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The Lives of the Poets-Laureate/Henry James Pye

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HENRY JAMES PYE.


Lord Byron has observed with characteristic flippancy, that Pye was "a man eminently respectable in everything but his poetry." Had this been precisely true, the Laureate would have been so exactly his Lordship's antithesis, that there is little cause for wondering at his satirizing him. If he had called the poet's verses respectable, the statement would have been more true, and therefore more libellous; for respectable poetry is of the kind which neither gods, men, nor columns countenance; and we are afraid that, with all our reverence for Mr. Pye as a man of ancient family, unimpeachable character, and high position, we must admit that, as a poet, his Muse's chief attributes are Mediocrity and Morality. In pronouncing this judgment, we allude to him simply under the poetic aspect; for the slightest knowledge of his voluminous writings will show that his intellect had been highly cultivated, and that he possessed erudition, judgment, and sense.

"The Pyes," says Noble, in his "Memoirs of the House of Cromwell," are a most ancient and honourable family, from whom two of the English kings descended. The etymology of the name of Pye, is ap Hugh, the letter u having the same sound in Welch as y; the family conformed to the Welch manner, from residing near that Principality; they bear for their arms, ermine, a bend lozengy, gules. William Pye came over with the Norman Conqueror; and his family became champions to the first kings of that race. Hugh Pye, probably his son, was lord of Kilpec Castle, in the Mynde Park, in Herefordshire; he had two sons, Thomas Pye de Kilpec and John."

The family ancient, as it was, had an additional lustre thrown on it when one of the Laureate's ancestors married the daughter of John Hampden. His father was Auditor of the Exchequer in the reign of James I. It was therefore his duty to pay to Ben Jonson the income (or rather part of it, for the marks had not then been increased to pounds), which his descendant afterwards received. There is a mendicant poetical epistle of the elder Laureate to Sir Robert Pye, to be found in Jonson's works.

"Father John Burgess,
Necesity urges
My woeful cry
To Sir Robert Pie;
And that he will venture
To send my debenture.
Tell him his Ben
Knew the time when
He loved the Muses;
Though now he refuses
To take apprehension
Of a year's pension,
And more is behind:
Put him in mind
Christmas is near,
And neither good cheer,
Mirth, fooling, or wit,
Nor any least fit

Of gambol or sport
Will come at the Court;
If there be no money,
No plover or coney
Will come to the table,
Or wine to enable
The Muse or the Poet—
The parish will know it.
Nor any quick warming-pan help him to bed—
If the chequer be empty, so will be his head."

The Auditor was deprived of his office during the Protectorate, but reinstated at the Restoration, and if we may trust Noble,[1] "procured a very large fortune for his family," and purchased the manor and seat of Faringdon, in Berks. His eldest son, Sir Robert, meanwhile sat for Woodstock, in the Long Parliament, and was a colonel of horse in Fairfax's regiment. Cromwell employed him, and during the Protectorate he represented Berkshire in two parliaments. He, however, was one of those who aided and abetted the Restoration, and after this retired into private life. He survived his wife, Hampden's daughter, only a week, and they were both buried in Faringdon Church.[2]

The subject of this memoir was therefore the lineal descendent of the celebrated patriot, and was the fourth in descent from Sir Robert, the son of the Auditor. He was the eldest son of Henry Pye, who had represented Berkshire in four different parliaments without a contested election. Henry James was born on the 10th of July, 1745, in London. Of his childhood, little or nothing is known. Under his father's roof he was instructed to the age of seventeen by a private tutor. He was when quite a child very fond of reading, and has himself stated, what has been quoted in every biographical notice of him, that when he was about ten years of age, his father put Pope's translation of "Homer" into his hands, and that he experienced such delight in reading it, that it "fixed him a rhymer for life."

At the age of seventeen, he quitted the paternal roof, and entered as a gentleman-commoner at Magdalen College, Oxford. On his coming of age, he left the University, and just at this time his father died, and the son, only just twenty-one, succeeded to the paternal inheritance. Upon this occasion, he acted in an honourable and generous manner, which redounds greatly to his credit, but which occasioned him much future embarrassment. His father died with debts to the amount of £50,000; none of them, however, chargeable upon the estate. Notwithstanding this, the son defrayed the whole of them: and it was this, combined with losses which he suffered from a fire at his house in Bedfordshire, and the expense of rebuilding his house in Berks, which compelled him to sell his paternal estate. The notice which appeared in the Magazines at the time of his death, contained an error which has ever since been but too faithfully, and pertinaciously repeated, to the effect that he ruined himself by standing a contested election for Berks; whereas, the real causes of his embarrassment were those which we have stated, and it so happens that the contest in 1784 was not very expensive.[3]

The poet immediately after making over the paternal estate, married Miss Hooke, the sister of Lieutenant-Colonel Hooke. Only occasionally visiting London, he was an active and useful county magistrate, was for a great many years in the Berkshire Militia, and the account given of his habits is that he equally divided his time between these duties, his books, and the sports of the field, to which he was greatly attached. He has celebrated one of these sports in his poem on shooting, to which he prefixed a motto from Virgil, singularly appropriate to an invention not dreamed of when the lines were written.

