Poets, viewed as to the quality of their writings, may be fairly divided into the following classes. There are, first, the equable, highly polished, and equal writers, like Pope — in whom there are neither great swellings nor great sinkings. There are, second, the fluctuating, uncertain, untutored, but divinely-inspired children of genius, like Shakspeare — whose faults, although not equal to their beauties, either in number or in degree, are yet sufficiently numerous, and sufficiently marked, to disturb somewhat the pleasure with which their writings are read. There is, thirdly, that class of gifted and cultured minds to which Milton belonged — whose beauties and blemishes are alike colossal; the former, however, outnumbering the latter; and the latter springing more from the necessary limitations and inevitable weakness of the human mind itself, than from individual imperfection. There is, fourthly, a class of wealthy but careless minds, like Butler's — who throw out masses of unpolished ore, mingled inseparably with much dross. There is, again, a school of writers, all whose writings, amidst their brilliance, truth, and depth, are affected with a species of morbid weakness, and whose poetry reminds you of a fine voice cracked. And there is another class still, whose general works are inferior, but who, in happier moods, have thrown off some genuine inspirations, which reflect a lustre on their other writings, and secure themselves an imperishable name. It is with this last-mentioned class that we are disposed to rank Shenstone and his poetry. The fact of his having written the Schoolmistress and the Pastoral Ballad, alone entitles him to be ranked amongst the classical poets of our literature.
WILLIAM SHENSTONE was born on the 18th of November 1714, at the place afterwards famous as the Leasowes, in the district of Hales-Owen, — a district which, although thirty miles distant from any part of Shropshire, and surrounded by Warwickshire and Worcestershire, is held to belong to Shropshire; a fact which will remind a Scotchman of the similar case of Broughty Ferry, near Dundee, which belongs legally to the parish of Caputh, in the Stormonth, although it be more than twenty-five miles distant from it. His father, Thomas Shenstone, was proprietor of the small estate of the Leasowes, and is described as a person of much good sense, although of limited information. His mother was Ann Penn, of the Penns of Harborough, an ancient family who had a property in the parish of Hagley, of which, after the death of her brother, she became co-heiress, and left to her son an income from her moiety, of £300 a year. William was sent first to the school of an old woman named Sarah Lloyd, who sat afterwards for the picture of the Schoolmistress. He became early enamoured of books, and stipulated that when any of the family went to market, they should bring him back a new volume, which, if he had retired to rest, was carried to his bed and laid beside him. If this at any time was neglected, his mother is said to have wrapped up a piece of wood of the same form, and thus satisfied him till morning. He was transferred afterwards from his "dame school" to the Grammar, school of Hales-Owen, and thence to an academy at Solihul, near Birmingham, kept by a Mr. Crumpton, where most of the gentlemen's and noblemen's sons in the neighbourhood received their education. Here he distinguished himself by the quickness of his acquisitive powers and by his diligence. He was very early left alone in the world. His mother, father, grandfather, and, some time after, his only brother died, and he was cast on the care of his grandmother, who also managed the estate. In 1732, he was sent to Pembroke College, Oxford, — a college celebrated for having reared Johnson, Sir William Blackstone, and many other distinguished men, and which Johnson, in allusion to this, called a "nest of singing-birds." About this time his grandmother died, and the management of his affairs devolved on the Rev. Mr. Dolman of Brome, in Staffordshire, who approved himself a kind and faithful guardian.
