William Hayley

Mark Anthony Lower, in The Worthies of Sussex: Biographical Sketches (1865) 258-67.

WILLIAM HAYLEY is a remarkable instance of short-lived literary fame. Two generations ago, his productions were read with the utmost avidity: to-day they are hardly heard of. He even survived his own popularity; and that is perhaps one reason why he is now treated with undeserved neglect.

Born to affluence, he died a pensioner to literary speculation, and for the last twelve years of his life derived the chief part of his income from booksellers, to whom he had promised an Autobiography. He is "perhaps the only person who ever dealt with his posthumous reputation as a post-obit, and converted it into present income" [author's note: See Southey's review of "Hayley's Life and Writings," in Quarterly Review vol. XXXI, p. 263-311. To that able article I owe most of the materials in this life].

William Hayley was the second son of Thomas Hayley, Esq., and grandson of Thomas Hayley, D.D., Dean of Chichester from 1735 to 1739. He was born in the Pallant in that city, and baptized in the church of All-Saints there, November 25, 1745, the same year in which his father had raised, for the service of government, a company of infantry which was well-known as "the Blues of Chichester." Captain Hayley had been educated at Exeter College, Oxford, and possessing a competent fortune, passed his life as a private gentleman, indulging his tastes in poetry, music, and gardening. We are told that "he was poet enough to translate an ode of Horace, and a sufficient musician to compose a country-dance." He bought Eartham, (a small estate on the Downs, about seven miles north-east of Chichester) of the representatives of that Sir Robert Fagg, who, on standing for the county, had secured only two supporters, and rendered himself the butt of satire. This delightful spot-hardly equalled for natural beauty in this part of England — he greatly improved by art, and made his summer residence. It was reserved for his gifted son to render the name of Eartham classical.

Captain Hayley's first wife was the heiress of a wealthy merchant. She died at an early age without issue, leaving him in circumstances "sufficiently affluent to disregard the article of fortune in a second marriage." The second wife, the poet's mother, was Mary, daughter of Colonel Yates, who had been M.P. for Chichester, and who by expensive electioneering, and improvident habits, was greatly reduced in fortune when this young lady reached womanhood. In every respect, wealth only excepted, Miss Yates was an admirable person — beautiful, amiable, accomplished, and virtuous. But the union was neither a very lengthened nor a very happy one. Her husband gave way to extravagant and intemperate courses, and died of consumption in 1748, leaving two sons, one of whom, the elder, died in 1750. With an only child and a diminished fortune, Mrs. Hayley removed to London, and placed young William at the school of Mr. Woodeson at Kingston-on-Thames, who had the honour of reckoning among his scholars Edmund Gibbon and George Steevens. While at this establishment, Hayley suffered frightfully from a fever: his life was despaired of, and when he became convalescent, appearances threatened idiotcy and permanent lameness. From these evils however he gradually recovered, and under the watchful care of his admirable mother even his physical disabilities were turned to account. Mrs. Hayley had been educated under her uncle, Dr. Gooch, Bishop of Ely, who among other accomplishments had taught her to read well. She used this faculty for the amusement and instruction of her little son, and it is related that when the latter. suffered under a mild form of small-pox, he made it a condition of his staying in bed that she should read aloud to him the whole of Sir Philip Sydney's Arcadia! His nurse, too, who continued for half a century a faithful retainer in the family, was as fond of books as her mistress, and used to boast of having read homer in English long before her young master was born. Once, while enacting Othello for the edification of this nurse, he so severely wounded himself with a penknife, that but for its having providentially struck a rib, he would probably have met with a tragical end.

At the age of twelve he was sent to Eton, where his lameness subjected him "to the insults of unfeeling boys, and disabled him from resenting them in the only manner which they could understand; and the recollection of the tyranny and injustice which he endured during his first years was so vivid, that he always recoiled from the thought with indignation and disgust" — a feeling which he participated with his friend Cowper, and which I venture to think is still largely experienced as to public schools in gentle natures, whose very gentleness is perhaps the reason why the whole system has not long ago been either thoroughly reformed or abolished. At Eton young Hayley was chiefly distinguished for prose composition and English verse. From that school he removed to Trinity Hall, which he preferred because he could there more favourably than elsewhere cultivate his taste for art. By the advice of George Steevens he pursued drawing under Mr. Brotherton, and made considerable proficiency in it. He was also on intimate terms with Meyer, the eminent painter of miniatures. He made himself master of Italian under Isola, and afterwards read with him some of the Spanish historians and poets. "Thus," says Southey, "he laid the foundation of that knowledge to which he was indebted for most of his reputation, and by which he became a writer of much greater influence in literature than has yet been acknowledged." He did not graduate, but left Cambridge in 1767, and entered himself of the Middle Temple.

