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

By Critical and Biographical Essay by Alfred H. Miles

Reginald Heber (1783–1826)

REGINALD HEBER was born at Malpas, in Cheshire, on the 21st of April, 1783. He was educated privately, and at Brasenose College, Oxford, where he pursued a brilliant university career. He won the prize for the Carmen Sæculare, a Latin poem on the beginning of the new century (1800); the prize for English verse on the subject of Palestine (1803); and the prize for the best English prose essay on “The Sense of Honour” (1805). In 1805 he was elected fellow of All Souls’ College, after which he spent two years in travelling in Germany and Russia. In 1807 he returned to England, and took Holy Orders, married Amelia, daughter of Dr. Shipley, Dean of St. Asaph, and entered the living of Hodnet, devoting himself assiduously to the discharge of his parochial duties. In 1812 he became prebendary of St. Asaph; in 1815 Bampton Lecturer at Oxford; in 1822 Preacher at Lincoln’s Inn; and later in the same year Bishop of Calcutta. He died suddenly at Trichinopoly, on the 3rd of April, 1826, after conducting Confirmation and visiting a native school. He published editions of his Bampton lectures, sermons on various occasions, an account of his Indian travels, and a biography of Jeremy Taylor, with an edition of his works. A collection of his lyrics was made and published, with others, in 1827, and a complete edition of his poems in 1841.

The Rev. J. H. Overton, in the “Dictionary of National Biography,” from which these particulars are taken, describes Heber as a pious, amiable, and accomplished man, whose character is well displayed in his writings—his style always elegant and perspicuous, and his matter sensible and in good taste; but his verse wanting in the “divine afflatus,” and his prose in strength and massiveness. From this criticism it is impossible to dissent. His prize poem, “Palestine,” was received with enthusiasm on its recital, and was declared to be the best prize poem that Oxford had ever produced; but merely good rhetorical and descriptive writing in heroic couplets is not an uncommon accomplishment, and this poem can hardly claim higher characterisation. Heber lacked originality, and the power of imagination necessary to produce permanent work upon exalted lines. On the other hand, he had a facility in the manipulation of musical measures which made versification easy to him. An instance of his facility is afforded by the well-known story of Sir Walter Scott’s criticism, and Heber’s immediate incorporation of his critic’s idea. Previous to the public recital of the poem, the young poet read it to Sir Walter, who was then on a visit to Oxford, and who observed that in the lines describing the Temple of Solomon he had failed to note the interesting and characteristic fact that no tools were used in its construction. Heber took the hint, retired for a few moments, and wrote the lines afterwards incorporated in the poem:—

  • No hammer fell, no ponderous axes rung;
  • Like some tall palm the mystic fabric sprung.
  • Majestic silence!
  • Much of Heber’s poetical work was “occasional,” and for the production of “occasional” verse his qualities eminently fitted him. “Palestine” was an occasional poem, and for the purpose of its occasion was a success, though it lacks the qualities necessary to secure permanent interest. He was equal to the occasion, but the subject was too big for him. In his occasional hymns he was much more successful. Those which he began to publish in the pages of the Christian Observer in the year 1811 constituted one of the earliest attempts to provide a set of sacred lyrics suited to the Christian seasons; and some have so admirably caught the spirit of the festival they celebrated that they have become identified with the occasion which inspired them. Many have become widely popular, and some must be counted among the best hymns in the language. His hymn, “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains,” written for a service at Wrexham Church, at which his father-in-law, the Dean of St. Asaph, preached on behalf of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and some half dozen others, are at the full tide of their popularity, nearly a century after they were first sung, and seem as unlikely to go out of favour as they were when they first caught the ears, and gave expression to the feelings of Christian worshippers nearly a hundred years ago. In other occasional and isolated efforts Heber showed a versatility which would doubtless have served him had he cared to follow the leadings of the lighter muse. “The Knight and the Lady” shows a sense of humour; the ballad, “O Captain of the Moorish Hold,” some dramatic power; and the “Bow-meeting Song,” which we may quote here, the facility with which he could celebrate occasions other than religious and devotional.

  • YE spirits of our Fathers,
  • The hardy, bold, and free,
  • Who chased o’er Cressy’s gory field
  • A fourfold enemy!
  • From us who love your sylvan game,
  • To you the song shall flow,
  • To the fame of your name
  • Who so bravely bent the bow.
  • ’Twas merry then in England,
  • (Our ancient records tell,)
  • With Robin Hood and Little John
  • Who dwelt by down and dell;
  • And yet we love the bold outlaw
  • Who braved a tyrant foe,
  • Whose cheer was the deer,
  • And his only friend the bow!
  • ’Twas merry then in England
  • In autumn’s dewy morn,
  • When echo started from her hill
  • To hear the bugle-horn.
  • And beauty, mirth, and warrior worth
  • In garb of green did go
  • The shade to invade
  • With the arrow and the bow.
  • Ye spirits of our Fathers!
  • Extend to us your care,
  • Among your children yet are found
  • The valiant and the fair!
  • ’Tis merry yet in Old England,
  • Full well her archers know;
  • And shame on their name
  • Who despise the British bow!
  • But it is Heber’s hymns which will keep him longest in memory, and the best of these seem sure of long-continued popularity.