1757 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Hughes

Anonymous, "John Hughes" Biographia Britannica (1757) 4:2697-708.



JOHN HUGHES, an excellent poet, a candid critic, and a very agreeable writer in prose, whose memory will do honour to the present century, in the beginning of which he flourished. He was the son of a very worthy citizen of London, by Anne, the daughter of Isaac Burgess, Esq; of an antient family and a competent fortune in Wiltshire, where, in the town of Marlborough, our author was born January 29, 1677. He was early brought to London, received the first rudiments of letters in some of the lesser schools of this metropolis, and, by the extraordinary care of his master, invited his own diligence, his various acquisitions, and the manner in which they were applied, did no small honour to a private education. He became early and thoroughly acquainted with the Antients, which gave him a true taste and a correct judgment, at an age when, by man who yet are intended for scholars, those terms are scarce understood. He had a weak or at least a delicate constitution, which perhaps diverted him from severer studies, and inclined him to seek in the company of the sister arts, of Designing, Poetry, and Music, that amusement, which his valetudinary state of health rendered on of the greatest blessings of life. At nineteen he drew the outlines of a tragedy, and about the same turned into English one of the most celebrated, but at the same time one of the most difficult, odes in Horace, in a manner and with a facility that indicated true genius. His acquaintance with the Muses did not render him averse to business; he had a place in the Office of Ordnance, and was Secretary to several Commissions under the Great Seal for the purchasing lands, in order to the better securing the royal docks and yards, at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Harwich. He continued, however, to pursue his natural inclination with the modern languages. The first public testimony he gave was received with approbation rarely bestowed, and indeed very rarely deserved by a young poet of twenty. It is barely tendering justice to his character, to say that it was at once an elegant and a sprightly performance, exhibiting those qualities that are but seldom united, and in which, however, consist the great merit of his writings, ease and exactness. The success that attended this poem encouraged him to write again, and in 1699 he published his Court of Neptune, on the return of King William from Holland, which he addressed to Charles Montague, Esq; afterwards Earl of Halifax, the then distinguished patron of the Muses. By this poem he not only maintained, but added to the reputation he had acquired. Strength of sentiment, and an easy versification added lustre and sweetness to the charms of a poetic fancy, that might alone have secured the success of the poem. He wrote the same year a song upon the Duke of Gloucester's birth-day. It sometimes happens, that those who excel in verse are not equally happy in prose compositions; but this was not the case of our author, he had a great turn to contemplation, studied the faculties of the human mind, and made such deep and curious reflections on the disorders to which it is liable, as give him a title to be considered as one of the ablest, as well as one of the most entertaining, essay writers in our language. This which probably was the first, or least one of the first, of his performances in this kind, considering he was but twenty-four when he wrote it, is really surprising, and is entitled "Of the Pleasure of being deceived." In 1702 he published, on the death of King William, a Pindaric ode, entitled "Of the House of Nassau," which he dedicated to Charles Duke of Somerset. At the close of this truly poetic performance, there is a very fine and a very prophetic compliment to Queen Anne. He continued to employ his leisure hours in translations and imitations of the Ancients, and particularly of Horace, whose genius he justly admired, and whose writings he perfectly understood. His sentiments, as to the properest manner of translating him, are so judicious, and, withal, so modestly expressed in a letter to a friend, that we could not avoid giving them a place in the notes. In 1703, his "Ode in praise of Music" was performed at Stationers-Hall, with great applause. He was allowed by the best judges to have been wonderfully happy in this, which is one of the most difficult kinds of composition; and as his merit in this way was great, so he may be justly esteemed fortunate, in having his pieces set by the greatest masters this country has produced, such as the famous Daniel Purcell, the celebrated Dr. Pepusch, Mr. Galliard, Mr. Handel, and others. We shall the less wonder at his success in this kind of poetry, if we consider the rational and judicious theory which he has laid down in the preface to those six cantata's, set to music by Dr. Pepusch, and published, but without our author's name; in which he gives so conspicuous, and at the same time so succinct, an account of the true grounds of this kind of poetry, that we cannot have a better specimen of his abilities as a critic, or a stronger instance of that candour with which he communicated to the public, what a poet of a more contracted mind would have reserved to himself as the great mystery of his art. His great delight in music led him to a close acquaintance with the Italian writers, which induced the proprietors of a new translation of the celebrated work of Boccalini, to apply themselves to him