1902 Encyclopedia > Sir Henry Taylor

Sir Henry Taylor
English poet and colonial statesman

SIR HENRY TAYLOR (1800-1886), poet and colonial statesman, was born October 18, 1800, at Bishop-Mid-dleham, in the county of Durham. His ancestors had been small landowners for some generations, and both his studious father, who late in life emerged for a time from a recluse existence to make an efficient secretary to the Poor Law Commission, and his original warm-hearted mother were interesting persons. His mother died while he was yet an infant, and he was chiefty educated by his father, who, finding him less quick and deeming him less intel-ligent than his two elder brothers, allowed him to go to sea as a midshipman. Eight months summed up his naval career; it had taken much less to disgust him with it. After obtaining his discharge he was appointed to a clerkship in the storekeeper's office, and had scarcely entered upon his duties ere he was attacked by typhus fever, which carried off both his brothers, then living with him in London. In three or four years more his office was abolished while he was on duty in the West Indies. On his return he found his father happily married to a lady whose interest and sympathy proved of priceless value to him. Through her he became acquainted with her cousin Isabella Fenwick, the neighbour and intimate friend of Wordsworth, who introduced him to Wordsworth and Southey. _ Under these influences he lost his early admira-tion for Byron, whose school, whatever its merits, he at least was in no way calculated to adorn, and his intel-lectual powers developed rapidly. In October 1822 an article from his pen on Moore's Irish Melodies appeared in the Quarterly Review. A year later he departed for London to seek his fortune as a man of letters, and met with such rapid success, though not precisely in this capacity, as has but rarely attended an unknown young man. He became editor of the London Magazine, to which he had already contributed, and in January 1824 obtained, through the influence of Sir Henry Holland, an appointment in the Colonial Office, insuring him, not only an ample salary, but considerable influence in this depart-ment of public affairs. The general standard of the office was probably at that time low; at all events Taylor was immediately entrusted with the preparation of confidential state papers, and his opinion soon exercised an important influence on the decisions of the secretary of state. He visited Wordsworth and Southey, travelled on the Con-tinent with the latter, and at the same time, mainly through his friend and official colleague, the Hon. Hyde Villiers, became intimate with a very different set, the younger followers of Bentham, without, however, adopting their opinions,—" young men," he afterwards reminded Stuart Mill, " who every one said would be ruined by their independence, but who ended by obtaining all their hearts' desires, except one who fell by the way." The reference is to Hyde Villiers, who died prematurely, and for whose sister, afterwards Lady Theresa Lewis, Taylor was an unsuccessful suitor. He actively promoted the emancipation of the slaves in 1833, and became an in-timate ally of Sir James Stephen, then counsel to the Colonial Office, afterwards under-secretary, by whom the Act of Emancipation was principally framed. His first drama, Isaac Comnenus, was published anonymously in 1827. Though highly praised by Southey, it made little impression on the public. Philip van Artevelde, the sub-ject of which had been recommended to him by Southey, was begun in 1828, published in 1834, and, aided by a laudatory criticism from Lockhart's pen, achieved extra-ordinary success. Edwin the Fair (1842) was less warmly received. In the interim he had married (1839) the daughter of his former chief Lord Monteagle, and, in con-junction with Stephen, had taken a leading part in the abolition of negro apprenticeship in the West Indies. Tlie Statesman, a volume of essays suggested by his official position, had been published in 1836, and about the same time he had written in the Quarterly the friendly advertisements of Wordsworth and Southey, subsequently published under the somewhat misleading title of Notes from Boohs. In 1847 he was offered the under-secretaryship of state, which he declined. Notes from Life and The Eve of the Conquest appeared in this year, and Notes from Boohs in 1849. An experiment in romantic comedy, The Virgin Widow, afterwards entitled A Sicilian Summer, was published in 1850. "The pleasantest play I had written," says the author ; " and I never could tell why people would not be pleased with it." His last dramatic work was St Clement's Eve, published in 1862. In 1869 he was made K.C.M.G. He retired from the Colonial Office in 1872, though continuing to be consulted by Government. His last days were spent at Bournemouth in the enjoyment of universal respect ; and the public, to whom he had hitherto been an almost impersonal existence, became familiarized with the extreme picturesqueness of his appearance in old age, as represented in the photographs of his friend Mrs Cameron. He died on March 27, 1886.
Sir Henry Taylor is pre-eminently the statesman among English poets. When he can speak poetically in this character he is impressive, almost great; when he deals with the more prosaic aspects of policy he is dignified and weighty, without being alto-gether a poet; when his theme is entirely unrelated to the conduct of public affairs or private life he is usually little more than an accomplished man of letters. An exception must be made for the interesting character of Elena in Philip van Artevelde, and for Artevelde's early love experience, which reproduces and transfigures the writer's own. The circumstance, of Philip van Artevelde being to a great extent the vehicle of his own ideas and feelings explains its great superiority to his other works. It is subjective as well as objective, and to a certain extent lyrical in feeling, though not in form. Though more elaborate than any of his other dramas, it seems to smell less of the lamp. He has thoroughly identified himself with his hero, and the only fault to be found with this noble picture of a consummate leader and statesman is the absence of the shadow required for a tragic portrait. The blame allotted to Artevelde is felt to be merely conventional, and the delineation of uniform excellence becomes monotonous. The hero of Edwin the Fair, Dunstan, the ecclesiastical statesman, the man of two worlds, is less sympathetic to the author and less attractive to the reader. The character is nevertheless a fine psychological study, and the play is full of historical if not of dramatic interest. Isaac Comnenus is more Elizabethan in tone than his other dramas. Comnenus is like a preliminary sketch for Van Artevelde; and the picture of the Byzantine court and people is exceedingly lively. The idea of the revival of romantic comedy in The Virgin Widow is excellent, but the play lacks the humour which might have made it a success. The length of the speeches, even wdien not set speeches, is a drawback to all these dramas. Taylor's lyrical work is in general laboriously artificial. It is therefore extraordinary that he should have produced two songs (" Quoth tongue of neither maid nor wife" and "If I had the wings of a dove") which it
would hardly be an exaggeration to call worthy of Shakespeare.
His character as an essayist repeats his character as a dramatist.
The essays published under the title of The Statesman occupy a
peculiar place in literature. They have serious faults, especially
the too obvious imitation of Bacon, but they nevertheless are
original in their point of view, and their wisdom is the result of a
different kind of observation from that which qualifies the bulk of
essayists on human life. When writing as one of these Taylor is
less removed from the commonplace, though many of his remarks
are admirable. As a literary critic he seems unable to get beyond
Wordsworth and the select circle of poets admired by the latter.
His essays on Wordsworth did much to dispel the conventional
prejudices of the day, but will not advance the study of the poet
where his greatness is already recognized. His strictures on Byron
and Shelley are narrow and not a little presumptuous. Presump-
tion, indeed, the last fault to have been expected in so grave and
measured a writer, is one of those of which he most freely accuses
himself in the autobiography published a year before his death.
It is not otherwise apparent in this highly interesting book, which,
sinning a little by the egotism pardonable in a poet and the
garrulity natural to a veteran, is in the main a pleasing and faithful
picture of an aspiring youth, an active maturity, and a happy and
honoured old age. (B. G.)

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