Mitford, John (1781-1859) (DNB00)

MITFORD, JOHN (1781–1859), miscellaneous writer, descended from the Mitfords of Mitford Castle, Northumberland, and nearly related to John Freeman Mitford, lord Redesdale [q. v.], who patronised him, and to William Mitford [q. v.], the historian of Greece, was born at Richmond, Surrey, on 13 Aug. 1781. He was the elder son of John Mitford (d. 18 May 1806), commander of a vessel engaged in the China trade of the East India Company, by his second wife, Mary, eldest daughter of J. Allen of Clifton, Bristol. Early in life he went to school at Richmond, and for a time he was at Tunbridge grammar school, under Vicesimus Knox [q. v.], but most of his younger days were passed in the diocese of Winchester, where the Rev. John Baynes of Exton, near Droxford, Hampshire, was his friend and tutor. After a brief experience as clerk in the army pay office, he on 6 March 1801 matriculated at Oriel College, Oxford, under the tutorship of Copleston, with Reginald Heber as his 'intimate associate,' and graduated B.A. on 17 Dec. 1804. When Heber won the English verse prize with his poem of 'Palestine,' his most prominent competitor was Mitford. In the autumn of 1809 he was ordained in the English church, being licensed to the curacy of Kelsale in Suffolk, but he had little aptitude for clerical work. Charles Lamb speaks of him as 'a pleasant layman spoiled,' and Mrs. Houstoun in graver terms condemns some of his errors in conduct. Within three months he obtained through Lord Redesdale's interest the vicarage of Benhall, near Saxmundham, Suffolk, to which he was instituted on 17 Feb. 1810, and in August 1815 he became domestic chaplain to that peer. In the same month he was appointed to the rectory of Weston St. Mary, and a few years later he was nominated to the rectory of Stratford St. Andrew, both in Suffolk, and then in crown patronage. The whole of these livings were united, during his incumbency, in 1824, when he was reinstituted, and he retained them all until his death.

At Benhall he built a handsome parsonage, consolidated the glebe, and gratified his love of shrubs and books by planting 'a great variety of ornamental and foreign trees,' and by forming an extensive library, mainly of English poetry. Lamb, in a letter to Bernard Barton, writes: 'Your description of Mr. Mitford's place makes me long for a pippin, some caraways, and a cup of sack in his orchard, when the sweets of the night come in.' The care of his livings did not hinder him from renting for many years permanent lodgings in Sloane Street, London, where he enjoyed 'the most perfect intimacy with Samuel Rogers for more than twenty years.' In order to indulge his love of paintings and landscape gardening he travelled all over England, and in search of the picturesque he explored the scenery on all the chief rivers of Europe.

In 1833 he began to contribute to the 'Gentleman's Magazine' a series of articles on the old English poets and on sacred poetry, paying particular attention to the works of Prudentius. During that year William Pickering [q. v.], the publisher, purchased a share in the magazine, and a new series was started in January 1834, when Mitford became editor. For seventeen years Mitford's contributions never failed for a single month, and he edited the magazine 'assiduously and successfully' until the close of 1850. During these years, the palmy years of that periodical, he varied this drudgery with the composition of numerous poems signed J. M. His communications after 1850 were few. One of the last of his articles was a letter respecting Samuel Rogers, in the volume for 1856, pt. i. pp. 147-8.

After a long life spent in his favourite pursuits Mitford was afflicted by a slight attack of paralysis, fell down in a London street, and never recovered from the shock. For some time he was imprisoned in his rooms in Sloane Street, but at last he was removed to his living, and died at Benhall vicarage on 27 April 1859, being buried at Stratford St. Andrew. He married at St. George's, Hanover Square, London, on 21 Oct. 1814, Augusta, second daughter of Edward Boodle, of Brook Street, Grosvenor Square, London, who died at her son's house, Weston Lodge, Hampstead, on 25 Dec. 1886, aged 92, and was buried at Hampstead cemetery on 29 Dec. The marriage was not attended with happiness. Their only child, Robert Henry Mitford, was born on 24 July 1815, and married at Wellow, Somerset, on 12 Aug. 1847, Anne, youngest daughter of Lieutenant-colonel William Henry Wilby, their eldest son being Robert Sidney Mitford of the home office.

