AARON HILL, an English poet and dramatic writer of some celebrity in his day, was born in Beaufort-buildings in the Strand, February 10, 1685. He was the eldest son of George Hill, esq. of Malmsbury-abbey in Wiltshire; and, in consequence of this descent, the legal heir to an entailed estate of about £2000 per annum; but the misconduct of his father having, by a sale of the property, which he had no right to execute, rendered it of no advantage to the family, our author was left, together with Mr. Hill's other children, to the care of, and a dependence on, his mother and grandmother; the latter of whom (Mrs. Anne Gregory) was more particularly anxious for his education and improvement. The first rudiments of learning he received from Mr. Reyner, of Barnstaple in Devonshire, to whom he was sent at nine years old, and, on his removal from thence, was placed at Westminster-school, under the care of the celebrated Dr. Knipe. After remaining here until he was fourteen years of age, he formed a resolution singular enough in one so young, of paying a visit to his relation lord Paget, then ambassador at Constantinople; and accordingly embarked for that place, March 2, 1700. When he arrived, lord Paget received him with much surprise, as well as pleasure; wondering, that a person so young should run the hazard of such a voyage, to visit a relation whom he only knew by character. The ambassador immediately provided for him a very learned ecclesiastic in his own house; and, under his tuition, sent him to travel, so that he had an opportunity of seeing Egypt, Palestine, and a great part of the East. With lord Paget he returned home about 1703, and in his journey saw most of the courts in Europe, and it is probable that his lordship might have provided genteelly for him at his death, had he not been dissuaded by the misrepresentations of a female about him, which in a great measure prevented his good intentions. The young man's well known merit, however, soon recommended him to sir William Wentworth, a Yorkshire baronet, who being inclined to make the tour of Europe, his relations engaged Mr. Hill to accompany him as a travelling tutor, which office he per formed, for two or three years, to their entire satisfaction.
In 1709, he commenced author, by the publication of an "History of the Ottoman Empire," compiled from the materials which he had collected in the course of his different travels, and during his residence at the Turkish court. This work, though it met with success, Mr. Hill frequently afterwards repented the having printed, and would himself, at times very severely criticize it; and indeed, to say the truth, there are in it a great number of puerilities, which render it far inferior to the merit of his subsequent writings; in which correctness has ever been so strong a characteristic, that his critics have even attributed it to him as a fault; whereas, in this work, there at best appears the labour of a juvenile genius, rather choosing to give the full reign to fancy, and indulge the imagination of the poet, than to aim at the plainness and perspicuity of the historian. About the same year he published his first poetical piece, entitled "Camillus," in vindication and honour of the earl of Peterborough, who had been general in Spain. This poem was printed without any author's name; but lord Peterborough, having made it his business to find out to whom he was indebted, appointed Mr. Hill his secretary; which post, however, he quitted the year following, on occasion of his marriage.
In 1709, he, at the desire of Mr. Booth, wrote his first tragedy of "Elfrid; or, The Fair Inconstant." This play was composed in little more than a week, on which account it is no wonder that it should be, as he himself has described it, "an unpruned wilderness of fancy, with here and there a flower among the leaves; but without any fruit of judgment." This, however, he altered, and brought on the stage again about twenty years afterwards, under the title of "Athelwold." Yet, even in its first form, it met with sufficient encouragement to induce him to a second attempt in the dramatic way, though of another kind, viz. the opera of "Rinaldo," the music of which was the first piece of composition of that admirable master Mr. Handel, after his arrival in England. This piece, in 1710, Mr. Hill brought on the stage at the king's theatre in the Haymarket, of which he was at that time director, and where it met with very great and deserved success.
It appears, from the above account, that Mr. Hill was, at this period, manager of the theatre, which he conducted entirely to the satisfaction of the public; and, indeed, no man seemed better qualified for such a station, if we may be allowed to form our opinion from the judgment he displays on the subject, not only in a poem, entitled "The Art of Acting," and in the course of his periodical essays entitled the Prompter, which appeared in his life-time, but also in many parts of an epistolary correspondence which he maintained with various persons of taste and genius, and which have since been published among his posthumous works, in four volumes in 8vo. This post, however, he relinquished in a few months, from some misunderstanding; and though he was not long after very earnestly solicited to take the charge on him again, yet he could not be prevailed on, by any means, to re-accept it.
