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Henry Taylor

Sir Henry Taylor (October 18, 1800 - March 27, 1886) was an English poet and political official.

He was born at Bishop-Middleham, Durham, where his ancestors had been small landowners for generations. His mother died while he was an infant, and he was educated by his father, a studious man, who, finding him slower than his two elder brothers, allowed him to enter the navy as a midshipman. He left after eight months, and obtained a clerk's post in the storekeeper's office. He immediately went down with typhus fever, which killed both his brothers, then living with him in London. A few years later, his office was abolished while he was on duty in the West Indies. On his return he found his father had married a lady whose interest and sympathy were priceless to him. Through her he became acquainted with her cousin, Isabella Fenwick, the neighbour and intimate friend of William Wordsworth, who introduced him to Wordsworth and Robert Southey. Under these influences he lost his early admiration for Lord Byron, whose school, whatever its merits, he at least was in no way calculated to adorn, and his intellectual powers developed rapidly. In October 1822 he published an article on Moore's Irish Melodies in the Quarterly Review.

A year later he went to London to seek his fortune as a writer, and met with rapid success. 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, a good appointment in the Colonial Office. He 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 Continent with the latter, and at the same time, mainly through his friend and official colleague, Edward Hyde Villiers, joined a very different set, followers of Jeremy Bentham. He did not adopt their opinions--"young men," he told John 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. Taylor actively promoted the abolition of slavery in 1833, and became an intimate ally of Sir James Stephen, then counsel to the Colonial Office, by whom the Act of Emancipation was drawn up. His duties at the Colonial Office were soon lightened by the appointment of James Spedding, with whom he began a friendship that lasted till the end of his life.

His first drama, Isaac Comnenus, Elizabethan in tone, and, giving a lively picture of the Byzantine court and people, was published anonymously in 1828. Though highly praised by Southey, it made little impression. Philip van Artevelde, an elaborate poetic drama, the subject of which had been suggested by Southey, was begun in 1828, published in 1834, and, aided by a good review from John Gibson Lockhart in the Quarterly, achieved extraordinary success. Its superiority to Taylor's other works may be explained by its being to a great extent the vehicle of his own ideas and feelings. Artevelde's early love experiences reproduce and transfigure his own. Edwin the Fair (1842) was less warmly received; but his character of Dunstan, the ecclesiastical statesman, is a fine psychological study, and the play is full of historical interest. In 1839, Taylor married Theodosia Spring-Rice, the daughter of his former chief Lord Monteagle. At about the same time, he joined Sir James Stephen in bringing about the abolition of negro apprenticeship in the West Indies. The 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 reviews of Wordsworth and Southey which did much to dispel the conventional prejudices of the day, and which were published in 1849 under the somewhat misleading title of Notes from Books.

In 1847 he was offered the under-secretaryship of state for the colonies, which he declined. Notes from Life and The Eve of the Conquest were published; and 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 knighted. He retired from the Colonial Office in 1872, though was still consulted by government. His last days were spent at Bournemouth; and the public became familiarized with his appearance in old age, as represented in the photographs of his friend Julia Margaret Cameron. His Autobiography was published a year before his death.

Taylor's Artevelde is the work of a poet of considerable distinction; but, perhaps because he was so prominent as a state official, he has not been accepted by the world as more than a very accomplished man of letters. His lyrical work is in general laboriously artificial, but he produced two well-known songs--"Quoth tongue of neither maid nor wife" and "If I had the wings of a dove." His Correspondence (1888), was edited by Edward Dowden.

This entry was originally from the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.