1826 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Reginald Heber

Anonymous, Obituary in Gentleman's Magazine 96 (November 1826) 462-66.



April 3. At Trichinopoly, in the 43d year of his age, and the third of his episcopacy, the Right Rev. Reginald Heber, D.D. Bishop of Calcutta.

Reginald Heber was the second son of the Rev. Reginald Heber, of Marton Hall, in Yorkshire, and Mary, daughter of the Rev. Dr. Allanson, of the same county; and brother to Richard Heber, esq. late M.P. for Oxford. He was born April 21, 1783, at Malpas, in Cheshire, a living held at that time by his father. From the Grammar-school of Whitchurch, where he received more than the rudiments of his classical education, he was sent to Dr. Bristowe, a gentleman who took pupils near town; and in 1800 was admitted of Brazennose College, Oxford, of which his father had been a student. He was afterward elected Fellow of All-Souls; but previously to that election he went abroad, in company with Mr. Thornton. The Continent, at that time, afforded but small choice for an English traveller; and those scenes, which, as a scholar, he would probably have preferred to visit, were not then accessible. He was, therefore, obliged to content himself with Germany, Russia, and the Crimea; and how closely he could observe, and how perspicuously impart his observations, appears from the notes in Dr. Clarke's Travels in the latter countries, which he was permitted to extract from Mr. Heber's MS. Journal. At that period he could not have been more than 17.

In 1801 he gained the Chancellor's prize, by his Carmen Seculare, a spirited and classical specimen of Latin verse; and in 1803 his talents were displayed to still greater advantage in his celebrated poem of "Palestine," which gained the prize for English poetical composition. Never did a prize-poem excite so general a sensation. It was not merely recited in the Theatre, rewarded with the medal, printed for the benefit of admiring friends, and forthwith forgotten, which is the ordinary fate of such productions, but it was set to music by an eminent professor, by many it was committed to memory, by all it was read.

On the occasion here alluded to, Mr. Heber's father was in the theatre, and had the felicity of witnessing his triumph at the early age of nineteen. The old gentleman, immediately after his return home, was seized with a dangerous malady, under which he lingered with intervals of remission, till Jan. 1804, when he closed an exemplary life in his 76th year. (See vol. LXXIV. i. 92.)

Soon after, Mr. Heber relinquished the Fellowship, and married Amelia, daughter of Dr. Shipley, the late Dean of St. Asaph, having previously been presented to the family Rectory of Hodnett in Shropshire. There be calmly settled, devoting himself to those unobtrusive duties and those domestic charities which occupy the life of an estimable country clergyman.

Mr. Heber's Palestine was first printed or private distribution only; but was published in the second volume of the "Poetical Register and Repository of Fugitive Poetry," and then noticed in vol. LXXIV. i. 342. In 1805 he produced an English essay, entitled "The Sense of Honour." In 1808 he took the degree of M.A. as a Grand Compounder, and in 1809 he published in 8vo. a short poem, entitled "Europe; lines on the present War," reviewed in Vol. LXXIX. i. 538. In the same year also his Palestine was re-published in 4to, with "The Passage of the Red Sea, a fragment;" a production evincing great boldness of conception. In 1812 he issued a small volume of "Poems and Translations," and in 1815 he was chosen to deliver the Bampton Lectures, a duty which he performed with great applause. His lectures were published in 1816, under the title of: "The Personality and Office of the Christian Comforter, asserted and explained in a Course of Sermons on John xvi. 7." Of this production the Quarterly Reviewers expressed themselves in terms of great praise; but the remarks of another Review occasioned: "A Reply to certain Observations on the Bampton Lectures for 1815, contained in the British Critic for December 1816 and January 1817. In a letter to the Head of a College, by Reginald Heber, A.M."

With the exception of some critical essays, both theological and literary, not unknown to the public, though without a name, and an admirable Ordination Sermon delivered before the Bishop of Chester (Dr. Law), and at his request committed to the press, Mr. Heber did not again appear as an author till 1822, when he wrote life of Jeremy Taylor for an edition of that Prelate's works. By persons of competent judgment, this was regarded as an admirable and valuable piece of biography. It was soon afterward published in a separate form, accompanied by a critical examination of Bishop Taylor's writings.

In May 1822 Mr. Heber was chosen preacher at Lincoln's Inn, and, on the death of Dr. Middleton, the Bishopric of Calcutta was offered to him. This was certainly a very trying and painful moment of his life: it was no struggle betwixt indolence and ambition, or betwixt conflicting temporal interests, that he had to encounter; but it was a struggle between much self-distrust, much love of country and kindred, much apprehension for the future health of his wife and child (for he thought not of his own); and a strong persuasion, on the other hand, that the call was the call of God, and that to be deaf to it, was to be deaf to the "still small voice." He deliberated long and anxiously — he even refused the appointment — he recalled his refusal, and had farewell to the parish where he had toiled for fifteen years. — He was appointed to the vacant see on the 14th May, 1823. The University of Oxford conferred upon him the degree of D.D by diploma in June; and he arrived at Calcutta on the 11th October following.

