Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Polwhele, Richard
POLWHELE, RICHARD (1760–1838), miscellaneous writer, claimed descent from Drogo de Polwhele, chamberlain of the Empress Matilda. Upon Drogo Matilda bestowed in 1140 a grant of lands in Cornwall (Gent. Mag. 1822 pt. ii. p. 551, 1823, pt. i. pp. 26, 98). The family long resided at Polwhele, in the parish of St. Clement, Cornwall, about two miles from Truro, on the road to St. Columb, and several of its members were among the Cornish representatives in parliament. His father, Thomas Polwhele, died on 4 Feb. 1777, and was buried in St. Clement's churchyard on 8 Feb.; his mother was Mary (d. 1804), daughter of Richard Thomas, alderman of Truro (Polwhele, Cornwall, vii. 43); she suggested to Dr. Wolcot the subject of his well-known poem, ‘The Pilgrim and the Peas’ (Redding, Fifty Years, i. 266).
Richard, the only son, was born at Truro on 6 Jan. 1760, and was educated at Truro grammar school by Cornelius Cardew, D.D. He began to write poetry when about twelve years old, and his juvenile productions were praised by Wolcot, then resident at Truro, but with the judicious qualification that he should drop ‘his damned epithets.’ On his father's death in 1777 he accompanied his mother on a visit to Bath and Bristol, where he made the acquaintance of literary personages, including Mrs. Macaulay and Hannah More. He presented the first of these ladies with an ode on her birthday, which was printed at Bath, with five others, in April 1777; and he was induced by the flattery of his friends to publish in the next year a volume of poems called ‘The Fate of Lewellyn.’ The title-page concealed the author's name, stating that it was ‘by a young gentleman of Truro School,’ whereupon the critic in the ‘Monthly Review’ stated that the master of that school should have kept it in manuscript, and Cardew retorted that he was ignorant of the proposed publication. This premature appearance in print impaired Polwhele's reputation. From that date he was always publishing, but all his works were deficient in thoroughness.
Polwhele matriculated as commoner at Christ Church, Oxford, on 3 March 1778, and received from it two of Fell's exhibitions. He kept his terms until he was admitted a student in civil law, but he left the university without taking a degree. In 1782 he was ordained by Bishop Ross as curate to the Rev. Thomas Bedford, rector of Lamorran, on the left bank of the Fal, Cornwall, but stayed there for a very short time, as in the same year he was offered the curacy of Kenton, near Powderham Castle, Devonshire, the seat of the Courtenays. In this position he remained until the close of 1793. The parish is situate in beautiful scenery; many of the resident gentry were imbued with literary tastes, and it is but a few miles from Exeter, where Polwhele joined a literary society which ‘met every three weeks at the Globe Tavern at one o'clock; recited literary compositions in prose and verse, and dined at three’ (Polwhele, Cornwall, v. 105). The association published in 1792 ‘Poems chiefly by Gentlemen of Devonshire and Cornwall’ (2 vols.), edited by Polwhele, and in 1796 ‘Essays by a Society of Gentlemen at Exeter.’ A quarrel over the second publication gave rise to a bitter controversy between Polwhele and his colleagues (Gent. Mag. 1796, pt. ii.). Meanwhile he projected his Haldon, and from the diocesan records ‘History of Devonshire,’ and derived considerable assistance from the documents at Powderham, Mamhead, and at Exeter (cf. ib. 1790, pt. ii. pp. 1178–80). His list of subscribers was soon full, but the work proved unsatisfactory.
Polwhele had married in 1782 Loveday, second daughter of Samuel Warren of Truro, by his wife, Blanche Sandys, of an old Cornish family. On 1 Feb. 1793 his wife died at Kenton, aged 28, leaving one son and two daughters (Polwhele, Devonshire, ii. 167). Thereupon he moved, with his children, to his mother's house in Cornwall, but after a short stay returned again to Kenton, and married there, on 29 Nov. 1793, Mary, daughter of Richard Tyrrell or Terrell of Starcross. Early in 1794 he was appointed to the curacy of Exmouth, on the opposite side of the Exe (Webb, Memorials of Exmouth, p. 30).
