JOSEPH SPENCE was born at Kinsclere, Hants, on the 25th day of April, 1699. His father, whose name was also Joseph, was Rector of Winnal near Winchester, and afterwards of Ulverstoke in the same county. I believe he died in 1721. By the mother's side Spence was descended from the Neville family, she was a granddaughter of Sir Thomas Lunsford, her maiden name was Mirabella Collier.
Young Spence, whose birth was premature, and who was but a sickly boy, was taken under the protection of Mrs. Fawkener, an opulent relation, and was educated under her eye, until he had reached his tenth year, when he was sent to a school at Mortimer in Berkshire, kept by Mr. Haycock; from thence he went to Eton College, which he left in a short time, for some unknown cause; and went to that of Winchester, where he continued until he became a member of New College, Oxford, in 1720. He had been previously entered at Magdalen Hall in the year 1717. His benefactress had fully intended that he should have been amply provided for by her will, but from the neglect or delay of the person employed to draw it up, she died in 1714, before it was executed, and Spence lost at once his friend and the prospect of succeeding to an estate of £600. a year. He was then too young to have felt his loss very poignantly, and it is said, that in his after life, he used rather to rejoice at it as an escape, saying, that it might have made him idle and vicious to have been rendered independent of exertion at that age.
In 1722 he became fellow of New College.
In 1724 he entered into Holy Orders, and took the degree of A.M. November 2, 1727. And in the succeeding year was chosen Professor of Poetry, the first day he became capable of it by being made Regent Master.
His fellow collegian, Christopher Pitt, writing to a friend in 1728, says, "Mr. Spence is the completest scholar, either in solid or polite learning, for his years, that I ever knew. Besides, he is the sweetest tempered gentleman breathing." About the same time, he was presented to the small Rectory of Birchanger in Essex, where he used occasionally to reside with his mother, to whom he always showed extraordinary tenderness and attention. He had now, for the first time, an opportunity of indulging in some degree his natural inclination for gardening, though he could here try his hand only in miniature, and entertained himself with forming his little plot of ground into what he called a Lizard Garden.
Toward the close of the year 1730 he received an invitation to accompany Charles, Earl of Middlesex , and made the tour of France and Italy with that amiable young nobleman in quality of a companion, and not as governor. Their route was by Lyons, Turin, Milan, and Venice, to Rome, taking Florence in their way back, and from thence by way of Paris they returned to England. At Lyons he had the happiness of meeting Thomson, the poet, (who was travelling with Mr. Talbot) with whom he had previously contracted an intimacy in England. Spence had spoken very highly of the Poet's Winter on its first publication, in one of the editions of his Essay on the Odyssey, which being a popular book, contributed to make the poem more known. Thomson, who always acknowledged the use of this recommendation, became acquainted with him through the intervention of Dr. Young, and an intimacy commenced between them, which only terminated with the lamented premature death of the poet, whose amiable temper and benevolent spirit found congenial qualities in Spence. Dr. Warton had seen a letter of Spence's to Mr. Christopher Pitt, earnestly soliciting him to subscribe to the quarto edition of the Seasons, and mentioning a design which Thomson had formed of writing a descriptive poem on Blenheim; a subject which would have shone in his hands.
At Verona he became intimate with the Marquis Maffei, and he thus describes the gaiety and good humour of the then venerable author of Merope. "The Marquis Scipio Maffei, is one of the most eminent and learned men now in Italy. He is an old bachelor, and talks as if the ladies had played him some scurvy tricks in his youth. — He introduced us to a ball, where he presided, and you cannot conceive how busy the good old gentleman was among the ladies from the eldest to the youngest. He would whisper each as soon as ever she stood still, and was perpetually saying lively civil things to all. Every body is fond of him, he is a mighty good man, and has done much for the Veronese, among other things, he has just built a very pretty opera-house, with rooms for dancing, conversation, and concerts, all contrived and carried on by him, and at his expense."
