Richard Monckton Milnes Critical Essays

Introduction

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.