1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Vicesimus Knox

Francis William Blagdon, "Biographical Sketches: Dr. Vicesimus Knox" Flowers of Literature for 1805 (1806) 31-37.



It is with the highest gratification that we introduce to our readers a man whose labours, while they interest and charm the scholar, will also instil solid wisdom into the heart of every reader; and that, while they refresh the mind in the present hour, they will serve it as food for years to come.

Dr. Knox was born at Newington Green, in Middlesex, about the year 1753. His father was the Rev. Vicesimus Knox, LL.B. a fellow of St. John's college, Oxford, and a master of Merchant-taylors' school. He was a respectable scholar, and, what is more, a worthy man; in his clerical functions possessing the esteem of several large congregations in London, who, finding his practice conformable to his precepts, listened to his instructions with filial reverence. He died at the age of 49. His only son, the subject of the present memoir, became a member of the college in which his father had preceded him, where he pursued his studies with diligence and success, and was in due time elected to a fellowship. He passed through a course of reading, which comprehended all the best Greek and Roman classics, and imitated the style of each, in verse and prose, with the happiest facility.

His zeal for learning, and conspicuity of talent, soon attracted the notice of Dr. Dennis, the president of St. John's, a man of considerable attainments in literature, who discovered in Mr. Knox those indications of superior genius that were, at a future time, to shed lustre upon his college. He took every opportunity of encouraging him in his studious pursuits, and, as a mark of honourable distinction, appointed him a speaker with Mr. Bragge, Earl Dartmouth, Sir George Shuckburgh Evelyn, and others, at the Encaenia, when Lord North first presided, in person, as chancellor of Oxford. It was here that Mr. Knox gave those early specimens of elocution that have gained him the reputation of one of the first pulpit orators of the age; and of that taste which has placed him among the most celebrated of the English belles lettres writers.

Before he quitted the university, and previous to his bachelor's degrees, he composed several essays, as college exercises, for the sake of improvement; and when they augmented to a number sufficient to make a volume, he, for awhile, debated whether he should commit them to the flames, or send them, as a present, without a name, to a London publisher. Happily for literature the last deliberation preponderated, and the collection was sent to Mr. Edward Dilly, by whom the volume was published anonymously, in 1777, under the title of "Essays, Moral and Literary," royal octavo. The success of this volume was great, but unquestionably not beyond its desert. A second edition was soon called for, and its author was induced, not only to add another volume, but also to prefix his name. These essays, written in a forcible and elegant style, formed on the purest models of the ancient classics, contain most valuable directions for the cultivation of the understanding and the conduct of life. The style is, perhaps, a little too turgid; but, on the whole, masterly and vigorous.

From college, after having regularly taken the degrees of bachelor and master of arts, Mr. Knox was elected, in the year 1778, master of Tunbridge school, over which seminary he continues to preside. About this time he married a lady distinguished by the superiority of her understanding, and the peculiar elegance of her manners; she was the daughter of Mr. Miller, a surgeon of great respectability at Tunbridge, and thus he vacated his fellowship at Oxford. His family consist of two sons and a daughter: his eldest son is a student of the Inner Temple; his younger is a member of Brazen-nose college. Shortly after his marriage, he accepted the degree of doctor of divinity, conferred upon him by diploma from Philadelphia, without solicitation, in the most liberal manner, as a tribute for the benefit America had derived from his instructive essays, which were there very popular.

The next work he introduced to the world was his admired treatise on "Liberal Education," a subject which must necessarily have engaged much of his attention. It is difficult to determine, whether this treatise or his essays conferred most honour upon their author. Its reception, both in this and in foreign countries, proved equally favourable. It is however certain, that this valuable work displays a depth of learning, an ingenuity of argument, and a solidity of judgment superior to any contemporary author upon the almost-exhausted subject of education; and, to its great merit, most of the modern literati, as well domestic as foreign, bear a willing testimony. Dr. Knox, in this important treatise, has, without restraint, breathed forth that independence of sentiment that is sure to excite the enmity of narrow prejudice and of selfish interest; but while the effects of this integrity of heart may he a regret to his friends, it is to them a happy assurance, that he is, what every liberal man would have his friend to be, what he professes. In pointing out the prominent defects in the education of youth, he could not consistently pass over the palpable abuses in the discipline of his university. Abuse at Oxford had taken such fast hold, by long continuance, that the most open exposure was necessary to eradicate them, or to effect any sort of reformation. From the laudable desire to purify the channels through which the poison ran into the country, Dr. Knox began at the source. He attacked the abuses with the combined force of ridicule, argument, and learning; not only adducing general charges, but entering with the minutest precision and irrefragable proofs into the various corruptions, and the cause whence they proceeded. This, as might naturally be expected, excited many enemies, one of whom had the hardihood to write an apology, and to attempt a refutation of those truths that were brought against them. In order to dazzle the eyes of superficial readers, he displays a pompous parade of the advantages attending the number of professors in Oxford; and, feeling a want of strength, he loads the doctor with abuse. The author, however, found his zeal tend to the good of his adversary, and his book soon sunk into oblivion.

