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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

Sir John Bowring (1792–1872)

SIR JOHN BOWRING was born at Exeter on the 17th of October, 1792. He was privately educated, and entered a commercial house immediately on leaving school. He had a special taste and talent for the acquisition of languages, and at one time or another became more or less familiar with French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Dutch, Swedish, Danish, Russian, Servian, Polish, Bohemian, Arabic, and Chinese. In 1811 he entered the service of a firm of Lisbon merchants, who sent him to the Peninsular. Starting in business on his own account, in 1819–20, he visited Spain, France, Belgium, Holland, Russia, and Sweden, and on his return published his “Specimens of the Russian Poets” (1820). From thenceforward his life was one of unceasing activity. His literary, political, and diplomatic careers would, either of them, have satisfied the energy of an ordinary man. In 1823, he published his “Matins and Vespers,” which became immediately popular. In 1824 he became the editor of the Westminster Review, in which year he also issued his “Batavian Anthology.” In 1824 he published his “Ancient Poetry and Romances of Spain”; in 1825 his “Hymns”; in 1827 his “Specimens of the Polish Poets,” and “Servian Popular Poetry”; in 1829 his “Sketch of the Language and Literature of Holland”; in 1830, his “Poetry of the Magyars”; and in 1832 his “Cheskian Anthology”; in 1843 his “Manuscripts of the Queen’s Court: a collection of old Bohemian Lyrico-Epic songs, with other ancient Bohemian poems”; in 1861 the “Ode to the Deity,” translated from the Russian; and in 1866 his “Translations from Petöfi.” A mere list of his miscellaneous works would occupy considerable space.

In 1822 he was arrested at Calais, and thrown into prison, for bearing despatches to the Portuguese ministers, informing them of the intended invasion of the Peninsular by the Bourbon Government of France. After a fortnight’s solitary confinement he was liberated at the instance of Canning, who was then Foreign Minister; but he was condemned to perpetual exile from France. Eight years later he was the writer and bearer of an address from the citizens of London, congratulating the French people on the Revolution (July 1830); and was the first Englishman received by Louis Philippe after his recognition by the British Government. From 1831 Bowring was employed on several missions of inquiry into the financial methods of Foreign Governments, and was appointed Secretary to the Commission for inspecting the accounts of the United Kingdom. In 1832 he contested Blackburn for a seat in Parliament, but was rejected by twelve votes. He was, however, elected for the Clyde Burghs in 1835, though he lost his seat in 1837. In 1838 he met Cobden and others at the York Hotel, Manchester, and the Anti-Corn Law League was established. In support of the League he again sought parliamentary honours and opportunities. He was rejected by Kirkcaldy, but elected by Bolton in 1841. He became a frequent speaker upon the progressive movements of his time, and received many public testimonials of the appreciation of his services. In 1847 he became Consul at Canton, in 1854 Plenipotentiary to China, and afterwards Governor of Hong Kong. It was at this time that he received the honour of Knighthood. In 1859 he resigned his office and left China, suffering shipwreck in the Red Sea, and spending three days with his fellow-passengers upon a coral reef. In the following year he was sent by the British Government to inquire into the state of the commercial relationships of England and Italy, and while in Rome suffered illness, aggravated by the effects of an attempt made to poison him and the other English residents at Hong Kong in 1857. Sir John Bowring won many foreign decorations, was an active member of many learned bodies, a Fellow of the Royal Society, and a constant lecturer, and writer for the reviews and magazines. He lived to a good old age, and having completed his eightieth year, died at Exeter, within a short distance of the place of his birth, on the 23rd of November, 1872. In early life he projected a scheme for an Anthology of translated specimens of the poetry of Europe and Asia, and from time to time he collected materials for its execution. This vast and interesting undertaking, however, he did not live to complete.

Sir John Bowring was a man of broad and open mind. He had a firm grip for fundamental principles, a clear eye for the intricacies of conflicting evidence, and a sound judgment for estimating subtle issues. His religious belief was an intelligent faith based upon reason and inquiry, of which the sonnet “Confidence” may be taken as a proof. Two of his hymns, “In the Cross of Christ I glory,” and “God is Love! His Mercy brightens,” have found world-wide acceptance among all classes of Christians. Such poems as “Matter and Mind” help to establish the reasonableness of faith.