Rev. Joseph Spence

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 28:276-80.

JOSEPH SPENCE, an English divine, and polite scholar, was born in 1698, we know not of what parents, and educated probably at Winchester school, whence he became a fellow of New college, Oxford, where he took the degree of M.A. Nov. 2, 1727; and in that year became first known to the learned world by An Essay on Pope's Odyssey; in which some particular beauties and blemishes of that work are considered, in two parts, 12mo. "On the English Odyssey," says Dr. Johnson, "a criticism was published by Spence, a man whose learning was not very great, and whose mind was not very powerful. His criticism, however, was commonly just; what he thought, he thought rightly; and his remarks were recommended by his coolness and candour. In him Pope had the first experience of a critic without malevolence, who thought it as much his duty to display beauties as expose faults; who censured with respect, and praised with alacrity. With this criticism Pope was so little offended, that he sought the acquaintance of the writer, who lived with him from that time in great familiarity, attended him in his last hours, and compiled memorials of his conversation. The regard of Pope recommended him to the great and powerful, and he obtained very valuable preferments in the church." Dr. Warton, in his Essay on Pope, styles Spence's judicious Essay on the Odyssey "a work of the truest taste;" and adds, that "Pope was so far from taking it amiss, that it was the origin of a lasting friendship betwixt them. I have seen," says Dr. Warton, "a copy of this work, with marginal observations, written in Pope's own hand, and generally acknowledging the justness of Spence's observations, and in a few instances pleading, humourously enough, that some favourite lines might be spared. I am indebted," he adds, "to this learned and amiable man, on whose friendship I set the greatest value, for most of the anecdotes relating to Pope, mentioned in this work, which he gave me, when I was making him: a visit at Byfleet, in 1754." He was elected, by the university, professor of poetry, July 11, 1728, succeeding the rev. Thomas Warton, B.D. father to the learned brothers, Dr. Joseph, and Mr. Thomas Warton; each of these professors were twice elected to their office, and held it for ten years, a period as long as the statutes will allow. Mr. Spence wrote an account of Stephen Duck, which was first published, as a pamphlet, in 1731, and said to be written by "Joseph Spence, esq. poetry professor." From this circumstance it has been supposed that he was not then in order's, but this is a mistake, as he was ordained in 1724; and left this pamphlet in the hands of his friend, Mr Lowth, to be published as soon as he left England, with a Grub-street title, which he had drawn up merely for a disguise, not choosing to have it thought that he published it himself. It was afterwards much altered, and prefixed to Duck's poems. He travelled with the duke of Newcastle (then earl of Lincoln) into Italy, where his attention to his noble pupil did him the highest honour. In 1736, at Mr. Pope's desire, he republished Gorboduc, with a preface containing an account of the author, the earl of Dorset. He never took a doctor's degree, but quitted his fellowship on being presented by the society of New-college to the rectory of Great Horwood, in Buckinghamshire, in 1742. As he never resided upon his living, but in a pleasant house and gardens lent to him by his noble pupil, at Byfleet, in Surrey (the rectory of which parish he had obtained for his friend Stephen Duck), he thought it his duty to make an annual visit to Horwood, and gave away several sums of money to the distressed poor, and placed out many of their children as apprentices. In June 1742, he succeeded Dr. Holmes as his majesty's professor of modern history, at Oxford. His Polymetis, or an inquiry concerning the agreement between the works of the Roman Poets, and the remains of the ancient Artists, being an attempt to illustrate, them mutually from each other, was published in folio, in 1747. Of this work of acknowledged taste and learning, Mr. Gray has been thought to speak too contemptuously in his Letters. His chief objection is, that the author has illustrated his subject from the Roman, and not from the Greek poets; that is, that he has not performed what he never undertook; nay, what he expressly did not undertake. A third edition appeared in folio in 1774, and the abridgment of it by N. Tindal has been frequently printed in 8vo. There is a pamphlet with Spence's name to it in MS. as the author, called Plain Matter of Fact, or, a short review of the reigns of our Popish Princes since the Reformation; in order to