1860 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Henry More

George Gilfillan, in Specimens with Memoirs of the less-known British Poets (1860) 2:219-22.



This eminent man was the son of a gentleman of good family and estate in Grantham, Lincolnshire. He was born in 1614. His father sent him to study at Eton, and thence, in 1631, he repaired to Cambridge, where he was destined to spend the most of his life. Philosophy attracted him early, in preference to science or literature, and he became a follower of Plato, so decided and enthusiastic as to gain for himself the title of "The Platonist" par excellence. In 1639, he graduated M.A.; and the next year, he published the first part of Psychozoia; or, The Song of the Soul, containing a Christiano-Platonical account of Man and Life. In preparing the materials of this poem, he had studied all the principal Platonists and mystical writers, and is said to have read himself almost to a shadow. And not only was his body emaciated, but his mind was so overstrung, that he imagined himself to see spiritual beings, to hear supernatural voices, and to converse, like Socrates, with a particular genius. He thought, too, that his body "exhaled the perfume of violets!" Notwithstanding these little peculiarities, his genius and his learning, the simplicity of his character, and the innocence of his life, rendered him a general favourite; he was made a fellow of his college, and became a tutor to various persons of distinguished rank. One of these was Sir John Finch, whose sister, Lady Conway, an enthusiast herself; brought More acquainted with the famous John Baptist Van Helment, a man after whom, in the beginning of the seventeenth century, the whole of Europe wondered. He was a follower and imitator of Paracelsus, like him affected universal knowledge, aspired to revolutionise the science of medicine, and died with the reputation of one who, with great powers and acquirements, instead of becoming a great man, ended as a brilliant pretender, and was rather an 'architect of ruin' to the systems of others, than the: founder of a solid fabric of his own. More admired, of course, not the quackery, but the adventurous boldness of Helment's genius, and his devotion to chemistry; which is certainly the most spiritual of all the sciences, and must, especially in its transcendental forms, have had a great charm for a Platonic thinker. Our author was entirely devoted to study, and resisted every inducement to leave what he called his "Paradise" at Cambridge. His friends once tried to decoy him into a bishopric, and got him the length of Whitehall to kiss the king's hand on the occasion; but when he understood their purpose, he refused to go a single step further. His life was a long, learned, happy, and holy dream. He was of the most benevolent disposition; and once observed to a friend, "that he was thought by some to have a soft head, but he thanked God he had a soft heart." In the heat of the Rebellion, the Republicans spared More, although he had refused to take the Covenant. Campbell says of him, "He corresponded with Descartes, was the friend of Cudworth, and, as a divine and a moralist, was not only popular in his own time, but has been mentioned with admiration both by Addison and Blair." One is rather amused at the latter clause. That a man of More's massive learning, noble eloquence, and divine genius should need the testimony of a mere elegant wordmonger like Blair, seems ludicrous enough; and Addison himself, except in wit and humour, was not worthy to have untied the shoe-latchets of the old Platonist. We were first introduced to this writer by good Dr. John Brown, late of Broughton Place, Edinburgh, and shall never forget hearing him, in his library, read some splendid passages from More's work, in those deep, mellow, antique tones which flavoured whatever he read, like the crust on old wine. His chief works are, A Discourse on the immortality of the Soul, The Mystery of Godliness, The Mystery of Iniquity, Divine Dialogues, An Antidote against Atheism, Ethical and Metaphysical Manuals, &c. In writing such books, and pursuing the recondite studies of which they were the fruit, More spent his life happily. In 1661, he became a Fellow of the Royal Society. For twenty years after the Restoration, his works are said to have sold better than any of their day — a curious and unaccountable fact, considering the levity and licentiousness of the period. In September 1687, the fine old spiritualist, aged seventy-three, went away to that land of "ideas" to which his heart had been translated long before.

More's prose writings give us, on the whole, a higher idea of his powers than his poem. This is not exactly, as a recent critic calls it "dull and tedious," but it is in some parts prosaic, and in others obscure. The gleams of fancy in it are genuine, but few and far between. But his prose works constitute, like those of Cudworth, Charnock, Jeremy Taylor, and John Scott, a vast old quarry, abounding both in blocks and in gems — blocks of granite solidity, and gems of starry lustre. The peculiarity of More is in that poetico-philosophic mist which, like the autumnal gossamer, hangs in light and beautiful festoons over his thoughts, and which suggests pleasing memories of Plato and the Alexandrian school. Like all the followers of the Grecian sage, he dwells in a region of ideas, which are to him the only realities, and are not cold, but warm; he sees all things in Divine solution; the visible is lost in the invisible, and nature retires before her God. Surely they are splendid reveries those of the Platonic school; but it is sad to reflect that they have not cast the slightest gleam of light on the dark, frightful, faith-shattering mysteries which perplex all inquirers. The old shadows of sin, death, damnation, evil, and hell, are found to darken the "ideas" of Plato's world quite as deeply as they do the actualities of this weary, work-day earth, into which men have, for some inscrutable purpose, been sent to be, on the whole, miserable, — so often to toil without compensation, to suffer without benefit, and to hope without fulfilment.