1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. George Gregory

Anonymous, Obituary in Monthly Magazine 25 (April 1808) 229-32.



It is a trite remark, that the life of men of letters is commonly unmarked by events; that their history is comprized in their works; that it alone remains to the biographer to elucidate the page which has drawn their names from obscurity, and shall preserve them from oblivion. An author, like a visionary, dwells in an ideal world; and it is scarcely possible to develope to other minds the vague plans, the desultory speculations, impalpable objects of pursuit, which to himself may supply such sources of lively interest, as to leave no vacuum in a monotonous existence. But however destitute of materials for entertainment, the memoirs of a literary character whose last labour is closed, cannot but afford a melancholy satisfaction to those who are conversant with his works, or familiar with his name. When we perceive a blank in that circle whence we have been accustomed to receive instruction or amusement, we become anxious to learn all that can be known concerning the mind, of whose operations we are no longer permitted to judge, in whose energies and feelings we had intimately participated; but which now perceives, reflects, combines, for us no more. These reflections are painfully suggested by the recent loss of Dr. Gregory, who has been snatched from its so suddenly as equally to excite feelings of mournful surprise and tender commiseration. The following succinct account, drawn from an authentic source, will sufficiently evince his claims to the respect and gratitude of society:—

Dr. Gregory traced his origin to a very respectable family derived from Scotland. The branch of which he was a descendant settled in Ireland. His father, who was an elegant scholar, was in the church, but obtained no higher preferment than the living of Edermine, and the dignity of Prebendary of Ferns. He died when the subject of these memoirs was but twelve years of age. In consequence of this event, his mother, who was a native of Lancashire, removed to Liverpool, where she placed her son in a school, which was superintended by an excellent mathematician; whose name was Holden. Under him his progress was commensurate with his diligence, and such was his ardour, that he often dedicated to study two thirds of his time. His indefatigable spirit provoked the emulation of his schoolfellows, and extorted the praises of his master; but his mother, who had hoped to direct, his views to trade, was scarcely consoled by his brilliant success for the failure of her expectations. Convinced at length of his invincible repugnance to her plan, she cheerfully acquiesced in his choice of the clerical profession, which appeared to him most congenial to his literary pursuits. He was not, however, too much absorbed by the classics to overlook the importance of other sources of improvement. He passed two years in Edinburgh, where he made the mathematical and physical sciences his great object of attainment. On his return to Liverpool he took orders; and in 1778, was ordained to the curacy of Liverpool, the laborious duties of which he continued to perform as long as he resided in that place. His education, though not desultory, had been irregular; and he was obviously more indebted to the powerful efforts of his own vigorous intellect, than to care or cultivation. Accustomed to task himself, in his own mind he had found the master, the lecturer, and the college, He watched for instruction: he never suffered an opportunity of acquiring information to escape; and the habits of vigilance and accuracy which insensibly he was thus led to form, were more valuable than any he could have drawn from academic rules or scholastic discipline.

The first stage of literary existence is, it is well known, consumed in doubts and perplexities, the anticipation of difficulties, the experience of disappointment — in exploring the avenues to fame, or attempting time passes of fortune. In addition to such impediments as are incidental to all young writers, Dr. Gregory experienced another in his extreme versatility; — his first bias was to poetry. Some of his poems were published; and many remain in the possession of his friends. He contributed to a periodical work published at Liverpool, some miscellaneous essays, in which he exposed the inhumanity and impolicy of the slave-trade; and as these tracts were prior to Mr. Clarkson's work, they must have preceded the numerous able compositions in prose and verse, which the cause of humanity has since produced. It is pleasing to observe in a young ingenuous mind that amplitude of benevolence which appropriates to itself not only the concerns of some few human beings, but the best interests of the whole human race. It is equally pleasing, and far more rare, to discover that the same mind, when matured by time and experience, is still capable of svmpathizing with its former feelings, and that its philanthropy has not been dissipated in passing over a larger track of existence. After an interval of thirty years, it was a source of joyful exultation to Dr. Gregory, to witness the termination of a traffic which he had, uniformly reprobated, and which, as far as his influence extended, he had laboured to abolish.