The ardent hope of success in his important mission, which Dr. Heber expressed to the various religious societies in England previously to his departure, will not be forgotten; nor the zeal with which he declared that he looked forward to the time when he should be enabled to preach to the natives of India in their own language. His first charge at his Visitation, on the 27th of May 1824, gave abundant proof of the benevolent spirit in which he had entered upon his high office. Long and laborious were the journies which he performed, from one side of the vast Indian peninsula to the other, including the island of Ceylon, performing at each station the active duties of an apostolical bishop.

Having completed one Visitation, comprising Northern India, Bombay, and Ceylon; he set out upon a second to Madras. On Good-friday of the present year he preached at Combaconum; and on Easter Sunday at Tanjore; and in the evening he gratified the native congregation by pronouncing the Apostolic benediction in the Tamul language. The following day he held a Confirmation; and in the evening he addressed, it is said, in a very affectionate manner, the assembled Missionaries. Having paid a visit of ceremony to the Rajah of Tanjore, and inspected the schools, he went on to Trichinopoly. Here, on Sunday, April 2, he again preached and again confirmed, — a rite which he repeated early the next morning in the Fort Church. Having returned home, he took a cold bath before breakfast, as he had done the two preceding days. The servant, however, who attended him, thinking that he remained longer than usual in the bath, entered the apartment, and found life extinct, and the body in the water. The alarm was instantly given, and Mr. Robinson, the Chaplain, and Mr. Doran, a Church-missionary, took it out. Bleeding, friction, and inflating the lungs, were immediately tried, but in vain; and it was afterwards discovered that a vessel had burst upon the brain, — an accident attributed by the medical men to the plunge into cold water when he was warm and exhausted.

The corpse was deposited, with every demonstration of respect and unfeigned sorrow, on the north-side of the altar of St. John's Church, at Trichinopoly.

When the news of the deceased prelate's death arrived at Fort St. Gorge, his Excellency the Governor directed that the flag of the garrison should be immediately hoisted half-staff high, and continue so during the day; and that forty-two minute-guns, corresponding with the age of the deceased, should be fired from the saluting battery.

Shortly after the Bishop's death, meetings were held at each of the three Presidencies of our Indian empire, to consider the best means of testifying their respect to his memory. That at Calcutta was distinguished by the very beautiful Speech of Sir Charles Grey, the Chief Justice, some extracts from which will throw great light on Bishop Heber's history:

"It is just four land twenty years this month since I first became acquainted with him at the University, of which he was, beyond all question or comparison, the most distinguished student of his time. The name of Reginald Heber was in every mouth, his society was courted by young and old; he lived in an atmosphere of favour, admiration, and regard, from which I have never known any one but himself who would not have derived, and for life an unsalutary influence. Towards the close of his academical career he crowned his previous honours by the production of his "Palestine," of which single work of the fancy, the elegance and the grace have secured him a place in the list of those who bear the proud title of English Poets. This, according to usage, was recited in public: and when that scene of his early triumph comes upon my Memory; that elevated rostrum from which he looked upon friendly and admiring faces; that decorated Theatre; those grave forms of ecclesiastical dignitaries, mingling with a resplendent throng of rank and beauty; those antique mansions of learning, those venerable groves, those refreshing streams, and shaded walks; the vision is broken by another, in which the youthful and presiding genius of the former scene is beheld lying in his distant grave, amongst the sands of Southern India, — believe me, the contrast is striking, and the recollection most painful.

"But you are not here to listen to details of private life. If I touch upon one or two other points, it will be for the purpose only of illustrating some features of his character. He passed some time in foreign travel, before he entered on the duties of his profession. The whole Continent had not yet been reopened to Englishmen by the swords of the noble Lord who is near me, [Lord Combermere, the Commander-in-Chief] and his companions in arms; but in the Eastern part of it the Bishop found a field the more interesting, on account of its having been seldom trodden by our countrymen; he kept a valuable journal of his observations, and when you consider his youth, the applause he had already received, and how tempting, in the morning of life, are the gratifications of literary success, you will consider it as a mark of the retiring and ingenuous modesty of his character, that he preferred to let the substance of his work appear in the humble form of notes to the volumes of another. This has been before noticed; there is another circumstance which I can add, and which is not so generally known. This journey, and the aspect of those vast regions, stimulating a mind which was stored with classical learning, had suggested to him a plan of collecting, arranging, and illustrating all of ancient and of modern literature, which could unfold the history, and throw light on the present state of Scythia, — that region of mystery and fable, — that source from whence, eleven times in the history of man, the living clouds of war have been breathed over all the nations of the South. I can hardly conceive any work for which the talents of the author were better adapted, hardly any which could have given the world more of delight, himself more of glory; I know the interest which he took in it. But he had now entered into the service of the Church; and finding that it interfered with his graver duties, he turned from his fascinating pursuit, and condemned to temporary oblivion a work which, I trust, may yet be given to the public.

