Thomas Sprat was born in 1636, at Tallaton in Devonshire, the son of a clergyman; and having been educated, as he tells of himself, not at Westminster or Eton, but at a little school by the church-yard side, became a commoner of Wadham college, in Oxford, in 1651; and, being chosen scholar next year, proceeded through the usual academical course, and, in 1657, became master of arts. He obtained a fellowship, and commenced poet.
In 1659, his poem on the death of Oliver was published, with those of Dryden and Waller. In his dedication to Dr. Wilkins, he appears a very willing and liberal encomiast, both of the living and the dead. He implores his patron's excuse of his verses, both as falling "so infinitely below the full and sublime genius of that excellent poet who made this way of writing free of our nation," and being "so little equal and proportioned to the renown of the prince on whom they were written; such great actions and lives deserving to be the subject of the noblest pens and most divine phansies." He proceeds: "Having so long experienced your care and indulgence, and been formed, as it were, by your own hands, not to entitle you to any thing which my meanness produces, would be not only injustice, but sacrilege."
He published, the same year, a poem on the Plague of Athens; a subject of which it is not easy to say what could recommend it. To these he added, afterwards, a poem on Mr. Cowley's death.
After the restoration he took orders, and by Cowley's recommendation was made chaplain to the duke of Buckingham, whom he is said to have helped in writing the Rehearsal. He was likewise chaplain to the king.
As he was the favourite of Wilkins, at whose house began those philosophical conferences and inquiries, which in time produced the Royal Society, he was consequently engaged in the same studies, and became one of the fellows; and when, after their incorporation, something seemed necessary to reconcile the publick to the new institution, he undertook to write its history, which he published in 1667. This is one of the few books which selection of sentiment and elegance of diction have been able to preserve, though written upon a subject flux and transitory. The History of the Royal Society is now read, not with the wish to know what they were then doing, but how their transactions are exhibited by Sprat.
In the next year he published Observations on Sorbière's Voyage into England, in a letter to Mr. Wren. This is a work not ill-performed; but, perhaps, rewarded with at least its full proportion of praise.
In 1668, he published Cowley's Latin poems, and prefixed, in Latin, the life of the author; which he afterwards amplified, and placed before Cowley's English works, which were by will committed to his care.
Ecclesiastical benefices now fell fast upon him. In 1668, he became a prebendary of Westminster, and had afterwards the church of St. Margaret, adjoining to the abbey. He was, in 1680, made canon of Windsor; in 1683, dean of Westminster; and, in 1684, bishop of Rochester.
The court having thus a claim to his diligence and gratitude, he was required to write the History of the Rye-house Plot; and, in 1685, published a true Account and Declaration of the horrid Conspiracy against the late King, his present Majesty, and the present Government; a performance which he thought convenient, after the revolution, to extenuate and excuse.
The same year, being clerk of the closet to the king, he was made dean of the chapel royal; and, the year afterwards, received the last proof of his master's confidence, by being appointed one of the commissioners for ecclesiastical affairs. On the critical day, when the declaration distinguished the true sons of the church of England, he stood neuter, and permitted it to be read at Westminster; but pressed none to violate his conscience; and, when the bishop of London was brought before them, gave his voice in his favour.
Thus far he suffered interest or obedience to carry him; but further he refused to go. When he found that the powers of the ecclesiastical commission were to be exercised against those who had refused the declaration, he wrote to the lords, and other commissioners, a formal profession of his unwillingness to exercise that authority any longer, and withdrew himself from them. After they had read his letter, they adjourned for six months, and scarcely ever met afterwards.
When king James was frighted away, and a new government was to be settled, Sprat was one of those who considered, in a conference, the great question, Whether the crown was vacant, and manfully spoke in favour of his old master.
He complied, however, with the new establishment, and was left unmolested; but, in 1692, a strange attack was made upon him by one Robert Young and Stephen Blackhead, both men convicted of infamous crimes, and both, when the scheme was laid, prisoners in Newgate. These men drew up an association, in which they whose names were subscribed, declared their resolution to restore king James, to seize the princess of Orange, dead or alive, and to be ready with thirty thousand men to meet king James when he should land. To this they put the names of Sancroft, Sprat, Marlborough, Salisbury, and others. The copy of Dr. Sprat's name was obtained by a fictitious request, to which an answer in his own hand was desired. His hand was copied so well, that he confessed it might have deceived himself. Blackhead, who had carried the letter, being sent again with a plausible message, was very curious to see the house, and particularly importunate to be let into the study; where, as is supposed, he designed to leave the association. This, however, was denied him; and he dropped it in a flower-pot in the parlour. Young now laid an information before the privy council; and May 7, 1692, the bishop was arrested, and kept at a messenger's, under a strict guard, eleven days. His house was searched, and directions were given that the flower-pots should be inspected. The messengers, however, missed the room in which the paper was left. Blackhead went, therefore, a third time; and finding his paper where he had left it, brought it away.
The bishop having been enlarged, was, on June the 10th and 13th, examined again before the privy council, and confronted with his accusers. Young persisted, with the most obdurate impudence, against the strongest evidence; but the resolution of Blackhead, by degrees, gave way. There remained at last no doubt of the bishop's innocence, who, with great prudence and diligence, traced the progress, and detected the characters of the two informers, and published an account of his own examination and deliverance; which made such an impression upon him, that he commemorated it through life by a yearly day of thanksgiving.
With what hope or what interest, the villains had contrived an accusation which they must know themselves utterly unable to prove, was never discovered.
After this he passed his days in the quiet exercise of his function. When the cause of Sacheverell put the publick in commotion, he honestly appeared among the friends of the church. He lived to his seventy-ninth year, and died May 20, 1713.
Burnet is not very favourable to his memory; but he and Burnet were old rivals. On some publick occasion they both preached before the house of commons. There prevailed, in those days, an indecent custom: when the preacher touched any favourite topick, in a manner that delighted his audience, their approbation was expressed by a loud hum, continued in proportion to their zeal or pleasure. When Burnet preached, part of his congregation hummed so loudly and so long, that he, sat down to enjoy it, and rubbed his face with his handkerchief. When Sprat preached, he likewise was honoured with the like animating hum; but he stretched out his hand to the congregation, and cried, "Peace, peace, I pray you, peace."
This I was told in my youth by my father, an old man, who had been no careless observer of the passages of those times.
Burnet's sermon, says Salmon, was remarkable for sedition, and Sprat's for loyalty. Burnet had the thanks of the house; Sprat had no thanks, but a good living from the king, which, he said, was of as much value as the thanks of the commons.
The works of Sprat, besides his few poems, are, the History of the Royal Society, the Life of Cowley, the Answer to Sorbière, the History of the Rye-house Plot, the Relation of his own Examination, and a volume of sermons. I have heard it observed, with great justness, that every book is of a different kind, and that each has its distinct and characteristical excellence.
My business is only with his poems. He considered Cowley as a model; and supposed that, as he was imitated, perfection was approached. Nothing, therefore, but Pindarick liberty was to be expected. There is in his few productions no want of such conceits as he thought excellent; and of those our judgment may be settled by the first that appears in his praise of Cromwell, where he says, that Cromwell's "fame, like man, will grow white as it grows old."
[Footnote 138: This observation was made to Dr. Johnson by the right hon. Wm. Gerard Hamilton, as he told me, at Tunbridge, August, 1792. M.]