shew what we are to expect if another should happen to reign over us. Part l. 1748, 12mo. He was installed prebendary of the seventh stall at Durham, May 24, 1754; and published in that year An account of the Life, Character, and Poems of Mr. Blacklock, student of philosophy at Edinburgh, 8vo, which was afterwards prefixed to his poems. The prose pieces which he printed in The Museum he collected and published, with some others, in a pamphlet called Moralities, by sir Harry Beaumont, 1753. Under that name he published, Crito, or a Dialogue on Beauty, and A particular account of the emperor of China's Gardens, near Pekin, in a letter from F. Attiret, a French missionary now employed by that emperor to paint the apartments in those gardens, to his friend at Paris; both in 1752, 8vo. and both reprinted in Dodsley's Fugitive Pieces. He wrote An Epistle from a Swiss officer to his friend at Rome, first printed in The Museum, and since in the third volume of Dodsley's Collection. The several copies published under his name in the Oxford Verses are preserved by Nichols, in the Select Collection, 1781. In 1758 he published A Parallel, in the manner of Plutarch, between a most celebrated Man of Florence (Magliahecchi), and one scarce ever heard of in England (Robert Hill, the Hebrew Taylor), 12mo, printed at Strawberry Hill. In the same year he took a tour into Scotland, which is well described in an affectionate letter to Mr. Shenstone, in a collection of several letters published by Mr. Hull in 1778. In 1763 he communicated to Dr. Warton several excellent remarks on Virgil, which he had made when he was abroad, and some few of Mr. Pope's. — West Finchale Priory (the scene of the holy Godric's miracles and austerities, who, from an itinerant merchant, turned hermit, and wore out three suits of iron cloaths), was now become Mr. Spence's retreat, being part of his prebendal estate. In 1764 he was well pourtrayed by Mr. James Ridley, in his admirable Tales of the Genii, under the name of "Phesoi Ecneps (his name read backwards) dervise of the groves," and a panegyrical letter from him to that ingenious moralist, under the same signature, is inserted in Letters of Eminent Persons, vol. III. p. 139. In 1764 he paid the last kind office to the remains of hits friend Mr. Dodsley, who died on a visit to him at Durham. He closed his literary labours with Remarks and Dissertations on Virgil; with some other classical observations; by the late Mr. Holdsworth. Published, with several notes and additional remarks, by Mr. Spence" 4to. This volume, of which the greater part was printed off in 1767, was published in February 1768; and on the 20th of August following, Mr. Spence was unfortunately drowned in a canal in his garden at Byfleet in Surrey. Being, when the accident happened, quite alone, it could only be conjectured in what manner it happened; but it was generally supposed to have been occasioned by a fit while he was standing near the brink of the water. He was found flat upon his face, at the edge, where the water was too shallow to cover his head, or any part of his body. He was interred at Byfleet church, where is a marble tablet inscribed to his memory. The duke of Newcastle possesses some MS volumes of anecdotes of eminent writers, collected by Mr. Spence, who in his lifetime communicated to Dr. Warton as many of them as related to Pope; and, by permission of the noble owner, Dr. Johnson has made many extracts from them in his Lives of the English Poets. These have lately been announced for publication. Mr. Spence's Explanation of an antique marble at Clandon place, Surrey, is in Gentleman's Magazine 1772, p. 176. "Mr. Spence's character," says a gentleman who had seen this memoir before it was transplanted into the present work, "is properly delineated; and his Polymetis is justly vindicated from the petty criticisms of the fastidious Gray. In Dr Johnson's masterly preface to Dryden, he observes, that 'we do not always know our own motives.' Shall we then presume to attribute the frigid mention of the truly learned and ingenious Mr. Spence, in the preface to Pope, to a prejudice conceived against him on account of his preference of blank verse to rhyme in his Essay on Mr. Pope's Odyssey; a work, which for sound criticism, and candid disquisition, is almost without a parallel?" The judicious Dr. Warton's sentiments with respect to it may be seen in his admirable Essay on the Writings and Genius of Pope: and bishop Lowth, whose learning and genius are indisputable, expresses himself in the following manner in a note on his twelfth praelection on Hebrew poetry: "Haec autem vice accurate et scienter explicata. a viro doctissimo Josepho Spence in Opere erudito juxta atque eleganti cui titulus Polymetis."