1902 Encyclopedia > Henry Alford

Henry Alford
Dean of Canterbury, poet, and scholar

Henry Alford, D.D., Dean of Canterbury, one of the most variously-accomplished churchmen of his day -- poet, preacher, painter, musician, biblical scholar, critic, and philologist -- was born at 25 Alfred Place, Bedford Row, London, October 7th, 1810 (died 1871).

He came of a Somersetshire family, five generations of which, in direct succession, contributed clergymen of some distinction to the English Church. The earliest of these, his great-great-grandfather, Thomas, who died in 1708, was for many years the vicar of Curry Rivell, near Taunton -- a living that passed from one to another of his descendants.

The father of Dean Alford studied for the bar, but after practicing for a short time, followed the course of his predecessors by taking holy orders; and until his death at a venerable age in 1852, had long been familiarly known and revered in his part of the country as the rector of Aston Sandford in Buckinghamshire. His first wife, the dean's mother, whose maiden name was Sarah Eliza Paget, was the younger daughter of a well-to-do banker of Tamworth in Staffordshire.

A twelvemonth after their marriage, her husband, then practising as a special pleader, was by her premature death in childbed left a widower. The newly-born infant, who remained to the last the bereaved parent's only child, was confided in the first instance to the affectionate care of the home-circle in the house of his maternal grandfather. Towards the close of 1813 he was taken back to the lonely hearth of his father, who had now entered upon his clerical duties as curate of Steeple Ashton, near Trowbridge in Wiltshire.

Being the only son of a secluded scholar, the boy's education was from an unusually early period sedulously cared for; his father being his first instructor, and at the outset his constant companion. So exceptional was his precocity that at six he had already written a little MS. volume entitled (in round hand) the Travels of St Paul. Before he was eight he had penned a collection of Latin odes in miniature. When he was scarcely nine he had compiled, in the straggling characters of a schoolboy, a compendious History of the Jews; besides drawing out a chronological scheme in which were tabulated the events of the Old Testament. Prior to the completion of his tenth year he actually produced a series of terse sermons or laconically outlined homilies, the significant title of which was Looking unto Jesus.

During the absence of his father, who had gone abroad as the traveling chaplain of Lord Calthorpe, Henry, at seven years of age, began the round of three academies, at Charmouth and Hammersmith; the happiest time of all for him as a schoolboy being three years and upwards passed in the grammar-school at Ilminster. His character was already displaying a marked individuality. He could repeat not only readily but appreciatively an astonishing number of lines in Greek, Latin, and English, selected from what were then and always afterwards his favourite classic authors. He indulged, too, in those early days, in the luxury of original versification.

Then it was also that he first began to manifest that singular capacity for ingenious contrivance and that surprising neatness and dexterity of manipulation for which he was afterwards remarkable. It was said of him later in life, that he could construct an organ and then play upon it; and when his reputation for profound scholarship had been long established, his constructiveness was curiously manifested by his adaptation to the purposes of utility of the seemingly ordinary walking-stick he carried when traveling on the Continent. In its upper joint he secreted his surplus money and his drawing materials; in its lower joint pens, ink, wax, and pencils.

Strangely contrasting with this ineradicable passion for nicety and precision was his delight at all times in giving himself up to the most diversified occupations, and in yielding, often at an instant's notice, as he sometimes notes with regret, to the temptation of mere discursiveness.

Henry Alford

Henry Alford

It was in the October of 1827 that the university life of Alford commenced. At seventeen he went up to Cambridge, having won his scholarship, and had his name entered at Trinity Colleges. During the midsummer of his fourth year at Cambridge, in the June of 1831, he had obtained the second prize essay. As the autumn deepened into winter he was nervously preparing to go in for honours at the examinations. In the possibility of his success he had not the slightest confidence, yet on the 21st January 1832 he appears as thirty-fourth wrangler while on the 25th February his name comes out eight on the first-class list of the classical tripos.

