An account of Christopher Anstey, written by his second son, is prefixed to the handsome edition of his works, printed at London, in 1808. He was born on the thirty-first of October, 1724, and was the son of Doctor Anstey, rector of Brinkley, in Cambridgeshire, a living in the gift of St. John's College, Cambridge; of which the Doctor had formerly been fellow and tutor. His mother was Mary, daughter of Anthony Thompson, Esq. of Trumpington, in the same county. They had no offspring but our poet, and a daughter born some years before him.
His father was afflicted with a total deafness for so considerable a portion of his life, as never to have heard the sound of his son's voice; and was thus rendered incapable of communicating to him that instruction which he might otherwise have derived from a parent endowed with remarkable acuteness of understanding. He was, therefore, sent very early to school at Bury St. Edmunds. Here he continued, under the tuition of the Rev. Arthur Kinsman, till he was removed to Eton; on the foundation of which school he was afterwards placed.
His studies having been completed with great credit to himself, under Doctor George, the headmaster of Eton, in the year 1742 he succeeded to a scholarship of King's College, Cambridge, where his classical attainments were not neglected. He was admitted in 1745 to a fellowship of his college; and, in the next year, he took his degree of Bachelor of Arts. He now resided chiefly in the University, where his resistance to an innovation, attempted to be introduced into King's College, involved him in a dispute which occasioned the degree of Master to be refused him. That College had immemorially asserted for its members an exemption from the performance of those public exercises demanded of the rest of the University as a qualification for their degrees. This right was now questioned; and it was required of the Bachelor Fellows of King's, that they should compose and pronounce a Latin oration in the public schools. Such an infringement of privilege was not to be tamely endured. After some opposition made by Anstey, in common with the other junior Fellows, the exercise in dispute was at length exacted. But Anstey, who was the senior Bachelor of the year, and to whose lot it therefore fell first to deliver this obnoxious declamation, contrived to frame it in such a manner, as to cast a ridicule on the whole proceeding. He was accordingly interrupted in the recitation of it, and ordered to compose another; in which, at the same time that he pretended to exculpate himself from his former offence, he continued in the same vein of raillery. Though his degree was withheld in consequence of this pertinacity, yet it produced the desired effect of maintaining for the College its former freedom.
While an under-graduate, he had distinguished himself by his Latin verses, called the Tripos Verses; and, in 1748, by a poem, in the same language, on the Peace; printed in the Cambridge Collection.
His quarrel with the senior part of the University did not deprive him of his fellowship. He was still occasionally an inmate of the College, and did not cease to be a Fellow, till he came into the possession of the family estate at his mother's death, in 1754.
In two years after he married Anne, third daughter of Felix Calvert, Esq. of Albury-Hall, in Hertfordshire, and the sister of John Calvert, Esq. one of his most intimate friends, who was returned to that and many successive Parliaments, for the borough of Hertford. "By this most excellent lady," says his biographer, with the amiable warmth of filial tenderness, "who was allowed to possess every endowment of person, and qualification of mind and disposition which could render her interesting and attractive in domestic life, and whom he justly regarded as the pattern of every virtue, and the source of all his happiness, he lived in uninterrupted and undiminished esteem and affection for nearly half a century; and by her (who for the happiness of her family is still living) he had thirteen children, of whom eight only survive him."
This long period is little checquered with events. Having no taste for public business, and his circumstances being easy and independent, he passed the first fourteen years at his seat in Cambridgeshire, in an alternation of study and the recreations of rural life, in which he took much pleasure. But, at the end of that time, the loss of his sister gave a shock to his spirits, which they did not speedily recover. That she was a lady of superior talents is probable, from her having been admitted to a friendship and correspondence with Mrs. Montague, then Miss Robinson. The effect which this deprivation produced on him was such as to hasten the approach, and perhaps to aggravate the violence, of a bilious fever, for the cure of which by Doctor Heberden's advice, he visited Bath, and by the use of those waters was gradually restored to heath.
In 1766 he published his Bath Guide, from the press of Cambridge; a poem, which aiming at the popular follies of the day, and being written in a very lively and uncommon style, rapidly made its way to the favour of the public. At its first appearance, Gray, tho was not easily pleased, in a letter to one of his friends observed, that it was the only thing in fashion, and that it was a new and original kind of humour. Soon after the publication of the second edition, he sold the copy-right for two hundred pounds to Dodsley, and gave the profits previously accruing from the work to the General Hospital at Bath. Dodsley, about ten years after his purchase, candidly owned that the sale had been more productive to him than that of any other book in which he had before been concerned; and with much liberality restored the copy-right to the author.
In 1767 he wrote a short Elegy on the Death of the Marquis of Tavistock; and the Patriot, a Pindaric Epistle, intended to bring into discredit the practice of prize-fighting.
Not long after he was called to serve the office of high-sheriff for the county of Cambridge. In 1770 he quitted his seat there for a house which he purchased in Bath. The greater convenience of obtaining instruction for a numerous family, the education of which had hitherto been superintended by himself, was one of the motives that induced him to this change of habitation.
The Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers appearing soon after his arrival at Bath, and being by many imputed to a writer who had lately so much distinguished himself by his talent for satire, he was at considerable pains to disavow that publication; and by some lines containing a deserved compliment to his sovereign, gave a sufficient pledge for the honesty of his disclaimer.
In 1776, a poem entitled An Election Ball, founded on a theme proposed by Lady Miller, who held a sort of little poetical court at her villa at Batheaston, did not disappoint the expectations formed of the author of the Bath Guide. It was at first written in the Somersetshire dialect, but was afterwards judiciously stripped of its provincialism.
About 1786 he entertained a design of collecting his poems, and publishing them together. But the painful recollections which this task awakened, of those friends and companions of his youth who had been separated from him by death during so long a period, made him relinquish his intention. He committed, however, to the press, translations of some of Gay's Fables, which had been made into Latin, chiefly with a view to the improvement of his children; an Alcaic Ode to Doctor Jenner, on the discovery of the Cowpock; and several short poems in his own language. "His increasing years," to use the words of his son, "stole imperceptibly on the even tenor of his life, and gradually lessened the distance of his journey through it, without obscuring the serenity of the prospect. Unimpeded by sickness, and unclouded by sorrow, or any serious misfortune, his life was a
life of temperance, of self-denial, and of moderation, in all things; and of great regularity. He rose early in the morning, ante diem poscens chartas, and was constant on horseback at his usual hour, and in all seasons. His summers were uniformly passed at Cheltenham, with his family, during the latter part of his life; and upon his return to Bath in the autumn, he fell habitually into the same unruffled scenes of domestic ease and tranquillity, rendered every day more joyous and interesting to him by the increase of his family circle, and the enlargement of his hospitable table; and by many circumstances and occurrences connected with the welfare of his children, which gave him infinite delight and satisfaction."
At the beginning of 1805, he experienced a sudden and general failure of his bodily faculties, and a correspondent depressure of mind. The little confidence he placed in the power of medicine made him reluctantly comply with the wishes of his friends, that he should take the opinion of Doctor Haygarth. Yet he was not without hope of alleviation to his complaints from change of air; and, therefore, removed from Bath to the house of his son-in-law, Mr. Bosanquet, in Wiltshire. Here having at first revived a little, he soon relapsed, and declining gradually, expired in the eighty-first year of his age, without apparent suffering, in the possession of his intellectual powers, and, according to the tender wish of Pindar for one of his patrons [Greek characters] in the midst of his children.
He was buried in the parish church of Walcot, in the city of Bath, in the same vault with his fourth daughter the wife of Rear-Admiral Sotheby, and her two infant children.
A cenotaph has been erected to his memory among the poets of his country in Westminster Abbey, by his eldest son, the Rev. Christopher Anstey, with the following inscription [omitted]. To this there is an encomium added, which its prolixity hinders me from inserting.
A painter and a poet were, perhaps, never more similar to each other in their talents than the contemporaries Bunbury and Anstey. There is in both an admirable power of seizing the ludicrous and the grotesque in their descriptions of persons and incidents in familiar life; and this accompanied by an elegance which might have seemed scarcely compatible with that power. There is in both an absence of any extraordinary elevation or vigour; which we do not regret, because we can hardly conceive but that their would be less pleasing if they were in any respect different from what they are. Each possesses a perfect facility and command over his own peculiar manner, which has secured him from having any successful imitator. Yet as they were both employed in representing the fortuitous and transient follies, which the face of society had put on in their own day, rather than in portraying the broader and more permanent distinctions of character and manners, it may be questioned whether they can be much relished out of their own country, and whether even there, the effect must not be weakened as fatuity and absurdity shall discover new methods of fastening ridicule upon themselves. They border more nearly on farce than comedy. They have neither of them any thing of fancy, that power which can give a new and higher interest to the laughable itself, by mingling it with the marvellous, and which has placed Aristophanes so far above all his followers.
When Anstey ventures out of his own walk, he does not succeed so well. It is strange that he should have attempted a paraphrase of St. Paul's eulogium on Charity, after the same task had been so ably executed by Prior. If there is anything, however, that will bear repetition, in a variety of forms, it is that passage of scripture; and his verses though not equal to Prior's, may still be read with pleasure.
The Farmer's Daughter is a plain and affecting tale.
His Latin verses might well have been spared. In the translation of Gray's Elegy there is a more than usual crampness; occasioned, perhaps, by his having rendered into hexameters the stanzas of four lines, to which the elegiac measure of the Romans would have been better suited. The Epistola Poetica Familiaris, addressed to his friend Mr. Bampfylde, has more freedom. His scholarship did him better service when it suggested to him passages in the poets of antiquity, which he has parodied with singular happiness. Such is that imitated in one of Simkin's Letters:
Do the gods such a noble ambition inspire?
Or a god do we make of each ardent desire?
Dine hunc ardorem mentibus addunt,
Euryale? an sua cuique deus fit dira cupido ?
a parody that is not the less diverting, from its having been before gravely made by Tasso:
O dio l'inspira,
O l'uom del suo voler suo dio si face.
On the whole, he has the rare merit of having discovered a mode of entertaining his readers, which belongs exclusively to himself.