Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Heber, Reginald

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HEBER, REGINALD (1783–1826), bishop of Calcutta, was born at Malpas, Cheshire, 21 April 1783. The family was an ancient one, long settled at Marton Hall, in the district of Craven in Yorkshire; but the father of the bishop, also Reginald Heber (d. 1804), a man of some intellectual power, who had been fellow and tutor of Brasenose College, Oxford, held a moiety of the living of Malpas, and lived there. He inherited from his mother the estate and living of Hodnet, Shropshire. It descended to her from her kinsman, Sir Thomas Vernon, and he became rector of Hodnet on his own presentation as lord of the manor. He was twice married, first, in 1772, to Mary, daughter of the Rev. Mark Baylie, by whom he had a son, Richard Heber [q. v.], and then in 1783 to Mary, daughter of the Rev. Cuthbert Allanson, rector of Wath in Yorkshire, by whom he had two sons and one daughter; of these Reginald was the eldest.

Heber received his early education at the grammar school of Whitchurch; when he was thirteen years of age he was placed under the tuition of Dr. Bristowe, who took private pupils at Neasden, near Willesden. In 1800 he went to Brasenose College, Oxford, his father's college, and commenced a brilliant university career. In his first year (1800) he won the prize for the ‘Carmen Seculare,’ a Latin poem on the commencement of the new century; and in 1803 the prize for English verse on the subject of ‘Palestine,’ which was first printed in 1807, and has been several times reprinted. The poem was received with extraordinary enthusiasm when it was recited in the theatre, and it is one of the very few prize poems which have lived. It was set to music by Dr. Crotch in 1812. Walter Scott was breakfasting with Heber at Brasenose just before the poem was sent in, and at a suggestion from him Heber inserted impromptu the well-known lines about the Temple which end

Like some tall palm the noiseless fabric sprung.

In 1805 he gained the prize for the best English essay on the subject of ‘The Sense of Honour,’ and in the same year was elected fellow of All Souls' College. He then travelled for nearly two years with his friend, John Thornton, son of Samuel Thornton, M.P. for Surrey, through Germany, Russia, and the Crimea. A most vivid account of his travels is given in his ‘Journal.’ In 1807 he returned to England and received holy orders. The living of Hodnet had been reserved for him since his father's death in 1804, and he at once entered upon the duties of a country clergyman, having married Amelia, daughter of Dr. Shipley, the dean of St. Asaph. He was an excellent parish priest, increasing the number of church services, making vigorous efforts to improve the psalmody, building and attending to schools for the education of the poor, constantly visiting his people, and making many reforms in morals. Like most earnest clergymen he had his troubles; among others a difficulty arising from the incursions of the famous Rowland Hill into his parish, which was peculiarly embarrassing, as the Hills were among his principal parishioners. His letters to his intimate friends, J. Thornton and J. S. Wilmot Horton, give an interesting insight into his work and difficulties. He complains of his odd position as ‘half parson, half squire,’ and expresses a groundless fear that his literary tastes tempted him too much away from his parochial duties.

In 1812 he was made a prebendary of St. Asaph, at the request of his father-in-law, the dean. In 1815 he was appointed Bampton lecturer at Oxford, and in 1822 preacher at Lincoln's Inn, and at the close of the same year, through the instrumentality of his friend C. W. W. Wynn, he was offered the vacant see of Calcutta, which after much hesitation and two refusals he at last accepted. British India then formed one huge diocese with three archdeaconries, one in each of the three provinces. During his short tenure of this vast see Heber made his mark in various ways. He completed a great work, the main credit of which is due to his predecessor, Bishop Middleton, the erection and full establishment of Bishop's College, Calcutta. He succeeded with some difficulty in putting upon a right footing the relationship between the missionaries sent out by the Church Missionary Society and their diocesan. He travelled indefatigably through all parts of his unwieldy diocese, not only performing diligently his episcopal duties, but also healing differences and cheering the hearts and strengthening the hands of Christian workers wherever he went. He visited Bombay and Ceylon, returning to Calcutta in October 1825. In the early spring of 1826, after visiting Madras and various other stations, he arrived at Trichinopoly on Saturday 1 April. On the Sunday he preached and confirmed, and on the Monday he confirmed again and visited a native school. He died suddenly later in the day and was buried on the north side of the altar of St. John's Church, Trichinopoly. His widow was at Calcutta at the time. Some of the most popular poets of the time—Robert Southey, Mrs. Hemans, Mrs. Opie, and others—celebrated the event in mournful verse. An only child died before him.

Heber was a pious, amiable, and accomplished man, and his character is well displayed in his writings. His style is always elegant and perspicuous, and his matter sensible and in good taste. But his verse is wanting in the ‘divine afflatus,’ and his prose in strength and massiveness. His boyish poem on ‘Palestine,’ although the most popular work of its kind, is not a great poem. In 1811 he published the first specimens of his hymns in the ‘Christian Observer.’ The collection was one of the first attempts to write systematically a set of hymns adapted to the Christian seasons; and some of the hymns, notably those for St. Stephen's day, for the Epiphany, for the sixth Sunday in Lent, and for Trinity Sunday, are still deservedly popular. The best known of all, ‘From Greenland's icy mountains,’ was written, while he was on a visit to his father-in-law, for a service at Wrexham Church, where his father-in-law was to preach in behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. In 1812 he published a single volume of poetry. His prose works include his Bampton lectures, preached in 1815 and published in 1816, on ‘The Personality and Office of the Christian Comforter,’ and ‘A Life of Bishop Jeremy Taylor, and a Critical Examination of his Writings,’ written in 1822 for a new edition of Bishop Taylor's works, and afterwards published separately in two small volumes. After his death were published ‘Sermons preached in England’ (1829), and ‘Sermons preached in India’ (1830), both edited by his widow, aided by Sir Robert H. Inglis; his ‘Journey through India from Calcutta to Bombay, with Notes upon Ceylon, and a Journey to Madras and the Southern Provinces,’ 1828 (2 vols. 4to; and again, 3 vols. 8vo); 1844, 2 vols. 12mo. Some unpublished works are included in the ‘Life’ written by his widow, and in 1841 his ‘Poetical Works,’ in one volume, were ‘for the first time offered in a collected form to the public.’ This volume includes the two most touching of all his poems, the lines addressed to Mrs. Heber, beginning ‘If thou wert by my side, love,’ and ‘An Evening Walk in Bengal.’ Heber also contributed to the ‘Quarterly Review,’ and to the ‘Christian Observer.’

[Some Account of the Life, &c. of Reginald Heber, Lord Bishop of Calcutta, 1829; Life of Reginald Heber, D.D., Lord Bishop of Calcutta, by his Widow (with correspondence and unpublished writings), 2 vols. 1830; Life of Bishop Heber, by T. Taylor (coloured by the writer's own sentiments and representing Heber as less distinctly a high churchman than his correspondence proves); art. in Quarterly Review, No. lxx., by J. J. Blunt; Poetical Works of Reginald Heber, 1841; Prose Works ut supra.]

J. H. O.