At Venice they enjoyed the Carnival; — and he speaks with rapture of his first view of the Bay of Naples, where he visited, with enthusiastic reverence, the tomb of Virgil, and plucked a leaf of laurel for his friend Pitt. But Rome was the place he had most eagerly longed to visit, and he talks of it as exceeding the highly coloured picture in his imagination. It was probably here, that the thought was first elicited which gave rise to his magnum opus, the Polymetis; as Gibbon conceived the design of his History, amid the Ruins of the Capitol. — But he did not begin his collection for it until he came to Florence, his first intention was to have called it "Noctes Florentinae."
Spence had an eye for the beautiful in nature as well as in art, and describes, with becoming ardour, the lovely Vale of Arno, through which they passed during the Vintage. At Florence their stay was protracted through the winter months, and the society and other enjoyments of the place were, so delightful to them, that they again saw the carnival here, and were not unwillingly detained by an uncommonly inclement spring, until the month of June, when they repassed the Alps, stayed at Paris a few days, and returned to England at the commencement of July, 1733.
During his absence from England, and only a few days before his return, he was re-elected Poetry Professor for another five years. It is remarkable that Mr. Spence succeeded the Rev. Thomas Warton, father of the celebrated and worthy author of the History of English Poetry, who himself afterwards filled the chair; and that each of these three professors were twice elected to the office, and held it for ten years, the longest period the statute will allow.
Previous to going abroad he had published, in 1726, his Essay on Pope's Odyssey, which not only acquired him considerable reputation, but introduced him to the notice of Pope, who is said to have been so well pleased with his book, as to seek his acquaintance, this acquaintance soon ripened into friendship, which was lasting and uninterrupted, they ever after, until Pope's death, lived in habits of the strictest intimacy. Dr. Warton had seen "a copy of the Essay on the Odyssey, with marginal observations, written in Pope's own hand, and generally acknowledging the justness of Spence's observations, and in a few instances pleading, humorously enough, that some favourite lines might be spared." It is probable that the regard and esteem, in which he was held by Pope, may have, been, as Dr. Johnson asserts, one of the causes of his introduction to the notice of the great and powerful, but I know not whether he owed his introduction to the Dorset family to him or no.
He describes a short visit he received from Pope, at Oxford. In a letter to his mother from that place, dated September 4, 1735, in which he says, "I have not seen honest Mr. Duck yet, but have had the pleasure of another visit that was wholly unexpected to me. Monday last, after dinner, according to the good sauntering custom that I use here every day, I was lolling at a coffee-house half asleep, and half reading something about Prince Eugene and the armies on the Rhine, when a ragged boy of an ostler came in to me with a little scrap of paper not half an inch broad, which contained the following words, 'Mr. Pope would be very glad to see Mr. Spence at the Cross Inn just now.' — You may imagine how pleased I was; and that I hobbled thither as fast as my spindle-shanks would carry me. There I found him, quite fatigued to death, with a thin face lengthened, at least, two inches beyond its usual appearance. He had been to take his last leave of Lord Peterborough; and came away in a chariot of his lordship's, that holds but one person, for quick travelling. When he was got within about three miles of Oxford, coming down a hill in Bagly wood, he saw two gentlemen and a lady sitting in distress by the way side. Near them lay a chaise overturned, and half broken to pieces; in the fall of which the poor lady had her arm broke. Mr. Pope had the goodness to stop and offer her his chariot to carry her to Oxford for help; and so walked the three miles in the very midst of a close sultry day, and came in dreadfully fatigued. An inn, though designed for a place of rest, is but ill suited to a man that's really tired; so I prevailed on him to go to my room, where I got him a little dinner, and where he enjoyed himself for two or three hours; and set out in the evening, as he was obliged to do, for Colonel Dormer's in his way to Lord Cobham's, which was to be the end of his journey."
