1814 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Duncombe

John Nichols, in Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 8:271-78.



JOHN DUNCOMBE, only son of the worthy gentleman just commemorated, was born in 1730; and, when a child, was of an amiable disposition, had an uncommon capacity for learning, and discovered, very early, a genius for poetry. After some years passed at a school at Romford, in Essex, under the care of his relation, the rev. Philip Fletcher, afterwards Dean of Kildare, and younger brother to the Bishop of that See, he was removed to a more eminent one at Felsted, in the same County. At this school he was stimulated by emulation to an exertion of his talents; and, by a close application, he became the first scholar, as well as captain of the school, and gained the highest reputation. By the sweetness of his temper and manners, and by a disposition to friendship, he acquired and preserved the love of all his companions, and the esteem of his master and family. He has, on some particular occasions, been heard modestly to declare, that he was never punished, during his whole residence at either school, for negligence in his lessons or exercise, or for any other misdemeanor. He was very early qualified for the University; and constantly improved himself, when at home, by his private studies, and the assistance of his Father, happy in the companionship of such a son, who was always dutiful and affectionate to him; and the first literary characters of that time associated with a Father and Son, whose polished taste and amiable manners rendered them universally acceptable.

He was entered, at the age of 16, at Bene't-college, Cambridge, where Mr. Castle, afterwards Dean of Hereford, was then Master: and he was recommended to that College by Abp. Herring, his Father's particular friend. The Archbishop baptised his Son; promised to patronise him, if educated for the Church, and there sent him to the College where he had completed his own education.

Mr. Duncombe took the degree of B.A. 1748; and proceeded M.A. 1752. Whilst resident at the University he continued to rise in reputation as a Scholar and a Poet, and was always irreproachable in his moral character; he had the happiness of forming some connexions there with men of genius and virtue, which lasted through life; but the first and strongest attachment, in which he most delighted, and which reflected honour on his own merit, was the uninterrupted friendship, and constant correspondence, which continued to the last, with Mr. John Greene, a very respectable Clergyman of the Diocese of Norwich, a man whose character for learning and abilities, goodness, and virtue, justly gained him the esteem and love of all who had the happiness of his acquaintance; whose testimony is real praise, who acknowledged the worth of his valuable friend, "and loved his amiable and benevolent spirit."

He was in 1750, with full reputation, chosen Fellow of Bene't-college; in 1753 was ordained at Kew chapel, by Dr. Thomas Bp. of Peterborough, and appointed, by the recommendation of Abp. Herring, to the Curacy of Sundridge in Kent; after which he became Assistant Preacher at St. Anne's, Soho, where his Father resided, and Dr. Squire, afterwards Bp. of St. David's, was Rector; with whom he lived in particular intimacy, and who gave him a Chaplainship, and intended to patronize him; but in that instance, and several others, he experienced the loss of Friends and Patrons before they had been able to gratify their own intention, or bestow on him any thing considerable. — His elegant Discourses acquired him, as a Preacher, great reputation; his language was correct, his expression forcible, and his doctrine so pathetically delivered, as to impress his hearers with reverence and awaken their attention. His voice was harmonious; and rather by distinct articulation, than from strength, be was better heard, in many large Churches, and particularly in the Choir of Canterbury Cathedral, than some louder tones, having cultivated the art of speaking in the pulpit; and his Sermons always recommended that moderation, truly Christian temper, and universal charity and philanthropy, which formed the distinguished mark of his character in every part of life; and he was totally free from all affectation, as well in the pulpit as in common conversation. He was a popular and admired Preacher; but he had no vanity on that account, and was equally satisfied to fulfil his duty in a country parish, and an obscure village, as in a crowded Cathedral, or populous church in the Metropolis. But his merit was not much regarded by the attention of the great. He was, however, esteemed, honoured, and beloved, in the very respectable neighbourhood where he constantly resided; and the dignities and affluence he might reasonably have expected from his family connexions, and early patronage, could only have displayed, in a wider sphere, that benevolence, and those virtues, which are equally beneficial to the possessor, in whatever station he may be placed, when exercised to the utmost of his ability.

After the death of Bp. Squire, he was nominated Chaplain to Lord Corke, with whom he and his Father had the honour of a particular friendship, as appears by that Nobleman's "Letters from Italy." He was presented, in 1757, by Abp. Herring, to the united rectories of St. Andrew and St. Mary Bredman, in Canterbury. This benefice was bestowed in the most friendly manner by his Patron, who called it only something to begin with: but the Archbishop lived not above two months afterwards; and with his life the prospect of future advancement seemed to disappear. However, no complaint against the slow preferment from his respected Friend and Patron, no murmur against the daily dispositions of benefices, to which he must be conscious his merit often gave him equal claim, ever was suffered to escape in conversation.

