1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir William Jones

John Nichols, in Literary Anecdotes of the XVIII Century (1812-15) 3:238-42.



Of his Father, a full account has been given in vol. I. p. 463. — The Son was born Sept. 28, 1746; and had scarcely reached his third year when, by the death of his father, he was left to the sole care of an excellent Mother, till 1753; when he was placed, under Dr. Thackeray, at Harrow school. At this famous seminary, Lord Teignmouth informs us, "he invented a political play, in which Dr. William Bennett, bishop of Cloyne, and the celebrated Dr. Parr, were his principal associates;" and Dr. Bennett informs us, that "great particularity of thinking, fondness for writing verses and plays of various kinds, and a degree of integrity and manly courage, distinguished him even at this period." By Dr. Summer, who became Master of the School in 1761, young Jones was particularly distinguished. In 1764 he was entered of University College, Oxford: where he shewed a peculiar particularity for Oriental literature. In the summer of 1765 he accepted the offer of private tutor to Lord Althorpe (the present Earl Spencer), then seven years old; and in 1766 obtained a Fellowship in his College; which (though not exceeding 100) appeared to him a sufficient provision, and a solid independence. His time was now divided between Oxford, London, Wimbledon, and Althorpe; and in 1767 he visited the Continent with the Spencer family; and in this short trip, acquired some knowledge of the German language. Before setting out, and in the 21st year of his age, he began his Commentary on Asiatic Poetry, in imitation of Dr. Lowth's Prelections at Oxford on the Sacred Poetry of the Hebrews; and soon after his return, in the winter of 1767, he nearly completed his Commentaries, transcribed an Asiatic Manuscript on Egypt and the Nile, and copied the Keys of the Chinese Language, which he wished to add to his other acquisitions. In 1768, when the King of Denmark visited this country, Mr. Jones (who in that year took the degree of B.A.) was, not without reluctance, persuaded to meet that Monarch's wishes, by translating into the French language an Eastern MS. of the Life of Nadir Shah; for which he was rewarded by a diploma of F.R.S. of Copenhagen! Sept. 19, 1770, in his 24th year, he was admitted in the Temple; where, amidst the severer study of the Law, he continued his attachment to the Muses; and published, in 1772, a small volume of Poems, consisting chiefly of Translations from the Asiatic Languages, with two Prose Dissertations on Eastern Poetry, and on the Arts commonly called imitative. In 1772 he was elected F.R.S. In 1773 he took the degree of M.A; and composed an Oration, intended to have been spoken at the Theatre, though not published till ten years after. In 1774 he published his Commentaries on Asiatic Poetry; and in that year was admitted to the Bar, and applied himself almost solely to professional studies. In 1776, he was appointed a Commissioner of Bankrupts; and at the latter end of this year, I had the pleasure, by the recommendation of our mutual Friend, Mr. Conant, of obtaining some substantial proofs of his regard and confidence. The Second Edition of his Poems was intrusted to my correction at the press. This Volume was published in 1777, in a very handsome octavo; and early in the following year, Mr. Jones began to print the Orations of Isaeus; which were for a short time suspended, during his absence on the Circuit: his anxiety for its correctness will appear by the following billets:

"Worcester, March 8, 1778.

When I left London, I thought it would be very easy to go on with my Isaeus while I was on the Circuit. I now find that party business, and party dissipation, render it impracticable to proceed till my return. You will, therefore, suspend the Work till just before the 30th of April, when I shall again be in the Temple. In correcting the sheets of so difficult a Work, every page occasions some little doubt or other, which cannot be cleared without consulting a number of Books; and my reputation, both as a Scholar and a Lawyer, depends on my making this little Work as accurate as possible. I wish to see another proof of the sheet L, which I will send back immediately for the press, and then we will rest upon our oars till I return. I shall take it extremely kind, Sir, if you will desire Murray, opposite St. Dunstan's church, to send me a copy of Dr. Gillies's Lysias and Isocrates, and a copy of the Bishop of London's Isaiah, as soon as they can be procured; and to send them both to Oxford, by the coach, directed to me at University College; where I shall be in Easter week. I am, Sir, your very obedient servant,

W. Jones."

"Monmouth, March 15.

I hope my letter from Worcester came safe to your hands, with the sheet L, which I will mark for the press, when I have had a review. The inclosed sheet M may go the press with care. Here we will stop till I return. I am more and more convinced, that it is impossible to proceed accurately in this whirlwind of business and dissipation.

W. Jones.

From this time till the 25th instant I shall be in England, and Wales, and letters directed to me on the Carmarthen Circuit, South Wales, will not fail to reach me. There I shall stay till the 15th April, after which my direction will be at University College, Oxford. Excuse this trouble; but I expect letters of importance."

This Work, which was published in 1778, he dedicated to Earl Bathurst, who as yet had been his only benefactor, by bestowing on him the office of a commissioner of bankrupts. The elegant style, profound research, and acute criticism, displayed in the Translation, attracted the applause of every judge of classical learning. His next publication was a Latin Ode to Liberty, under the title of Julii Melesignoi ad Libertatem, an anagram of Guilielmus Jonesius; in which he somewhat too frankly developed his political principals, and perhaps lost by it at the time a promotion to the Bench at Bengal. In the year 1780 he published An Enquiry into the legal Mode of suppressing Riots, with a constitutional Plan of Future Defence, a pamphlet suggested by the dreadful riots in London, of which he had been a witness. And about the same time he was advised to offer himself a candidate to represent the University of Oxford in Parliament; but declined the contest before the day of election. — In a Speech which he intended to have delivered at a Meeting of the Freeholders of Middlesex in September following, he more explicitly avowed his sentiments on public affairs, and in language rather stronger than usual with him, though suited to the state of popular opinion in that County. During a short visit to Paris, he formed a design of writing a History of the War. On his return, however, he recurred to his more favourite studies; and his Biographer has printed a curious memorandum, dated 1780, in which Mr. Jones resolves to learn no more rudiments of any kind; but to perfect himself in the languages he had already acquired; viz. Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Spanish, Portugeze, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, German, and English, as the means of acquiring a more accurate knowledge of the history, arts, and sciences. With such wonderful acquisitions, he was now only in his 33rd year. In the Winter of 1780-1, he found leisure to complete his Translations of Seven antient Poems of the highest reputation in Arabia; which in the Autumn of 1781 he entrusted to my typographical superintendence.

