1779 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Elijah Fenton

Samuel Johnson, Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 2:257-66.



The brevity with which I am to write the account of ELIJAH FENTON is not the effect of indifference or negligence: I have sought intelligence among his relations in his native country, but have not obtained it.

He was born near Newcastle in Staffordshire of an ancient family, whose estate was very considerable, but he was the youngest of twelve children, and being therefore necessarily destined to some lucrative employment was sent first to school, and afterwards to Cambridge; but with many other wise and virtuous men, who at that time of discord and debate consulted conscience, whether well or ill informed, more than interest, he doubted the legality of the government, and, refusing to qualify himself for publick employment by the oaths required, left the university without a degree: but I never heard that the enthusiasm of opposition impelled him to separation from the church.

By this perverseness of integrity he was driven out a commoner of Nature, excluded from the regular modes of profit and prosperity and reduced to pick up a livelihood uncertain and fortuitous; but it must be remembered that he kept his name unsullied, and never suffered himself to be reduced, like too many of the same sect, to mean arts and dishonourable shifts. Whoever mentioned Fenton, mentioned him with honour.

The life that passes in penury must necessarily pass in obscurity. It is impossible to trace Fenton from year to year, or to discover what means he used for his support. He was a while secretary to Charles earl of Orrery in Flanders, and tutor to his young son, who afterwards mentioned him with great esteem and tenderness. He was at one time assistant in the school of Mr. Bonwicke in Surrey, and at another kept a school for himself at Sevenoaks in Kent, which he brought into reputation; but was persuaded to leave it (1710) by Mr. St. John, with promises of a more honourable employment

His opinions, as he was a Nonjuror, seem not to have been remarkably rigid. He wrote with great zeal and affection the praises of queen Anne, and very willingly and liberally extolled the duke of Marlborough, when he was (1707) at the height of his glory.

He expressed still more attention to Marlborough and his family by an elegiack pastoral on the marquis of Blandford, which could be prompted only by respect or kindness; for neither the duke nor dutchess desired the praise, or liked the cost of patronage.

The elegance of his poetry entitled him to the company of the wits of his time, and the amiableness of his manners made him loved wherever he was known. Of his friendship to Southern and Pope there are lasting monuments.

He published in 1707 a collection of poems.

By Pope he was once placed in a station that might have been of great advantage. Craggs, when he was advanced to be secretary of state (about 1720), feeling his own want of literature, desired Pope to procure him an instructor, by whose help he might supply the deficiencies of his education. Pope recommended Fenton, in whom Craggs found all that he was seeking. There was now a prospect of ease and plenty, for Fenton had merit, and Craggs had generosity; but the small-pox suddenly put an end to the pleasing expectation.

When Pope, after the great success of his Iliad, undertook the Odyssey, being, as it seems, weary of translating, he determined to engage auxiliaries. Twelve books he took to himself, and twelve he distributed between Broome and Fenton; the books allotted to Fenton were the first, the fourth, the nineteenth, and the twentieth. It is observable that he did not take the eleventh, which he had before translated into blank verse, neither did Pope claim it, but committed it to Broome. How the two associates performed their parts is well known to the readers of poetry, who have never been able to distinguish their books from those of Pope.

In 1723 was performed his tragedy of Mariamne, to which Southern, at whose house it was written, is said to have contributed such hints as his theatrical experience supplied. When it was shewn to Cibber it was rejected by him, with the additional insolence of advising Fenton to engage himself in some employment of honest labour, by which he might obtain that support which he could never hope from his poetry. The play was acted at the other theatre; and the brutal petulance of Cibber was confuted, though perhaps not shamed, by general applause. Fenton's profits are said to have amounted to near a thousand pounds, with which he discharged a debt contracted by his attendance at Court.

Fenton seems to have had some peculiar system of versification. Mariamne is written in lines of ten syllables, with few of those redundant terminations which the drama not only admits but requires, as more nearly approaching to real dialogue. The tenour of his verse is so uniform that it cannot be thought casual, and yet upon what principle he so constructed it is difficult to discover.

The mention of his play brings to my mind a very trifling occurrence. Fenton was one day in the company of Broome his associate, and Ford a clergyman, at that time too well known, whose abilities, instead of furnishing convivial merriment to the voluptuous and dissolute, might have enabled him to excel among the virtuous and the wise. They determined all to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was acted that night; and Fenton, as a dramatick poet, took them to the stage-door, where the door-keeper enquiring who they were was told that they were three very necessary men, Ford, Broome, and Fenton. The name in the play, which Pope restored to Brook, was then Broome.

It was perhaps after his play that he undertook to revise the punctuation of Milton's Poems, which, as the author neither wrote the original copy nor corrected the press, was supposed capable of amendment. To this edition he prefixed a short and elegant account of Milton's life, written at once with tenderness and integrity.

He published likewise (1729) a very splendid edition of Waller, with notes often useful, often entertaining, but too much extended by long quotations from Clarendon. Illustrations drawn from a book so easily consulted should be made by reference rather than transcription.

The latter part of his life was calm and pleasant. The relict of Sir William Trumbal invited him, by Pope's recommendation, to educate her son; whom he first instructed at home, and then attended to Cambridge. The lady afterwards detained him with her as the auditor of her accounts. He often wandered to London, and amused himself with the conversation of his friends.

