1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Bp. Reginald Heber

John Wilson, in "Heber's Hymns" Blackwood's Magazine 22 (November 1827) 617-22.



The name of Reginald Heber carries with it a sound very delightful to an English ear, and the character of the man will for ever be regarded in England with affectionate admiration. The fame of a divine must always be highest among the people of his own church. This is the case even with the great old English divines, such as Taylor and Barrow, whose works, although famous over all Christendom, are held in highest, proudest, and fondest esteem by those Englishmen who may attend the services and ministration of religion in Minsters and Cathedrals. If such be the truth respecting the reputation of theologians whose works stand in the first order of the great productions of human genius, the same remark must be still more applicable to that of those who have not been gifted by nature with such commanding intellects, or splendid imaginations, but who were still eminent in their day for a beautiful combination of qualities essential to the characters of the ministers of Christianity, and who, with more than common eloquence, simple, or fervent, or sublime, preached its doctrines home to the feelings and understandings of multitudes of men. For here, the power of their piety depends much on the benign and grateful feeling with which they are personally regarded — a feeling which can avail them only where they are personally known; and thus that feeling can only be in its full force among their own parishioners who hear them every Sabbath; and in less or more, but still a high degree, among all the members of that church, of whom they are the ornament and the pride. It must be fainter far, among persons placed without these precincts; and their reputation, instead of being above the level of their talents and attainments, is generally there very much below it, and often utterly faint and obscure. Thus, in Scotland, we shall not say that the name of Reginald Heber is nearly unknown, for that would be to charge our country with a dishonouring ignorance; but certainly its power is neither general nor great over the public mind, nor perhaps ever likely to become so. That he was an amiable, an enlightened, and pious person, with fine scholar-like accomplishments, many know — more believe it without knowing it — and more still are merely aware that he was a Bishop in India. Although this comparative coldness of attention to his genius and his character, is not only to be partly accounted for, but even justified, by what we have said above, yet we confess, that for our own sakes, we wish it were otherwise, — and that we Scottish people, who not only get ample credit from others for being discerning judges of intellectual merit, and enthusiastic admirers of it also, but who pride ourselves — and are not sparing of expressing our pride — on that discernment and enthusiasm — had in this case shown ourselves more worthy of the praises of others, as well as of our own self-applause. There is something more than suspicious in the boastful expression of the love and admiration of genius in the abstract, when we are so slow of bestowing them on individuals to whom they are due; and yet we know some of our country's critics, who, if you permitted them, would philosophize on poetry by the hour, who have never so much as heard of Heber's "Palestine." Yet Reginald Heber was assuredly a poet — a poet of the finest, if not very impassioned sensibilities — of imagination, if not absolutely sublime, so high, that it often soared to the very verge of sublimity — his taste was pure — his judgment strong — and none but a mind of the conformation of genius could have had such a vivid perception, such a delicate and deep sense of the Beautiful.

The name of Reginald Heber gathered its first, and perhaps almost its brightest splendour at the University of Oxford. In England, a man's college-reputation, if he has been preeminent in literature or science, accompanies him into the world; and if he does not afterwards fall back in life, its lustre is not obscured but brightened by his success in any one of the learned professions. That he was senior wrangler at Cambridge, is still held honourable to Copley, now that he is Lord Chancellor of England; that he was a first-class man in literature and science, is still remembered to the glory of Peel, after he has shown himself to the world, one of her consummate statesmen. We have no idea of this in Scotland. In our universities, a student has in general finished even his philosophical education, and if he chooses takes his master's degree, at an age when he would have been only leaving school in England, or at Christ Church or Trinity, impatient of the name of "Freshman:" The competitions of boys, however full of promise in their successful issue, can hardly be held decisive of the mental superiority of those who excel. Their characters may be undergoing those critical changes which in another year shall show the formerly slow and sluggish mind quicker and more active far, than that which had been distinguished for alertness and vivacity, but is now falling away unaccountably into obtuseness or indolence. Bright parts are always hopeful — but hopes are often fallacious, and sometimes we have cause to be glad, and sometimes to grieve, that "the boy is not father of the man." But in our English universities, men contend with men — and as distinction is difficult, so is ambition high, and success glorious, in the rivalries of the flower of the English youth. That great acquirements must be theirs who stand pre-eminent in scholarship or science, at Oxford or Cambridge, is certain; for, were it not so, the same men, afterwards engaged in vital struggles for fame and fortune, on the great theatre of the world, would look back with contempt or shame on their earlier triumphs.

