There are but few materials for the life of this poet, no regular biographical account having been furnished by those on whom the publication of his works devolved: we are, therefore, left to glean such scattered notices as periodical publications, his own works, or the correspondence of his friends may supply.
WILLIAM MASON, whose father was vicar of St. Trinity at Kingston-upon-Hull, in Yorkshire, was born in the year 1726. He seems to have been fortunate in the affectionate skill with which that parent fostered his early propensity to the arts of poetry, painting, and music, and he describes him, in a grateful Epistolary Address written while at College, as one
—who always loved to blend
Advice with smiles, the father with the friend.
In 1742-3 he went to the University, and was entered of St. John's College, Cambridge, where he soon distinguished himself by his poetical talent, and published in 1747 his Musaeus, a Monody on the Death of Mr. Pope, which was received with great applause, and passed through several editions in a very short space of time. He took his Bachelor's degree in 1746, and through the interest of his friend Gray was nominated to a vacant fellowship in Pembroke Hall; but owing to a dispute between the master and fellows he was not elected until 1749. His own account of the affair is given in a letter to Mr. Bryant: "As to myself, I have had the honour since I came here last to be elected by the Fellows of Pembroke into their Society; but the Master, who has the power of a negative, has made use of it on this occasion, because he will not have an 'extraneus,' when they have fit persons in their own college. The Fellows say, they have a power from their statutes 'indifferenter eligere, ex utraque Academia,' and are going to try it at common law, or to get the king to appoint a visitor; if this turns out well, it will he a lucky thing for me, and much better than a Plat, which I came hither with an intention to sit for, for they are reckoned the best fellowships in the university."
At this time Gray describes him as "a young man of much fancy, little judgment, and a good deal of modesty — a good and well meaning creature, but in simplicity a child; he reads little or nothing, writes abundance, and that with a design to make a fortune by it — a little vain, but in so harmless and comical a way, that it does not offend: 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 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 the habit, all his good qualities will signify nothing at all." The affectionate esteem with which Gray regarded him ripened into a most perfect and lasting friendship, which only terminated with the life of that amiable scholar, and the correspondence between them shows that it was established upon the firm basis of unfeigned admiration of his virtues and talents.
Mason appears to have been educated a Whig, and some recent occurrences in the University of Oxford having given rise to a supposition that Jacobite principles prevailed there, he wrote and published his poem of Isis in 1748, which was answered in The Triumph of Isis, published by Thomas Warton in the succeeding year. These poems had each considerable popularity, and one or the other was preferred as the reader felt a bias to Cambridge or Oxford, to Whig or Tory; but Warton's is undoubtedly the best of the two. Of this Mason appears to have been sensible, and writing to his rival, thanking him for the present of a volume of his poems; near thirty years after, he says, "I am however sorry to find that The Triumph of Isis has not found a place near the delicate Complaint of Cherwel, to which it was a proper companion; and I fear that a punctilio of politeness to me was the occasion of the exclusion. Had I known of your intention of making this collection, most certainly I should have pleaded for the insertion of that poem, which I assure you I think greatly excels the Elegy which occasioned it, both in poetical imagery and the correct flow of its versification. And if I put any value on my own juvenile production, it is because it is written on those old Whig principles, which I am as proud of holding now they are out of fashion, and I am turned of fifty, as I was when they were in fashion, and I was hardly turned of twenty."
Dr. Mant, in his Life of Thomas Warton, has related the following anecdote, which may serve to show the "harmless and comical vanity" which Gray alludes, to in characterizing Mason. "Several years after he had written his Elegy, he was coming into Oxford on horseback: and as he passed over Magdalen Bridge (it was then evening) he turned to his friend and expressed his satisfaction that, as it was getting dusk, they should enter the place unnoticed. His friend did not seem aware of the advantage. "What! (rejoined the poet) do you not remember my Isis?"