In 1782, on his removal to London, he was appointed curate of Cripplegate. Three years after, he became better known by the publication of a volume of Essays. The success of this work occasioned a demand for two subsequent editions, In addition to his literary reputation, Dr. G. had now attained, in his clerical functions, much celebrity. From this popularity, though he derived little emolument, he could not on some occasions fail to receive heart-felt pleasure. The curacy of Cripplegate, in consequence of the heavy duties attached to it, he had been compelled to resign; but in 1785 he was recalled to this church, by the earnest wishes of his congregation, who unanimously elected him their morning-preacher. At the same time he officiated at St. Luke's, Botolph-lane; delivered lectures at the Asylum, and weekly lectures at St. Antholin's. In 1789, he published his Translation of Louth's Lectures on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews.

The paucity of good translations is a common subject of complaint, and no small part of time corruptions and innovations which have crept into our language, may be fairly traced to this circumstance. Those who would be adequate to the task, are not easily induced to undertake it; nor does the present state of literature hold out sufficient motives of interest to counteract the repugnance which men, conscious of a capacity to think for themselves, must inevitably feel in transcribing the thoughts of others. To this remark, the translation of Louth affords a striking exception. The author who writes in a dead language, seems to impose on his offspring the hard condition of an alien, privation and obscurity: it is rendered incapable of popular suffrage, and its influence is necessarily restricted to the scholastic circle. In this predicament was the bishop's work, till it was naturalized to our language; and by Dr. Gregory invested with unequivocal claims to admiration.

In 1789, shortly after his marriage with Miss Nunnes, Dr. Gregory canvassed for the office of chaplain to the Asylum, which he lost by one vote, more from the too sanguine confidence of his friends, than from want of support. In the evening of the same day, with that dignified self-possession which never forsook him, he preached at St. Antholin's, extempore, from the text, "Put thy trust in the Lord, and he shall yet give thee the desires of thine heart." A volume of Sermons, previously published by him, was re-edited this year; also the Life of Chatterton, for whose fate he felt the most sincere commiseration. The union of penury and genius, was ever the object of his tenderest compassion, and indigent merit never failed to engage his friendship. The four following years formed the most active part of his life. He conducted a critical work of deserved celebrity, and was connected with several publications of various kinds. Yet amidst all these cares and avocations, he published his Church History, a new Translation of Telemachus, and the Economy of Nature. This work, the design of which is happily explained by its title, might have been suggested to his mind by two French books, the Spectacle de la Nature, and the contemplations de la Nature; but these authors, independent of the errors which are now to be detected in them, are too much encumbered with sentiment and description, to be capable of affording solid instruction. Science is founded on abstract truth; nor is the imagination the medium through which its principles should be conveyed to the mind.

It would be as easy to inspire the knowledge of tactics from martial music, as to infuse real knowledge by presenting agreeable pictures to the fancy. The Economy of Nature was intended to supply he elemental parts of physical Science. Its success was such, that a third edition of it was published in 1804. In that year, through the interest of Mr. Addington, now Lord Sidmouth, Dr. Gregory was presented by his Majesty to the living of Westham, in Essex. Previous to this, various marks of literary distinction had been conferred him; honours which bestow not reputation, but attach to it; and are valuable only as they attest the respect which public opinion pays to acknowledged merit. He had previously obtained from the bishop of London, a small prebendary in the cathedral of St. Paul's, which he resigned on being preferred to the rectory of Stapleford, in Herts, by the same hand.

In his retreat from the metropolis, he found leisure to superintend the progress of an Encyclopaedia of Arts and Sciences. Of such works the utility is obvious. They have long been popular, and the sanction of opinion is confiremd by constant experience.

The Encyclopaedia, of which Dr. Gregory was the conductor, exhibits the largest mass of knowledge in the most portable form of any extant; an advantage which it has derived from his luminous arrangement, the acuteness of his discrimination, and the rectitude of his judgment. On dismissing this task, he employed himself in revising and correcting a volume of Lectures on Chemistry. His next labour was the revision of two volumes of Letters on Literature and Taste, which are now in the press: but this labour was destined to be his last. Although he had not long passed the meridian of life, he was insensibly sinking into decay: yet so silent and so insiduous was the approach of death, that no alarming symptoms were perceived; and till within a month of his dissolution, no danger was apprehended. Even then, when the agonizing suspicion was excited, the cloud seemed to pass over; his family and friends were persuaded of his returning health, and he himself felt so much better, as to be able to resume his sacred duty, which he had reluctantly ceased to perform for two previous Sundays. But this gleam of sunshine served only to render the approaching night more dark; the medical gentlemen who attended him, attributed his decease not to any particular malady, but to an entire dissolution of the machine. Every part at once refused to perform its functions. Medicines were prescribed, and remedies administered, in vain; and his sorrowing family and friends have at least the consolation of believing, that it was a stroke no human art could avert.

