No poet of the same pretensions has been so much known through his residence as Shenstone. Without the Leasowes he would have been nothing. His elegies and pastorals would have lain on the dustiest of book-shelves, and his Schoolmistress, by far the best of his productions, would hardly have retained vitality enough to make herself noticeable in the crowd of poetical characters. The Leasowes was the chief work of Shenstone's life, and it is the chief means of that portion of immortality which he possesses. Into every quarter of the kingdom the fame of this little domain has penetrated. Nature there formed the grand substratum of his art, and nature is always beautiful. But I do confess, that in the Leasowes, I have always found so much-a-do about nothing; such a parade of miniature cascades, lakes, streams conveyed hither and thither; surprises in the disposition of woods and the turn of walks, with a seat placed here, and another there; with inscriptions, Latin and English; and piping Fauns fauning upon you in half a dozen places, that I have heartily wished myself out upon a good rough heath, with the winds blowing away the cobwebs of so many conceits from my brain.
In the days of Shenstone there prevailed the falsest notions of life and poetry. If poetry be indeed "the eloquence of truth," as Campbell beautifully pronounced it; if great passions, great sentiments, great wrestlings with our destinies, and conflicts for the good of others, — if these constitute the sublimity of duty, and give occasion for the sublimity of poetry, how poor a delusion was that which led one to dream and drone in some fantastic retirement; to whimper over petty troubles, and waste the intellect on petty themes; exalting mole-hills into mountains, and the stings of a morbid selfishness into picturesque sorrows; when they should have been up and doing, dragging out to the light of day, like Crabbe, all the wretchedness and the wrong of social life, or breathing into the trumpet of a generous indignation the notes that rouse the world to a higher tone and task.
The remarks of Dr. Johnson appear to me, in the case of Shenstone, who was amiable but trifling, as very just: — "Now was excited his delight in rural pleasures, and his ambition of rural elegance. He began from the time of occupying his own estate, 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 to plant a walk in undulating curves, and to place a bench at every turn where there is an object to catch the view; to make water run where it will be heard, and to 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, demand 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. But it must be at least confessed that to embellish the form of nature is an innocent amusement; and some praise must be allowed by the most supercilious observer, to him who does best what such multitudes are contending to do well."
This seems to me the precise merit of Shenstone. He introduced a better taste in landscape gardening, though his taste was often questionable, and may be ranked with Browne and Kent. He was a man of taste rather than of genius, and may claim a full alliance with the lovers of nature, but is as far from the association with great poets — with such men as Milton or Shakspeare, Burns or Elliott, as the glow-worm is with the comet. Poetry is not only the highest art, but, next to religion itself, the most divine principle on earth. It is a religion itself, or rather, forms part and parcel of that of Christ; for its object is to stimulate virtue, abash vice, raise the humble, abase the proud, call forth the most splendid qualities of the soul, and pour love like a river over the earth till it fills every house, and leaves behind it a fertility like that which follows the inundations of the Nile. We do injustice to Shenstone when we place him beside the giants, and thus provokingly display his true proportions.
"The pleasure of Shenstone," continues Johnson, "was all in his eye; he valued what he valued merely for its looks; nothing raised his indignation more than to ask if there were any fishes in his water.
"His house was mean, and he did not improve it; his care was of his grounds. When he came home from his walks, he might find his floors flooded by a shower through the broken roof; but could spare no money for its reparation. In time his expenses brought clamours about him that overpowered the lamb's bleat, and the linnet's song; and his groves were haunted by beings very different to fauns and fairies. He spent his estate in adorning it, and his death was probably hastened by his anxieties. He was a lamp that spent its oil in blazing.... He died at the Leasowes, of a putrid fever, in 1763, and was buried by the side of his brother in Halesowen churchyard.
