1799 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Richard Farmer

Isaac Reed, in William Seward, Biographiana (1799) 2:579-98.



Richard Farmer, D.D. was the architect of his own fortune; and without the aid of friends or powerful connections elevated himself to an honourable and lucrative situation, in the enjoyment of which he bounded his ambition at a time when he might have obtained higher preferment. From his entrance into the University he seemed to have fixed on Cambridge as the place destined for his future residence, and uniformly rejected every offer the acceptance of which would occasion his entire removal from that place. His attention to the interests of the town and university never was suspended, and by his exertions every improvement and convenience introduced for the last thirty years were either originally proposed or ultimately forwarded and carried into execution. The plan for paving, watching, and lighting the town, after many ineffectual attempts, was accomplished in his second Vice-Chancellorship, greatly to the satisfaction of all parties, whose petty objections and jealousies, and discordant and jarring interests he exerted himself with success to obviate, to moderate, and to reconcile. As a Magistrate he was active and diligent, and on more than one occasion of riots displayed great firmness of mind in dangerous conjunctures. As the Master of his College he was easy and accessible, cultivating the friendship of the fellows and inferior members by every mark of kindness and attention; and this conduct was rewarded in the manner he most wished by the harmony which prevailed in the society, and by an entire exemption from those feuds and animosities which too often tore to pieces and disgraced other colleges. In his office of Residentiary of St. Paul's, if he was not the first mover he was certainly the most strenuous advocate for promoting the art of sculpture by the introduction of statuary into the metropolitan cathedral; and many of the regulations on the subject were suggested by him, and adopted in consequence of his recommendation. His literary character rests on one small work, The Essay on the Learning of Shakspeare, composed in the early period of his life, and which completely settled a much litigated and controverted question, contrary to the opinions of many eminent writers, in a manner that carried conviction to the mind of every one who had either carelessly or carefully reflected on the subject. It may in truth be pointed out as a masterpiece, whether considered with a view to the sprightliness and vivacity with which it is written the clearness of the arrangement, the force and variety of the evidence; or the compression of scattered materials into a narrow compass; materials which inferior writers would have expanded into a large volume. He had no taste for the prevailing pursuit in the university, the mathematicks, nor ever paid any regard to it after he had obtained his first two degrees; but he cultivated the belles lettres with great assiduity, though with little appearance of regular study. His knowledge of books in all languages, and in every science, was very comprehensive. He was fond of reading, and continued the habit until the last stage of his existence. His good humour, liberality, pleasantry, and hospitality might afford subjects for unmixed panegyric to which every one who knew him would readily assent. These will live in the memory of his surviving friends who, whenever his name occurs, cannot but sigh at the reflection that those qualities which have so often soothed and gladdened life were suffered to exist no longer in the possessor than until he had attained the age of sixty-two years. He died the 8th September 1797.

The illiberal practice of the present times may expect a drawback of the foibles of a man of genius and virtue. That Dr. Farmer had some it would be ridiculous to deny and useless to conceal. They were, however, such as superadded no duty, encouraged no vice, and might pass in review before the most rigid moralist without calling for more than a very slight censure. In reality they were lost in the recollection of his many amiable qualities. Some of them, however, are delicately glanced at in the following masterly character drawn by the Reverend Dr. PARR, and published a short time before Dr. Farmer's death:

"Of any undue partiality towards the Master of Emmanuel college I shall not be suspected by those persons who know how little his sentiments accord with my own upon some ecclesiastical and many political matters. From rooted principle and ancient habit he is a Tory; I am a Whig; and we have both of us too much confidence in each other, and too much respect for ourselves, to dissemble what we think upon any grounds or to any extent. Let me then do him the justice which amidst all our differences in opinion I am sure that be will ever be ready to do to me. His knowledge is various, extensive, and recondite. With much seeming negligence, and perhaps in later years some real relaxation, he understands more and remembers more about common and uncommon subjects of literature, than many of those who would be thought to read all the day and meditate half the night. In quickness of apprehension and acuteness of discrimination I have not often seen his equal. Through many a convivial hour have I been charmed by his vivacity; and upon his genius I have reflected in many a serious moment with pleasure, with admiration, but not without regret, that he has never concentrated and exerted all the great powers of his mind in some great work upon some great subject. Of his liberality in patronizing learned men I could point out numerous instances. Without the smallest propensities to avarice, he possesses a large income; and, without the mean submissions of dependance, he is risen to high station. His ambition, if he has any, is without insolence; his munificence is without orientation; his wit is without acrimony; and his learning without pedantry."