He died in 1730 at Easthampstead in Berkshire, the seat of the lady Trumbal; and Pope, who had been always his friend, honoured him with an epitaph, of which he borrowed the two first lines from Crashaw.

Fenton was tall and bulky, inclined to corpulence, which he did not lessen by much exercise; for he was very sluggish and sedentary, rose late, and when he had risen sat down to his book or papers. A woman, that once waited on him in a lodging, told him, as she said, that he would "lie a-bed, and be fed with a spoon." This, however, was not the worst that might have been prognosticated, for Pope says, in his Letters, that "he died of indolence;" but his immediate distemper was the gout.

Of his morals and his conversation the account is uniform: he was never named but with praise and fondness, as a man in the highest degree amiable and excellent. Such was the character given him by the earl of Orrery, his pupil; such is the testimony of Pope; and such were the suffrages of all who could boast of his acquaintance.

By a former writer of his Life a story is told, which ought not to be forgotten. He used, in the latter part of his time, to pay his relations in the country an yearly visit. At an entertainment made for the family by his elder brother he observed that one of his sisters, who had married unfortunately, was absent, and found upon enquiry that distress had made her thought unworthy of invitation. As she was at no great distance he refused to sit at table till she was called, and, when she had taken her place, was careful to shew her particular attention.

His collection of poems is now to be considered. The Ode to the Sun is written upon a common plan, without uncommon sentiments; but its greatest fault is its length. No poem should be long of which the purpose is only to strike the fancy, without enlightening the understanding by precept, ratiocination, or narrative. A blaze first pleases, and then tires the sight.

Of Florelio it is sufficient to say that it is an occasional pastoral, which implies something neither natural nor artificial, neither comick nor serious.

The next ode is irregular, and therefore defective. As the sentiments are pious they cannot easily be new, for what can be added to topicks on which successive ages have been employed.

Of the Paraphrase on Isaiah nothing very favourable can be said. Sublime and solemn prose gains little by a change to blank verse; and the paraphrast has deserted his original by admitting images not Asiatick, at least not Judaical:

Returning Peace,
Dove-eyed, and rob'd in white—

Of his petty poems some are very trifling, without any thing to be praised either in the thought or expression. He is unlucky in his competitions: he tells the same idle tale with Congreve, and does not tell it so well. He translates from Ovid the same epistle as Pope; but I am afraid not with equal happiness.

To examine his performances one by one would be tedious. His translation from Homer into blank verse will find few readers while another can be had in rhyme. The piece addressed to Lambarde is no disagreeable specimen of epistolary poetry; and his ode to the lord Gower was pronounced by Pope the next ode in the English language to Dryden's Cecilia. Fenton may be justly styled an excellent versifier and a good poet.

Whatever I have said of Fenton is confirmed by Pope in a letter, by which he communicated to Broome an account of his death.

"To

The Revd. Mr. Broome,

At PULHAM, near HARLESTONE,

NOR

SUFFOLKE.

BY BECCLES Bag,

DEAR SIR.

I intended to write to you on this melancholy subject, the death of Mr. Fenton, before yours came; but stay'd to have informed myself and you of the circumstances of it. All I hear is that he felt a Gradual Decay, tho so early in Life, and was declining for 5 or 6 months. It was not, as I apprehended, the Gout in his Stomach, but I believe rather a Complication first of Gross Humors, as he was naturally corpulent, not discharging themselves, as he used no sort of Exercise. No man better bore ye approaches of his Dissolution (as I am told) or with less ostentation yielded up his Being. The great Modesty which you know was natural to him, and the great Contempt he had for all Sorts of Vanity and Parade, never appeared more than in his last moments: He had a conscious Satisfaction (no doubt) in acting right, in feeling himself honest, true, and un-pretending to more than was his own. So he dyed, as he lived, with that secret, yet sufficient, Contentment.

As to any Papers left behind him, I dare say they can be but few; for this reason, He never wrote out of Vanity, or thought much of the Applause of Men. I know an Instance where he did his utmost to conceal his own merit that way; and if we join to this his natural Love of Ease, I fancy we must expect little of this sort: at least I hear of none except some few further remarks on Waller (which his cautious integrity made him leave an order to be given to Mr. Tonson) and perhaps, tho tis many years since I saw it, a Translation of ye first Book of Oppian. He had begun a Tragedy of Dion, but made small progress in it.

As to his other Affairs, he dyed poor, but honest, leaving no Debts, or Legacies; except of a few pounds to Mr. Trumbull and my Lady, in token of respect, Gratefulness, and mutual Esteem.

I shall with pleasure take upon me to draw this amiable, quiet, deserving, unpretending, Christian and Philosophical character, in His Epitaph. There Truth may be spoken in a few words: as for Flourish, and Oratory, and Poetry, I leave them to younger and more lively Writers, such as love writing for writing sake, and would rather show their own Fine Parts, than Report the valuable ones of any other man. So the Elegy I renounce.

I condole with you from my heart, on the loss of so worthy a man, and a Friend to us both. Now he is gone, I must tell you he has done you many a good office, and set your character in the fairest light, to some who either mistook you, or knew you not. I doubt not he has done the same for me.

Adieu: Let us love his Memory, and profit by his example, I am very sincerely

Dear SIR

Your affectionate

and real Servant

A. POPE.

AUG. 29th, 1730."