1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Taylor, Sir Henry

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TAYLOR, SIR HENRY (1800–1886), English poet and political official, was born on the 18th of October 1800, at Bishop-Middleham, Durham, where his ancestors had been small landowners for some generations. His mother died while he was yet an infant, and he was chiefly educated by his father, a man of studious tastes, who, finding him less quick than his two elder brothers, allowed him to enter the navy as a midshipman. Finding the life uncongenial, he only remained eight months at sea, and after obtaining his discharge was appointed to a clerkship in the storekeeper’s office. He had scarcely entered upon his duties when he was attacked by typhus fever, which carried off both his brothers, then living with him in London. In three or four years more his office was abolished while he was on duty in the West Indies. On his return he found his father happily married to a lady whose interest and sympathy proved of priceless value to him. Through her he became acquainted with her cousin, Isabella Fenwick, the neighbour and intimate friend of Wordsworth, who introduced him to Wordsworth and Southey. Under these influences he lost his early admiration for Byron, whose school, whatever its merits, he at least was in no way calculated to adorn, and his intellectual powers developed rapidly. In October 1822 he published an article on Moore’s Irish Melodies in the Quarterly Review. A year later he went to London to seek his fortune as a man of letters, and met with rapid success, though not precisely in this capacity. He became editor of the London Magazine, to which he had already contributed, and in January 1824 obtained, through the influence of Sir Henry Holland, a good appointment in the Colonial Office. He was immediately entrusted with the preparation of confidential state papers, and his opinion soon exercised an important influence on the decisions of the secretary of state. He visited Wordsworth and Southey, travelled on the Continent with the latter, and at the same time, mainly through his friend and official colleague, the Hon. Hyde Villiers, became intimate with a very different set, the younger followers of Bentham, without, however, adopting their opinions—“young men,” he afterwards reminded Stuart Mill, “who every one said would be ruined by their independence, but who ended by obtaining all their hearts’ desires, except one who fell by the way.” The reference is to Hyde Villiers, who died prematurely. Taylor actively promoted the emancipation of the slaves in 1833, and became an intimate ally of Sir James Stephen, then counsel to the Colonial Office, afterwards under-secretary, by whom the Act of Emancipation was principally framed. His duties at the Colonial Office were soon afterwards lightened by the appointment of James Spedding, with whom he began a friendship that lasted till the end of his life.

His first drama, Isaac Comnenus, Elizabethan in tone, and giving a lively picture of the Byzantine court and people, was published anonymously in 1828. Though highly praised by Southey, it made little impression on the public. Philip van Arteoelde, an elaborate poetic drama, the subject of which had been recommended to him by Southey, was begun in 1828, published in 1834, and, aided by a laudatory criticism from Lockhart’s pen in the Quarterly, achieved extraordinary success. Its great superiority to Taylor’s other works may be explained by its being to a great extent the vehicle of his own ideas and feelings. Artevelde’s early love experiences reproduce and transfigure his own. Edwin the Fair (1842) was less warmly received; but his character of Dunstan, the ecclesiastical statesman, is a fine psychological study, and the play is full of historical interest. Meanwhile he had married (1839) Theodosia Spring-Rice, the daughter of his former chief Lord Monteagle, and, in conjunction with Sir James Stephen, had taken a leading part in the abolition of negro apprenticeship in the West Indies. The Statesman, a volume of essays suggested by his official position, had been published in 1836, and about the same time he had written in the Quarterly the friendly notices of Wordsworth and Southey which did much to dispel the conventional prejudices of the day, and which were published in 1849 under the somewhat misleading title of Notes from Books.

In 1847 he was offered the under-secretaryship of state for the colonies, which he declined. Notes from Life and The Eve of the Conquest appeared. in this year; and an experiment in romantic comedy, The Virgin Widow, afterwards entitled A Sicilian Summer, was published in 1850. “The pleasantest play I had written,” says the author; “and I never could tell why people would not be pleased with it.” His last dramatic work was St Clement’s Eve, published in 1862. In 1869 he was made K.C.M.G. He retired from the Colonial Office in 1872, though continuing to be consulted by government. His last days were spent at Bournemouth in the enjoyment of universal respect; and the public, to whom he had hitherto been an almost impersonal existence, became familiarized with the extreme picturesqueness of his appearance in old age, as represented in the photographs of his friend Julia Margaret Cameron. He died on the 27th of March 1886. His Autobiography, published a year before his death, while sinning a little by the egotism pardonable in a poet and the garrulity natural to a veteran, is in the main a pleasing and faithful picture of an aspiring youth, an active maturity, and a happy and honoured old age.

Taylor's Artevelde cannot fail to impress those who read it as the work of a poet of considerable distinction; but, perhaps for the very reason that he was so prominent as a state official, he has not been accepted by the world as more than a very accomplished man of letters. His lyrical work is in general laboriously artificial, but he produced two well-known songs—"Quoth tongue of neither maid nor wife" and "If I had the wings of a dove."

Taylor's Autobiography (2 vols. 1885) should be supplemented by his Correspondence (1888), edited by Edward Dowden. His Works were collected in five volumes in 1877-78.