"I mention this, chiefly for the purpose of shewing how steady was the purpose, how serious the views, with which he entered on his calling. I am aware that there were inducements to it which some minds will be disposed to regard as the only probable ones; but I look upon it myself to have been with him a sacrifice of no common sort. His early celebrity had given him incalculable advantages, and every path of literature was open to him, every road to the temple of fame, every honour which his country could afford, was in clear prospect before him, when he turned to the humble duties of a country church, and buried in his heart those talents which would have ministered so largely so worldly vanity, that they might spring up in a more precious harvest. He passed many years in this situation in the enjoyment of as much happiness as the condition of humanity is perhaps capable of. Happy in the choice of his companion, the love of his friends, the fond admiration of his family — happy in the discharge of his quiet duties and the tranquillity of a satisfied conscience.

"It was not, however, from this station that he was called to India. By the voice, I am proud to say it, of a part of that profession to which I have the honour to belong, he had been invited to an office which few have held for any length of time without further advancement. His friends thought it at that time no presumption to hope that ere long he might wear the mitre at home. But it would not have been like himself to chaffer for preferment; he freely and willingly accepted a call which led him to more important, though more dangerous, — alas! I may now say to fatal, labours!

"I shall have a melancholy pleasure in pointing out some features of his character which appear to me to have been the most remarkable. The first which I would notice was that cheerfulness and alacrity of spirit, which, though it may seem to be a common quality, is, in some circumstances, of rare value. To this large assembly I fear I might appeal in vain, if I were to ask that he should step forward who had never felt his spirit to sink when he thought of his native home, and felt that a portion of his heart was in a distant land, — who had never been irritated by the annoyances, or embittered by the disappointments, of India. I feel shame to say, that I am not the man who could not answer the appeal. The Bishop was the only one whom I have ever known, who was entirely master of these feelings. Disappointments and annoyances came to him as they come to all, but he met and overcame them with a smile; and, when he has known a different effect produced on others, it was his usual wish that 'they were but as happy as himself.' Connected with this alacrity of spirit, and in some degree springing out of it, was his activity. I apprehend that few persons, civil or military, have undergone so much labour, traversed so much country, seen and regulated so much as he had done, in the small portion of time which had elapsed since he entered on his office; and, if death had not broken his career, his friends know that he contemplated no relaxation of exertions. But this was not a mere restless activity or result of temperament. It was united with a fervent zeal, not fiery nor ostentatious, but steady and composed, which none could appreciate but those who intimately knew him. I was struck myself, upon the renewal of our acquaintance, by nothing so much as the observation, that, though he talked with animation on all subjects, there was nothing on which his intellect was bent, — no prospect on which his imagination dwelt, — no thought which occupied habitually his vacant moments, but the furtherance of that great design of which he had been made the principal instrument in this country. Of the same unobtrusive character was the piety which filled his heart. It is seldom that of so much there is so little ostentation. All here knew his good-natured and unpretending manner: but I have seen unequivocal testimonies both before and since his death, that, under that cheerful and gay aspect, there were feelings of serious and unremitting devotion, of perfect resignation, of tender kindness for all mankind, which would have done honour to a saint. When to these qualities you add his desire to conciliate, which had every where won all hearts — his amiable demeanour, which invited a friendship that was confirmed by the innocence and purity of his manners, which bore the most scrutinizing and severe examination, you will readily admit that there was in him a rare assemblage of all that deserves esteem and admiration!"

The following Resolutions were adopted at this meeting:

"That, upon the occasion of the death of the late Bishop of Calcutta, it is desirable to perpetuate, by some durable monument, the sense of public loss with which this community is impressed; and the feelings of respect and affection with which the Bishop was regarded by all who knew him.

"That the most appropriate course appears to be, to cause a sepulchral Monument of Marble to be erected in the Cathedral Church of Calcutta; and that subscriptions be received for this purpose.

"That a Committee of Management should be appointed to superintend the receipt and application of Subscriptions; and that they be desired to communicate with the brother of the late Bishop, Richard Heber, esq. one of the Representatives in Parliament for the University of Oxford, and to request that he will superintend the execution of the Monument in England.

"That the Committee of Management, if any surplus should remain after the erection of a suitable Monument, should consider the propriety of applying it to the foundation of an additional Scholarship in Bishop's College, to be named, 'Heber's Scholarship.'

"That in addition to the objects already named, the Committee should be at liberty, if the funds should be found sufficient, to appropriate a portion of them to the purchase of a Piece of Plate, to be preserved in the family of the brother of the Bishop, as an Heir-loom."

The sum of 8,300 rupees was soon after collected.

At Bombay, after several eloquent speeches, it was resolved:

"That a subscription be entered into for the purpose of raising, a fund to endow one or more Scholarships at Bishop's College, Calcutta, for the benefit of this Presidency, to be called 'Bishop Heber's Bombay Scholarships'."

The sum of 3925 rupees was speedily contributed.

At Madras it was resolved:

"That, in order to perpetuate the sentiments entertained by this settlement towards the late beloved and revered Bishop, a monument be erected to his memory in St. George's Church, and that the Rev. Thomas Robinson, the Domestic Chaplain and esteemed friend of the Bishop, be requested to prepare the inscription. That a Subscription be opened for the purpose, and that any surplus fund be appropriated in the manner best calculated to do honour to Bishop Heber's memory."