1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Reginald Heber

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 178-81.



We now turn to one who may more particularly be regarded in the light of a sacred poet, and whose life was a beautiful commentary on his writings. The career of Reginald Heber commenced considerably earlier than that of several others whose productions I have already alluded to. His poem entitled Palestine — an extraordinary effort for one so young, whether we regard its striking imagery, its high-toned sentiment, or its elegant versification — carried off an Oxford prize in 1802; and, fine as some of these prize poems have unquestionably been, more especially Porteous's Death, Glynn's Day of Judgment, Grant's Restoration of Learning, and Wrangham's Holy Land, still it is doubtful whether Heber has been equalled either by any preceding or succeeding competitor. It is admirably sustained throughout and indeed the passages relating to the building of the Temple, and to the scenes on Calvary, pass from the magnificent almost into the sublime. His second appearance, Europe, or Lines on the Present War, in 1809, although more vigorous and elaborate, wants the freshness and the salient points of his earlier one; and although not derogatory to, did not enhance his reputation. These, together with a fine fragment, The Passage of the Red Sea, some free translations from Pindar, and a few miscellaneous verses, were collected together in a volume, published in 1812.

While incumbent of Hodnet in Shropshire, Heber had an opportunity of affording the world an illustrious example of the highest intellectual culture, and the finest natural taste, being made perfectly compatible with the most faithful discharge of the humblest religious and moral duties — the instruction of the ignorant, the reproof of the erring, the visitation of the sick, and the consolation of the bereaved; and, in his leisure moments, he there also took delight ill pouring out his feelings in snatches of sacred verse. In after years, the associations connected with home-scenes gave these compositions somewhat of a greater value in his own eyes; and, when Bishop of Calcutta, he took a pleasure in revising and collecting them; but they were not presented to the public until after his premature and lamented death in 1826. These Hymns have been by far the most popular of his productions, and deservedly so for in purity and elevation of sentiment, in simple pathos, and in eloquent earnestness, it would he difficult to find anything superior to them in the range of sacred lyric poetry. They have the home-truth of Watts, but rank much higher, as literary compositions, than the Moral and Divine Songs of that great benefactor of youth and all the devotion of Wesley or Keble, without their languor and diffuse verbosity. Heber always writes like a Christian scholar, and never finds it necessary to lower his tone on account of his subjects. He is ever characterised by fine sensibilities; by pure natural taste, highly cultivated and by a deep sense of the majestic and beautiful. Probably, too, from being extensively acquainted with what had been achieved by the great preceding poets, both of ancient and modern times, he did not venture to think that he could now startle the world by bold attempts at originality; but what he did he determined to do well. Several copies of verses, which appeared posthumously in his Journals, have all the freshness of his earlier compositions, with increased freedom of expression — giving us reason to believe that even greater things might have been expected from him. As it is, the sweet music of his Thou art gone to the Grave, of his Lo! the Lilies of the Field, of his From Greenland's icy Mountains, and of his Brightest and best of the Sons of the Morning, will doubtless touch the hearts of many future generations, as it has done the present.

How calmly, sweetly solemn is the last-mentioned hymn!—

Brightest and best of the sons of the morning!
Dawn on our darkness, and lend us thine aid;
Star of the East the horizon adorning,
Guide where our infant Redeemer is laid!

Cold on his cradle the dew-drops are shining;
Low lies his head with the beasts of the stall;
Angels adore him in slumber reclining—
Maker and Monarch and Saviour of all!

Say, shall we yield him, in costly devotion,
Odours of Edom, and offerings divine?
Gems of the mountain, and pearls of the ocean?
Myrrh from the forest, or gold from the mine?

Vainly we offer each ample oblation—
Vainly with gifts would his favour secure;
Richer by far is the hearts adoration;
Dearer to God are the prayers of the poor.

Brightest and boat of the sons of the morning!
Dawn on oar darkness, and lend us thiao aid;
Star of the East the horizon adorning,
Lead where the infant Redeemer is laid!