1796 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. Samuel Bishop

Thomas Clare, from Memoir in Bishop, Poetical Works (1796) 1:xiii-xxxi.



SAMUEL BISHOP was descended from a respectable family. His father, George, was born at Hollway, in the parish of Castock in Dorsetshire; at which place was the family estate. He married Mary Palmer, daughter of Mr. Samuel Palmer of Southover near Lewes; a descendant of one of the younger branches of the antient family of the Palmers of Sussex. He appears to have quitted Hollway early in life; and to have resided chiefly in London, or in the neighbourhood.

Samuel, his eldest son, was born in St John's Street, in that city, on the 21st of September (old style) in the year 1731. He was tender, and delicate, in his bodily constitution; yet gave early indications of uncommon capacity, and application. The progress he made in learning, even during infancy, appears remarkable, from an anecdote often mentioned by him; that he was called, when only nine years old, to construe the Greek Testament for a lad of fourteen, the son of an opulent neighbour. His father, who was well-instructed himself, and distinguished by sound judgment, attended carefully to his education; and noting the dawn of genius in his mind, determined that he should receive all the advantages of instruction, and literary improvement, which a public school can afford. He was accordingly entered at Merchant-Taylors' School, London, on the 6th of June 1743 when he was between eleven and twelve years of age.

From that time there appeared in him strong evidences of a marked character, and peculiar designation of mind. He soon became conscious of his own powers: he rose above his fellows; and attracted the notice and approbation of his masters. He read with avidity; and composed with success. His first essays, however imperfect, shewed great natural abilities, and an original vein of wit. The applause he obtained, encouraged him to pursue his studies with redoubled assiduity. History and poetry, I believe, at first divided his attention: though the last soon became the predominant impulse of his mind. He not only acquired that knowledge of the Latin and Greek Classics, which is usually obtained in a public seminary, but also became intimately acquainted with the best authors in our own Language and some of his writings prove that he had perused Milton, Dryden, Pope, and Swift, at an early age, with much discrimination and critical judgment.

When he was far advanced in the upper form of the school, the late Rev. James Townley, then a very young man, was elected under-master. Possessed of a brilliant imagination himself, he soon observed the expanding powers of genius in Mr. Bishop: and an intimacy commenced between them, which continued, uninterrupted on either fide, till the day of Mr. Townley's decease.

Mr. Townley was a man of the most pleasing manners, and the happiest talents for conversation. Never overstepping the bounds of decorum, never forgetting the respect due to his own character, or the feelings of others, he enlivened his discourse by perpetual sallies of genuine and inoffensive wit. An agreeable writer, an elegant scholar, and a skilful judge of literary excellence, he certainly contributed to form the taste of our young Author; who was proud to be noticed by him, and to be permitted to assist in writing the exercises, for the days of public examination. Those which he spoke himself, were of his own composition.

The head-master of Merchant-Taylors' at that time was Mr. Criche, a diligent teacher, and a well-grounded scholar; though marked by some singularities of character. Mr. Bishop often mentioned with gratitude the improvement he had received under the instruction of that worthy man.

On the 11th of June 1750, Mr. Bishop was elected to St. John's College, Oxford; and admitted a Scholar of that society, on the 25th of the same month. He was happy in being placed under the tuition of Dr. Fry, who with considerable learning, united a knowledge of the world, and the manners of a gentleman. He soon distinguished Mr. Bishop by particular regard; directed his course of reading with friendly solicitude; and recommended to him the continual study of the ancients, as the most correct models of composition: advice which Mr. Bishop followed with strict attention, and always acknowledged with grateful recollection.

During his residence at college, he not only corrected his taste by reading with judgment; but also improved the powers of his mind by habitual practice in composition. Besides several poetical pieces, with which he supplied his friends, he wrote also a great number of college exercises, hymns, paraphrases of scripture, translations from the ancients, and imitations of the moderns.

He was admitted Fellow of St. John's, in June 1753. And on the 24th of April in the year 1754, he took the degree of Bachelor of Arts. About the same time he was ordained Deacon; and Priest, I believe, in the following year.

