1850 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Henry More

Edward S. Creasy, "Henry More" Memoirs of Eminent Etonians (1850) 137-45.



Coleridge has said that every man is naturally either a Platonist or an Aristotelian. It is only to those who feel themselves included in the first branch of this classification, that I can look for participation in the earnest interest which I have felt in examining the life and writings of Henry More. He is a remarkable instance of the high and holy influences of the Platonic philosophy when combined with the Christian faith. He was not exempt from weaknesses, but his weaknesses serve to show more fully his sincerity, and to set him in a more amiable light. Many of his writings are too enthusiastic, and many of his speculations too visionary, for most readers; and his works are too voluminous for their full popularity ever to be revived at the present time. Yet I cannot but think that a collection of extracts from some of them, and a condensation of others, would form admirable treatises for general diffusion. Still more sure do I feel of the beneficial effects which a judicious selection of translated portions from Plato's own writings would produce, if such a book could be largely circulated in this our utilitarian and rationalising age.

HENRY MORE was born at Grantham, in Lincolnshire, on the 12th of October, 1614. He was sent to Eton at the age of fourteen, and after being educated there for some years, he proceeded to Christ's College, Cambridge, where, in the seclusion of a college life, he devoted his youth, his manhood, and old age, to intense study and undisturbed metaphysical speculation.

We possess in the preface prefixed to More's first philosophical volume, a curious and valuable autobiography of his boyhood, and of the earlier portion of his youth. The candid history and frank self-anatomy of an individual human mind must be always an interesting document to the psychologist. Such is peculiarly the case where it is such a mind as More's, of which we are thus enabled to trace the development.

It will be seen, from the portions of this narrative which I am about to quote, that More was trained up in the creed of ultra-Calvinism; that ghastly doctrine, of which none but a hardhearted man can become a disciple, without feeling that

Quaesivit lucem coelo, ingemuitque reperta.

It will be seen how More's gentle spirit strove against this creed, and how in the stages of theological distress through which his youthful mind passed, a fervent belief in the great truths of religion ever dwelt and moved within him, and preserved him from falling into the scepticism, into which too many have lapsed in the recoil of their hearts from the Calvinistic tenets. It is evident from this autobiography that More, like Coleridge, was a Platonist even before he had read Plato. Thus it is manifest that More, at the crisis of his religious state, was preserved in Theism by the influence of that great proof of God's existence and his attributes, which Plato so eloquently inculcates, namely, by the thought of him being innate in our minds, and by the very feeling of affinity to his nature which stirs within our souls.

At the commencement of More's little narrative of himself (as translated from the author's Latin, by his friend and editor, Ward) he tells us that he wrote it—

"To the end that it may more fully appear that the things which I have written are not any borrowed or far-fetched opinions, owing unto education and the reading of books, but the proper sentiments of my own mind, drawn and derived from my most intimate nature, and that every human soul is no abrasa tabula, or mere blank sheet, but hath innate sensations and notions in it, both of good and evil, just and unjust, true and false, and those very strong and vivid.

"Concerning which matter I am the more assured, in that the sensations of my own mind are so far from being owing to education, that they are directly contrary to it: I being bred up, to the almost fourteenth year of my age, under parents and a master that were great Calvinists (but withal very pious and good ones); at which time, by the order of my parents, persuaded to it by my uncle, I immediately went to Eton School, not to learn any new precepts or institutes of religion, but for the perfecting of the Greek and Latin tongue. But neither there nor yet anywhere else could I ever swallow down that hard doctrine concerning fate. On the contrary, I remember that upon those words of Epictetus, "Aye [Greek characters] (Lead me, O Jupiter, and thou Fate,) I did (with my eldest brother, who then, as it happened, had accompanied my uncle thither) very stoutly, and earnestly for my years, dispute against this fate or Calvinistick predestination, as it is usually called; and that my uncle, when he came to know it, chid me severely, adding menaces withal of correction, and a rod for my immature forwardness in philosophising concerning such matters; moreover that I had such a deep aversion in my temper to this opinion, and so firm and unshaken a persuasion of the Divine justice and goodness, that on a certain day, in a ground belonging to Eton College, where the boys used to play and exercise themselves, musing concerning these things with myself, and recalling to my mind this doctrine of Calvin, I did thus seriously and deliberately conclude within myself, viz. 'If I am one of those that are predestined unto hell, where all things are full of nothing but cursing and blasphemy, yet will I behave myself there patiently and submissively towards God, and if there be any one thing more than another that is acceptable to him, that will I set myself to do with a sincere heart and to the utmost of my power; being certainly persuaded that if I thus demeaned myself, he would hardly keep me long in that place: which meditation of mine is as firmly fixed in my memory, and the very place where I stood, as if the thing had been transacted but a day or two ago.