At college Shenstone appears to have been happier than at any other period of his life. He intermingled social enjoyments with regular if not hard study, and became the centre of a little circle of youths of similar pursuits. Such were Whistler and Graves, the latter of whom became a very accomplished person, and has left some interesting, although short and slight reminicences of his friend the poet. Pembroke College, like all other colleges, in times past and present, was subdivided into a number of smaller societies or clubs, collected through the attraction of common mental or physical tastes. Mr. Graves gives rather a picturesque account of these little societies: one being a "very sober little party, who amused themselves in the evening with reading Greek and drinking water;" another, a "set of jolly, sprightly young fellows, who drank ale, smoked tobacco, punned, and sung bacchanalian catches the whole evening;" a third, consisting of gentlemen commoners, who (like the bear-leader in Goldsmith, who detested everything low, and made his bear dance only to the "genteelest tunes") "considered the abovementioned as very LOW company (on account of the liquor they drank), and treated their novices with port-wine and arrack punch, keeping late hours, and drinking their favourite toasts on their knees; and a fourth, which formed a sort of flying squadron of plain, sensible, matter-of-fact men, confined to no club, but associating occasionally with each party." Mr. Graves met Mr. Shenstone in each of these clubs (except that of the water-drinkers!) by turns, and gradually became intimate with him, as well as with Mr. Whistler, who gave some promise at that time of becoming a tolerable poet. The three were inseparable — read plays and Spectators, sipped Florence wine, and from writing satirical characters of each other, began to shut themselves up, and lampoon the whole college — conduct which transpired, and made them anything but popular.
Shenstone took no honours, nor even a degree, at college, although he employed himself in the usual studies of mathematics, logic, natural and moral philosophy, with considerable assiduity and success. He made few acquaintances, besides Graves, Whistler, and Jago, who became afterwards well known as a minor poet — author of a pathetic elegy on Blackbirds, a poem on Edgehill, and some other ingenious pieces. Shenstone himself was chiefly remarkable for what was then counted the odd practice of wearing his own hair, which, being coarse in quality, little tended or dressed by its owner, and floating down over a large, ungainly person, excited some ridicule, and constituted him one of the characters in the college. After attending at Pembroke for four years, he put on the civilian's gown, but never went further in that direction. He continued his name on the college books for a considerable number of years after he had left, whether with any purpose of again resuming a university life we cannot tell. It was, we think, a pity for himself that he did not subside permanently into a Fellow. In this case, he would have written quite as much poetry, and been a happier man than when cultivating in the country his whims, his melancholy, and his Leasowes; only we should have lost that beautiful creation!
At the age of nineteen he had commenced his literary career, by writing a little mock-heroic poem, entitled The Diamond — one of a whole fry of productions which at that time were seeking in vain to imitate the inimitable Rape of the Lock. Pope, indeed, might have filled another Dunciad with the names of his then rivals in that limited but exquisitely elegant and perfect circle of art which he first drew, as with a magic wand. Shenstone's poem was neither better nor worse than its neighbours. In 1737, when not more than twenty-three, he published, at Oxford, a Miscellany of small pieces, without his name, which, like the famous treatises on Monogamy by the Vicar of Wakefield, were only read by "the happy few" of his personal friends; and if they did not lose, certainly did not gain him either reputation or money. Somewhere about this time, too, he drew the first sketch of his Schoolmistress; but, deeming the subject low, delayed to publish it, applied himself to The Judgment of Hercules instead, as to a loftier theme, and completed and printed it in 1740.
Previous to this he had come of age, and, of course, to the possession of his paternal property, the Leasowes; of his patrimony by the mother's side; and, through the unexpected death of his maternal uncle, to another moiety of the Harborough estate — the whole constituting what would even now be considered a decent competence for a private gentleman. Going down, he found the house at the Leasowes occupied by the tenant of the farm, and, instead of lodging or boarding there, or in the neighbourhood, he rather prematurely set up house at Harborough. The house there, an old and timber-built structure of the Elizabethan period, was situated amidst ancient oaks and elms, skirted by the waters of a large pond, and surrounded by a colony of rooks, whose perpetual cawings served to feed that gentle melancholy which pervaded Shenstone's amiable, but sluggish nature. Here he lingered so long, that when the session of college came round, he had not the resolution to return; and, indeed, seldom trode the courts of Pembroke College any more. He might now be seen instead, with his long hair and heavy visage, loitering in his garden, or half-sleeping beneath the shade of his old oaks, a pocket-copy of Terence lying before him on the ground, or scrawling verses on the wall of his summerhouse. Mr. Graves visited him at this time, and they spent a month very agreeably in helping each other to be idle. We quote the following lively little anecdote from that gentleman's volume:—
"We were one day engaged in a warm debate, in which I think I had the upper hand, and drove my antagonist, to a painful dilemma, and with exultation pursued my advantage so far, that Mr. Shenstone grew angry; and our trifling dispute terminated on each side in a sullen silence, to which, as Mr. Shenstone would not vouchsafe to break first, I, from a youthful spirit of independence, disdained to submit; so that, although we ate and drank together, this pouting humour continued, and we never spoke to each other for two days. At last, as I was never much addicted to taciturnity, and it was pain and grief to me to keep silence, I wrote upon the wall in a summer-house in the garden a line from Anacreon:—
[Greek characters] which I translated — 'I will, I will be witty.' Under this, Mr. Shenstone wrote this distich:—
Matchless on earth I thee proclaim,
Whose will and power I find the same.