In 1752 he published his dramatic poem of Elfrida, with choruses written on the model of the Greek tragedy; that is, as be expresses it, "as far as it is probable, a Greek poet, were he alive, would now pursue the ancient method," It is generally agreed that the form of the Grecian drama and its choruses is not well adapted to the genius of the modern stage, but as a dramatic poem Elfrida is allowed to possess much beauty. In the fable historic truth has however been violated, and though we may be interested by the distress of Athelwold and his wife, yet their conduct is so much tinctured with childishness and deceit as to lessen our sympathy. The propriety of placing the chorus in the mouths of "British virgins" may be doubted; it has been facetiously observed, "that these ladies appear to talk and sing only, because they have no other occupation." The catastrophe of the fable hardly seems to satisfy poetical justice: Athelwold, it is true, we are told, is punished, but this might have been an incident in the drama. Elfrida's vow of widowhood excites an irresistible idea oftlie difficulty of preserving it inviolate, and the associations which arise disturb the current of our feelings.
Twenty years after the publication of Elfrida, Colman adapted it to the stage, by such alterations as he deemed necessary; it was produced with splendid scenery, and music composed by Dr. Arne. The alterations of the text highly incensed Mason, who threatened the manager with an appeal to the public. To this menace Colman replied by a counter-threat of the introduction of a chorus of Grecian washerwomen in some future stage entertainment. A few years afterwards it was reproduced at Covent Garden, with alterations and adaptations by the author; but on each occasion its success was very limited.
His father died in 1753, and in 1754 he took orders, being by the interest of Lord Holdernesse appointed one of the king's chaplains. He was presented about the same time to the living of Aston. The success which attended the publication of Elfrida, and the approbation with which the lyrical parts were spoken of, encouraged him to publish his four odes on Memory, Independence, Melancholy, and The Fate of Tyranny. The wits and the critics were equally severe upon these odes. Lloyd and Colman parodied them; and the town, with its accustomed love of satire, admired the parodies more than the originals. Shenstone and Smollett had preoccupied the themes of Memory and Independence: and it must be confessed, that they have the advantage in point of merit as well as in point of time.
On the death of Cibber, Mason was proposed to succeed him as poet laureate; but he received an apology from Lord John Cavendish, "that, being in orders, he was thought less eligible on that account than a layman." Mason professes his indifference about the doubtful honours of the laurel, and he may be believed sincere. Mr. Campbell says, "the apology was both an absurd and a false one, for Warton, the succeeding laureate, was in orders." The fact is: that the place had been offered to Gray through Mason's mediation; Gray declined it, though it was proposed that he should hold it as a mere sinecure. Whitehead, and not Warton, was Cibber's successor, and the same option was not allowed him.
Caractacus was published in 1759, and added very much to his poetical reputation. "This chef-d'oeuvre of Mason (says Mr. Campbell) may not exhibit strong or minute delineation of human character; but it has enough of dramatic interest to support our admiration of virtue, and our suspense and emotion in behalf of its cause: and it leads the imagination into scenes delightfully east amidst the awfulness of superstition, the venerable antiquity of history, and the untamed grandeur of external nature. In this last respect it may be preferred to the tragedy of Beaumont and Fletcher on the same subject; that it brings forward the persons and abodes of the Druids with more magnificent effect. There is so much of the poet's eye displayed in the choice of his ground, and in the outline of his structure, that Mason may seem to challenge something like a generous prepossession of the mind in judging of his drama. It is the work of a man of genius, that calls for regret on its imperfections. Even in the lyrical passages, which are most of all loaded with superfluous ornament and alliteration, we meet with an enthusiasm that breaks out from amidst encumbering faults. The invocation of the Druids to Snowdon, for which the mind is so well prepared by the preceding scene, begins with peculiar harmony:
Mona on Snowdon calls:
Hear, thou king of mountains, hear!
And the Ode, on which Gray bestowed so much approbation, opens with a noble personification, and an impetuous spirit:
Hark! heard you not yon footstep dread,
That shook the earth with thundering tread?
'Twas Death. In haste the warrior pass'd,
High tower'd his helmed head!
Caractacus was read with great interest, and many persons thought it well adapted under certain modifications to the stage. It was at length produced at Covent Garden in 1776, received with very considerable applause, but obtained no permanent place as an acting play. The alterations which had made it more fit for representation were thought to have diminished its poetical merits. Some years afterwards Dr. Glasse translated it into Greek.