A susceptible nature like Hayley's could not long remain free from the tender passion, and, accordingly, even before he went to Cambridge, he fell in love with a young lady with whom he happened to be walking in a grove during a thunder-storm [author's note: Fanny Page, daughter of Mr. Page, of Watergate in Upmarden, formerly M.P. for Chichester]. The groves, as Hayley himself informs us, were "peculiarly suited to contemplation and to love," and the lady had a great horror of thunder. "She fainted in his arms; and the effect of so opportune an accident shows that thunder can accelerate love as well as vegetation!" [author's note: Southey]. A secret correspondence of some years' duration succeeded, but eventually the match was broken off in consequence of some anonymous letters.

Before leaving Cambridge, Hayley hired a house in Great Queen Street, which he believed to have been the residence of Sir Godfrey Kneller. Soon afterwards he paid a visit of some length to Scotland, and on his return tried the study of the law. But tenures and contingent remainders were not to his taste, and Westminster Hall had no charms for his vagrant imagination. He next tried his hand at the drama, but was discouraged by Garrick. Then his visions of literary distinction were for a while interrupted by the breach of his youthful attachment, and afterwards by the excitements of a second courtship. The object of this new love was a daughter of his guardian, Dr. Ball, Dean of Chichester, with whom he had long been on terms of brotherly friendship. She was beautiful and accomplished, but a grave objection to their union existed in the fact that Eliza's mother was insane, and it was suggested to Hayley that she might one day inherit the dreadful malady. His answer was: "In that case, I should bless God for having given me courage to make myself the legal guardian of the most amiable and most pitiable woman on earth." Resistance to so noble a sentiment was hardly to be expected, and the marriage soon afterwards took place, Sir William Asburnham, Bishop of Chichester, performing the ceremony in his own cathedral. The union proved in the end a very unhappy one.

Hayley's friends desired him to adopt a profession, and at one time he thought of physic, at another of theology; but he vacillated, and nothing came of their advice. He afterwards applied to himself the dictum:

"Dum dubitas quid sis, tu potes esse nihil."

He fancied that he was "born for Love and for the Muse," and he remained for life a private, though latterly, as we have already said, not an independent, gentleman.

For several years, Hayley's life was diversified by few events beyond his want of success in a new dramatic attempt called "Magna Charta," and his making a passing acquaintance with William Pitt, then "a wonderful boy of fourteen." About four years after his marriage he withdrew from his London residence and settled upon his little paternal estate at Eartham, a spot which had been endeared to him from childhood, and which he thought, from its peculiar salubrity, might restore the declining health of his mother, to whom he had ever shown the tenderest affection. In the latter object he failed, and his mother shortly afterwards died at the age of fifty-six, and was buried at Eartham. Hayley composed her epitaph.

Though long ambitious of literary distinction, Hayley had reached his thirty-third year ere he appeared before the world as an author. His first published production was an "Essay on Painting," in two epistles addressed to his friend Romney.

"The main object of this poem was to encourage the painter in his better hopes — 'to persuade him not to waste too large a portion of life in the lucrative drudgery of his profession, but aspire to excellence in the highest department of his art.' It failed of that friendly purpose; for though the painter possessed courage and enthusiasm enough to leave England soon after his profession had become lucrative, that he might study the principles of the art at Rome, his conduct was not consistent with this magnanimity: there was a moral infirmity in his nature, so that with many generous and noble qualities he acted an unfeeling and wicked part in life; and if the numerous sketches of what he intended to do did not evince that he possessed the highest powers of conception, posterity would be little able to infer it from what he has done. The artist, as well as the man, was ruined by moral weakness, and he lost the fame and forfeited the happiness which were both within his reach." [Author's note: Southey.]