This preferment enabled him to fulfil a long engagement, or rather to obey the impulse of a strong attachment, to Miss Highmore, daughter of Joseph Highmore, esq. who was known to the world, not only by his pencil, but by his other extensive knowledge, and literary pursuits. He was married, at St. Anne's church, April 20, 1763, by Bp. Squire. A similarity of taste and love of literature had early endeared their companionship; and a mutual affection was the natural consequence, which ensured to them 20 years' happiness, rather increased than diminished by the hand of Time lie settled at Canterbury; and, in 1766, Abp. Seeker appointed him one of the Six Preachers in that Cathedral. In 1773, Abp. Cornwallis gave him the vicarage of Herne, about six miles from Canterbury, which afforded him a pleasant recess in the summer months. His Grace also granted him a Chaplainship; and he had, previous to the last preferment, been entrusted with the Mastership of Harbledown and St. John's hospitals, places of trust only, not emolument: so that he had, in fact, three favours, though not any of them considerable, in succession, from three Archbishops.

He examined into the state of the Hospitals, and endeavoured to do his duty in the office he had undertaken, with an attention and assiduity that accompanied his indefatigable desire of being serviceable to all, and particularly to the lowest of his fellow-creatures, wherever he had opportunity; which was his principal inducement for becoming an acting Magistrate, the duty of which office he performed several years, with great application to observe the Laws of his Country, to do justice, preserve equity, and always remember mercy; for no one in that department was more open to the poor and friendless, having the temper and inclination to propose and to act, for the service and relief of the distressed; with steadiness to persevere with judgment, where truth and right preponderated.

He was suddenly taken ill in the night, June 21, 1783. A suffocation was rapidly coming on; but a surgeon being called, he was almost instantly relieved by bleeding — a good sleep ensued, but he waked in the morning almost speechless; a paralytic stroke, on the organs of articulation only, seemed to have taken place. Medical assistance was applied; he partly recovered articulation; but great debility was perceivable, and he could no longer write as usual: however, by slow degrees he regained strength, beyond the expectation of his distressed friends; and appeared, after the summer passed at Herne, to be quite restored to health and spirits, and pursued every avocation as before the stroke, and with the same power of mind; but those who were most constantly with him, and watched with the tender eye of affection, never lost the alarm, never rested without apprehension, and perceived, by some sudden starts and nervous complaints, that all was not sound within. In January following he coughed much, two or three days, but without any dangerous symptom, till, on the night of the 18th, a suffocation as before came on; assistance was immediately procured, but not with the former success, the disorder increased, and loss of life ensued. His gentle spirit, as he had lived, departed, easy to himself in his exit; distressful alone to all that knew him, to those most who knew him best. His family, his friends, the servants, and the poor, all by their affliction spoke his real worth. His temper never changed by any deprivation of the world's enjoyments, nor by any bodily suffering; no peevishness, no complaints escaped; though it is observed that a great alteration often attends such disorders, and warps the temper naturally good. But he silently used his piety to the laudable purpose of regulating not only his actions, but his words; yet this was discovered rather from observation than from his own profession, as he was remarkably modest and humble on religious topics; and, for fear of ostentation on that subject, might rather err on the opposite side, from an awful timidity, which might not always give a just idea of his unaffected zeal and real faith. His friendship, where professed, was ardent; and he had a spirit in a friend's cause that rarely appeared on other occasions. He was amiable, affectionate, and tender, as a husband and father; kind and indulgent as a master; and a protector and advocate of the poor; benevolent to all, as far as his fortune could afford. As he had many leisure hours, he passed much time in literary employments, though many were very cheerfully given to society.

In the Gentleman's Magazine, his communications in biography, poetry, and criticism, during the last twenty years of his life, were frequent and valuable. Many of them are without a name; but his miscellaneous contributions were usually distinguished by the signature of CRITO; and the Review of Books (in which department he succeeded Dr. Hawkesworth) was nearly all his own.

Mr. Duncombe's widow died, at an advanced age, Oct. 28, 1812. She inherited much of her Father's taste for the Fine Arts, and of his genius for letters, softened by a refined judgment and feminine delicacy. Her union with Mr. Duncombe tended to expand her natural talents and to exemplify her education; which enabled her justly to venerate the eminent circle in which she was born to shine — Young, Harris, Hawkesworth, Richardson, Isaac Hawkins Browne, Chapone, Carter, and others equally dear to Literature. Mr. Duncombe's preferment at and near Canterbury led them to fix their residence there, where her Father soon after joined them, and continued with them until his death. After the decease of Mr. Duncombe, she adopted a more retired life, accompanied by her only surviving daughter; and although her advancing years cast their autumnal tints over her once brilliant mind, yet they sufficiently marked the beauty of the days that had passed, and rendered perhaps more eminent the "light that now shines more and more in perfect day." She has not left any literary work to perpetuate her fame; but her story of "Fidelia and Honoria" in the Adventurer, and some small contributions in the Poetical Calendar, and Nichols's Poems, and a few transient effusions of genius that never met the public eye, principally in the Gentleman's Magazine, have assisted to chear her friends with the remembrance of her with respect and delight. She was interred in the church of St. Mary Bredman, in the same vault with her husband, whose tomb is thus inscribed:

"The Rev. John Duncombe, M.A. Rector of this Parish, with that of St. Andrew annexed, Vicar of Herne, and one of the Six Preachers in the Cathedral. Ob. Jan. 19, 1786, aet. 56."