Richard Hengist Horne Critical Essays


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

Richard Hengist Horne 1802-1884

(Born Richard Henry Horne) British playwright, poet, novelist, journalist, literary critic, and children's author.

A minor literary figure in his time, Horne was a writer, dramatist, and poet who traveled in illustrious circles but never achieved lasting literary fame himself. His range of writing is impressive, ranging from historical tragedies and epic poetry to journalism and children's stories. A friend of literary notables including Leigh Hunt, Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, his successes, including the epic poem Orion (1843), nevertheless failed to earn him the wealth and reputation he longed for. In a career that spanned both England and Australia, Horne is notable as much for his influence on his contemporary literary acquaintances as for his own body of work.

Biographical Information

Born the eldest of three sons to James Horne and his wife Maria Patridge Horne, Richard was sent to live with his paternal grandmother when his father was forced by financial woes to enlist in the army. Richard stayed with his grandmother until 1810, when, upon his father's death, his mother and brothers returned home. He attended the same boys' school as his literary hero, John Keats, and claims to have once thrown a snowball at the one-day romantic poet. In 1819 Horne went to the Royal Military Academy, but upon failing after the first year, he returned home and undertook a regimen of extensive self-directed study. Longing for adventure, and knowing that he could never attain the poetic mastery of his heroes unless he too engaged in a noble cause—such as Byron did in his battle for Greek independence—Horne enlisted as midshipman in the Mexican navy. He found the adventure he had longed for, taking part in the Mexican-American War, traveling through America into Canada, and returning to England on a voyage fraught with danger. But after more hardship than he had expected, Horne settled in London in 1829 to focus on his writing. He found it more difficult to secure a publisher than he had imagined, and turned his pen to journalism in order to earn a living. He came into contact with other newspaper writers, including Charles Dickens, and intellectuals, including the Unitarian minister W. J. Fox. Horne immersed himself in the literary world and turned his attention to drama. His foremost concern was reviving the high drama of the Elizabethan stage. He wrote several plays, only one of which, The Death of Marlowe (1837), he ever saw acted. Despite his great interest in Jacobean-style drama, he was also a poet; his most significant poem, the epic Orion is as noted for its publishing history as for its content and execution. In something of a marketing ploy, Horne directed his publisher that the work was to be sold for only a farthing, no change was to be given, no one was allowed more than two copies, and should anyone mispronounce the title, they were to be sent away empty-handed. The poem was a popular success, and Horne became known as “Orion” Horne to his contemporaries, a name that followed him throughout his life. With the success of his poem and the reputation it awarded him, Horne again changed focus and next undertook a work of literary criticism. His A New Spirit of the Age (1844), modeled after William Hazlitt's publication The Spirit of the Age, published less than twenty years earlier, was a collection of essays and biographical portraits on those whom he considered to be the most significant literary figures since Hazlitt's work. Horne was aided anonymously in this task by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and perhaps others, but his New Spirit met with critical apathy, and in some cases hostility, both for his neglect of some authors and for his presumption upon his own significance. He had to continue to rely upon his periodical work for a living, and in 1845 he helped Charles Dickens establish The Daily News. He contributed articles and edited for numerous other publications and in 1850 became one of only three full-time staff members for Dickens's Household Words, to which he contributed a staggering amount of work. With a strong interest in children's education and the support and encouragement of their imaginations, Horne also contributed several children's stories, called Myrtle books. In 1847 Horne married Catherine Foggo, but little is known about their relationship. The two had no children and spent most of their marriage separated from one another. In 1852, disillusioned by the elusiveness of fame and fortune in England, Horne left behind everything, including his wife, and headed for Australia. In the colony, he scraped out a living working in various government positions, writing, and leading an unsuccessful campaign for election to Parliament. In 1867 he changed his middle name to Hengist after a friend, and by 1869, with dreams of success in the New World fully dissipated, he returned to London. Many of his old friends, including Dickens, had cooled towards Horne during the seventeen-year absence, and the popular readership he'd once enjoyed had forgotten him. He continued to write for periodicals and earned the sympathy of fellow literati, including Benjamin Disraeli, who helped support Horne financially. The long friendship between Horne and Elizabeth Barrett, and perhaps Robert Browning's pity for the aging, struggling Horne, led to Browning's granting permission for Horne to publish Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning Addressed to R. H. Horne in 1877. His literary successes far in his past, Horne died alone in Margate in the spring of 1884.

