1927 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Shenstone

Edmund Gosse, "A Sentimental Shepherd" in Leaves and Fruit (1927) 135-41.



A hundred and fifty years ago the little estate called The Leasowes, in Shropshire, was commonly admitted to be "amongst the principal of those delightful scenes which persons of taste are desirous to see." It lay, and in sadly diminished glory still lies, about half a mile short of Halesowen, on the way from Birmingham to Bewdley. So early as 1763 a fear was expressed by those who "trod with awe those favour'd bowers" that time or a change of taste might destroy its peculiar beauties, since these were elaborately artificial. The fear was not unfounded. What the present condition of The Leasowes may be I do not know, but when I visited it many years ago — an excursion neither difficult nor attractive — it had sunken to a state so squalid and ruinous that it was hardly possible to believe that it had once been the cynosure of landscape gardening and the theme of a choir of poets. When it was at the height of its elegant redundancy, The Leasowes was a little paradise in an agricultural wilderness, and ravished the imagination with its gloomy groves, its easy swells, its aquatic rock-work, and its sublime cascades. All this was the work of a fat bachelor bard to whom posterity has not been kind, and of whose celebrity several of his most powerful contemporaries were jealous. William Shenstone, the typical figure of mid-eighteenth-century sensibility, deserves to be reviewed without prejudice.

His father was a "plain, uneducated" local yeoman; his mother, of slightly higher rank, had some landed property. William went to Pembroke College, Oxford, where, although his dress was negligent even to a fault, he was accounted a beau. He wore his own hair, which had early turned grey, "in a particular manner" — that is to say, to judge by the portraits, smooth at the top, but curled and very much fluffed at the sides. During ten sleepy years at the University he did nothing except write verses; his parents being dead, trustees looked after his business so carefully that in middle life he was able to abandon himself to the beautifying of his little estate in Shropshire. He was about thirty-five years of age when, having been crossed in love, he settled at The Leasowes, and devoted himself to landscape gardening. Nothing can improve Dr. Johnson's account of what happened:—

"He began from this time 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."

For fifteen years he lived a hermit's life among his grottoes and his shrubberies, seldom leaving home, but eager to receive at The Leasowes, not merely a group of poetical friends, but distinguished strangers and sprigs of exotic nobility. There is evidence that he became eccentric and peevish from battling with an army of domestic, agricultural, and social difficulties, since the whole adventure at The Leasowes was a struggle between art and nature. A forgotten novel by Richard Graves, author of The Spiritual Quixote, should be examined by those who are interested in Shenstone. In this work, called Columella: or the Distressed Anchoret, Graves, who had been one of Shenstone's most intimate friends, makes not unkindly fun of his final troubles at The Leasowes.

These troubles culminated in financial disaster, or rather in the fear of it, for Shenstone died just solvent, although gravely embarrassed. All his little fortune had been dissipated on his woods and his waters. His death, which was "hastened by his anxieties," occurred in his fiftieth year, but we are told that he seemed much older, for "he was a lamp that spent its oil in blazing." But "blazing" seems to be too strong a word for Shenstone, who glimmered rather than flared; he was more a glow-worm than a torch. Dr. Johnson, who was so near-sighted that he could see nothing six yards in front of him, mocked at Shenstone's embellishments, but to more normal eyes they seemed beautiful and praiseworthy. They responded, with curious exactitude, to his verses, which enjoyed great popularity and exercised remarkable influence for half a century. No doubt there were always readers who said:

I sits with my feet in a brook,
And if anyone axes me why,
I hits him a crack with my crook,
For sentiment kills me, says I!

But they were the exception. Most persons of culture liked to indulge their sensibilities, and honoured those who sacrificed everything to the pursuit of Elegance. Among such prophets, no one had been more devoted, more plaintive or more truly rural than the impassioned Shepherd of The Leasowes.

The extensive popularity of Shenstone's poetry is rather difficult to account for, since he does not seem to have done anything to foster it. He printed for his friends an anonymous pamphlet in 1737, including in it the first draft of The School-Mistress, of the revised form of which the Clarendon Press now issues a very pretty facsimile. This was a mild burlesque piece in Spenserian stanza, and remains to-day the most durable work of Shenstone, but it produced no effect in 1737. Later, Shenstone attracted the admiring friendship of Robert Dodsley, who was the most influential publisher of the day, and who was untiring in the collection and dissemination of Shenstone's scattered writings. But the real reason of the success was, doubtless, the exactitude with which the bard of The Leasowes responded to the taste of the age. No one could be more middle-eighteenth-century than he was. The School-Mistress is doubtless Shenstone's cleverest poem, but it is the least characteristic. To see him in his essence, we must brace ourselves to read the Elegies, and then the Songs and Ballads. It has been the habit of critics, who find eighteenth-century lyric tiresome, to complain of its "insincerity." No doubt a good deal of what once was read, and is read no more, deserves this blame. It is written about nothing in particular by people who felt themselves called upon to write. But this was not always the case of those who cultivated the Elegy, by which they did not mean to invoke the genius of the tomb, but to produce a kind of verse which, being "treated in such a manner as to diffuse a pleasing melancholy," should express the genuine sentiments and experiences of the singer.

