1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Shenstone

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 517.



WILLIAM SHENSTONE, a popular and agreeable poet, was born at Hales-Owen, Shropshire, in 1714. His father was an uneducated gentleman farmer, who cultivated an estate of his own, called the Leasowes. William, after passing through other instruction, was removed to that of a clergyman at Solihull, from whom he acquired a fund of classical literature, together with a taste for the best English writers. In 1732 he was entered of Pembroke College, Oxford, where he formed one of a set of young men who met in the evenings at one another's chambers, and read English works in polite literature. He also began to exercise his poetical talent upon some light topics; but coming to the possession of his paternal property, with some augmentation, he indulged himself in rural retirement, and forgetting his calls to college residence, he took up his abode at a house of his own, and commenced gentleman. In 1737 he printed anonymously a small volume of juvenile poems, which was little noticed. His first visit to London, in 1740, introduced him to the acquaintance of Dodsley, who printed his Judgment of Hercules, dedicated to his Hagley neighbour, Mr. (afterwards Lord) Littleton. It was followed by a work written before it, The School-mistress, a piece in Spenser's style and stanza, the heroine of which was a village dame, supposed to have given him his first instruction. The vein of benevolence and good sense, and the touches of the pathetic, by which this performance is characterised, render it extremely pleasing, and perhaps place it at the head of his compositions.

After amusing himself with a few rambles to places of public resort, Shenstone now sat down to the life which he invariably pursued, and which consisted in improving the picturesque beauties of the Leasowes, exercising his pen in casual effusions of verse and prose, and cultivating such society as lay within his reach. The fame of the Leasowes was widely spread by an elaborate description of Dodsley's, which drew multitudes of visitors to the place; and the house being originally only a farm, became inadequate to his grounds, and required enlargement. Hence he lay continually under the pressure of narrow circumstances, which preyed upon his spirits, and rendered him by no means a happy inhabitant of the little Eden he had created. Gray, from the perusal of his letters, deduces the following, perhaps too satirical, account. "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."

Shenstone died of a fever in February, 1763, in his fiftieth year, and was interred in the churchyard of Hales-Owen. Monuments to his memory were erected by several persons who loved the man, and esteemed his poetry. Of the latter, the general opinion is now nearly uniform. It is regarded as commonly correct, elegant, melodious, and tender in sentiment, and often pleasing and natural in description, but verging to the languid and feeble. His prose writings, published in a separate volume, display good sense and cultivated taste, and sometimes contain new and acute observations on mankind.