The life of sir William Jones, one of the most illustrious characters of the eighteenth century, forms a history of unexampled talents, industry, and taste, employed to the most valuable purposes. In what he executed and in what he projected, there is a grasp of mind and a vigour of intellect to which no short narrative can do justice. Yet the purpose of the present sketch will be fully answered if it shall send the reader with eagerness to the more ample and satisfactory volume lately published by lord Teignmouth.
The family of this eminent scholar is ancient, and may be traced through a long catalogue of names, none of which have obtained a place in biography, except that of his father, who was highly and deservedly celebrated as a philosopher and Mathematician during and after the time of sir Isaac Newton. He was a native of Anglesea, from which he removed to the humble occupation of teaching mathematics on board a man of war. After pursuing this course of life for some years, he became a teacher of the same science in London, and the author of some works in great esteem. His excellent character and talents recommended him to the acquaintance and patronage of lord Hardwicke, sir Isaac Newton, lord Macclesfield and others, which he enjoyed until his death in 1749. By his wife, Mary Nix, the daughter of a cabinet-maker in London, he had three children, George, who died in infancy; Mary, who became the wife of Mr. Rainsford a merchant, and lost her life in 1802, in consequence of her clothes taking fire, and William, the subject of the present memoir, who was born on the eve of the festival of St. Michael 1746.
As his father died when he had scarcely reached his third year, the care of his education devolved on his mother, whose talents and virtues eminently qualified her for the task. Her husband, with affectionate precision, characterised her as one who "was virtuous without blemish, generous without extravagance, frugal but not niggard, cheerful but not giddy, close but not sullen, ingenious but not conceited, of spirit but not passionate, of her company cautious, in her friendship trusty, to her parents dutiful, and to her husband ever faithful, loving and obedient." She must have been yet a more extraordinary woman than all this imports, for we are told that under her husband's tuition she became a considerable proficient in algebra, and with a view to act as preceptor to her sister's son, who was destined for the sea, she made herself perfect in trigonometry, and the theory of navigation, sciences of which it is probable she knew nothing before marriage, and which she now pursued amidst the anxious, and, usually, monopolizing cares of a family.
In educating her son she appears to have preferred a method at once affectionate and judicious. Discovering in him a natural curiosity and thirst for knowledge, beyond what children generally display, she made the gratification of those passions to depend on his own industry, and constantly pointed to a book as the source of information. So successful was this method, that in his fourth year he was able distinctly and rapidly to read any English book, while his memory was agreeably exercised in getting by heart such popular pieces of poetry as were likely to engage the fancy of a child. His taste for reading gradually became a habit, and having in his fifth year, while looking over a bible, fallen upon the sublime description of the Angel in the tenth chapter of the Apocalypse, the impression which his imagination received from it was never effaced.
In his sixth year an attempt was made to teach him Latin, but the acquisition of a new language had as yet no charms. At Michaelmas 1753, when he had compleated his seventh year, he was placed at Harrow school, under the tuition of Dr. Thackeray. Here during the first two years he applied with diligence to his prescribed tasks, but without indicating that superiority of talents which in eminent characters biographers are desirous to trace to the earliest years. It was enough, however, that he learned what was taught, and it was fortunate that his mind was gradually informed without being perplexed. During the vacations his mother resumed her "delightful task," and initiated him in the art of drawing, in which she excelled. Her private instructions became more necessary, and indeed indispensable, when in his ninth year his thigh-bone was accidentally fractured. During his confinement, which lasted twelve months, his mother diverted his taste for reading to the best English poets, whom he already endeavoured to imitate, but whether any of these very early efforts are in existence his biographer has not informed us.
