1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Bagshaw Stevens

Samuel Egerton Brydges, "Rev. William Bagshaw Stevenes, D.D." Censura Literaria 5 (1807) 387-98.



I am induced by regard for the memory of an ingenious man, with whom I had a slight acquaintance, to insert the following imperfect sketch. There are many now living much better qualified for the task than I am; but as they have neglected this act of friendship, in spite of the endeavour I made some years ago to stimulate them to the performance of it, I cannot omit, while I am recording so many other poets, to notice Dr. WILLIAM BAGSHAW STEVENS. I regret that my materials are so very scanty; for they consist of little else than a few notices gathered from the conversations of a deceased friend, who was not remarkable for the sagacity and discrimination of his mind, except the slight inferences which may be gathered from the author's poems. There are many authors, whose own characters break forth in almost every page of their writings. This does not appear to me to have been the case with Stevens. In the slender opportunity I possessed, I could trace a very slight similitude between his manners and his compositions. The effect of literature upon the moral character; the degree of sincerity and truth exhibited in an author's public sentiments, has ever been with me a favourite object of investigation. At the same time I am perfectly aware how very difficult it is; and how much caution it requires. There are very many, whose first appearance exhibits no likeness to their real character; not only from affected disguise, or momentary vanity; but from unconquerable shyness or reserve. An ill-formed and forbidding countenance; an awkward manner; and the accidental vulgarities or defects of infantine education, will sometimes conceal from the first view elegance of mind and tenderness of heart. So deceitful, indeed, are first appearances, that I have seen men glowing with the fire of fancy and passion, whose activity of mind and sentiment was only faulty in its exuberance, shew themselves to superficial observation, as beings of the most frigid temperament; sluggish in their ideas, cold as stone in their hearts, and harsh and unbending in their judgments.

Whence this frequent incongeniality between the mind and the manners can arise, is a point, which would require a longer and more profound discussion than would be proper for this place, or, perhaps, than J have the ability to execute. I mention it only as an apology for the hesitation, which I feel, to pronounce upon the character of Dr. Stevens from a short and casual visit, even in the absence of other materials.

The most authentic and least fallacious sources of intelligence for the life of one, whose days have been spent, not in the busy scenes of the world, but in literary retirement, are generally to be found in his private and confidential letters. I think that in such letters it is seldom difficult to discriminate between what is affected, and what really flows from the heart. Persons of genius, who almost always write with more eloquence, and universally with more purity, in proportion as they are free from the ambition to shine, seldom fail to discover the genuine colours of their intellectual dispositions on these occasions. We have lately had several striking instances of this in the cases of Burns, Cowper, Beattie, Mrs. Carter, &c. whose moral and mental traits, and excellence in prose composition, will best be proved by their epistolary productions. I much regret that I have no such assistance towards delineating the character of the subject of the present memoir.

WILLIAM BAGSHAW STEVENS was born in 1756, the son of an apothecary at Abingdon, in Berkshire, where he received the early part of his education. In 1772 he was elected a demy of Magdalen College, in Oxford; where he soon became eminent for his poetical talents. It is probable, that the example of William Collins, who had formerly been a demy of the same college, and of whom Stevens entertained an enthusiastic admiration, stimulated his natural propensity to this art. In 1775 he published a quarto pamphlet of Poems consisting of Indian Odes and Miscellaneous Pieces. He was then only nineteen years old; and this publication was considered by his friends and acquaintance as a powerful proof of early talents. I have it not at hand to consult it; but I believe it contained poems of very extraordinary merit for so young a man; and raised expectations which were not afterwards entirely fulfilled. The poem reprinted in The Poetical Register, Vol. III. p. 271, entitled O Rus was probably one of them. It is a very pleasing ode, and exhibits an easier manner than Stevens often commanded, as will appear from the three first stanzas, which here follow.

Ye fields! where once with careless feet,
The fairy forms of Spring to meet
My childhood lov'd to roam,
Again to view each laughing scene
Your flowrets fresh, and daisied green,
Ye genial fields! again I come:

And with me bring a grateful meed
For pleasures past, a rural reed;
To you its notes belong;
And while my artless simple strains
Re-echo to my native plains,
The shepherd-girl shall love my song.

And while beneath yon hawthorn shade,
For lonely peace and pleasure made,
My listless length I lay;
Kind Fancy from her magic bower
Shall call the grove, the field, the flower,
And bid the Muse the scene survey.

In due time Mr. Stevens took his first degree, and went into orders; and immediately afterwards engaged himself as an assistant to Dr. Prior, in his school at Repton in Derbyshire. This seminary had long been in great repute among the gentry of the midland counties; but was then declining in consequence of the master's age and infirmities. In 1779 Mr. Stevens took his degree of A.M. and about the same time succeeded, himself, to the mastership of the school by Dr. Prior's death. The tiresome, though useful, occupation, in which he as now engaged, does not seem very propitious to the Muses; but he could not abandon his favourite pursuit; which very, probably tended to cherish an indolence and neglect, not much suited to the prosperity of his school. In 1782 he gave the public a second collection of poems, containing Retirement, in blank verse two Odes; and an Inscription. All these have been lately reprinted in The Poetical Register.

