1783 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Mason

Anonymous, "Account of the Life and Writings of William Mason" European Magazine 4 (December 1783) 410-13.



This excellent writer has been so many years in the observation of the publick; his works have been so universally read, and so generally approved, that curiosity is naturally excited to enquire after those circumstances in his life, which distinguish him from the rest of the world, and give him a pre-eminence over the majority of his contemporaries; and, at least, an equality with the best of them.

The place of his birth is the same which derived celebrity from having produced another patriotic poet, the celebrated Andrew Marvell. This Mr. Mason himself mentions, in his admirable ODE TO INDEPENDENCE, the scene of which he has laid at his native town,

Here, on my native shore, reclin'd,
While silence rules this midnight hour,
I woo thee, Goddess! On my musing mind
Descend, propitious power!
Again.

As now o'er this lone beach I stray,
Thy fav'rite swain oft stole along,
And artless wove his Dorian lay,
Far from the busy throng.

The favourite swain here alluded to was the incorruptible patriot of Charles the Second's time, who was born at Kingston upon Hull, where Mr. Mason likewise began his life, as may be collected from circumstances, about the year 1725 or 1726. The father of our poet was a clergyman of that town; and it may be conjectured, that he received the early rudiments of his education at that place. At a proper age he was sent to Cambridge, and admitted a scholar of St. John's College. Here he took the degree of Batchelor of Arts, and produced some of his earliest works. The first piece which presents itself, is a Poem called IL BELLICOSO, written in 1744, but not printed until some years afterwards. About the same time the death of Mr. Pope, 30th May, 1744, gave occasion to that excellent performance, MUSAEUS, which fixed its author's reputation on the firmest basis, and was the means of introducing him to the notice of Mr. Gray. To the credit of both these gentlemen, the friendship between them continued, without abatement until they were divided by death.

It was in the year 1747, when this acquaintance began, "Some very juvenile imitations of Milton's juvenile poems, which I had written on Mr. Pope's death was the principal, he (Mr. Gray) then, at the request of one of my friends, was so obliging to revise. The same year, on account of a dispute which had happened between the master and fellows of Pembroke-Hall, I had the honour of being nominated by the fellows, to fill one of the vacant fellowships. I was at this time scholar of St. John's College, and batchelor of arts, personally unknown to the gentlemen who favoured me so highly; therefore, that they gave me this mark of distinction and preference, was greatly owing to Mr. Gray, who was well acquainted with several of that society; and to Dr. Heberden, whose known partiality to every even the smallest degree of merit, led him warmly to second his recommendation." This is Mr. Mason's own account, but though nominated in 1747, he was not elected fellow till February 1749, on a compromise, after an ineffectual litigation of two years, occasioned by the master's having refused his assent, and claiming a negative.

It is entertaining to read the sentiments of great men concerning one another. Mr. Gray's opinion of his friend, at this time, was conceived in the following terms: "He has much fancy, little judgment and a good deal of modesty; I take him for a good well meaning creature; but then he is really in simplicity a child, and loves every body he meets with: He reads little or nothing; writes abundance, and that with a design to make his fortune by it."

The year 1748 gave the publick ISIS, a poem, intended to stigmatize the Jacobitical principles then prevalent at the University of Oxford. This piece, written with great spirit and freedom, and in a vein of poetry, little inferior to any other performance of the same author, was replied to, with equal fire, by Mr. Thomas Warton, in THE TRIUMPH OF ISIS. Mr. Mason's poem was first surreptitiously printed at Chester, which was the ostensible reason for presenting a correct copy to the publick. It is however, with all its excellencies, at present abandoned by its author, and is not admitted into the edition of his works. In this year he produced IL PACIFICO, a poem on the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle; and printed in the Cambridge collection of verses on that occasion.

About this time he took the degree of master of arts, with little credit as it is reported, having made but a slender progress in the study of mathematicks; then, and still, the principal road to preferment and reputation at the university of Cambridge. The whig principles which he had espoused in his ISIS, and the same which he had acquired, pointed him out in the year 1749, as a proper person to write the ode on the installation of the Duke of Newcastle. This piece which, says Mr. Gray, "with some little abatements, I think uncommonly well on such an occasion," has met with a fate similar to ISIS, being rejected by its author from his works and condemned to oblivion.

