WILLIAM MASON was the son of the vicar of St. Trinity, in the East-Riding of Yorkshire. He was entered of St. John's College, Cambridge, in his eighteenth year, having already, as, he informs us, blended some attention to painting and poetry with his youthful studies
— soon my hand the mimic colours spread,
And vainly strove to snatch a double wreath
From Fame's unfading laurels.
English Garden, B. 1.
At the university, he distinguished himself by his Monody on the death of Pope, which was published in 1747. Two years afterwards he obtained his degree of master of arts, and a fellowship of Pembroke-hall. For his fellowship he was indebted to the interest of Gray, whose acquaintance with him was intimate and lasting; and who describes him, at Cambridge, as a young man of much fancy, little judgment, and a good deal of modesty; in simplicity a child, a little vain, but sincere, inoffensive, and indolent. At a later period of his life, Thomas Warton gave him the very opposite character of a "buckram man."
He was early attached to Whig principles, and wrote his poem of Isis, as an attack on the Jacobitism of Oxford. When Thomas Warton produced his Triumph of Isis, in reply, the two poets had the liberality to compliment the productions of each other; nor were their rival strains much worthy of mutual envy. But Mason, though he was above envy, could not detach his vanity from the subject. One evening, on entering Oxford with a friend, he expressed his happiness that it was dark. His friend not perceiving any advantage in the circumstance, "What!" said Mason, "don't you remember my Isis?"
In 1753 he published his Elfrida, in which the chorus is introduced after the model of the Greek drama. The general unsuitableness of that venerable appendage of the ancient theatre for the modern stage seems to be little disputed. The two predominant features of the Greek chorus were, its music and its abstract morality. Its musical character could not be revived, unless the science of music were by some miracle to be made a thousand years younger, and unless modern ears were restored to a taste for its youthful simplicity. If music were as freely mixed with our tragedy as with that of Greece, the effect would speedily be, to make harmony predominate over words, sound over sense, as in modern operas, and the result would be, not a resemblance to the drama of Greece, but a thing as opposite to it as possible. The moral use of the ancient chorus is also superseded by the nature of modern dramatic imitation, which incorporates sentiment and reflection so freely with the speeches of the represented characters, as to need no suspension of the dialogue for the sake of lyrical bursts of morality or religious invocation.
The chorus was the oldest part of Greek tragedy; and though Mr. Schlegel has rejected the idea of its having owed its preservation on the Greek stage to its antiquity, I cannot help thinking that that circumstance was partly the cause of its preservation. Certainly the Greek drama, having sprung from a choral origin, would always retain a character congenial with the chorus. The Greek drama preserved a religious and highly rhythmical character. It took its rise from a popular solemnity, and continued to exhibit the public, as it were, personified in a distinct character upon the stage. In this circumstance we may perhaps recognize a trait of the democratic spirit of Athenian manners, which delighted to give the impartial spectators a sort of image and representative voice upon the stage. Music was then simple; the dramatic representation of character and action, though bold, was simple; and this simplicity left in the ancient stage a space for the chorus, which it could not obtain (permanently) on that of the moderns. Our music is so complicated, that when it is allied with words it overwhelms our attention to words. Again, the Greek drama gave strong and decisive outlines of character and passion, but not their minute shadings; our drama gives all the play of moral physiognomy. The great and awful characters of a Greek tragedy spoke in pithy texts, without commentaries of sentiment; while the flexible eloquence of the moderns supplies both text and commentary. Every moral feeling, calm or tumultuous, is expressed in our soliloquies or dialogues. The Greeks made up for the want of soliloquy, and for the short simplicity of their dialogue, which often consisted in interchanges of single lines, by choral speeches, which commented on the passing action, explained occurring motives, and soothed or deepened the moral impressions arising out of the piece. With us everything is different. The dramatic character is brought, both physically and morally, so much nearer to our perception, with all its fluctuating motives and feelings, as to render it as unnecessary to have interpreters of sentiment or motives, such as the chorus, to magnify, or soothe, or prolong our moral impressions, as to have buskins to increase the size, or brazen vases to reverberate the voice of the speaker. Nor has the mind any preparation for such juries of reflectors, and processions of confidential advisers.
