1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Reginald Heber

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:407-08.



DR. REGINALD HEBER, bishop of Calcutta, was born April 21, 1783, at Malpas in Cheshire, where his father had a living. In his seventeenth year he was admitted of Brazen-nose college, Oxford, and soon distinguished himself by his classical attainments. In 1802 he obtained the university prize for Latin hexameters, his subject being the Carmen Seculare. Applying himself to English verse, Heber, in 1803, composed his poem of Palestine, which has been considered the best prize poem the university has ever produced. Parts of it were set to music; and it had an extensive sale. Previous to its recitation in the theatre of the university, the young author read it to Sir Walter Scott, then on a visit to Oxford; and Scott observed, that in the verses on Solomon's temple, one striking circumstance had escaped him — namely, that no tools were used in its construction. Reginald retired for a few minutes to this corner of the room, and returned with the beautiful lines—

No hammer fell, no ponderous axes rung;
Like some tall palm the mystic fabric sprung.
Majestic silence!

His picture of Palestine, in its now fallen and desolate state, is pathetic and beautiful:—

Reft of thy sons, amid thy foes forlorn,
Mourn, widowed queen! forgotten Sion, mourn!
Is this thy place, sad city, this thy throne,
Where the wild desert rears its craggy stone?
While suns unblessed their angry lustre fling,
And wayworn pilgrims seek the scanty spring!
Where new thy pomp, which kings with envy viewed?
Where now thy might, which all these kings subdued?
No martial myriads muster in thy gate;
No suppliant nations in thy temple wait;
No prophet-bards, the glittering courts among,
Wake the dill lyre, and swell the tide of song:
But lawless Force, and meagre Want are there,
And the quick-darting eye of restless Fear,
While cold Oblivion, 'mid thy ruins laid,
Folds his dank wing beneath the ivy shade.

He has also given a striking sketch of the Druses, the hardy mountain race descended from the Crusaders:—

Fierce, hardy, proud, in conscious freedom bold,
Those stormy seats the warrior Druses hold;
From Norman breed their lofty line they trace,
Their lion-courage proves their generous race.
They, only they, while all around them kneel
In sullen homage to the Thracian steel,
Teach their pale despot's waning moon to fear
The patriot terrors of the mountain spear.
Yes, valorous chiefs, while yet your sabres shine,
The native guard of feeble Palestine,
O, ever thus, by no vain boast dismayed,
Defend the birthright of the cedar shade!
What though no more for you the obedient gale
Swells the white bosom of the Tyrian sail;
Though now no more your glittering marts unfold
Sidonian dyes and Lusitanian gold;
Though net for you the pale and sickly slave
Forgets the light in Ophir's wealthy cave;
Yet yours the lot, in proud contentment blest,
Where cheerful labour leads to tranquil rest.
No robber-rage the ripening harvest knows;
And unrestrained the generous vintage flows:
Nor less your sons to manliest deeds aspire;
And Asia's mountains glow with Spartan fire.

So when, deep sinking in the rosy main,
The western sun forsakes the Syrian plain,
His watery rays refracted lustre shed,
And pour their latest light on Carmel's head.

Yet shines your praise, amid surrounding gloom,
As the lone lamp that trembles in the tomb;
For few the souls that spurn a tyrant's chain,
And small the bounds of freedom's scanty reign.

While his poem of Palestine was universally admired, and all looked forward to the maturity of a genius so rich in promise, Heber continued his studies with unabated industry. He made considerable progress in mathematics and in the higher classics. In 1805 he took his degree of B.A., and the same year gained the prize for the English essay; the subject, The Sense of Honour. He was elected to a fellowship at All Souls college, and soon after went abroad, travelling over Germany, Russia, and the Crimea. On his return he took his degree of A.M. at Oxford. He appeared again as a poet in 1809, his subject being Europe, or Lines on the Present War. The struggle in Spain formed the predominating theme of Heber's poem. He was now presented to the living of Hodnet; and at the same time he married Amelia, daughter of Dr. Shipley, dean of St Asaph. The duties of a parish pastor were discharged by labor with unostentatious fidelity and application. He also applied his vigorous intellect to the study of divinity, and in 1815 preached the Bampton Lecture, the subject selected by him for a course of sermons being the Personality and Office of the Christian Comforter. He was an occasional contributor to the Quarterly Review; and in 1822 he wrote a copious life of Jeremy Taylor, and a review of his writings for a complete edition of Taylor's works. The same year he was elected, by the benchers of Lincoln's Inn, preacher to their society. Here he had chambers in London, an addition of about £600 to his yearly income, and his duty was only preaching thirteen sermons in the year. An office so honourable, from the high character and talents of the electors, and the eminent persons by whom it has been held, is usually considered a steppingstone, to a bishopric. To thus honour in its highest form — that of a spiritual peer of the realm — Heber might now have looked forward with confidence; but a strong sense of duty and desire of Christian usefulness prevented the prospect being realised. It was under such feelings, and contrary to the advice of prudent friends, that he accepted, in 1823, the difficult task of bishop of Calcutta. With his family he arrived safely at his destination on the 10th of October; and no man could have entered on his mission with a more Christian or apostolic spirit. During the ensuing year, he was engaged in visiting the several European stations in Bengal and the upper provinces of Hindostan. In January 1825 he made a similar tour to the stations under the Bombay government, consecrating churches at various places. In May 1825 he held his episcopal visitation at Bombay. During this progress he laid the foundation of two central schools. He also visited the Deccan, Ceylon, and Madras, on his return to Bengal, performing at each station the active duties of his sacred office. His whole energies appear to have been devoted to the propagation of Christianity in the East. In 1826 the bishop made a journey to Travencore, accompanied by the Rev. Mr. Doran, of the Church Missionary Society. He preached, confirmed, and visited his Christian communities with his usual affection and ardour. On the 1st of April he arrived at Trichinopoly, and had twice service on the day following. He went the next day, Monday, at six o'clock in the morning, to see the native Christians in the fort, and attend divine service. He then returned to the house of a friend, and went into the bath preparatory to his dressing for breakfast. His servant conceiving he remained too long, entered the room, and found the bishop dead at the bottom of the bath. Medical assistance was applied, but every effort proved ineffectual; death had been caused by apoplexy. The loss of so valuable a public man, equally beloved and venerated, was mourned by all classes, and every honour was paid to his memory. Much might have been anticipated from the zeal and learning of Heber, in elucidation of the antiquities of India, and the moral and religious improvement of its people, had his valuable life been spared. At the time of his death he was only in his forty-third year — a period too short to have developed those talents and virtues which, as one of his admirers in India remarked, rendered his course in life, from the moment that he was crowned with academical honours till the day of his death, one track of light, the admiration of Britain and of India. The widow of Dr. Heber has published a Memoir of his Life, with selections from his letters; and also a Narrative of his Journey through the Upper Provinces of India from Calcutta to Bombay. In these works the excellent prelate is seen to great advantage, as an acute and Iively observer, graphic in his descriptions both of scenery and manners, and everywhere animated with feelings of Christian zeal and benevolence. As a poet, Heber is always elegant, and often striking. His hymns are peculiarly touching and impressive, and musical in versification. The highest honours of the lyre he probably never could have attained; for he is deficient in originality, and is more rhetorical than passionate or imaginative.