Sir William Jones

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 633-37.

SIR WILLIAM JONES is not a great poet; but his name recals such associations of worth, intellect, and accomplishments, that if these sketches were not necessarily and designedly only miniatures of biography, I should feel it a sort of sacrilege to consign to scanty and inadequate bounds the life of a scholar who, in feeding the lamp of knowledge, may be truly said to have prematurely exhausted the lamp of life.

He was born in London. His father, who it is said could trace his descent from the ancient princes of North Wales, and who, like his son was no discredit to his lineage, was so eminent a mathematician as to be distinguished by the esteem of Newton and Halley. His first employment had been that of a schoolmaster, on board a man-of-war; and in that situation he attracted the notice and friendship of Lord Anson. An anecdote is told of him, that at the siege of Vigo he was one of the party who had the liberty of pillaging the captured town. With no very rapacious views, he selected a bookseller's shop for his share; but finding no book worth taking away, he carried off a pair of scissors, which he used to show his friends, as a trophy of his military success. On his return to England, he established himself as a teacher of mathematics, and published several scientific works which were remarkable for their neatness of illustration and brevity of style. By his labours as a teacher he acquired a small fortune; but lost it through the failure of a banker. His friend, Lord Macclesfield, however, in some degree indemnified him for the loss, by procuring for him a sinecure place under government. Sir William Jones lost this valuable parent when he was only three years old; so that the care of his first education devolved upon his mother. She, also, was a person of superior endowments, and cultivated his dawning powers with a sagacious assiduity which undoubtedly contributed to their quick and surprising growth. We may judge of what a pupil she had, when we are told that, at five years of age, one morning, in turning over the leaves of a Bible, he fixed his attention with the strongest admiration on a sublime passage in the Revelation. Human nature perhaps presents no authentic picture of its felicity more pure or satisfactory than that of such a pupil superintended by a mother capable of directing him.

At the age of seven he went to Harrow school, where his progress was at first interrupted by an accident which he met with, in having his thigh-bone broken, and he was obliged to be taken home for about a twelvemonth. But after his return, his abilities were so distinguished, that before he left Harrow, he was shown to strangers as an ornament to the seminary. Before he had reached this eminence at school, it is a fact, disgraceful to one of his teachers, that in consequence of the ground which he had lost by the accident already mentioned he was frequently subjected to punishment, for exertions which he could not make; or, to use his own expression, for not being able to soar before he had been taught to fly. The system of severity must have been merciless, indeed, when it applied to Jones, of whom his master, Dr. Thackery, used to say that he was a boy of so active a spirit, that if left friendless and naked on Salisbury Plain, he would make his way to fame and fortune. It is related of him, that while at Harrow, his fellow scholars having determined to act the play of the Tempest, they were at a loss for a copy, and that young Jones wrote out the whole from memory. Such miracles of human memory are certainly on record; but it is not easy to conceive the boys at Harrow, when permitted by their masters to act a play, to have been at a loss for a copy of Shakspeare and some mistake or exaggeration may be suspected in the anecdote. He possibly abridged the play for the particular occasion. Before leaving Harrow school, he learned the Arabic characters, and studied the Hebrew language, so as to enable him to read some of the original Psalms. What would have been labour to others was Jones's amusement. He used to relax his mind with Philidor's Lessons at Chess, and with studying botany and fossils.

In his eighteenth year he was entered of University college, Oxford, where his residence was rendered more agreeable by his mother taking up her abode in the town. He was also, unfortunately, permitted by his teachers to forsake the study of dialectic logic which still haunted the college, for that of Oriental literature; and he was so zealous in this pursuit, that he brought from London to Oxford a native of Aleppo, whom he maintained at his own expense, for the benefit of his instruction in Arabic. He also began the study of modern Persic, and found his exertions rewarded with rapid success. His vacations were spent in London, where he attended schools for riding and fencing, and studied Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese. He pursued in theory and even exceeded in practice, the plan of education projected by Milton and boasted, that with the fortune of a peasant, he could give himself the education of a prince. He obtained a fellowship at Oxford; but before he obtained it, whilst he was yet fearful of his success, and of burdening the slender finances of an affectionate mother for his support, he accepted the situation of tutor to Lord Althorp, the son of Earl Spencer. In the summer of 1765, he repaired to Wimbledon Park, to take upon himself the charge of his young pupil. He had not been long in Lord Spencer's family, when he was flattered by an offer from the Duke of Grafton, of the place of interpreter of Eastern languages. This situation, though it might not have interfered with his other pursuits, he thought fit to decline; but earnestly requested it be given to his Syrian teacher, whose character he wrote. The solicitation was, however, unnoticed; and the event only gave him an opportunity of regretting his own ignorance of the world, in not accepting the proffered office, that he might consign its emoluments to Mirza. At Wimbledon he first formed his acquaintance with the daughter of Dr. Shipley, the Dean of Winchester, to which he owed the future happiness of his life. The ensuing winter, 1766, he removed with Lord Spencer's family to London, where he renewed his pursuit of external as well as intellectual accomplishments, and received lessons from Gallini as well as Angelo. It is amusing to find his biographer add that he took lessons at the broad-sword from an old Chelsea pensioner, seamed with scars, to whose military narrations he used to listen with delight.

