WILLIAM SHENSTONE was born at the Leasowes, in Hales Owen. He was bred at Pembroke College, Oxford, where he applied himself to poetry, and published a small miscellany in 1737, without his name. He had entertained thoughts, at one period, of studying medicine; but on coming of age he retired to a property at Harborough, left him by his mother, where, in an old romantic habitation, haunted by rooks, and shaded by oaks and elms, he gave himself up to indolence and the Muses. He came to London for the first time in 1740, and published his Judgment of Hercules. A year after appeared his Schoolmistress. For several years he led a wandering life of amusement, and was occasionally at Bath, London, and Cheltenham; at the last of which places he met with the Phyllis of his pastoral ballad. The first sketch of that ballad had been written under a former attachment to a lady of the name of Graves; but it was resumed and finished in compliment to his new flame. Dr. Johnson informs us that he might have obtained Phyllis, whoever the lady was, if he had chosen to ask her.
In the year 1745 the death of his indulgent uncle, Mr. Dolman, who had hitherto managed his affairs, threw the care of them upon himself and he fixed his residence at the Leasowes, which he brought, by improvements, to its far-famed beauty. In these improvements his affectionate apologist, Mr. Graves, acknowledges that he spent the whole of his income, but denies the alleged poverty of his latter days, as well as the rumour that his landscapes were haunted by duns and bailiffs. He states, on the contrary, that he left considerable legacies to his servants.
The Frenchman who dedicated a stone in his garden to the memory of Shenstone, was not wholly wrong in ascribing to him a "taste natural," for there is a freshness and distinctness in his rural images, like those of a man who had enjoyed the country with his own senses, and very unlike the description of "A pastoral poet from Leadenhall street," who may have never heard a lamb bleat but on its way to the slaughter-house. At the same time there is a certain air of masquerade in his pastoral character as applied to the man himself; and he is most natural in those pieces where he is least Arcadian. It may seem invidious, perhaps, to object to Shenstone making his appearance in poetry with his pipe and his crook, while custom has so much inured us to the idea of Spenser feigning himself to be Colin Clout, and to his styling Sir Walter Raleigh the "Shepherd of the Ocean" — an expression, by the way, which is not remarkably intelligible, and which, perhaps might not unfairly be placed under Miss Edgeworth's description of English Bulls. Gabriel Harvey used also to designate himself Hobbinol in his poetry; and Browne, Lodge, Drayton, Milton, and many others, describe themselves as surrounded by their flocks, though none of them probably ever possessed a live sheep in the course of their lives. But with respect to the poets of Elizabeth's reign, their distance from us appears to soften the romantic license of the fiction, and we regard them as beings in some degree characterized by their vicinity to the ages of romance. Milton, though coming later, invests his pastoral disguise (in Lycidas) with such enchanting picturesqueness as wholly to divert our attention from the unreal shepherd to the poet. But from the end of the seventeenth century pastoral poetry became gradually more and more unprofitable in South Britain, and the figure of the genuine shepherd swain began to be chiefly confined to pictures on china, and to opera ballets. Shenstone was one of the last of our respectable poets who affected this Arcadianism, but he was too modern to sustain it in perfect keeping. His entire poetry, therefore, presents us with a double image of his character; one impression which it leave is that of an agreeable, indolent gentleman, of cultivated taste and refined sentiments; the other that of Corydon, a purely amatory and ideal swain. It would have been so far well, if those characters had been kept distinct, like two impressions of the opposite sides of a medal. But he has another pastoral name, that of Damon, in which the swain and the gentleman are rather incongruously blended together. Damon has also his festive garlands and dances at wakes and may-poles, but he is moreover a disciple of vertu:
his blossom burns
With statues, paintings, coins, and urns.
"He sighs to call one Titian stroke his own;" expends his fortune on building domes and obelisks, is occasionally delighted to share his vintage with an old college acquaintance, and dreams of inviting Delia to a mansion with Venetian windows.
Apart from those ambiguities, Shenstone is a pleasing writer, both in his lighter and graver vein. His genius is not forcible, but it settles in mediocrity without meanness. His pieces of levity correspond not disagreeably with their title. His Ode to Memory is worthy of protection from the power which it invokes. Some of the stanzas of his Ode to Rural Elegance seem to recall to us the country-loving spirit of Cowley, subdued in wit, but harmonized in expression. From the commencement of the stanza in that ode, "O sweet disposer of the rural hour:" he sustains an agreeable and peculiarly refined strain of poetical feeling. The ballad of Jenny Dawson, and the elegy on Jessy, are written with genuine feeling. With all the beauties of the Leasowes in our minds, it may be still regretted, that instead of devoting his whole soul to clumping beeches, and projecting mottos for summer-houses, he had not gone more into living nature for subjects, and described her interesting realities with the same fond and naive touches which give so much delightfulness to his portrait of the School-mistress.