1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Reginald Heber

Margaret Oliphant, in The Literary History of England (1882) 2:382-83.



If we were to say that Bishop Heber was a sort of male twin to Mrs. Hemans, we fear that the comparison would be received with little favour by many readers. So few of the poets of the time accomplished all the rites of education, and trained themselves, as ancient tradition bade, on the classic models, that it is disappointing to find, in the rare instance of a fully-qualified academical poet, an example so little remarkable as this excellent and blameless soul. In the dearth of writers properly marked with the sign-manual of the Universities, it ought to be noted that Heber gained the prize of poetry at Oxford, fulfilled all his studies there with distinction, and became a Fellow of All-Souls. So much for so little! But it has never ceased to be true that poets must be born and cannot be made. He was the son of a clerical race: of a nature born to goodness and every excellence, with nothing wayward in him or irregular. His poems are the utterance of the most spotless of well-regulated minds and devout spirits. It is doubtful whether the best of poets ever produced anything more widely known and popular than the Missionary Hymn about "Greenland's icy mountains," or that which celebrates the Star in the East of the Epiphany. So that this mild singer had his reward of the most liberal kind in the affectionate enthusiasm with which the simple-hearted religious crowd regards the writers of its sacred songs. The kind of tranquil life he led, and the boundless correspondence which proceeded from his rectory, have been put before the world on various occasions. His letters were voluminous and fluent, and always, it need hardly be said, perfect in sentiment: but they have few literary attractions. He became Bishop of Calcutta in 1823, and addressed himself to his work there with great courage and faithfulness, dying of it in a very few years — an end which has given him, to many, something of the sanctity of a martyr.