Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Milman, Henry Hart

MILMAN, HENRY HART (1791–1868), dean of St. Paul's, born in London 10 Feb. 1791, was the third son of Sir Francis Milman, bart. [q. v.], physician to George III. He was educated under Dr. Burney at Greenwich, and subsequently at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford, where his career was remarkably brilliant. He matriculated 25 May 1810, and graduated B.A. 1814, M.A. 1816, B.D. and D.D. 1849. In 1812 he won the Newdigate prize with an English poem on the ‘Apollo Belvidere,’ which was considered by Dean Stanley the most perfect of Oxford prize poems. In 1814 Milman was elected fellow of Brasenose, and in 1816 was awarded the chancellor's prize for an English essay on ‘A Comparative Estimate of Sculpture and Painting.’ He was an early and intimate friend of Reginald Heber, for whose ‘Hymnal’ he wrote ‘By thy birth and early years,’ ‘Brother, thou art gone before us,’ ‘When our heads are bowed with woe,’ and other hymns, which have acquired and retain high popularity. In 1821 he was elected professor of poetry at Oxford, but did not make the mark of Keble, who succeeded him in 1831. He had meanwhile taken orders (1816), and was in 1818 presented to the important living of St. Mary's, Reading.

Though attentive to his clerical duties, Milman continued for some time to be known principally as a poet. It was the day of Scott, Byron, and Moore, who irresistibly attracted all talent of the imitative order, to which Milman's poetical gift certainly belonged. His first poetical publication was a drama, ‘Fazio,’ composed at Oxford, and described by the author as ‘an attempt at reviving the old national drama with greater simplicity of plot.’ Though ‘written with some view to the stage,’ it was published in book form in 1815 (2nd edit. 1816). It was first acted at the Surrey Theatre, without the author's knowledge, under the title of ‘The Italian Wife.’ Having succeeded there and at Bath, it was appropriated by the managers of Covent Garden, who astonished Milman by the request that Charles Kemble might be allowed to read the part of Fazio to him. The imperfection of the law of copyright would have frustrated any objections that he might have entertained, but, though protesting, he was flattered by the compliment, and the play was performed for the first time in London on 5 Feb. 1818, with triumphant effect, mainly owing to the acting of Miss O'Neill, who had seen the piece before publication and had then discouraged Milman from anticipating for it any success on the stage. Fanny Kemble subsequently played the part of Bianca with great effect, both in England and America, while Madame Ristori, when at the height of her fame in 1856, had it translated into Italian and appeared with much success as Bianca both in London and abroad. The plot, indeed, which is taken from a story in ‘Varieties of Literature,’ reprinted in 1795 by the ‘Annual Register,’ where Milman saw it, is powerful, and much the most effective element in the play. The diction is florid, and full of the false taste which had come in by perhaps inevitable reaction from the inanimate style of the eighteenth century. Milman's next publication, ‘Samor, the Lord of the Bright City’ (1818; 2nd edit, same year), an epic of the class of Southey's ‘Madoc’ and Landor's ‘Gebir,’ though not recalling the manner of either of these poets, had been begun at Eton, and nearly finished at Oxford. The subject is the Saxon invasion of Britain in Vortigern's days. The ‘bright city’ is Gloucester. The poem contains much fine writing in both senses of the term, and the author in after life subjected it to a severe revision. Southey, in criticising the poem, suggested that Milman's powers were ‘better fitted for the drama than for narration’ (Southey, Corresp. chap. xii.), and he told Scott that ‘Samor’ was ‘too full’ of power and beauty. Milman's next works were more mature in thought and independent in style, and the vital interest of their subjects almost raised him to the rank of an original poet. In ‘The Fall of Jerusalem,’ a dramatic poem (1820), the conflict between Jewish conservatism and new truth is forcibly depicted (Corresp. of John Jebb and Alex. Knox, ii. 434-44). In ‘The Martyr of Antioch,’ another dramatic poem (1822), a no less effective contrast is delineated in the struggle between human affections and fidelity to conviction. The description of Jerusalem put into the mouth of Titus has been greatly admired, and with reason, but is unfortunately too fair a sample of the entire work. ‘Belshazzar,’ also a dramatic poem (1822), is chiefly remarkable for its lyrics; and ‘Anne Boleyn’ (1826), a poor performance, terminated Milman's career as a dramatist.

But he was still to render an important and an unprecedented service to English poetry by his translations from the Sanscrit. These he was led to make by having exhausted the subjects which he had prescribed to himself for his lectures as Oxford professor of poetry. Having gained some acquaintance with Indian poetry from the works of foreign scholars, he taught himself to a certain extent Sanscrit, whose resemblance to Greek delighted him, and, with the assistance of Professor H. H. Wilson [q. v.], produced some very creditable versions of passages from the Indian epics, especially the pathetic story of Nala and Damayanti. These were published in 1835. They have been long superseded, but the achievement was none the less memorable. At a later period (1849) he published an elegant edition of ‘Horace,’ and in 1865 excellent translations of the ‘Agamemnon’ and the ‘Bacchæ.’

