Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hill, Aaron

HILL, AARON (1685–1750), poet, eldest surviving son of George Hill of Malmesbury Abbey, Wiltshire, was born in Beaufort Buildings, Strand, 10 Feb. 1684–5. His father died during his infancy after making an illegal sale (it is said) of an estate of 2,000l. a year entailed upon the son. Aaron was brought up by his mother and his grandmother, a Mrs. Gregory. When nine years old he was sent to Barnstaple grammar school, and afterwards to Westminster. With Mrs. Gregory's help he left his school, and sailed (2 March 1699–1700) to Constantinople, where a relation, Lord Paget, was then ambassador. Paget received him kindly, and sent him to travel in the East with a tutor. He returned in 1703 with Paget, who would, it is said, have provided for him but for the ‘misrepresentations of a female.’ He afterwards travelled for some time as tutor to Sir William Wentworth. In 1709 he published a ‘Full Account of the Ottoman Empire,’ of which, though it reached a second edition in 1710, he was afterwards thoroughly ashamed (Richardson, Correspondence, i. 25–8). In 1709 he also addressed a complimentary poem to Lord Peterborough, called ‘Camillus’ (Works, 1754, iv. 201, &c.). Peterborough in 1710 offered to take him abroad on a mission to Vienna and Turin. He declined on account of the objections of his wife, the only daughter and heiress of Edmund Morris of Stratford in Essex, whom he had married the same year. Hill became interested in theatrical matters, and was (according to his first biographers) ‘master of the stage’ at Drury Lane in 1709, and of the opera at the Haymarket in 1710. At Drury Lane he produced his first piece, ‘Elfrid, or the Fair Inconstant,’ written in less than a fortnight (ib. i. 125). It was ridiculed for its bombast, but in 1731 rewritten and brought out again as ‘Athelwold.’ It was then received in a way which would have caused him the ‘liveliest indignation’ had he not been the author (ib. i. 160). At the Haymarket he produced an opera, ‘Rinaldo,’ written at his request by G. Rossi, translated by himself, and set to music by Handel, then first visiting England. Hill had a sanguine belief in his own gifts, both for literature and speculation. He proposed a scheme to Harley in 1714 for improving the wool trade. He started a scheme for extracting oil from beechmast. A patent was granted on 23 Oct. 1713. A company was raised with a capital of 25,000l., and he promised to pay 45 per cent. after two years, and besides making the whole nation happy. The company could not be got into working order, abundance of the sharers became ‘peevish,’ and by 1716 the speculation collapsed, and Hill lost a large sum. In 1718 he proposed with others to settle a colony in Georgia (then part of South Carolina). A grant of the land was obtained from the proprietors, but money was wanting, and the scheme broke down. It was carried out by Oglethorpe in 1732. In 1728 Hill tried to obtain timber for the navy in Scotland, showed the natives how to float rafts down the Spey, and received many compliments from the Duke and Duchess of Gordon, and the freedom of Inverness and Aberdeen. Somehow this, like all his schemes, failed, and led only to loss of money. He meanwhile continued his literary career, writing many occasional poems, and producing plays at intervals (see list below). He wrote a complimentary poem to Peter the Great, called ‘The Northern Star,’ about 1718 (ib. iii. 181, &c.) Peter, when dying in 1725, is said to have ordered a gold medal to be sent to Hill, which never came, and the czarina also promised him materials for a life. Only a few papers were sent before her death in the spring of 1727, and the life was not written. Among Hill's letters are many giving advice to actors (including Garrick) upon their art, others making suggestions to Oxford and Walpole upon politics and finance, and literary disquisitions addressed to Pope and Bolingbroke. His letters to Richardson (Richardson, Correspondence, i. 1–132) begin in 1730, and upon the publication of ‘Pamela’ in 1740 he became an enthusiastic admirer. His self-importance and pomposity would now be rather amusing if less terribly long-winded. He is best known by his relations with Pope. He had attacked Pope in a preface to the ‘Northern Star’ on account of a misreported conversation, and upon Pope's explanation had apologised in a preface to ‘The Creation,’ 1720. The ‘Bathos,’ published in the third volume of Pope's ‘Miscellanies’ (March 1727–8), gave a list of bad authors, in which ‘A. H.’ appeared as one of the ‘flying fishes,’ who could only make brief flights out of the profound. Hill retorted by an epigram on the supposed authors, Pope, Swift, and Arbuthnot, and by a copy of verses. In the ‘Dunciad,’ published in the following May, Pope described Hill as attempting to dive in the games sacred to dullness, but rising unstained to ‘mount far off among the swans of Thames.’ A note stated that the satire had been turned into a compliment, because its object had shown himself capable of apologising. Hill, however, retorted in ‘The Progress of Wit, a caveat for an eminent writer; by a fellow of All Souls,’ with an ‘explanatory discourse by Gamaliel Gunson, Professor of Physics and Astronomy,’ 1730 (Works, iii. 371, &c.), an allegorical attack upon Pope for lowering himself by personalities against the dunces. He wrote to Pope soon afterwards, and in a dignified letter (28 Jan. 1730–1) put his case so well that Pope was driven to reply by the strange subterfuges too familiar to him. Hill punished Pope sufficiently perhaps by long letters, and by sending him manuscript tragedies to be criticised. A passage in the ‘Epistle to Arbuthnot’ (1735), describing such trials of Pope's patience, may include some recollections of this intercourse. Pope at the time returned the flattery in kind, and even ventured to assert (22 Dec. 1731) that he had read ‘Athelwold’ six times through. A long breach of correspondence seems, however, to imply that Pope found the burden intolerable, though Hill reopened it for a time in 1738. After Pope's death Hill abused him heartily to Richardson (Richardson, Correspondence, i. 104, &c.) Although Hill was absurd and a bore of the first water he was apparently a kindly and liberal man, and abandoned the profits of his plays, such as they were, to the actors. He was zealous on behalf of Savage, whose story he published in the ‘Plaindealer,’ and helpful to Thomson and others.

