1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. James Hurdis

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 18:347-49.



JAMES HURDIS, an ingenious poet, and very amiable man, the son of James Hurdis, gent. was born at Bishopstone in Sussex in 1763. His father dying, and leaving his mother in no affluent circumstances, with seven children, seems to have laid the foundation of that extreme tenderness and liberality of brotherly affection which formed the most striking feature in the character of Mr. Hurdis. He was educated at Chichester school, where being of a delicate constitution, he seldom partook in the juvenile sports of his school companions, but generally employed his hours of leisure in reading. His inclination to poetry soon appeared in various juvenile compositions, and he contracted at the same time a fondness for the sister art, music, which ended in his being a very considerable performer on several instruments. Before he left school, he nearly completed the building of an organ, an instrument he preferred to all others.

In 1780 he was entered a commoner of St. Mary-hall, Oxford; and at the election in 1782, was chosen a demy of St. Mary Magdalen college. Here his studies, which were close and uninterrupted, were encouraged, and amiable character highly respected, by Dr. Horne, president of Magdalen, and his successor Dr. Routh, by Dr. Sheppard, Dr. Rathbone, and others. About 1784 he went to Stanmer in Sussex, where he resided for some consider able time as tutor to the late earl of Chichester's youngest son, the hon. George Pelham, now bishop of Exeter. In May 1785, having taken his bachelor's degree, he retired to the curacy of Burwash in Sussex, which he held for six years, but in the interim, in 1786, was elected probationer fellow of Magdalen, and the following year took his master's degree. Finding himself now sufficiently enabled to assist his mother in the support of her family, he hired a small house, and took three of his sisters to reside with him. In 1788, he first appeared before the public as a poet, in "The Village Curate," the reception of which far exceeded his expectations, a second edition being called for the following year. This poem, although perhaps not highly finished, contained so many passages of genuine poetry, and evinced so much elegance, taste, and sense, as to pass through the ordeal of criticism with great applause, and to be considered as the earliest of future and superior excellence. Such encouragement induced the author to publish in 1790, his "Adriano, or the first of June," which was followed in a short time by his "Panthea," "Elmer and Ophelia," and the "Orphan Twins," all which were allowed to confirm the expectations of the public, and place the author in an enviable rank among living poets. These were followed by two publications, connected with his profession; ''A short critical Disquisition on the true Meaning of the word [Hebrew characters] found in Gen. i. 21, 1790," and "Select critical Remarks upon the English version of the first ten chapters of Genesis." In 1791, through the interest of the earl of Chichester, he was appointed to the living of Bishopstone; and about the same time wrote his tragedy of "Sir Thomas More," a poem of considerable merit, but not intended for the stage. In 1792, he was deprived by death of his favourite sister Catherine, whose elegant mind he frequently pourtrayed in his works, under the different appellations of Margaret and Isabel. On this affliction he quitted his curacy, and returned with his two sisters to Bishopstone. Here the trouble of his mind was considerably alleviated by an affectionate invitation from his much-esteemed friend Mr. Hayley to visit Eartham, where he had the pleasing satisfaction of becoming personally known to Cowper, the celebrated poet, with whom he had maintained a confidential correspondence for some years.

In 1792, he published his "Cursory Remarks upon the arrangement of the plays of Shakspeare, occasioned by reading Mr. Malone's Essay on the chronological order of those celebrated pieces;" which showed that he had bestowed much attention on this curious subject. In April 1793, he went to Oxford, and with two of his sisters, resided in a small house at Temple Cowley. In November of the same year, he was elected professor of poetry in that university, and in the year following took the degree of B.D. On being elected professor, he published a specimen of some intended lectures on English poetry, and meant to have published the lectures themselves, a few of which he printed at a private press, but the scheme was dropped for want of encouragement. In 1797 he took his degree of D.D. and in 1799, married Harriet, daughter of Hughes Millet, esq. of Fulham, Middlesex. In 1800 he published his "Favourite Village," and the same year his "Twelve Dissertations on the Nature and Occasion of Psalm and Prophecy," 8vo, in which he displays much ingenuity and acumen, as in all his publications, but has in some instances yielded too much to the hypotheses which arise from a fertile imagination, and are repugnant to the genius of the Hebrew criticism, and the rules of Hebrew grammar. Dr. Hurdis's fame seems indeed more solidly established on his poetical than his critical works.

Dr. Hurdis died Dec. 23, 1801, after a very short illness, in his thirty-eighth year, leaving a widow and two sons, and a posthumous daughter. He was buried, by his own desire, at Bishopstone. As few men bore so excellent a character in every station and duty life, few have been more generally lamented. In 1808, a correct and elegant edition of his "Poems," in 3 vols. was printed at the university-press, Oxford, encouraged by a very large list of Subscribers. They have since been partly reprinted, and are likely to retain their popularity.