This produced a reply on my side; that a rejoinder on his; till at last the ill-fated wall was scribbled from top to bottom; which the next morning was succeeded by a laugh at each other's folly, and a cordial reconciliation."
We may parody a well known saying thus, "When Cupid finds a man idle, he straightway gives him work." Shenstone about this time, having little else to do, chose to fall in love. His passion, for some time, seems to have veered between various heroines. One (a Miss M—) he admired and sung for her dancing. Another, a Miss Utrecia Smith ("Phoebus, what a name!") daughter of a clergyman, he admired and sung for her not dancing. A Miss G—, too, took him captive for some time. Finally, however, his fickle heart was first tickled, and then fastened to a Miss C—, whom he met at Cheltenham, and for a number of years afterwards he strove hard to convince himself and the world, by sundry elegies and so forth, that he loved her to desperation. Dr. Johnson breaks down the romance of this story by asserting, that the lover might have married his lady if he had chosen; and perhaps Shenstone, at the close, like uncle John in Salmagundi, consoled himself by saying to his companions, "Boys, I might have had her;" but we are tempted to suspect that a nature so sluggish, self-complacent, and fond of serious trifling as his, was incapable of a grand passion, and that all his raptures and sorrows, as reflected in the Pastoral Ballad, were as fictitious in substance as in form — as much a make-believe in actual experience as in verbal expression. Mr. Graves, on the other hand, asserts that he never could have dreamed of securing Miss C—, whose sister had married a baronet, and who moved in the highest circles, as his wife.
Meanwhile, besides his musings under his old elms, and his visits to his inamoratoe, he was occasionally taking little trips, now to London, and now to Bath, to acquaint himself with the men and the manners of his time. In 1740, he had published, as we have seen, his Judgment of Hercules, dedicated to Lord Lyttelton, who was his neighbour, and whom he had strongly supported at an election. This was followed the next year by the completion and publication of his delectable Schoolmistress. His Pastoral Ballad he had sketched while in love with Miss G—; but, after his Juliet, Miss C—, had supplanted his Rosalind, he contrived at once to accommodate the poem to her, and to stretch out its very elastic materials into its present four parts. In 1745, Mr. Dolman, whose kind providence had saved Shenstone all trouble in the management of his estate, dying, the whole of its care fell upon the poetical landlord. After seeking for a while to evade the burden, and trying to live with his tenants, he was compelled to take the whole estate into his own hands, and proceeded to show how a poet can improve and embellish a landed property.