Retirement is a long poem, containing many vigorous passages, which no ordinary man could have written. But there appears to me to be some inherent defect in it, which I confess myself unable to analyse. It sounds upon the ear, but from some cause or other, not clear to me, it fails to make its way to the heart. This, perhaps, is partly owing to the apparent labour with which it is written. Stevens was certainly fond of strutting words; and seems to have rather gone in search of expression than of thought. Perhaps the most interesting specimen is his picture of unhappy poets.

Yet ere thy hand, with daring fancy warm,
Awake the wires of fancy, ere she draw
Her roseate veil, and smile thee to her love,
Mark, where with smiling aspect Dulness stands
Wearily slow his words; drowsy their tone
Muttering with solemn air, and sapient pride
Proverbial documents, and grandam lore,
He shakes the affected pity of his brow
In meanest triumph o'er the withering fate
Of Genius, and the proud neglect of Worth.
Lo! he who died of hunger and of thirst;
He, who on Mulla's banks in fairy pomp,
Marshall'd his splendid chivalry, and deck'd
With virtue-breathing shews Eliza's court!
The trump re-echoes; and the red cross Knight
Issues in ardour forth, adventurous deeds
Urging through danger to the steeps of fame;
The lady of his love, herself the meed
Of his high triumph, animates his heart.
Scar'd at his sunbright shield, and haughty lance
Pointed with death, the chariot's winged speed,
Falters; — unshelter'd from his fury falls
The faithless Soldan; the dark wizard shrieks;
The ghostly chambers, the wild shadowy hosts,
And magic murmurs, melt in angry air.
Rapt by his powerful strain, the elated soul
Spurns the dull features of existent Time,
And its dark grain of manners: charm'd in thought
To meet his fairy imagery of song,
She in the fable of heroic days
Longs to have mix'd her flame. Sublime or sweet
The trumpet thunders, or the plaintive lute
Its tenderest accent breathes; in plain or court
(While the bard died of hunger or of thirst,)
Wood-nymphs and regal dames ador'd his songs.

See "fall'n on evil days and evil tongues,"
Rolling in vain his perish'd orbs of sight,
In Freedom's aid o'erply'd, the bard by Heaven
"Best-favourd:" such the crown of human worth!

O ye, whose bosoms, true to Nature, turn
Like the bright flower before the orb of day,
To every movement of the poet's mind!
Blest be the graceful weakness that descends
In silent tears, that heaves your pitying hearts
When wrung with deep and delicate distress
Monimia mourns; or she who kneels in vain
For the lost blessing of a father's love,
For the dear forfeit of a husband's life,
Poor hapless Belvidera!
Still as your souls, in rapt attention hush'd,
Sigh o'er their fate, let Indignation point,
Virgins and youths! and all whose bosoms bleed
At storied grief and fabulous despair!
Where the Creator of those passion'd scenes
Naked, unshelter'd, hunger-smit and poor,
Poor to the last extremity of woe,
Sadly beseeches, ere he sinks in death,
The scantiest boon that ever Genius ask'd,
That e'er the meanest nature can implore,
One morsel from your board:-it comes too late;
And the Muse hymns her OTWAY'S soul to heav'n.

But who is he, whom later garlands grace?
Lo, his worn youth, beneath the chilly grasp
Of penury faints; and in her mournful shroud
Dark'ning all joy, all promises of good.
All health, all hope, sad Melancholy saps
In drear decay the fabric of his mind:
See shuddering pity o'er his fallen soul
Wrings her pale hands. Regardless of the guide
That lifts his step, regardless of the friend
That mourns, nor sadly conscious of himself,
Silent, yet wild, his languid spirit lies:
The light of thought has wander'd from his eye;
It glares, but sees not. Yet this breathing corse,
This youthful driveller, Nature's ghastliest form;
(O who would love the lyre?) in all the courts
Of Fancy, where abstracted Beauty play'd
With wildest elegance, his ardent shell
Enamour'd struck, and charm'd her various soul.

Se later yet, and yet in drearier state,
Where dawning Genius struggling into day
Sinks in a dark eclipse; no friendly heart
With love auspicious, and no angel-hand
With prosperous spell his labouring sun relieve,
And chase the gather'd clouds that drop with blood.

These poems did not attract much notice: but this may be partly accounted for by the mode of their publication: they were not the property of any active bookseller; but were sent forth on the author's own risk, by a retired clergyman, little known in the bustle of the metropolis, and incapable of extending their circulation by the aid of personal interference. I suspect that this cold reception affected him deeply. From that period his indolence increased; he seemed to grow indifferent to the world; or at least to the generous ambition which had early called forth his exertions; and appeared to me (but it might be only an appearance) too often to sneer at literary pursuits. I cannot commend such a change of mind; an acute sensibility of intellect must be damped by neglect; but its fire ought to recover itself and blaze again. The love of praise is a liberal affection; but this should not be our only motive of activity; we should cherish literature for its own sake, and consider that it produces its own reward.

