Few men cultivated the Muse, or prosecuted literary pursuits, under more auspicious and favourable circumstances than the subject of this memoir: exempt from pecuniary embarrassments, not perplexed with domestic inquietude, nor afflicted with corporeal ailments, the blessings, that this world affords, were offered to his acceptance with a liberal hand, and at the same time he possessed the inestimable gifts of taste, and a true relish for their enjoyment.
It appears somewhat surprising, and has doubtless been lamented by many, that amongst the numerous biographical treasures which within the last ten years have issued from the press, a distinct memoir of this exalted character (whose talents were equalled only by his virtues) should not have been hitherto published. To some few of his numerous admirers the following brief particulars relative to his life and writings, may not prove unacceptable.
WILLIAM MASON was born in the year 1725; his father, a clergyman of great respectability, held the vicarage of the Holy Trinity in Kingston upon Hull. Of the early part of his education, little is known; having been admitted of St. John's College, Cambridge, he took his first degree in 1745; from thence he removed to Pembroke Hall, of which society he was elected a Fellow in 1747; the degree of Master of Arts was conferred upon him two years afterwards, when he first distinguished himself as a poet, by an Ode on the Installation of the Duke of Newcastle, as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. One of his next poetical productions was Isis, an elegy, which occasioned an answer from Thomas Warton, in that noble poem entitled The Triumph of Isis, in which that celebrated writer endeavoured to rescue his favourite place of residence from the imputations cast upon it by his formidable rival. Mason's fame was however speedily secured by the publication of his drama of Elfrida in the year 1752; this was followed, after a short interval, by Caractacus, (wherein some of his finest odes were inserted,) but of these we shall have occasion to speak hereafter. In the year 1754 he took holy orders, and was fortunate enough to obtain the patronage of the Earl of Holdernesse, who procured for him an appointment of chaplain to his Majesty, and presented him with the valuable and beautiful rectory of Aston in Yorkshire, which he rendered, in the course of a few years, a most desirable residence, his taste successfully adopting that theory, which he recommended by the beauties of poesy in The English Garden. Previous to his leaving college, Mason was fortunate enough to attract the attention of Gray by his imitations of L'Allegro and II Penseroso, and from the congeniality of their pursuits and dispositions, a friendship was speedily contracted which terminated only in the decease of the latter in 1771. This circumstance exhibits, in an eminent degree, that warmth and fervour of affection which characterized Mason through life; he regarded the genius of Gray with an enthusiasm "bordering upon idolatry." And upon the melancholy event of his decease, he took upon himself the office of his biographer and the editor of such part of his works as were in a state fit for publication. The Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Mr. Gray were compiled in a manner at that time unprecedented, but which has been successfully imitated by later biographers in the respective Lives of Cowper, Sir William Jones, Beattie, and others. For adopting this plan, (which originated in a wish of incorporating in regular succession, such part of Mr. Gray's own correspondence as illustrated his literary and private life) Mason assigns the following judicious reasons.
"The method in which I have arranged the foregoing papers has, I trust, one degree of merit, that it makes the reader so well acquainted with the man himself as to render it totally unnecessary to conclude the whole with his character if I am mistaken in this point I have been a compiler to little purpose; and I chose to be this rather than a biographer, that I might do the more justice to the virtues and genius of my friend. I might have written his life in the common form, perhaps, with more reputation to myself, but surely not with equal information to the reader, for whose sake, I have never related a single circumstance of Mr. Gray's Life in my own words, when I could employ his for the purpose."
The connecting narrative, which thus alone fell to Mason's share, was executed by him in a manner highly creditable to his talents, and howsoever objectionable the plan may be in some respects, the work not only conferred honour upon the taste and feelings of the author, but placed the character and genius of his friend in a most favourable point of view.
Besides the church preferment which we have mentioned Mason to have obtained in the early part of his life, he was appointed Canon Residentiary and Precentor of the Cathedral of York. For the latter office, which he discharged with unwearied attention and ability, he was peculiarly qualified from his accurate knowledge of the science of music, and the warm affection he felt towards it, of which he evinced a very sufficient proof in the interesting Essays, historical and critical, on English Church Music, which he published in a 12mo vol. shortly previous to his decease. He was likewise a composer of cathedral music; and one of his anthems is held in the highest esteem from the psalmodic simplicity, which it possesses throughout. The invention of the pianoforte has also been ascribed to him. Of the sister art of painting he was a professed admirer, which no doubt actuated him towards the translation of Fresnoy's exquisite Latin poem; a work in which purity and elegance of style, and beauty of versification, are eminently conspicuous. Its intrinsic value was indeed considerably enhanced by the valuable notes with which Sir Jos. Reynolds illustrated the text. It first appeared in a 4to. vol. about the year 1783, and has since been incorporated with the works of that eminent painter.
In 1772 he published the first book of his English Garden, a didactic and descriptive poem in blank verse, of which the fourth and concluding book was printed in 1781. The purpose of this book was to recommend, by the charms of poetry, the modern system of natural, or landscape, gardening, which the writer adheres to with all the rigour of exclusive taste. The versification of the poem is formed upon the best models, and the description is, in many parts, rich and vivid; but a general air of stiffness, and the dry minuteness of the preceptive part, prevented it from attaining any considerable degree of popularity.
Some years previous to this period Mason married a lovely and most amiable woman, the daughter of William Sherman, Esq. of Kingston upon Hull, with whom he enjoyed the most perfect human happiness; too short, alas! for their union, was speedily dissolved by her premature decease, at the early age of twenty-eight. This alliance will be remembered as long as a true relish for poetical simplicity continues, from the pathetic and beautiful lines which his affection prompted him to inscribe upon her tomb in the cathedral of Bristol. He has also expressed his feelings at this affecting circumstance upon another occasion, with his accustomed elegance, in the Introduction to the English Garden, wherein he observes, that his principal stimulus to composition was
That agony of heart, which they alone,
Who best have lov'd, who best have been belov'd,
Can feel or pity.
