Of ELIJAH FENTON, few authentic particulars have been transmitted to posterity. His father is said to have possessed a good estate in Staffordshire, where the subject of this notice, the youngest of twelve children, was born; but in what year is uncertain, or where he received his early education.
In due time, however, it appears that he was sent to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he took a Bachelor's degree in 1704; but refusing to take the oaths to government, he was precluded from entering into holy orders, for which he was intended, and left the university soon after.
Reduced to uncertain and fortuitous means of livelihood by delicacy of principle and modesty of disposition, he appears to have supported himself as a teacher in schools, or tutor in private families. It is recorded, that he was once secretary to Charles Earl of Orrery, and that he afterwards was patronized by Lord Bolingbroke; but being a nonjuror, the avenues of preferment were shut up; yet he seems to have possessed great liberality of sentiment, for he has celebrated Queen Anne, and he has concurred with Phillips, Prior, and other tory poets, in praising Marlborough. With Pope and Southern, he lived in habits of the most familiar and endearing intimacy; and indeed the amiableness of his manners, and the elegance of his poetry made him acceptable in all companies.
Having previously published a collection of miscellaneous poems and translations, on the recommendation of Pope, he was received into the family of Mr. Secretary Craggs; but the premature death of that excellent statesman, soon left Fenton again unprotected and destitute. His friend Mr. Pope, however, employed him as an assistant in translating the Odyssey, for which he received £300. In 1722 he produced the Tragedy of Mariamne, justly esteemed one of the best plays in our language, and its success was so great, as to yield the author £1000 with which he discharged his debts.
The latter part of his days, he passed chiefly in literary ease at Easthampstead, Berks, in the family of Lady Trumbull, to whose son he was tutor, and afterwards attended him to college. In this family he died, in 1730 of a gradual decay, poor, but honest, leaving no debts or legacies, except a few remembrances to particular friends.
As a man, Fenton was never named but with praise and affection; as a poet, although he does not often rise to sublimity, he rarely sinks below simple elegance and smoothness of versification.
To examine his performances, says the just and generous Anderson, one by one, would be tedious; they are in general characterised by elegance of diction, elevation of sentiment, opulence of imagery, and harmony of numbers. Pope, who wrote his epitaph, bears honourable testimony to the last moments of this worthy man: "No one better bore the approaches of his dissolution, or with less ostentation yielded up his being."
A letter which the above intelligent editor has quoted from the translator of Pliny, concludes as follows: "poor Fenton died of a great chair and two bottles of port a day. He was one of the worthiest and modestest men in the court of Apollo. Tears arise when I think of him, though he has been dead above twenty years."