He now began to take pupils, and within the interval which elapsed between his taking his degree and giving himself up more completely to the great work of his life -- the elaboration of his edition of the Greek New Testament -- it is believed that he had under his charge at least sixty. These included barristers, clergymen, peers and members of parliament; many of whom afterwards attained positions of eminence, all of them having their characters moulded more or less under the inspiring influence of his.

In his twenty-sixth year he was united in marriage to his cousin Fanny, a daughter of his uncle, the Rev. Samuel Alford, who was then, as his father and his great-grandfather had been before him, vicar of Curry Rivell. Surviving her husband after nearly thirty five years of wedded life, during which she had seen the development of his intellectual powers and the realization of some portions at least of his many-sided ambition, she brought out in 1872 his journals and correspondence, carefully edited by herself. A curiously characteristic side light is thrown upon Alford's inner nature, both moral and intellectual, by the circumstance there recorded -- that, with a view to enable his future wife to read the New Testament in Greek, he wrote with his own hand, in the interval between betrothal and marriage, an elementary Greek grammar of sixty folio pages.

The incident is all the more interesting as affording the earliest glimpse of what soon proved to be his dominant aspiration. His researches in secular scholarship were at this time becoming every year more and more adventurous. He shrank not from proclaiming even then that he regarded Niebuhr as "one of the greatest men in this ignorant and obstinate world."

Meanwhile, in the midst of his excursive inquiries as a student in the most opposite directions, he was indulging at every available opportunity in the lotos-delight of his own day dreamings; and in February 1833, he published his maiden work as a lyrist, Poems and Poetical Fragments. Simply as an instructor he was working steadily seven hours a day; but the time came when, in furtherance of his favourite researches, he was known to toil at the desk sometimes twelve or fourteen.

Resolved from childhood to tread the path of life in the footsteps of his forefathers, Alford was ordained deacon on the 26th October 1833, and at once began active professional work as curate of Ampton. So modest was his own estimate of his intellectual capabilities, that it was with unaffected surprise he found his name second on the list of the six fellows of Trinity who were elected on the 1st of the following October.

On the 6th November he was admitted to priest's orders, and four months afterwards, upon the 4th March 1835 -- scarcely a week before his marriage -- entered upon his parochial labours of eighteen years' duration as vicar of Wymeswold in Leicestershire. Twice during the interval of his scholarly seclusion in that quiet vicarage he was vainly tempted with the offer of a colonial bishopric, first in 1841 as bishop of New Zealand, and again in 1844 as bishop of New Brunswick. He contentedly drudged on for years together in comparative obscurity among his pupils and parishioners.

Although a ripe scholar, and remarkable for his splendid versatility, it was less by the brilliancy of his achievements than by the sheer force of the most diligent perseverance that he pushed his way eventually into the front rank, and commanded at last the recognition of his contemporaries. Whatever he put his hand to he carried out with a zeal that at times looked almost like dogged determination. Thrown from his horse in the February of 1847 when going to deliver his first lecture, although very seriously shaken and disfigured, he nevertheless punctually appeared before his audience with his face and head covered with surgical bandages, and -- resolutely lectured.

His reputation as a lecturer of exceptional power was within a few years from that time thoroughly established. Several of his discourses, notably one on Saul of Tarsus, with others on themes as varied as astronomy, music, scenery, and Christianity, acquired in the end a certain amount of celebrity. For two years together, in 1841 and 1842, he held the chair at Cambridge of Hulsean lecturer. As the result of his labours in that capacity, two substantial volumes afterwards made their appearance.

Meanwhile, in the midst of his more serious a vocations, he was at uncertain intervals making good his claim to be regarded as one of the more subtle and tender of the minor religious poets of England. Adopting an old forgotten title of Quarles's, he brought out, on his arrival at Wymeswold (1835), in two volumes, his School of the Heart, coupled with a reissue of his minor poems and sonnets. In 1838, he edited in six vols., the works of Donne, prefixing a luminous preface, at once critical and biographical. Throughout the year 1839 and part of 1840 he edited a monthly magazine called Dearden's Miscellany. In 1841 he published, with other new poems, his Abbot of Muchelnaye. A collection of Psalms and Hymns appeared from his hand in the spring of 1844.