It is probable, however, that neither pride, nor any harboured resentment, were the motives of this refusal, but that spirit of projecting new schemes which seems to have more or less animated him throughout life, however unfortunate he might be in indulging it. Among the Harleian MSS. 7524, is a letter from him to the lord-treasurer, dated April 12, 1714, on a subject by which "the nation might gain a million annually." In 1715, he undertook to make an oil, as sweet as that from olives, of the beech -nuts, and obtained a patent for the purpose: but, after having formed a joint-stock company to be called the "Beech Oil Company," who were to act in concert with the patentee, disputes arose among them, and the whole design was overthrown, without any benefit having accrued either to the patentee, or the sharers. He was next concerned with sir Robert Montgomery in a design for establishing a plantation of a vast tract of land in the south of Carolina, for which purpose a grant had been purchased from the lords proprietors of that province; but here again the want of a larger fortune than he was master of, stood as a bar in his way; for, though it has many years since been extensively cultivated under the name of Georgia, yet it never proved of any advantage to him.
Another project he set on foot about 1727, was the turning to a great account many woods of very large extent in the north of Scotland, by applying the timber, produced by them, to the uses of the navy, for which it had been long erroneously imagined they were totally unfit. The falsity of this supposition, however, he clearly evinced; for one entire vessel was built of it, and, on trial, was found to be of as good timber as that brought from any part of the world; and although, indeed, there were not many trees in these woods large enough for masts to ships of the largest burthen, yet there were millions fit for those of all smaller vessels, and for every other branch of ship-building. In this undertaking, however, he met with various obstacles, not only from the ignorance of the natives of that country, but even from Nature herself; yet Mr. Hill's assiduity and perseverance surmounted them all. For when the trees were by his order chained together into floats, the unexperienced Highlanders refused to venture themselves on them down the river Spey; nor would have been prevailed on, had not he first gone himself to convince them that there was no danger. And now the great number of rocks, which choaked up different parts of this river, and seemed to render it impassable, were another impediment to his expedition. But, by ordering great fires to be made upon them at the time of low tide, when they were most exposed, and throwing quantities of water upon them, they were, by the help of proper tools, broken to pieces and thrown down, and a free passage opened for the floats.
This design was, for some time, carried on with great vigour and advantage, till some of the persons concerned in it thought proper to call off the men and horses from the woods of Abernethy, in order to employ them in their lead mines in the same country, from whence they promised themselves to reap a still more considerable profit. What private emolument Mr. Hill received from this affair, or whether any, at all, seems unknown. However, the magistrates of Inverness, Aberdeen, &c. paid him the compliment of the freedom of their towns, and entertained him with much respect. Yet, notwithstanding these honours, which were publicly paid to our author, and the distinguished civilities which he met with from the duke and duchess of Gordon, and other persons of rank to whom he became known during his residence in the Highlands, this Northern expedition was near proving of very unhappy consequences to his fortune; for, in his return, his lady being at that time in Yorkshire for the recovery of her health, he made so long a continuance with her in that county, as afforded an opportunity to some persons into whose hands he had confided the management of some important affairs, to be guilty of a breach of trust, that aimed at the destruction of the greatest part of what he was worth. He happily, however, returned in time to frustrate their intentions.
In 1731, he met with a very great shock in the loss of a wife, to whom he had been married twenty years. She was the only daughter of Edmund Morris, esq. of Stratford in Essex, by whom he had nine children, and also a handsome fortune. After this he appears to have continued in London until 1738, when he retired to Plaistow in Essex, and devoted himself to study, and to the concerns of his family. One more project he attempted here, and with some success, although not to himself; viz. the art of making pot-ash equal to that brought from Russia. Here also he wrote several poetical pieces, particularly an heroic poem, entitled "The Fanciad," another of the same kind, "The Impartial," a "Poem upon Faith," and three books of an epic poem on the story of Gideon. He also adapted to the English stage, Voltaire's tragedy of "Merope," which was the last work he lived to complete. This he just lived to see introduced to the public; but the day before it was, by command of Frederic prince of Wales, to have been represented for his benefit, he died, in the very minute of the memorable earthquake, Feb. 8, 1750, of the shock of which, it is said, he appeared sensible. He was interred near lord Godolphin's monument, in the great cloister of Westminster-abbey, in the same grave with his wife.