In 1762 Mason published three Elegies, and in 1764 he collected his scattered pieces into a volume, which he dedicated to his patron, Lord Holdernesse, in an elegant sonnet. The Isis and two other pieces were not included in this publication. His elegies are less encumbered with alliteration and ornate diction than his odes, and contain some passages of eminent poetic beauty; the character of Dryden in the first, the delightful and heartfelt picture of rural retirement in the second, and the description of Lady Coventry's beauty in the fourth, have been pointed out as highly deserving praise: the first four lines of this poem are remarkably impressive and beautiful:
The midnight clock has toll'd; and hark, the bell
Of death beats slow! heard ye the note profound?
It pauses now; and now with rising knell
Flings to the hollow gale its sullen sound.
In the same year he was presented by the king to the canonry and prebend of Driffield, in the cathedral of York, together with the precentorship of that church. His principal residence was still at Aston, where he passed his time "in peace and privacy," and indulged his taste for ornamental gardening, in improving the grounds about his house; but he was careful to let none of his elegant pursuits divert him from the most assiduous discharge of the sacred duties of his profession.
In 1765 he married the daughter of William Sherman, Esq. of his native town, Kingston-upon-Hull; a most amiable lady, with whom his happiness was fated to be of short duration. Soon after their marriage her health declined, and he had little intermission from the anxiety of watching the insidious progress of that bane of our climate — a consumption, which terminated her life at Bristol, where he had removed her, in hopes of recovery, in 1767. He has commemorated her virtues and his own grief in some lines well known and justly celebrated for their elegance.
In 1770 he had been gratified by a visit from his beloved friend Gray, who on his return to college was suddenly seized with the gout in his stomach, which soon proved fatal. Mason was on his way to pay the last duties of friendship, but arrived too late for the funeral. Gray had left him joint executor, with a legacy of five hundred pounds, all his books, manuscripts, &c. and Mason erected to the memory of his friend an unperishable literary monument, by publishing his memoirs and letters, one of the most interesting works of the kind which ever issued from the press. The plan was entirely novel; and though it was objected to by some, the success which attended it, and Boswell's Memoirs of Johnson, formed professedly upon its model, is a sufficient testimony of its merit.
The first book of his English Garden appeared in 1772, and Warton had the liberality to pay him the high compliment of saying that it was "a work in which didactic poetry is brought to perfection by the happy combination of judicious precepts with the most elegant ornaments of language and imagery." This poem was read with avidity at the time of publication; the subject was in fashion, and it afforded opportunities, of which he well knew how to avail himself, for descriptions of rural scenery. A late elegant writer, not less distinguished as a critic than as a poet, makes some forcible objections to it, and says, "if this be the perfection of didactic poetry, it would seem to be as difficult to teach art by poetry as to teach poetry by art." Yet he confesses that he does not presume to judge of it as An Art of Ornamental Gardening, and points out the following beautiful lines descriptive of woodland scenery in the first book:
—Many a glade is found
The haunt of wood-gods only; where if Art
E'er dared to tread 'twas with unsandal'd foot,
Printless as if the place were holy ground.
Notwithstanding its defects and "dilletante air," this poem appears to have been a studied composition, to have received all the advantages of careful and frequent revision, and a considerable interval elapsed between the publication of each book; the last was published in 1782.
Although he lived in retirement, Mason was not insensible to the great political events of his time; and during the whole progress of the war with America his Whig principles continued unchanged. When the associations for parliamentary reform began in 1779, he took an active part, and endeavoured to promote that great object both by his en and his personal exertions. At this time he published his Ode to the Naval Officers of Great Britain, in which he gave vent to his political indignation. It is to be presumed that this marked opposition to the measures of ministers gave offence to the court, and he therefore deemed it expedient to resign his chaplainship to the king. But Mason, though a stanch friend to rational liberty, could distinguish between it and popular anarchy; he lived to deprecate the horrors and excesses of the French revolution.
Mason's early education was such as gave him no ordinary skill in the arts: his critical knowledge of painting is evinced by his very excellent translation of Du Fresnoy's poem, which he began in early life. It was finished at the express desire of Sir Joshua Reynolds, who furnished him with notes and illustrations which very much enhance its value. He was not only a theoretical but a practical musician, and composed several pieces of sacred music for the choir of York Cathedral. His elegant essays on English church music, published in 1790, show no common knowledge of the subject. It has been observed that his taste led him to the simplicity and plainness of an unadorned style, as more suitable to devotional music: this is the more remarkable when we recollect the florid and ornamented style of his poetry.
