Richard Hengist Horne Essay - Critical Essays

Horne, Richard Hengist


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.

Principal Works

The Exposition of the False Medium and Barriers Excluding Men of Genius from the Public [anonymous] (criticism) 1833

Spirit of Peers and People: A National Tragi-Comedy (play) 1834

Cosmo de Medici: An Historical Tragedy (play) 1837

The Death of Marlowe: A Tragedy in One Act (play) 1837

The Life of Van Amburgh the Brute Tamer, with Anecdotes of His Extraordinary Pupils [as Ephraim Watts] (satire) 1838

Gregory VII: A Tragedy in One Act (play) 1840

The History of Napoleon 2 vols. (history) 1841

The Poems of Geoffrey Chaucer, Modernised...

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N. U. S. (review date 1844)

SOURCE: N. U. S. Review of A New Spirit of the Age. Edited by R. H. Horne. The Westminster Review 41, no. 2 (1844): 357-87.

[In the following excerpt, the critic examines Horne's works False Medium, Cosmo de Medici, and A New Spirit of the Age.]

A title of large promise. Amidst all that is even now stirring all human things to their deepest depths, the announcement of a yet newer, spirit is pregnant with high interest. For it is, after all, the “spirit” which can alone give value to the material. The aspiring, the upward, and the onward, are all encircled in the term spirituality. It is synonymous with progress, with the growth of man from the savage...

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Southern Quarterly Review (review date April 1845)

SOURCE: Review of A New Spirit of the Age. Edited by R. H. Horne, Author of “Orion,” “Gregory VII,” etc. Southern Quarterly Review 7 (April 1845): 312-33.

[In the following excerpt, the critic reviews Horne's A New Spirit of the Age from an American perspective and provides a close reading of Horne's epic poem Orion.]

There is some little pretension in the title chosen for this volume, of the propriety of which we are far from certain. To our notion, it is a misnomer. What constitutes the spirit of our age,—of any age? Is it the literary genius by which it is distinguished, or its intrinsic triumphs of morality and art?—Its quiet, inner,...

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Federico Olivero (essay date February 1915)

SOURCE: Olivero, Federico, “On R. H. Horne's Orion.Modern Language Notes 30, no. 2 (February 1915): 33-39.

[In the following essay, Olivero comments on Horne's dynamic style in Orion, especially noting its contrast against Keats's notoriously whimsical poetry.]

Horne's Orion is one of the best instances to show how Keats's allegoric way of handling a Greek fable was intimately responsive to the æsthetic ideals of an age fond of a kind of poetry which might adorn subtle, metaphysic conceptions with the radiance of a sumptuous imagery. Keats tried to express the passion and mystery of life by means of symbols derived from an Hellenic legend,...

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Cyril Pearl (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Pearl, Cyril. “Originality and Genius.” In his Always Morning: The Life of Richard Henry “Orion” Horne, pp. 27-45. Melbourne: F. W. Cheshire, 1960.

[In the following excerpt, Pearl examines Horne's, Exposition on the False Medium and Barriers Excluding Men of Genius from the Public, his early plays, and his contributions to the journal Monthly Repository.]

Behind its splendid façade, its Regency mansions, parks and squares, London in the reign of William IV was a place of squalor, hunger, barbarism and fear—fear of civil war and fear of cholera. There was acute class conflict and sanitation was appalling. The Reform Bill of 1832 did great...

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Brian Elliott (essay date December 1963)

SOURCE: Elliott, Brian. “An R. H. Horne Poem on Burke and Wills.” Australian Literary Studies 1, no. 2 (December 1963): 122-26.

[In the following essay, Elliott discusses an obscure Horne elegiac poem about explorers Robert Burke and William Wills, who were the first to cross the Australian continent from north to south but died on the return trip. Elliott finds the most intriguing aspect of the work to be the depiction of the Australian culture and countryside by Horne, an English expatriate.]