Dr. Farmer, when a young man, at the request of a friend, wrote the following Directions for studying the English history, which, with his permission, were printed in his lifetime in the European Magazine for June 1791:

"Dear Sir,

You will not expect to be sent to the authors who are usually called Classical for much information on the English History. Very little is met with in the Greek, and not a great deal in the Latin. Caesar, Tacitus, and Suetonius, are the only ones worth mentioning on this subject.

"Nor will you choose to be referred to the Monkish writers. Jeffrey of Monmouth and his story of Brute are now generally given up. Some of them indeed, as William of Malmsbury, Matthew Paris, &c. have a more authentic character; but I suppose any one (except a professed antiquary) will be contented with them at second-hand in the modern historians. Carte has made the most and best use of them, which is the greatest merit of his book. Hume often puts their names in his margin; but I fear all he knew of them was through the media of other writers. He has some mistakes, which could not have happened had he really consulted the originals.

"The first planting of every nation is necessarily obscure, and always lost in a pretended antiquity. It matters little to us whether our island was first peopled by Trojans, Phoenicians, Scythians, Celts, or Gauls, who have all their respective advocates; and the famous Daniel de Foe makes his 'True-born Englishman' a compound of all nations under heaven. If you choose, however, to read about this matter, 'Sheringham de Anglorum Origine,' 8vo. 1670, is the best book for the purpose. I may just mention, that some writers would cavil at the word 'island' just above, and insist that we were formerly joined to the French continent.

"Little real knowledge is to be picked up from our history before the Conquest; yet it may not be amiss to have a general idea of the Druidical government among the ancient Britons; of the invasion of the Romans under Julius Casear, and again in the time of Claudius; the struggles for liberty under Caractacus, Boadicea, &c.; the desertion of the island by the Romans; the irruption of the Picts and Scots; the calling in of the Saxons as allies; who, after a time, turned their arms against the natives, and conquered them (some few excepted, who secured themselves in the mountains of Wales, whence their descendants affect to call themselves Ancient Britons); the establishment of the Heptarchy; &c. the union under King Egbert; the invasion and various fortunes of the Danes; and, lastly, the Normans under William the Conqueror.

"The best authors for this period are Milton and Sir William Temple; the latter more pleasing, but the former more accurate. Milton's prose works are exceedingly stiff and pedantic, and Sir William's as remarkably easy and genteel; but he should have attended more to the minutiae of names and dates.

"As to the religion of our ancestors, something of the Druids may be learned from 'Schedius de Diis Germanis,' and an essay in 'Toland's Posthumous Works.' Christianity seems to have been introduced, perhaps by some of the Romans, in the first century. Some indeed pretend, that St. Paul himself came over.

"The Saxons brought their own gods with them, viz, the Sun, Moon, Tuisco, Woden, Thor, Friga, and Seater, and, in imitation of the Romans, dedicated to them respectively the days of the week; and hence the names which continue to our times. For this subject I would recommend 'Verstegan's Restitution of decayed Intelligence.'

"From the Conquest our annals are more clear than those of any other nation in the world. This happens from the custom or obligation that every mitred abbey was under to employ a registrary for all extraordinary events; and their notes were usually compared together at the end of every reign. Hence the great number of Monkish historians.

"It luckily happens, that no party-spirit has biassed the historians in their accounts of our old kings; and it therefore does not much signify what author is read. You would smile at my love of black letter, were I to refer you to Hollinshed or Stowe; men, I assure you, by no means despicable, and much superior to Caxton, Fabian, Grafton, &c.; nor will you choose to read chronicles in rhyme; as Robert of Gloucester and Harding. The most elegant old history we have is that by Samuel Daniel, a poet of no mean rank. Though he wrote more than half a century before Milton, his stile appears much more modern. His continuator Trussel is not so well spoken of. Daniel is very concise in his accounts before the Conquest, but much fuller afterwards. He ends with Edward III. and Trussell with Richard III. This book is reprinted in Bishop Kennet's 'Collections;' but the old editions are the best. The Bishop employed Oldmixon, a hero of the Dunciad, in the republication; who, we are told, falsified it in many places.

