1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Dr. James McHenry

Anonymous, "Memoir of James M'Henry, M.D." 1838; The Poems of the Pleasures (1841) 273-82.



[The author of the subjolned memoir of Dr. M'Henry, is a gentleman of the bar, of much literary experience, residing in Philadelphia. To him the publisher is also indebted for the Dissertation on the poem of "The Pleasures of Friendship," presented to the readers of this volume. Long intimacy with the poet peculiarly fitted him for writing the memoir, while a thorough acquaintance with poetical literature eminently qualified him for writing the dissertation. — PUBLISHER.]

JAMES M'HENRY was born on the 20th December, 1785, in the town of Larne, county of Antrim, Ireland. After the death of his father, which happened in his twelfth year, he resided some years with a Presbyterian clergyman, under whose tuition he obtained a knowledge of the Latin and Greek languages, and whose character he has portrayed with much feeling in the poem of "The Pleasures of Friendship." Having when very young received an injury of the spine, it became necessary that, in the choice of a profession, he should select one which required little physical exertion. It was the wish of his mother that he should become a minister of the Presbyterian church. His own inclination induced him to prefer the medical profession; and after the usual course of preparatory studies, he received a diploma from the medical faculty of the city of Glasgow. More recently an honorary degree in medicine was conferred upon him by the Washington College at Baltimore, under circumstances peculiarly gratifying to him and honourable to that institution. In 1811 he entered upon the practice of his profession in Larne. Soon afterwards he married, and removed to Belfast, where he continued in practice several years. In 1814, he became the editor of a literary journal published in that town, to which James Sheridan Knowles, the distinguished dramatic writer, was a contributor.

In 1817, Dr. M'Henry came with his family to the United States, and resided for a short time at Orwigsburg, in Pennsylvania. From that place he removed to Harmony, a village of Butler county in the same state.

The comparative retirement in which he there lived, afforded him both opportunities and inducements for the gratification of his taste in literature. These opportunities were not such as are afforded the classical student and the man of elegant leisure, who have constant access to large, well selected libraries, and enjoy so many other advantages in the prosecution of their literary researches and labours, in refined and populous cities. They were those which the man of contemplative, inquiring, and cultivated mind will always seek and discover, in whatever situation he may be placed. The library of Dr. M'Henry, although not large, was chosen with discrimination and taste. By the training which he had received in academical studies, by his subsequent judicious reading, and long continued habits of reflection, and still more by his close and philosophical observation of men in all their varieties of character, and in all the conditions and circumstances of society, his mind had been well prepared for the production of whatever literary works he might project, and to the proper execution of which those advantages could be applied. The wild and romantic nature of the part of the country in which he resided, and the secluded mode of life which it induced, were peculiarly favourable to the indulgence of his literary disposition. By the terms wildness and romance are not invariably to be understood the rude, grotesque, and stern forms which material creation bears, or the rare and wonderful and varied appearance which external things assume. The unadorned and simple appearance of nature supplies abundant objects to gratify and charm the outward eye, and equally abundant themes for inward contemplation. The lofty mountain and gloomy forest, the impetuous river, the deep rugged glen, and the cultivated field and meadow, or the moderately swoln eminence, the gentle rivulet, the little, open wood, and the untilled, or desolate heath, are, to the eye of the true poet and the ardent admirer of nature equally attractive, and equally susceptible of the embellishment which his genius or his enthusiasm can impart to the delineation of them.

The country by which Dr. M'Henry was surrounded in his new residence, did not, in its entire appearance, combine all the attributes of grandeur which the enthusiastic votary of stern and savage nature requires to form his scenes of perfect sublimity and romance. But it was sufficiently wild and sequestered to be adapted to his poetical taste; and the leisure which he frequently enjoyed from the performance of his professional duties, enabled him to indulge his attachment to general literature. But it is not the visible aspect of nature which always suggests the best themes for poetical contemplation. it may, indeed, when the mind is predisposed to poetical feelings, increase the ardour with which they are indulged, or impart strength and fervency to the inspiration from which they derive their existence. Although the grand and nobler features which nature displays, may, in some degree, produce this effect on those by whom they are properly appreciated, they rarely or never exercise so much influence over the mind of the poet, as to subject it entirely to them, or to create the high and sublime conceptions from which the immortal productions of poetry deduce their origin. It is the deep and secret sources of his own thought, the glowing and involuntary outpourings of his genius, that produce the intense and indefinable emotions, which, when embodied in appropriate language, possess so many charms for the unsophisticated heart, and exert such resistless power over the discriminating mind. The internal springs by which his reflections and feelings are set in motion, frequently obey the mysterious impulses which they receive from the sublime and beautiful conformations of outward objects, with which his own nature sympathizes, and to which he traces many of his purest and loftiest contemplations. But some of the most splendid and popular poetical works which have appeared in ancient or modern times have no doubt been suggested by adventitious circumstances. Such circumstances, in themselves unimportant, but acting on minds peculiarly constituted, and enabled, by the vivacity and promptness of their action, to render them subservient to their purposes, have been eagerly seized and appropriated to the service of the muse, to which intellectual capacity less vigorous or less alert would not have considered them adapted.