This poem was succeeded by others on History and on Epic Poetry. "These," says Southey, "were singularly successful, and obtained for the author a reputation which satisfied his warmest expectations. There were two causes for this success — the verse was just upon a level with the taste of the age; and the notes contained an extraordinary, display of reading, more particularly in the fine literature of Italy and Spain: for the English had long been as indifferent to foreign literature as foreigners were to that of England." Then followed his best-known work, the "Triumphs of Temper," a poem unpoetical enough in itself, with perhaps the most prosaic title that ever headed mediocre verse. But it was eminently successful, and Hayley lived for some years "in possession of unrivalled popularity" and was, "by the grace of the public, king of the bards of Britain." The utmost impatience was manifested for the appearance of any work of his which had been announced as forthcoming. It is related of a distinguished personage who was going abroad on a mission of consequence, but who was detained in port by adverse winds, that he regretted that circumstance the less, because it had enabled him to read Hayley's new poem, and also to visit his own mother! It is remarkable with what a modicum of the vis poetica that age of bad taste, the eighteenth century, was content. That century in which Young, at first, and Cowper, later, were accounted great poets! But I must not tread on tender ground, for I am told by bookish men that both the "Night Thoughts" and "The Task" are still read by admiring thousands. Upon the death of Warton the laureateship was offered to Hayley, but was declined, partly, as Southey thinks, because efforts were being made for that post on behalf of his friend Cowper, who however also refused the twenty pounds a year and the pipe of malmsey, because, forsooth, there had been no worthy holder of the office for a long while. Could Tennyson manage an "imaginary conversation" with old Geoffrey Chaucer, surely they would get up a hearty laugh at the reason assigned by the author of "The Task" for declining this office; namely that "it would be a leaden extinguisher clapt on the fire of his genius!"

Hayley's next publication was a volume of plays. It contained three comedies in rhyme and two tragedies, and although they were not written with a view to public representation, they were produced with success at the Haymarket theatre, and afterwards at Covent Garden and Drury Lane. The latest of his works that made any impression on the public was his "Essay on Old Maids," which was much censured by some as indelicate, and even immoral. It was published anonymously, but it was "immediately ascribed to the real author, from an opinion that the genius, and wit, and learning which it displayed were not to be found united in any other. All three were estimated too highly; but there are finer touches of feeling in the work than in any other of his productions" [author's note: Southey].

Hayley was now at the acme of his fame and popularity, and judging by the world's standard should have been the happiest of men. "Books, retirement, and friendship were," says Southey, "in his estimation the real treasures of human life; in all these he tells us he was abundantly rich, and he justly reckoned his quick and constant relish for them all a blessing in itself, that called for heartfelt and cheerful gratitude to the Giver of all good." His paternal sedes at Eartham was a goodly heritage, fit in all respects for the poet, the philosopher, and the man of taste. I have never seen a spot more adapted to make a man of such character cling to his home, so as scarcely to desire anything beyond it. But there was "a worm at the core." Notwithstanding his devotion to his wife, the marriage was, as I have already intimated, far from a happy one. With all her good qualities, she inherited from her unhappy mother a mental constitution which rendered life, both to herself and her husband, the reverse of what the favourable position in which Providence had placed them seemed to the external world to command. In truth she was to a certain extent insane, and — she had no child.

Then follows an episode in Hayley's life which can only be touched with a delicate hand — his separation from his wife. "Mrs. Hayley rather yielded, than consented, to that separation. Though it did not wound her affections, it mortified her," (says Southey, whatever that may mean,) "but she continued to glory in his reputation, and to bear a generous and cheerful testimony to his good qualities. Jealousy was in no degree the cause of their disunion: she was incapable of that passion; and, as Miss Seward oddly expresses it, 'while she had a morbid degree of tenaciousness respecting his esteem and attention, would amuse herself with the idea of those circumstances, with which she could so perfectly well dispense, being engrossed by another.' She did not, indeed, like Sarah, actually present a handmaid to her husband, but she behaved, to the handmaid's son with a generosity which was not shown to Ishmael." The son who sprang from this concubinage was baptized as Thomas Alphonso Hayley, and brought up as an adopted child of the family. "On his first birth-day he presented a Lilliputian ode, composed by his father, to Mrs. Hayley, who was already so fond of him as to bless the day he was born!" [author's note: Southey]. These birthday odes were continued for several years.