In 1736 he republished, at Pope's desire, Gorboduc, the celebrated tragedy of Sackville, Earl of Dorset, with a prefatory account of the author. This may probably have been intended as a compliment to his noble pupil. To his habits of intimacy, and almost daily intercourse, with Pope, we owe the idea of the present collection of anecdotes, which was begun very soon after the commencement of their acquaintance, and terminated with Pope's death, its chief object was undoubtedly to record his conversation, and the principal incidents of his life.
Benevolence was one of the most distinguishing characteristics of Spence's mind, and it had found a deserving object in Stephen Duck, the thresher and poet, to serve whom he wrote a kind of memoir, which, when he went abroad, he left in the hands of his friend Mr. Lowth for publication, with a sort of Grub-street title as a "ruse de guerre;" calling himself Joseph Spence, Esquire, Poetry Professor; he afterwards procured for Duck, from the Duke of Dorset, the living of Byfleet, in Surry; introduced him to the notice of Pope, and continued his countenance and friendship to him through life. Early in the year 1737 he was offered the deanery of Clogher in Ireland. by the Duke of Dorset, who assured him, at the same time, that he might depend upon him for any future preferment which should offer, if he did not think it eligible to accept it; in consequence of this option he declined it. In May of the same year, he accompanied Mr. Trevor in a tour through Holland, Flanders, and France. It was their intention to have proceeded for Italy, but Mr. Trevor was called home to offer himself as a candidate for a borough; and after passing the autumn at Blois, and the winter at Tours, they returned to England in February, 1738. He writes thus to his mother from Tours in the preceding December — "Tours is a very agreeable place. All the towns on the banks of the Loire are said to be so; but the country about Tours in particular, is called the garden of France. We came here with the design of staying only a month; but if we find it as agreeable as it promises to be, we may stay much longer. In the spring we are to pass through Rochelle, Bourdeaux, Montpellier, Marseilles, Avignon, and Lyons, to Geneva, where we shall probably pass the summer, and go, about the end of October, for Italy. Italy is my great favourite; and though I am pleased here, I shall not be perfectly happy till I get into that delightful country of the old Romans; or rather, I shall not be contented till I have finished all, and can come and see you and my sister at Winchester. I own we are delighted when we are abroad; but the greatest and truest satisfaction is when we come home again. I recollect what the Prince of Yallocomia said to me and my dear friend Bob Downes, several years ago at Oxford, where he was shown about as a sight. He said that he wanted for nothing; that he eat and drank well, that he was continually amused with seeing new places; still, said he, there is something wanting "for de fader and de moder be alvais in de mind." He spoke it with much emotion, and put his finger up and patted his forehead all the while he was saying the last sentence, which is a very true one, and very worthy of his highness of Yallocomia." In another letter, he says: "Two or three days since, I had a letter from Mr. Holdsworth, the father of all us travellers; I mean for knowledge, more than for age; with your's I had a letter from good Mr. Duck, who has obliged me very much by the trouble he has taken to disperse my books about, and to pelt poor people, that were easy in their great chairs, with a thing that they would not give a farthing whether they ever read or not. By the time that I shall see you, my little garden at Birchanger will begin to make some shew; and my thoughts now are to come and see you at Winchester every other summer, for three or four months; and the other alternate summers to invite you to Birchanger to eat some of my nonpareils; if you and my sister care to take such a journey for a pippin. Though the place is not very magnificent, I can promise you it has quite another air than it had; for, instead of walking into an orchard adorned with nothing but hog-styes, you will go into a garden that will be a little fop, strutting and pretending to be bigger than he is, where, at least, we shall be private and at our ease; unseen ourselves when we have a mind to it, though from the little green plat at one end of it, we may stand like three statues on one pedestal, and look out on a prospect that is no inconsiderable one for Hertfordshire. By that word you may see the pride of my heart, for to say the truth, I don't care to be thought in Essex there, and take all the advantage I can of my neighbourhood to a better county."