He survived her near thirty years; his own death was occasioned by a hurt received in stepping from a carriage, which producing a mortification, carried him off in the mouth of April, 1797, in the seventy-second year of his age — bequeathing a name to posterity not more distinguished for exemplary worth and philanthropy, than for brilliancy of genius and talents, correctness of taste, and the most consummate skill and excellence as a writer. A monument was some few years since erected to his memory in the Poet's Corner, adjoining to that of Gray. The design is well executed by the late Mr. Bacon, and represents a figure of Poetry holding a medallion of the deceased, whose loss she is deploring. The inscription commemorates little more than his name and the day of his death.
Such are the lineaments of the life of Mason, which, like those of other distinguished literary characters, was principally devoted to a learned retirement, and is consequently destitute of any very striking incidents; if we except one period of it, when he took an active and zealous part in the political occurrences of the day, and upon the expulsion of Mr. Wilkes from the House of Commons, became a supporter of the Bill of Rights. Although it does not appear that he approved of the conduct of that gentleman, yet he joined the Yorkshire freeholders in a petition to the throne that Parliament should be dissolved. Some years afterwards, when a popular clamour was raised for a more equal distribution of the elective power, he likewise distinguished himself, and assisted in the drawing up those highly spirited resolutions, for which the Yorkshire committee became celebrated. His behaviour upon these public occasions having subjected him to the censure of some of his clerical brethren, he published a defence of his political proceedings, and afterwards received the thanks of the committee "for having stood forth a firm friend to the true interests of his country." His subsequent conduct however sufficiently evinced the warmth of his attachment to the British Constitution, by deserting his former associates at the commencement of the French Revolution, whereby he laid himself open to the attacks of the jacobin journalists, who traduced his character in a very indecorous and shameful manner.
As a dramatic writer his tragedies of Elfrida and Caractacus place him in a high situation. These plays, in which he aimed at the revival of the Greek chorus, were decidedly intended by the author for perusal only, and by no means for PUBLIC REPRESENTATION, against which, many obvious reasons present themselves. It has been well observed, "that the chorus is so evidently an appendage of the infant and imperfect state of the drama, and so manifestly injurious to the developement of plot, and the display of passion, that a pedantic attachment to the ancients, could alone suggest its revival." This well-founded objection, however, should not warp our minds against duly appreciating the incomparable beauties with which each abounds; of their respective merits it may he observed, that if Elfrida is more highly finished, Caractacus conveys the most interest; with the former we are captivated by the uncommon sweetness and elegance of the language, with the latter our feelings are roused by the eventful history it pourtrays, and by beholding the union of virtue and fortitude in suffering heroism. In short, the mind is pleased with the one; it is elevated and enlarged with the other. Mr. Gray, in a letter to one of his correspondents, gives the following just opinion upon this subject. "I am equally pleased with the great applause he (Count Algarotti) bestows on Mr. Mason; and particularly on Caractacus, which is the work of a man, whereas Elfrida is only that of a boy, a promising boy indeed, and of no common genius, yet this is the popular performance, and the other little known in comparison."
As a poet the name of Mason has generally accompanied that of Gray "as a modern competitor for the lyrical laurel;" and when we consider the high degree of culture which his talents had received, and the warm admiration with which he regarded the compositions of his friend, it is scarcely to be wondered that he should look up to a model of such distinguished excellence, and pursue a similar path to fame. Of his shorter compositions his elegies claim the principal share of our attention; they are, on many accounts, more gratifying to the general reader, from the redundancy of ornament, and "glittering imagery" being restricted, with which his more laboured odes are clothed in such lavish profusion. Of these, the one upon the Death of the Countess of Coventry, is probably entitled to the highest degree of commendation; not only from the elegance of style, which prevails throughout, but from the author's impressive reasoning on the doctrine of a future state, exhibiting in an eminent degree the piety and virtue of his mind. Indeed, the whole of Mason's writings are characterized by the most admirable strains of morality, not a line occurring, but "that a virgin without blush may read."
We are also enabled in this, and other of his elegies, to judge of the pathos and elegance, and the general smoothness and beautiful effect to which his versification had arrived. "The Description of Female Beauty," observes Dr. Aikin, "with which the above named poem commences, is wrought to a polished brilliancy, that Pope himself could not have surpassed."
Whene'er with soft serenity she smil'd,
Or caught the orient blush of quick surprise,
How sweetly mutable, how brightly wild,
The liquid lustre darted from her eyes!
Each look each motion wak'd a new-born grace,
That o'er her form its transient glory cast;
Some lovelier wonder soon usurp'd the place,
Chas'd by a charm still lovelier than the last.
I cannot better conclude these desultory observations, than with the following animated and appropriate lines (extracted from the Pursuits of Literature, p. 358, 6th edit.)
But whence that groan? no more Britannia sleeps,
But o'er her lost Musaeus bends and weeps.
Lo! every Grecian, every British Muse,
Scatters the recent flowers and gracious dews,
Where Mason lies; he sure their influence felt,
And in his breast each soft affection dwelt,
That Love and Friendship know; each sister art,
With all that colours and that sounds impart;
All that the sylvan theatre can grace,
All in the soul of Mason found their place.
A cotemporary poet, of high reputation, (the Rev. Mr. Gisborne) also expressed his feelings upon the death of Mason in an elegy of great pathos and beauty.