On his return to school, he was placed in the same class which he should have attained if the progress of his studies had not been interrupted. Whether this was from favour or caprice in the master, it might have been attended with fatal consequences to young Jones, had his temper been of that irascible and wayward kind which sometimes accompanies genius. He found himself in a situation in which he was necessarily a year behind his school-fellows, and yet his master affected to presume on his equal proficiency, and goaded him by punishment and degradation to perform tasks for which he had received no preparatory instructions. In a few months, however, he applied himself so closely during his leisure hours to recover what he had lost, that he soon reached the head of his class, and uniformly gained every prize offered for the best exercise. In his twelfth year he moved into the upper school, when he entered upon the study of the Greek, and, as was his practice when in the lower, exercised himself in various translations and compositions which, not being required by his instructors, elevated him in the eyes of his school-fellows, while his kindness prevented the usual effects of jealousy. They felt nothing unpleasant in the superiority of a school-fellow whose talents were employed in their service, either to promote their learning or their amusements. On one occasion when they proposed to act the play of the Tempest, but had no copy at hand, he wrote it for them so correctly from memory, that they acted it with as much reputation as they probably could have derived from the best edition. His own part was Prospero. On another occasion he composed a dramatic piece on the story of Meleager, which was acted by his school-fellows, as a tragedy. Such efforts of memory and invention at so early an age are truly wonderful. His tragedy, indeed, will not bear criticism, but the lines which his biographer has given as a specimen, will not suffer much by a comparison with the general strain of verses in the infant era of English tragedy.
His predilection for whatever concerned poetry appeared in the pains he now took to study the varieties of the Roman metre. His proficiency was indeed so superior to that of most of his associates in every pursuit, that they were glad to consult him as a preceptor, and to borrow from him as a friend those helps which they were otherwise unable to procure. During the holidays he learnt French and arithmetic, and as he was admitted to the company of the ingenious philosopher Mr. Baker, and his learned friends, his mother recommended to him the Spectacle de la Nature, as a book that might enable him to understand their conversation. He obeyed her injunction, as he uniformly did upon every occasion, and was probably not uninterested in many parts of that once instructive work, but he had not yet begun to make excursions into the field of natural history, and he acknowledged that he was more entertained with the Arabian Tales and Shakspeare.
Although he did not yet cease to be the boy, he frequently gave indications of the man, and perhaps in nothing more than the useful turn of his amusements, which generally had some reference to his studies, and proved that learning was uppermost in his mind. Of this disposition the following anecdote, related by lord Teignmouth, is pleasingly characteristic. — "He invented a political play, in which Dr. William Bennet, bishop of Cloyne, and the celebrated Dr. Parr, were his principal associates. They divided the fields in the neighbourhood of Harrow, according to a map of Greece, into states and kingdoms; each fixed upon one as his dominion, and assumed an ancient name. Some of their school-fellows consented to be styled barbarians, who were to invade their territories and attack their hillocs, which were denominated fortresses. The chiefs vigorously defended their respective domains against the incursions of the enemy; and in these imitative wars, the young statesmen held councils, made vehement harangues, and composed memorials, all doubtless very boyish, but calculated to fill their minds with ideas of legislation and civil government. In these unusual amusements, Jones was ever the leader; and he might justly have appropriated to himself the words of Catullus: "Ego gymnasii flos, ego decus olei."
Dr. Bennett informs us that "great abilities, great particularity of thinking, fondness for writing verses and plays of various kinds, and a degree of integrity and manl courage, distinguished him even at this period." And Dr. Thackeray, the master of the school, however niggardly in general of his praises before the objects of his esteem, confessed in private that "he was a boy of so active a mind, that if he were left naked and friendless on Salisbury Plain, he would nevertheless find the road to fame and riches."
When Dr. Sumner succeeded Dr. Thackeray in 1761, he more publickly distinguished Mr. Jones, as one whose proficiency was marked by uncommon diligence and success. To a critical knowledge of Greek and Latin, he began now to add some acquaintance with the Hebrew, and even learned the Arabic characters, while during the vacations he improved his former knowledge of the French and Italian languages. His ardent thirst for knowledge, however, at this time, induced him to study with so little intermission from sleep or exercise, that he was beginning to contract a weakness of sight. On this occasion his friends interposed their advice, and for some time he consented to relax from fatigues so unsuitable to his tender age. It is probable, however, that he had already gone too far, for weakness of sight was one of the first complaints which impeded his studies when in India.
A letter to his sister, written at the age of fourteen, which his biographer has inserted at this period of his history, contains reflections on the folly of sorrowing for the death of friends, which perhaps might he placed in a more just light, but from one of his age certainly indicate very extraordinary powers of thinking: and the transition from these to the common trifles of correspondence, shows all inclination to play the youthful philosopher, which gives considerable interest to this singular epistle. The reflections, it is true, are trite, but they could not have been trite to one just entering upon life, nor could so lively a youth have long revolved the uncertainties of fame and happiness.