"If we are not content with general accounts of the subsequent reigns, it may not be amiss to look at their particular writers. 'Buck's History of Richard III.' is remarkable, from the pains he takes to clear his character against the scandal (as he calls it) of other historians, Lord Bacon's florid 'History of Henry the Seventh' comes next. You must know this king was a favourite with James the First; and, as it was written to recover his favour, the author, you may suppose, has not been impartial. Lord Herbert's 'Henry the Eighth' well deserves reading; he was a free thinker and a free writer; his information was good, and the era particularly interesting. The next work of importance (not quite forgetting Dr. afterwards Sir John Hayward's 'Edward the Sixth') is 'Camden's Elizabeth,' a performance worthy of its author. The story of Mary Queen of Scots may be more particularly learned from her countrymen Melvil, Buchanan, &c.

"The Stuarts have brought in a flood of histories, many high-flying panegyrics, and many scandalous invectives. On James the First, Wilson, Saunderson, Weldon, &c. and a late writer, one Harris, an Anabaptist parson.

"For Charles the First appears our greatest historian Lord Clarendon: on the other side Ludlow, who, however, is particularly severe on Cromwell. I omit Whitlock, Rushworth, Warwick, and a thousand others.

"After the Restoration, Bishop 'Burnet's History of his Own Times' will come in, and carry us to the end of Queen Anne's reign; a curious work, but to be read with great caution, as the bishop bad strong prejudices. Salmon wrote an answer to it.

"Rapin seems the next writer of much consequence. Voltaire, certainly a good judge of history, calls him our best historian; but perhaps he was partial to his countryman. It is, however, a work of much accuracy, but barren of reflection, and consequently heavy in the reading. Carte, who emphatically stiles himself an Englishman, wrote purposely against him, on the Tory side of the question.

"The later historians, Hume, Smollett, &c. you know perhaps as well as I do. Hume is certainly an admirable writer; his stile bold, and his reflections shrewd and uncommon; but his religious and political notions have too often warped his judgment. [Mrs. Macaulay has just now published against his account of the Stuarts; but I have not yet had an opportunity of reading her book.] Smollett wants the dignity of history, and takes every thing upon trust; but his books, at least the former volumes, are sufficiently pleasing. I have purposely omitted a multitude of writers; as Speed, Baker, Brady, Tyrrel, Echard, Guthrie, &c.

"Collections of Letters and State Papers are of the utmost importance, if we pretend to exactness; such as a collection called the 'Cabala;' Burleigh's, Sydney's, Thurloe's, &c.

"The last observation I shall trouble you with is, that sometimes a single pamphlet will give us better the clue of a transaction than a volume in folio. Thus we learn from the Duchess of Marlborough's 'Apology,' that the peace of Utrecht was made by a quarrel among the women of the bedchamber! Hence Memoirs, Secret Histories, Political Papers, &c. are not to be despised; always allowing sufficiently for the prejudice of the party, and believing them no farther than they are supported by collateral evidence.

I remain, &c.

R. F."

The arts have particular obligations to Dr. Farmer in this country. He opened a new and splendid theatre for their exertions. His good sense pervaded every thing in which he was concerned. As Residentiary of St. Paul's he saw but too plainly the desolate state of the fabric, and that, for want of proper decorations, it appeared only to be the most beautiful stone quarry in Europe. He prevailed upon the Chapter of that cathedral to admit monuments into it, under proper restrictions; and by the wise and liberal regulations that they made, to render it, as Sir Joshua Reynolds exultingly said, "the British Temple of Fame." Mr. Howard's monument was the first that was proposed for it; which gave rise to the following judicious observations on sepulchral decorations, which were addressed to the Committee appointed to conduct the business of that monument by the Marquis of Lansdowne:

"In complimenting or commemorating any great character, expence is a secondary consideration. All works of art please or displease in proportion as taste and judgment prevail over it. In architecture, the greatness of the mass sometimes imposes, even where the structure is barbarous; but in sculpture, the mass becomes an intolerable enormity, where it is not highly executed and imagined; which, in a groupe of figures, implies the arts to have attained the utmost degree of perfection. In the case of monuments this is the more true, as the mere massy monument, composed of common-place allegory, may be raised to any body, whose will or whose posterity may direct the payment for it, without creating any interest, and often without being at all understood. Besides, the public is in general grown cold to allegory, even in painting, where nevertheless it is much more supportable than in statuary. The great object, where a character admits of it, should be to produce those sensations which resemblances of exalted characters never fail to do, even in persons most experienced in the human character; and at the same time create an association of ideas, which may tell themselves in honour of the persons intended to be remembered.