In the autumn of 1739 he set out on his last tour to the continent with Henry, Earl of Lincoln. They went by way of Paris and Lyons to Turin, where they arrived the beginning of October; this city was then a place of great fashionable resort, and the court there accounted one of the politest in Europe. Here they remained a whole year, being detained a month or two longer than was intended, by an accidental sprain Lord Lincoln got in dancing. From hence Mr. Spence writes, to appease the anxiety of his mother, the following affectionate and consolatory letter, which, as it will make the reader better acquainted with this part of his character, I have the less scruple in transcribing.
"You may be wholly out of any concern about my ever coming abroad again. At least the scheme of life I have in my head is quite opposite to any such thought. The large work I have on my hands will take up near four years after I come home before it is all published; and after that I have some other little things which I think at present of publishing: and which, in the leisurely way I shall go about it, merely for my amusement, will take up six years more. I leave you to judge whether I, who was not at all eager to travel at forty, shall be much inclined to it after fifty; when I shall have been used too to a retired and settled life for ten years together; and shall have all my plantations growing up about me, which I have already laid out in idea. I mention this particular, because I have found, by the little experience I have had, that nothing is so apt to attract one and tie one down to a spot of ground, as a plantation. You may remember how Paul Penton used to go to his nursery every day near Kingsclere; and when I was abroad with Mr. Trevor, I believe there was scarce a day that I did not visit Birchanger in imagination. At present I am more busy and more diverted; and yet I often think of it. But I shall have, I hope, a much greater tie to England than any I have mentioned: — I mean your ladyship! — When we are once settled, and in a way of living together, I shall look upon it as my duty, as well as my inclination, to stay with you, and shall not think of stirring a step out of our island, unless you should turn traveller; and then perhaps I might take a little trip into Asia, or to the pyramids of Egypt, purely to attend you thither. The scheme I mentioned to you is the sincere design I have some time had; and, as it has long been growing gradually upon me, is of itself very likely to last; but, with the other consideration joined to it, is, I think, as strong as any human resolution can be. And, indeed after forty, it is high time to think of a settlement, and of getting a steady settled income somewhere or other to prevent one's old age being rendered uneasy. — I guess you are already laughing to hear a son of your's talk of being an old man; but that will begin to be a very serious truth in a few years more. Whenever it happens, I don't expect it as a very disagreeable thing; a good easy chair, good company, and the being able to look back upon one's life without any thing to frighten one in it, may make that season, at least, not so terrible: and I don't see why one may not enter upon it as agreeably as one goes into a bed, after being tired with the labour of the day. But, lest I should fall into too deep a fit of morality, I will conclude."
In another letter, reverting to the same subject, he says — "I want to be setting out; for that is doing something, and looks at least like being nearer coming home. Much as I long again to see Rome, I long more to be with you; and to be settling our little affairs, in order to live together in a comfortable manner the rest of our time; whether that is to be long or short does not signify a great deal; but one would make the time, whatever it may be, agreeable as one can. Thank heaven, we are likely, at present, to have enough to live comfortably, and to do some little good round about us; and that I always reckon among the highest pleasures both to you and me." In another place he says — "I don't at all desire wardenships, or indeed any high dignity in the world; and that not out of wisdom, but a love of ease. I am for happiness in my own way, and, according to my notions of it. I might as well, and better have it in living with you, at our cottage at Birchanger, than in any palace. As my affairs stand at present, 'tis likely that we shall have enough to live quite at our ease; when I desire more than that, may I lose what I have!"