When he had attained the age of seventeen, his friends determined to remove him to one of the universities, but his mother had been advised to place him in the office of some special pleader. He had in the course of his desultory reading, perused a few law books, and frequently amused his mother's visitors by discussing topics of legal subtlety. But the law had not taken a complete hold on his inclination at this time, and his preceptor, Dr. Sumner, easily prevailed in recommending an academical course. He was accordingly, in the spring 1764, entered of University College, Oxford, in which city his mother now took up her residence. This latter circumstance was peculiarly grateful to Mr. Jones, who was as much distinguished above the mass of mankind for filial affection as for his literary accomplishments.
The passion he had imbibed for general learning, and the desultory manner in which his unremitting application left him at liberty to indulge it, were at first in danger of being interrupted by the necessity of attending to a routine of instructions from which he imagined he could derive very little advantage. But in time he became accustomed to the mode of study then prevalent, and without neglecting any thing which it was necessary to know, pursued at his leisure hours that course of classical and polite literature which had already proved that he was not to be satiated by the common allowances of education. Oriental literature presented itself to his mind with unusual charms, as if the plan of his future life and the avenues to his future fame had been regularly laid down before him; and he had not applied himself long to the Arabic and Persic, before he conceived that greater advantages were to be reaped from those languages than from the wore, popular treasures of Greece and Rome. Such was at the time his enthusiasm in this undertaking, that, having accidentally discovered one Mirza, a native of Aleppo, in London, he prevailed on him to accompany him to Oxford, not without hopes that he might induce some of his companions to avail themselves of this Syrian's labours, and assist him in defraying the expense of his maintenance; but in this he was disappointed, and for some mouths the whole of the burthen fell upon himself.
During his residence at Oxford, his time was regularly divided into portions, each of which was filled up with the study of the ancients or moderns, and there have been few examples of such extensive accumulation of knowledge by one so young: yet amidst this severe course of application, he regularly apportioned some time for the practice of those manly exercises which promote health.
As his residence at the university necessarily became expensive, he anxiously wished for a fellowship, that he might be enabled to relieve his mother from a burthen which she could ill support. He had obtained a scholarship a few months after his matriculation, but a fellowship appeared more remote, and he was beginning to despair of achieving this object when he received an offer to be private tutor to lord Althorpe, now earl Spencer. He had been recommended to the Spencer family by Dr. Shipley, who had seen and approved some of his performances at Harrow, and particularly a Greek oration in praise of Lyon who founded the school at that place in the reign of Elizabeth.
This proposal was cheerfully accepted by Mr. Jones, and, in the summer of 1765, he went for the first time to Wimbledon Park to take upon him the education of his pupil, who was just seven years old, and with whose manners he was delighted. It would be needless to point out the advantages of such a situation as this to a young man of Jones's accomplishments and expectations. It presented every thing he could wish, liberal patronage to promote his views, elegant society to form his manners, and opportunities for study which were inferior only to what he enjoyed at Oxford. In the course of the following summer, he obtained a fellowship, which, although not exceeding one hundred pounds, appeared to him a sufficient provision and a solid independency. His time was now divided between Oxford, London, Wimbledon, and Althorpe, and, in 1767, he visited the continent with the Spencer family, and during this trip, which was but short, acquired some knowledge of the German language. Before setting out, and in the twenty-first year of his age, he began his Commentaries 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.
Into these pursuits Mr. Jones appears to have been insensibly led, without the hopes of higher gratification than the pleasure they afforded, but a circumstance now occurred which may be considered as the first step of his progress to what finally constituted his fame as a scholar and public character. The circumstance is thus related by lord Teignmouth nearly in Mr. Jones's words.
