Reginald Heber was from 1823 to 1826, when he died prematurely at age 42, the Anglican Church’s Bishop of Calcutta. He was also a more or less superb lyricist. Although he wrote the “Holy, Holy, Holy” still used on certain days in the Anglican rite, most of his poetic output has been–I don’t want to say lost to the ages, because nothing has been lost. What has happened is that much of Heber, once a staple of boys’ textbooks all over the British Empire, has simply been censored. But what’s a touch of provincialism next to a glistening verse style, I always say.
Consider the rollicking “Timour’s Councils,” which Heber wrote in 1816 about the Emir Timour, a Turk-Mongol king who tried to restore under the name of Islam the empire of Genghis Khan. Timour failed after running, in Heber’s telling, into something called winter.
Emirs and Khans, in long away,
To Timour’s council bent their way;
The lordly Tartar, vaunting high,
The Persian with dejected eye,
The vassal Russ, and, lured from far,
Circassia’s mercenary war.
But one there came, uncalled and last,
The spirit of the wintry blast!
HE marked, while wrapt in mist he stood,
The purposed track of spoil and blood;
he marked, unmoved by mortal woe,
That old man’s eye of swarthy glow;
That restless soul, whose single pride
Was cause enough that millions died;
He heard, he saw, till envy woke,
And thus the voice of thunder spoke:–
“And hopest thou thus, in pride unfurled,
To bear those banners through the world?
Can time nor space thy toils defy?
O king, thy fellow-demon I!
Servants of Death, alike we sweep
The wasted earth or shrinking deep;
And on the land, and o’er the wave,
We reap the harvest of the grave.
But thickest then that harvest lies,
And wildest sorrows rend the skies,
In darker cloud the vultures sail,
And richer carnage taints the gale,
And few the mourners that remain,
When winter leagues with Tamerlane! [Another name for Timour]
But on, to work our lord’s decree;
Then, tyrant, turn, and cope with me!
And learn, though far thy trophies shine,
How deadlier are my blasts than thine.
Nor cities burnt, nor blood of men,
Nor thine own pride shall warm thee then!
Forth to thy task! We meet again
On wild Chabanga’s frozen plain.”
Heber had style in great volume. Unfortunately for a writer living in the romantic age, he also had a happy life. As a child he was “distinguished by sweetness of disposition, obedience and that trust in God’s providence which formed through life so prominent a feature in his character…He could read the Bible with fluency at five years old, and the avidity with which he studied it, and his wonderful remembrance of its contents, astonished his parents. Indeed, from the moment he could read, his passion for books became insatiable.” What a bore! Where’s the despair? One cannot write next to Coleridge and compose next to Beethoven without at least an opium addiction. That’s where Heber went wrong.
One of my favorites of Reginald Heber, “From Greenland’s icy mountains.” It’s a powerfully sculpted ode to the great physical beauty of the world, from Greenland to Africa, combined with the urge to–uhrm–civilize it all.
FROM GREENLAND’S ICY MOUNTAINS
From Greenland’s icy mountains,
From India’s coral strand,
Where Afric’s sunny fountains
Roll down their golden sand,
From many an ancient river,
From many a palmy plain,
They call us to deliver
Their land from error’s chain!
What though the spicy breezes
Blow soft o’er Java’s isle;
Though every prospect pleases,
And only man is vile;
In vain, with lavish kindness,
The gifts of God are strown:
The Heathen, in his blindness,
Bows down to wood and stone!
Can we, whose souls are lighted
With Wisdom from on high,—
Can we to men benighted
The lamp of life deny?
Salvation! Oh salvation!
The joyful sound proclaim,
Till each remotest nation
Has learn’d Messiah’s name.
Waft, waft, ye winds, His story;
And you, ye waters, roll,
Till, like a sea of glory,
It spreads from pole to pole;
Till, o’er our ransom’d nature,
The Lamb for sinners slain,
Redeemer, King, Creator,
In bliss returns to reign.
Heber’s other poetical acts of subversion can be read in this book, available in full online.