In 1738 Hill left London, where he had hitherto occupied a house in Petty France, Westminster, looking upon St. James's Park, to Plaistow in Essex. He mentions pecuniary difficulties at this time (to Pope, 1 Sept. 1738), which may have been the cause of his retirement. He probably did not diminish them by planting vineyards in Essex. He sent some bottles of his wine to Richardson (ib. i. 22, 29, 44–52), with the sanguine belief that they would contribute to Richardson's health and pleasure. He also busied himself in a scheme for making potash. His translation of Voltaire's ‘Merope’ (1749) was brought upon the stage, and a performance commanded for his benefit by Frederick, prince of Wales. He died the night before the intended performance, 8 Feb. 1749–1750, ‘at the very minute of the earthquake.’ He was buried in the cloister of Westminster Abbey in the same grave with his wife, who died 1731. He had by her nine children, of whom four were living in 1760, a son and three daughters, Urania, Astræa, and Minerva. A ‘Collection of Letters between Mr. Aaron Hill, Pope, and others,’ was published in 1751. His ‘Works,’ in 4 vols. 8vo, were published by subscription for the benefit of his family in 1753 (second edition 1754). The first two contain his correspondence; the last his poems and an essay upon acting (first published in 1746). The poems include ‘Camillus,’ the ‘Northern Star,’ and the ‘Progress of Wit’ (see above); the ‘Creation,’ 1720; ‘Advice to Poets,’ 1731; the ‘Tears of the Muses,’ 1737; ‘Free Thoughts on Faith,’ 1746; and a number of prologues and occasional pieces. He also published the ‘Fanciad,’ 1743; the two first books of ‘Gideon,’ an epic poem, about 1716, and three more books, now called ‘Gideon, or the Patriot,’ and dedicated to Bolingbroke, in 1749.

The dramatic works were also published by subscription in two volumes in 1760. The plays, with dates of first publication, are, Vol. i.:

  1. ‘Elfrid,’ 1710.
  2. ‘The Walking Statue,’ 1710.
  3. ‘Rinaldo’ (in English and Italian), 1711.
  4. ‘The Fatal Vision,’ 1716.
  5. ‘Henry V’ (founded on Shakespeare), 1723.
  6. ‘The Fatal Extravagance,’ 1726 (written by Hill for the benefit of J. Mitchell, under whose name it was first published).
  7. ‘Merlin in Love,’ 1759 (pastoral opera).
  8. ‘Athelwold,’ 1732.

Vol. ii.:

  1. ‘The Muses in Mourning’ (opera), 1760.
  2. ‘Zara’ (from Voltaire), 1736, and later editions (acted in 1735 for the benefit of W. Bond).
  3. ‘The Snake in the Grass,’ 1760.
  4. ‘Alzira’ (from Voltaire), 1736.
  5. ‘Saul’ (tragedy), 1760.
  6. ‘Daraxes’ (pastoral opera), 1760.
  7. ‘Merope’ (from Voltaire), 1749.
  8. ‘The Roman Revenge’ (written about 1738 as ‘Cæsar,’ when he published a pamphlet ‘On the Merits of Assassination,’ with a view to this case of Cæsar, published 1754).

The ‘Biographia Dramatica’ also mentions ‘Trick upon Trick; or Squire Brainless,’ a comedy, and in 1758 was published ‘The Insolvent, or Filial Piety.’

Hill was co-author with William Bond [q. v.] of the ‘Plaindealer,’ 1724, afterwards collected in 2 vols. 8vo, and published the ‘Prompter’ in 1735. He wrote various pamphlets about his beechnut projects, and the first of ‘Four Essays’ in 1718, which treats of making china ware in England.

[Anonymous Life in Cibber's Lives of the Poets, 1753, v. 252–75; Life by ‘J. K.’ prefixed to Dramatic Works, 1760; general correspondence in Works, vols. i. and ii.; in Richardson's Correspondence, 1802, i. 1–132; Elwin and Courthope's Pope, x. 1–78 (and notes to the Dunciad and the Bathos); Biog. Brit.; Biog. Dram.; Genest's History of the Stage, iv. 295; Victor's Hist. of Theatres, 1761, ii. 170–202.]

L. S.