of Rowe, seems to insinuate that Tate was ejected from the post to make room for Rowe. Rowe died 1718, aged 45.
12. Rev. Laurence Eusden; who enjoyed it till his death in 1730.
[Savage, being disappointed of the Laurel on the death of Eusden, assumed the title of Volunteer Laureat. Dr. Johnson's Lives of the Poets, p. 263.]
13, Colley Cibber, died 1757, aged 87. After the death of Cibber, the post was offered to Mr. Gray; but he declined it.
14. William Whitehead was appointed. Dr. Johnson's Life of Gray. Whitehead died in 1785; and it is said Mr. Mason had the offer of it before it was tendered to Mr. Warton.
15. Rev. Thomas Warton; died 1790.
16. H. J. Pye, esq.; died 1813.
17. Robert Southey, esq. it is thought will succeed.

The history of the office of Poet-laureat is involved in much obscurity: and the only points which appear to he certainly established are, that the office, as it now stands, involving an obligation to produce two Odes yearly, cannot be traced much higher than a century: but for many centuries before that, there was a person attached to the Court, and paid by the Sovereign, whose title was that of Laureat, and this title was evidently derived from the Universities. When a scholar took his degree in grammar, which included rhetoric and versification, a wreath of laurel was presented to him, and he was afterwards styled "Poeta Laureatus," or Poet Laureat; and the King's Poet Laureat was at first only a graduated rhetorician employed in the service of the King. — We have many accounts of persons who held this office; but it was unquestionably a different office, as to its duties, from the present, which, as we have already observed, cannot be traced much higher than a century. The King's Birthday in 1694 appears to have been celebrated officially by Tate, the poet. Rowe seems to have succeeded him; and from the year 1718 we have a regular series of Birth-day and New-year Odes. — Of the office itself, if we may judge from the manner in which it has been filled, it is impossible to speak with much respect. For a whole century, we can name only one man who did honour to its duties. Warton, who immediately preceded Mr. Pye, produced compositions of such elegance, as, had he lived longer, would have given a dignity to the office. If we may borrow a figure, Cibber, who held this office from 1730 to 1754, left it in complete ruins, and overwhelmed with a weight of ridicule which it seemed impossible to remove. Of this the patrons of the office were fully sensible: and when it was proposed to offer it to Gray, it was with the condition of being a sinecure; but Gray thought proper to decline it. His sentiments on the subject appear in a letter he wrote to Mr. Mason at that time. "If you hear who it is to be given to, pray let me know: for I interest myself a little in the history of it, and rather wish somebody may accept it that will retrieve the credit of the thing, if it be retrievable, or ever had any credit!" — At this time Mason himself was intended for it; but an apology was made for passing him over, "that, being in orders, he was thought, merely on that account, less eligible for the office than a Layman." — This, however, was an apology created for the purpose; for Cibber's immediate predecessor, Eusden, was a clergyman, and had held the office 14 years. It was them given to William Whitehead, but not with the compliment paid to Gray; for Whitehead, as he tells us himself.

—Obliged by sack and pension,
Without a subject, or invention,
Must certain words in order set,
As innocent as a Gazette:
Must some half-meaning half disguise,
And utter neither truth nor lies.

His friend Mason, compassionating the case of a man tied down to such a task, endeavoured to relieve him by an expedient not very promising. He advised him to employ a deputy to write his annual odes, and reserve his own pen for certain great occasions, as a peace, or a royal marriage; and he pointed out to him two or three needy poets, who, for a reward of five or ten guineas, would be humble enough to write under the eye of the musical composer! Whitehead, however, wrote his own Odes, and had the honour to be reckoned superior to Cibber; but he could not check the licentiousness of the wits, who thought, and thought with justice, that any comparison with Cibber was a degradation. Cibber, in fact, had rendered the office so completely ridiculous by his execrable Odes, that the critics were never without a grin in their faces until Warton came — and since his death it is no great breach of charity to say, that their risible muscles have again occasionally been brought into play. — Gibbon and Warton, and many others, have been of opinion, that the office might be retained as a sinecure ornament to the Court, with great propriety — but, if its duties are still expected, its honours will, doubtless, be perpetuated.