"And as to what concerns the existence of God: though in that ground mentioned, walking, as my manner was, slowly, and with my head on one side, and kicking now and then the stones with my feet, I was wont sometimes with a sort of musical and melancholick murmur to repeat, or rather humm to myself, those verses of Claudian:—

Saepe mihi dubiam traxit sententia mentem,
Curarent Superi terras; an nullus inesset
Rector, et incerto fluerent mortalia casu.

[Oft hath my anxious mind divided stood,
Whether the Gods did mind this lower world;
Or whether no such ruler (wise and good)
We had; and all things here by chance were hurled.]

"Yet that exceeding hale and entire sense of God which Nature herself had planted deeply in me, very easily silenced all such slight and poetical dubitations as these. Yea, even in my first childhood an inward sense of the Divine presence was so strong upon my mind, that I did then believe there could no deed, word, or thought be hidden from him. Nor was I by any others that were older than myself, to be otherwise persuaded. Which thing since no distinct reason, philosophy, or instruction taught it me at that age, but only an internal sensation urged it upon me; I think it is very evident that this was an innate sense or notion in me, contrary to some witless and sordid philosophasters of our present age. And if these cunning sophisters shall here reply that I drew this sense of mine ex traduce, or by way of propagation, as being born of parents exceeding pious and religious, I demand, how it came to pass, that I drew not Calvinism also in along with it? For both my father and uncle, and so also my mother, were all earnest followers of Calvin. But these things I pass, since men atheistically disposed cannot so receive them, as I from an inward feeling speak them.

"I go on therefore with my little narrative. Endued as I was with these principles, that is to say, a firm and unshaken belief of the existence of God, as also of his unspotted righteousness and perfect goodness, that he is a God infinitely good as well as infinitely great; (and what other would any person, that is not doltish or superstitious, ever admit of?) at the command of my uncle, to whose care my father had committed me, having spent about three years at Eton, I went to Cambridge, recommended to the care of a person both learned and pious, and, what I was not a little solicitous about, not at all a Calvinist, but a tutour most skilful and vigilant, who presently after the very first salutation and discourse with me, asked me, whether I had a discernment of things good and evil? To which, answering in somewhat a low voice, I said, 'I hope I have.' When at the same time I was conscious to myself that I had, from my very soul, a most strong sense and savoury discrimination as to all those matters. Notwithstanding, the meanwhile a mighty and almost immoderate thirst after knowledge possessed me throughout, especially for that which was natural, and, above all others, that which was said to dive into the deepest cause of things, and Aristotle calls the first and highest philosophy, or wisdom.

"After which, when my prudent and pious tutour observed my mind to be inflamed and carried with so eager and vehement a career, he asked me on a certain time, why I was so above measure intent upon my studies, that is to say, for what end I was so? Suspecting, as I suppose, that there was only at the bottom a certain itch or hunt after vain-glory; and to become, by this means, some famous philosopher amongst those of my own standing. But I answered briefly, and that from my very heart, 'That I may know.' 'But, young man, what is the reason,' saith he again, 'that you so earnestly desire to know things?' To which I instantly returned, 'I desire, I say, so earnestly to know, that I may know.' For even at that time the knowledge of natural and Divine things seemed to me the highest pleasure and felicity imaginable.

