Richard Monckton Milnes Essay - Critical Essays

Milnes, Richard Monckton


Richard Monckton Milnes 1809-1885

English politician, poet, biographer, and essayist.

Both a poet and a longtime member of Parliament, Milnes is largely remembered for his biography Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848), the first life of Keats and a work responsible for bringing about a favorable reassessment of the Romantic poet's merits. A social dilettante who held numerous dinner parties and gatherings for the intellectual and social elite at Fryston, his country home in Yorkshire, Milnes is also known for his association with several major figures of nineteenth-century English literature, including Thomas Carlyle and Algernon Charles Swinburne. The former was one of his lifelong friends—Milnes recorded some of their conversations in his day books—while the latter was allowed to browse Milnes' vast library of continental erotica and received assistance from his friend in publishing some of his earliest poems.

Biographical Information

Milnes was born in Mayfair, London, on 19 June 1809 to Maria Monckton Milnes and Robert Pemberton Milnes, a distinguished member of Parliament. His early education consisted of both private instruction and formal schooling at Hundhill Hall, until he entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1827. While there Milnes came into contact with such figures as Arthur Hallam and Alfred Tennyson, and published his first work, The Influence of Homer, an essay that earned him the university's English Essay Prize in 1829. He graduated several years later and began to travel throughout the European continent, particularly in Germany, Italy, and Greece; one result of these travels was his first collection of poetry, Memorials of a Tour in Some Parts of Greece, Chiefly Poetical (1834). Having spent some three years abroad, Milnes returned to London in 1836, and almost immediately became a familiar sight in the city's elite social circles. The following year he was elected to the House of Commons as a Conservative in his father's old district, Pontefract. As the result of further travels he produced several more collections of poetry, the last of which was Palm Leaves (1844). He published his most important book of criticism, Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats, in 1848. Three years later he married Annabel Crewe; by this time he had ceased to compose poetry, having turned his attention instead to political matters, though he continued to expand his rare book collection. Among these books were several by the infamous Marquis de Sade which significantly influenced the young poet Swinburne after he was shown them in 1861. Two years later Milnes was named Lord Houghton and appointed to the House of Lords; during the remaining decades of his life he spent most of his time serving as a statesman—entertaining foreign dignitaries and speaking at public events, such as the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the unveiling of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's bust at Westminster Abbey. He died in Vichy, France, on 11 August 1885.

Major Works

Milnes' early works include five collections of poetry as well as several essays and speeches delivered before Parliament. Of his poems, most are lyrics or ballads, elegiac or sentimental in tone. Some are occasional poems, written to commemorate specific events, and many of these are included in Memorials of a Tour in Some Parts of Greece, Chiefly Poetical and Memorials of a Residence on the Continent, and Historical Poems (1838), Milnes' first two collections. Both are conventional in nature and evoke Milnes's reminiscences of excursions in Europe during the 1830s. Poems of Many Years (1838) and Poetry for the People (1840) contain simple ballads, lyrics, didactic verse, and two narrative poems, "Venus and the Christian Knight" and "The Northern Knight in Italy"—the first retellings of the tragic Tannhäuser legend in English. Palm Leaves comprises Milnes' poetic observations of Egypt and the Middle East, and his admiration for Islamic culture. One Tract More, by a Layman (1841) is characteristic of his political writings, demonstrating Milnes' defense of the Oxford Movement and maintaining traditional practices in the Church of England. Of far greater significance to critics than his poetry, Milnes' biography Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats represented a turning point in the reputation of the romantic poet, who, before Milnes, was typically reviled by or unknown to critics. In the biography Milnes incorporated letters and other forms of primary information from close friends of Keats in order that the poet might speak for himself in the work. The publication of his Keats biography in 1848 also marked a change in Milnes's own oeuvre, away from original verse and into other avenues. Political topics predominate among his later writings, though Milnes also produced two essays of specialized interest: Another Version of Keat's "Hyperion" (1856) and A Discourse of Witchcraft (1858), written for the Philobiblon Society—an organization Milnes' cofounded to satisfy his interest in collecting rare books and manuscripts. Another of his notable later works is the children's nursery rhyme Good Night and Good Morning (1859).

Critical Reception

While popular in his day, Milnes' poetry has received little serious attention by modern scholars. His contemporary Walter Savage Landor once called him "the greatest poet now living in England," but this unconditional praise was far from the norm. Elizabeth Barrett observed that, as a poet, Milnes "perceives and responds rather than creates." Most of his verse has since been forgotten, though in 1915, Lafcadio Hearn called the poem "Strangers Yet" Milnes' best, and praised his work overall. By the mid twentieth century, Milnes had come to be known primarily for his literary influence and ability to discern poetic talent in others rather than for his own literary skill. The inspiration and assistance he provided to Swinburne has been noted by biographers of both men. Likewise, his biography of Keats—long since replaced as the standard on the subject—has nevertheless been lauded for its incipient perception of Keats as one of the greatest nineteenth-century English poets.

