1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hannah More

Leigh Hunt, in Review of Dyce, Specimens of British Poetesses; The Companion (9 July 1828) 397-99.



Miss Hannah More, a lady not out of harmony with these discords which the world have been so long taking for their melancholy music, is the one that comes next. It is the first time we ever read any of her verses; and she has fairly surprised us, not only with some capital good sense, but with liberal and feeling sentiments! How could a heart, capable of uttering such things, get encrusted with Calvinism! and that too, not out of fear and bad health, but in full possession, as it should seem, both of cheerfulness and sensibility! Oh strange effects of example and bringing up! when humanity itself can be made to believe in the divineness of what is inhuman! "Sweet Sensibility!" cries our fair advocate of eternal punishment—

Sweet Sensibility! thou keen delight!
Unprompted moral! sudden sense of right!
Perception exquisite! fair virtue's seed!
Thou quick precursor of the liberal deed!
Thou hasty conscience! reason's blushing morn!
Instinctive kindness ere reflection's born!
Prompt sense of equity! to thee belongs
The swift redress of unexamin'd wrongs!
Eager to serve, the cause perhaps untried,
But always apt to choose the suffering side!
To those who know thee not, no words can paint,
And those who know thee, know all words are faint.

And again:—

Since life's best joys consist in peace and ease,
And tho' but few can serve, yet all may please;
O let th' ungentle spirit learn from hence,
A small unkindness is a great offence.

The whole poem, with the exception of some objections to Preachers of benevolence like Sterne (who must be taken, like the fall of the dew, in their general effect upon the mass of the world) is full of good sense and feeling; though what the fair theologian guards us against in our estimation of complexional good nature, is to be carried a great deal farther than she supposes. "As Feeling," she says,

—tends to good, or leans to ill,
It gives fresh force to vice or principle;
'Tis but a gift peculiar to the good,
'Tis often but the virtue of the blood;
And what would seem Compassion's moral flow,
Is but a circulation swift or slow.

True; and what would seem religion's happy flow, is often nothing better. But this argues nothing against religion or compassion. Whatever tends to secure the happiest flow of the blood, provides best for the ends of virtue, if happiness be virtue's object. A man, it is true, may begin with being happy, on the mere strength of the purity and vivacity of his pulse: children do so; but he must have derived his constitution from very virtuous, temperate, and happy parents indeed, and be a great fool to boot, and wanting in the commonest sympathies of his nature, if he can continue happy, and yet be a bad man; and then he could not be bad, in the worst sense of the word, for his deficiencies would excuse him. It is time for philosophy and true religion to know one another, and not hesitate to follow the most impartial truths into their consequences. If "a small unkindness is a great offence," what can Miss Hannah More say to the infliction of eternal punishment? Or are God and his ways eternally to be represented as something so different from the best attributes of humanity, that the wonder must be, how humanity can survive in spite of the mistake? The truth is, that the circulation of Miss More's own blood is a better thing than all her doctrines put together; and, luckily, it is a much more universal inheritance. The heart of man is constantly sweeping away the errors he gets into his brain.

There is a good deal of sense and wit in the extract from Florio: a Tale for Fine Gentlemen and Fine Ladies; but Miss More is for attributing the vices of disingenuousness, sneering, and sensuality, to freethinkers exclusively; which is disingenuous on her own part; as if these vices were not shared by the inconsistent of all classes. She herself sneers in the very act of denouncing sneerers; nor did we ever know that a joke was spared by the orthodox, when they could get one. As to sensuality, we all know how many contrivances they put in practice, by the help of their butchers and wine-merchants, to enjoy it without scandal. The circulation of the blood does not stand still with them.

Whate'er the subject of debate,
Two larded still with sceptic prate;
Begin whatever theme you will,
In unbelief he lands you still.
The good, with shame I speak it, feel
Not half this proselyting zeal;
While cold their Master's cause to own,
Content to go to Heaven alone;
The infidel in liberal trim,
Would carry all the world with him;
Would treat his wife, friend, kindred, nation,
Mankind — with what? — Annihilation.

Well said, but not true. It does not follow that a man must believe in annihilation, because he disbelieves in hell-fire; though if he did, the disbelief is a great deal better, and more creditable to God, than the belief. But the confession about "the good" who are "content to go to heaven alone," is edifying. Miss More, at all events, is not one of them; but she need not be alarmed, nor reproach herself (as we think she sometimes must do) for having attained such a healthy and happy old age, and thinking so comfortably of going to heaven, while millions of her fellow creatures are going a different road. Wherever she finds herself, there will be a world of company; and an infidel will not be the less there, because he does not think he shall. What! Shall a child not be taken to see his father, and to receive kindness at his hands, purely because never having seen him, he has got a notion that be does not exist?