Mitford is praised by Mrs. Houstoun for his 'brilliant conversation, totally unmarred by any desire to shine.' He was an indefatigable student of the Greek and Roman classics, and was well acquainted with the principal French, German, and Italian authors. In English literature he was deeply read, and he was an ardent lover of painting, especially of the works of the Italian school. Country life had many charms for him, and his knowledge of the ways of birds and the shapes of trees is evidenced in many of his writings.

As early in his life as 1811 Mitford contemplated an edition of Gray's ' Works ' (cf. Southey, Letters, ed. Warter, ii. 244). In 1814 he edited the first accurate edition of ' The Poems of Thomas Gray, with Critical Notes, a Life of the Author, and an Essay on his Poetry,' and in 1816 he embodied this matter in two quarto volumes of 'The Works of Thomas Gray,' which contained very large additions to the published letters of the poet, and for which the publisher paid him the sum of 500l. Much of his work reappeared in the Aldine edition of Gray's ' Works,' in 5 vols. (2 vols. in 1835, 2 vols. in 1836, 1 vol. in 1843). The last volume, however, consisted mainly of the poet's correspondence with the Rev. Norton Nicholls, and this was also issued in a separate volume, with a distinct title-page. The first volume of this edition, comprising the poems, was reprinted in 1853, and reissued at Boston in 1857, and in the reprint of the Aldine Poets in 1866. The Eton edition in 1847 of the poems contained 'An Original Life of Gray' by Mitford, which was inserted in the subsequent impressions of 1852 and 1863. In 1853 he edited the 'Correspondence of Gray and Mason, with some Letters addressed by Gray to the Rev. James Brown, D.D.,' and some pages of 'Additional Notes thereto' were printed in 1855. Many of Mitford's comments are reproduced in Mr. Gosse's edition of Gray, while from his manuscripts at the British Museum, which were intended 'to supplement his long labours' on his favourite writer, is drawn much of the information in Tovey's 'Gray and his Friends.'

When Pickering set on foot the Aldine edition of the British poets he enlisted the services of Mitford. For it he edited, with memoirs, in addition to the poems of Gray, those of Cowper, 1830, 3 vols. (memoir written by John Bruce in 1865 edit.); Goldsmith, 1831; Milton, 1832, 3 vols., with sonnet to Charles Sumner, bishop of Winchester; Dryden, 1832-3, 5 vols. (life rewritten by the Rev. Richard Hooper in the 1865 and 1866 editions); Parnell, 1833 and 1866 (with epistle in verse to Alexander Dyce) ; Swift, 1833-4, 3 vols., and 1866; Young, 1834, 2 vols. (with sonnet), 1858 and 1866; Prior, 1835, 2 vols., 1866; Butler, 1835, 2 vols. (with verses to W. L. Bowles), 1866 ; Falconer, 1836, 1866 (with sonnet); Spenser, 1839, 5 vols. (with four sonnets, re-edited by J. P. Collier in 1866). The text and lives by Mitford in the original Aldine edition were reprinted at Boston, United States, in 1854-6, and his notes to 'Milton's Poems' were reprinted, after considerable correction, in an edition of the 'Poetical Works of Milton and Marvell,' Boston, in 1878. In 1851 he edited 'The Works of Milton in Verse and Prose,' 8 vols., and wrote for it a memoir, expanded from that in the 1832 edition of the 'Poems.'

Among Mitford's other works were: 1. 'Agnes, the Indian Captive,' a poem, in four cantos. With other poems, 1811. 2. 'A Letter to Richard Heber on Mr. Weber's late edition of Ford's Dramatic Works,' 1812, a severe criticism. The letter to J. P. Kemble (1811) on the same subject, which is said by Halkett and Laing (ii. 1382) to have been 'written chiefly by Mitford,' is assigned in the British Museum Catalogue to G. D. Whittington of Cambridge. 3. 'Sacred Specimens selected from the Early English Poets, with Prefatory Remarks,' 1827. Charles Lamb called this a 'thankful addition' to his shelves, but regretted the errors in printing. 4. 'Poemata Latine partim reddita partim scripta a V. Bourne,' 1840; with life by Mitford. 5. 'Correspondence of Horace Walpole and Rev. W. Mason,' ed., with notes, by Mitford, 1851, 2 vols. This, like all Mitford's works, shows much knowledge of the last century, but great laxity of supervision. Some of his annotations are reproduced by Peter Cunningham in his edition of Walpole's 'Letters.' 6. 'Lines suggested by a fatal Shipwreck near Aldborough, 3 Nov. 1855,' n.p. 1855, 12mo; 2nd edit., Woodbridge, 1856. 7. 'Cursory Notes on various Passages in the Text of Beaumont and Fletcher, as edited by Rev. Alexander Dyce,' 1856; complimentary to Dyce. 8. 'Miscellaneous Poems,' 1858; a selection from his fugitive pieces. At the end was announced a volume, hitherto unpublished, of 'Passages of Scripture, illustrated by Specimens from the Works of the Old Masters of Painting.' Raw's 'Pocket-book' for 1830 and later years contained poems by him; his impromptu lines 'On the Aldine Anchor,' printed in the 'Gentleman's Magazine' for 1836, pt. i. p. 501, and in 'Notes and Queries,' 3rd ser. x. 327, and 5th ser. xii. 44, were struck off for separate circulation. Further poems of his composition are inserted in the last periodical, 3rd ser. ix. 58, in Mrs. Houstoun's 'A Woman's Memories' and her 'Sylvanus Redivivus,' and in Glyde's 'New Suffolk Garland,' 1866, p. 375, and some 'Remarks by him on the Mustard Tree of Scripture' are at the Dyce Library, South Kensington Museum.

