WILLIAM SHENSTONE, the son of an uneducated gentleman farmer, was born at Hales-owen, in Shropshire, in November, 1714, and received the elements of instruction from a village dame, whom he has celebrated in his poem of The School-mistress. His fondness for books, in his childhood, was such that he frequently carried one to bed with him; and, it is said, that when his request had been neglected to procure a new one when any of his family went to market, his mother wrapped up a piece of wood of the same form, and pacified him for the night. His first scholastic education was at the grammar-school of Hales-owen, and afterwards at the academy of a clergyman at Solihull, under whom he acquired a cultivated taste, and a considerable degree of classical knowledge. In 1732, at which time he had lost his father, he was entered a member of Pembroke College, Oxford, and had some thoughts of taking his degrees, and proceeding to study for a profession; but deriving sufficient from his paternal fortune to gratify present wishes, he renounced all further views of an active life. He accordingly retired to his residence at the Leasowes, the embellishments of which formed one of his most favourite pursuits, and, in 1737, he evinced how successfully he had cultivated poetry, by the publication of a small Miscellany, which appeared without his name.
He then left Staffordshire, and passed much of his time in Bath and London, where he published, in 1740, his Judgment of Hercules, addressed to Mr. Lyttleton, and, in 1742, The Schoolmistress. In 1745, he finally retired to the Leasowes, and devoted his time and fortune to those rural embellishments, which have made that place so celebrated. "Here," says Johnson, "he began to point his prospects, to diversify his surface, to entangle his walks, and to wind his waters; which he did with such judgment and such fancy, as made his little domain the envy of the great and the admiration of the skilful; a place to be visited by travellers, and copied by designers." The celebrity which his residence thus acquired, and his desire of appearing in better circumstances than his means admitted, soon brought on pecuniary embarrassments, and rendered him the wretched inhabitant of the Eden he had created for the delight of others. For the care of his grounds, he appears totally to have neglected that of his house; and when," says our previous authority, he came home from his walks, he might find his floors flooded by a shower through the broken roofs; but could spare no money for its reparation." To relieve his distresses, an application, it is said, was made to Lord Bute to grant him a pension, but before the result of it could be known, he was carried off by a putrid fever, on the 11th of February, 1763, and was buried in the church-yard of Hales-owen.
According to Dodsley, tenderness was the peculiar characteristic of Shenstone; he was generous and benevolent to all within his influence, but if once offended he was not easily reconciled. "I never," he used to say, "will be a very revengeful enemy; but I cannot, — it is not in my nature, to be half a friend." His want of economy considerably incumbered his fortune, but he left more than sufficient to pay all his debts, and by his will appropriated his whole estate for that purpose. His person was above the middle height, and largely and awkwardly formed, and his countenance, until he engaged in conversation, did not strike the beholder as pleasing. In his youth he was accounted a beau, but latterly he became negligent in his dress, and was remarkable for wearing his hair, which was quite grey very early, in a particular manner. Gray's description of him borders upon caricature: "Poor man!" he said, after reading his poems, "he was always wishing for money, for fame, and other distinctions; and his whole philosophy consisted in living against his will in retirement, and in a place which his taste had adorned; but which he only enjoyed when people of note came to see and commend it; his correspondence is about nothing else but this place and his own writings, with two or three neighbouring clergymen, who wrote verses too." He was never married; "though," says Johnson, "he might have obtained the lady, whoever she was, to whom his Pastoral Ballad was addressed." The reverse of this appears in the ballad itself; and although the narrowness of his fortune might, in general, have deterred him from marriage, and rendered some of his attachments transitory, yet the one alluded to, says Dodsley, "was with difficulty surmounted," and but for the obduracy of the lady, would doubtless have terminated in matrimony. It has been supposed that his Elegy on Jessy related to an amour of his own, but his friends affirm that it was suggested by the story of Miss Godfrey in Richardson's Pamela.
His poems, consisting chiefly of elegies, odes, and ballads, are elegant, harmonious, tender, and correct in sentiment; and contain descriptions pleasing and natural, but verging on feebleness, and wanting in that power of imagination, and splendour and energy of diction, which characterize compositions of a higher order. His Pastoral Ballad is a master-piece of its sort; but The School-mistress, a poem in the Spenserian stanza, is generally considered the most pleasing of his performances. His prose writings are by no means contemptible; displaying, as they do, good sense and cultivated taste, with just, and sometimes new and acute observations, on mankind.
The following anecdote is told of Shenstone: he was one day walking through his romantic retreat in company with his Delia, (whose real name was Wilmot,) when a man rushed out of a thicket, and presenting a pistol to his breast, demanded his money. Shenstone was surprised, and Delia fainted. "Money," said the robber, "is not worth struggling for; you cannot be poorer than I am." — "Unhappy man!" exclaimed Shenstone, throwing his purse to him, "take it, and fly as quick as possible." The man did so, threw his pistol in the water, and instantly disappeared. Shenstone ordered his footboy to follow the robber, and observe where he went. In two hours the boy returned, and informed his master that he followed him to Hales-owen, where he lived; that he went to the door of his house, and peeping through the key-hole, saw the man throw the purse on the ground, and say to his wife, "Take the dear-bought price of my honesty;" then placing two of his children, one on each knee, he said to them, "I have ruined my soul to keep you from starving;" and immediately burst into a flood of tears. Shenstone on hearing this, lost no time in inquiring the man's character, and found that he was a labourer oppressed by want and a numerous family; but had the reputation of being honest and industrious. Shenstone went to his house; the poor man fell at his feet, and implored mercy. The poet took him home with him, and provided him with employment.