With regard to Mr. Hill's private character, all who have written of him say he was in every respect perfectly amiable. His person was, in his youth, extremely fair and handsome. He was tall, not too thin, yet genteelly made. His eyes were a dark blue, bright and penetrating; his hair brown, and his face oval. His countenance was most generally animated by a smile, which was more particularly distinguishable whenever he entered into conversation; in the doing which his address was most engagingly affable, yet mingled with a native unassumed dignity, which rendered him equally the object of admiration and respect with those who had the pleasure of his acquaintance. His voice was sweet, and his conversation elegant; and so extensive was his knowledge in all subjects, that scarcely any could occur on which he did not acquit himself in a most masterly and entertaining manner. His temper, though naturally warm when roused by injuries, was equally noble in a readiness to forgive them; and so much inclinable was he to repay evil with good, that he frequently exercised that Christian lesson, even to the prejudice of his own circumstances. He was a generous master, a sincere friend, an affectionate husband, and an indulgent and tender parent; and indeed so benevolent was his disposition in general, even beyond the power of the fortune he was blessed with, that the calamities of those he knew, and valued as deserving, affected him more deeply than his own. In consequence of this we find him bestowing the profits of many of his works for the relief of his friends, and particularly his dramatic ones, none of which he could ever be prevailed on to accept of a benefit for, till to the very close of his life, when his narrow circumstances compelled him to solicit the acting of his "Merope," for the relief of its author from those difficulties out of which he had frequently been the generous instrument of extricating others. His manner of living was temperate to the greatest degree in every respect but that of late hours, which, as the night is less liable to interruptions than the day, his indefatigable love of study frequently drew him into. No labour deterred him from the prosecution of any design which appeared to him to be praise-worthy and feasible; nor was it in the power of the greatest misfortunes to overcome, or even shake, his fortitude of mind.
As a writer, we cannot follow his panegyrists so far, as to allow him to stand in a very exalted rank of merit. The rigid correctness with which he constantly re-perused his works for alteration, the frequent use of compound epithets, and an ordo verborum in great measure peculiar to himself; have justly laid him open to the charge of being very generally turgid and obscure; yet he is not in some parts without a portion of nervous power, and of intrinsic sterling sense. The aera of his fame, however, is gone by, and although four volumes of his works, in 8vo, have been published since his death, they have never been in much favour with the public. His quarrel with Pope would have scarcely been worth reviving in this place, if a recent publication had not thrown new light on Hill's conduct. He seems to have lived in perfect harmony with all the writers of his time excepting Pope, with whom he had a short paper war, occasioned by that gentleman's introducing him in the "Dunciad," as one of the competitors for the prize offered by the goddess of Dulness, in the following lines:
Then Hill essay'd; scarce vanish'd out of sight,
He buoys up instant, and returns to light;
He bears no token of the sabler streams,
And mounts, far off, among the swans of Thames.
This, though far the gentlest piece of satire in the whole poem, and conveying at the same time a very elegant compliment, roused Hill to the taking some notice of it, which he did by a poem, written during his peregrination in the North, entitled "The Progress of Wit, a Caveat for the use of an eminent writer," which he begins with the following eight lines, in which Pope's too well-known disposition is elegantly, yet very severely characterized:
Tuneful Alex, on the Thames' fair side,
The ladies' play-thing, and the Muse's pride;
With merit popular, with wit polite,
Easy, tho' vain, and elegant, tho' light;
Desiring, and deserving others' praise,
Poorly accepts a fame he ne'er repays:
Unborn to cherish, sneakingly approves,
And wants the soul to spread the worth he loves.
The "sneakingly approves," in the last couplet, Pope was much affected by; and, indeed, through their whole controversy afterwards, in which it was generally thought Hill had considerably the advantage, Pope seems rather to express his repentance by denying the offence, than to vindicate himself, supposing it to have been given.
All this, however, might have passed among two of the "genus irritabile" without creating perpetual animosity, and indeed we have been told that the parties were afterwards reconciled; but from Hill's letters, published in "The Correspondence of Samuel Richardson," we find him expressing sentiments of Pope, which not only detract from his memory as a man of taste, but even lessen much of that respect which the character his friends gave him has a tendency to created. In these letters he gravely tells Richardson that Pope's "popularity arose from meditated little personal assiduities, and a certain bladdery swell of management;" and again exclaims, "But rest his memory in peace! It will very rarely be disturbed by that time he himself is in ashes."