"He was never married, though he might have obtained the lady, whoever she was, to whom his Pastoral Ballad was addressed. He is represented by his friend Dodsley as a man of great tenderness and generosity, kind to all that were within his influence; but if once offended not easily appeased; inattentive to economy, and careless of his expenses. In his person he was larger than the middle size, with something clumsy in his form; very negligent of his clothes, and remarkable for wearing his grey hair in a particular manner; for he held that the fashion was no rule of dress, and that every man was to suit his appearance to his natural form. His mind was not very comprehensive, nor his curiosity active; he had no value for those parts of knowledge which he had not himself cultivated."
Gray visited the Leasowes, and his opinion of Shenstone was very similar to that of Johnson. "I have read, too, an octavo volume of Shenstone's letters. Poor man! he was always wishing for money, for fame, and other distinctions; and his whole philosophy consisted in living against his will in retirement, and in a place which his taste had adorned, but which he only enjoyed when people of note came to see and commend it. His correspondence is about nothing else but this place and his own writings, with two or three neighbouring clergymen, who wrote verses too."
I have ascertained the present condition of the Leasowes, through an intelligent friend who visited it the other day at my request. The Leasowes is about six or seven miles distant from Birmingham on the road to Kidderminster, and about four miles from Hagley, in the parish of Halesowen. Arriving at Halesowen, you have to descend a long and steep hill, from the top of which you have a view of the Bromsgrove, Clent, and Dudley hills, which are in the immediate neighbourhood, — Hagley-park being situated on one of the Clent hills, — and of the Clee hills in the distance; these form a boundary between the counties of Hereford and Salop. About half-way down this descent, which is a mile long, you turn to the left down a shady lane; this leads to the Leasowes, and in some degree partakes of the character of the place; winding continually, yet still presenting a beautiful archway of trees, of nearly all descriptions. From this lane you enter the Leasowes; and crossing a bridge, pass on to the lawn. On your left lies a beautiful piece of still water, overshadowed with evergreens, and conveying the idea of infinite depth. This is nearly the lowest part of the grounds, which here begin to ascend towards the house, commanding, not an extensive, but a beautifully condensed prospect. Going round the house to the right, and still ascending, you gain another prospect equally beautiful, yet different, and in both cases must be surprised by the skill which presents to the eye the artificial depth of forest which there strikes it. A canal which has been cut through the valley between the house and Halesowen, so far from injuring the prospect, as many of these things are apt to do, rather improves it than otherwise, giving a rest to time eye, and shutting out, by its embankment, sundry forges which would otherwise be visible. In order to discover, however, the true spirit of the place, you must cross the lawn at the back of the house, where you are reminded of passages in Shenstone's pastorals.
Let us now suppose the grounds lying in the shape of a Y; the house not standing at the top, but near the centre of the fork, and the lowest part of the scene, the stem. The lines forming the fork of the Y are beautifully wooded ravines, or dells, down which flow small streamlets, meeting at the bottom of the hill, and in their progress forming numerous small pools, which may well represent "the fountains all bordered with moss." The walks along the sides of these streams are now neglected, but they still conduct you to the natural beauties of the scene. There is one spot which commands the view of the whole grounds, and all the poetry of them. Following the course of one of the streams, you arrive at that part of the scene which was Shenstone's favourite spot; still marked by the remnants of several fallen statues. Still advancing along the brook side, you come to a pool. This may be called the tail or stem of the Y; and at dusk, on a November day, it gives you no bad idea of the Lake of the Dismal Swamp in miniature. Indeed, the feeling on quitting the place is, that you have been well deceived as to the extent of it; so small a space really containing so much variety of scenery.
The Leasowes now belongs to the Attwood family; and a Miss Attwood resides there occasionally. But the whole place bears the impress of desertion and neglect. The house has a dull look; the same heavy spirit broods over the lawns and glades; and it is only when you survey it from a distance, as when approaching Halesowen from Hagley, that the whole presents an aspect of unusual beauty. It is said to be a favourite resort of the members of the Society of Friends, as, halting for tea at Halesowen, on their return from their meetings at Stourbridge to Birmingham, they are fond of a stroll in the Leasowes; no doubt the quiet character of the poetry of Shenstone according well with their own habits.