As nothing can be more satisfactory, than the opinion of such a man as Mr. Gray, we shall here set down his sentiments of our author, after more than a year's acquaintance. In a letter dated August 8, 1749, he says, "the author of it (i.e. The Installation ode) grows apace into my good graces, as I know him more; he is very ingenious, with great good nature and simplicity; a little vain, but in so harmless and so comical a way, that it does not offend one at all; a little ambitious, but withal so ignorant of the world and its ways, that this does not hurt him in one's opinion, so sincere and so undisguised, that no mind with a spark of generosity, would ever think of hurting him, he lies so open to injury: but so indolent, that if he cannot overcome this habit all his good qualities will signify nothing at all." After the installation ode, Mr. Mason's muse was silent until the year 1752, when it produced the most successful, though not the most excellent of his works. This was ELFRIDA, a dramatick poem, written on the model of the Greek tragedy; a work which will transmit the author's name with honour to the latest posterity. In the succeeding hear he lost his father and one of his intimate friends.

Whether Mr. Mason had not yet resolved on the profession to which he should devote himself, or whether he waited until he was certain of a provision in the church, we know not, but it was not until 1754 that he entered into holy orders, and in November of the same year was presented, by the Earl of Holdernesse, to the valuable living of Aston in Yorkshire, and appointed one of the King's chaplains. On this occasion Mr. Garrick wrote some verses, which were printed in the Gray's Inn Journal.

In 1756 he published FOUR ODES on Independency, Memory, Melancholy, and the Fate of Tyranny; and in 1759 appeared CARACTACUS, dedicated to his friend, Mr. now Bishop Hurd. The pathos, spirit and correctness of this classical performance have not been exceeded, if equalled by any contemporary writer.

Until about this time, Mr. Mason's poetry had been received with avidity by the publick, and obtained that position of praise which it was intitled to from its intrinsick merit. At this period, he experienced one of the effects of popularity, an effort to expose him to ridicule. This was executed with much humour by Messrs. Lloyd and Colman, in Two Odes, burlesquing equally Mr. Mason and his friend Gray. Mr. Churchill also joined against our poet, and introduced him in The Prophecy of Famine in no very respectful manner.

His Elegies appeared in 1761, and we find in that year he had expectations of being promoted to a residentaryship in the cathedral of York, an event which did not take place. He, however, obtained the precentorship of that church in the succeeding year. In 1764 he collected his Poems, and published them with some alterations in a volume.

The press ceased to be employed by him for some time. He had married a lady, whose valetudinarian state of health claimed all that regard which affection could bestow on a beloved object. His attention however was ineffectual, as the lady died at Bristol in March 1767, lamented by her husband in the tenderest manner. The epitaph The epitaph which he placed over her remains, we doubt not will last as long as the Fabrick which contains it. She was buried in Bristol Cathedral.

Five years elapsed from this time before any other work by Mr. Mason appeared. He then printed the 1st book of The English Garden. In the same year his former antagonist, Mr. Colman, introduced to the stage ELFRIDA, set to musick by Dr. Arne. It was received with great applause, but gave occasion to the interchange of some very acrimonious letters between the author, who had not been consulted in this exhibition, and the manager, which the prudence of friends have probably prevented from seeing the light.

On the 30th of July 1771 died Mr. Gray, and left the publication of his posthumous works to our author, who immediately undertook to give an edition of them, which should do credit to the memory of his friend. A law-suit, which he had with a bookseller about a few lines taken from this publication, not being calculated to reflect honour upon him, we shall forbear to enter into the particulars of it.

In 1776 he adapted CARACTACUS to the stage and produced it at Covent-Garden, but with inferior success to ELFRIDA. This latter also, in 1779, was revised and altered by him, and with new musick, by Giardini, again brought forwards at the same theatre. We are told also, that he has written a drama on the subject of Cupid and Psyche, which has been set by the same composer, but this piece has hitherto been withheld from the publick.

In the latter years of Mr. Mason's life, he has directed his attention to politics, and has been forward to promote the interests of a party, in opposition to the crown. Whether he is actuated by patriotism, or disappointment, we pretend not to determine; certain it is, that his exertions on this occasion have been conducted with a degree of violence, which the early part of his life gave no signs of. He is supposed to have been concerned in a periodical paper, called The Yorkshire Freeholder, in which The Tale of King Stephen's Watch is particularly pointed out, as one of his compositions. He has also published an ode to Admiral Keppel, and one to William Pitt, Esq. and has been suspected of writing both the heroic and archeological epistles.

His last works are, THE ENGLISH GARDEN compleat in 4 books, with a commentary by Mr. Burgh, and a translation of Du Fresnoy's art of painting, with notes by Joshua Reynolds. To both these performances considerable praise is due. He has also lately been honoured by Mr. Hayley with an address of his essay on epic poetry, in which he is recommended to attempt the arduous task of emulating the great poets of antiquity, in that sublime and difficult species of composition. An undertaking we should be happy to announce to our readers a prospect of seeing completed.