The family of De Somerville, according to ancient tradition, were of Roman origin, and settled, at a very remote period, near Ebreux, in Normandy, giving their name to an adjoining village, which was built upon their demesne. Gaultier, the head of the family, afterwards Sir Walter in England, was one of the great chieftains who served under William, Duke of Normandy, in his expedition to England, and was rewarded after the Conquest with considerable grants of land in Staffordshire and Gloucestershire. Of the latter of those the village of Somerville Aston, the title to which is antecedent to any existing records, was demised, with certain other estates, to James, the twenty-fifth lord, great grandfather to the present, by Somerville, the celebrated poet, the last of that branch of the family, which, from their establishment at the Conquest to their extinction, had not quitted England.
The peerage originated in Scotland, where, and in Ireland, the heads of this house have for many centuries had landed possessions.
William Somerville was born at Edstone, in Warwickshire, 1692. He was educated at Winchester, and afterwards elected to New college Oxford. How long he resided at the university is not known; but we understand from his writings, that he was early and stedfastly attached to the cause of freedom, and hence a friend to the Hanoverian succession. It was on subjects unconnected with politics, that he first displayed his talents; and this brought him acquainted with men of congenial sentiments, though it does not appear that he reaped any advantage from his patriotism or his talents.
Inheriting an estate of £1500 a year, he lived chiefly in the country, distinguishing himself as an elegant poet, an active magistrate, and a keen sportsman. He possessed, at the same time, a high spirit, and a love of hospitality, which impaired his fortune, and is said to have involved him in pecuniary difficulties. Shenstone was his friend and his neighbour, both men of genius and social disposition, and equally negligent of economy.
In the latter part of his life, Somerville produced The Chace, a poem which a sportsman may read for information, and a scholar for delight. It is elegant and vigorous, and may justly be ranked with the best didactic poems in his own language.
Of his minor poems, some are distinguished for neatness, and some for vivacity. He has tried indeed almost every species of poetic composition, and cannot be said to have failed in any.
Somerville died July 19, 1740, in the 50th year of his age; and was buried at Wootten, near Henley in Arden. He was never married.
One of the recommendatory poems which precede The Chase, so well describes and characterises the beauties of that performance, an extract from it shall close this notice of the author and his works.
TO WILLIAM SOMERVILLE, ESQ.
Strange! that the British muse should leave so long,
The Chase, the sport of Britain's kings, unsung;
Distinguish'd land! by Heaven indulg'd to breed,
The stout sagacious hound, and generous steed;
In vain! while yet no bard adorn'd our isle,
To celebrate the glorious sylvan toil.
For this what darling son shall feel thy fire,
God of th' unerring bow, and tuneful lyre?
Our vows are heard — Attend, ye vocal throng,
Somerville meditates th' adventurous song.
Bold to attempt, and happy to excel,
His numerous verse the huntsman's art shall tell.
From him, ye British youths, a vigorous race,
Imbibe the various science of the chase;
And while the well-plann'd system you admire,
Know Brunswick only could the work inspire;
A Georgic muse awaits Augustan days,
And Somervilles will sing, when Fredericks give the bays.