"The king of Denmark, then upon a visit to this country (1768) had brought with him an eastern manuscript, containing the life of Nadir Shah, which he was desirous of having translated in England. The secretary of state with whom the Danish minister had conversed upon the subject, sent the volume to Mr. Jones, requesting him to give a literal translation of it in the French language; but he wholly declined the task, alleging for his excuse, the dryness of the subject, the difficulty of the style, and chiefly his want both of leisure and ability, to enter upon an undertaking so fruitless and laborious. He mentioned, however, a gentleman, with whom he was not then acquainted, but who had distinguished himself by the translation of a Persian history, and some popular tales from the Persic, as capable of gratifying the wishes of his Danish majesty. Major Dow, the writer alluded to, excused himself on account of his numerous engagements, and the application to Mr. Jones was renewed. It was hinted, that his compliance could be of no small advantage to him, at his entrance into life; that it would procure him some mark of distinction, which would be pleasing to him; and above all, that it would be a reflection upon this country, if the king should be obliged to carry the manuscript to France. Incited by these motives, and principally the last, unwilling to be thought churlish or morose, and eager for reputation, he undertook the work, and sent a specimen of it to his Danish majesty, who returned his approbation of the style and method, but desired that the whole translation might be perfectly literal, and the oriental images accurately preserved. The task would have been far easier to him, if he had been directed to finish it in Latin; for the acquisition of a French style was infinitely more tedious, and it was necessary to have every chapter corrected by a native of France, before it could he offered to the discerning eye of the public, since in every language there are certain peculiarities of idiom, and nice shades of meaning, which a foreigner can never attain to perfection. The work, however arduous and unpleasant, was completed in a year, not without repeated hints from the secretary's office, that it was expected with great impatience by the court of Denmark. The translation was not, however, published until 1770. Forty copies upon large paper were sent to Copenhagen: one of them, bound with uncommon elegance, for the king himself; and the others as presents to his courtiers."
What reward he received for this undertaking is but obscurely related. His Danish majesty, we are told, sent him a diploma, constituting him a member of the Royal Society of Copenhagen, and recommended him, in the strongest terms, to the favour and benevolence of his own sovereign. In all this there seems but an inadequate recompense for a work which at that time perhaps no person could have executed but himself.
His noble pupil being removed to Harrow, Mr. Jones had an opportunity of renewing his intimacy with Dr. Sumner, who had always estimated his talents and learning at their full value. While here, he transcribed a Persian grammar, which he had three years before composed for the use of a school-fellow destined for India, and also began a dictionary of the Persian language, in which the principal words were illustrated from the most celebrated authors of the East; but he appears to have been aware of the expense attending this work, and was unwilling to continue it, unless the East India company would purchase it. In the year 1770, he issued proposals for a new edition of Meninski's Dictionary. This appears to be what his biographer alludes to. It was to have been published in 1773, but the scheme was dropt for want of encouragement.
Amidst these occupations, so far beyond the common reach of literary industry, he became a serious inquirer into the evidences of Christianity, about which he appears at this time to have entertained some doubts. In this, as in all his studies his application was intense, and his inquiries conducted upon the fairest and most liberal principles. The result was a firm belief in the authenticity and inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, and a life dignified by purity of conduct and the exercise of every Christian virtue.
In 1770, he passed the winter on the continent with the Spencer family, during which, he informs one of his correspondents, his occupations were "music, with all its sweetness and feeling: difficult and abstruse problems in mathematics: and the beautiful and sublime in poetry and painting." He wrote also in English a tract on education in the analytical manner; a tragedy founded on the story of Mustapha who was put to death by his father Soliman; and made various translations from the oriental poets. He appears on this tour to have been less intent on those objects of curiosity which usually interest travellers, than on adding to his knowledge of languages, and habituating himself to composition in all its modes, from the gay and familiar letter of friendship, to the serious and philosophical disquisition. Of the tract on education just mentioned, a fragment only remains, which his biographer has published. It appears to include the plan which he pursued in his own case. The tragedy has been totally lost, except part of a preface, in which he professes to have taken Shakspeare for his model, not by adopting his sentiments, or borrowing his expressions, but by aiming at his manner, and by striving to write as he supposes he would have written himself, if he had lived in the eighteenth century. The loss of such a curiosity cannot be too much regretted, unless our regret should be lessened by reflecting on the hazard of any attempt to bring Shakspeare on the modern stage. It is surely not less difficult than that of Mason, who unsuccessfully strove to write as the Greek tragedians "would have written, had they lived in the eighteenth century."