On the nomination of the bishop of Exeter, Polwhele was appointed in 1794 to the small living of Manaccan, near Helston, Cornwall, and he also undertook for a non-resident vicar the charge of the still smaller and poorer living of St. Anthony in Meneage, to which he was appointed in 1809. The parsonage of Manaccan was a mere cottage, and Polwhele spent a considerable part of his resources in repairs and enlargements. To secure the requisite education for his children, he accepted, about 1806, the curacy of the large parish of Kenwyn, within which the borough of Truro is partly situated, and obtained from the bishop a license of non-residence at Manaccan. Croker records in 1820 that Polwhele, who appeared ‘to have very little worldly wisdom,’ was in trouble through restoring his church without proper authority, and that the parishioners had threatened him with law proceedings. He vacated the living of Manaccan in 1821 on his appointment to the more valuable vicarage of Newlyn East, and he resigned St. Anthony in favour of his eldest son, William, in 1828. Though he retained the benefice of Newlyn until his death, the last ten years of his life were spent on his estate of Polwhele, where he devoted himself to the composition of his autobiographical volumes. He died at Truro on 12 March 1838, and was buried at St. Clement, where a monument preserves his memory. By his second wife he had a large family; among the sons were Robert, vicar of Avenbury, Herefordshire, and author of some small theological works; Richard Graves, a lieutenant-colonel in the Madras artillery; and Thomas, a general in the army.
Polwhele was, by turns, poet, topographer, theologian, and literary chronicler, and his fame has been marred by a fatal fluency of composition. Before he was twenty he wrote, besides the works already mentioned, an ode called ‘The Spirit of Frazer to General Burgoyne’ (1778), poems in the ‘Essays and Poems of Edmund Rack,’ and an ‘Ode on the Isle of Man to the Memory of Bishop Wilson’ for the 1781 edition of Wilson's works. The chief of his subsequent productions in poetry were: 1. ‘The Art of Eloquence,’ a didactic poem, bk. i. (anon.), 1785, the later editions and following books being known as ‘The English Orator,’ which was revised by Bishop Ross and others (Polwhele, Lavington's Enthusiasm of Methodists, App. p. 404). 2. Poems, 1791. 3. ‘Pictures from Nature,’ 1785 and 1786. 4. ‘Influence of Local Attachment’ (anon.), 1796, 1798, and 1810. This poem gave ‘indications of a higher excellence’ which were not fulfilled (Moir, Sketches of Poetical Lit. p. 37). Long extracts from it are given in Drake's ‘Winter Nights,’ i. 224–36, ii. 14–17, 247–63, and it was compared by some of the critics to the ‘Pleasures of Memory’ by Samuel Rogers. Polwhele thereupon attempted to prove the originality of his own ideas (Clayden, Early Life of S. Rogers, pp. 314–15). 5. ‘Poetic Trifles’ (anon.), 1796; suppressed after a very few copies had been sold on account of its satirical references to Montauban (i.e. Sir John St. Aubyn). 6. ‘Sketches in Verse,’ 1796 and 1797. 7. ‘The Old English Gentleman,’ 1797. 8. ‘The Unsex'd Females,’ 1798 and 1800. 9. ‘Grecian Prospects,’ 1799. 10. Poems, 1806, 3 vols. 11. ‘The Family Picture’ (anon.), 1808. 12. Poems, 1810, 5 vols. 13. ‘The Deserted Village School’ (anon.), 1812. 14. ‘The fair Isabel of Cotehele,’ 1815. 15. ‘The Idylls, Epigrams, and Fragments of Theocritus, Bion, and Moschus, with the Elegies of Tyrtæus,’ 1786; this has been often reprinted, the translations of Tyrtæus being included in a polyglot version published at Brussels by A. Baron in 1835. The rendering of the idylls of Theocritus has been much praised (Drake, Lit. Hours, ii. 191).
The topographical works of Polwhele included histories of Devon and of Cornwall. The second volume of 16. ‘The History of Devonshire,’ the first part that was published appeared early in 1793. The third volume came next, and, like its predecessor, was devoted to a parochial survey of the county. The style of these volumes was attractive, and the descriptions of the places which he had himself seen were excellent. But the author was wanting in application; large districts of the county were unknown to him, and the topography was not described on an adequate scale. The general history of the county was reserved for the first volume, the first part of which came out in the summer of 1797. This comprised the ‘Natural History and the British Period’ from the first settlements in Damnonium to the arrival of Julius Cæsar. Then came a querulous postscript with complaints of the withdrawal of subscribers and of the action of some of his friends in publishing separate works on portions of the history of the county. The first volume was at last completed with a very meagre sketch of its later history. Much matter was omitted, and the whole work was a disappointment to both author and public, which was not mitigated by the separate publication of 17. ‘Historical Views of Devonshire,’ vol. i. 1793. Four more volumes were announced, but only the first volume was published. Further information on these works will be found in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1793 and following years, Upcott's ‘English Topography,’ i. 150–2, and the ‘Transactions of the Devonshire Association,’ xiv. 51–3. Perfect copies of ‘The History of Devonshire’ are very scarce. A copy with numerous notes by George Oliver, D.D. (1781–1861) [q. v.], is at the British Museum. The ‘History of Devonshire’ was reissued in 1806.
