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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Reginald Heber (1783–1826)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
AN EARLIER generation of cultivated readers knew Heber by heart, and the present one is inclined to rank him among the best of the hymn-writers. His father was a country gentleman of excellent Yorkshire family, incumbent of a double living when double livings were legal and proper, and rector of Malpas in Cheshire when his second son, Reginald, was born. Sent to Oxford at seventeen, the boy began at once a brilliant university career. In his first year (1800) he took the prize for his ‘Carmen Seculare,’ a Latin poem describing the greatness of the new century. He was but twenty when he wrote in English his second prize poem, ‘Palestine,’ which was printed in 1807 and several times reprinted; for it appealed to the religious sense of the great middle-class English public, still stirred by the remembrance of Wesley and the Evangelists. In the theatre where it was recited it was received with tumultuous enthusiasm, and it is one of the very few prize poems that have lived; Tennyson being perhaps the only one of the great poets whose university verses were admired by a later generation. There is a pretty story connecting Walter Scott with the fortunate student’s triumph. Scott, the smart young sheriff of Selkirkshire, not yet famous, had become known by his ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’ to that extraordinary bookworm Richard Heber, half-brother of Reginald, whom the “Wizard” afterward spoke of as “Heber the magnificent, whose library and cellar are so superior to all others in the world.” Scott was visiting his fellow antiquarian at Oxford, when the tall, shy, handsome young undergraduate brought in his ‘Palestine’ for their criticism. Both the elders praised it, but Scott pointed out that a fine metaphor had been missed in the description of the building of the Temple, and Heber added the best lines in the poem:—
  “No hammers fell; no ponderous axes rung:
Like some tall palm the mystic fabric sprung.”
  1
  Two years later he won a third prize for the best English essay, ‘On the Sense of Honor,’ was elected a fellow of his college, and traveled extensively. In 1807 he received holy orders and took one of the family livings, which had been kept waiting for him. He proved to be a most devoted parish priest, improving the church services, building up the schools, and raising the standard of health and morals among his people. He never liked his position, he confides to a friend, “as half squire, half parson,” but he did his best to justify his place.  2
  In 1822 he accepted with much hesitation the appointment to the bishopric of Calcutta. At that time the whole of British India made one vast see, the care of which demanded almost superhuman labor and endurance. Poor Heber, always ardent and zealous, traveled over his spiritual kingdom from bound to bound, preaching, teaching, establishing missions, baptizing, confirming, patching up peace between quarrelsome societies, settling clerical differences, doing social duty, sparing everybody but himself, always cheerful, always attentive, always eager to do the one thing more. Overwork, or the merciless climate, or anxiety, or all together, killed him at the end of three years in the very midst of his labors, when he was not yet forty-three.  3
  He wrote prose enough to fill two or three volumes, most of it sermons, addresses, and lectures, besides an interesting book of travels called ‘A Journey through India, from Calcutta to Bombay.’ But he is best remembered for his hymns, still sung to-day in all Protestant Christian churches. More than any other hymn-writer, perhaps, he has been able to give the simple utterance of faith or feeling its place in institutional worship. Sunday after Sunday, in the English churches, the splendid roll of his ‘Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty’ sweeps the soul of the listener as with the rushing of a mighty wind; in the ‘Hymn for the Epiphany’ many a believer finds the voice of his own passion of faith and gratitude; in the funeral hymns are uttered the woe and the triumph of humanity. Among the world’s great singers Heber’s name will not be found, but with the poets whom many generations love, his place is assured.  4
 
 
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