1835 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Lewis Bagot

Robert Southey, in Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 7:293-97.



Giving his reasons to Mr. Unwin for the compliment which he had paid to this prelate in his Tirocinium, Cowper says, "he had been rudely and coarsely treated in the Monthly Review, on account of a sermon which appeared to me, when I read their extract from it, to deserve the highest commendation, as exhibiting explicit proof both of his good sense and his unfeigned piety."

The attack which provoked Cowper's indignation was made in an article upon the Discourses on the Prophecies concerning the first Establishment and subsequent History of Christianity, preached at Lincoln's Inn Chapel by Dr. Bagot, at that time dean of Christ Church. The following extracts from that article will justify Cowper's feelings upon the subject, and exemplify the spirit in which the Monthly Review was conducted for more than half a century.

"The design of the fifth discourse is to show, that the deliverance to be wrought by the Messiah was of a spiritual nature; a deliverance from the power and consequences of sin and wickedness. And here the preacher, like a true and faithful son of the church, is a warm advocate for the doctrine of atonement, by a vicarious punishment; but he only repeats what has been often said; and what good purpose can be answered by such repetition we cannot conceive. Such doctrines appear to us to have no foundation in Scripture, and to be utterly repugnant to the principles of common sense. But we must not treat them with too much severity out of tenderness to our grandmothers, as the good old ladies may possibly derive great consolation from them. Perhaps, too, the doctor himself was influenced by some such pious motives; if so, his piety will, no doubt, be properly rewarded.

"The doctor tells us, that our established church maintains, in its creeds and articles, those very doctrines which have been held forth by the mouth of the prophets since the world began, as the essential doctrines of that faith by which all men should be saved. We should be cautious, he says, of admitting any alterations in an establishment which has for ages secured the TRUTH to us, amidst the repeated and violent attacks of enemies of different complexions and different denominations. He further observes, that we have of late been loudly called upon; that the principles of the Reformation are pleaded in behalf of farther changes; and that the moderation of some among us would lead them to attempt to silence clamour, by making concessions in points of indifference. But it should be remembered, we are told, that points actually indifferent are never the objects of clamour; whatever its pretensions may be, it always really means something more. Indeed it hath now spoken out, the doctor says; and it is become evident, that the principles on which the Reformation formerly proceeded, plead now with equal force against the alterations contended for. The great truths of the Gospel were the objects then, and are so now. Moderation, pretended with respect to these, should be called by another name.

"Such is the spirit that breathes through this performance. We have heard of clergymen who were fierce for moderation; but Dr. Bagot is fierce, very fierce indeed against it. It may be proper, however, to acquaint him, that some of the brightest ornaments of the church, in the highest stations too, for whose learning, abilities, and virtues, our author professes the greatest regard, make no scruple of declaring that both our articles and liturgy stand much in need of reformation. Dr. Bagot may call the moderation of such persons by whatever name he pleases; in our opinion it does them great honour. We have an extensive acquaintance among the clergy, and have the satisfaction to know that almost all of them, how much soever they may differ in other matters, agree in this, — that a reformation is earnestly to be wished for. There are no doubt several reasons which may be assigned for that indifference to religion, so visible to every eye, and for the wide spread of infidelity; but he must be little acquainted with the spirit of the present times who does not see that both the one and the other are, in some considerable degree, owing to the gross absurdity and unintelligible jargon of some of those articles of our church, to which an unfeigned assent is required by all those who minister in it. As men generally take their notions of Christianity, not from the scriptures, but from creeds, formularies, and confessions of faith, if the doctrines contained in our articles, taken in their plain and obvious sense, are the genuine doctrines of Christianity, is it to be wondered at that the number of unbelievers is so great?" — Vol. lxiv. pp. 414-416.

"The brothers," says Cowper of the Bagots, "were all five my schoolfellows, and very amiable and valuable boys they were." Lewis Bagot was elected from Westminster to Christ Church in 1764; was made canon of Christ Church in the room of Dr. Moore, archbishop of Canterbury, and dean on the installation of Dr. Markham to the see of York. In 1782 he became bishop of Bristol, was translated to Norwich the year following, and to St. Asaph in 1790. There he rebuilt the palace, on a plan suited to the situation, 'where among the mountains, and in the vicinity of the sea, storms are often violent.' It is a low building on the slope of a hill; the vestibule, dining-room, and drawing room, which occupy the whole front, are on a level with the first floor into other apartments." He died in 1802.

A correspondent of Mr. Nichols says, in an account of this excellent prelate, "Similitude of character is sometimes the result of original impressions, and sometimes the effect of studious imitation. It was perhaps owing to both these causes that Bishop Bagot, in the mildness of his manners and placid benevolence, was reckoned strongly to resemble his most esteemed friend the late Dr. Townson, rector of Malpas and archdeacon of Richmond. When the latter was rector of Blithfield, the other, then a mere boy, would often steal down to the parsonage, and read there with his friend for hours together, with avidity and attention worthy of riper years. The friendship between them, which commenced thus early, terminated only in the grave. The deceased prelate wrote a most beautiful hand, which seems to be a family excellence; as the late Lord Bagot wrote a very fair hand, like the bishop's, and like his brother's, the present rector of Blithfield, and all of them reminded one of the strokes of his hand, now motionless in death, who was once their venerable pastor, and always their intimate and dear friend.

"As a patron, the late Bishop of St. Asaph is commended for bestowing the ample patronage of his see with great disinterestedness and impartiality, not upon aliens, whether relatives or others, but among the learned and meritorious clergy of the diocese, acquainted with the language and manners of the district." — Nichols's Literary Anecdotes, vol. v. pp. 630-1.

"My father," says Miss Seward, "used to say (of Lord Bagot) he was the most classically learned nobleman he knew; and he has much engaging benevolence in his countenance and manners; but exteriorly more broken and infirm than belongs to his time of life, — to autumnal years, on the verge of winter. The sobriety of his youth gave him a prospect of age that should prove like a lusty winter, 'frosty, but kindly.' I fear it may not be. Many and severe have been his filial losses, and grief rivals the debilitating pleasures in its power of antedating decline." — Letters, vol. iv. p. 384 (1797).