"Thus then persuaded, and esteeming it what was highly fit, I immerse myself over head and ears in the study of philosophy, promising a most wonderful happiness to myself in it. Aristotle, therefore, Cardan, Julius Scaliger, and other philosophers of the greatest note, I very diligently peruse. In which the truth is, though I met here and there with some things wittily and acutely and sometimes also solidly spoken, yet the most seemed to me either so false or uncertain, or else so obvious and trivial, that I looked upon myself as having plainly lost my time in the reading of such authors. And to speak all in a word, those almost whole four years which I spent in studies of this kind, as to what concerned those matters which I chiefly desired to be satisfied about, (for as to the existence of a God, and the duties of morality, I never had the least doubt,) ended in nothing in a manner but mere scepticism. Which made me that, as my manner was, (for I was wont to set down the present state of my mind, or any sense of it that was warmer or deeper than ordinary, in some short notes, whether in verse or prose, and that also in English, Greek, or Latin,) it made me, I say, that as a perpetual record of the thing, I composed of eight verses, which is called [Greek characters], and is to be found inserted in the end of my second philosophical volume, viz.: — [Greek characters] &c. [To this purpose, as translated admirably by the author himself.]

Nor whence, nor who I am, poor wretch, know I,
Nor yet, O madness! whither I must goe;
But in Grief's crooked claws fast held I lie,
And live, I think, by force tugged to and fro.

Asleep or wake, all one. O Father Jove,
'Tis brave we mortals live in clouds like thee.
Lies, night-dreams, empty toys, fear, fatal love,
This is my life: I nothing else do see.

And these things happened to me before that I had taken any degree in the university.

"But after taking my degree, to pass over and omit abundance of things, I designing not here the draught of my own life, but only a brief introduction for the better understanding the occasion of writing my first book; it fell out truly very happily for me that I suffered so great a disappointment in my studies. For it made me seriously at last begin to think with myself whether the knowledge of things was really that supreme felicity of man, or something greater and more divine was; or, supposing it to be so, whether it was to be acquired by such an eagerness and intentness in the reading of authors, and contemplating of things, or by the purging of the mind from all sorts of vices whatsoever, especially having begun to read now the Platonick Writers, Marsilius Ficinus, Plotinus himself, Mercurius Trismegistus, and the Mystical Divines, among whom there was frequent mention made of the purification of the soul, and of the purgative course that is previous to the illuminative, as if the person that expected to have his mind illuminated of God, was to endeavour after the highest purity.

"When this inordinate desire after the knowledge of things was thus allayed in me, and I aspired after nothing but this sole purity and simplicity of mind, there shone in upon me daily a greater assurance than ever I could have expected, even of those things which before I had the greatest desire to know, insomuch that within a few years I was got into a most joyous and lucid state of mind, and such plainly as is ineffable; though, according to my custom, I have endeavoured to express it, to my power, in another stanza of eight verses, both in sense and title answering in a way of direct opposition unto the former, which is called (as that [Greek characters] inviousness and emptiness, so this) [Greek characters] fulness and perviousness, and is to be found likewise at the end of my second philosophical volume, beginning thus: — [Greek characters] &c. [In the author's own translation as followeth:—]

I come from Heaven; am an immortal ray
Of God; O joy! and back to God shall goe;
And here sweet Love on 's wings me up doth stay,
I live, I'm sure, and joy this life to know.
Night and vain dreams begone! Father of Lights,
We live, as thou, clad with eternal day;
Faith, Wisdom, Love, fixed Joy, free-winged Might,
This is true life; all else death and decay.

In the year 1640 he commenced the composition of a mystical poem, entitled "The Song of the Soul." In it he has attempted an exposition of the nature, attributes, and states of the soul, according to that system of Christianized Platonism which he had adopted. It is divided into four parts: — Psychozoia, or the Life of the Soul; Psychathanasia, or the Immortality of the Soul; Antipsychopannychia, or a Confutation of the Sleep of the Soul after Death; and Antimonopsychia, or a Confutation of the Unity of Souls. Southey has observed that, "amidst the uncouth allegory, and still more uncouth language, of this strange series of poems, there are a few passages to be found of extreme beauty."

More, in his dedication of his poems to his father, says that it was the hearing of "Spenser's Fairie Queen" read to him on winter-nights by his father, that "first turned his ears to poetry." But in truth, like his great master, Plato, he was far more poetical in his prose than in his verse.

