Rev. John Duncombe

Rowland Freeman, in Kentish Poets (1821) 2:338-49.

As we approach the end of our journey we feel that we are treading upon tender ground. Time has not yet sprinkled his dust upon the tombs of those we are now to notice, and they survive fresh in the "mind's eye" of the remainder of a circle which they but lately delighted. Broken as the continuity of this circle is by the hand of death, it yet consists of some near relatives, and of many admiring and affectionate friends. Happily for our concluding pages, the fair report that has survived them for solid virtues, well-employed talents, amiable manners, and exemplary habits, is confirmed by their writings, and would render praise from us unnecessary, were it not delightful to pay that tribute wherever we think it due.

The Rev. John Duncombe was the only son of William Duncombe, Esq. a man of learning, literary habits, and as his published work attest, of considerable talent for poetry, by Elizabeth, the sister of John Hughes, Esq. author of the "Siege of Damascus," the friend and literary associate of Addison, Steele, and Pope; an elegant writer, and a worthy and amiable man.

John Duncombe was born in London, and baptised by Dr. Herring, an intimate friend of his family, and at that time officiating clergyman of the parish in which his father resided. From school he was removed in 1745 at the recommendation of the same worthy divine, then Archbishop of York, to Benet College, Cambridge, where he took his degree, and under the patronage of Dr. Herring obtained a fellowship. He entered into holy orders in 1755, and appears to have officiated as curate of Sundrich in Kent, immediately afterwards. During his residence upon this cure, he addressed to his patrons now at the head of the church, the following imitation of the 31st ode of the 1st book of Horace.

What place, my Lord, in church or choir,
Does, your much-honour'd friend desire?
While your indulgent converse cheers
His hopes, and dissipates his fears?
No sine-cure to feed his pride,
On which he never can reside;
No stall, prebendal every year
By fines and rents three hundred clear;
No high arch-deaconry, whose station
Confers the power of visitation;
Nor for those livings does he sigh
That in your rich peculiars lie,
Where his slow stream old Medway leads
Through western Kent's embroider'd meads.—
Let others wish at each repast,
Tokay or Burgundy to taste,
And see each day their costly board
With soups, ragouts, or ven'son stor'd;
All my ambition is to find
True friendship, health, and peace of mind
On Stour's fair banks to live unknown,
My villa neat, my time my own;
With that prime bliss of social life,
Th' endearing converse of a wife.
Sundrich, Kent, 1756.

His worthy patron was not slow in gratifying the modest and well expressed wishes of the poet; within a few months of the date affixed to the above poem, he promoted him to the united rectories of St. Andrew and St. Mary Bredman, in the City of Canterbury. This preferment was conferred upon him in the most flattering manner, as an earnest only of the future intentions of the friendly prelate, and in his own words as "a good thing to begin with." Within three months, however, from the time of his induction, it was his great misfortune to lose this excellent friend by death, and with him, consequently, all hopes of rapid promotion in the church.

Such a calamity as this too frequently casts a gloom over all the future life of a young clergyman, damps his ardour in his profession, and reduces him to the condition of a melancholy hypochondriac. That it failed to produce such effects upon the newly instituted rector of Saint Andrew and Saint Mary Bredman, must be attributed to the goodness of his heart, and the cheerfulness of his disposition: he was moreover a poet and a lover. A friendship had long subsisted between Mr. Duncombe the elder, and Joseph Highmore Esq. who in addition to his well known acquirements in the delightful art he practised, indulged a taste for general literature, and enjoyed the intimacy of many of the learned men with whom he was a contemporary. Mr. Highmore had an only daughter who had been educated with the greatest care, and under every possible advantage: she possessed great personal beauty, considerable talent, and all the accomplishments that adorn her sex. She wrote verses when yet a child; and very early, shewed also great taste in her father's art; she was perfect mistress of the French language, and acquired a considerable proficiency in the Italian, of which she was very fond. As a proof of her uncommon merit, it is only necessary to observe that she obtained at a very early period of her life, the intimate friendship of Young, Hawkesworth, and Richardson, a triumvirate rarely to be matched in any age or country; and among her own sex, that of Mrs. Chapone, and Mrs. Carter, names equally dear to virtue and to learning. The friendship that existed between Mr. Duncombe and Mr. Highmore led to a more ardent attachment between their children. After a courtship which had subsisted during the greater part of their previous lives, John Duncombe and Susanna Highmore were married at Saint Ann's Church, Soho, April 20th, 1763. "A similarity of taste," says one who probably knew them well, "and love of literature had long endeared their companionship and a mutual affection, was the natural consequence, which ensured them twenty-three years of happiness, rather increased than diminished by the hand of time." At once to exhibit the poetic talent of this accomplished lady, and her correct feeling, at this period of her life, we select the following imitation of the fourteenth ode of the fifth book of Horace, written by her in the year following her happy marriage.