He seems to have been very fortunate in the companions of his travels — Lord Middlesex was a young nobleman of most amiable manners and character; and he found Lord Lincoln so sensible, so agreeable, and obliging, that he says, he thought several times upon the road that he was beginning a second journey with his former friend. — From Turin they went to the baths of Aqui, near Milan, and after remaining there a month, on account of Lord Lincoln's health, they pursued their journey by Florence to Rome. They staid at Rome from the beginning of December until the middle of May following, and he had there an opportunity of cultivating the acquaintance of that extraordinary woman, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. He says — "I always desired to be acquainted with Lady Mary, and could never bring it about, though we were so often together in London; soon after we came to this place her ladyship came here, and in five days I was well acquainted with her. She is one of the most shining characters in the world, but shines like a comet; she is all irregularity, and always wandering; the most wise, most imprudent; loveliest, most disagreeable; best-natured, cruellest woman in the world, 'all things by turns and nothing long.' — She was married young, and she told me, with that freedom much travelling gives, that she was never in so great a hurry of thought, as the month before she was married: she scarce slept any one night that month. You know she was one of the most celebrated beauties of her day, and had a vast number of offers, and the thing that kept her awake was who to fix upon. She was determined as to two points from the first, that is to be married to somebody, and not to be married to the man her father advised her to have. The last night of the month she determined, and in the morning left the husband of her father's choice buying the wedding ring, and scuttled away to be married to Mr. Wortley." It was here that Mr. Spence learned those particulars from her which are recorded in the Anecdotes.
From Rome they went to Reggio "opera hunting," as Mr. Spence expresses it, and here they found Mr. Horace Walpole very ill with a quinsey. — "About three or four in the morning I was surprised with a message, saying, that Mr. Walpole was very much worse, and desired to see me; I went and found him scarce able to speak. I soon learned from his servants that he had been all the while without a physician, and had doctored himself; so I immediately sent for the best aid the place would afford, and dispatched a messenger to the minister at Florence, desiring him to send my friend Dr. Cocchi. In about twenty-four hours I had the satisfaction to find Mr. Walpole better; we left him in a fair way of recovery, and we hope to see him next week at Venice. I had obtained leave of Lord Lincoln to stay behind some days if he had been worse. You see what luck one has sometimes in going out of one's way. If Lord L. had not wandered to Reggio, Mr. Walpole (who, is one of the best natured and most sensible young gentlemen England affords) would have, in all probability, fallen a sacrifice to his disorder."
From Reggio they went to Venice. After staying there about two months they passed by sea from Genoa to the south of France. They spent a month at Montpellier and Vigan, where Lord Lincoln's excellent mother had lived two or three years with her children "in one of the finest airs in the world (says Mr. Spence); in spite of which she lost her eldest son there, but brought off my lord stronger and in better health, though I doubt not his friends will be surprised to see how much stronger and better he is grown now. 'Tis said that the name of Lady Lincoln is blest by all the good people in the Cevennes, among whom she did a world of good." From thence they went to Paris, and, after a few weeks stay there, returned to England in November, 1742.
In this year he was presented by his college to the rectory of Great Horwood, Bucks, and succeeded Dr. Holmes as Regius Professor of Modern History. From this time he resided chiefly in London for some few years; but his health, since his return from abroad, having been precarious, he was advised by his friends to abandon his studies; and, however disagreeable the remedy, he would, probably, have listened to their entreaties. The Polymetis which had now occupied his attention for several years, for which he had made very large collections, and had obtained very large and numerous subscriptions, was about to have been abandoned; had not Dr. Mead interposed and prescribed to him a middle course, advising him to apply moderately, and at short intervals, to his literary pursuits rather than entirely and at once to abandon them: he followed this friendly advice, and it had the desired effect.
