JOHN HUGHES, an English poet, was son of a citizen of London, and born at Marlborough in Wiltshire July 29, 1677. He was educated at a dissenting academy, under the care of Mr. Thomas Rowe, where, at the same time, the afterwards celebrated Dr. Isaac Watts was a student, whose piety and friendship for Mr. Hughes induced him to regret that he employed any part of his talents in writing for the stage. Mr. Hughes had a weak or at least a delicate constitution, which perhaps restrained him from severer studies, and inclined him to pursue the softer arts of poetry, music, and drawing; in each of which he made considerable progress. His acquaintance with the Muses and the Graces did not render him averse to business; he had a place in the office of ordnance, and was secretary to several commissions under the great seal for purchasing lands, in order to the better securing of the royal docks and yards at Portsmouth, Chatham, and Harwich. He continued, however, to cultivate his taste for letters, and added to a competent knowledge of the ancient, an intimate acquaintance with the modern languages. The first testimony he gave the public of his poetic vein, was in a poem "on the peace of Ryswick," printed in 1697, and received with uncommon approbation. In 1699, "The Court of Neptune" was written by him on king William's return from Holland; and, the same year, a song on the duke of Gloucester's birth-day. In the year 1702, he published, on the death of king William, a Pindaric ode, entitled "Of the House of Nassau," which he dedicated to Charles duke of Somerset; and in 1703 his "Ode in Praise of Music" was performed with great applause at Stationers'-hall.
His numerous performances, for he had all along employed his leisure hours in translations and imitations from the ancients, had by this time introduced him, not only to the wits of the age, Addison, Congreve, Pope, Southerne, Rowe, and others, but also to some men of rank in the kingdom, and among these to the earl of Wharton, who offered to carry him over, and to provide for him, when appointed lord-lieutenant of Ireland; but, having other other views at home, he declined the offer. His views, however, were not very promising, until in 1717 the lord chancellor Cowper made him secretary to the commissions of the peace; in which he afterwards, by a particular request, desired his successor, lord Parker, to continue him. He had now affluence; but such is human life, that he had it when his declining health could neither allow him long possession nor full enjoyment. His last work was his tragedy, "The Siege of Damascus;" after which a Siege became a popular title. This play was long popular, and is still occasionally produced; but is not acted or printed according to the author's original draught, or his settled intention. He had made Phocyas apostatize from his religion; after which the abhorrence of Eudocia would have been reasonable, his misery would have been just, and the horrors of his repentance exemplary. The players, however, required that the guilt of Phocyas should terminate in desertion to the enemy; and Hughes, unwilling that his relations should lose the benefit of his work, complied with the alteration. He was now weak with a lingering consumption, and not able to attend the rehearsal; yet was so vigorous in his faculties, that only ten days before his death he wrote the dedication to his patron lord Cowper. On Feb. 17, 1720, the play was represented, and the author died. He lived to hear that it was well received; but paid no regard to the intelligence, being then wholly employed in the meditations of a departing Christian.
A few weeks before he died, he sent, as a testimony of gratitude, to his noble friend earl Cowper, his own picture drawn by sir Godfrey Kneller, which he had received as a present from that painter: upon which the earl wrote him the following letter. "24 January 1719-20. Sir, I thank you for the most acceptable present of your picture, and assure you, that none of this age can set an higher value on it than I do, and shall while I live; though I am sensible that posterity will outdo me in that particular."
A man of his amiable character was undoubtedly regretted; and Steele devoted an essay in the paper called "The Theatre," to the memory of his virtues. In 1735 his poems were collected and published in 2 vols. 12mo, tinder the following title: "Poems on several occasions, with some select Essays in prose." Hughes was also the author of other works in prose. "The Advices from Parnassus,'' and "The Political Touchstone of Boccalini,'' translated by several hands, and printed in folio, 1706, were revised, corrected, and had a preface prefixed to them, by him. He translated himself "Fontenelle's Dialogues of the Dead, and Discourse concerning the Ancients and Moderns; "the Abbe Vertot's History of the Revolutions in Portugal;" and "Letters of Abelard and Heloisa." He wrote the preface to the collection of the "History of England" by various hands, called "The Complete History of England," printed in 1706, in 3 vols. folio; in which he gives a clear, satisfactory, and impartial account of the historians there collected. Several papers in the "Tatlers," "Spectators," and " Guardians," were written by him. He is supposed to have written the whole, or at least a considerable part, of the "Lay Monastery," consisting of Essays, Discourses, &c. published singly under the title of the "Lay Monk," being the sequel of the "Spectators." The second edition of this was printed in 1714, 12mo. Lastly, he published, in 1715, an accurate edition of the works of Spenser, in 6 vols. 12mo; to which are prefixed the "Life of Spenser," "An Essay on Allegorical Poetry," "Remarks on the Fairy Queen, and other writings of Spenser," and a glossary, explaining old words; all by Mr. Hughes. This was a work for which he was well qualified, as a judge of the beauties of writing, but he wanted an antiquary's knowledge of the obsolete words. He did not much revive the curiosity of the public, for near thirty years elapsed before his edition was reprinted. The character of his genius is not unfairly given in the correspondence of Swift and Pope. "A month ago," says Swift, "was sent me over, by a friend of mine, the works of John Hughes, esq. They are in prose and verse. I never heard of the man in my life, yet I find your name as a subscriber. He is too grave a poet for me; and I think among the mediocrists, in prose as well as verse." To this Pope returns: "To answer your question as to Mr. Hughes; what he wanted in genius, he made up as an honest man; but he was of the class you think him."