Samuel Kettell, ed. Specimens of American Poetry. 1829.
Critical and Biographical Notice
Mather Byles (17061788)
THE REV. MATHER BYLES was the son of an English gentleman, and descended on the maternal side from the Rev. Richard Mather of Dorchester, and the Rev. John Cotton of Boston. He was born in Boston on the 15th day of March 1706 old style. He was educated at Harvard University, and received a Bachelors degree in 1725. He made choice of theology for his profession, and was ordained over the church in Hollis street, Boston, in 1732. Possessed of sound talents, aided by a wide course of general reading, besides his theological studies, he soon became very favorably known as a preacher, and a man of literature, not only at home, but in Europe. He was a person of wit and sociality, and the agreeableness of his conversation gained him a ready welcome among society in Boston; notwithstanding the rigorism and staidness of ancient puritanism had maintained itself in a great measure among the members of the clergy up to that period. The whim and facetiousness of Byles, his turn for raillery, sarcasm, and repartee, displayed on almost every occasion, and often with a reckless unconcern as to the consequences, might have seemed unnatural adjuncts of the priestly character, to a people accustomed to an almost overstrained sobriety of demeanor in persons of that rank. A rhyming catalogue of the principal church dignitaries of Boston and the neighborhood, which we have met with in manuscript, thus introduces him.
It does not appear, however, that the colloquial vagaries of the facetious parson at all diminished his reputation as a sound divine, or in the least injured the gravity or effect of his pulpit discourses.
Byles wrote verses and essays in the journals, and on incidental occasions, for his own amusement and the gratification of his friends, but never attempted any work of magnitude, or exercised his pen on any subject with a view to literary reputation. He became known, however, to many persons of eminence and talents in England, who corresponded with him and sent him their works. Pope, Landsdowne, and Watts, are mentioned among these. His professional attainments were sufficiently prized by the kings college at Aberdeen, to obtain for him the degree of Doctor of Divinity from that seminary.
The breaking out of the revolutionary troubles, involved him in difficulties with the civil authority, which resulted in separating him from his parish, and finally debarring him from the exercise of his profession. From the beginning of the contest, he appears to have inclined to the side of the British. He remained in Boston during the occupation of that town by the enemy, and associated familiarly with the British officers, a course of conduct which drew upon him the dislike of the people, among whom party animosities were sufficiently violent to sunder the most intimate ties. Byles was denounced as a person disaffected to the cause of the revolution, and dismissed from his parish. In June 1777 he underwent a public trial before a special court, when charges of hostility to the country were exhibited against him. He was pronounced guilty, and sentenced to be imprisoned on board a guard ship, and in forty days to be sent with his family to England. The board of war took his case into consideration, and remitted most of the sentence. He was confined to his own house, and kept under a guard for some time. After being set at liberty, he continued to lead a private life, incapacitated by the imputation he lay under, of being a tory, for the exercise of any pastoral charge. In 1783, he was attacked by a paralytic disorder, under which he labored some years. He died July 5th, 1788, in his eighty-second year.
Byless reputation among the people of his own town and neighborhood, has been mostly owing to his performances, as a wit. His pleasantries were current in every social circle, and obtained him such a notoriety in that character, as to beget a practice of ascribing every bon mot in vogue to the Doctor, in the manner that jokes are fathered upon Joe Miller. Such of his poems as we have been able to collect (for the few he has written are very scarce) show him to have been possessed of a good degree of poetical talent. Evidences of a rich fancy are perceptible in them, and the versification is polished and spirited.