In 1827 Milman was selected to deliver the Bampton lectures, and took as his subject the evidence for Christianity derived from the conduct and character of the apostles. The treatment was no more original than the theme. Three years afterwards, however, a book appeared from his pen, to which, though not in itself of extraordinary merit, the epithet ‘epoch-making’ might be applied with perfect propriety. It is his ‘History of the Jews’ (1830), written for Murray's ‘Family Library.’ In this unpretending book for the first time ‘an English clergyman treated the Jews as an oriental tribe, recognised sheiks and emirs in the Old Testament, shifted and classified documentary evidence, and evaded or minimised the miraculous.’ Consternation, which the author had not anticipated, spread among the orthodox; the sale of the book was not only stopped, but the publication of the series in which it appeared ceased. Bishop Mant and Dr. Faussett were among the more conspicuous of his assailants, and a greater man, John Henry Newman, who reviewed it in the ‘British Critic’ so late as January 1841, has recorded in his ‘Apologia’ the unfavourable impression it produced upon him at the time. It was, however, well reviewed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (1830, i. 134-7) as an ‘excellent work,’ ‘written upon those enlightened principles which alone will be regarded in modern times,’ while some representative Jews presented Milman with a piece of plate in recognition of his liberal treatment of their history. The book was republished in 1863 and again in 1867, with great improvements, and an able introduction, in which Milman clearly defined his own position. This he further illustrated in his university sermon on Hebrew prophecy, preached in 1865.

Milman's preferment seemed likely to be long impeded, but in 1835 Sir Robert Peel took advantage of his brief tenure of office to make him canon of Westminster and rector of St. Margaret's, Westminster, dignities invariably conferred on men of special eminence. He was still, nevertheless, regarded with distrust and dislike, and when his ‘History of Christianity under the Empire’ appeared in 1840, it was, said Lord Melbourne, as completely ignored as if the clergy had taken a universal oath never to mention it to any one. In 1849, however, Lord John Russell advanced Milman to the deanery of St. Paul's. No position in the church could have better become him than the charge of a great historical cathedral, and he speedily obtained the general recognition which his talents and accomplishments had always merited.

The historical character of Milman's mind was shown by the principal literary labours of his later years. In 1838 he had edited Gibbon, a task which hardly admits of satisfactory performance. So vast is the theme so enormous the amount of illustration supplied by recent research, that either the editor's labours must appear inadequate, or the text must disappear beneath the commentary. Milman chose the former alternative, but his edition, with the reinforcement of Guizot's notes, is still, perhaps, the standard one, though this is not a position which it can ultimately retain. In 1839 he published the ‘Life of E. Gibbon, Esq., with Selections from his Correspondence and Illustrations.’ There followed in 1855 his own great historical work, ‘The History of Latin Christianity down to the Death of Pope Nicholas V.’ Milman here selected a subject on which libraries might be written, but the necessity for a comparatively brief general survey will always exist, and Milman's book, while meeting this want, is at the same time executed on a scale and in a style answerable to the dignity of history. Macaulay deemed the substance ‘excellent,’ although the style was, in his opinion, ‘very much otherwise.’ The call for a second edition in 1856 was described by Macaulay as ‘creditable to the age’ (Life, p. 626). The task was one for which the cast of Milman's mind and the tenor of his studies fully qualified him. The shortcomings and minor inaccuracies are amply compensated by qualities till then rare in ecclesiastical historians—liberality, candour, sympathy, and catholic appreciation of every estimable quality in every person or party—which not only contributed an especial charm to the work, but may be said to have permanently raised the standard of ecclesiastical history. Milman also possessed the fine sense of historical continuity, and the power of endowing institutions with personality, so necessary to the historian of an august corporation like the Latin church. The fundamental distinctions between Latin and Greek or oriental Christianity and the parallelisms between Latin and Teutonic Christianity are admirably worked out. His great defect is the one visible in his dramas the lack of creative imagination, which prevented him from drawing striking portraits of the great company of illustrious men who passed under his review.

The remainder of Milman's life was principally occupied in the discharge of the duties of his office, where his intellectual superiority acquired for him the designation of ‘the great dean.’ To him were due several innovations calculated to make the services at St. Paul's popular and accessible. On Advent Sunday, 28 Nov. 1858, he inaugurated evening services under the dome. He bequeathed, moreover, such a memorial to his cathedral as few deans would have been able to bequeath, in his delightful history of the edifice, completed and published by his son after his death in 1868. In 1859 he had written, for the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society,’ a memoir of his friend Macaulay, which was prefixed to later editions of the historian's works. Some of his articles in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ to which in his early days he was a constant, and in later years an occasional contributor, including essays on ‘Erasmus’ and ‘Savonarola,’ were collected and published by his son in 1870. Milman died on 24 Sept. 1868 at a house near Ascot which he had taken for the summer. He was buried in St. Paul's Cathedral, and a monument was erected by public subscription in the south aisle of the choir. On 11 March 1824 he had married Mary Ann, daughter of Lieutenant William Cockell, by whom he had four sons and two daughters.

Milman was highly esteemed in society, and his intimate friends included Macaulay, Hallam, Sydney Smith, Lockhart, and his publisher, John Murray. Mr. Lecky has eulogised him unstintedly, and has described the harmony and symmetry of his mind and its freedom from eccentricity or habits of exaggeration. Although he was far from contemptible as a poet, his reputation must rest on his historical work. ‘That such a writer,’ writes Mr. Lecky, ‘should have devoted himself to the department of history, which, more than any other, has been distorted by ignorance, puerility, and dishonesty, I conceive to be one of the happiest facts of English literature’ (European Morals, Pref. p. x). His intellect may have lacked originality, but he was a pioneer in the study of Sanscrit poetry and in the application of criticism to Jewish history.

A portrait by G. F. Watts belongs to his eldest son, the Rev. W. H. Milman. An engraving by W. Holl is prefixed to the fourth edition of the ‘History of Latin Christianity.’

[Annual Register, 1868; Encycl. Brit. 9th edit.; North British Review, vol. l.; Blackwood's Mag. vol. civ.; Fraser's Mag. vol. lxxviii.; Dean Stanley in Macmillan's Mag. vol. xix.; Quarterly Review, January 1854; Smiles's Memoir of John Murray, vol. ii.; Milman's own prefaces to his writings.]

R. G.