It is to one of these accidental circumstances that the production of "The Pleasures of Friendship" is to be ascribed. The inconsiderable village in which the author lived, contained a population too small to afford much of that species of social intercourse which he wished to enjoy. In the year 1819, before he had established an intimacy with even those few inhabitants whose acquaintance he was desirous of cultivating, both he and his wife were, at the same time, attacked by severe indisposition. His disease, which was a violent rheumatism, continued for several weeks. The only domestic whom he had been able to procure, suddenly abandoned his service, and he was left in his helpless condition, with a sick wife, and two young children, destitute of necessary household assistance. Had he been residing in his native country, his friends and relatives and neighbours would have hastened to offer him their sympathy and their benevolent offices. But in the wild and sequestered region to which he had recently removed, he was almost an entire stranger, and was destitute of many of the resources which more enlarged and refined society affords, and of the sympathies by which his physical and mental sufferings might have been alleviated. In the desponding state of mind which his forlorn situation induced, and after all the limited means of amusement which the little village where he lived afforded, were exhausted, his thoughts often reverted to the home of his nativity, and to the scenes of happiness which he had there enjoyed. He was thus insensibly led to the consideration of the pleasures which are derived from the mutual attachment of intimate friends. To divert his attention from the gloomy reflections which preyed upon him, and to engage his mind in more agreeable employment than they afforded, he wrote the poem of "The Pleasures of Friendship," the subject of which was so appropriate to his feelings, and so congenial to the sentiments which his situation naturally suggested. The first edition of this work, which consisted of only five hundred copies, was published at Pittsburg, with no expectation of its circulation ever extending, beyond the vicinity of that place. The poem, although thus first presented to public attention in a remote inland town, where general literature and poetical taste were but little cultivated, soon became known, and in proportion as a knowledge of it extended, its popularity increased. Since its first appearance in 1822, nine editions of it, including those issued on both sides of the Atlantic, have been published.

During his residence in Butler county, Dr. M'Henry, besides '"The Pleasures of Friendship," wrote the novels of "O'Halloran" and "The Hearts of Steel." Several occasional poetical pieces, which he wrote at the same place, have been published in the volume that contains his principal poem. He remained at Harmony about four years, and then removed to Pittsburg, which he left in 1823, for Philadelphia, where he now resides. His poem of "Waltham," and his novels of "The Wilderness" and "The Spectre of the Forest," were written in Pittsburg. "The Wilderness" was published in New York, in the spring of 1823, and "The Spectre of the Forest," in the writing of which only seven weeks were occupied, first appeared in that city, in the autumn of the same year.

Not long after Dr. M'Henry's removal to Philadelphia, the proprietor of the American Monthly Magazine, a periodical work published there, engaged his services as its editor. He soon terminated his connexion with it, in consequence of a visit to Ireland, which was rendered necessary by business that required his attention, and the publication of the Magazine was discontinued. Subsequently to his return from that country to Philadelphia, which occurred in the spring of 1826, he wrote in that city the tragedies of "The Usurper" and "Wyoming," and the novels of "The Betrothed of Wyoming" and "Meredith."

Both of the tragedies were performed in Philadelphia. "The Usurper," and the two novels last mentioned, were published in the same city.

The first poetical effusion of Dr. M'Henry, which appeared in public, was that entitled "The Maid of Tobergell." This piece was published in 1804, in a Belfast newspaper, and attracted the attention of the celebrated Dr. Percy, Bishop of Dromore, who was so much pleased with it, that he invited the author to his house, encouraged him to persevere in his poetical pursuits, and induced him to publish in Belfast, a small collection of poetry, under the title of "The Bard of Erin, and other Poems." This publication procured for the author much attention, and many warm friends among the admirers of poetical literature in the north of Ireland. He was then, however, too deeply engaged in professional studies, to pursue a poetical career. At least, he appears, for a number of years following, to have sought no poetical notoriety. It was about this period, that he became acquainted with the lady to whom he alludes in many of his poetical pieces, under the name of Ellen, and of whose character and destiny he has given an account in the tale entitled "Ellen Stanfield, or the Victim of Feeling," which was inserted, some years ago, in a periodical work published in Philadelphia.

Literature, as a profession, although it affords powerful incentives and enviable rewards to those who engage in it, subjects them to the influence of peculiar and inevitable circumstances, which it requires all their enthusiasm to induce them to encounter. The mental labour which they undergo, arduous and unremitted as it is, constitutes but a small part of the difficulties which they must surmount, before they an secure the honourable reputation, which is the object, and one of the best recompenses of their exertions.

It is not always the good fortune of literary men to receive the approbation of those by whom their efforts are examined and judged. They are still more rarely so fortunate as to be living auditors of their own praise, and to be pronounced by their contemporaries deserving of the approbation, to obtain which their long and arduous exertions have been made. Few of them escape the censure which prejudice or ignorance, malice or envy, casts upon their reputation; and still fewer overcome all obstacles to their permanent renown.

It will not be considered unjust to others, to assert that Dr. M'Henry has both deserved and obtained a degree of applause as a poet, which has not been exceeded by that which has been given to many of the best poetical writers of the present age. "The Pleasures of Friendship" may, with strict regard to truth, be said to have successfully endured the test of protracted time and of rigid criticism. The numerous editions in which it has appeared, would afford ample evidence of its merit, even if its own intrinsic qualities did not render it worthy of high and long-continued favour. That many of his productions, first issued in the United States, have been reprinted in London, and that "O'Halloran," one of his novels, has been included in Whittingham's edition of standard English novels, published in that great metropolis of literature, are circumstances which certainly indicate, if they do not prove, that he has acquired a literary character, which may, with justice, be considered well earned and honourable.

Although Dr. M'Henry has not recently published any avowed production, he has been frequent contributor to many of the public journals. Many articles, written by him, which excited much attention, were inserted in the American Quarterly Review, while that work was edited by Mr. Walsh. He is at present engaged in the preparation of several works for the press, on subjects of interest, the appearance of which may soon be expected.

March, 1838.