He never again made any serious efforts in composition. He amused himself, however, with gathering occasional flowers at the foot of Parnassus. These flowers have been preserved principally in the Gentleman's Magazine, to which he contributed for nearly twenty years. His signature was M. C. S. viz. Magd. Coll. Semisocius. He often imitated Horace; but I think not very happily. His style, encumbered and somewhat heavy, was peculiarly ill-adapted to the playful ease, the "curiosa felicitas" of Horace; and he was apt to give to his original the affectations in poetical phraseology, which had grown up in his own day. Now and then however his versions exhibited passages executed with a happy vigour. I will insert a single stanza, which, I conceive, will justify my censure. It is a translation of the following of Horace's famous Ode to Grosphus, Ode 16, Book II.

Otium divos rogat in patenti
Prensus Aegaeo, simul atra nubes
Condidit Lunam, neque certa fulgent
—Sidera nautis.

The seaman in some wild tempestuous night,
When Horror rides upon the white-mouth'd wave,
And stars deny the mercy of their light,
Longs for some peaceful port his shatter'd bark to save.

It will probably be admitted, that nothing can be more unlike than the second line is to Horace.

In the autumn of 1789, being on a visit to a friend in Derbyshire, I accompanied him to spend two or three days with Mr. Stevens at his home at Repton. Here I obtained all the slight personal knowledge of this author to which I can lay claim. Our reception was highly hospitable; and the visit gratified us in many respects. I found Mr. Stevens a man of various and accurate information, of enlarged sentiments, and strong sense, a little inclined to sarcasm, and totally free from all the affectations of authorship, which some traits in the character of his writings had led me to expect. I doubt whether he did not even affect a coldness to the ambitions of genius; and, what became him less, I suspected him of sometimes assuming the sentiments of the man of the world, in a manner not congenial to the workings of his own bosom, and certainly not consistent with the turn impressed on him either by nature or education. He lived a great deal at this period at the table of his neighbour Sir Robert Burdet of Foremark, where the society was not often such as tended to encourage his literary propensities.

His first address was not prepossessing. He was tall, but rather thick; his complexion fair; his eyes very light; and his whole countenance deficient in expression. His manner also was shy and awkward. But in a little while the prejudice created by these appearances wore away. His sentiments flowed frankly; his conversation became manly and intelligent; and his good-humour, strong sense, and apparent integrity, impressed his acquaintance with regard and respect. He was no courtier; spoke his opinions totally free from all mean attention to self-interest; and never suppressed his indignation at turpitude, nor controuled the independence of his spirit. Perhaps this temper contributed to the decay of his school, which fell off, in a very mortifying degree, during the latter period of his life. But I have understood, that his best friends could not totally defend him from the charge of neglect and idleness, which his enemies, (and what literary man in the country has not numerous enemies?) urged against him with unceasing bitterness.

At length in 1794 he succeeded, after unusual delay, to a fellowship of his college, to which he had looked for many years with anxious hope. It was probably soon after, that he took the degree of D.D. but did not quit his school at Repton. In 1797 he lost his old friend Sir Robert Burdet; but the loss was made up by the intimacy of his grandson Sir Francis; who, on the death of the Rev. Stebbing Shaw, (father of the Staffordshire historian) in 1799, presented him to the rectory of Seckington in Warwickshire; to which, by the interest of Mr. Coutts, was added the vicarage of Kingsbury. Mr. Stevens had now a comfortable income; and his age did not preclude him from the prospect of many remaining years to enjoy it. But Providence ordered it otherwise! In May 1800, he suddenly sunk from his chair in an apoplectic fit; and a few days afterwards expired, at the age of forty-four. One who knew him well has added his testimony to mine, that he was "a man, who, though evidently circumscribed by his situation, seemed in a particular manner gifted by Nature and qualified by his attainments to support the character of the gentleman, the man of learning, and of genius, and assuredly that of a most interesting companion and friend." {Author's note: Gent. Mag. Vol. LXX. p. 317, signed W. probably the Rev. Henry White of Lichfield.]

Dr. Stevens was, I believe, a frequent correspondent of Miss Seward, whom he has frequently celebrated; and was, perhaps, personally acquainted with her. The fair authoress may probably deem this memoir too cold and discriminative for the ardour of friendship. But she must blame herself in that case. For why has she not exerted her own glowing pen upon the occasion? Why has she left it to a casual acquaintance of a few days, with humble powers, and little command of language, to perform the task?

Dr. Stevens was certainly a great loss to the sphere in which he moved. He was a man of great powers, and great acquirements of intellect; a scholar, a man of sense; of uniform benevolence of heart; and, above all, of firm integrity and virtue. The fruits of his poetical genius do not appear to have answered its early blossoms; but, if he must not be placed in the first or second class of poets, he always rises above mediocrity; and certainly deserved more notice than he has obtained.