This light and amusing poet was the son of the Rev. Dr. Anstey, rector of Brinkeley, in Cambridgeshire, who had been a fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge. When very young, he was sent to school at Bury St. Edmunds. From thence he was removed to Eton, and placed at the fourth form, as an oppidan, and afterward on the foundation. He finished his studies at Eton with a creditable character, and in 1741 went as captain to the Mount. From thence he went to Cambridge, where he obtained some reputation by his Tripos verses. In 1745, he was admitted fellow of King's college, and in the following year took his bachelor's degree in the university. When he had nearly completed the terms of his qualification for that of master of arts, he was prevented from obtaining it in consequence of what his own son, his biographer, calls a spirited and popular opposition, which he showed to the leading men of the university. The phrase of "popular and spirited opposition," sounds promising to the curiosity; but the reader must not expect too much, lest he should be disappointed by learning that this popular opposition was only his refusing to deliver certain declamations, which the heads of the university (unfairly it was thought) required from the bachelors of King's College. Anstey, as senior of the order of bachelors, had to deliver the first oration. He contrived to begin his speech with a rhapsody of adverbs, which, with no direct meaning, hinted a ridicule on the arbitrary injunction of the university rulers. They soon ordered him to dismount from the rostrum, and called upon him for a new declamation, which, as might be expected, only gave him an opportunity of pointing finer irony in the shape of an apology. This affront was not forgotten by his superiors; and when he applied for his degree, it was refused to him.
In the year 1756 he married Miss Calvert, sister to his oldest and most intimate friend John Calvert, Esq. of Albury Hall, in Hertfordshire, and sat in several successive parliaments for the borough of Hertford. Having succeeded, after his marriage, to his father's estate, he retired to the family seat in Cambridgeshire, and seems to have spent his days in that smooth happiness which gives life few remarkable eras. He was addicted to the sports of the field and the amusements of the country, undisturbed by ambition, and happy in the possession of friends and fortune. His first literary effort which was published, was his translation of Gray's Elegy in a Churchyard into Latin verse, in which he was assisted by Dr. Roberts, author of Judah Restored. He was personally acquainted with Gray, and derived from him the benefit of some remarks on his translation.
His first production in English verse was The New Bath Guide, which appeared in 1766. The droll and familiar manner of the poem is original; but its leading characters are evidently borrowed from Smollett. Anstey gave the copy price of the piece, which was £200, as a charitable donation to the hospital of Bath; and Dodsley, to whom it had been sold, with remarkable generosity restored the copyright to its author, after it had been eleven years published.
His other works hardly require the investigation of their date. In the decline of life he meditated a collection of his letters and poems; but letters recovered from the repositories of dead friends are but melancholy readings; and, probably overcome by the sensations which they excited, he desisted from his collection. After a happy enjoyment of life, (during fifty years of which he had never been confined to bed, except one day, by an accidental hurt upon his leg,) he quietly resigned his existence, at the house of his son-in-law, Mr. Bosanquet, in his eighty-first year, surrounded by his family, and retaining his faculties to the last.