1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. John Langhorne

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:72-73.



DR. JOHN LANGHORNE, an amiable and excellent clergyman, has long lost the popularity which he possessed in his own day as a poet; but his name nevertheless claims a place in the history of English literature. He was born at Kirkby Steven, in Westmoreland, in 1735, and held the curacy and lectureship of St John's, Clerkenwell, in London. He afterwards obtained a prebend's stall in Wells cathedral, and was much admired as a preacher. He died in 1779. Langhorne wrote various prose works, the most successful of which was his "Letters of Theodosius and Constantia;" and, in conjunction with his brother, he published a translation of "Plutarch's Lives," which still maintains its ground as the best English version of the ancient author. His poetical works were chiefly slight effusions, dictated by the passion or impulse of the moment; but he made an abortive attempt to repel the coarse satire of Churchill, and to walk in the magic circle of the drama. His ballad, "Owen of Carron," founded on the old Scottish tale of Gil Morrice, is smoothly versified, but in poetical merit is inferior to the original. The only poem of Langborne's which has a cast of originality is his "Country Justice." Here he seems to have anticipated Crabbe in painting the rural life of England in true colours. His picture of the gipsies, and his sketches of venal clerks and rapacious overseers, are genuine likenesses. He has not the raciness or the distinctness of Crabbe, but is equally faithful, and as sincerely a friend to humanity. He pleads warmly for the poor vagrant tribe:—

Still mark if vice or nature prompts the deed
Still mark the strong temptation and the need:
On pressing want, on famine's powerful call,
At least more lenient let thy justice fall.
For him who, last to every hope of life,
Has long with Fortune bold unequal strife,
Known to no human love, no human care,
The friendless homeless object of despair;
For the poor vagrant feel, while he complains,
Nor from sad freedom send to sadder chains.
Alike if folly or misfortune brought
Those last of woes his evil days have wrought;
Believe with social mercy and with me,
Folly's misfortune in the first degree.

Perhaps on some inhospitable shore
The houseless wretch a widowed parent bore;
Who then, no more by golden prospects led,
Of the poor Indian begged a leafy bed.
Cold on Canadian hills or Minden's plain,
Perhaps that parent mourned her soldier slain;
Bent o'er her babe, her eye dissolved in dew,
The big drops mingling with the milk he drew,
Gave the sad presage of his future years,
The child of misery, baptised in tears.

This allusion to the dead soldier and his widow on the field of battle was made the subject of a print by Bunbury, under which were engraved the pathetic lines of Langhorne. Sir Walter Scott has mentioned, that the only time he saw Burns, the Scottish poet, this picture was in the room. Burns shed tears over it; and Scott, then a lad of fifteen, was this only person present who could tell him where the lines were to be found. The passage is beautiful in itself, but this incident will embalm and preserve it for ever.