He expired on the evening of Saturday, the 12th of March, and was buried in his parochial church of Westham, on Monday the 21st.

To his family and friends his loss is irreparable; and a dreary blank will long be felt in the place of his residence, where he was generally respected and beloved. Dr. Gregory had always possessed talents for the pulpit; but it was, perhaps, more by his unaffected earnestness, and the fervour of his own devotion, than even the persuasive tones of his voice, that he drew to him the hearts of his hearers. He often preached extempore, a practice both easy and familiar to him, from the copiousness of his language, and an habitual promptitude in selection and arrangement.

When he entered the pulpit, the composed seriousness of his aspect, the mild sedateness of his demeanour, impressed on his audience an involuntary feeling of reverence and solemnity. His enunciation was slow and clear: his periods were musical, but not always sufficiently varied. There was in his look and manner an expression of sincerity, of deep interest, and intense solicitude, of zeal abstracted from vehemence, which attested his own conviction of the sacred truths he should inculcate, and irresistibly enforced on every mind, a disposition to religious meditation; his discourses were generally plain and practical; he deprecated controversy, convinced that the proper object of a Christian teacher, was, not to rouse the understanding, but to touch the heart.

The style of his printed and manuscript sermons is elegant and correct; and occasionally they contain passages invested with all the graces of imagination, and breathing the very soul of eloquence. The inhabitants of his parish he regarded as members of his family; many of them he classed with his friends. It was contrary to his nature to consider any of them as strangers.

His devotion to literature prevented not his participation in active scenes and pursuits. He was no solitary student, seceding from the cares or duties of life. His avidity for information had rendered him familiar with every subject; and seldom was any submitted to his observation which he was not competent to elucidate. By its versatility his conversation was rendered generally acceptable. He had stores of knowledge and thought, not only for a small literary sect, but every social circle. No man ever possessed more completely the faculties of enjoyment. His element was happiness: he found it in his books: he welcomed it in his friend: he even drew it from his pen. The pursuits of philosophy, the embellishments of literature, the exhibitions of art, the scenes of nature, all successively administered to him sensations of delight. This elastic temperament he owed equally to the sweetness of his temper, and that firmness of mind which repels anxieties and regrets. With a manly affiance in his own strength, he measured the difficulties which impeded and when he failed to atchieve his end, retired with submission, but without despondence. A stranger to malevolence, and all the littlenesses of pride and envy that engender it, his heart was formed for expansive affection, and no one could shew him the least kindness without securing from him such a feeling of regard and gratitude as almost to prevent his seeing in them the possibility of defect. From the public he has well deserved the tribute of regret. It has been long the depositary of his labours, it is now entrusted with the name he had purchased (the produce of his life,) as a polite scholar, and moral writer, as one who had disseminated science and diffused a spirit of true philosophy. To its use are appropriated the fruits of his vigorous intellect, his rich extent of knowledge, his comprehensive understanding, and, whether natural or acquired, all his mental wealth. But they who have known him as a husband and a father, whose experience can attest the purity of his morals, and the integrity of his conduct; they who have witnessed his exertion in the cause of humanity, his tenderness for the distresses of penury; who have seen him diffusing happiness through the domestic circle, and by social instinct, have caught from him the spirit of enjoyment, these to whom celebrity appears trivial, and eulogy superfluous, forget the scholar, the writer, the lover of letters, and of science, to deplore the friend, to remember the man.

Respecting the literary labours of Dr. Gregory, it would be difficult to form an estimate. He published as many works anonymously as with his name. His facility in composition was such, as to those who did not know him, might seem incredible. His style flows with ease and amenity of true English purity, without pretension, without ostentation, plain and perspicuous, yet copious and varied, it seemed to harmonize with the character of the writer.

He had projected various works, some of which would have possessed sufficient dignity to engage all his powers of mind. In the earlier part of life, his taste had been sacrificed to views of usefulness and independence. He had often written when he must have had to combat with repugnance, and to force on himself the conviction that circumstances controul choice. The time was now arrived when he might be permitted to write for himself; to render his pen the delight and honour of his declining years: but all these hopes vanished in a moment. From the commencement of his illness, he was impressed with a presage of his fate; and submitted to it with manly fortitude and placid resignation. His death was that of the Christian, who chearfully surrenders this mortal being with the assured hope of an immortal existence.