He was then settled in the curacy of Headley in Surry; whither he had removed on account of a declining state of health. Change of air soon restored him. He continued to divide his time between Headley, and the university, till the year 1758, when he took the degree of Master of Arts, on the 11th of April.

He quitted Headley in the same year; and came to reside entirely in London, on his being elected under-master of Merchant-Taylors' School on the 26th of July. He was appointed also curate of St. Mary Abchurch; and some time afterwards chosen lecturer of St. Christopher-le-Stocks; a church since taken down for the enlargement of the Bank.

In 1762, his friend Mr. Townley, who had been elected head-master two years before, introduced the acting of Latin plays, as an exercise for the boys. The Eunuch, the Troades of Seneca abridged, and the Ignoramus cut down to a farce, were represented at Merchant-Taylors' several nights. Garrick gave the scenery; Bishop furnished some of the prologues and epilogues; and Townley's admirable taste directed the whole. These theatrical exhibitions, though much applauded, were continued no more than two seasons; the Merchant-Taylors' Company disapproving of them, as likely to draw the attention of the Scholars from more useful pursuits, and more important acquirements .

In this year also he published an Ode to the Earl of Lincoln on the Duke of Newcastle's retirement. It appeared without his name; and was not so much designed to attract public attention, as to conciliate the favor of a noble family, who honored with friendly regard the father of the lady, to whom Mr. Bishop then paid his addresses, and who afterwards became Mrs. Bishop. It failed of the desired effect from his reluctance to obtrude himself upon the notice of the great.

In the year 1763, he was married at St. Austyn's, Watling-street, to Mary Palmer, one of the daughters of Mr. Joseph Palmer, of Old Malling near Lewes, who was descended from one of the elder branches of the family of the Palmers already mentioned. His affection and esteem for this lady continued through life with unabating force. What opinion he formed of her excellent qualities, the world will see in his writings. By her he had only one child, a daughter now living.

On his marriage he fettled in Scots-yard, Bush-lane, and there, during the winter of 1763 and 1764, he wrote several essays and poems, which appeared in a periodical publication, called The Ladies Club, — printed in the Ledger. Among these was an Ode on the Queen's birth-day; distinguished for tender sensibility, united with elegant simplicity of expression. The amiable character of her Majesty had impressed his mind with veneration: and he has taken various opportunities of paying the tribute of respect, so justly due to her virtues.

His next work was one volume in quarto, consisting of Latin poems, in part translated, and in part original, intituled Feriae poeticae; published by subscription, and of course with his name. For a work of this kind he could not expect a general fare. Tho' remarkable for neat and elegant Latinity, it was known only to his friends, and a few literary characters. It was ever Mr. Bishop's lot to undertake that, which was most laborious, and least beneficial.

His intimacy with Woodward, the comedian, who had been educated at Merchant-Taylors', induced him frequently to turn his thoughts towards writing for the stage. And about this time he was persuaded by his friend's solicitations to offer to the managers The Fairy Benison; an interlude in imitation of Shakespeare, intended as a compliment to the royal family on the first appearance of the Prince of Wales at the theatre. The manuscript was returned for alteration. Either the Author grew tired of the subject; or in the meanwhile some favored competitor stept in. The Fairy Benison was not acted. Whether from failure in this attempt, or diffidence of his own abilities, I know not; but he relinquished also a design, which had engaged much of his attention, the writing a tragedy for representation. The plot was founded on some subject of the English history, and I understood that a part had been finished; but not a fragment remains.

These are the only instances to my knowledge, in which Mr. Bishop attempted to apply his singular endowments to the advancement of his own reputation and fortune. From this period he devoted his talents to the amusement of a few select friends, and the laborious duties of his profession; which he continued to discharge with the utmost fidelity, during the prime of his life. His love of the school induced him even to decline two very advantageous offers, which were made him; the one was the undertaking to educate the sons of a nobleman, with a handsome salary, the accommodation of a house in his lordship's park, and a promise of preferment; the other was the appointment of master to the public school at Bristol, obtained for him by his friend Dr. Fry, then president of St. John's, who was seriously displeased by his refusal.