I hear my friend you oft enquire
Why thus neglected sleeps my lyre?
And why the pencil I no more
Inventive use, as heretofore?
As if, when Hymen wreath'd my brow,
To quit the arts he made me vow.
'Tis true far other tasks employ
Maternal hours with anxious joy:
No more the muses I pursue,
Nor draw for friendship and for you;
And since this fate most sure attends
Or soon or late all married friends,
How well so e'er you pass your hours,
Improving all your mental pow'rs,
May you be caught; and may your heart
In wedlock meet its counterpart!—
For greater worth it cannot find,
Than in your own exalted mind;
And may you then with me rejoice,
And join a grateful mother's voice,
While I, my infant in my arms,
Contemplate all her opening charms,
And fondly fancy in her face,
I every wish'd endearment trace!

Mr. Duncombe appears to have been at this period of his life, for a short time, chaplain to John Earl of Cork and Orrery, with whom he and his father had long enjoyed friendship of the most intimate kind, and were very frequent visitors in the family. In 1773, more than ten years after the death of that accomplished nobleman, he collected and published a series of letters written by him when abroad, principally in Italy, which have been much admired for their ease and elegance. To this collection Mr. Duncombe prefixed a memoir of the earl.

Soon after his marriage Mr. Duncombe came to reside at Canterbury, upon his living; in addition to which he was appointed to hold for a minor, the rectory of West Thurrock, in the county of Essex. In 1766 he became one of the six preachers in Canterbury Cathedral, by the nomination of Archbishop Secker; and in 1773 received from Archbishop Cornwallis, to whom he had also been appointed chaplain, his last clerical preferment, which was the vicarage of Herne near Canterbury, where he afterwards occasionally resided.

In 1785 he had a paralytic affection, from which he partially recovered, but lost his life by a second attack on the 18th of January, in the following year.

For a longer account of this very respectable clergyman, we must refer our readers to an article in the Biographia Britannica, written certainly with the partiality and warmth of a friend, and probably of a near relation, but amply confirmed, as far as the goodness of his private character is concerned, by the general report of those who knew him personally and yet survive him. Our business is more particularly with his literary life.

John Duncombe was the author and publisher of many works, a complete catalogue of which would occupy too much space; it may be found in the article in the Biographia Britannica, above alluded to, and in the 56th volume of the Gentleman's Magazine. The principal of these is perhaps the translation of Horace, in conjunction with his father, an edition of which was published in 1766, and a second in the following year. This work was not entirely original, but composed by adopting such translations of different parts as had already appeared, and which the editors "despaired to equal," and completing the whole by "attempting to trace the original as closely as was consistent with the genius and elegance of the English tongue." This translation, although upon the whole not equal to the recent attempt of Francis in the same line, has several spirited and successful versions both original and selected. The greater part of the literal translations are from the pen of the elder Duncombe, and are inferior to the parts selected for execution by his son; many of these are imitations, in which he has ingeniously, but unfortunately for the permanent interest of his work, selected temporary subjects. — The following is a fair specimen.