to review that translation, and to give them his passport to the public which he was prevailed upon to do; and the reader will see, within the compass of a short preface, as true and judicious a representation of that very singular, and in many respects valuable, performance, and as just and impartial an account of the author, as can be desired. Pieces of this kind are, generally speaking, of little importance; but, to the honour of our author, it must be observed, that, whatever he condescended to do, bore the genuine and indisputable marks of genius and science; so that this character of Boccalini, and his book, may be considered as a detached piece, expressive of our author's skill, in a very peculiar kind of critical learning. This excellent disposition being generally known to the literary world, our author was frequently applied to (though he seldom listened to such applications) upon like occasions. Amongst the few that merited his attention, one was, the composing a most admirable preface to the great collection of the History of England, by various hands, called the Complete History of England, and because the third volume was written by Dr. Kennet, more frequently stiled Kennet's History. This preface was, on it's publication, very much esteemed, and certainly gives as clear, as satisfactory, and as impartial an account of the Historians there collected, as can be desired, and that in a stile and manner very pleasing and natural; but at the same time so particular to Mr. Hughes, that it would be difficult to name any introduction of this sort that could be put in competition with it. The succeeding year, on the demise of William Duke of Devonshire, August 18, 1707, our author composed an ode set to music in honour of his memory, in the manner of a dialogue between Britannia and Augusta; the part of the former performed by Signiora Margarita, and the latter by the famous Mrs. Tofts. It is easy to apprehend how difficult it must have been to succeed in a composition almost without a precedent, and of which, no question, there was the highest expectations; and yet, whoever reads our author's performance, will have little doubt of it's giving satisfaction. The success of one of the best received pieces of the celebrated Mr. Fontenelle, which our author had translated for his amusement, and which, after it had lain by him six years, he permitted to see the light. In this translation, the sense of the author is clearly and happily expressed, and with such a degree of freedom and spirit, that if the fame of Mr. Fontenelle had been less extensive, it might have passed for an original. His numerous performances in verse and prose, his unblemished reputation, and his exemplary candour and modesty, had by this time introduced him, not only to the most considerable members of the Republic of Letters, such as Mr. Addison, Mr. Congreve, Mr. Pope, Mr. Southerne, Mr. Rowe, and many others; but also to some of the greatest men in the kingdom, and amongst these, to Thomas, Earl, and afterwards Marquis, of Wharton, who, to express his regard for Mr. Hughes, offered to carrying over, and provide for him, when appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. But depending on the promises of another great man, who had undertaken to dispose of him more agreeably at home, he declined that obliging offer, which brought upon him a disappointment that gave him some uneasiness, though he had nothing in him of a narrow or selfish spirit. He amused himself about this time with the translation of one of Moliere's plays, which he performed with equal judgment and spirit, and entertained so great liking for that excellent comic writer, that at his leisure hours he turned several scenes of his into English; one of which, that deserves the public notice, the reader will meet with in the notes. His friend Mr., afterwards Sir Richard, Steele, having set up that agreeable paper the Tatler, Mr. Hughes contributed his assistance, as he likewise did in the Spectator. If the reader has a mind to be acquainted with the particular papers he wrote, which were as well received as any, in either of those celebrated collections, he will meet with the necessary information at the bottom of the page. In 1712, he translated "the Abbe Vertot's Revolution in Portugal," and thereby gratified the English reader with a very curious piece of history, written in a very peculiar manner, and with equal vivacity of stile and sentiment; to which he did so much justice, that the translation was as well received in England as the work itself had been in France. The celebrated Mr. Addison, whose character was equally respected as an excellent poet and a judicious critic, had a sincere regard for, and a high opinion of, our author's merit; and being sensible of his too great diffidence, pressed him extremely to publish an Ode to the Creator of the world, composed from the fragments of Orpheus, and which he thought very capable of inspiring the minds of his readers with a rational and elevated piety. In deference to the great man's opinion, Mr. Hughes accordingly gratified the public with that admirable performance, and his friend joined his public applause, which had a just weight with the world in favour of a piece which he had privately approved. The same year he brought upon the stage his Opera of Calypso and Telemachus; in favour of which, under the patronage of Duke Hamilton, for Mr. Hughes's merit and modesty procured him friends with all parties, he raised a considerable subscription. The Italians were alarmed at this; and when it was