"The proposal for erecting a monument to the late Mr. Howard suggests these reflections. If they have any foundation, it will be difficult to find an occasion so proper, and so free from objection, to inforce and carry them into effect; as, besides continuing his likeness to posterity by a single statue, three public points may be obtained; which, combined all together, must reflect the highest honour on his memory; namely,

1st, To reserve St. Paul's, the second building in Europe, and the first in Great Britain, from being disfigured or misapplied in the manner of Westminster Abbey.

2dly, To assist the arts most essentially, by advancing statuary, which may be considered as the first, because it is the most durable, amongst them.

3dly, To commence a selection of characters, which can alone answer the purpose of rewarding past or exciting future virtues; and the want of which selection makes a public monument scarcely any compliment.

"It would be not only invidious, but unfair, to criticise the several monuments in Westminster Abbey; but let any person of the least feeling, not to mention taste or art, unprejudice his mind, and he must find himself more interested in viewing the single statue erected by Mr. Horace WaIpole to his mother Lady Orford, than with any of the piles erected to great men. And if Mrs. Nightingale's monument captivates beyond many others, it is greatly on account of its simplicity, and its being very little more than a single figure. It may as well be supposed that a young person can begin to write whole sentences without making single letters, as that statuaries can make groupes with so little practice as they have in single figures. But if the example is once set, it will most likely become a general fashion to erect statues or busts to every person whose family can afford it, throughout the country. Fifty statues and a hundred busts will be bespoken where one groupe now is; since a statue will probably be to be had for £300 and a bust for £50. Besides which, simple tablets may be admitted into country churches, subject to some arrangement, which may answer the purpose of general ornament, and prevent churches from being disfigured, as they now universally are. The same reason which makes our chimney-pieces better worked, and sharper carved, than those which come from Rome, namely, the greatness of the demand, will gradually improve our artists in the more elevated line of their profession. Their numbers and their constant employment will give a greater chance, if not a certainty, of genius discovering itself from time to time.

"The selection might be made subject, in the first instance,

1. To the King's sign manual.

2. The vote of either House of Parliament.

3. The vote of the East India Company.

4. The ballot of the Royal Society.

5. The sense of any profession, taken under such regulations as may be deemed most unexceptionable.

6. The same as to artists, men of letters, or other descriptions, subject to proper regulations.

"The subscription and the vote must be a sufficient check upon all persons of the latter description.

"The liberality shewn in first opening the door of St. Paul's to the monument of Mr. Howard, who was a Dissenter, already gives the assurance, that difference of religion will not deter from doing honour to striking worth, without regard to the persuasion of those who may afford examples of it. All partaking in the good which they may have done, all are bound to acknowledge and encourage it.

"Upon the same reasoning, some spot might be reserved for eminent foreigners, who are very properly, upon principles of the same general kind, while living, associated to the Royal Society and other learned bodies.

"But none ought to be admitted in consequence of the wish or sole opinion of families or individuals.

"It might, perhaps, be thought proper to leave it to the Royal Academy to form a general plan; and they might class the several descriptions, allotting places to each.

"It is surely of some consequence to whom the first monument in St. Paul's should be erected; and who can be so proper to begin this selection as Mr. Howard? He spent his life and fortune in services which were highly dangerous to himself, but beneficial to every country and every age. Though engaged in doing the most active good, he created no enemies, and excited no envy, even in his life-time; the purity of his intentions leaving him superior to all pursuits of vanity or ambition. His merits were of such a general and fundamental nature, as to serve for an example to all ranks, professions, and nations.

"It belongs to the Committee to determine, whether there is any thing in these reflections which can contribute to do that real justice to his memory which it deserves.

L."