His tastes and inclinations led him very early to a love for the country and rural improvement. Ornamental gardening was then taking a direction quite opposite to the old and formal methods of the French, Dutch, and Italians. Walpole, who had paid much attention to its progress, has proved that Kent was the first artist who diffused the prevailing taste of landscape gardening, and says, that Pope undoubtedly contributed to form Kent's taste. It is most probable that Spence's enthusiasm for this elegant art was strengthened, if not derived from his intimacy with the poet. After the publication of his Polymetis in 1747, by which he had realized upwards of fifteen hundred pounds, he entertained thoughts of indulging his propensity, by the purchase of a small house and a few acres of ground in the country. Having casually mentioned this intention to his friend Lord Lincoln, he very generously offered him, as a gift for his life, a house of this kind at Byfleet in Surry, in the immediate vicinity of his seat at Oatlands. Thither Spence removed in the year 1749, and immediately proceeded to turn his fields into pleasure grounds, and to plant and adorn the face of the country round his abode. From this time to the end of his life, rural improvement became his favourite amusement; he expended a great part of the profits arising from his Polymetis in embellishing his little seat, and acquired much reputation by the judgment he displayed. He was from time to time consulted by his friends and others when any thing of the kind was meditated; his suggestions were listened to with respect, and generally followed without deviation. Walpole, whose opinion will be allowed to have much weight on this subject, compliments him upon his taste and zeal for the reformed style of picturesque gardening. It is most probable that his health was improved and his life prolonged by this happy alternation of activity in his favourite pursuit, and repose in his literary trifling. He seems to have intended the publication of an Essay on the subject of Gardening in all ages, to have been entitled "Tempe:" the collections he left in manuscript on the subject, evince that it was his darling, though not his exclusive pursuit to the day of his death.
Upon the translation of Dr. Trevor, Bishop of St. David's, to the See of Durham, he intimated to Mr. Spence that he should have the first prebend in that see which fell to his gift, and his promise was realized in 1754. From this period Mr. Spence divided his time chiefly between Durham and Byfleet, contenting himself with very moderate enjoyments and gratifications; and seems to have used his fortune, which was now ample compared with his desires, as if he stood possessed of it as steward only for the service of mankind, and constantly applied a considerable portion of it to purposes of charity. As he never resided upon his living of Great Horwood, he thought it part of his duty to make an annual visit to his parishioners, and gave away considerable sums of money to the distressed poor, placing out many of their children as apprentices, and doing other acts of beneficence. Finkalo, or West Finchale Priory near Durham, was part of Mr. Spence's prebendal estate; this spot, which had been the scene of the miracles of St. Godric, who from an itinerant merchant turned hermit, and wore out three suits of iron, was a favourite retreat with him; and he here again exercised his taste and skill in his much loved art.
In his selection of objects for the exercise of his benevolent propensities it was natural for him to place indigent men of letters in the first rank.
In the year 1754 he published An Account of the Life, Character, and Poems of Mr. Blacklock, and obtained a large subscription to in edition of the poems of that amiable and interesting character; which materially assisted the views of his friends in procuring him an education suitable to his genius and views in life. Blacklock testified his obligations to Mr. Spence to whom he was personally unknown, in a poetical epistle written from Dumfries, in 1759, concluding thus:
If to your very name, by bounteous Heav'n,
Such blest, restoring influence has been giv'n,
How must your sweet approach, your aspect kind,
Your soul-reviving converse warm the mind!
Spence's benevolence was most liberal and unconfined; distress of every sort, and in every rank of life, never preferred its claim to his attention in vain: and he is described by one who knew him well, to have had a heart and a hand ever open to the poor and the needy.
It was this feeling that urged him to befriend the worthy Stephen Duck, and at a subsequent period he found another meritorious object in Robert Hill, the learned tailor, to serve whom he drew up that ingenious memoir and parallel, which his friend Horace Walpole, to assist his generous purpose, caused to be printed at his private press at Strawberry Hill in 1757. It was afterwards reprinted with other pieces of Mr. Spence in Dodsley's collection of Fugitive Pieces.
Besides these, at an earlier period, he had taken by the hand the ingenious Robert Dodsley, and was one of the earliest patrons of that deserving and worthy man. In one of Curll's scurrilous attacks upon Pope he is thus introduced:
'Tis kind indeed a livery muse to aid
Who scribbles Farces to augment his trade,
Where you and Spence and Glover drive the nail,
The Devil's in it if the plot should fail.