In 1767 he made a short trip with the family of his pupil to the Continent, where, at Spa, he pursued the study of German, and availed himself of the opportunity of finding an incomparable teacher of dancing, whose name was Janson. In the following year, he was requested by the secretary of the Duke of Grafton to undertake a task in which no other scholar in England was found willing to engage, namely, in furnishing a version of an Eastern MS. a life of Nadir Shaw, which the King of Denmark had brought with him to England, and which his Danish majesty was anxious to have translated into French. Mr. Jones undertook the translation from a laudable reluctance to allow the MS. to be carried out of the country for want of a translator; although the subject was dry, and the style of the original difficult, and although it obliged him to submit his translation to a native of France, in order to give it the idioms of a French style. He was at this time only twenty-one years of age. The only reward which he obtained for his labour was a diploma from the Royal Society of Copenhagen, and a recommendation from the court of Denmark to his own sovereign. To the History of Nadir Shaw he added a treatise of his own on Oriental poetry, in the language of the translation. In the same year he began the study of music, and took some lessons on the Welsh harp.

In 1770 he again visited the Continent with the Spencer family, and travelled into Italy. The genius which interests us at home redoubles its interest on foreign ground; but it would appear, from Jones's letters that, in this instance he was too assiduous a scholar to be an amusing traveller. His mind, during this visit to the Continent, was less intent on men and manners than on objects which he might have studied with equal advantage at home. We find him deciphering Chinese, and composing a tragedy. The tragedy has been irrecoverably lost. Its subject was the death of Mustapha, the son of Soliman, the same on which Fulke Greville Lord Brooke, composed a drama.

On his return to England he determined to embrace the law as a profession, the study of which he commenced in 1771, being then in his twenty-fourth year. His motives for choosing this profession are best explained in his own words. In a letter to his friend Schultens he avows at once the public ambition and personal pride which had now grown up with the maturity of his character. "The die (he says) is cast. All my books and MSS., with the exception of those only which relate to law and oratory, are locked up at Oxford; and I have determined, for the next twenty years at least, to renounce all studies but those which are connected with my profession. It is needless to trouble you with my reasons at length for this determination. I will only say, that if I had lived at Rome or Athens, I should have preferred the labours, studies, and dangers of their orators and illustrious citizens, connected as they were with punishment and even death, to the groves of the poets, or the gardens of the philosophers. Here I adopt the same resolution. • • • • • • If the study of the law were really unpleasant and disgusting, which is far from the truth, the example of the wisest of the ancients and of Minerva would justify me in preferring the useful olive to the barren laurel. To tell you my mind freely, I am not of a disposition to bear the arrogance of men of rank, to which poets and men of letters are so often obliged to submit."

This letter was written some years after he had resigned his situation in Lord Spencer's family, and entered himself of the Middle Temple. In the mean time, though the motives which guided him to the choice of a profession undoubtedly made him in earnest with his legal studies, he still found spare hours to devote to literature. He finished his tragedy of Mustapha, and sketched two very ambitious plans; the one of an epic poem, the other of a Turkish history. That he could have written a useful and amusing history of Turkey, is easy to suppose; but the outline, and the few specimens of his intended epic, leave little room for regret that it was not finished. Its subject was the discovery of Britain; the characters Tyrian, and the machinery allegorical, in the manner of Spenser. More unpromising symptoms of a poem could hardly be announced.