Major Works

Horne's first published work, The Exposition of the False Medium and Barriers Excluding Men of Genius from the Public (1833), was published anonymously and was Horne's response to his difficulties in finding publishers for his other works. In this work, he argued against publishers controlling artistic contributions—a control he argued was biased by publisher’s political, religious, and financial agendas—and called instead for a “Society of English Literature” where authors and intellectuals instead judged what works were worthy of publication and dissemination to the reading public. His proposal did not receive serious support. Horne's dramas represent his attempt to revive the glories of the Elizabethan stage. In Gregory VII (1840) Horne tells the story of Gregory, who in the eleventh century rose from a poor monk to become Pope. While Gregory is clearly intended as the hero of the work, his vicious, violent unscrupulousness in his quest to unify the Church makes him unsavory at best. Clearly a tyrant bent on justifying his actions in the name of “divine will,” Gregory, Horne argued, was an undeniable hero whose actions were representative of his more uncivilized time. It has been argued that Horne identified with his tyrant hero and through the character was enacting his own fantasy of power and tyranny. The play, while never acted for Horne, was nevertheless respected by critics as a decent literary work. In the epic poem Orion (1843) Horne turns to classical themes to present Orion's struggle to unify the mind and the body. As Orion moves from ignorance to knowledge, he represents the need for nineteenth-century workers to temper their brute strength with intellectual growth in order to attain freedom and equality. A widely popular poem, Orion also enjoyed critical success for its thoughtful, graceful lyricism. Amongst his more serious works lies Horne's children's literature. Published under pseudonyms such as Mrs. Fairstar, these works, which along with the work of Mary Gillies constituted the Myrtle storybooks, offered gentle moral and educational instruction that also lovingly engaged the child's imagination. Horne's Memoirs of a London Doll, Written by Herself (1846) is a mock autobiography told from three points of view: the doll, Maria Poppet; the various children who own her; and the parents of those children. Like many Christmas stories, it follows the course of one year in London, following Maria Poppet as she passes between her “little mammas,” who depending on their social status, nature, and interest, take Maria on various adventures. Horne poured careful details into the recounting of London events, and the story can be read as a representative chronicle of an actual London year, from one Christmas to the next. Horne intended the stories for the children of his friends, who were educated and capable of reading for themselves, but he also saw them as valuable for less fortunate children, whose condition he came to understand acutely when in 1841 he participated in a government inquiry into the quality of life for children working in mines and factories.

Critical Reception

The sparse twentieth-century critical interest in Horne is generally contingent upon his relationship with and possible influence on more famous literary figures (or their influence on him). Of particular interest is the depth of collaboration between Horne and Elizabeth Barrett, with critics such as David Paroissien arguing that Barrett's contribution both to identifiable works, such as A New Spirit of the Age, and to Horne's critical thought in general is more significant than the author revealed. Other critics such as Ann Blainey and Cyril Pearl focus on the intersection of Horne's life and his work, especially his early modest success with his dramas and his poem Orion. Always at the center of critical inquiry into Horne's work is an interest in the nature and character of the man, considered by some to be affected and self-conscious and by others to be always haunted by his desire to attain that level of recognition and success enjoyed by his idols Shelley and Keats. Because much of Horne's work and papers are scattered throughout the world, with a considerable collection of his unpublished work located uncatalogued in Melbourne, Australia, it has been difficult for critics to develop new strains of inquiry into this relatively minor figure. That he is important to other Victorian writers is undeniable, but his importance to Victorian literature itself remains a seldom-explored question.