Dodsley had been servant to Miss Lowther, and published his first poetical effusions under the title of The Muse in Livery. He had the prudence to make a good use of the profits of his poems, and a successful farce, and in process of time became one of the most eminent booksellers of the Metropolis. His gratitude and affectionate friendship for his early patron continued through life. And Spence had the melancholy satisfaction of paying the last kind office to his humble friend, for he died on a visit to him at Durham, in the year 1764.
In the latter part of his life Mr. Spence made several excursions to the most romantic parts of our island. I find the journal of one to the Peak in Derbyshire, in 1752, in which he appears to have visited every thing remarkable in his route: his observations are chiefly confined to the picturesque appearance of the country, the antiquities, architecture, works of art, &c. And in 1758 he accompanied his friend Dodsley in a long tour to the north. On their road they visited the Leasowes and staid a week there; — Shenstone thus notices this visit in a letter to his friend Mr. Graves. "I have seen few whom I liked so much, upon so little acquaintance, as Mr. Spence; extremely polite, friendly, cheerful, and master of an infinite fund of subjects for agreeable conversation. Had my affairs permitted, they had certainly drawn me with them into Scotland; whither they are gone for about a month upon a journey of curiosity." — In another letter, he says, "Mr. Spence is the very man you would like, and who would like you of all mankind. He took my Elegies with him into Scotland and sent them back on his return, with a sheet or two of criticisms, and a handsome letter. — How much am I interested in the preservation of his friendship! — and yet such is my destiny (for I can give it no other name), I have never wrote to him since. This impartiality of my neglect, you must accept yourself as some apology: — but to proceed; Mr. Spence chose himself an oak here for a seat, which I have inscribed to him:
EXIMIO. NOSTRO. CRITONI.
CVI. DICARI. VELLET.
MVSARVM. OMNIVM. ET. GRATIARVM. CHORVS.
This journey of Mr. Spence is agreeably described in a letter to Shenstone, printed in Hull's collection.
In the year 1764, Mr. James Ridley, the son of his old friend Gloster Ridley, gave an accurate and interesting delineation of his character and retreat, in his Tales of the Genii; Spence is meant by Phesoi Ecueps, the Dervise of the Groves. A panegyrical letter to Mr. Ridley, on the occasion, by Mr. Spence, is printed in the collection of letters above cited.
The last of his literary labours was the agreeable task of preparing for the press Remarks and Dissertations on Virgil, with some other classical observations, by his friend Holdsworth, to which were added, notes and additional remarks of his own. His health was now in a declining state, and though the greater part of this volume was printed in 1767, it was not published until the beginning of 1768, by the care of his friend Dr. Lowth, who had communicated a few remarks, and who made the table of Errata, which Mr. Spence was then not able to do.
He had executed his will while on a visit to his amiable friend at Sedgefield in the preceding autumn, and added a codicil, remembering a faithful servant, with his own hand, in the spring. He had appointed Dr. Ridley, Dr. Lowth, and his nephew the Rev. Edward Rolle, executors; leaving a few trifling legacies and benefactions, but it could hardly be expected that he should have much to leave. His sister and two brothers died some years before him.
Besides the literary productions already noticed, Mr. Spence published some occasional verses; particularly the concluding copy in the Oxford collection, on the Birth of the Prince of Wales; an Epistle from a Swiss Officer to his Friend in Rome, in Dodsley's Museum; and some few others, which are to be found in Mr. Nichols's collection. But verse was not Mr. Spence's talent, though he wrote much for his amusement; and Dr. Lowth acted with truly friendly regard to his reputation, when he decided that not a verse which he left behind him should be published.