Reginald Heber did not bring, so far as we have ever heard, any very high character for scholarship with him to the University. He had not been at any one of the great public schools, and his abilities therefore could have been known but to a few companions. His University Latin prize poem, "Carmen Seculare," soon established his claims to elegant scholarship, and inspired him with hopes of still greater academical distinction. It is a very animated and poetical composition; but its Latinity is certainly not so pure, nor its versification so Virgilian, as some of the Latin prize poems of scholars from Winchester and Eton. That he could beat all the best men of his year, at their own weapon, was, however, a proof of his boldness and his ingenuity — nor, we believe, did he himself ever set upon his "copy" any higher value.

But it was not till the summer of 1803 that his most beautiful genius broke forth in all its lustre. "In his childhood," says an admirable writer in the Quarterly Review, "Reginald Heber was remarkable for the eagerness with which he read the Bible, and the accuracy with which he remembered it; a taste and talent which subsequent acquirements and maturer years only served to strengthen, so that a great portion of his reading was intended, or at least was employed, to illustrate the scripture; and perhaps few men of his day had attained to so masterly a knowledge of the historical parts of the Bible, as well as the doctrinal, or could have thrown happier light upon its Oriental customs, its difficult geography, or the civil, political, and moral condition of the people to whom it was addressed." It may well be supposed with what delighted enthusiasm a youthful mind, so gifted and instructed, would seize upon such a subject as "Palestine" for the first poem to which he brought his fine powers, inspired, it may be said, by piety, and stimulated by an honourable ambition. It seemed a subject selected for the very man, — nor is it too much to say, that not another youth in England could have produced such a poem. The music of the heroic measure, in most hands so monotonous, rolls along in his with a varied majesty, reminding one of the finest parts of the English Polio — "Ye nymphs of Solyma, begin the song." His subject is arranged, and all its parts proportioned, with a judgment so exquisite, that we ought rather to call it genius. The transitions, though often rapid, sudden, and startling, are all natural to an imagination kindled as his was by "the visions of glory that spared not his aching sight." Of Old Palestine, ever holy, yet not that holy Land it was afterwards to be, his muse that

Her eyes had closed to listen to the strain,
That Hebrew bards did consecrate of old,
And fix'd her Pindus upon Lebanon,

sung in strains of which every line teemed with scriptural imagery, and with a true Hebrew soul, inspired by the Bible. But not till the pure and pious youthful bard comes to the foot of Mount Calvary, and beholds the rueful uplifting of the cross, do we know and feel how genius may be sublimed by religion. And when from that sad stance "The unborn ages crowd upon his soul," his descriptions of the elevation of the human spirit all over the face of the earth, and its final apotheosis, are gloriously coloured by the language of the Prophets, and seem, indeed, prompted by the spirit he had invoked, "That touch'd Isaiah's hallow'd lips with fire."

None who heard Reginald Heber recite his "Palestine," in that magnificent theatre, will ever forget his appearance — so interesting and impressive. It was known that his old father was somewhere sitting among the crowded audience, when his universally admired son ascended the rostrum; and we have heard that the sudden thunder of applause that then arose so shook his frame, weak and wasted by long illness, that he never recovered it, and may be said to have died of the joy dearest to a parent's heart. Reginald Heber's recitation, like that of all poets whom we have heard recite, was altogether untrammelled by the critical laws of elocution, which were not set at defiance, but either by the poet unknown or forgotten; and there was a charm in his somewhat melancholy voice, that occasionally faltered, less from a feeling of the solemnity, and even grandeur of the scene of which he was himself the conspicuous object — though that feeling did suffuse his pale, ingenuous, and animated countenance — than from the deeply-felt sanctity of his subject, comprehending the most awful mysteries of God's revelations to man. As his voice grew bolder and more sonorous in the hush, the audience felt that this was not the mere display of the skill and ingenuity of a clever youth — the accidental triumph of an accomplished versifier over his compeers in the dexterities of scholarship — which is all that can generally be truly said of such exhibitions — but that here was a poet indeed — not only of bright promise, but of high achievement — one whose name was already written in the roll of the Immortals. And that feeling — whatever might have been the share of the boundless enthusiasm, with which the poem was listened to, attributable to the influence of the "genius loci," — has been since sanctioned by the judgment of the world, that has placed "Palestine" at the very head of the poetry on divine subjects of this age. It is now incorporated for ever with the Poetry of England — a lot which has befallen but few prize poems, such as Glynn's Day of Judgment, and Porteus's Death; although there are others that deserve and will probably enjoy it — such as Wrangham's Holy Land, and Grant's Restoration of Learning and Knowledge in the East, — the first distinguished by sustained spirit and elegance — the second pervaded by a noble enthusiasm, and in some of its strains sublime.

Reginald Heber was now the "observed of all observers" — yet while, as was right and fitting, he enjoyed his splendid reputation, his mind and his manner were free from the slightest arrogance — for the one was too high for hauteur, and the other moulded by the impulses of a simple and sincere heart. By birth, too, he was a gentleman — and there was about him a native elegance of demeanour, an unconscious high breeding, that kept no one at a distance whom worth or talent entitled to the honour of his society, yet that admitted not the too near approach of any who did not possess his more intimate friendship, and who otherwise, from admiration of his genius, might have availed themselves of his generous disposition and courteous affability, to press, unasked or undesired, into the chosen circle.