Alphonso was a child of remarkable promise. At four he astonished his father by repeating half of one of Pindar's Odes which, of course without knowing the sense, he had learned by ear. At five he was reading Ovid as a student.

Mrs. Hayley was settled at Derby, where she had many friends. Hayley, busied with the education of his son, was at Eartham, where he lived in comparative seclusion. He affected to be called "the Hermit," and built a queer little circular retreat in his grounds, to which he gave the name of the hermitage. This stands in a wood now known as "Hayley's wood," through which he had caused several paths to be cut. Picturesque gardening had not yet come into fashion, but still it was the poet's employment and solace to enhance nature's beauties by the application of art, and with the occasional, we might say frequent, hospitalities, which he exhibited to Cowper, to Romney, to Warner, to Warton, to Flaxman, to Hurdis, to Thornton, to Jonas Hanway, and to many other eminent contemporaries, Eartham was as much a Tusculum as such a Cicero could reasonably desire. He was also in his way a Galen, and used to boast that he had acted more than five and twenty years as a village doctor, without having shortened the life of a single patient! Our poet must have forgotten, if he had ever read it, Heywood's Couplet in the "Four P's."

And whom have ye knowen dye honestly,
Without helpe of the Potycary?

In 1790 his friend Dr. Warner went over to Paris as chaplain to the English embassy, and while there induced Hayley, Romney, and a clergyman named Carwardine to visit him. Hayley on this occasion engaged a French governess for his son — "a very singular little woman," as he himself informs us, but "full of noble sentiments and odd fancies, of a disposition uncommonly grateful, and admirably adroit in teaching elegant manners to little folks." In the circumstances of Hayley's domestic affairs, this petite Frenchwoman, naturally, though groundlessly, became an object of scandal, but what a worthy creature she was, is proved by the fact that when Hayley, having no further occasion for her services, had procured her a more lucrative situation, she, finding her employer somewhat straitened in his economical arrangements, wanted to return all the salary she had received in his service, and did really send him a considerable portion of it, which he afterwards had an opportunity of restoring to her when it was particularly welcome. Not long subsequently the faithful old Homer-reading nurse of Hayley's infancy died, after a service of half a century, and for her, in pursuance of her own request, he wrote an epitaph, which is more noteworthy for her master's gratitude than for its own poetical merit.

About this time he projected a journey to Rome, where his friend Flaxman was pursuing his studies. He entertained the intention of staying there for some years with his son, but was diverted from it by a proposal from Boydell the publisher, who wished him to write a Life of Milton to be prefixed to a splendid edition of his works. Cowper was engaged in a similar undertaking, but it was so far from producing any rivalry between the two authors that it led to a warm friendship. Young Alphonso was then in his thirteenth year, and Cowper had so high an opinion of him as to court his criticisms of the translation of Homer of which he was preparing a second edition. This precocity had, as in many other cases, a fatal tendency. Hayley at first wished to make his son a physician, but circumstances combined to give the boy a taste for the fine arts, especially the one circumstance that Romney was a frequent visitor at Eartham, where Hayley had fitted up a painting-room for him. Afterwards Wright of Derby, an artist of much celebrity, gave Alphonso the benefit of his teaching, and Flaxman upon his report of the boy's progress wrote to his father, saying, "if you have not quite determined to make him a physician, show yourself my friend indeed, and accept my offer as frankly as I make it. Send him to me; I will instruct him in all the little I know, and it shall not cost you a farthing." Flaxman had been acquainted with Hayley for many years — he had long before passed at Eartham, as he himself says, "such a fortnight as many thousands of our fellow-creatures go out of the world without enjoying." Both men possessed in a high degree the qualities which are requisite for true friendship, and the great sculptor's affection for the father was extended to the amiable son.