"Volans liquidis in nubibus arsit
Signavitque viam flamrais."

The poem is written in smooth heroics, and is as good as any didactic poetry on such subjects can very well be. After invoking "Sylvan Muses," and paying a tribute to Somerville, the author of "The Chase," he lays down special laws to be observed by sportsmen; and although he indulges an occasional digression, as, for instance, the story of Atys and Adrastus, he keeps in the main closely to his subject. We will give the reader one specimen.

""When the last sun of August's fiery reign
Now bathes his radiant forehead in the main,
The panoply by sportive heroes worn
Is rang'd in order for the ensuing morn;
Forth from the summer guard of bolt and lock
Comes the thick guêtre, and the fustian frock.
With curious skill, the deathful tube is made,
Clean as the firelock of the spruce parade:
Yet let no polish of the sportsman's gun
Flash like the soldier's weapon to the sun,
Or the bright steel's refulgent glare presume,
To penetrate the peaceful forest's gloom;
But let it take the brown's more sober hue,
Or the dark lustre of the enamell'd blue.
Let the close pouch the wadded tow contain,
The leaden pellets, and the nitrous grain;
And wisely cautious, with preventive care,
Be the spare flint and ready turnscrew there;
While the slung net is open to receive
Each prize the labours of the day shall give."

He enters with as much elaboration of detail, as in this passage, into the comparative merits of partridge, pheasant, and snipe shooting, and draws from all the usual moral in defence of field sports, that they harden our "sturdy youth," and educate us for the toils and perils of war.

Pye having been, as he expressed it, "fixed a rhymer for life," he seems to have preferred verse to prose, as the vehicle of his thoughts on any subject in which he might be at the time interested. Thus a theme was suggested by the scenery of his own immediate neighbourhood, and he wrote his poem on Faringdon Hill. "Aeriphorion," another of his poetical lucubrations, was called forth by the Laureate's seeing Mr. Sadler, the first English Aeronaut, ascend in a balloon at Oxford, in 1784. And when he was encamped at Coxheath, in 1778, he translated, in his leisure hours, during the peaceful campaign, the King of Prussia's poem "On the Art of War." We trust that some of the warriors on the plains of Chobham are amusing their philosophic minds after a fashion as intellectual. "This translation," writes Pye, in the Preface, "was the amusement of some of the many leisure hours that necessarily must fall to the lot of every one in a camp not of actual service, though under the command of a general, whose strict attention to the discipline of the regiments entrusted to his care, and whose unremitting diligence in forming the militia corps, will be gratefully remembered by every officer and soldier of that establishment, who wished to acquire a knowledge of the military profession, and not to lounge away a few months in idleness, debauchery, and dissipation." With the same military ardour he afterwards translated the "Elegies" of Tyrtæus, and some of his renderings are very spirited.

It had, however, become so much the joke in literature to laugh at the Laureate, that they did not escape the lash of the author of "Pursuits of Literature," who alluding to two of Pye's works, his version of Tyrtæus, and his translation of a German story, speaks of him in the following couplet,

"With Spartan Pye lull England to repose,
Or frighten children with Lenora's woes:"

and appends to it the following remarks in the form of a note: "Mr. Pye, the present Poet-Laureate, with the best intentions at this momentous period, if not with the very best poetry, translated the verses of Tyrtæus the Spartan. They were designed to produce animation throughout the kingdom, and among the Militia in particular. Several of the Reviewing Generals (I do not mean the Monthly or Critical) were much impressed with their weight and importance; and, at a board of general officers, an experiment was agreed upon, which unfortunately failed. They were read aloud at Wanley Common, and at Barham Downs, by the adjutants, at the head of five different regiments, at each camp, and much was expected. But before they were half finished, all the front ranks, and as many of the others as were within hearing or verse shot, dropped their arms suddenly, and were all found fast asleep. Marquis Townshend, who never approved of the scheme, said, with his usual pleasantry, 'that the first of all poets observed that sleep is the brother of death.'"

We have, however, interrupted our narrative to allude to some of his writings.

In 1784 he contested the county of Bucks, and was returned to Parliament. In the House he never distinguished himself, and spoke but briefly on only three occasions. The first time that he rose was in the debate on Mr. Masham's bill for securing the freedom of elections; and of his other two yet shorter oratorical efforts, the second was an explanation in reference to his relative, Sir Thomas Pye, who had been alluded to in the course of the debate; and, in the third, on a discussion on the hay exportation bill, in 1788, he informed the House that his constituents had suffered from a scanty hay harvest that year.