He was indeed fond of society, and not averse to social enjoyments. Wit he possessed in an eminent degree — and even humour; and his conversation was delightfully changeful, from earnestness to gaiety, from serious but short argumentation to airy badinage and harmless repartee. "Out of the fulness of the heart the mouth speaketh," and the heart of Reginald Heber was even full to overflowing. Eloquent he might well be called, although not fluent — for in the eagerness or earnestness of his easily awakened spirit, he had sometimes almost a hurried and hesitating elocution, till his thoughts and feelings found fitting and most beautiful utterance, as if by fits and starts — his mind being like an oscillating well of purest waters in a shady and sunny fountain. There was no reserve nor concealment about him — his eyes lightened with the frequent smile — and his ready hand was held out to the grasp of friend or companion with a free and manly frankness, which would of itself have made an universal favourite of a far inferior man. At this time his reading was extensive and miscellaneous. He was indeed a book-devourer — and in those noble libraries he sat for many a solemn and meditative hour with the mighty dead. Need it be added, that not only not unaverse to, but enamoured of all the pastimes of ingenuous youth, his moral character was without a stain, and above all suspicion.

The writer of these imperfect notices may be allowed to say thus much, without claiming the honour of a closer intimacy with Reginald Heber than he had the fortune to enjoy. But though a few years disparity of age, at that time felt to be considerable, — to say nothing of the circumstance of having each a different country and a different kindred, — kept down their intercourse to what he fears may hardly now be called by the sacred name of friendship; yet it was ever, on the aide of Reginald Heber, kind, cordial, and encouraging; on that of him who now writes, admiring, respectful, reverent, and such as entitles him to think now with moistened eyes of his distant grave.

His University career was equally splendid to its close. In the Schools his examination for his Bachelor's degree, although not so much distinguished as that of many others, for accurate remembrances of the manifold divisions and subleties of Aristotle's philosophical works, by the solution of syllogisms out of Aldrich's Logic, or of mathematical problems, was brilliant in the oratory and poetry of Greece. But his reputation was then so great and high, that no public exhibition of that kind could increase or raise it. Some men enter the schools obscure and come out bright — others enter bright and come out obscure; but Reginald Heber was a star whose lustre was as steady as it was clear, and would neither suffer temporary eclipse, nor "draw golden light" from any other source of honour within the wails of an University. The year after he had taken his degree, he, almost of course, gained the University Bachelor's Prize for the English Prose Essay. The subject was well suited to his peculiar powers, and the "Sense of Honour" found in him a temperate and charitable Christian advocate, who vindicated its high character as a great principle of morality, but showed its necessary subjection to conscience and religion.

While yet a member of the University, and Fellow of All Souls, he travelled with the celebrated Dr. Clark through various foreign countries, and as the writer in the Quarterly Review, already quoted, justly says — "Some of his observations upon Russia and, the Crimea, which Dr Clark was permitted to extract from his MS. journal, and publish in notes to his own work, have ever been reckoned the bijoux of the volume, and indeed convey more information in a few words than perhaps would have been communicated by any traveller, except Buckhardt, whose close and pithy sentences not unfrequently resemble these able memoranda."

Reginald Heber — we do not remember in what year — probably about the year 1810 or 11 — married the daughter of Dr. Shipley, late Dean of St Asaph — and on the valuable family living of Hodnet, in Shropshire, became that for which nature and education had so nobly qualified him, a Christian Minister, devoted with all his heart and all his soul, to the eternal interests of his flock. Himself the delight of the society of the rich, the high, and the noble, here Reginald Heber did not disdain the door of the dwelling of the poor, the humble, and the lowly born. He who in youth had been the most distinguished scholar of a great University, at all times distinguished for scholarship, — who had enjoyed to the utmost the triumph of early genius, and had the intoxicating cup of praise held so long to his lips, at an age when a less pure and pious spirit might have quaffed the draught to the very dregs, — who had seen "many men and many cities," and knew well how, to the ears of the most learned in the wisdom of the world, to explain their character, their customs, and their institutions, — who, suitably weaponed to win his way to the highest distinction in the wide literary contest then rife over the whole of this awakened land, might with certainty of success have turned his strong and fine talents to the acquisition of an author's fame, either in the fields of erudition or fancy, — chose what he felt to be a happier and a better part, and in "his great Task-master's eye," strove to spread the light of Christianity into the houses and huts and hovels of the poor, which often, even in this country of highest civilization, are as dark and destitute of the day, as the bowers of the Heathen and the Pagan. Privileged and empowered by his rank and riches to have about his home-establishment the equipages becoming such a condition, Reginald Heber, the Rector, was often and often seen walking in all weathers, "through lanes and alleys green," on cheerful and cheering visits to the humblest of his parishioners. "It was here," says an excellent writer in the British Critic and Quarterly Theological Review, "it was here were fixed those ties which it cost him so much to break when he went to India, and it was here he must have been seen and known, to understand the value of the sacrifice he made. It was true, indeed, that he was then cultivating his talents for a richer harvest. In the enjoyment of society his life was ever studious and contemplative — much of every day was sedulously dedicated to books and to parochial duties; and, when he paid his distant visits, he generally went on foot, on which occasions, if you happened to cross upon his path, or greet him on his arrival, you would perceive at once, that he had been conversant with higher thoughts than those which the road presented to him."

