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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XV. Divines

§ 13. James Hervey

The first to be mentioned after Whitefield was almost a complete contrast to him. There can be no doubt that the most popular writer among those who were influenced by the earlier stages of the methodist movement was James Hervey, who was at Lincoln college, Oxford, as an undergraduate when John Wesley was a fellow and, after serving in Cornwall, became rector of two parishes, not adjoining each other, Collingtree and Weston Favell, in Northamptonshire. He was a most excellent man and an exemplary parish priest, but he escaped controversy as little as did any other of the evangelical company. His disputes with Wesley are of no importance in literary history, and his curious dialogues, on his favourite doctrine of “imputed righteousness” and other opinions which he extracted from the Gospels, entitled Theron and Aspasia, have long ceased to interest even the most assiduous student. But his Meditations Among the Tombs, Reflections on a Flower-garden and Contemplations on the Night, which met with extraordinary success in their day, illustrate most effectively the fantastic and affected style which the most sincere writers of the time, save the robust John Wesley himself, seemed to assume with their “pulpit manner,” till it became a second nature to them. A passage from Hervey’s Contemplations on the Night may be quoted here, since it would be difficult to find a more striking example of the descent of popular taste in the darkest period of English letters. The thoughts might be found in Jeremy Taylor; but how different is the pompous and posturing performance with which Hervey seeks to impress the reader from the plangent feeling which inspires Taylor even in his richest and most gorgeous prose! In Hervey, the ideas are impoverished and the expression is at once affected and commonplace.

  • We need not go down to the charnel house, nor carry our search into the repositories of the dead, in order to find memorials of our impending doom. A multitude of these remembrancers are placed in all our paths, and point the heedless passengers to their long home. I can hardly enter a considerable town but I meet a funeral procession, or the mourners going about the streets. The hatchment suspended on the wall, or the crape streaming in the air, are silent intimations that both rich and poor have been emptying their houses, and replenishing their sepulchres. I can scarce join in any conversation, but mention is made of some that are given over by the physician, and hovering on the confines of eternity; of others that have just dropt their clay among weeping friends, and are gone to appear before the Judge of all the earth. There’s not a newspaper comes to my hand, but, amidst all its entertaining narrations, reads several serious lectures of mortality. What else are the repeated accounts—of age, worn out by slow-consuming sicknesses—of youth, dashed to pieces by some sudden stroke of casualty—of patriots, exchanging their seats in the senate for a lodging in the tomb—of misers, resigning their breath, and (O relentless destiny!) leaving their very riches for others! Even the vehicals of our amusement are registers of the deceased! and the voice of Fame seldom sounds but in concert with the knell!