There is, however, no rule without a possible exception. To make the chorus an habitual part of the modern drama would be a chimerical attempt. There are few subjects in which every part of a plot may not be fulfilled by individuals. Yet it is easy to conceive a subject, in which it may be required, or at least desirable to incorporate a group of individuals under one common part. And where this grouping shall arise not capriciously, but necessarily out of the nature of the subject, our minds will not be offended by the circumstance, but will thank the dramatist for an agreeable novelty. In order to reconcile us, however, to this plural personage, or chorus, it is necessary that the individuals composing it should be knit not only by a natural but dignified coalition. The group, in fact, will scarcely please or interest the imagination unless it has a solemn or interesting community of character. Such are the Druids in Caractacus; and, perhaps, the chorus of Israelites in Racine's Esther. In such a case even a modern audience would be likely to suspend their love of artificial harmony, and to listen with delight to simple music and choral poetry, where the words were not drowned in the music. At all events, there would exist a fair apology for introducing a chorus, from the natural and imposing bond of unity belonging to the group. But this apology will by no means apply to the tragedy of Elfrida. The chorus is there composed of persons who have no other community of character than their being the waiting women of a baroness. They are too unimportant personages to be a chorus. They have no right to form so important a ring around Elfrida, in the dramatic hemisphere; and the imagination is puzzled to discover any propriety in those young ladies, who, according to history, ought to have been good Christians striking up a hymn, in Harewood Forest, to the rising sun: "Hail to the living light, &c." In other respects the tragedy of Elfrida is objectionable. It violates the traditional truth of history, without exhibiting a story sufficiently powerful to triumph over our historical belief. The whole concludes with Elfrida's self-devotion to widowhood; but no circumstance is contrived to assure us, that, like many other afflicted widows, she may not marry again. An irreverend and ludicrous, but involuntary, recollection is apt to cross the mind respecting the fragility of widows' vows — "Vows made in pain, as violent and void." Elfrida was acted at Covent Garden in 1772 under the direction of Colman, who got it up with splendid scenery, and characteristic music, composed by Dr. Arne; but he made some alterations in the text, which violently offended its author. Mason threatened the manager with an appeal to the public; and the manager, in turn, threatened the poet with introducing a chorus of Grecian washerwomen on the stage. At the distance of several years it was revived at the same theatre, with the author's own alterations, but with no better success. The play, in spite of its theatrical failure, was still acknowledged to possess poetical beauties.
In 1754 Mason went into orders; and, through the patronage of Lord Holdernesse, was appointed one of the chaplains to the king. He was also domestic chaplain to the nobleman now mentioned, and accompanied him to Germany, where he speaks of having met with his friend Whitehead, the future laureate, at Hanover, in the year 1755. About the same time he received the living of Aston. He again courted the attention of the public in 1756, with four Odes, the themes of which were Independence, Memory, Melancholy, and the Fall of Tyranny. Smollett and Shenstone, in their strains to Independence and Memory have certainly outshone our poet, as well as anticipated him in those subjects. The glittering and alliterative style of those four odes of Mason was severely parodied by Lloyd and Colman; and the public, it is said, were more entertained with the parodies than with the originals. On the death of Cibber, he was proposed to succeed to the laurel; but he received an apology for its not being offered to him because he was a clergyman. The apology was certainly both an absurd and false one; for Warton, the succeeding laureate, was in orders. There seems, however, to be no room for doubting the sincerity of Mason's declaration, that he was indifferent about the office.
His reputation was considerably raised by the appearance of Caractacus, in 1759. Many years after its publication it was performed at Covent Garden with applause; though the impression it produced was not sufficient to make it permanent on the stage. This chef-d'oeuvre of Mason may not exhibit strong or minute delineation of human character; but it has enough of dramatic interest to support our admiration of virtue and our suspense and emotion in behalf of its cause: and it leads the imagination into scenes, delightfully cast amidst the awfulness of superstition, the venerable antiquity of history. and the untamed grandeur of external nature. In this last respect it may be preferred to the tragedy of Beaumont and Fletcher on the same subject; that it brings forward the persons and abodes of the Druids with more magnificent effect. There is so much of the poet's eye displayed in the choice of his ground, and in the outline of his structure, that Mason seems to challenge something like a generous prepossession of the mind in judging of his drama. It is the work of a man of genius., that calls for regret on its imperfections. Even in the lyrical passages, which are most of all loaded with superfluous ornament and alliteration, we meet with an enthusiasm that breaks out from amidst encumbering faults. The invocation of the Druids to Snowdon, for which the mind is so well prepared by the preceding scene, begins with peculiar harmony,
Mona on Snowdon calls:
Hear, thou king of mountains, hear!
and the ode on which Gray bestowed so much approbation, opens with a noble personification and an impetuous spirit
Hark! heard ye not yon footstep dread,
That shook the earth with thundering tread?
'Twas Death. In haste the warrior past,
High tower'd his helmed head.