on the point of being acted at the theatre in the Haymarket, they obtained from the then Lord-Chamberlain, the Duke of Shrewsbury, an order to either to act at common prices, or not to act at all. Under this discouragement, however, it was performed, and performed with applause justifying fully the sense of it's author, that the English language, though not so soft, is nevertheless as capable of harmony as the Italian. He had the honour to find, besides the approbation of the public, the judgment of the most able critics on his side, and, which must have given him singular satisfaction, the open testimony of Mr. Addison in his favour. We learn from the preface prefixed to the Guardian, that Mr. Hughes, amongst the other great wits and able writers of those times, contributed not a little to the support of that agreeable as well as useful work; but we have no account of the particular papers that he wrote, except one, which contains very judicious remarks upon the tragedy of Othello, in which the beauties and the blemishes of that affecting play are critically and candidly represented. Amongst the other projects formed by Mr. Tonson, in consequence of his acquaintance with the most considerable wits of the age, was an English translation of the works of Lucan, and, as was very natural, he applied himself to Mr. Hughes, who at his request translated the tenth book with great elegance; but by some means or other this design was then laid aside, and Mr. Rowe afterwards undertook and accomplished the translation of the whole, though he died before it was published. It is the more necessary to set this little transaction in a true light, to prevent an apprehension that either of these gentlemen had ever an intention to interfere with the other in a matter of this nature, which had been inconsistent with that friendship which they professed for each other, and which, as we have shewn in the text, subsisted 'till the death of Mr. Rowe without interruption or coolness. As the world was obliged to Mr. Addison for the sublime ode beforementioned, we are assured, that it owed to Mr. Hughes the prevailing upon his friend, contrary to the judgment of others, and amongst them one of the most able and esteemed critics of that time, the bringing his tragedy of Cato upon the stage. The history of this transaction is curious, and the conduct of Mr. Hughes throughout, so perfectly consistent with the character he had established in point of probity and candour, that we have given it a place in the notes, for the satisfaction of the inquisitive reader. His next performance which attracted the attention of the public, was his edition of Spenser's Works, which the lovers of English history, as well as poetry, had long wished, and which, as our author carefully and judiciously performed, so it was perfectly well received. There was, indeed, no man of his time more equal to the task; and, on the other hand, there was probably no task that could have proved more acceptable to him. Spenser and Hughes seem to be allied by genius. Both great poets, both remarkable for their strict morals, both public spirited men, both well received by the great, and yet neither of them much indebted to fortune. It was happy for the memory of Spenser, that the revival and illustration of his writings were committed to a person of such candour and capacity. It must have been a very pleasing labour to Mr. Hughes, to restore the sense, to revive the honour, to repair and deck with fresh garlands, the monument of so worthy a man. The spirit and elegance with which he discharged his trust as an editor, are uncontestable proofs of all that we have advanced. The same year his Apollo and Daphne appeared upon the stage, in the fate of which his friend Sir Richard Steele interested himself very much. Their acquaintance had been of a long standing; and we may remark, to the honour of our author, that, though he very easily made, he very rarely lost, a friend. He was no less in the good graces of Mr. Pope, of whom he had a very high opinion, and a generous and kind concern for the success of his Homer; which, as it was very natural for him to do, Mr. Pope received with a proper degree of gratitude and respect, as his own letters very clearly express, which for that reason have a place given them in the notes. Our author lived also in a constant course of intimacy and friendship with Mr. Nicholas Rowe, and there is some reason to believe, composed, at his request, the New-Year's Ode for the year 1717, as the reader may collect from a paper which is preserved at the bottom of the page. It was in this year that Earl Cowper, to whom he had been but lately made known, appointed him Secretary to the Commission of the Peace, an honourable employment, and of considerable value, and conferred upon him many other marks of friendship and favour. These were returned by Mr. Hughes with all possible testimonies of the most respectable gratitude, as appears by several poems addressed to that noble Lord, whose concern for Mr. Hughes was so great, that, when he resigned his own employment, he by a letter, of which Mr. Hughes himself was the bearer, made it his request to Lord Parker, afterwards Earl of Macclesfield, to continue him, in the office which he had bestowed upon him; which his Lordship, who was also a true lover of learning, and a kind patron to learned men, very willingly did; and to him also our author paid his tributary verse, in a manner suitable to the favour bestowed. About this time he published, in a little pamphlet, a very singular piece, entitled CHARON: or the Ferry Boat, a Vision. This, with Mr. Walsh's ESCUPLAPIUS, or the Hospital of Fools, has always been esteemed, not inferior to any thing preserved to us from the Ancients. It stands now very justly placed amongst his works; but we regret the dedication to the Swiss Count, which, out of prudential reasons, is omitted, though it contained a satirical vision, no less entertaining and instructive than the little performance to which it is an introduction. But the manager of the masquerades was thought too great a character to be so slightly treated. Yet, as he was himself a man of true humour, with a great fund of good sense, it might possibly have kept its post undisturbed, had he been consulted. It was highly admired by the judicious Earl Cowper. His circumstances were now easy, but his health, which was never good, grew daily worse and worse, from the nature of his distemper, a lingering incurable consumption. Yet happily the decay of his body did not affect either his temper or his mind. The same serenity, the same gentleness of spirit, the same goodness of heart, as well as the same warmth of friendship, and the same solidity of understanding, appeared to the very last. Sir Godfrey Kneller with whom he had long lived in great intimacy, painted his picture, which, a few weeks before he died, Mr. Hughes presented to Earl Cowper, who wrote him a very affectionate letter in return. This was not the ultimate act of his zealous gratitude to that noble peer; for, but ten days preceding his death, he composed the dedication of his last work, written with as much spirit, ease, and accuracy, as anything that ever fell from his pen, as the final acknowledgment of his patron's goodness. This last work, was his tragedy, entitled the SIEGE OF DAMASCUS; in which the sublimity of the sentiment, the correctness of the language, the propriety of the characters, the pathetic pictures of passion, and the judicious disposition of the whole piece, render it worthy of the latest cares of so eminent a poet and so good a man. It was brought upon the stage February 17, 1719-20, the very day it's author died, and met with the highest applause. After his decease was published a philosophical ode of his, called the ECSTACY, in which there is a very find compliment to Sir Isaac Newton; and the whole, which contains eleven stanzas, is not inferior to any in our language. The only sister of this gentleman, a most ingenious and amiable woman, married, in the year 1726, William Duncombe, Esq; younger brother of John Duncombe, of Stocks in the county of Hertford, Esq; who is the editor of Mr. Hughes's Works, which he dedicated to the present Earl Cowper; adding, to those that had been before made public, some poems that were in the hands of the author's friend, Alexander Strahan, Esq; to whom the world is indebted for the first books of Virgil's Aeneid in Miltonic verse. Mrs. Duncombe died in 1735, leaving an only son, the Reverend John Duncombe, M.A. Fellow of Corpus-Christi college in the university of Cambridge. This young gentleman, treading in the steps of his worthy uncle, has published some poetical pieces which have been well received, and is the only near relation of Mr. Hughes that still survives. We will conclude this article with a short character of our author, from Remarks upon the Writings of our modern English Poets, not yet published. This gentleman, Mr. John Hughes, was more solicitous to deserve fame than ambitious of possessing it. He was by nature addicted to study, and with a great genius, had a vast fund of diligence, an exquisite taste, a correct judgment; but, with all these qualities, was modest, and even diffident to a surprising degree; which hindered him from collecting or publishing many valuable pieces of poetry, and some of his prose likewise. How well he was acquainted with the Antients, and how proper a use he made of that acquaintance, appears from his translations and imitations of Orpheus, Tyrtaeus, Pindar, Anacreon, and Euripides, amongst the Greeks; as well as from Horace, Ovid, Lucan, and Claudius, amongst the Romans. This did not, however, prejudice him against the Moderns; he translated also from the French; and his Birth of the Rose, from a writer of that country, is not the least beautiful piece amongst his works. His skill in music, which was exquisite, gave him such an advantage over other poets, as might with proper encouragement have carried the English opera as high as the Italian. His talent for lyric poetry was justly admired, and his tragedy of the siege of Damascus was an instance that pain and sickness could not abate the fire of his genius, or hinder him from giving marks of it as long as he lived. He did not write, at least he did not publish, much; but if we consider him as invalid almost through his whole life, his avocations on account of business, and that he was but forty-two when he ceased to live, and also call to mind how correct every thing was that came from him, we must retract our assertion, and allow he published a great deal. His character as a critic was at least equal to his character as a poet, but were both exceeded by his character as a man and a christian. His religion was sincere without severity, his morals strict but not austere, his conversation equally instructive and pleasant. To say all of him he deserved would be a hard task. Let it suffice then — the man whom the Bishop of Winchester esteemed as a friend, the man whom Mr. Addison admired as a poet, the man whose goodness and integrity Mr. Pope had in veneration — could be no ordinary man.