On his return from this tour, he appears to have contemplated his situation as not altogether corresponding with the feelings of an independent mind, and with the views he entertained of aiming at the dignity and usefulness of a public character. The advice given by some of his friends, when he left Harrow school, probably now recurred to his memory, and was strengthened by additional and more urgent motives, for he finally determined on the law as a profession: and, having resigned his charge in lord Spencer's family, was admitted into the Temple on the nineteenth of September, 1770, in the twenty-fourth year of his age.
Those who consider the study of the law as incompatible with a mind devoted to the acquisition of polite literature, and with a taste delighting in frequent excursions to the regions of fancy, will be ready to conclude that Mr. Jones would soon discover an invincible repugnance to his new pursuit. But the reverse was in a great measure the fact. He found nothing in the study of the law so dry or laborious as not to be overcome by the same industry which had enabled him to overcome, almost in childhood, the difficulties which frequently deter men of mature years: and he was stimulated by what appears to have predominated through life, an honest ambition to rise to eminence in a profession which, although sometimes successfully followed by men of dull capacity, does not exclude the most brilliant acquirements. Still, however, while labouring to qualify himself for the bar, he regarded his progress in literature as too important or too delightful to be altogether interrupted, and from the correspondence published by lord Teignmouth, it appears that he snatched many an hour from his legal inquiries, to meditate plans connected with his oriental studies. What he executed, indeed, did not always correspond with what he projected, but we find that within the first two years of his residence in the Temple, he sketched the plan of an epic poem, and of a Turkish history, and published a French letter to Anquetil du Perron, who, in his Travels in India had treated the university of Oxford, and some of its learned members and friends of Mr. Jones, with disrespect. In this letter he corrected the petulance of the French writer with more asperity than perhaps his maturer judgment would have approved, but yet without injustice, for Perron stood convicted not only of loose invective, but of absolute falsehood. — Besides these Mr. Jones 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. As those elegant and original Essays are intimately connected with his Translations, no apology will be necessary for adding them to the present edition. Most of these poems had been written long before this period, but were kept back until they had received all the improvements of frequent revisal, and the criticisms of his friends.
From his first entrance into the university, until Michaelmas 1768, when he took his bachelor's degree, he had kept terms regularly, but from this period to 1773 only occasionally. During the Encaenia, in Easter-term 1773, he took his master's degree, and composed an oration which he intended to have spoken in the theatre; but which was not published till about ten years after. In the beginning of the year 1774, he published his Commentaries on Asiatic Poetry, which have been already noticed, as having been begun in 1766, and finished in 1769, when he was only in his twenty-third year. The same motives which induced him to keep back his poems prevailed in the present instance, a diffidence in his own abilities, and a wish to profit by more mature examination, as well as by the opinions of his friends. By the preface to this work it would appear that he was not perfectly satisfied with the profession in which he had engaged, and that had circumstances permitted he would have been better pleased to have devoted his days to all uninterrupted course of study. But such was his fate that he must now renounce polite literature; and having been admitted to the bar in 1774, he adhered to this determination inflexibly for some years, during which his books and manuscripts, except such as related to law and oratory, remained locked up at Oxford. He seems to have been seriously convinced that the new science he was about to enter upon was too comprehensive to admit of union with other studies, and he accordingly pursued it with his usual avidity, endeavouring to embrace the whole of jurisprudence in its fullest extent, and to make himself not only the technical but the philosophical lawyer. For some time he had but little practice, but it gradually came in, and with it a very considerable share of reputation. Towards the end of the year 1776, he was appointed a commissioner of bankrupts, a favour which he seems inclined to estimate beyond the value usually put upon it by professional men.
Notwithstanding his determination to suspend the study of ancient literature, there was a gratification in it which he found impossible to resign, while his practice continued so scanty as to afford him any disposable time. In the year last mentioned, we find him reading the Grecian orators again and again, and translating the most useful orations of Isaeus. Some part of his time likewise he devoted to philosophical experiments and discoveries, attended the meetings of the Royal Society, of which he had been elected a fellow in 1772, and kept up an extensive epistolary intercourse with many of the literati of Europe. In these letters, subjects of law seldom occur unless as an apology for his barrenness on topics more congenial. From the commencement of the unhappy contest between Great Britain and America, he was decidedly against the measures adopted by the mother country.
