1806 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Hughes

J. E. Harwood, "John Hughes" Literary Magazine and American Register [Philadelphia] 6 (November 1806) 361-62.



Since I have introduced the name of Hughes, I will indulge my rambling manner, and add a few remarks concerning him, as I conceive the name of one of the correspondents of the Spectator to be not altogether uninteresting to literary students.

John Hughes was born in 1677. Under the care of Mr. Thomas Rowe, a dissenting minister, the same who taught the celebrated Dr. Watts, he was early initiated in the principles of classical learning, and he discovered that predilection for the pleasures of poetry, which in a short time placed him in a respectable rank with the most eminent wits of the day. In his nineteenth year he formed the plan of a regular tragedy, which, however, he never executed; but his paraphrases of some of the best parts of Horace, and his poem on the Peace of Ryswic, published in 1697, exhibit no mean talents for poetry. But unfortunately his taste and his ambition led him to soar in a region in which his genius could not support him. Horace had foretold the fate of him who should venture too far, and his prediction was verified by the attempts of Hughes.

Pindarum quisque studet aemulari, I—
Pule, ceratis ope Daedalea
Nititur pennis, vitreo daturas
Nomina ponto.

He had not that brilliancy of imagination, that fertility of versification, which lyric poetry requires; and hence his odes To the Creator of the World, in Praise of Women, and The House of Nassau, miserably fail in exciting any more than admiration of the harmony of his lines. They are flat, stale, and, I had almost added, unprofitable. The poetry of Hughes possessed an extrinsic advantage, which contributed very essentially to its temporary popularity. He had himself some skill in music, but being aided by the talents of Pepusch and Handel, his strains were warbled by many an admiring enthusiast. But his title to a rank among English poets must rest chiefly upon his Siege of Damascus. This drama contains principles of morality which might please the most rigid judge; but although the style of it is harmonious, and the imagery often felicitous, it yet wants that power of touching the feelings, without which no play can long be a favourite upon the stage. He was more successful as a translator than as an original poet. His version of the, Pyramus and Thisbe of Ovid, is one of the most faithful exhibitions we have of the elegance of Roman genius. He was employed by Jacob Tonson, in, 1712, in conjunction with others, to translate Lucan's Pharsalia, and the part which he selected was promptly and elegantly finished, but the indolence or the incapacity of his coadjutors prevented the completion of the plan. His little fragments from Orpheus, Pindar, Euripides, and Anacreon, evince a accurate knowledge of the Grecian idiom. From the French language he gave us Fontenelle's Dialogues of the Dead, his Discourse concerning the Ancients and the Moderns, the Letters of Abelard and Heloise, the Misanthrope of Moliere, and the abbe Vertot's History of the Revolution of Portugal.

To the friendship of lord Cowper he was indebted for the very profitable place of secretary to the commission of peace, upon the accession of George the first. Upon the authority of various editors and commentators we may assign to his pen the following letters in the Tatler: Josiah Couplet, No. 64; Will Trusty, No. 73; Philanthropos, No. 66; September 15, No. 70; Letter No. 76 and No. 194, containing an allegory from Spenser; and No. 113, including a strange inventory of a beau. In the Spectator, No. 252, he gives us a very humourous letter on the artful eloquence of tears and fainting fits, which females so successfully practise; No. 306, containing the doleful complaints of Parthenissa, on the loss of beauty, by that dreadful enemy of feminine attractions, the small-pox; No. 141, criticisms on Shadwell's Lancashire Witches, a popular comedy of that time; Nos. 83 and 53, on the art of improving beauty; No. 66, on the fine breeding of ladies; No. 104, on the riding-habits of ladies, which, I suppose, were just becoming a fashionable attire, but which he thought sat awkwardly on English modesty; No. 220, on mechanical contrivances for the manufacture of verses; No. 231, on excessive bashfulness before public assemblies; No. 381, on the machinations of fortune-hunters; No. 539, on the injudicious interpolation of standard sermons in the pulpit; No. 540, on the merits of Spenser's Faery Queen; No. 554, an admirable essay on the improvement of genius, in which the characters of Bacon, Locke, Newton, and the unfortunate Leonardo da Vinci are judiciously discriminated; No. 541, on pronunciation and action; No. 91, on the ridiculous rivalship of a mother and daughter, a circumstance not uncommon in the present age; No. 224, on the universality of ambition. Hughes evinced his gratitude to lord Cowper by a dedication of the Siege of Damascus, and his respect to the memory of that worthy nobleman was further testified, in No. 467, for whom the character of MANILIUS in that number appears to have been designed. His observations on conjugal love, in No. 525, deserve to be attentively considered by all who take the dangerous leap: this, with No. 537, on the dignity of human nature; No. 210, on the immortality of the soul; and No. 237, on divine providence, I believe, are all the contributions of Hughes to the Spectator. To the Guardian he only furnished No. 37, on the play of Othello, which contains some excellent reflections on the "green-eyed monster" Jealousy. In Duncombe's Collection of Letters, printed in 1772, there are three on loquacity and masquerading, which were written by Hughes, and intended for the Guardian. Dr. Drake concludes his sketch of the life of Hughes, by characterizing all the essays of this excellent man, as written in "a style which is in general easy, correct, and elegant; they occasionally," he says, "exhibit wit and humour; and they uniformly tend to inculcate the best precepts, moral, prudential, and religious."

And I cannot better conclude this hasty sketch, which my respect and love for the man have induced me to compile, than by copying the elegant and impressive testimony of the affection of Steele for his friend and associate.

Mr. Hughes, says sir Richard, in his THEATRE, No. 15, could hardly ever be said to have enjoyed health; but, was, in the very best of his days, a valetudinarian. If those who are sparing of giving praise to any virtue without extenuation of it, should say that his youth was chastised into the severity, and preserved in the innocence for which he was so conspicuous, from the infirmity of his constitution, they will be under new difficulty, when they hear that he had none of those faults to which ill state of health ordinarily subjects the rest of mankind. His incapacity for more frolic diversions never made him peevish or sour to those whom he saw in them.; but his humanity was such, that he could partake and share those pleasures he beheld others enjoy, without repining that he himself could not join in them. No; he made a true use of an ill constitution, and formed his mind to the living under it with as much satisfaction as it could admit of. His intervals of ease were employed in drawing, designing, or else in music or poetry; for he had not only a taste, but an ability of performance to a great excellence, in those arts which entertain the mind within the rules of the severest morality, and the strictest dictates of religion. He did not seem to wish for more than he possessed, even as to his health, but to contemn sensuality as a sober man does drunkenness; he was so far from envying, that he pitied the jollities that were enjoyed by a more happy constitution. He could converse with the most sprightly without peevishness; and sickness itself had no other effect upon him, than to make him look upon all violent pleasures as evils he had escaped without the trouble of avoiding. Peace be with thy remains, thou amiable spirit! but I talk in the language of our weakness. That is flown to the regions of day and immortality, and relieved from the aching engine and painful instrument of anguish and sorrow, in which, for a long and tedious few years, he panted with a lively hope for his present condition. We shall consign the trunk, in which he was so long imprisoned, to common earth, with all that is due to the merit of its late inhabitant.