1764 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Shenstone

Robert Dodsley, Preface, in Shenstone, Works (1764) 1:i-viii.



A great part of the poetical works of Mr. SHENSTONE, particularly his Elegies and Pastorals, are (as he himself expressed it) "The exact transcripts of the situation of his own mind;" and abound in frequent allusions to his own place, the beautiful scene of his retirement from the world. Exclusively therefore of our natural curiosity to be acquainted with the history of an author, whose works we peruse with pleasure, some short account of Mr. SHENSTONE'S personal character, and situation in life, may not only be agreeable, but absolutely necessary, to the reader; as it is impossible he should enter into the true spirit of his writings, if he is entirely ignorant of those circumstances of his life, which sometimes so greatly influenced his reflections.

I could wish however that this task had been allotted to some person capable of performing it in that masterly manner which the subject so deserves. To confess the truth, it was chiefly to prevent his remains from falling into the hands of any one still less qualified to do him justice, that I have unwillingly ventured to undertake the publication of them myself.

Mr. SHENSTONE was the eldest son of a plain uneducated country gentleman in SHROPSHIRE, who farmed his own estate. The father, sensible of his son's extraordinary capacity, resolved to give him a learned education, and sent him a commoner to PEMBROKE College in OXFORD, designing him for the church: but tho' he had the most aweful notions of the wisdom, power, and goodness of God, he never could be persuaded to enter into orders. In his private opinions he adhered to no particular sect, and hated all religious disputes. But whatever were his own sentiments, he always shewed great tenderness to those, who differed from him. Tenderness, indeed, in every sense of the word, was his peculiar characteristic; his friends, his domestics, his poor neighbours, all daily experienced his benevolent turn of mind. Indeed, this virtue in him was often carried to such excess, that it sometimes bordered upon weakness: yet if he was convinced that any of those ranked amongst the number of his friends, had treated him ungenerously, he was not easily reconciled. He used a maxim, however, on such occasions, which is worthy of being observed and imitated; "I never (said he) will be a revengeful enemy; but I cannot, it is not in my nature, to be half a friend." He was in his temper quite unsuspicious; but if suspicion was once awakened in him, it was not laid asleep again without difficulty.

He was no oeconomist; the generosity of his temper prevented him from paying a proper regard to the use of money: he exceeded therefore the bounds of his paternal fortune, which before he died was considerably encumbered. But when one recollects the perfect paradise he had raised around him, the hospitality with which he lived, his great indulgence to his servants, his charities to the indigent, and all done with an estate not more than three hundred pounds a year, one should rather be led to wonder that he left any thing behind him, than to blame his want of oeconomy. He left however more than sufficient to pay all his debts; and by his will appropriated his whole estate for that purpose.

It was perhaps from some considerations on the narrowness of his fortune, that he forebore to marry; for he was no enemy to wedlock, had a high opinion of many among the fair sex, was fond of their society, and not stranger to the tenderest impressions. One, which he received in his youth, was with difficulty surmounted. The lady was the subject of that sweet pastoral, in four parts, which has been so universally admired; and which, one would have thought, must have subdued the loftiest heart, and softened the most obdurate.

His person, as to height, was above the middle stature, but largely and rather inelegantly formed: his face seemed plain till you conversed with him, and then it grew very pleasing. In his dress he was negligent, even to a fault; though when young, at the university, he was accounted a BEAU. He wore his own hair, which was quite grey very early, in a particular manner; not from any affectation of singularity, but from a maxim he had laid down, that without too slavish a regard to fashion, every one should dress in a manner most suitable to his own person and figure. In short, his faults were only little blemishes, thrown in by nature, as it were on purpose to prevent him from rising too much above that level of imperfection allotted to humanity.

His character as a writer will be distinguished by simplicity with elegance, and genius with correctness. He had a sublimity equal to the highest attempts; yet from the indolence of his temper, he chose rather to amuse himself in culling flowers at the foot of the mount, than to take the trouble of climbing the more arduous steeps of PARNASSUS. But whenever he was disposed to rise, his steps, tho' natural, were noble, and always well supported. In the tenderness of elegiac poetry he hath not been excelled; in the simplicity of pastoral, one may venture to say he had very few equals. Of great sensibility himself, he never failed to engage the hearts of his readers: and amidst the nicest attention to the harmony of his numbers, he always too care to express with propriety the sentiments of an elegant mind. In all his writings, his greatest difficulty was to please himself. I remember a passage in one of his letters, where, speaking of his love songs, he says — "Some were written on occasions a good deal imaginary, others not so; and the reason there are so many is, that I wanted to write ONE good song, and could never please myself." It was this diffidence which occasioned him to throw aside many of his pieces before he had bestowed on them his last touches. I have suppressed several on this account; and if among those which I have selected, there should be discovered some little want of his finishing polish, I hope it will be attributed to this cause, and of course be excused: yet I flatter myself there will always appear something well worthy of having been preserved. And though I was afraid of inserting what might injure the character of my friend, yet as the sketches of a great master are always valuable, I was unwilling the public should lose any thing material of so accomplished a writer. In this dilemma it will easily be conceived that the task I had to perform would become somewhat difficult. How I have acquitted myself, the public must judge. Nothing, however, except what he had already published, has been admitted without the advice of his most judicious friends, nothing altered, without their particular concurrence. It is impossible to please every one; but 'tis hoped that no reader will be so unreasonable, as to imagine that the author wrote solely for his amusement: his talents were various; and though it may perhaps be allowed that his excellence chiefly appeared in subjects of tenderness and simplicity, yet he frequently condescended to trifle with those of humour and drollery: these, indeed, he himself in some measure degraded by the title which he gave them of LEVITIES: but had they been entirely rejected, the public would have been deprived of some JEUX D'ESPRITS, excellent in their kind, and Mr. SHENSTONE'S character as a writer would have been but imperfectly exhibited.

But the talents of Mr. SHENSTONE were not confined merely to poetry; his character, as a man of clear judgment, and deep penetration, will best appear from his prose works. It is there we must search for the acuteness of his understanding, and his profound knowledge of the human heart. It is to be lamented indeed, that some things here are not finished, and can be regarded only as fragments: many are left as single thoughts, but which, like the sparks of diamonds, shew the richness of the mine to which they belong; or like the foot of a HERCULES, discover the uncommon strength, and extraordinary dimensions of that hero. I have no apprehension of incurring blame from any one, for preserving these valuable remains: they will discover to every reader, the author's sentiments on several important subjects. And there can be very few, to whom they will not impart many thoughts, which they would never perhaps have been able to draw from the source of their own reflections.

But I believe little need be said to recommend the writings of this gentleman to public attention. His character is already sufficiently established. And if he be not injured by the inability of his editor, there is no doubt but he will ever maintain an eminent station among the best of our English writers.