1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Sotheby

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 114.



WILLIAM SOTHEBY, the eldest son of Colonel Sotheby, of the Guards, was born in London, on the 9th of November, 1757. He was educated at Harrow; and at the age of seventeen purchased a commission in the 10th Dragoons: — his taste for literature was cultivated with great assiduity while in "country quarters" with his regiment. In 1780, he quitted the army, and purchased Beirs Mount, near Southampton, — a place which had been celebrated as the residence of the Earl of Peterborough, and by the frequent visits of Pope, to whom allusion is made by Mr. Sotheby in one of the most graceful of his Sonnets:—

Underneath the gloom
Of yon old oak a skilled magician sung:
Oft at his call these sunny glades among,
Thy guardian sylphs, Belinda, sportive play'd;
And Eloisa sigh'd in yon sequestered shade.

Here Mr. Sotheby lived for several years, devoting his time to the more diligent study of the Classics, to the translation of many of the minor Greek and Latin Poets, and to the production of original compositions. His desire for literary society and distinction, however, induced him, in 1791, to fix his permanent residence in the Metropolis. He was soon elected a fellow of the Royal and Antiquarian Societies; and in 1798, published a translation of the Oberon of Wieland. This was one of the earliest attempts to introduce the English reader to the poetry of Germany: its reception encouraged Mr. Sotheby to proceed in the path he had chosen: he subsequently translated the Georgics, and, at a very advanced period of life, the Iliad and the Odyssey. His poetical works are numerous: they afford proofs of an elegant taste and a matured judgment; and if they failed in obtaining extensive popularity, happily for the writer he was placed under circumstances which rendered the approbation of a circle of accomplished friends a sufficient recompense for his labours. In 1816, he visited Italy; and wrote a series of Poems, which, a few years afterwards, he published under the general title, Italy. Mr. Sotheby died in London, on the 30th of December, 1833. Few men have been more warmly esteemed in private life; and, although we should unduly estimate the character of his mind if we described it as of a very high order, his writings afford abundant proofs of an elegant and refined taste, and a true relish for all that is sound and excellent in literature. He presents a remarkable instance of industry and energy in old age. He had passed his seventieth year before he commenced his translation of Homer, which he lived to complete. To this extraordinary undertaking, it is not our province to refer; but we feel assured that all who are acquainted with the poem, Italy, will consider us justified in classing him among the better and more enduring of the Poets of Great Britain. Of a long list of poetical productions, this, however, is the only one to which especial reference may be made. He was seldom happy in his choice of subjects; and wrote, as we have intimated, only because composition afforded an agreeable employment. He appears to have been but little anxious for extended fame; and of course had no desire to render his labour profitable. While in London, he was usually surrounded by those whose tastes were similar to his own; and, it is said, that the less prosperous professors of literature and science found in him a generous and sympathizing friend. He was, we believe — and unhappily the character is as rare as it is admirable — a patron to whom we call trace but few acts of patronage; one of those who "Do good by stealth, and blush to find it fame."

The plan of his poem necessarily led him among all the grander and more beautiful objects of Nature, in the classic land through he travelled. He describes them in a manner at once graceful and graphic; and it would be difficult to find any writer who more clearly and distinctly brings them before the reader. It is, however, in allusions to the ancient histories of the Italian cities that he most excels. At times, he rises into absolute sublimity: there are passages in his poem that would not lose by comparison with the most vigorous and energetic compositions in the language. He was a scholar, and "a ripe and good one;" occasionally, the hue academic is over his page, but he never renders it repulsive. It will not be easy now-a-days, to obtain readers for his volume but we venture to assert, that those who may be induced to peruse it, will marvel that his popularity should have been so limited.