A couple of years before that, in 1842, he had first entered upon his duties at Somerset House, where he acted for many years as examiner in logic and moral and intellectual philosophy in the university of London. So youthful was his appearance at the date of his first receiving this appointment, that on his entering the apartment where he was awaited by the candidates, he was mistaken for one of themselves.

What eventually proved to be the noblest of all his literary undertakings, his new edition, with running commentary, of the Greek Testament, engrossed his attention for fully twenty years together, from 1841 to 1861. Originally designed for the use of students in the universities, the work, from its modest first projection, grew in his hands to enormous proportions. He fancied at starting that a single year might witness its completion, and that a couple of thin octavos might embrace both text and commentary. By the time the expanding scheme was actually realized twenty years had elapsed, and the work had swollen into four ponderous tomes, the contents of which were as weighty as they were comprehensive.

The idea of the work was suggested to Alford's mind as he listened one day to a sermon at Cambridge. What he proposed to himself at the outset was simply to adopt the main text, and to combine with it the greater part of the readings of Philipp Buttmann and Karl Lachmann. This, however, led to a more extended plan of critical labour and research, including a comprehensive digest of the various readings founded on the latest collations of the principal manuscripts, the Codex Vaticanus, the codex Sinaiticus, the Codex Alexandrinus, and others. With a view to illustrate more clearly than ever the verbal and idiomatic or constructional usages of the sacred text, an entirely new collection of marginal references was compiled. Added to this there was a copious abundance of English, notes, both exegetical and philological.

Conscious of the vast stores of learning that had been accumulating in Germany, Alford from an early date determined to render himself as thoroughly as possible a master of the German language and at home in German literature. This intention was fairly carried out at Bonn before the close of the summer of 1847. Then, but hardly till then, he felt himself at last duly qualified to edit the Greek Testament. From that time he prepared in earnest to open up systematically to the contemplation of English readers the wealth of German criticism, actually made plain for the first time in our language through his Prolegomena and subsequent incidental commentary.

In November 1849 (the month the author took his B.D. degree at Cambridge), vol. i. of the Greek Testament was published, containing the four Gospels. Through it theological students in this country had placed within their reach in an epitomized form the latest results of the labours of continental critics on the Greek text, including portions even of those of Constantine Tischendorf. Issued from the press volume by volume, the work, as already remarked, was not completed till long afterwards. In January 1861 the fourth or final volume, beginning with the Epistle to the Hebrews and ending with the Book of Revelation, made its appearance.

What is chiefly noticeable in regard to the work is its strictly critical character. It is the production of a philologist rather than of a theologian. Abbreviations, punctuations, elisions of orthography, systematic ellipses, the merest turns of the pen in this or that manuscript, are weighted against microscopic scruples in the balance of his judgment. There can be little question that the work appreciably increased the aggregate amount of the biblical knowledge of Alford's immediate contemporaries. So carefully matured were his researches in the regions of exegesis, already crossed and recrossed by the footprints of countless commentators, that the work is regarded as in many respects authoritative even among those who differ from him widely on many important questions.

Early in 1853 Alford first preached in Quebec chapel, London the building in which his father had been ordained deacon forty years before. Before the year was out, on the 26th September, he had removed from his picturesque church in the wolds of Leicestershire to the plain conventicle in Tyburnia. There he remained for nearly four years toiling assiduously, preaching twice every Sunday to a large and cultured congregation. Seven volumes, issued from the press at intervals, have, under the title of The Quebec Chapel Sermons, preserved 153 of the more remarkable of these discourses -- those preached by him in the morning -- all of which were carefully prepared beforehand.

As a preacher his style was severe and earnest rather than eloquent or impassioned. Perhaps the finest discourse he ever delivered was the one on the test, "A great multitude which no man could number." It was preached from the cathedral pulpit shortly after his advancement by Lord Palmerston, in March 1857, to the deanery of Canterbury.