For quiet on Newmarket's plain,
The shivering Curate prays in vain,
When wintry show'rs are falling;
And stumbling steed and whistling wind,
Quite banish from his anxious mind,
The duties of his calling.

With thoughts engross'd by routs and plays
The gallant Soph for quiet prays,
Confuted and confuting;
And quiet is alike desir'd
E'en by the king's professor, tir'd
With wrangling and disputing.

In crowded senates, on the chair
Of our Vice-Chancellor sits Care,
Undaunted by the mace;
Care climbs the yacht when adverse gales
Detain or tear our patron's sails,
And ruffles ev'n his Grace.

How b!ess'd is he whose annual toil
With well-rang'd trees improves a soil,
For ages yet unborn!
Such as at humble Barley, plann'd
By mitred Herring's youthful hand,
The cultur'd glebe adorn.

From place to place we still pursue
Content, and hope in each to view
The visionary guest:
Vainly we shun intruding Care;
Not all, like you, the joys can share
Of Wimple and of Wrest.

Then let us snatch, while in our powr,
The present transitory hour.
And leave to heav'n the morrow
Youth has its griefs; a friend may die,
Or nymph deceive; for none can fly
The giant hand of sorrow.

His country's hope, and parent's pride
In bloom of life young Blandford died;
His godlike father's eyes
Were dimm'd in age by helpless tears;
And heav'n to me may grant the years,
Which it to you denies.

Your rising virtues soon will claim
A portion of your brother's fame
And catch congenial fire:
They shine in embassy and war;
They grace the senate and the bar;
And emulate their sire.

Invested with the sacred gown,
You soon to rival their renown,
The glorious task shall join;
And while they guard Britannia's laws
You, steady in religion's cause,
Shall guard the laws divine.

Besides the letters of Lord Corke before mentioned, Mr. Duncombe published a volume of correspondence between Archbishop Herring and his father; and a more valuable selection of letters by various writers, including a considerable number by his maternal uncle, John Hughes, Esq. His latest works were some topographical contributions to a periodical publication by Mr. Nichols, comprising a history of Reculver and Herne in Kent, and an account of three hospitals in Canterbury of which he was master. In the same year, 1784, he published select works of the Emperor Julian in 2 volumes 8vo. He printed at different times, three sermons: one preached in St. Ann's Church, Westminster, where he was for some time, in the early part of his life assistant preacher, and two delivered to his congregation at St. Andrew's Church in Canterbury. These were all printed at the request of the hearers, and are creditable to him as a careful and diligent student and expositor of holy writ. He was concerned in the publication of the Gentleman's Magazine for more than twenty years, having succeeded his friend Dr. Hawkesworth in the reviewer's department of that work; he also contributed a variety of papers in biography, poetry, and criticism; some of these have the signature of Crito, others are anonymous.

The poems written by Mr. Duncombe at different periods of his life, would form a volume of handsome dimensions, but they have never been collected. Some of them were printed in the form of pamphlets, but the greater number were inserted in the various miscellanies of the day, and are to be found in the Gentleman's Magazine, the Poetical Calendar, Dodsley's and Pearch's Collections, Nichol's Selections, and the Cambridge Repository. Most of these compositions were the amusement of his early life, and written during his residence at Cambridge. His distinguishing talent was chastened humour, and he was very happy in his attempts at parody, of which there are few better specimens than the "Evening Contemplation in a College;" his application of the old ballad of Chevy Chace, is also excellent of its kind. His more elaborate pieces are not his best; he was a disciple of the school of Pope, and though he wrote generally with elegance, and occasionally with the peculiar harmony and spirit of his great master, the labour of composition is too often apparent. Generally speaking, he was unfortunate in his selection of subjects; most of his poems being on temporary topics, or addressed to persons eminent only during their lives, have now lost their interest, and cannot be read with the same pleasure at the present day, as at the period of their first appearance.