"'You will believe me,' he said, 'that I love your son as tenderly as you can wish; and now that you express so serious an intention of placing him under me, it is necessary that I should explain my intentions concerning him, when he is under my care. My first object will be to preserve his mind in his duty to God and his neighbour, which cannot fail to form a good citizen, and give his mind sufficient strength and resource for happiness, under the various attacks on his peace which he must meet with in this world. With respect to instruction in the arts of design, I shall only consider his good, and instruct him in those sound principles which cannot fail of laying the foundation of an excellent practice.' With Flaxman, accordingly, young Hayley was placed. 'Good friend, good artist, good man, good everything that can be named,' the pupil called his master: and well he deserved to be so called. He read the Greek Testament with him every morning; in one of his letters he says that they had begun to talk Latin; and in another, 'he is such a good man, and so full of excellent qualities, that I am always learning something of great value from him'" [author's note: Southey. William Hollingdale, Esq., or Mundham, possesses an excellent portrait of the young artist, executed by himself in crayons, while reclining on a sofa during his fatal illness].

Of this gifted lad Romney said, he had "higher hopes than he ever had of any one so young, for his talents, his vigorous industry, and his serenity of temper." He had a worthy pride, Southey tells us, in his destination, "and when he heard that Lord Sheffield had talked to his father of doing something better for him, observed with generous spirit, 'in spite of his nobility, I do not believe that he could.'" With all his noble aspirations, however, he was not destined for fame. An insidious disease of the spine attacked him, and although his medical advisers attributed his weakness to an affection of the muscles of the breast, Hayley himself, with the assistance of Mr. Guy, an eminent surgeon of Chichester, discovered the real state of the case. He died before he had reached his twentieth birth-day. On the left-hand side of the chancel window of the curious little Norman church at Eartham there is a marble tablet, with a small bas-relief and the following epitaph:—


Sacred to the Memory of THOMAS HAYLEY, who having borne an agonizing distemper with cheerful magnanimity two years and four months, resigned a pure spirit into the hands of his Redeemer on the 2nd of May, 1800, in the twentieth year of his age.

JOHN FLAXMAN, SCULPTOR, dedicates this stone to the virtues and talents of his beloved scholar.

Parent Almighty! to thy breast divine,
The child they cherished, Love and Faith resign;
The gift resumed by thy unquestion'd will,
To fond devotion is a blessing still.
Yes — in our hearts thy all-directing sway
Has fix'd so deep, what seem'd to pass away;
The bright endowments of a darling son,
The genius he display'd — the praise he won;
His gentle manners, his exhaustless mind,
Modestly firm, and delicately kind;
His busy use of health-his gay repose,
His Christian sufferance of a martyrs woes;
These, though his soul has fled this life of pain,
Live in our bosoms-in our spirits reign.

God! may these just memorials of the truth,
Remain a lesson both to age and youth!
So thou, blest being, guide to bliss above
All who embraced thee with protecting love;
Who trained the virtues to thy childhood given,
And saw them torture-tried, the gold of heaven.

Mrs. Hayley, who had ever regarded this poor youth in almost the same light as if he had really been her own born son, did not survive to witness, or to be informed of, his sufferings and death. The singular relation in which her husband stood to her in having first violated the marriage vow, and having then lived in a state tantamount to legal divorce, could not be expected to induce on his part any deep emotions of sorrow at her loss; but he did what surely no other man in like circumstances ever did before, or will ever do again — he wrote her funeral sermon and got it preached in Eartham church! One can hardly account for this and some subsequent acts of his life, except on the supposition that his own mind, as well as that of his unfortunate wife, had become partially diseased, and Southey in his Life of Cowper is quite right in designating Hayley as "a man of incoherent transactions." True enough it is, there is to be traced from about this time a marked falling off in his poetry, which seemed to go, from whatever cause, "pari passu" with a diminution of his worldly means. Notwithstanding the parade which he often made of his economy, there is no doubt that he was an incautious and improvident man. I have heard stories of his profuse liberality and utter regardlessness of money, which would easily account for the comparative poverty of his later years.

Hayley's friend Cowper died within a week of the death of his son, and he was called upon to become the biographer of the former. It was through Hayley's interest with Pitt that Cowper had received the government pension which secured him from absolute indigence. By a pleasing retribution, through the substantial reward which he received from the profits of his "Life of Cowper" he was materially relieved in the decline of his worldly prosperity.