Throughout his life, but especially towards its close, his chief delight intellectually appears to have been the rapid alternation of his pursuits. While he was yet in the midst of his biblical researches he was, simultaneously, at the beginning of 1851, translating the Odyssey, arranging his poems, with additions for their American republication, and preparing an article for the Edinburgh Review on the St Paul of Conybeare and Howson.

A series of ingenious lectures, delivered by him in his capacity of philologist, on being compacted into a manual of idiom and usage, entitled The Queen's English, attained a high degree of popularity. Nevertheless, in site of their wholly unpretentious and essentially humorous character, these mere casual notes on spelling and speaking drew down upon their author one of the sharpest criticisms he ever provoked, sarcastically entitled The Dean's English.

The Contemporary Review was inaugurated under his editorship; and from January 1866 to August 1870 was conducted by him as a sort of neutral ground for religious criticism. Under the title of The Year of Prayer, Alford in 1866 published a book of family devotion; and in 1867, a collection of original hymns called The Year of Praise, works of little pretension, but by which his name was widely popularized.

His latest poetic effusion of any considerable length was The Children of the Lord's Prayer, which appeared in 1869 as the letterpress accompaniment to designs by F. R. Pickersgill, R.A. The miscellaneous papers he had contributed to periodicals were, the same year, collected under the name of Essays and Addresses.

He brought out, in 1865, his Letters from Abroad, eminently characteristic records of travel, mainly descriptive of Italian cities and scenery; and in 1870, a collection of spirited pen and pencil sketchers of The Riviera, the latter being reproduced from his water-colour drawings by the aid of chromo-lithography. The artist faculty, it has been observed, and not extravagantly, "would have made him a great landscape painter had he not, either from preference or necessity, become a great Greek scholar and a dean."

Such were the pliancy and the resilience of his nature that he would turn with zest, after hours of severe study given to the collation of a Hebrew manuscript or to the examination of the exegetical subtleties of a German commentator on the Greek Testament, to doctoring the hall clock and making it strike the half-hours, to tuning the piano in the drawing-room, or to playing games with his children in the nursery. The wooden front of the organ (which instrument he could play with the hand of a master) was carved according to his own ingenious design and by his own dexterous chiseling.

A Masque of the Seasons, performed as a holiday pastime on New Year's Day 1861, in the deanery, owed to him both the words and the music -- he himself, besides, enacting in it the part of "Father Christmas." A couple of years before his death he appeared as a novelist, conjointly with his niece producing the story of Netherton on Sea. The last work of any magnitude upon which he adventured as a biblical scholar was his Commentary on the Old Testament.

In the diversity of his a vocations, and the thoroughness with which they were, one and all, carried to a successful issue, he was his own severest taskmaster. Throughout life, until he was stretched upon his deathbed, he never seemed to indulge in the luxury of inaction. The end came at length to him calmly, on the 12th January 1871, and five days afterwards his remains were interred under a yew tree in St Martin's churchyard, within view of the towers of Canterbury Cathedral.

It is significant of the tender poetical quaintness of his whole character, that there is inscribed above his tomb, in obedience to his own directions, "Diversorium Viatoris Hierosolymam Proficiscentis." A statue of the dean, by Pfyffers, was unveiled, before the year of his demise had run out, in a niche on the west front of the most ancient of our cathedrals.

Dean Alford was a man as variously accomplished as any of his generation; and he would unquestionably have risen to far greater eminence than he ever achieved in poetry, in oratory, in music, in painting, in theology, or in general literature, if he had aimed at excelling in one or two alone of those arts or sciences, instead of endeavouring to shine in all of them alike. (C. K.)

The above article was written by: (William) Charles (Mark) Kent, Barrister of the Middle Temple; edited the London Sun for 25 years, the Weekly Register 1874-81; author of Dark Ages, by an Oscotian; The Humour and Pathos of Charles Dickens; Charles Dickens as a Reader; etc.

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