Shenstone, indeed, is more remembered as the beautifier of the Leasowes than he is admired as the author of the Pastoral Ballad. As Augustus boasted that he found Rome brick and left it marble, so our poet found his property a mass of commonplace confusion, and left it a garden of Alcinous. The place, indeed, originally possessed two great elements of beauty, wood and water, but they were utterly disorganized and irregular till this master-spirit — for in landscape-gardening so he was — proceeded to arrange, combine, and embellish them. "From this time," says Johnson, "he began to point his prospects, to diversify his surface, to entangle his walks, and to wind his waters; which he did with such judgment and such fancy as made his little domain the envy of the great, and the admiration of the skilful; a place to be visited by travellers and copied by designers." "Whether," he adds, to plant a walk in undulating curves, and to place a bench at every turn where there is an object to catch a view; to make water run where it will be heard, and stagnate where it will be seen; to leave intervals where the eye will be pleased, and to thicken the plantation where there is something to be hidden — demands any great powers of mind I will not inquire: perhaps a sullen and surly spectator may think such performances rather the sport than the business of human reason." We think Sir Walter Scott, and Hugh Miller in his First Impressions of England, have taken a juster and milder view of Shenstone's proceedings in this matter. If his conduct was a craze, it was a harmless one, and one which has produced very beautiful results. Better the madness of a Shenstone planting trees than that of others, Hercules-like, tearing them up by the roots. Before looking into Mr. Miller's volume, we had prepared to jot down two of the remarks we find him making. The name of the Leasowes had suggested to us, as to him, Abbotsford, and we were about to call it, as he has called it, the finest poem Shenstone ever composed. Yet has it, we think, some marks of the limitations of his genius. It was not his fault that his space and his materials were scanty; but we think his method was distinguished rather by ingenuity than by breadth and boldness. There was too much artifice, too many small surprises, too many seats, and urns, and obelisks; all which artificialities, by the way, according to Mr. Miller, have now perished. Scott's Abbotsford was garnished by a sterner taste, and with a more profound knowledge of nature's effects. Both these were the handiwork of poets, and yet we are not sure if either can be compared to the estate once possessed and beautified by a man of far less pretension, the late Lord Adam Gordon. We refer to The Burn, Kincardineshire, — a scene which, whether we consider its natural advantages of rock, wood, wild mountain-stream, bleak hills, and dark pines bending around velvet lawns, and sunny gardens, or the admirable skill with which its walks have been laid out so as to catch the innumerable fine points of view, and thus to unify the whole, or the taste with which the few artificial edifices, fog-houses, towers, &c., have been placed, as if they had dropt down at precisely the proper spots, is the richest, most varied, and delightful combination of the beauties of art and nature we ever beheld.
Alike Shenstone and Scott wanted space enough, and money enough, for the full execution of their ideal; and both ruined themselves by the speculation. But we could conceive nothing finer in its way, than a man of princely fortune and poetic genius, taking up some large district in our Highlands — including, if possible, some gigantic Ben as the centre of the scene — and expending his time, means, and taste in beautifying still more what was beautiful, in adorning what was tame, in reforming with reverent hand Nature's grand errors, in casting a "browner horror" on the forests, in veiling vastitudes of desolation with woods, in muffling and deepening the voice of cataracts and streams, — in doing all, in short, that a wise art can do to add to the rich effects and harmonious completeness of a sublime and solitary Nature. This would embalm his name as effectually as a noble epic; and if asked for his works, he could reply, "Circumspice! that romantic region, which, in losing something of its savageness, has lost no grandeur, and gained much grace and beauty, is my poem, and it shall praise me for ever before the sun!"
We confess ourselves, having never seen the Leasowes, wholly unable to form a distinct image of that miniature model paradise Shenstone made it, and of course entirely disqualified to describe it to our readers. We refer them, however, to Dodsley's description, inserted in some editions of Shenstone's poems, to Graves' Recollections, and to the eighth and ninth chapters of Miller's work. Dodsley gives delightful side-views of the scenery, paints it in parts and parcels, although he never makes us see it as a whole. Graves describes, very pleasantly and graphically, the various steps by which Shenstone made the Leasowes become what it at last was — traces as it were the whole process of the transfiguration — gives us a vivid idea of the gradual growth of the landscape-lyric. And Hugh Miller, although, as usual with him, he intermingles with his descriptions many technical terms, and talks much of trap rocks and secondary formations, has, with even more than his usual power, painted the general aspect of the fairy scene. To supply our own inevitable lack of service on the subject, we shall give an extract from each of the three writers. Here, first, is Dodsley's picture of Shenstone's waterfall:—
"The eye is here presented with a fairy vision, consisting of an irregular and romantic fall of water, one hundred and fifty yards in continuity; and a very striking and unusual scene it affords. Other cascades may have the advantage of a greater descent and a larger stream, but a more wild and romantic appearance of water, and at the same time strictly natural, is difficult to be met with anywhere. The scene, though small, is yet aggrandized with such art, that we forget the quantity of water which flows through this close and overshadowed valley, and are so much pleased with the intricacy of the scene, and the concealed height whence it flows, that we, without reflection, add the idea of magnificence to that of beauty. In short, it is only upon reflection that we find that the stream is not a Niagara, but rather a waterfall in miniature; and that by the same artifice upon a larger scale, were there large trees instead of small ones, and a river instead of a rill, a scene so formed would exceed the utmost of our ideas."
