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Sir Henry James Pye (1745-1813)
Born: 20th February 1745 at the City of London
Poet Laureate
Died: 11th August 1813 at Pinner, Middlesex

Henry James Pye was eldest son of Henry Pye of Faringdon House in Berkshire. His mother was Mary, daughter of David James, Rector of Woughton in Buckinghamshire. She died on 13th May 1806, aged 88. The father, who was MP for Berkshire from 1746 till his death, was great-grandson of Sir Robert Pye. Henry, born in London on 10th February 1745, was educated at home until 1762, when he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, as a gentleman-commoner. He was created MA on 3rd July 1766, and DCL at the installation of Lord North as Chancellor in 1772. On the death of his father, on 2nd March 1766, Pye inherited his estates at Faringdon and debts to the amount of £50,000. His resources long suffered through his efforts to pay off this large sum. His house at Faringdon, too, was burned down soon after his succession to it, and the expenses of rebuilding increased his embarrassments. He married at the age of twenty-one and, at first, devoted himself to the pursuits of a country gentleman. He joined the Berkshire Militia and was an active county magistrate. In 1784, he was elected MP for Berkshire. Soon afterwards, his financial difficulties compelled him to sell his ancestral estate, and he retired from Parliament at the dissolution of 1790. In 1792, he was appointed a police magistrate for Westminster. One of his most useful publications was a ‘Summary of the Duties of a Justice of the Peace out of Sessions’ (1808).

From an early age, Pye cultivated literary tastes and his main object in life was to obtain recognition as a poet. He read the Classics and wrote English verse assiduously, but he was destitute alike of poetic feeling and power of expression. His earliest publication was an ‘Ode on the Birth of the Prince of Wales’ in the Oxford collection of 1762, and he has been doubtfully credited with ‘The Rosciad of Covent Garden,’ a poem published in London in the same year. In 1766, appeared ‘Beauty: a Poetical Essay,’ a didactic lucubration in heroic verse, which well exemplifies Pye's pedestrian temper. There followed ‘Elegies on Different Occasions’ (1768); ‘The Triumph of Fashion: a Vision’ (1771); ‘Farringdon Hill: a Poem in Two Books’ (1774); ‘The Progress of Refinement’ (1783); ‘Shooting’ (1784); and ‘Aeriphorion’ (on balloons) (1784). All of these move along a uniformly dead level of dullness. Nevertheless, Pye collected most of them in two octavo volumes as ‘Poems on Various Subjects’ (1787). Meanwhile, in 1775, he exhibited somewhat greater intelligence in a verse translation, with notes, of ‘Six Olympic Odes of Pindar, being those omitted by Mr. West.’ He pursued the same vein in a translation of the ‘Poetics of Aristotle’ in 1788, which he reissued, with a commentary, in 1792. His ‘Amusement: a Poetical Essay’ appeared in 1790.

It was in this last year that Pye was appointed poet laureate, in succession to Thomas Warton, and he held the office for twenty-three years. He doubtless owed his good fortune to the support he had given the Prime Minister, Pitt the Younger, while he sat in the House of Commons. No selection could have more effectually deprived the post of reputable literary associations, and a satire, ‘Epistle to the Poet Laureate’ (1790) gave voice to the scorn with which, in literary circles, the announcement of his appointment was received. Pye performed his new duties with the utmost regularity and effected a change in the conditions of tenure of the office by accepting a fixed salary of £27 in lieu of the ancient dole of a tierce (35 gallons) of canary wine. Every year on the King's birthday, he produced an ode breathing the most irreproachable patriotic sentiment, expressed in language of ludicrous tameness. His earliest effort was so crowded with allusions to vocal groves and feathered choirs that George Stevens, on reading it, broke out into the lines now famous from nursery rhyme:

"When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing.
Wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the King?"

Occasionally Pye essayed more ambitious topics, such as his ‘War Elegies of Tyrtæus imitated’ (1795); ‘Naucratia, or Naval Dominion’ (1798), dedicated to King George; and ‘Carmen Seculare for the year 1800’ (1799). What has been described as his magnum opus, ‘Alfred,’ an epic poem in six books, appeared in 1801, and was dedicated to Prime Minister Henry Addington. Pye was the intimate friend of Governer John Penn (1729–1795) (grandson of William Penn), and published, in 1802, ‘Verses on several Subjects, written in the vicinity of Stoke Park in the Summer and Autumn of 1801.’ In 1810 appeared his ‘Translation of the Hymns and Epigrams of Homer.’

Pye also interested himself in drama. On 19th May 1794, his three-act historical tragedy ‘The Siege of Meaux’ was acted at Covent Garden, and was repeated four times. The Ireland Forgeries, a treasure-trove of Shakespearean manuscripts including two unknown plays faked by William Ireland, at first completely deceived him. On 25th February 1795, he signed, with others, a paper testifying his belief in their authenticity;  but when he was requested to write a prologue for the production, at Drury Lane, of Shakespeare's supposed play of ‘Vortigern,’ he expressed himself too cautiously to satisfy the actual author, Ireland, who deemed it prudent to suppress Pye's effort.

On 25th January 1800, ‘Adelaide,’ a second tragedy by Pye, based on episodes in Lyttelton's ‘Henry II,’ was performed at Drury Lane, with John Kemble as Prince Richard and his sister, Sarah Siddons, as the heroine. The great actor and actress never appeared, wrote Genest, to less advantage. On 29th October 1805, an inanimate comedy, ‘A Prior Claim,’ in which his son-in-law, Samuel James Arnold, co-operated, was also produced at Drury Lane. In 1807, Pye published ‘Comments on the Commentators of Shakespeare, with Preliminary Observations on his Genius and Writings,’ which he dedicated to his friend, Penn. ‘The Inquisitor,’ a tragedy in five acts, altered from the German (‘Diego und Leonor’) by Pye and James Petit Andrews, was published in 1798, but was never performed, because its production on the stage was anticipated by that of Holcroft's adaptation of the same German play under the same English title at the Haymarket on 25th June 1798.

Besides the works enumerated, Pye issued a respectable translation of Bürger's ‘Lenore’ (1795, and two works of fiction, "interspersed with anecdotes of well-known characters," respectively entitled ‘The Democrat’ (1795) and ‘The Aristocrat’ (1799). He revised Francis' ‘Odes of Horace’ in 1812 and a copy of Sir James Bland Burges' ‘Richard I,’ with manuscript notes and emendations by Pye, is in the British Library. In May 1813, an edition of Pye's select writings in six volumes was announced, but happily nothing more was heard of it. He died at Pinner on 11th August 1813. 

Pye was twice married. His first wife, Mary, daughter of Colonel William Hook, wrote a farce, ‘The Capricious Lady,’ which was acted at Drury Lane on 10th May 1771 for the benefit of Mr. Inchbald and Mrs. Morland. It was not printed. By her, who died in 1796, Pye had two daughters, Mary Elizabeth (d. 1834), wife of Captain Jones of the 35th Regiment; and Matilda Catherine, who married, in 1802, Samuel James Arnold, and died in 1851. Pye married, in November 1801, a second wife, Martha, daughter of W. Corbett, by whom he had a son, Henry John (1802–1884), and a daughter, Jane Anne, wife of Francis Willington of Tamworth in Staffordshire. The son succeeded in 1833, under the will of a distant cousin, to the estate of Clifton Hall in Staffordshire, where the family is still settled.

Edited from Sidney Lee's "Dictionary of National Biography" (189


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