WILLIAM MASON, the son of the vicar of Trinity Hall, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was born there in 1725. His father seems to have been his early instructor, and, as he acknowledges in an Epistolary Address, written in his twenty-first year, indulged his youthful fancy in its bent for poetry and painting. In 1742-3, be was sent to St. John's College, Cambridge, where he graduated M.A.; but little is recorded of his early academical career, except that he published his Monody to the Memory of Pope, in 1747. In the same year he became acquainted with Gray, who had just migrated from Peter House to Pembroke Hall, and through the interest of Gray, he writes, "I have had the honour, since I came here last, to be elected by the fellows of Pembroke, into their society; but the master, who has the power of a negative, has made use of it on this occasion;" and his election, in consequence, was not confirmed until 1749. In the previous year, he had published his poem of Isis, to which we have alluded in our memoir of Thomas Warton, by whom it was successfully answered. In 1752, he published his Elfrida, a dramatic poem, which was afterwards adapted to the stage, and produced at Covent Garden, by Colman, with music by Dr. Arne, but met with little success, which was not increased on a subsequent representation, with the authors own alterations. On the first occasion he is said to have been so much offended with the alterations, that he meditated retaliating, in a very angry address to Colman; who, on his part, threatened to introduce a chorus of Greek washer-women into some future stage entertainment. In the year 1754, he took holy orders, and he was, shortly after, through the interest of the Earl of Holdernesse, appointed a king's chaplain, and preferred to the living of Aston. The reputation his odes in his Elfrida had acquired for him, in that species of composition, encouraged him, in 1756, to publish four productions of the same class, entitled Memory, Independency, Melancholy, and the Fate of Tyranny; which, instead, however, of being favourably received, as he had anticipated, were criticised with great severity; and Colman and Lloyd published two excellent parodies on one of them. On the death of Cibber, the poet laureate, he was proposed as his successor; but, instead of an offer of the appointment, Lord John Cavendish apologised to him, on the ground, that, "being in orders, he was thought, merely on that account, less eligible for the office than a layman." In noticing this circumstance in his Life of Whitehead, he says, "a reason so politely put, I was glad to hear assigned; and if I had thought it a weak one, they who know me will readily believe that I am the last man in the world who would have attempted to controvert it." The opinion is, that if expected to fulfil its duties, he would not have esteemed himself honoured, by the appointment; for though by his mediation the office was tendered to his friend Gray, it was "with permission to hold it as a mere sinecure." The fame he had apparently lost by the severity with which his odes were handled, he amply recovered by the publication of his Caractacus, in 1759, a dramatic poem, in the style of his Elfrida, but with more poetry and passion, and with touches of nature, which, although sometimes spoiled by useless expletives, are, in general, just, natural, and affecting. In 1776, it was arranged and produced at Covent Garden, where it was received with considerable applause, but it has obtained no permanent rank upon the stage. He, in the interval, (in 1762,) published three elegies, which have been pronounced elegant, tender, and correct, beyond similar productions of any of his cotemporaries. These, with all his former pieces, except the Installation Ode, and the Isis, were collected and published in one volume in 1764, prefaced by an exquisite dedicatory sonnet to his patron, the Earl of Holdernesse. In the same year the king preferred him to the canonry and prebend of Driffield, together with the precentorship to the see of Bristol, all attached to the cathedral church of York. At this time his principal residence was at Aston, where his literary pursuits did not prevent him from most assiduously discharging his clerical duties. In September, 1765, he married a daughter of William Sherman, Esq., of Kingston-upon-Hull; but she died of a decline, at Bristol, in 1767, during which interval, it is said, he had little intermission in watching the progress of the consumption which terminated her life: and the lines he wrote on the occasion were so full of tender regret, that it would not be easy to discover a more touching effusion in the whole range of elegiac poetry.
In 1772, he published the first part of his famous work on the English Garden, a production, says Warton, in which "didactic poetry is brought to perfection, by the happy combination of judicious precepts with the most elegant ornaments of language and imagery." The work was read with avidity; and the remaining books were published at intervals sufficiently distant to admit all the niceties of polish and correction, which he so studiously attended to. In 1775, he published his Life of Gray, who had left him all his books, manuscripts, &c., and a legacy of £500. The work was written in an engaging manner, and as impartially as could be expected from a friend and legatee; it went through several editions, and is still popular. He now turned his attention to politics; and his progress in his opinions are an admirable exposition of the vicissitudes to which eager assertors of theoretic liberty are subject. His political creed he published in 1779, in the shape of an Ode to a Naval Officer of Great Britain, written immediately after the trial of Admiral Keppel. He disapproved of the conduct of the British government towards America; thought the decision of parliament on the Middlesex election a violation of the rights of the people; and gave such offence at court, that he found it convenient to resign his chaplaincy to the king. His taste for the arts led him very early in life to undertake, merely as a school exercise, it is said, to translate Du Fresnoy's Art of Painting; but finding it more difficult than he had imagined, he laid it by, and it would probably never have appeared, had not Sir Joshua Reynolds requested a sight of it, and offered to illustrate it by a series of notes. It was accordingly published in 1783, and was very favourably received. To this succeeded his last poetical publication, entitled A Secular Ode in Commemoration of the Glorious Revolution of 1688; and shortly after, he wrote the Life of his friend, William Whitehead. In 1795, he printed his Essay, Historical and Critical, on English Church Music, a work deserving of more attention than it has received. At the age of seventy-two, up to which time he had enjoyed robust health, he received a hurt in his foot, while stepping into his carriage, which ended in mortification, and produced his death on the 7th of April, 1797.
When Mason was at Cambridge, he was described, by Gray, as a young man "of much fancy, little judgment, and a good deal of modesty;" "a good and well-meaning creature," he adds, "but in simplicity a child: he reads little or nothing, writes abundance, and that with a design to make a fortune by it; is a little vain, but in so harmless and comical a way, that it does not offend; a little ambitious, but withal so ignorant of the world and its ways, that this does not hurt him in one's opinion; so sincere and undisguised, that no mind with a spark of generosity would ever think of hurting him, he lies so open to injury; but so indolent, that if he cannot overcome this habit, all his good qualities will signify nothing at all." In many of these respects, his acquaintance with the world materially altered his character; but, upon the whole, he may be said to have resembled the portrait, with little variation, to the end of his life.
His knowledge of music was very accurate; Dr. Burney observes, that he "was not only an excellent poet and an able divine, but a dilletanti painter and musician; and in the last capacities an acute critic." And Dr. Gleig, in an elaborate article on that subject, in his Supplement to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, goes so far as to attribute to him the improvement, if not the invention, of the piano-forte. As a poet, his name has been so frequently coupled with that of Gray, and their merits have been supposed to approach so nearly, that what has been said of the one, will, in some degree, apply to the other. His compositions have all the variety of a fertile invention; and his correctness is almost proverbial. In the edition of English Poets, published in 1810, it is said, that Mason left his poems, and some unpublished works, for the benefit of a charitable institution.