In 1778, he published his translation of the Orations of Isaeus, in causes concerning the succession to property at Athens; with a prefatory discourse, notes historical and critical, and a commentary. This work he dedicated to earl Bathurst, who among all his illustrious friends, was as yet his only benefactor, by conferring on him the place of commissioner of bankrupts. The elegant style, profound research, and acute criticism displayed in this translation attracted the applause of every judge of classical learning.
His next publication was a Latin Ode to Liberty, under the title of Julii Melesigoni ad Libertatem, a name formed by the transposition of the letters Gulielmus Jonesius. In this ode, the author of which was soon known, he made a more ample acknowledgment of his political principles, and this, it is feared, had an unfavourable influence on the hopes which he was encouraged to entertain of promotion by the then administration. In 1780, there was a vacant seat on the bench of Fort William in Bengal, to which the kindness of lord North led him to aspire, but for some time, he had very little prospect of success. During the time that this matter was in suspence, on the resignation of sir Roger Newdigate, he was advised to come forward as a candidate for the representation of the university of Oxford in parliament. But finding that there was no chance of success, he declined the contest before the day of election. His avowed principles on the great question of the American war were so decidedly hostile, not only to the measures pursued by administration, but to the sentiments entertained by the majority of the members of the university, that although he might be disappointed, he could not he surprised at his failure, and accordingly appears to have resigned himself to his former pursuits with tranquil satisfaction.
During this 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. His object is to prove that the common and statute laws of the realm then in force, give the civil state in every country a power, which, if it were perfectly understood, and continually prepared, would effectually quell any riot or insurrection, without assistance from the military, and even without the modern riot-act. 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, although suited to the state of popular opinion in that county.
During a short visit to Paris, he appears to have formed a design of writing a history of the war. On his return, however, he recurred to his more favourite studies, and his biographer had 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, Portuguese, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, German, and English, as the means of acquiring a more accurate knowledge of history, arts and sciences. With such wonderful acquisitions, he was now only in his thirty-third year.
In the winter of 1780-1, he found leisure to complete his translation of seven ancient poems of the highest reputation in Arabia, which, however, were not published till 1783, and he celebrated, about the same time, the nuptials of lord Althorpe with Miss Bingham, in an elegant ode entitled The Muse Recalled. In his professional line he published an Essay on the Law of Bailments; a subject handled under the distinct heads of analysis, history and synthesis: in which mode he proposed at some future period to discuss every branch of English law, civil and criminal, private and public. His object in all his legal discussions was to advance law to the honours of a science. It may be doubted which at this time predominated in his mind, his professional plans, or his more favourite study of the Eastern poets. He now, however, undertook a work in which he might gratify both duty and inclination, by translating an Arabian poem on the Mahommedan law of succession to the property of intestates. The poem had indeed but few charms to reward his labour by delighting his fancy, but in the prospect of obtaining a judge's seat in India, he forsaw advantages from every opportunity of displaying his knowledge of the Mohammedan laws.
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 Principles of Governmerit, 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.
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 April. During the voyage his mind was sensibly impressed with the importance of the public station he was now about to fill, and began to anticipate the objects of inquiry which would engage his attention, and the improvements he might introduce in India from the experience of a life, much of which had passed in acquiring a knowledge of its learning and laws. Among other designs, very honourable to the extent of his benevolent intentions, which he formed at his onset, we find the publication of the Gospel of St. Luke in the Arabic, the Psalms in Persian verse, and various law tracts in Persian and Arabic. He intended also to compose elements of the laws of England, a history of the American war, already noticed, and miscellaneous poems, speeches and letters, on subjects of taste, oratory or general polity. But the pressure of his official duties, during the short remainder of his life, prevented his completing most of those designs.
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 had left behind him the inconstancy and the turbulence of party, and felt no longer the anxieties of dependence and delay. New scenes were inviting his enthusiastic research, scenes which he had delighted to contemplate at a distance, and which promised to enlarge his knowledge as a scholar, and his usefulness as a public character. He was now brought into those regions whose origin, manners, language and religion had been the subject of his profound inquiries, and while his curiosity was heightened, he drew nearer to the means of gratification.
