1902 Encyclopedia > Henry Hart Milman

Henry Hart Milman
English historian and ecclesiastic

HENRY HART MILMAN (1791-1868), dean of St Paul's, was born February 10, 1791, and was the third son of Sir Francis Milman, physician to George III. He was educated at Eton and at Brasenose College, Oxford; his university career was brilliant, and among other distinctions he gained the Newdigate prize with a poem on the Apollo Belvedere. In 1816 he was ordained, and was soon afterwards presented to the living of St Mary's, Reading. He had already made his appearance as a dramatic writer, his tragedy of Fazio, founded on a narra-tive in the Annual Register for 1795, having been brought on the stage without his knowledge under the title of The Italian Wife. It was subsequently produced at Co vent Garden, and obtained great success from the acting of Miss O'Neill as Bianca. The merit of the play consists chiefly in the powerful situation; the diction is florid and ornate. The same criticism, by the author's own confes-sion, applies to his epic, Samor, the Lord of the Bright City (Gloucester), a poem written in early youth. The subject is taken from British legend, and Milman has failed to invest it with serious interest. He was more successful in his next attempts, where the subjects were well adapted to an imagination easily kindled by the historical or the moral picturesque. The death struggle of an expiring nation in the Fall of Jerusalem (1820), the conflict of new truth and old order, of religious enthusiasm and earthly affection, in the Martyr of Antioch (1822), are depicted with great eloquence and real insight into human nature. Milman's characters, however, are personified tendencies rather than personages, and in poetical style he was unable to free himself from the influence of Byron. Belshazzar (1822) is in general a pale copy of Byron's Sardanapalus, but contains some fine lyrics. Milman's lyrics, indeed, especially his hymns, have frequently a fine ring and sweep, though the thought is generally commonplace. His tragedy of Anne Boleyn (1826) is a poor performance. With the exception of admirable versions of the Sanskrit episode of Nala and Damayanti, and of the Agamemnon and Bacchee, this was Milman's last poetical work. He was elected professor of poetry at Oxford, and in 1827 delivered the Bampton lectures, selecting as his subject the conduct and character of the apostles as an evidence of Christianity. In 1830 his History of the Jews appeared in the Family Library. The contracted limits of this series forbade any adequate treatment of the subject; the work is nevertheless memorable as the first by an English clergyman which treated the Jews as an Oriental tribe, recognized sheikhs and emirs in the Old Testament, sifted and classified documentary evidence, and evaded or minimized the miraculous. Milman was violently attacked, especially by Dr Faussett and Bishop Mant, and the odium thus occasioned stopped the publication of the Family Library, and long impeded the preferment of the writer. In 1835, however, Sir Robert Peel made him rector of St Margaret's and canon of Westminster, and in 1849 he became dean of St Paul's. The unpopularity attaching to him had by this time nearly died away; and now, generally revored and beloved, intimate with men of all pursuits, politics, and persuasions, counted among the chief ornaments of the most polished society of the metropolis, he occupied a singularly dignified and enviable position, which he constantly employed for the promotion of culture and enlightenment, and in particular for the relaxation of subscription to ecclesiastical formularies. His History of Christianity under the Empire had appeared in 1840, but had been as completely ignored as if, said Lord Melbourne, the clergy had taken a universal oath never to mention it to any one. Widely different was the reception cf the continuation, his great History of Latin Christianity to the death of Pope Nicholas V., which appeared in 1855. He also edited Gibbon and Horace, and at his death in 1868 left behind him almost finished a delightful history of his own cathedral, which was completed and published by his son.

Milman possessed a large share of the imagination which enters into and calls up the past, and of that which interprets actions and apprehends opinions by the power of sympathy. In creative imagination he was deficient, a defect which alone prevented him from attaining the first rank as an historian. His pages are crowded with splendid names rather than with living personages; the springs of action are disclosed with remarkable penetration, but the actor himself is rather heard than seen. There are, however, exceptions, such as his portrait of Sir Christopher Wren; and he possessed a peculiar power of investing mere intellectual tendencies with personality and life. His parallel of Latin and Teutonic Christianity, for example, is a piece of finished historical character painting. His power of sympathy rendered him in effect, as his natural equity and benignity made him in intention, a model of historical candour, only chargeable, perhaps, with too much gentleness. It will be long ere his great work is superseded; but he will perhaps be remembered even longer as an embodiment of all the qualities which the higher ecclesiastical preferment can be supposed capable of encouraging or rewarding among the clergy of a great historical church. (K. G.)

The above article was written by: Richard Garnett, LL.D.

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