In 1790, his appointment to the Laureateship took place. Some of Warton's odes, of which we have presented the reader with a fair sample, had been really so much above the smooth mediocrity of Whitehead, and the absolute doggerel of Cibber, that Pye felt that his was a difficult task in succeeding to an office just vacated by a man of genius and taste. He therefore toiled to produce his two odes a-year with punctual precision, and elaborated them with careful industry. They are good rhetorical verse of the tumid kind. They breathe a spirit of ardent patriotism and devoted loyalty. That for his Majesty's birthday, June 4th, 1792, commences in the following rather magnificent style:

"Heard ye the blast, whose sullen roar
Burst dreadful from the angry skies?
Saw ye against the craggy shore
The waves in wild contention rise?"

and concludes with a direct allusion to the great occasion for which it was composed:

"To welcome George's natal hour,
No vain display of empty power,
In flattery steep'd, no soothing lay
Shall strains of adulation pay;
But Commerce rolling deep and wide
To Albion's shores her swelling tide,
But Themis' olive cinctur'd head,
And white rob'd Peace by Victory led,
Shall fill thy breast with virtuous pride,
Shall give him power to truth allied;
Joys which alone a patriot King can prove,
A nation's strength his power, his pride a people's love."

The "Ode for the New Year," 1797, blows the war-trumpet sonorously. The last stanza is as follows:

"Genius of Albion hear,
Grasp the strong shield, and shake the avenging spear.
By wreaths thy hardy sons of yore
From Gallia's crest victorious tore,
By Edward's lily-blazon'd shield;
By Agincourt's high trophy'd field;
By rash Iberia's naval pride,
Whelm'd by Eliza's barks beneath the stormy tide;
Call forth the warrior race again,
Breathing to ancient mood the soul-inspiring strain.
[4]To arms! your ensigns straight display!
Now set the battle in array,
The oracle for war declares,
Success depends upon our hearts and spears.
Britons, strike home! revenge your country's wrongs;
Fight, and record yourselves in Druid songs."

In the "Birthday Ode," for the year 1800, the Laureate breaks out into an imitation of our national anthem:

God of our fathers rise,
And through the thund'ring skies.
Thy vengeance urge.
In awful justice red,
Be thy dread arrows sped,
But guard our Monarch's head,
God save great George.

Still on our Albion smile,
Still o'er this favor'd isle,
O, spread thy wing!
To make each blessing sure,
To make our fame endure,
To make our rights secure,
God save our King!

To the loud trumpet's throat,
To the shrill clarion's note,
Now jocund sing.
From every open foe,
From every traitor's blow,
Virtue defend his brow.
God guard our King!

In 1811, we find a hiatus (we scarcely think we can add maxime deflendus) in the "Annual Register," and the pages usually assigned to the two annual songs of the Laureate, are devoted to a long Cambridge Installation Ode,[5] by Professor Smyth, the lecturer on history. The Official Muse was silent also in 1812. Pye's not writing the requisite lays, arose from the fact that he had at this time retired from public life, and was suffering from severe attacks of gout. His zeal for his office he however had never failed to show, for in addition to his regular poetic offerings, he composed poems on public questions, and of a kind that would be pleasing to the Court and Government. His poem, "Naucratia, or Naval Dominion," published in 1798, he dedicated to his Sacred Majesty. In this lucubration he alludes to his ancestor, the famous patriot:

"Arm'd in her cause on Chalgrove's fatal plain,
Where sorrowing Freedom mourns her Hampden slain,
Say, shall the moralizing bard presume,
From his proud hearse to tear one warlike plume,
Because a Cæsar or a Cromwell wore
An impious wreath, wet with their country's gore?"

We quote these lines because of their subject, but they are by no means a fair specimen of the poem, in which there are some rather spirited passages. In speaking of Columbus in Part II., he rises quite to the Prize Poem altitude:

"Columbus' eye, in transport of amaze,
The spacious region of delight surveys,
Charming with real scenes the raptur'd view,
Fairer than all his warmest wishes drew;
Isles in fair spring's eternal livery dight,
The vast Savannah's space, the mountain's height;
Forests of growth gigantic, that display'd
O'er spacious continents impervious shade;

Fields that uncultur'd, harvests rich produce,
Spontaneous fruits that yield ambrosial juice;
And rivers that their sea-broad currents roll'd
Through groves of perfume, and o'er sands of gold."