Principal Works

The Influence of Homer (essay) 1829

Memorials of a Tour in Some Parts of Greece, Chiefly Poetical (poetry) 1834

Memorials of a Residence on the Continent, and Historical Poems (poetry) 1838

Poems of Many Years (poetry) 1838

A Speech on the Ballot, Delivered in the House of Commons (speech) 1839

Poetry for the People, and Other Poems (poetry) 1840

One Tract More, by a Layman (essay) 1841

Thoughts on Purity of Election (essay) 1842

Palm Leaves (poetry) 1844

The Real Union of England and Ireland (essay) 1845

Speech of R. Monckton Milnes, esq. in the House of Commons, March 11, 1847, on Mr. Hume's Motion Respecting the Suppression of the Free State of Cracow and the Payment of the Russian-Dutch Loan (speech) 1847

Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats (biography) 1848

The Events of 1848, Especially in Their Relations to Great Britain. A Letter to the Marquis of Lansdowne (essay) 1849

Answer to R. Baxter on the South Yorkshire Isle of Axholme Bill (essay) 1852

Speech of Richard Monckton Milnes in the House of Commons, April 1, 1852. Extracted from Hansard's Parliamentary Debates (speech) 1852

Another Version of Keats's "Hyperion" (essay) 1856 A Discourse of Witchcraft (essay) 1858 Good Night and Good Morning: A Ballad (poetry) 1859

Address on Social Economy (speech) 1862

Selections from the Poetical Works (poetry) 1863

Monographs: Personal and Social (essays) 1873

The Poetical Works of (Richard Monckton Milnes) Lord Houghton (poetry) 1876

Some Writings and Speeches of Richard Monckton Milnes in the Last Year of His Life (essays and speeches) 1888


R. H. Home (essay date 1844)

SOURCE: "Richard Monckton Milnes and Hartley Coleridge," in A New Spirit of the Age, Oxford University Press, London, 1907, pp. 187-96.

[Although it was not publicly known at the time, Elizabeth Barrett collaborated extensively with Horne in the production of his collection of essays on contemporary poets. Evidence from their correspondence indicates that the essay from which this excerpt is taken was primarily the work of Barrett. In the following, originally published in 1844, Home describes Milnes' poetic style, calling it subdued, graceful, lyrical, and spiritual.]

The poetry of Richard Monckton Milnes has met with considerable praise in many quarters, yet hardly...

(The entire section is 1912 words.)

Fraser's Magazine(essay date 1847)

SOURCE: "Mr. R. Monckton Milnes," in Fraser's Magazine for Town & Country, Vol. XXV, No. CCX, June, 1847, pp. 722-26.

[In the following excerpt, the anonymous critic evaluates Milnes's strengths and weaknesses as a politician.]

It is very rarely that we find men successful in the House of Commons who have made any reputation for themselves in other pursuits. Such men form the exception, indeed, rather than the rule. Distinguished barristers are almost invariably bad parliamentary orators. Lord Brougham and Sir William Follett were, no doubt, brilliant exceptions; but they, therefore, serve to make the failures of others more remarkable. Literary men, too, seldom...

(The entire section is 3547 words.)

James Robinson Planché (poem date 1863)

SOURCE: "A Literary Squabble," in A Century of Humorous Verse, 1850-1950, edited by Roger Lancelyn Green, J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1959, pp. 3-4.

[In the following poem, composed in 1863, Planché makes a humorous commentary on Milnes' adoption of the name Lord Houghton.]

A Literary Squabble

The Alphabet rejoiced to hear
That Monckton Milnes was made a Peer;
For in this present world of letters
But few, if any, are his betters:
So an address by acclamation,
They voted of congratulation,
And H, O, U, G, T, and N, Were chosen the address to pen;

(The entire section is 611 words.)

Richard Monckton Milnes (essay date 1876)

SOURCE: Preface to The Poetical Works of (Richard Monckton Milnes) Lord Houghton, Vol. I, John Murray, 1876, pp. v-xiv.

[In the following preface to his collected poems, Milnes comments on the geographical, intellectual, and personal sources of his poetry.]

The Grecian poems have their date in that period of life which, in a cultivated Englishman, is almost universally touched and coloured by the studies and memories of the classic world; and the scenes and personages they commemorate are, as it were, the most natural subjects of his poetic thought and illustration. They were accompanied, as first given to the public, with a considerable amount of prose narration and...