If we examine, with a genuine desire to apprehend, the twenty-six long elegies which form the body of Shenstone's poetry, we may be baffled at first by the apparent conventionality of the style. Reading more carefully, we find that each poem is an exact transcript of the situation of his own mind. The language is simple and diffuse, and as flowing as a mourner's veil, but underneath the dimness we detect the features of a real man. Shenstone was tenderness itself, tenderness which he knew bordered on weakness, and which his friends lamented as rendering him unfit to battle with the world. Very little ever happened to him outside the hedge which ran round The Leasowes, and his idea of subjects fit for artistic treatment was limited.

The modern reader is alarmed at being told that "the most important end of all poetry is to encourage virtue." Nowadays, our young bloods seem to think that its most important end is to illuminate vice. But if we contemplate the eighteenth century, we must try to grasp the eighteenth-century meaning of language. "Virtue" is not used by Shenstone and his disciples in the Victorian sense. In a very different part of his essays he defines it himself; "virtue," he says, "is the motion consonant to the system of things." It meant harmony, delicacy, decorum; it involved the rejection of what was shapeless and violent and ugly. As an example, we may look at the Elegy on the Folly of Superciliousness, in which he describes how he met, on Salisbury Plain, one Ianthe, a female nobly born, with whom he dared to attempt a flirtation. Ianthe was extremely indignant, and quitted him with the pretext that it was going to rain:—

Scornful she spoke, and heedless of reply
The lovely maniac bounded o'er the plain;
The piteous victim of an angry sky!
Ah me, the victim of her proud disdain!

This is an incident treated in the eighteenth-century spirit of virtue. It is also, notwithstanding its ludicrous expression, the record of an obviously real event.

After Shenstone's death, Dodsley collected his prose writings under the title of Essays on Men and Manners. This work is a sort of commonplace book, doubtless filled during lonely evenings at The Leasowes, and destined to be read to indulgent friends on their next visit. The contents are highly miscellaneous, passing from long essays in the style of The Rambler to brief apophthegms and even to "levities," which last, however, are not very funny. The whole suggests good prolonged conversation on a bench in the Lovers' Walk or under the cupola of that "slight and inexpensive edifice," the Temple of Pan. Shenstone kept up a stately correspondence with an accomplished (but very plain) blue-stocking, Lady Luxborough, who was Bolingbroke's half-sister. Their letters are said to be in the British Museum, and to defy perusal. The Essays, on the other hand, are sentimental, but not dull at all, and the Maxims, though they would not awaken jealousy in the breast of La Rochefoucauld, are often neat and shrewd. There is observation of country life, as Shenstone saw it, in the following:—

"A person's manner is never easy, whilst he feels a consciousness that he is fine. The country fellow, considered in some lights, appears genteel; but it is not when he is drest on Sundays, with a large nosegay in his bosom. It is when he is reaping, making hay, or when he is hedging in his hurden frock. It is then he acts with ease, and thinks himself equal to his apparel."

Shenstone has contributed a few quotations to the permanent store of English literature. Everybody knows the epigram written in an inn at Henley, ending

Whoe'er has travell'd life's dull round,
Where'er his stages may have been,
May sigh to think he still has found
His warmest welcome at an inn!

and each generation, in spite of the crook and the pipe and the sheep, is pleased with the Pastoral Ballad:—

She gaz'd, as I slowly withdrew;
My path I could hardly discern;
So sweetly she bade me adieu,
I thought that she bade me return.

But The Dying Kid, which was long regarded as the utmost triumph of sensibility, is a dead kid now; while a touch of the hurdy-gurdy spoils the anapaests of "Yes, these are the scenes where with Iris I strayed." Even Mr. Iolo Williams, who is the main champion of eighteenth-century lyric, moderates his transports when he deals with the Shepherd of Halesowen.

When Shenstone passed away, on February 11, 1763, the cleverest of his disciples, John Cunningham, brought to the funeral a pastoral elegy, in which he summed up the character of the deceased bard. As this neat elegy seems to be little known, I will quote the opening stanzas:—

Come, Shepherds, we'll follow the hearse
And see our lov'd Corydon laid:
Tho' sorrow may blemish the verse,
Yet let the sad tribute be paid.
They call'd him the pride of the plain
In sooth, he was gentle and kind;
He mark'd, in his elegant strain,
The Graces that glow'd in his mind.

On purpose he planted yon trees,
That birds in the covert might dwell;
He cultur'd his thyme for the bees,
But never would rifle the cell.
Ye lambkins that play'd at his feet,
Go, bleat-and your Master bemoan:
His music was artless and sweet,
His manners as mild as your own.

With regard to rifling the cell, I think Cunningham must have made a mistake. Shenstone was not the man to keep bees and not eat the honey.