Two years after his succession to the Laurel, he was made one of the Magistrates of Westminster. He industriously devoted himself to his judicial studies, although there is an anecdote in the autobiography of Mr. Leigh Hunt to the effect that Pye was one day found absorbed in his books when an impatient Court was awaiting his arrival on the bench at Westminster.

He published in 1827 "A Summary of the Duties of a Justice of the Peace."

As we do not belong to that class of writers who, according to Mason, in his "Memoirs of W. Whitehead," "gain what they think an honest livelihood by publishing the lives of the living," so also we do not attempt to chronicle any of the minute circumstances of the private life of our Laureate.

He died at Pinner, in Herts, in a house which he had purchased there, on August 13th, 1813.

Though after his appointment to the Laureateship, his works became a target for wit and sarcasm, though his name was facetiously punned on in squibs political and literary, and "Pye et Parvus Pybus"[6] was in every one's mouth, yet he enjoyed a good literary, if not a high poetical reputation.

We find that in 1807 he was called upon to write an address for the Anniversary of the Literary Fund Dinner. He was the friend of Mitford, Hayley, and other men of note.

His works are very voluminous, and form a goodly list, catalogued precisely in Watt's "Bibliotheca Britannica." They are many of them to be found in the British Museum, in libraries at country houses, and to be picked up at book-stalls. Notwithstanding the elaborate jocosity which we have before quoted at the expense of his version of "Tyrtæus," some of the translations are very spirited. There are smooth and pretty verses in his "Hymns and Epigrams of Homer." His "Carmen Seculare" is musical and rhetorical verse, occasionally bombastic, and the preface to it contains a discussion like the one which appeared in the newspaper three years ago, whether January 1st, 1800, or January 1st, 1801, is the first day of the nineteenth century.

Besides Pye's poetical productions, he wrote more than once for the stage, translated a work from the German, and published a translation of the "Poetics of Aristotle," with a commentary. It is a curious and not uninteresting book, full of gossipping anecdote and colloquial criticism. It occasionally degenerates into feeble garrulity, as, for instance, his defence of the ladies against Aristotle's definition, and Twining's comment upon it. As a critic, he is usually candid, but not severe. He speaks of one of Warton's odes as "one of the most beautiful and original descriptive poems in our language." Of two of his earlier predecessors he says in terms less eulogistic, "Cibber possessed a genius not above mediocrity, and Tate was an indifferent poet." Pye had a very warm admiration for Thompson, and wrote a "Sonnet on a Villa at Rosedale, Richmond," once the property of that poet. His "Comments on the Commentations of Shakespeare," is a readable little book, full of short notes on the various plays. He treats the Commentators somewhat uncivilly, and is especially bilious against Warburton. The work called forth a letter in the "Gentleman's Magazine," in which the writer complains loudly of the flippancy of Mr. Pye. In commenting on the line in the "Merchant of Venice,"

"The man that hath no music in himself,"

he makes a confession of his own want of taste for instrumental music: "But I confess I, who would almost as soon stand up to my neck in water in winter as sit out a concert, should have no great opinion of that man who was dead to the effect of a pathetic song set to a simple melody."

Pye does not, from occasional remarks which occur in his writings, seem to have set great store on his poetical productions. In a dedicatory letter to Mr. Addington, prefixed to his "Epic of Alfred," he quotes from the preface to Prior's "Solomon" the following remark, and applies it to himself. "I am glad to have it observed, that there appears throughout my verses a zeal for the honour of my country; and I had rather be thought a good Englishman than the best poet or the greatest scholar that ever wrote." And so he was, a good Englishman, a gentleman in the highest sense of the word, a man of ancient family, of patriotic principles, of genial courtesy, and pleasant convivial habits,[7] an industrious student, a well-informed, cultivated, graceful writer; but a poet, he assuredly was not. Weighed in the balance of contemporaneous criticism, he was found wanting, and Time has sanctioned the severe decree.


  1. Memoirs of the House of Cromwell.
  2. Portraits of the Auditor and his son, Sir Robert, are to be found among other family pictures at Camfield Place, Herts, the seat of Baron Dimsdale.
  3. For a few details of this short Memoir, we are indebted to the courtesy of H. J. Pye, Esq., of Clifton Campville, Tamworth, and R. Dimsdale, Esq., of Essendon Place, Herts.
  4. The last six lines, were inserted at the especial request of the King.
  5. This reminds us that at the installation of Lord North, at Oxford, in 1772, the degree of D.C.L, was conferred on Pye among others. He had assuredly as much right to it as some gentlemen lately so honoured.
  6. Charles Small Pybus, M.P., and in the House at the time that Pye was. He is the author of a poem called "The Sovereign," chiefly remarkable for the gorgeous style in which it was printed.
  7. Notwithstanding his conviviality, it was during his Laureateship that the tierce of Canary was discontinued, and the £27 substituted.