The Sydney Morning Herald of Friday, 23 January, 1863, prints among its ‘Telegraphic Despatches’ the following reference to the ceremonies associated with the...

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Margery Fisher (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: Fisher, Margery. Introduction to Memoirs of a London Doll, Written by Herself, Edited by Mrs. Fairstar, by Richard Henry Horne, pp. vii-xxx. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1967.

[In the following essay, Fisher provides a sketch of Horne, and examines his children's tales “King Penguin,” The Good-Natured Bear, and Memoirs of a London Doll.]

Writing to his friend Elizabeth Barrett in the 1840's, Richard Henry Horne mentioned “a sort of Christmas book for children, called The London Doll”, which he had written not long before. It was not publicly acknowledged as his, though, until many years later. Horne loved mystification and indulged in...

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Ann Blainey (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Blainey, Ann. “The Pit of Talent.” In her The Farthing Poet: A Biography of Richard Hengist Horne 1802-84. A Lesser Literary Lion, pp. 82-95. London: Longmans, 1968.

[In the following excerpt, Blainey examines the success of Horne's plays The Death of Marlowe and Gregory VII, and considers his friendship with literary figures Leigh Hunt and Thomas Carlyle.]

The New Year of 1838 brought no comfort: another year and another birthday, his thirty-fifth. Only five years off official middle age, he felt he had achieved so little. Physically he already seemed middle-aged: his face had acquired that ageless-aged look it was to keep for another twenty...

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Ann Blainey (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Blainey, Ann. “The Farthing Epic.” In her The Farthing Poet: A Biography of Richard Hengist Horne 1802-84. A Lesser Literary Lion, pp. 130-40. London: Longmans, 1968.

[In the following excerpt, Blainey explores Horne's epic poem Orion, its plot, the unique requirements for its purchase, and its reception.]

A year later Horne would feel exhausted and written out; for the present that unusual poetic facility which had produced his religious epic continued undimmed. If anything, it glowed more brightly. He had finished “Ancient Idols” on the twentieth day of July 1842, a day he felt sufficiently important to record exactly for posterity; and for...

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Don D. Moore (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: Moore, Don D. “The Duchess of Malfi, by John Webster and R. H. Horne.” Essays in Honor of Esmond Linworth Marilla, edited by Thomas Austin Kirby and William John Olive, pp. 166-173. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1970.

[In the following essay, Moore asserts that the theatrical success of Webster's The Duchess of Malfi should really be attributed to the significant adaptations made to it by Horne.]

Until 1965 and a four-month run off-Broadway of Jack Landau's energetic staging of The White Devil, the two major plays of John Webster have had extremely limited success on professional stages for the past two centuries....

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David Paroissien (essay date June 1971)

SOURCE: Paroissien, David. “Mrs. Browning's Influence on and Contribution to A New Spirit of the Age (1844).” English Language Notes 8, no. 4 (June 1971): 274-81.

[In the following essay, Paroissien examines the role Elizabeth Barrett Browning played in the writing of Horne's A New Spirit of the Age, arguing that evidence indicates her involvement was more extensive than Horne publicly acknowledged.]

When Richard Hengist Horne (1803-84) published a survey of contemporary writers in 1884 called A New Spirit of the Age, he referred in his Preface to the “valuable assistance and advice from several eminent hands.” That the hands were...

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Further Reading


Friedman, Martin B. “Hazlitt, Jerrold, and Horne: Liber Amoris Twenty Years After.” The Review of English Studies n.s. 22, no. 88 (November 1971): 455-62.

Considers Douglas Jerrold's story “The Metaphysician and the Maid” in Horne's review of the author in his New Spirit of the Age.

Gibbon, Frank. “R. H. Horne and Our Mutual Friend.The Dickensian 81, no. 407, part 3 (autumn 1985): 140-43.

Examines the influence of Horne's anonymously published essay “Dust; or Ugliness Redeemed” on Dickens's more masterful use of dust heaps in his Our Mutual Friend.


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