1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Shenstone

Samuel Jackson Pratt, in Cabinet of Poetry (1808) 4:275-76



WILLIAM SHENSTONE, one of our most popular and pleasing poets, was born at Hales Owen in Shropshire, 1714. His father, a plain uneducated country gentleman, occupied his own farm; and finding his son discover a taste for learning, even in his infancy, did not check his predilection for books, though it is probable he saw little utility in such pursuits.

Shenstone's School Mistress, is a grateful and elegant delineation of the old dame, who first taught him to read. Such was the delight he took in books, that it is recorded, while yet a child he was constantly importuning his fond mother to bring him something new; and when she could not gratify his desires of a book, she placed a piece of wood painted book-fashion under his pillow in order to soothe him to sleep.

Becoming an orphan before he reached his twelfth year, the care of his person and his property devolved on his grandfather and grandmother, and at last on Mr. Dolman of Brome, in Staffordshire, who after giving him a suitable classical education at Hales Owen, and afterwards at Solihul, entered him as a gentleman commoner at Pembroke College, Oxford. At the university, he pursued his studies with much diligence, associating chiefly with young men of a literary turn, and ranking among his particular friends, Mr. Jago and the late ingenious and excellent Mr. Graves of Claverton near Bath.

In 1737, Shenstone published some poems, anonymously, and three years after, produced his Judgment of Hercules, which was followed at intervals by various other compositions. Our poet, about this time, having then a clear patrimonial estate of 300 a year and upwards, then an important sum, visited London, Bath, and other public places, and enjoyed the liberal pleasures of an elegant mind. But his friend, Mr. Dolman, dying in 1745, the care of his estate fell on himself; and he had the misfortune to be smitten with the rage of improvement. The Leasowes was converted into a poet's farm, and at length rivalled the pastoral plains of Arcadian romance. Woods, walks, sylvan deities, seats, cascades, and inscriptions, displaced the productions of Ceres, and the flocks that should have fed and clothed the proprietor. It is for ever to be regretted that his fortune was not equal to his taste. He dissipated his estate in adorning it; and though it still continues one of the most beautiful "fermes ornees" in the kingdom, it involved him in debts, which disturbed his peace, and probably shortened his days. He died in 1763, and was buried in Hales Owen Churchyard. The sensibility of Shenstone and his delicate and refined feelings are conspicuous in every page of his writings. As a pastoral and classic poet, he remains unrivalled; and had his fortune been equal to his benevolence, he would probably have been, what he deserved to be, as happy as he was amiable.

Rejecting the unjust severity of Johnson, and the fastidious taste of Gray, I shall adopt the opinions of Graves and Dodsley, both men of candour, liberality and judgment. They assert, in the language of affection, sanctioned by experience, that he was the warmest and most affectionate friend, and never an inveterate enemy; that nothing could be more amiable than his social, or more unexceptionable than his moral character. And Mr. Anderson, agreeably to the honorable practice of his character, has, in his valuable though voluminous edition of the whole of the British Poets, thus tenderly defended him from the censure incurred by converting his farm into pleasure grounds. "If he chose to resign emolument for the charms of ease and independence, he had a right to employ his own patrimony as he thought proper." More especially, as he was unconnected by any ties; which, had they subsisted, might, and no doubt would, have operated on his good heart, in full force to have allowed their claims.