I have already quoted two of his minor poems in the extracts from his autobiography. The two following stanzas may serve as a favourable specimen of his Psychozoia:—

Can wars and jars, and fierce contention,
Swoln hatred, and consuming envy spring
From piety? No, 'tis Opinion
That makes the riv'n heavens with trumpets ring,
And thundering engine murderous balls outsling,
And send men's groaning ghosts to lower shade
Of horrid hell: this the wide world doth bring
To devastation, makes mankind to fade.
Such direful things doth false religion perswade.

But true religion, sprung from God above,
Is like her fountain, full of charity,
Embracing all things with a tender love;
Full of good will and meek expectancy;
Full of true justice, and sure verity
In heart and voice; free, large, even infinite;
Not wedg'd in strait particularity,
But grasping all in her vast active spright:
Bright lamp of God! that men would joy in thy pure light.

But how infinitely superior, both in imagination and expression, is the following passage, in which he is speaking of the felicity of the true Christian:—

"And even the more miserable objects in this present scene of things cannot divest him of his happiness, but rather modifie it; the sweetness of his spirit being melted into a kindly compassion in the behalf of others: whom if he be able to help, it is a greater accession to his joy; and if he cannot, the being conscious to himself of so sincere a compassion, and so harmonious and suitable to the present state of things, carries along with it some degree of pleasure, like mournful notes of musick exquisitely well fitted to the sadness of the ditty. But this not unpleasant surprise of melancholy cannot last long: and this cool allay, this soft and moist element of sorrow, will be soon dried up, like the morning dew at the rising of the summer sun; when but once the warm and cheerful gleams of that intellectual light that represents the glorious and comfortable comprehension of the divine Providence that runs through all things, shall dart into our souls the remembrance, how infinitely scant the region of these more tragical spectacles is, compared with the rest of the universe; and how short a time they last: for so the consideration of the happiness of the whole will swallow up this small pretence of discontent; and the soul will be wholly overflowed with unexpressible joy and exultation; it being warmed and cheered with that joy which is the joy of God, that free and infinite Good, who knows the periods and issues of all things; and whose pleasure is in good as such, and not in contracted selfishness, or in petty and sinister projects."

Similarly beautiful, holy, and true are these sentences from another part of his works:—

"Behold therefore, O man, what thou art, and whereunto thou art called, even to be a mighty Prince amongst the creatures of God, and to bear rule in that province he hath assigned thee, to discern the motions of thine own heart, and to be lord over the suggestions of thine own natural spirit, not to listen to the counsels of the flesh, nor conspire with the serpent against thy Creator; but to keep thy heart free and faithful to thy God: so may'st thou with innocency and unblameableness see all the motions of life, and bear rule with God over the whole creation committed to thee. This shall be thy paradise and harmless sport on earth, till God shall transplant thee to a higher condition of life in heaven."

More was a sincere though tolerant member of the English Church, and always inculcated, both by precept and example, respect for and regular attendance at her ordinances and public rites. In the season of the Church's persecution after the civil war, More adhered firmly to her, and, as he himself expressed it, "by constantly denying 'the Covenant,' he exposed himself to the continual peril of being expelled from his Fellowship by the dominant Puritans." Such, however, was the general opinion of his blamelessness, his piety, and his benevolence, that he was suffered to remain unmolested. After the Restoration, great attempts were made to induce him to accept a bishopric. Two Irish and an English mitre were successively offered him, and declined. In the words of his friend and biographer Ward,—

"These things he refused not from any supercilious contempt, but from the pure love of contemplation and solitude, and because he thought that he could do the Church of God greater service, as also better enjoy his own proper happiness, in a private than in a public station, taking great satisfaction, the meanwhile, in the promotion of many pious and learned men to these places of trust and honour in the Church, (to whom he heartily congratulated such dignities,) and being exceeding sensible of the weight as well as the honour of them, and how necessary it was to have them filled with able and worthy persons."

His numerous theological and philosophical treatises appeared at various times between 1640 and 1687; in which last-mentioned year he closed a life of earnest study, of sincere piety, of unblemished purity, and of active and self-denying charity. (Life, by Ward.)