WILLIAM MASON was the son of a clergyman, and born at Kingston upon Hull, in 1725. At his native town he received his early education; and at the proper age, was entered of St. John's College, Cambridge. Here he took the degree of Bachelor of Arts, and produced some of his first works, which gained him both reputation and friends. With Gray in particular he became very intimate; and to the credit of these gentlemen, no misunderstanding interrupted the union they had contracted.
In 1748, Mason published his Isis an elegy, which Warton admirably answered by his Triumph of Isis. Next year, he was elected a fellow of Pembroke Hall, through the interest of his friend Gray; and taking orders in 1754, was appointed chaplain to the king, afterwards presented to the valuable living of Aston, and in the sequel, to the preceptorship of York, which leading his mind to church music, he published a volume on the subject.
Gray appointed him one of his executors, and Mason with affectionate friendship erected a literary monument to his memory, by writing his life, and editing his letters.
Elfrida and Caractacus, written on the model of the ancient Greek dramas, attest the learning and poetical powers of Mason; and his English Garden shews his acquaintance with taste and design, though it breathes too much of a party spirit, which it might be supposed could scarcely have found a place in such a subject. In fact, Mason, at one period of his life, was a violent whig, which probably prevented his obtaining any high preferment in the church; but the atrocities committed during the French revolution cooled his ardor in the cause of imaginary liberty.
Mason married a lady of great beauty and merit in 1765, and two years after had the affliction to lose her by a decline. His epitaph on her tomb is one of the most beautiful in the English language: and indeed several of his minor poems are written in the true spirit of enthusiasm, as the ample specimens we have produced will prove.
He died in 1797 of a mortification in his leg, occasioned by a bruise received in stepping out of his carriage.
This excellent poet may be considered as the last of the Anglo-Grecian school, of which Gray was an illustrious member. If the latter excelled in sublimity, the first has the claim of superior sweetness, and the muse of Mason has the merit of exhibiting in his different dramatic poems, and that in a very eminent degree, the contrasted properties of softness and energy: and though they are perhaps, too rigorously constructed on a model unsuitable to the genius of an English stage, to succeed in representation, they are calculated to afford unqualified delight in the closet: and will stand or fall with the language which they embellish. Nor are Mason's smaller pieces less entitled to praise. His elegies in particular are replete with beauty of sentiment and versification; and all his writings are characterised by chastity, tenderness, classic purity, and an elegant taste.
As a clergyman, Mason is said to have conducted himself with exemplary propriety, and was a valuable acquisition to society, an enlightened companion, and accomplished scholar; yet there was something of formality in his manner, and an austere deportment, that rendered him rather the object of general awe than endearment.