This cascade is now only a long dark trench, covered with wood, and crusted with mosses. Graves speaks thus of it:—
"This cascade was absolutely no more than a mere ditch, or hedge-row of hazels and other common brushwood; but by clearing away the briers and thorns, and showing the water busily huddling down amidst the roots and glittering through the stems of the trees, it has an uncommonly beautiful effect."
We give one other extract from this pleasing describer:—
"He had a bold ridge of rocks surrounded and almost covered by an amphitheatre of oaks, beeches, and other forest trees, yet, alas! no water but what ran above sixty feet below it. He had a copious stream, however, on the heights above his beautiful valley at about half a mile distant, which, by taking the level, he soon discovered might be brought to the edge of the precipice. Thither, in a few hours, it was accordingly conducted; and falling impetuously sixty feet down the rocks, then winding through the rough fragments of alabaster, tufted with aquatic plants, it loses itself amid the shade of laurels and other elegant shrubs; but forms, at the bottom of the valley, a beautiful piece of water, shaded by hanging woods, and adorned with a few buildings, which enliven, without violating, the simplicity of that beautiful Arcadian scene."
Hugh Miller wields a bolder pencil:—
"Let the reader imagine the side of a hill furrowed by a transverse valley, opening at right angles into the great front valley, and separating at top into two forks or branches, that run up, shallowing as they go, to near the hill top. Let him, in short, imagine this great valley a broad right line, and the transverse forked valley a gigantic letter Y resting on it. And this forked valley on the hill side, this letter Y, is the Leasowes. The picturesqueness of such a position can easily be appreciated. The forked valley, from head to gorge, is a reclining valley, partaking along its bottom of the slope of the eminence on which it lies, and thus possessing, what is by no means common among the valleys of England, true down-hill water-courses, along which the gathered waters may leap in a chain of cascades; and commanding, in its upper recesses, extended prospects of the country below. It thus combines the scenic advantages of both hollow and rising ground — the quiet seclusion of the one, and the expansive landscapes of the other. The broad valley into which it opens is rich and well wooded. Just in front of the opening, we see a fine sheet of water, about twenty acres in extent, the work of the monks; immediately to the right, stand the ruins of the abbey; immediately to the left, the pretty compact town of Hales-Owen lies grouped around its fine old church and spire; a range of green swelling eminences rises beyond; beyond these, fainter in the distance, and considerably bolder in outline, ascends the loftier range of the trap-hills, one of them roughened by the tufted woods, and crowned by the obelisk at Hagley; and over all, blue and shadowy on the far horizon, sweeps the undulating line of the mountains of Cambria."
These descriptions must excite an eager desire to see the Leasowes, although it has been sadly changed since Shenstone's time, by a succession of tasteless and ignorant proprietors; its hedges clipped, its dark serpentine walks untwisted and cleared, its cascades converted into dry ditches, its root-houses, obelisks, and seats torn down or turned into fuel, its memorial urns kicked down hill, its fawns robbed of their heads; and those ingenious inscriptions on which the poet so much prided himself (preserved in this edition), blotted out — "the tablet in the dingle suddenly failing to compliment Mr. Spence, and Virgil's grove no longer exhibiting the name of Virgil." "Sic transit gloria mundi" — of that little world of beauty and taste which Shenstone, with such admirable skill, collected around him.