Mitford's collections were dispersed after his death by Sotheby & Wilkinson. His fine art collection of silver Greek coins, cameos, and miniatures was sold on 30 June 1859, the engravings and drawings on 23 July 1859 and two following days, his Greek and Latin classics on 17 Dec. 1859 and six following days. This sale produced 1,029l. 19s. The library of English history, plays, and poetry was sold on 24 April 1860 and eleven following days, producing 2,999l. 2s.; and his manuscripts on 9 July 1860, producing 817l. 3s. The manuscripts contained three volumes of autograph letters, papers relating to Gray, his own recollections in fifty-five volumes, the correspondence of Toup. Many of the books, with his notes, are now in the libraries of the Rev. Alexander Dyce and John Forster at the South Kensington Museum, or in the library of the British Museum. His commonplace-books are Addit. MSS. 32559-32575 at the British Museum, and from them were printed 'Some Conversations with the Duke of Wellington' (Temple Bar, April 1888, pp. 507-13). Mitford was in early life a great cricketer, and from the conversation of William Fennex, a cricket veteran whom he supported by charitable work in his garden at Benhall, he wrote many newspaper articles and compiled a manuscript volume, which he gave to the Rev. James Pycroft in 1836, and on it Pycroft laid the structure of his work on the 'Cricket Field,' 1851 (Pycroft, Oxford Memories, ii. 120-1). On his letters was based a volume of 'Sylvanus Redivivus (the Rev. John Mitford). With a short Memoir of Edward Jesse. By M. Houstoun,' 1889, reissued in 1891, with new title-page and slip of errata as 'Letters and Reminiscences of the Rev. John Mitford. With a Sketch of Edward Jesse. By C. M.' He wrote many letters to Bernard Barton (one of which is printed in 'Selections from Poems and Letters of Barton,' 1849, p. xxiii, and in 'Poems and Letters of Barton,' 1853, p. xxiv), and Charles Lamb frequently refers to him in his correspondence with Barton (ib. pp. 126-39, and Lamb, Letters, ed. Ainger, ii. passim). Many of his letters afterwards passed to Edward Fitzgerald, who collected and bound together Mitford's papers in the 'Gentleman's Magazine;' the volume is now the property of Dr. W. Aldis Wright. A letter from him on his notice of the early works of Mary Russell Mitford [q. v.] in the 'Quarterly Review,' which was much mutilated by Gifford, is in 'Friendships of Miss Mitford,' i. 53-4, and a communication on an ancient garden at Chelsea is in L'Estrange's 'Village of Palaces,' ii. 288-91. He recommended to J. B. Nichols the publication of 'Bishop Percy's Correspondence,' which forms the staple of the seventh and eighth volumes of the 'Illustrations of the Literary History of the Eighteenth Century;' the seventh volume was dedicated to him.

[Gent. Mag. 1847 pt. ii. p. 534, 1859 pt. i. p. 652, pt. ii. pp. 84-6, 206; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Foster's Index Ecclesiasticus; Foster's Peerage, sub 'Redesdale;' Mrs. Houstoun's Woman's Memories, i. 122-5, 178-204; Mrs. Houstoun's Sylvanus Redivivus; information from Dr. W. Aldis Wright and Mr. R. H. Mitford; Mitford's Works, passim.]

W. P. C.