In 1773 he published his French letter to Du Perron the French traveller, who, in his account of his travels in India, had treated the University of Oxford, and some of its members, with disrespect. In this publication, he corrected the French writer, perhaps, with more asperity than his maturer judgment would have approved. In the same year he published a small volume of poems with two dissertations, one on Oriental literature, and another on the arts commonly called imitative. In his Essay on the Arts he objects, on very fair grounds, to the Aristotelian doctrine, of the universal object of poetry being imitation. Certainly, no species of poetry can strictly be said to be imitative of nature except that which is dramatic. Mr. Twining, the translator of The Poetica, has, however, explained this theory of Aristotle pretty satisfactorily, by showing, that when he spoke of poetry as imitative, he alluded to what he conceived to be the highest department of the art, namely, the drama, or to the dramatic part of epic poetry, the dialogue, which, in recitation, afforded an actual imitation of the passions which were described.

When Mr. Jones had been called to the bar he found that no human industry could effectively unite the pursuits of literature with the practice of the profession. He therefore took the resolution, already alluded to in one of his letters, of abstaining from all study, but that of the science and eloquence of the bar. He thought, however that consistently with this resolution he might translate The Greek Orations of Isaeus, in cases relating to succession to doubtful posterity. This translation appeared in 1778. In the interval his practice became considerable, and he was made, in 1773, a commissioner of bankrupts. He was at this time a member of the Royal Society, and maintained an epistolary correspondence with several eminent foreign scholars. Among those correspondents, his favourite seems to have been Reviczki, an Oriental scholar, whom he met in England, and who was afterward the Imperial minister at Warsaw.

From the commencement of the American war, and during its whole progress, Mr. Jones's political principles led him to a decided disapprobation of the measures of government which were pursued in that contest. But though politically opposed to Lord North, he possessed so much of the personal favour of that minister as to have some hopes of obtaining by his influence a seat on the bench of Fort William, in Bengal, which became vacant in the year 1780. While this matter was in suspense, he was advised to stand as a candidate for the representation of the University of Oxford; but finding there was no chance of success, he declined the contest before the day of election; his political principles, and an Ode to Liberty, which he had published, having offended the majority of the academic voters. During the riots of 1780, he published a plan for security against insurrection and for defence against invasion, which has since been realized in the volunteer system. During the same year he paid a short visit to Paris, and at one time, intended to have proceeded to America, for a professional object, namely, to procure for a client and friend the restitution of an estate, which the government of the United States had confiscated. The indisposition of his friend, however, prevented him from crossing the Atlantic. On his return to England, he returned to his favourite Oriental studies, and completed a translation of the seven ancient Arabian poems, famous for having been once suspended in the Temple of Mecca; as well as another poem, in the same language, more curious than inviting in its subject, which was the Mohommedan law of succession to intestates. The latter work had but few charms to reward his labour; but it gave him an opportunity for displaying his literary and legal fitness for the station in India to which he still aspired.

Besides retracing his favourite studies with the Eastern Muses, we find him at this period warmly engaged in political as well as professional pursuits. An Essay on the Law of Bailments, an Address to the Inhabitants of Westminster and Parliamentary reform; these publications, together with occasional pieces of poetry, which he wrote within the last years of his residence in England, attest at once the vigour and elegance of his mind, and the variety of its application.

On the succession of the Shelburne administration, he obtained through the particular interest of Lord Ashburton, the judicial office in Bengal, for which he had been hitherto an unsuccessful competitor. In March, 1783, he received the honour of knighthood. In the April following he married Anna Maria Shipley, the daughter of the Bishop of St. Asaph, to whom he had been so many years attached. He immediately sailed for India, having secured, as his friend Lord Ashburton congratulated him, the two first objects of human pursuit, those of love and ambition. The joy with which he contemplated his situation is strongly testified in the descriptions of his feelings which he gives in his letters, and in the gigantic plans of literature which he sketched out. Happily married — still in the prime of life — leaving at home a reputation which had reached the hemisphere he was to visit, he bade adieu to the turbulence of party politics, which, though it had not dissolved any of his friendships, had made some of them irksome. The scenes which he had delighted to contemplate at a distance were now inviting his closest researches! He approached regions and manners which gave a living picture of antiquity; and, while his curiosity was heightened, he drew nearer to the means of its gratification.