Amid all this, the proprietor of the estate was not happy, and had not a little to mar the unity, confuse the proportions, and disturb the peace of that brilliant dream he was incarnating about him. His house was neglected and ruinous. There might be Eden around, but in the midst there was not a bower, but a barrack. Hagley Park, too, was near; and he felt now overwhelmed by its superior size and splendour, and now annoyed by the intrusion of its numerous visitors into his grounds without leave being asked from, or gratitude expressed to, the proprietor. He was, besides, alone, and had no female friend to whom to whisper, "How sweet this solitude is!" And worst of all, his income, being limited, and his expenses in beautifying his estate great, creditors began to appear, apparently admiring his cascades and his views, but in reality watching the owner, and benevolently destining him to a change of residence, and a removal to shades considerably deeper than any which lowered over the winding walks of the Leasowes. By dint of anticipating the resources of his estate, however, he was enabled to put off the evil day; and although he had, he said, "lost the way to happiness," he contrived to make his life endurable by prosecuting light and elegant avocations — drawing, studying natural history, writing lively letters to his friends, jotting down vigorous reflections in prose, and inditing in verse those pretty trifles which he chose to call poetry.
From the year 1740 to 1746, Shenstone had visited at intervals London, Bath, Cheltenham, and other places; but from that date he seldom stirred far from home. In summer, he had only too many visitors, including many of the gentry and nobility. In winter, he was left to his own company, and to that of indolence, lassitude, and bad spirits. It was then regret for the loss of literary society, and especially of that he had occasionally enjoyed in London, came keenly upon his mind. Shenstone, although he had led a sequestered life, was far enough from being a self-contained, self-reliant, self-satisfied man. There was some truth in what Gray said of him, that he "lived in retirement against his will," and had little enjoyment of his place except when people of note came to see and commend it. It must be granted, however, that when he could shake off his habitual indolence, he was capable of generous and disinterested actions, was attentive to his relatives, and delighted in patronising rising merit. It was through his encouragement that Percy was induced to publish his Reliques of Ancient Poetry. Shenstone even assisted him in the work, so that it was partly through him that Percy, formerly an obscure country clergyman, obtained fame, distinction, and a bishopric. About this time he became intimate with Dodsley the publisher, — a remarkable man, originally a footman, but who, by dint of industry and talent, rose to a prominent position as a publisher, and to considerable eminence as an author. Dodsley furnished Shenstone with literary intelligence and every new publication of merit; and Shenstone, in return, gave him his advice and aid in the conduct of his Miscellany and the publication of his Fables.
Shenstone, through his noble friends, had been flattered with hopes of a pension. Indeed, it is said the patent had been ordered to be made out, when his death rendered it needless. He had gone on a visit to Lord Stamford, at Envile, and had caught cold on his return. This cold neglected became a putrid fever, under which he sunk on the 11th of February 1763. He was buried by the side of his brother in the churchyard of Hales-Owen, and lies in the very centre of the beautiful spot now identified for ever with his name.
As a character, Shenstone was rather passively amiable than actively virtuous. His friends loved him, and perhaps the world might have loved him too, had it known him as well. He had no vices, and his foibles were sufficiently harmless. He was in person tall, clumsily built, carelessly dressed, with heavy, unanimated features. Dodsley and Graves outvie with each other in their commendations of his private character. He was sceptical for a long time, but became latterly much impressed with the truth of religion.
His writings consist of "Essays on Men, Manners, and Things," Letters, and Poems. We are inclined to rank the first of these as the best and fullest expression of what their author was — a man of much accomplishment, good sense, and with more talent than genius. Many of his aphorisms are as pointed as they are true. He says, for example, "A poet that fails in writing becomes often a morose critic. The weak and insipid white wine makes at length a figure in vinegar." "Every good poet includes a critic; the reverse will not hold." "Poetry and consumption are the most flattering of diseases." "Young has a surprising knack of bringing thoughts from a distance, from their lurking-places, in a moment's time." "People say, 'Do not regard what a man says, now he is in liquor:' perhaps it is the only time he ought to be regarded." "It is one species of despair to have no room to hope for any addition to one's happiness." "A man has generally the good or ill qualities he attributes to mankind." There are several hundred similar sentences sprinkled through the book, which prove Shenstone a thinker, — a fact which you could with difficulty deduce from his poetry. Few volumes of poems contain less thought than his.