He had not been long in his new situation before he began, with his usual judgment, to divide his time into such regular portions, that no objects connected with duty or science should interfere. One of his first endeavours was to institute a society in Calcutta, the members of which might assist him in those scientific pursuits which he foresaw would be too numerous and extended for his individual labour: and he had no sooner suggested the scheme than it was adopted with avidity. The new association assembled for the first time in January 1784. The government of Bengal readily granted its patronage, and Mr. Hastings, then governor general, who had ever been a zealous encourager of Persian and Sanscrit literature, was offered the honorary title of president, but as his numerous engagements prevented his acquiescence, sir William Jones was immediately and unanimously placed in the chair. The importance of this society has been long acknowledged, and their Transactions are a sufficient testimony of their learning, acuteness and perseverance, qualities the more remarkable that they have been found in men most of whom embarked for India, with views of a very different kind, and which might have occupied their whole attention without their incurring the imputation of neglect or remissness. — To detail the whole of sir William Jones's proceedings and labours as president of this society would be to abridge their Transactions, of which he lived to see three volumes published, but the following passage from lord Teignmouth's narrative appears necessary to complete the sketch now attempted.
Soon after his arrival, "he determined to commence the study of the Sanscrit. His reflection had before suggested, that a knowledge of this ancient tongue would be of the greatest utility, in enabling him to discharge with confidence and satisfaction to himself, the duties of a judge, and he soon discovered, what subsequent experience fully confirmed, that no reliance could be placed on the opinions or interpretations of the professors of the Hindu law, unless he were qualified to examine their authorities and quotations, and detect their errours and misrepresentations. On the other hand, he knew that all attempts to explore the religion or literature of India, through any other medium than a knowledge of the Sanscrit, must be imperfect and unsatisfactory: it was evident, that the most erroneous and discordant opinions on these subjects, had been circulated by the ignorance of those who had collected their information from oral communications only, and that the pictures exhibited in Europe, of the religion and literature of India, could only be compared to the maps constructed by the natives, in which every position is distorted, and all proportion violated. As a lawyer, he knew the value and importance of original documents and records, and as a scholar and man of science, he disdained the idea of amusing the learned world with secondary information on subjects which had greatly interested their curiosity, when he had the means of access to the original sources. He was also aware, that much was expected by the literati of Europe, from his superior abilities and learning, and he felt the strongest inclination to gratify their expectations in the fullest possible extent."
The plan to be promoted by his knowledge of the Sanscrit was at this time very distant as to probability of execution, but he had carefully weighed it in his mind, and was gradually preparing the way for its accomplishment. It was, indeed, worthy of his great and liberal mind, to provide for the due administration of justice among the Indians, by compiling a digest of Hindu and Mohammedan laws, similar to that which Justinian gave to his Greek and Roman subjects. When he had made such progress in the language as might enable him to take a principal part in this important design, he imparted his views to lord Cornwallis, then (1788) governor general, in a long letter, which will ever remain a monument of his extensive understanding, benevolence and public spirit. That his plan met with acceptance from lord Cornwallis will not appear surprising to those who knew that excellent nobleman, who, while contemplating the honour which such an undertaking would confer on his own administration, conceived the highest hopes from sir William Jones's offer to co-operate or rather to superintend the execution of it. "At the period," says his biographer, "when this work was undertaken by sir William Jones, he had not resided in India more than four years and a half, during which time he had not only acquired a thorough knowledge of the Sanscrit language, but had extended his reading in it so far, as to be qualified to form a judgment upon the merit and authority of the authors to be used in the compilation of his work; and although his labour was only applied to the disposition of materials already formed, he was enabled by his previous studies to give them an arrangement superior to any existing, and which the learned natives themselves approved and admired. In the dispensations of Providence, it may be remarked, as an occurrence of no ordinary nature, that the professors of the Braminical faith should so far renounce their reserve and distrust, as to submit to the direction of a native of Europe, for compiling a digest of their own laws."
