The difficulties of contemporary biography are so striking, that they need scarcely be adverted to. The historian of the dead, and above all of the distant dead, may indeed have his judgment, his knowledge, or his taste impeached, but malignancy itself scorns to arraign the purity of his motives; and, though weak minds may seem to refer everything that is objectionable to an illaudable impulse, yet common sense rejects the puerility of the imputation and exonerates the accused. It appears, indeed, so obvious, that hatred or enmity can find no place in the breast of him who sits down to delineate the characters of past times, that it may justly excite our wonder to behold any so infatuated as to think otherwise. But this is not the case with the chronicler of living merit; if he presume to censure, he is envious; if he applaud, he is servile. The apprehension of these disingenuous charges may deter feeble and tranquil men from following the unbiassed dictates of their mind: with us, however, it is no such thing; we should disdain to utter a falsehood, but we should equally disdain to swerve from the strict voice of what we deem the truth. These observations are not made with any particular reference to the object of the present memoir, but as in incidental remark that may well precede the biography of a living individual.
William Hayley was born in Chichester, in the year 1745. He was the son of Thomas Hayley, Esq. and the grandson of the dan of Chichester. His mother was Mary, daughter of Colonel Yates, representative of that city, from the year 1734 to 1711. He lost his father while he was very young, and the care of his education devolved on his mother, a duty which she discharged with ability. This maternal tenderness Mr. Hayley adverted to in the fourth epistle of the Essay upon Epic Poetry:
O thou fond spirit, who with pride hast smil'd,
And frown'd with fear on thy poetic child;
Pleas'd, yet alarm'd, when in his boyish time,
He sigh'd in numbers, or he laugh'd in rhyme, &c.
These lines in their spirit are an evident imitation of Pope's beautiful couplets, "Me let the tender office long engage;" &c. but, in their expressions, they seem to resemble more strongly another passage of the same author. Comparatively speaking, they are inferior to both. The third line seems to countenance the idea that he discovered very early a propensity for poetry.
He was sent, at an early age, to a school, in or near Kingston-upon-Thames; from which he was soon removed, on account of illness, and put under the instruction of a private tutor, who prepared him for Eton, whence he went to the University of Cambridge, and entered himself at Trinity Hall there in the year 1762.
Nothing has been recorded of the progress or nature of Mr. Hayley's studies: it is probable that, without devoting his attention to any particular branch, he allowed himself to feed with indiscriminate voracity upon all that offered itself: a mode of reading most agreeable to the mind, perhaps; but not best qualified for producing valuable results.
This year, however, beheld him commence his literary career. An "Ode on the Birth of the Prince of Wales," made its appearance in the Cambridge Collection. We have never seen this production; but we have been informed that the feelings of boyish exultation, with which it was once contemplated, have long since subsided. Mr. Hayley is himself among the foremost to ridicule its defects.
In 1766, he quitted the University, and went to Edinburgh on a visit to some of his acquaintance, students of physic there. In 1769, he married the daughter of the Rev. Mr. Ball, dean of Chichester, and from whom he has since been separated by death. Upon his marriage with Miss Ball, he resided in the metropolis for a few years, whence he retired to his native county, and settled at Eartham, a situation remarkably healthy and rural, and which he improved and embellished. He afterwards removed to Felpham, near Bognor, which is his present residence.
Mr. Hayley's second attempt as an author was in 1778, in his thirty-third year, when he published his Essay on Painting. The merits of this work have been sufficiently canvassed, and the general opinion, as it has now subsided into a silent decision, seems not to place it in a very exalted station.
In 1780, appeared his Essay on History, a work more fascinating and more extensively interesting than the former. It furnished a new specimen of composition to the country, and many of the characters were felicitously executed. The versification was flowing and musical, and some passages spirited and eloquent.
Soon afterwards followed the Triumphs of Temper, the most popular of all Mr. Hayley's writings. It displays more fancy, more execution, and greater judgment than his other productions. Yet it always appeared to us as possessing one very eminent defect: its moral is weakened, if not totally destroyed, by the machinery of the poem. Mr. Hayley has super-induced the agency of spirits, a thing which can incur no censure as the accomplishment of a mock heroic poem; but as a means to enforce a moral, it was injudiciously employed. In the struggles which SERENA sustains, and to which she rises superior only by the interposition of Sophrosyne, her guardian sprite, we are indeed amused but not instructed; we are neither surprised at her fortitude, nor incited to emulation, because we find her continually acting under the power of an invisible being: and because we see that, as a mere mortal, she is as weak and intemperate as any other girl. Had she been tranquil after her father's imperious command, from the filial consideration that it was his wish, and that was motive enough to induce her willingly to submit; or, had she triumphed over the scandal vented against her in the newspaper, from a noble consciousness of virtue, and from the just reflection that calumny unnoticed will of itself fade away, this might have been productive of the most desirable consequences; it might probably have stimulated the reader to a similar equability of mind, and have convinced him that, as it was amiable so it was attainable. But, as we behold Serena moved to anger on every trying occasion, and sometimes upon the point of bursting forth into boisterous passion, our admiration of her is lost, when we find her restored to peace, not by the ascendancy of reason and good sense, but by the dextrous interposition of her aerial monitor. The moral is effectively destroyed.
In 1782, Mr. Hayley published his Essay on Epic Poetry, a work of which, as we have not read it, we cannot speak. Soon after this appeared his dramatic productions. The failure of Dryden might have shewn that riming plays are not suited to the genius of our language. In every case, indeed, they are so unnatural, so obviously hostile to the supposed reality of the drama, that it may be wondered any nation can be found to cherish them by their applause. What, for example, can be more preposterous and absurd, than to see one character quit the stage with a line, to which the next who enters finds a rime, though he is supposed to be ignorant that the former one has been uttered. This frequently occurs in French plays, and particularly in the comedies of Moliere.
The life of Mr. Hayley as been one that affords but few materials for biography. Passed in elegant retirement and in the placid pursuits of literature, its events have been too uniform, too simple, and too unambitious to merit to be recorded. As a man, praise seems to have been unanimous in his favour; he has been uniformly represented as a liberal, polite, and benevolent character. The mildness of his disposition has been shewn with great advantage to himself, in the peaceful replication which he has made to the attack of Mr. Cumberland. Here we must indeed say, that he is eminently superior to his accuser.
In 1802, and subsequently, Mr. Hayley appeared as the biographer of Cowper. In what manner he has discharged the task is well known. The amiable poet, but gloomy religionist, has received bright honours at the hand of his friend; their names are jointly consecrated to posterity.
As a poet Mr. Hayley appears to be guided less by inspiration than discipline. In his writings we seldom find those bursts of genius, those splendid irradiations of intellect which adorn and dignify the pages of the true poet. All his verses are smooth, elegant, and harmonious; but both the one and the other seem deficient in vigour, force, and variety. We close the book, nor wish to open it again; we have been amused in our progress, but neither charmed nor enraptured: it is well observed by his illustrious friend (Cowper) that writers of this class "are generally as phlegmatic as they are correct." The genius of Hayley is like his character — mild, elegant, and interesting.