His Letters are filled with the little complaints, the little gratifications, the little journeys, the little studies, and the little criticisms, of one whom indolence and rustication had reduced to a little man. They are, however, lively and agreeably written, although not quite free from affectation, and give us pleasant resurrectionary glimpses of a life and a society which have been dead for a hundred years. It is delightful to come back with Shenstone from a walk in the woods, and to find James Thomson, of The Seasons, waiting for us in the parlour; to get the first quarto edition of Akenside's Pleasures of Imagination sent down to us by the mail-coach; and, along with all the world in 1754, to read and weep over Sir Charles Grandison, new from the press. The worst thing in Shenstone's correspondence is a small querulousness, which sends a jarring undertone through all its otherwise amusing pages. His very misery is of a Lilliputian stature. He seems once or twice actually annoyed because his visitors praised the nature exhibited in the Leasowes more than the art, and more than the poetry of its beautifier!
We come now to an examination of his poetical works, or, more strictly speaking, his poetical effusions, for only a few of his poems seem to have cost him any trouble; and he very narrowly escaped being one of the "mob of gentlemen who write with ease." The Preface to his Elegies is much better than his elegies themselves. The following sentence is fine: — "The style of elegy should imitate the voice and language of grief; or, if a metaphor of dress be more agreeable, it should be simple, and diffuse, and flowing as a mourner's veil." The great fault of Shenstone's elegies is the want of profound sincerity. You are sure he wishes you to weep, but not sure that he has first wept himself, although he tells you in his preface that he has. They are chargeable, besides, with considerable inequality and harsh inversion, and abound in that fade classical language which was then the rage. Delias, Diones, Palemons, and Pygmalions meet you at every turning of the page, till you wish that the Latin language had never been coined. Elegies though they call themselves, we doubt if a single line in them was ever wetted by a tear; and the only sigh you breathe is when you contrast these stiff efforts of modern art with the grand old simplicities uttered from the deep heart of Hebrew sorrow; with the song by which David's genius at once cursed and consecrated the mountains of Gilboa; with Jeremiah's tender plaints amid his evening willows: or; if this be thought too stern a test of comparison, with the melting melodies of Tibullus and Ovid in ancient, and of Shakspeare's Fidele and Milton's Lycidas in modern times.
As his Elegies have started few tears, so his Levities have produced little laughter. Like his friend Graves, he says, "I will, I will be witty!" but the power is absent. The utmost he ever attains is a kind of clever coarseness, which disgusts more than it delights. Yet we find from his letters that he had meditated several productions of the same sort; and he has left a list of the subjects on which he had intended to make himself; and, if possible, the world, merry — a list which produces no regret that the design was never fulfilled.
His Odes are, some of them, more highly finished than his wont. Such is that on Rural Elegance; but it is far too diffuse and wordy. His Ode to Memory is much better, because shorter and simpler. The following stanzas are very natural and pleasing poetry:—
But let me chase those vows away,
Which at Ambition's shrine I made;
Nor ever let thy skill display
Those anxious moments, ill repaid;
Oh! from my breast that season raze,
And bring my childhood in its place.
Bring me the bells, the rattle bring,
And bring the hobby I bestrode,
When pleased, in many a sportive ring,
Around the room I jovial rode;
Even let me bid my lyre adieu,
And bring the whistle that I blew.
It had been an admirable exchange! Shenstone should have been contented with that fine childlike simplicity which was his forte. Had he been so, he had become in poetry nearly what Addison was in prose. What had he to do with lofty odes, ambitious historical or moral pieces, classical images, and blank verse? He should instead have blown the boy's whistle as in the Schoolmistress, or rung the simple bell of the Pastoral Ballad. Few poets have tenderer or more felicitous little touches; and our great regret is, that they occur so seldom, and are almost lost in the surrounding rubbish.
His Judgment of Hercules is not destitute of vigour, but is on the whole an effort against the grain. Hercules himself is feebly drawn, and the two ladies are worse. Virtue is a "martial maid," and yet "in artless folds of virgin white arrayed." Pleasure is a mere vulgar courtezan — a Duessa hardly disguised. The latter calls Alcides "dear boy!" Yet the poem contains a good many lines nearly equal to the following:—
So glaring draughts, with tawdry lustre bright,
Spring to the view, and rush upon the sight.