In 1789, the first volume of the Asiatic Researches was published, and the same year sir William Jones finished his translation of Sacontala, or the Fatal Ring, an ancient Indian drama, and one of the greatest curiosities that the literature of Asia had yet brought to light. In 1794, he published as an institute, prefatory to his larger work, a translation of the ordinances of Menu, who is esteemed by the Hindus the first of created beings, and not only the oldest, but the holiest of legislators. The judgment and candour of the translator, however, led him to appreciate this work no higher than it deserved, as not being calculated for general reading, but exhibiting the manners of a remarkable people in a remote age, as including a system of despotism and priest-craft, limited by law, yet artfully conspiring to give mutual support, and as filled with conceits in metaphysics and natural philosophy which might be liable to misconstruction. — Amidst these employments, he still carried on his extensive correspondence with his learned friends in Europe, unfolding with candour his various pursuits and sentiments, and expressing such anxiety about every branch of science as proved that even what he called relaxation was but the diversion of his researches from one channel into another. In addition to the various studies already noticed, botany appears to have occupied a considerable share of his attention, and in this, as in every new acquisition, he disdained to stop at a moderate progress, or be content with a superficial knowledge.
The indisposition of lady Jones, in 1793, rendered it absolutely necessary that she should return to England, and her affectionate husband proposed to follow her in 1795, but still wished to complete the system of Indian laws before he left the situation in which he could promote this great work with most advantage. But he had not proceeded long in this undertaking before symptoms appeared of that disorder which deprived the world of one of its brightest ornaments. The following account of his dissolution is given in the words of his biographer.
"On the evening of the twentieth of April, or nearly about that date, after prolonging his walk to a late hour, during which he had imprudently remained in conversation, in an unwholesome situation, he called upon the writer of these sheets, and complained of aguish symptoms, mentioning his intention to take some medicine, and repeating jocularly all old proverb, that, 'an ague in the spring is medicine for a king.' He had no suspicion at the time of the real nature of his indisposition, which proved in fact to be a complaint common in Bengal, an inflammation in the liver. The disorder was, however, soon discovered by the penetration of the physician, who, after two or three days, was called in to his assistance; but it had then advanced too far to yield to the efficacy of the medicines usually prescribed, and they were administered in vain. The progress of the complaint was uncommonly rapid, and terminated fatally on the 27th of April, 1794. On the morning of that day, his attendants, alarmed at the evident symptoms of approaching dissolution, came precipitately to call the friend who has now the melancholy task of recording the mournful event. Not a moment was left in repairing to his house. He was lying on his bed in a posture of meditation; and the only symptom of remaining life was a small degree of motion in the heart, which after a few seconds ceased, and he expired without a pang or groan. His bodily suffering, from the complacency of his features and the case of his attitude, could not have been severe: and his mind must have derived consolation from those sources where he had been in the habit of seeking it, and where alone, in our last moments, it can ever be found."
Thus ended the life of a man who was the brightest example of rational ambition, and of extensive learning, virtue and excellence that modern times have produced, a man who must ever be the subject of admiration, although it can happen to the lot of few to equal and perhaps of none to excel him. When we compare the shortness of his life with the extent of his labours, the mind is overpowered, yet his example, however disgraceful to the indolent, and even apparently discouraging to the humble scholar, will not be without the most salutary effects, if it be allowed to prove that no difficulties in science are insurmountable by regular industry, that the human faculties, can be exalted by exercise beyond the common degrees with which we are apt to be satisfied, and that the finest taste is not incompatible with the profoundest studies. It was the peculiar felicity of this extraordinary man, that the whole plan of his life appears to have been the best that could have been contrived to forward his views and to accomplish his character. In tracing its progress we see very little that could have been more happily arranged: few adverse occurrences, and scarcely an object of serious regret, especially when we consider how gently his ambition was chastened and his integrity purified by the few delays which at one time seemed to cloud his prospects.
But it is foreign to the design of the present writer, and it must be left to a very superior pen, to discuss the character of sir William Jones as a scholar, a philosopher, and a lawyer. He is introduced in this collection as a poet, and his claims are such as, it is hoped, will justify this step. The greater part of his poems, indeed, consist of translations, but they indicate a taste so greatly refined, that there can be no scruple in admitting him to a very high rank among modern poets. He has presented to the English reader a new set of images, and opened new sources of the sublime and the pathetic by familiarizing the scenery and manners of the eastern regions. The judgment with which those are selected leads us to regret, that his original productions are few, since it is universally acknowledged that, independent of the language and versification, both polished to a high degree of excellence, they are distinguished for true poetical fancy, ardour, and sensibility.