Before the death of his son, Hayley had built at Felpham near Bognor, an odd kind of house, which he called his "marine hermitage." One of his reasons for this was because he could hardly keep up the expenses of Eartham, and wished to live more economically. After his son's death he had a perhaps stronger motive: poor Thomas had died in his favourite room at Eartham, the library, which made him shrink from a scene once endeared by so many pleasing reminiscences of the promising boy [author's note: Hayley removed his books to Felpham. It was a large and well-selected collection. There also he had some very interesting portraits of those distinguished characters who had been his guests at Eartham. They came to him by bequest from his friend Romney, by whom they had all been executed "con amore." The principal were Gibbon, Cowper, Charlotte Smith, Anna Seward, Madame Genlis, Emma Lyon wife of Sir William Hamilton, &c. See Life of Romney, page 381. The portraits of Cowper and Anna Seward are in the possession of W.Percival Boxall, Esq.]. He survived that boy twenty years. He survived his popularity also. His "Life of Romney" and his "Triumph of Music" were very inferior productions: his powers had deteriorated in the same proportion as the public taste had become chastened and improved. He reached his literary bathos in his "Ballads on Animals," which Southey characterizes as curious for their absurdity; and some one in reading them quoted the burthen of the doggerel song which runs "Hayley-gayley, gamboraly, higgledy-piggledy, gallopin' draggle-tailed dreary dun."

He seemed however to bear his loss of popularity with wonderful equanimity, though he lived a rather recluse life and avoided new friendships. He had never been distinguished for prudence; but his crowning act of folly was his marriage, at sixty-four, with a youthful, attractive, and well-connected lady. At the end of three years a separation took place by mutual consent. Singularly enough, a groundless jealousy on the side of the lady is stated to have been the chief cause of matrimonial infelicity. [Author's note: Two sides to a question no doubt. I have before me a letter in which it is said that "he kept her so closely confined to the house, and indeed treated her so unkindly, that her brothers came down and took her away." The same correspondent adds that "Hayley does not appear to have left a favourable impression at Felpham," and quotes the well-known speech of Dean Cyril Jackson, on his retirement from Oxford to Felpham: "Well, Mr. Hayley, I have come into your village, and hope we shall be what is called good neighbours, that is, see as little of each other as possible."]

In the later years of his life Hayley devoted much of his time to religious contemplation. He also composed many hymns, some of which were set to music by the late Mr. Bennett, organist of Chichester cathedral, for whom he had long manifested a friendly regard. Notwithstanding the errors of his former life, and the defects of character which he had occasionally exhibited, we must upon the whole label him in our collection of Sussex Worthies as Christian, Gentleman, and Poet. Mr. Sarjent, the biographer of Henry Martyn, and son of the well-known author of "The Mine," was with him the latter days of his life, and he bears the highest testimony to his patience, resignation, and rest in Christ. There is perhaps more simple pathos in almost the last verses which he ever wrote than can be found elsewhere in his poems: they were suggested by seeing the swallows congregate upon his turret, in the fall of the year, before their departure.

Ye gentle birds that perch aloof,
And smooth your pinions on my roof;
Preparing for departure hence,
Ere winter's angry threats commence;
Like you, my soul would smooth her plume,
For longer flights beyond the tomb.
May God by whom are seen and heard
Departing man and wandering bird,
In mercy mark us for his own,
And guide us to the land unknown.

Hayley died 12th November, 1820, aged seventy-five. His epitaph in Felpham church was written by his friend Mrs. Opie; and his autobiography was edited in two quarto volumes by the Rev. John Johnson, L.L.D., rector of Yaxham in Norfolk.

Hayley had sold his beloved Eartham in the year 1800 to William Huskisson, Esq. the eminent statesman, who then sat in Parliament for Chichester, and to whose representative, William Huskisson, Esq., it now belongs. It occupies a sweet slope of the Downs about seven miles northeast of Chichester and three miles from Goodwood. The grounds have been beautifully adorned by the gardener's art. The house was much enlarged by Mr. Huskisson, and at present it exhibits many evidences of occupation by persons of refined tastes and pursuits. Hayley removed most of his books to Felpham, but the library remains almost in statu quo. The little Norman church of Eartham, in which the two Hayley monuments are placed, one on each side of the chancel window, is worthy of a visit.