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Alfred H. Miles, ed. The Sacred Poets of the Nineteenth Century. 1907.

By Critical and Biographical Essay by William Garrett Horder

Edward Hayes Plumptre (1821–1891)

OF few men of our century could it be more truly said than of Dr. Plumptre “Nihil tetigit non ornavit.” This is the more remarkable when we remember the number of subjects he touched with his pen—Theology—Speculative, Exegetical, Homiletical, Translation—of the Hebrew Scriptures, of the Greek Classics, and of Dante, Biography, and Poetry including hymn writing. In each of these departments, if he did not give proof of actual genius, he certainly showed a fine taste, and the results of a finished scholarship. The part he took as a member of the Old Testament Company of Revisers is known only to those who were his co-workers, but his separately published works on the Prophets show both ample knowledge and poetic imagination. His translations of Sophocles and Æschylus still hold their place as worthy renderings of those great poets, his Dante is noteworthy not only as a translation—in parts extremely happy—but in the highest degree valuable for its introductory life and its exhaustive notes, whilst his Life of Bishop Ker has become, and is likely long to remain, the standard work on the subject.

He was born in London on the 6th of August, 1821. He was educated first at King’s College, London, and afterwards at University College, Oxford. At his graduation in 1844 he took a double-first. Soon after he was elected a Fellow of Brasenose. He was ordained in 1846, and rapidly came to the front both as a Theologian and a Preacher. Amongst the more important posts he held were the following: Assistant Preacher at Lincoln’s Inn, Select Preacher at Oxford, Professor of Pastoral Theology at King’s College, London, Dean of Queen’s College, Oxford, Prebendary of St. Paul’s, Professor of New Testament Exegesis at King’s College, London, Boyle Lecturer, Grinfield Lecturer on the Septuagint, Examiner in the Theological Schools at Oxford, Member of the Old Testament Revision Company, Rector of Pluckley, 1869, Vicar of Bickley, 1873, and Dean of Wells from 1881 to his death in 1891.

He married the sister of Frederick Denison Maurice, This, and similarity of pursuits and tastes, brought him into very close connection with Julius Charles Hare (who had married another sister of Maurice’s), which led to Dr. Plumptre writing introductory sketches to the “Guesses at Truth” by Two Brothers (Julius Charles and Augustus William Hare), and the “Victory of Faith” by the former of these.

Dr. Plumptre’s published poetical work is comprised in three volumes: “Lazarus and Other Poems” (1864); “Master and Scholar” (1866); “Things New and Old” (1884). A fourth book, “Cornua Altaris; Thoughts for the Church’s Year,” was announced in 1884, but never published. This would probably have contained a selection from two voluminous note-books filled with poems chiefly on Scripture subjects, which Dr. Plumptre was kind enough to place at the disposal of the present writer, and from which he drew the greater part of the poems bearing Dr. Plumptre’s name in “The Poets’ Bible” (1883).

His poetic work is such as we should expect from the nature, the culture, and the pursuits of such a man. Though his lifework lay chiefly in the theological region, he did not, as so many have done, regard theology apart from life by the daylight of the metaphysical thinker. He always saw the form and heard the voice of Prophet and Evangelist whilst he analysed their words. When too little was known of them from the history for this to be the case, he constructed ideal biographies, as in the case of several of the Prophets. So that the imagination was never quite shut out even from his most serious exegetical work. Then his classical training gave him great mastery of verse-forms, whilst his large classical and Biblical scholarship furnished vast stores of knowledge which he was able—easily—to cloth in poetic form. His more important poems, such as “Lazarus,” “Jesus Barabbas,” and others on Scripture characters are full of information, and are really studies with the added charm of being wrought into poetic form and touched with the colours of an imagination guided by the knowledge of the accurate scholar. The same remarks apply to his poems on Roger Bacon, Milton at Chalfont St. Giles, John Bunyan, etc. These may all be read as Biographic Vignettes, with the assurance that beneath every allusion there is the solid basis of fact. In his shorter poems on Scripture themes the accuracy of the scholar is everywhere present, and they are, therefore, as valuable to the seeker for truth as for the lover of poetry. In his hymns, Dr. Plumptre’s thought is often better than the form of its expression. Here the scholar outweighs the poet. Indeed, the lyric is the element in which Dr. Plumptre is most deficient. With one or two exceptions, notably, “Rejoice, ye pure in heart,” the most widely used of all, his hymns do not, as they should, sing themselves. The greatest poets can make bricks without straw. This Dr. Plumptre cannot do. He must always have a basis of fact, and then he will not quite transfigure it as a Master would do; but he will show all its points in a lovely light. He is a scholar first and a poet afterwards. This to a generation fascinated by Impressionism may seem but faint praise. It is not intended to be. There are diversities of gifts in poetry as in everything else, and at the risk of being reckoned a Philistine, I shall say that I have found more pleasure in some of Dr. Plumptre’s verse, although he does “keep one foot firm on fact ere hazarding the next step,” than in many a poet who is bold enough to disregard firm foothold on the earth.