(The entire section is 1955 words.)

T. Wemyss Reid (essay date 1890)

SOURCE: "Literary and Personal Characteristics," in The Life, Letters, and Friendships of Richard Monckton Milnes, First Lord Houghton, Vol. II, by T. Wemyss Reid, Cassell & Company, Limited, 1890, pp. 437-67.

[In the following excerpt, Reid recounts Milnes' publications of poetry and surveys the contemporary criticism of these works.]

To the present generation the poetry of Lord Houghton is practically known only in connection with one or two brief pieces, of unimpeachable grace and melody, which have attained a popularity that is literally worldwide. His more important works, as well as many shorter poems that are in every way equal in merit to those that have...

(The entire section is 4272 words.)

Lafcadio Hearn (essay date 1915)

SOURCE: "A Poem by Lord Houghton," in Interpretations of Literature, Vol. I, by Lafcadio Hearn, edited by John Erskine, Dodd, Mead and Company, 1915, pp. 300-03.

[In the following essay, Hearn analyzes Milnes's poem "Strangers Yet," calling it his best and one of the few possessing "that rare quality which appeals to the universal human experience."]

Among many English noblemen who have figured in Victorian literature with more or less credit to themselves, there was perhaps nobody who could write more hauntingly at times than Lord Houghton. He did not write a great deal, but a considerable proportion of the few pieces which he did write have found their way...

(The entire section is 1145 words.)

J. R. MacGillivray (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: Introduction to Keats: A Bibliography and Reference Guide with an Essay on Keats' Reputation, University of Toronto Press, 1949, pp. 1-liv.

[In the following excerpt, MacGillivray examines how Milnes sought to vindicate Keats' sullied reputation in his 1848 biography Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats.]

Milnes' book[Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats] was certainly not a biography of the first rank, but it would be difficult to name one that was better designed "for the purpose of vindicating the character and advancing the fame" of its subject. Falsehoods and half-truths about Keats had been in circulation for...

(The entire section is 1718 words.)

James Pope-Hennessy (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: "1837-1840" and "1848," in Monckton Milnes: The Years of Promise, 1809-1851, Constable, 1949, pp. 98-120, 272-96.

[In the following excerpt, Pope-Hennessy studies the contemporary critical response to Milnes' Grecian poems and his biography of Keats.]

The discussion of Milnes' poetry by Samuel Rogers and Gladstone was no doubt caused by the simultaneous appearance of two volumes of his verse. These successors to the Grecian pieces of five years before were entitledMemorials of a Residence on the Continent and Poems of Many Years. Privately printed in 1838 for circulation amongst the poet's friends, they were published and put on sale...

(The entire section is 3581 words.)

James Pope-Hennessy (essay date 1951)

SOURCE: "1858-1861" and "1861-1866 (I)," in Monckton Milnes: The Flight of Youth, 1851-1885, Constable, 1951, pp. 108-26, 127-60.

[In the following excerpt, Pope-Hennessy discusses the controversy over Milnes' collection of literary erotica and his influence on the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne.]

In scope, Milnes' library was representative of European literature in the widest sense. Round a core of the great as well as the curious classics of the past, Milnes built up a collection of contemporary poetry, fiction, biography, history, memoirs and works of criticism in four languages. Aside from his big collection of seventeenth and eighteenth century autographs,...

(The entire section is 4692 words.)

Lionel Trilling (essay date 1955)

SOURCE: "Profession: Man of the World," in A Gathering of Fugitives, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1955, pp. 115-25.

[In the following essay, written in 1955, Trilling remarks on Milnes ' character and the reactions of his contemporaries and his biographer, James Pope-Hennessy, to it.]


The addicted reader of Victorian memoirs and biographies knows them to be haunted by a presence which appears sometimes as "Mr. Monckton Milnes (now Lord Houghton)," and sometimes as "Lord Houghton (then Mr. Monckton Milnes)." To our dim sight this ubiquitous being seems to have accomplished only one thing in his lifetime that makes him worthy of recollection—he...

(The entire section is 3635 words.)

Further Reading

Campbell, Ian. "Conversations with Carlyle: The Monckton Milnes Diaries." Prose Studies 8, No. 1 (May 1985): 48-57.

Recounts Milnes' discussions with Carlyle, as recorded in his commonplace books.

——."More Conversations with Carlyle: The Monckton Milnes Diaries: Part II." Prose Studies 9, No. 1 (May 1986): 22-9.

Continuation of the article cited above.

Lafourcade, Georges. "Ballads and Poems (1860-1866)." In Swinburne: A Literary Biography, pp. 84-144. London: G. Bell and Sons, 1932.

Briefly investigates Milnes'...

(The entire section is 176 words.)