Dr. Johnson has been thought to speak with prejudice of Spence when he says that he was "a man whose learning was not very great, and whose mind was not very powerful;" but I must in candour acknowledge that there is no appealing from this judgment: and nothing can be more true than what follows. "His criticism, however, was commonly just; what he thought, he thought rightly, and his remarks were recommended by coolness and candour. In him, Pope had the first experience of a critic without malevolence, who thought it was as much his duty to display beauties, as expose faults; who censured with respect, and praised with alacrity." — If we regard the state of criticism at the period the Essay on the Odyssey appeared, no small degree of credit will attach to its author. At that time we had few things which might compare with it; and it must be confessed that, the period of its publication considered, Dr. Warton has not over-rated its merits, in having pronounced it to be "a work of true taste." A later panegyrist has asserted, that it is, "for sound criticism, and candid disquisition, almost without a parallel?" It is hardly possible to conceive, as the same writer fondly conjectures, "that Dr. Johnson's frigid mention of Spence, might arise from a prejudice conceived against him on account of his preference of blank verse to rhyme, in that essay?"
Of the Polymetis, Gray has spoken very slightingly in his letters: one of his objections is, that the subject is illustrated from the Roman, and not from the Greek writers; which Dr. Lowth has ingeniously endeavoured to obviate, by observing, that Spence "has not performed what he never undertook; nay, what he expressly did not undertake." But does this, argue that the subject would not have been better illustrated from them, as in some degree the fountain head and source of the Roman mythology? — The work appears to have been highly acceptable to the public, and to have met with all possible success; a second edition was soon called for, and a third was printed in 1774. I believe it is not many years since, that it was thought a fourth edition might be acceptable to the public. An abridgment was also made of it, which was long a popular book in our schools until the more copious and useful dictionary of Dr. Lempriere superseded it. Whatever may have been thought of the Polymetis at the time of its publication, it is certain that the graphic illustrations are but very mediocre, and it has been justly observed, that "it has sunk by its own weight, and will never rise again." — Upon this work, and the Essay on Pope's Odyssey, Spence's literary fame has hitherto rested; that he enjoyed a large share of it while living, there is ample testimony: but the style of dialogue in which he wrote has become deservedly unpopular, and it does not appear that he is likely to be so fortunate in his appeal to posterity.
Spence was in person below the middle size, his figure spare, his countenance benignant, and rather handsome, but bearing marks of a delicate constitution. As in his childhood he had been kept alive by constant care and the assistance of skilful medical aid, he did not expect that his life would have been protracted beyond fifty years. But he possessed those greatest of all blessings, a cheerful temperament, a constant flow of animal spirits, and a most placable disposition. These, with the happy circumstances in which he was placed, and the active nature of his gardening amusements, prolonged its date to his 70th year; when he was unfortunately drowned in a canal in his garden at Byfleet. Being, when the accident occurred, 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. Thus terminated the life of Spence, of whom it was soon after said with strict justice, as Charles the Second said of Cowley: — "That he left not a better man in England behind him;" and though he may not be placed in the first rank of eminence as a writer, yet will his name be venerated for qualities which are something more and better. It is surely enough to be remembered "For every virtue under heaven."
He was buried in the parish church of Byfleet, and a neat mural tablet was inscribed to his memory by his executors, with the following tribute to his virtues, from the pen of his excellent friend Lowth—
HERE LIE THE REMAINS OF
JOSEPH SPENCE, M.A.
REGIUS PROFESSOR OF MODERN HISTORY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD,
PREBENDARY OF DURHAM,
AND RECTOR OF GREAT HORWOOD, BUCKS.
IN WHOM LEARNING, GENIUS, AND SHINING TALENTS
TEMPERED WITH JUDGMENT,
AND SOFTENED BY THE MOST EXQUISITE SWEETNESS OF MANNERS,
WERE GREATLY EXCELLED BY HIS HUMANITY;
EVER READY TO ASSIST THE DISTRESSED
BY CONSTANT AND EXTENSIVE CHARITY TO THE POOR,
AND BY UNBOUNDED BENEVOLENCE TO ALL:
HE DIED AUG. 20, 1768,
IN THE 70TH YEAR OF HIS AGE.