In January 1783, he was elected head-master of Merchant-Taylors: how much to the reputation of the school, and the benefit of the public, will not be speedily forgotten. He then removed from New Basinghill-street, where he had resided some years, to Suffolk-lane; and about the same time took a house at Golder's-hill, in the parish of Hendon, Middlesex; where he and his family might occasionally retire for change of scene and air. Mrs. Bishop's state of health appeared then very precarious; and his own began to fail. His mind indeed was perpetually engrossed by one object. After he became head-master, the allowed himself no time for relaxation, or exercise. No personal comfort or enjoyment was ever suffered to come in competition with the credit of the school. The recess was often given up to the preparation for an approaching day of examination. For the election-day alone he generally supplied from the fertile resources of his own mind, above one hundred different compositions.

He had the happiness however to see his merits acknowledged by his patrons the Merchant-Taylors' Company, who in the year 1789 presented him to the living of St. Martin Outwich, London, as a reward for his long and faithful services. The Bishop of Bangor a few years before had obtained for him, from the Earl of Aylesford, the rectory of Ditton in Kent. The Bishop, who had known him for many years, had remarked his learning and virtues, and ever honored him with the most friendly regard.

His usual diffidence prevented him from availing himself of the opportunity this connection might have afforded, of introducing to Lord Aylesford's more particular notice, those qualities which would have so strongly recommended him to a nobleman of his lordship's benevolent disposition, and highly cultivated understanding.

The ample income Mr. Bishop now possessed, he did not long enjoy. Bodily infirmities grew fast upon him. He was worn by repeated and. severe fits of the gout (inherited from his father, whose constitution was broken by that disorder before he was thirty); he began to desire rest and quiet; and he found the labour of his employment too great for his strength: yet his anxious solicitude for the welfare of the school, made him unwilling to relinquish his situation. In the mean time, all those who loved him observed with concern, that his health was gradually declining.

At the latter end of the year 1794, he sustained a heavy loss in the death of a most worthy man, and his dearest friend, Mr. Dickins, one of the Prothonotaries of the court of Common Pleas; with whom he had lived in habits of the most cordial affection, from the time they had known each other at college. This event, entirely unforeseen, was a severe shock; particularly to a mind, already weakened by illness. In the beginning of 1795, he was alarmed by an oppression upon his breath, which came on with great violence. It gave way in some degree to the power of medicine: but his strength diminished rapidly, during the spring; and his situation on. the election-day in June, was, I believe, too visible to all who were present. Dr. Pitcairn, who attended him, from that time to the day of his decease, had no hope of his recovery from the beginning. His disorder was water on the chest. Of this it was not thought necessary to apprise him, though he had sufficient intimations, what the event might probably be. He took occasion to express the sincerity of his religious faith; and prayed fervently to the Almighty, that he would extend protection to his family. In regard to his own future state he appeared perfectly at ease. He was confined only a few days; his mind was very little affected by delirium; and "brief bursts of splendor" marked the brilliancy of his imagination to the last. He felt, no violent pains, but a great degree of that restlessness, which usually precedes dissolution. The only alleviation he appeared to receive in this state of suffering, proceeded from the affectionate attention of his wife, and daughter. Mrs. Bishop's presence inspired him constant delight; and he often alluded to a composition of his own, in which he had said, that his last sigh should breath applause of her. On the the morning of the 17th of November 1795, he concluded a life, devoted to the duties of his office, and the service of the public.

Mr. Bishop was in stature about the middle size; well proportioned, and well formed; except that his chest was narrow; which occasioned a stoop an his shoulders, and a depression of his head. His face was what would be oftener called pleasing, than handsome. His eyes were dark, brilliant, and penetrating: their natural lustre was heightened by the perpetual quickness of their motion; and their expression was improved by the flexibility of his bows; which were black, though not prominent; and marked strong sense, rather than severity; while the smile of good humour generally played round his mouth. The whole countenance was highly animated, and spoke the intelligent and candid character of his mind. It shewed undisguised every internal emotion: appearing somewhat terrible, when clouded by anger; delightfully comic, when exhilarated by mirth; but most interesting, when perfectly calm and placid....