1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Mason

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 720.



WILLIAM MASON, a poet of some distinction, born in 1725, was the son of a clergyman, who held the living of Hull. He was admitted first of St. John's College, and afterwards of Pembroke College, Cambridge, of the latter of which he was elected Fellow in 1747. He entered into holy orders in 1754, and, by the favour of the Earl of Holderness, was presented to the valuable rectory of Aston, Yorkshire, and became Chaplain to His Majesty. Some poems which he printed gave him reputation, which received a great accession from his dramatic poem of Elfrida. By this piece, and his Caractacus, which followed, it was his aim to attempt the restoration of the ancient Greek chorus in tragedy; but this is so evidently an appendage of the infant and imperfect state of the drama, that a pedantic attachment to the ancients could alone suggest its revival. In 1756, he published a small collection of Odes, which were generally considered as displaying more of the artificial mechanism of poetry, than of its genuine spirit This was not the case with his Elegies, published in 1763, which, abating some superfluity of ornament, are in general marked with the simplicity of language proper to this species of composition, and breathe noble sentiments of freedom and virtue. A collection of all his poems which he thought worthy of preserving, was published in 1764, and afterwards went through several editions. He had married an amiable lady, who died of a consumption in 1767, and was buried in the cathedral of Bristol, under a monument, on which are inscribed some very tender and beautiful lines, by her husband.

In 1772, the first book of Mason's English Garden, a didactic and descriptive poem, in blank verse, made its appearance, of which the fourth and concluding book was printed in 1781. Its purpose was to recommend the modern system of natural or landscape gardening, to which the author adheres with the rigour of exclusive taste. The versification is formed upon the best models, and the description, in many parts, is rich and vivid; but a general air of stiffness prevented it from attaining any considerable share of popularity. Some of his following poetic pieces express his liberal sentiments on political subjects; and when the late Mr. Pitt came into power, being then the friend of a free constitution, Mason addressed him in an Ode, containing many patriotic and manly ideas. But being struck with alarm at the unhappy events of the French revolution, one of his latest pieces was a Palinode to Liberty. He likewise revived, in an improved form, and published, Du Fresnoy's Latin poem on the Art of Painting, enriching it with additions furnished by Sir Joshua Reynolds, and with a metrical version. Few have been better executed than this, which unites to great beauties of language a correct representation of the original. His tribute to the memory of Gray, being an edition of his poems, with some additions, and Memoirs of his Life and Writings, was favourably received by the public.

Mason died in April, 1797, at the age of seventy-two, in consequence of a mortification produced by a hurt in his leg. A tablet has been placed to his memory in Poets' Corner, in Westminster Abbey. His character in private life was exemplary for worth and active benevolence, though not without a degree of stateliness and assumed superiority of manner.