Polwhele's next great labour in topography—18. ‘The History of Cornwall’—also came out piecemeal in seven detached volumes (1803–1808), and copies, when met with, are rarely in perfect agreement either as to leaves or plates. A new edition, purporting to be corrected and enlarged, appeared in 1816, when the original titles and the dedication to the Prince of Wales were cancelled. The most useful of the volumes is the fifth, which deals with ‘the language, literature, and literary characters.’ A dull supplement to the first and second books, containing ‘Remarks on St. Michael's Mount, Penzance, the Land's End, and the Sylleh Isles. By the Historian of Manchester’ (i.e. John Whitaker [q. v.]), was printed at Exeter in 1804. The vocabularies and provincial glossary contained in vol. vi. were printed off in 1836. The complicated bibliography of this work can be studied in the ‘Bibliotheca Cornubiensis,’ ii. 510–11, the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1803–4, Upcott's ‘English Topography,’ i. 88–93, and ‘The Western Antiquary,’ vol. ix. Polwhele gave much assistance to John Britton in the compilation of the ‘Beauties of Cornwall and Devon.’
The volumes of reminiscences and anecdotes by Polwhele comprised: 19. ‘Traditions and Recollections,’ 1826, 2 vols. 20. ‘Biographical Sketches in Cornwall,’ 1831, 3 vols. 21. ‘Reminiscences in Prose and Verse,’ 1836, 3 vols. The earlier part of the first set contains some civil-war letters, anecdotes of Foote and Wolcot, and many of his own juvenile poems. His chief correspondents were Samuel Badcock, Cobbett, Cowper, Darwin, Hayley, Gibbon, Mrs. Macaulay, Sir Walter Scott, Miss Seward, and John Whitaker, D.D. A memoir by Polwhele of the last of these worthies formed the subject of the third volume of the ‘Biographical Sketches.’ Copies of these three works, with manuscript additions, cancelled leaves, and many names, where blank in print, inserted in writing, are in the Dyce Library at the South Kensington Museum. Polwhele also published, in connection with the Church Union Society, two prize essays—respectively on the scriptural evidence as to the condition of the soul after death, and on marriage; printed many sermons, and conducted a vigorous polemic against the methodists. His chief opponent on this topic was Samuel Drew [q. v.], who first confuted Polwhele's arguments and afterwards became his firm friend (Life of Drew, pp. 129–52).
Throughout his life Polwhele was a contributor to the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ and from 1799 to 1805 he was a frequent contributor to the ‘Anti-Jacobin Review.’ He also supplied occasional articles to the ‘European Magazine,’ the ‘Orthodox Churchman's Magazine,’ and the ‘British Critic.’ Some of his poetry appeared in the ‘Forget-me-not,’ ‘Literary Souvenir,’ ‘The Amulet,’ the ‘Sacred Iris,’ and George Henderson's ‘Petrarca’ (1803). Several letters to him are in Nichols's ‘Illustrations of Literature,’ (iii. 841–2, v. 326, vii. 610–80), and some letters by him were in Upcott's collection (Catalogue, 1836, pp. 41–3).
Polwhele's portrait, by Opie, ‘one of the first efforts of his genius,’ painted about 1778, was in the possession of the Rev. Edward Polwhele, his son. It was engraved by Audinet as frontispiece to his ‘Traditions and Recollections,’ and was also inserted in Nichols's ‘Illustrations of Literature’ (viii. 646–7). Another engraved portrait from a miniature appeared in the ‘European Magazine’ for November 1795.
[Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Gent. Mag. 1793 pt. i. p. 187, pt. ii. p. 1149, 1838 pt. i. pp. 545–9; Boase and Courtney's Bibl. Cornub. ii. 506–17, iii. 1316; Boase's Collect. Cornub. pp. 745–7, 1200; Vivian's Visitations of Cornwall, pp. 377–378; Parochial Hist. of Cornwall, i. 210–17; Literary Memoirs of Living Authors, 1798, ii. 144–6; Public Characters, 1802–3, pp. 254–67; European Mag. 1795, pt. ii. pp. 329–33; Redding's Personal Reminiscences, i. 176–200; Redding's Fifty Years' Recollections, i. 266; Croker Papers, i. 165.]