More slowly charms a Raffaelle's chaster air,
Waits the calm search, and pays the searcher's care."
Mr. Graves has praised his Economy as a superior poem. It seems to us a clumsy and cacophonous imitation of the Splendid Shilling, without its rich burlesque. We cannot put up with a second-rate parody, any more than with a mediocre pun.
We have reserved his two best poems to the close. His Pastoral Ballad is perhaps of too artificial a structure for its name, but has some touches which recall to your recollection the ballad-poetry of Scotland, and the songs of Burns. A higher compliment cannot be bestowed.
So sweetly she bade me adieu,
That I thought that she bade me return,
is familiar to every reader, and is a faithful rendering of one of Nature's tenderest passages. Dr. Johnson's criticism on it has the following strange sentence: — "I cannot but regret that it is pastoral; an intelligent reader, acquainted with the scenes of real life, sickens at the mention of the crook, the pipe, the sheep, and the kids, which it is not necessary to bring forward to notice, for the poet's art is selection, and he ought to show the beauties without the grossness of the country life." So then, the pastoral pipe echoing among the solitudes; the crook, meek sceptre of the mountain-king; the sheep, bright and beautiful foam, fallen as if from heaven upon the dark-brown hills, and the kids sporting with Danger around the verge of the deep precipices, are a portion of the grossness of the country life! Truly, "aliquando Homerus dormitat."
The Schoolmistress must for ever be dear to the world, partly for the subject, and partly for the manner in which it has been treated by the poet. Almost all people have some aged crone who stands to them in the light through which Shenstone has contemplated honest Sarah Lloyd; and as soon as she appears on his pager every one hails her as an old acquaintance, and is ready to prove, by her gown, or her cap, her birch, her hen, her herbs, or her devout hatred for the Pope, that she answers to his ancient preceptress — just as every one who has read Goldsmith's Schoolmaster in The Deserted Village is ready to cry out, "That's my old teacher." We, at least, never can read Goldsmith's lines without seeing a certain worthy old dominie, long since dead, with his two wigs, — the dun for ordinary, and the black for extra occasions; the one synonymous with frowns and flagellations, and the other with a certain smug smile which sometimes lay all day on his face, and spoke of a projected jaunt, or a quiet evening jug of punch, — with his sage advices, his funny stories, at which we were compelled to laugh, his smuggled translations discovered by us sometimes with infinite glee in his neglected desk, the warm fatherly interest he displayed now and then in his favoured scholars, and the severe ironical sarcasm (a power this in which he peculiarly excelled) which he drew at other times in a merciless mesh around the victim of his wrath till he writhed again. Nor can we take up Shenstone's poem without reviving the memory of an elderly dame, now many years at rest, with her spectacles on her nose, her cat at her feet, her well-worn tawse in her hand, and this universal apology for her continual flagelations upon her lips, the logic of which, however, her pupils were never able exactly to comprehend, "If ye are no in a fault just now, ye're sure soon to be't!" And we are certain that if all who have had similar experience were piling each a stone on two cairns erected to the two ingenious authors who have expressed and represented this common phase of human life, they would soon out-tower the Pyramids. Shenstone's Schoolmistress has not indeed the point and condensation of Goldsmith's Schoolmaster, but its spirit is the same; and there is besides about it a certain soft, warm, slumberous charm, as if reflected from the good dame's kitchen fire. The very stanza seems murmuring in its sleep.
After all, Shenstone, although possessed of great accomplishments, much true talent, and a distinct although narrow vein of poetic genius, has done little. His life was uneasy, uncertain, and in a great degree useless. He never understood, and therefore never did his work, as a man. He first found, and then forgot and abandoned the sole path as a poet which his genius was qualified profitably to pursue. Yet his memory shall always survive, as the sweet singer of the two simple strains we have been just panegyrizing. And then there is, as aforesaid, his great-little work, — the Leasowes; but, alas! of it, only the ruins remain — and while they preserve the recollection, they also preach the lesson of the weakness of this honest but indolent man — this true but self-stunted Poet.