In 1764 he published a collection of his works in one volume, containing four elegies, which had been written since the appearance of Caractacus. The language of those elegies is certainly less stiffly embroidered than that of his odes; and they contain some agreeable passages, such as Dryden's character in the first; the description of a friend's happiness in country retirement in the second; and of Lady Coventry's beauty in the fourth; but they are not altogether free from the "buckram," and are studies of the head more than the heart.
In 1762 he was appointed by his friend Mr. Montagu to the canonry and prebend of Driffield, in the cathedral of York, and by Lord Holdernesse to the precentorship of the church; but his principal residence continued still to be at Aston, where he indulged his taste in adorning the grounds near his parsonage, and was still more honourably distinguished by an exemplary fulfilment of his clerical duties. In 1765 he married a Miss Sherman, the daughter of William Sherman, Esq. of Kingston-upon-Hull. From the time of his marriage with this amiable woman, he had unhappily little intermission from anxiety in watching the progress of a consumption which carried her off at the end of two years, at the early age of twenty-eight. He has commemorated her virtues in a well-known and elegant sepulchral inscription.
By the death of his beloved friend Gray, he was left a legacy of £500, together with the books and MSS. of the poet. His Memoirs and Letters of Gray were published in 1775, upon a new plan of biography, which has since been followed in several instances. The first book of his English Garden made its appearance in 1772; the three subsequent parts came out in 1777, 1779, and 1782. The first book contains a few lines beautifully descriptive of woodland scenery.
Many a glade is found,
The haunt of wood-gods only; where, if Art
E'er dared to tread, 'twas with unsandal'd foot,
Printless, as if the place were holy ground.
There may be other fine passages in this poem but if there be, I confess that the somniferous effect of the whole has occasioned to me the fault or misfortune of overlooking them. What value it may possess, as an Art of Ornamental Gardening, I do not presume to judge; but if this be the perfection of didactic poetry, as Warton pronounced it, it would seem to be as difficult to teach art by poetry, as to teach poetry by art. He begins the poem by invoking Simplicity; but she never comes. Had her power condescended to visit him, I think she would have thrown a less "dilettante" air upon his principal episode, in which the tragic event of a woman expiring suddenly of a broken heart, is introduced by a conversation between her rival lovers about "Palladian bridges, Panini's pencil, and Piranesi's hand." At all events, Simplicity would not have allowed the hero of the story to construct his barns in imitation of a Norman fortress; and to give his dairy the resemblance of an ancient abbey; nor the poet himself to address a flock of sheep with as much solemnity as if he had been haranguing a senate.
During the whole progress of the American war, Mason continued unchanged in his Whig principles; and took an active share in the association for parliamentary reform, which began to be formed in the year 1779. Finding that his principles gave offence at court, he resigned his office of chaplainship to the king. His Muse was indebted to those politics for a new and lively change in her character. In the pieces which he wrote under the name of Malcolm Mac Gregor, there is a pleasantry that we should little expect from the solemn hand which had touched the harp of the Druids. Thomas Warton was the first to discover, or at least to announce, him as the author of the Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers; and Mason's explanation left the suspicion uncontradicted.
Among his accomplishments, his critical knowledge of painting must have been considerable, for his translation of Du Fresnoy's poem on that art, which appeared in 1783, was finished at the particular suggestion of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who furnished it with illustrative notes. One of his last publications was, An Ode on the Commemoration of the British Revolution. It was his very last song in praise of liberty. Had Soame Jenyns, whom our poet rallies so facetiously for his Toryism, lived to read his palinode after the French Revolution, he might have retorted on him the lines which Mason put in the mouth of Dean Tucker, in his Dialogue of the Dean and the Squire,
Squire Jenyns, since with like intent
We both have writ on government.
But he showed that his philanthropy had suffered no abatement from the change of his politics, by delivering and publishing an eloquent sermon against the slave trade. In the same year that gave occasion to his Secular Ode, he condescended to be the biographer of his friend Whitehead, and the editor of his works.
Mason's learning in the arts was of no ordinary kind. He composed several devotional pieces of music, for the choir of York cathedral; and Dr. Burney speaks of an Historical and Critical Essay on English Church Music, which he published in 1795, in very respectful terms. It is singular, however, that the fault ascribed by the same authority to his musical theory, should be that of Calvinistical plainness. In verse he was my Lord Peter; in his taste for sacred music, Dr. Burney compares him to Jack, in the Tale of a Tub.
His death was occasioned, in his seventy-second year, by an accidental hurt on his leg, which he received in stepping out of a carriage, and which produced an incurable mortification.