In December, 1783, he commenced the discharge of his duties as an Indian judge, with his characteristic ardour. He also began the study of Sanscrit. He had been but a few years in India, when his knowledge of that ancient language enabled him, under the auspices of the Governor, to commence a great plan for administering justice among the Indians, by compiling a digest of Hindu and Mohammedan laws, similar to that which Justinian gave his Greek and Roman subjects. His part in the project was only to survey and arrange its materials. To that superintendence the Brahmins themselves submitted with perfect confidence. To detail his share in the labours of the Society of Calcutta, the earliest, or at least the most important, philosophical society established in British India, would be almost to abridge its Transactions during his lifetime. He took the lead in founding it, and lived to see three volumes of its Transactions appear. In 1789 he translated the ancient Hindu drama, Sacontala, or the Fatal Ring, by Callidas, an author whom Sir William Jones calls the Shakspeare of India, and who lived about the time of Terence, in the first century before the Christian era. This antique picture of Hindu manners is certainly the greatest curiosity which the study of Oriental literature by Europeans has brought to light. In 1794 he published, also from the Sanscrit, a translation of the Ordinances of Urdu, who is esteemed, by the Hindoos, to be the earliest of created beings, and the holiest of legislators; but who appears, by the English translator's confession, to have lived long after priests, statesmen, and metaphysicians had learned to combine their crafts.

While business required his daily attendance at Calcutta, his daily attendance at Calcutta, his usual residence was on the banks of the Ganges, at the distance of five miles from the court. To this spot he returned every evening after sunset, and, in the morning, rose so early as to reach his apartments in time, by setting out on foot at the first appearance of dawn. He passed the months of vacation at Chrishnagur, a country residence, sixty miles from Calcutta, remarkable for its beauty, and interesting, from having been the seat of an ancient Hindu college. Here he added botany to the other pursuits of his indefatigable curiosity.

In the burning climate of Bengal, it is not surprising that the strongest constitution should have sunk under the weight of his professional duties, and of his extensive literary labours. The former alone occupied him seven hours during the session time. His health, indeed, seems to have been early affected in India. In 1793, the indisposition of Lady Jones rendered it necessary that she should return to England. Sir William proposed to follow her in 1795, delaying only till he should complete the system of Indian legislation. But they parted to meet no more. In 1794 he was attacked with an inflammation of the liver, which acted with uncommon rapidity; and, before a physician was called in, and advanced too far to yield to the efficacy of medicine. He expired in a composed attitude, without a groan, or the appearance of a pang; and retained an expression of complacency on his features to the last.

In the course of a short life, Sir William Jones required a degree of knowledge which the ordinary faculties of men, if they were blest with antediluvian longevity, could scarcely hope to surpass. His learning threw light on the laws of Greece and India, on the general literature of Asia, and on the history of the family of nations. He carried philosophy, eloquence, and philanthropy into his character of a lawyer and a judge. Amid the driest toils of erudition, he retained a sensibility to the beauties of poetry, and a talent for transfusing them into his own language, which has seldom been united with the same degree of industry. Had he written nothing but the delightful ode from Hafiz, "Sweet maid, if thou wouldst charm my Fight," it would alone testify the harmony of his ear, and the elegance of his taste. When he went abroad, it was not to enrich himself with the spoils of avarice or ambition, but to search, amid the ruins of Oriental literature, for treasures which he would not have exchanged

For all Bokhara's vaunted gold
Or all the gems of Samarcand.

It is, nevertheless, impossible to avoid supposing, that the activity of his mind spread itself in too many directions to be always employed to the best advantage. The impulse that carried him through so many pursuits, has a look of something restless, inordinate, and ostentatious. Useful as he was, he would in all probability have been still more so, had his powers been concentrated to fewer objects. His poetry is sometimes elegant; but altogether, it has too much of the florid luxury of the East. His taste would appear, in his latter years, to have fallen into a state of Brahminical idolatry, when he recommends to our particular admiration, and translates, in pompous lyrical diction, the Indian description of Cumara, the daughter of Ocean, riding upon a peacock; and enjoins us to admire, as an allegory equally new and beautiful, the unimaginable conceit of Camdeo, the Indian Cupid, having a bow that is made of flowers, and a bowstring which is a string of bees. Industrious as he was, his history is full of abandoned and half-executed projects. While his name reflects credit on poetical biography, his secondary fame as a composer, shows that the palm of poetry is not likely to be won, even by great genius, without exclusive devotion to the pursuit [Greek characters].