"University College, Oxford

July 14, 1781.

Sir, My Arabian Poems are almost ready for the press. If possible, I will send the two first before the Circuit, that we may fix the form of the page, &c. In September I shall be in town, and the whole will then be prepared. The Bishop of London's Isaiah must be the model; for my Work, like his Lordship's, will consist of a Dedication, preliminary Discourse, the text, and notes; and I would observe the same proportion in the size of the letters. If I can send you two Poems this week, I should be glad to have them put in hand immediately, and printed in characters as large as the text of Isaiah, except the arguments, which must be smaller."

W. Jones."

"July 25.

Let me request the favour of you to send me, if it be printed, the Bengal Judicature Bill, which passed lately. I shall not be able to send my Arabians to the press till September.

W. Jones."

"Sept. 8.

As I shall not be in town till the 14th, I send you 48 pages of my Seven Arabian Poems: they contain the three first, with the arguments. Isaiah I have fixed as the model of printing, paper, character, &c. The arguments, therefore, will be printed in the same letter with the Bishop's preliminary Dissertation, and the Poems themselves in the same with his Translation. I shall be very glad to find the first proof on my table in the Temple, when I return next Friday afternoon.

W. Jones."

This Volume was published in 1783; and he celebrated, about the same time, the Nuptials of Lord Althorpe with Miss Bingham, in an elegant Ode, intitled, The Muse Recalled; printed at Strawberry Hill, and afterwards re-printed at Paris, 4to. In his profession line he published, An Essay on the Law of Bailments, 1782; and, by way of gratifying both duty and inclination, translated an Arabian Poem On the Mohammedan Law of Succession to the property of Intestates. — In 1782, he took a very active part among the Societies formed to procure a more equal representation in the Commons House of Parliament. The Speech which he delivered at the London Tavern on this subject was long admired, for its elegance, perspicuity, and independent spirit. He was also elected a Member of the Society for Constitutional Information, and bestowed considerable attention to the objects it professed. The Dialogue between a Farmer and a Country Gentleman on the Principals of Government, which he wrote some time before, was circulated by this Society with much industry. When the Dean of St. Asaph (afterwards his brother-in-law) was indicted for publishing an edition of it in Wales, Mr. Jones sent a letter to Lord Kenyon, then Chief Justice of Chester, avowing himself to be the author, and maintaining, that every position in it was strictly conformable to the Laws and Constitution of England. "The publick," says Mr. Gibbon, "must lament that Mr. Jones has suspended the pursuit of Oriental Learning." — On the succession of the Shelburne Administration, whose views of political affairs were in some respects more consonant to Mr. Jones's principles than those of their predecessors, by the particular interest of Lord Ashburton, he achieved the object to which for some time past he had anxiously aspired. In March 1783, he was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court of Judicature at Fort William; on which occasion the honour of knighthood was conferred on him. In April following he married a young lady to whom he had been long attached, Anna-Maria Shipley, eldest daughter of the Bishop of St. Asaph. He had now secured, as his friend Lord Ashburton congratulated him, "two of the first objects of human pursuit, those of ambition and love." — His stay in England after these events was very short, as he embarked for India in the month of August. He arrived at Calcutta in September, and was eagerly welcomed by all who were interested in the acquisition of a magistrate of probity and independence, of a scholar who was confessedly at the head of Oriental Literature, and one in the prime and vigour of life, who bade fair to be long the ornament of the British dominions in India. His own satisfaction was not less lively and complete. He left behind him the inconstancy and the turbulence of party, and felt no longer the the anxieties of dependence and delay. — And here I shall leave the remainder of his interesting History to the pages of his masterly Biographer Lord Teignmouth, and the judicious abridgment prefixed by Mr. A. Chalmers to Sir William Jones's Poems in the late edition of the English Poets. Let it suffice to say, that, after an illness of seven days, of an ague arising from a slight cold, he expired in the year 1794, in the full career of fame and fortune, the brightest example of rational ambition, and of extensive learning, virtue, and excellence, that modern times have produced; and he must ever be the subject of admiration, though it may happen to the lot of few to equal, and perhaps of none to excel him. — In 1799, his Works were published, in six volumes quarto, and have been since re-printed in thirteen volumes octavo, with the addition of his Life by Lord Teignmouth, which first appeared in 1804. — Among the public tributes to his memory are, a monument by Flaxman, in the university college, at the expence of Lady Jones; a monument erected in St. Paul's, and a statue at Bengal, both voted by the honourable East-India Company. A Society of Gentlemen at Bengal, who were educated at Oxford, subscribed a sum for a Prize Dissertation on his character and merits, which was adjudged to Mr. Henry Philpots, M.A. of Magdalen college. Among the many poetical tributes paid to his memory, that by the Rev. Thomas Maurice, of the British Museum, seems entitled to the preference, from his accurate knowledge of Sir William Jones's character and studies [Latin inscription omitted].