It is now found, beyond a doubt, that the country at large and the university lie under infinite obligations to Dr. Knox, for having caused many improvements, which, in consequence of his representation, have been made at Oxford. A stricter discipline has taken place at the university; a new arrangement of academical studies, and greater diligence both on the part of professors and the students. No person can now obtain his degrees without having attended the lectures, and, particularly, the bishops will not admit any to holy orders unless they bring testimonials of their having regularly attended the lectures of the regius professor in divinity. The work, in short, was universally read, and the Oxonians were greatly galled at the celebrity it attained, not only in Britain, but in Europe and America.

About the year 1787, Dr. Knox published a series of miscellaneous papers, entitled "Winter Evenings, &c." in three volumes octavo. They have gone through three editions; and though they have not experienced a circulation so universal as the two former productions, yet they equally abound in fine writing and moral instruction, comprising an interesting diversity of refined entertainment.

For the purpose of facilitating the education of youth, Dr. Knox has devoted much labour and evinced extensive learning and judgment.

In his zeal to preserve subordination in England, on the downfall of the French aristocracy, he published a work entitled "Personal Nobility." This was in a series of letters, containing advice to a young nobleman on the conduct of his studies, and on the most effectual means of maintaining the dignity of his peerage. It is full of nervous eloquence, and abounding with wise precepts.

In the year 1793, an event took place in the life of Dr. Knox, which has been the subject of much misrepresentation. A sermon he preached upon the subject of war, in which he enforced that "Offensive War is a high Crime against Humanity and Christianity," gave great offence to some obscure officers in the militia service, who, either to give vent to a party rage, or with the hopes of rendering themselves conspicuous as heroes, took an opportunity when the doctor, with his lady and family of young children, went to the theatre, to excite a riot in the house, and to direct it against him, Happily, however, no serious evil accrued from this; the soldiers, if such they may be called, excited the contempt of every liberal person who understood the affair.

The doctor treated this business in such a manner as to excite general esteem; and soon after followed up the subject of the sermon, by giving to the world one of the best translations that has appeared of Erasmus's celebrated treatise on war, "Bellum dulce inexpertis," inserted among his adages; and to the powerful reasoning of Erasmus he added the glow and vigour of his own. Dr. Knox now began to devote his few leisure hours to the more momentous branch of his profession, divinity. He thought with Young, that,

Who builds on less than an immortal base,
Fond as he is, condemns his joys to death.

In 1794, he produced a volume of sermons, upon Faith, Hope, and Charity, which, as they deserved, met with a most favourable reception. His zeal for the church, and his opinions upon the Trinity, brought upon him the direct attacks of the most distinguished Unitarians and Socinians, belching forth their heterodoxical jargon in despite of the most evident texts and the clearest truths.

To check the progress of infidelity occasioned by Paine's specious and delusive writings, he published his excellent work, "Christian Philosophy," which, with the next and last we shall name, evinces the author to possess profound theological learning: many of Paine's fallacies are completely exposed, and his reasonings refuted. This work of the doctor strenuously maintains the doctrine of grace. The other production alluded to is, "Considerations on the Nature and Efficacy of the Lord's Supper," and was published in 1800. Of this the learned Bishop of St. Asaph spoke in the highest strain of praise when he recommended it in his charge to his diocese of Rochester.

The reader will now doubtless be eager to know the reward of this celebrated scholar and divine; he will be anxious to learn what benefices and dignities have been conferred upon him, as a retribution for his various and highly useful labours. Let him learn then, that the only preferment, if indeed it can be called such, ever bestowed upon him, is the curacy of a little village, which he has supplied for a pittance ever since he was ordained by Bishop Lowth, in the year 1777. We have, however, the gratification to add, that, by means of has own genius and industry, he is in very easy circumstances; and he has, moreover, the rich enjoyment of being respected and beloved by a highly respectable circle of acquaintance.