Meanwhile he was appointed to preach the Bampton Lectures, (which in 1816 he published) and chose a subject to which he might bring with happiest effect the great stores of his theological learning, nor with effect less happy, the whole calm and profound enthusiasm of his devout spirit — "The Personality and Office of the Christian Comforter." In 1822, he published a Life of Jeremy Taylor, with is Critical Examination of his Writings, for a new edition of the works of that illustrious divine, (since printed by themselves in two volumes,) — which is animated throughout by a generous yet discriminating admiration of his glorious subject, and by a kindred imagination, delighting, as if inspired by the genius whose immortal works it was contemplating and ranging over, with a flash and glow of kindred poetry. About the same time he was elected preacher at Lincoln's-Inn, "a very flattering distinction," says the Quarterly Review, "whether the character of the electors be considered, or the merits of his predecessor, or those of the distinguished person before whom he was preferred; valuable, moreover, as placing somewhat more 'in oculis civium,' a man intended by nature for a less obscure station than that which he had for years been filling; though assuredly that was one which, had it been so ordained, he would have continued to fill to his dying day, without any querulous suspicion that he had fallen in evil times, when merit is overlooked, and talent suffered to spread itself on an unworthy field." A few months of the year he thus spent in London, but his residence was in the Rectory of Hodnet, in the neighbourhood of which had also settled his mother and sister. There his lot was one of true felicity indeed, but he left it at the sound of the call of "a still small voice," for a distant region, to die in the holiest cause in which the Christian martyr can die.

No man ever went to India on such a mission with such endowments. He had a mind to penetrate no less clearly through caste and all other superstitions, into the real condition in which nature lies so woefully, and, as some of the hopeless school of philosophy would say, inevitably benighted in the soul of the Paria — than into the mild hypocrisy of the time-honoured Brahmin, bowing to idolatrous worship within the recesses of his groves and, temples, before the multitude of his mysterious gods. Before he knew what was to be his last high destiny on earth, and ere he left the shores of England, he had breathed the secret aspirations of his piety in a Hymn before a collection made for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. How beautiful is the hymn—

From Greenland's icy mountains,
From India's coral strand,
Where Afric's sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand;
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error's chain!

What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft o'er Java's isle,
Though every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile:
In vain with lavish kindness
The gifts of God are strewn,
The Heathen, in his blindness,
Bows down to wood and stone!

Can we, whose souls are lighted
With Wisdom from on high,
Can we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! oh, Salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
Has learn'd Messiah's name!

Waft, waft, ye winds, his story,
And you, ye waters, roll,
Till like a sea of glory,
It spreads from pole to pole;
Till o'er our ransom'd Nature,
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign!

Once had he, long before, in his beloved Hodnet, been brought to the brink of the grave by a typhus fever, caught from the contagion of a sickbed which he had been comforting. On another occasion, in India, he was, as he himself thought, so close on death's door, that he addressed a farewell letter to his mother; and, worn out at last by the labour of love among the heathen, Death came over him as secretly and as suddenly as the flying shadow of a cloud over the shepherd stretched in sleep beside his flock on the hill-side. With the alteration of one single expression, we may breathe over him his own most beautiful dirge, or rather funeral hymn,

Thou art gone to the grave! but we will not deplore thee,
Though sorrows and darkness encompass the tomb:
Thy Saviour has pass'd through its portal before thee,
And the lamp of His love is thy guide through the gloom!

Thou art gone to the grave! we no longer behold thee,
Nor tread the rough paths of the world by thy side;
But the wide arms of Mercy are spread to enfold thee,
And sinners may die, for the SINLESS has died!

Thou art gone to the grave! and, its mansion forsaking,
Perchance thy weak spirit in fear linger'd long;
But the mild rays of Paradise beam'd on thy waking,
And the sound which thou heardst was the Seraphim's song!

Thou art gone to the grave! but we will not deplore thee,
Whose God was Thy ransom, Thy guardian and guide;
He gave thee, He took thee, and He will restore thee,
And death has no sting, for the Saviour has died!