One of his latest poetical efforts was The Secular Ode on the Commemoration of the Revolution of 1688. It appeared when the whole nation joined to celebrate
—With festive joy
The day that freed them from Oppression's rod.
In the year 1788 he also undertook the friendly office of publishing the works of his deceased friend Whitehead, the laureate, and furnished a biographical memoir, which, though from its subject of inferior interest to the life of Gray, does honour to his friend's memory and to his own kind heart. Mr. Chalmers censures his notice of Johnson's illiberal criticism on Gray, which he calls splenetic; but surely Mason, as the poet's friend, may be vindicated for feeling warmly upon an occasion which roused many to indignation, at the injustice with which Gray had been treated, though strangers to his personal merits.
During this year he delivered an eloquent discourse against the stave trade, in York Cathedral, and appears to have been one of the first who raised their voices against that iniquitous traffic. In all editions of his poems during his life, Mason omitted several pieces for various reasons, but in 1796 he determined to collect the whole into an additional volume, adding some which had never been printed. This volume appeared immediately after his death in 1797; and in 1811 his executors gave to the world a complete collection of his works in four volumes octavo.
His death was occasioned by an accidental hurt on his leg, received in stepping out of his carriage, which terminated in an incurable mortification, He had reached his seventy-second year, and his health was much less impaired than is usual with men at his period of life; his faculties had undergone no perceptible alteration. He died April the 7th, 1797. A monument has been erected to his memory in Westminster Abbey, adjoining that of his friend Gray. The countess of Harcourt also erected an urn to his memory in the flower garden at Nuneham, with an inscription celebrating "his simple manners, piety, and steady friendship."
The lively satiric pieces, which were published under the name of Malcolm Macgregor, Esq. of Knightsbridge, have been attributed to the pen of Mason, and this appropriation remains uncontroverted. Upon the publication of the Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers, Thomas Warton gave it to Mason upon the internal evidence of style, and Mason wrote him a letter of expostulation, in which he says, "I have been told you have pronounced me very frequently in company to be the author of the Heroic Epistle, and I am told that the premier himself suspects that I am so upon your authority. Surely, Sir, mere internal evidence (and you can possibly have no other) can never be sufficient to ground such a determination upon, when you consider how many persons in this rhyming age of ours are possessed of that knack of Pope's versification which constitutes one part of the merit of that poem; and as to the wit, humour, or satire which it contains, no part of my writings could ever lead you, by their analogy, to form so peremptory a judgment. I acquit you, however, in this procedure of every, even the slightest degree of ill nature: and believe that what you have said was only to show your critical acumen. I only mention it that you may be more cautious of speaking of other persons in like manner, who may throw such anonymous bantlings of their brain into the wide world. To some of these it might prove an essential injury: for though they might deserve the frown of power (as the author in question certainly does) yet I am persuaded that your good nature would be hurt if that frown was either increased or fixed by your ipse dixit. To say more on this trivial subject would betray a solicitude on my part very foreign from present feelings or inclination. My easy and independent circumstances make such a suspicion sit mighty easy upon me; and the minister, nay the whole ministry are free to think what they please of a man, who neither aims to solicit, nor wishes to accept, any favour from them." It must be evident that it was in Mason's power to bring the question to a more prompt conclusion by a direct and plain denial; but the evasive manner in which his letter is couched excites suspicion that he really knew more on the subject than he was willing to confess. In these satiric productions there is a pleasant vein of humour, of which the author of the solemn and serious poems of Caractacus and Elfrida could hardly have been suspected. The poems therefore had been given to other eminent living poets; Hayley, Cowper, Anstey, and Walpole were in turns suspected. Mr. Malone says, in a note to Boswell's Johnson, that it is known to be the production of Mason, but does not give any authority for the assertion.
Mason's private character is said to have been distinguished by the most fervid affection for his friends, and by the most universal philanthropy, though there was something in his manners which appeared more than the mere dignity of conscious talent. Warton, whose character was marked by an unaffected simplicity and easy carelessness, used to say "Mason is not in my way, he is a buckram man;" and this has been repeated by those who were not partial to him for political or other reasons. He had the misfortune to survive most of his early friends, and he does not appear to have been desirous of forming new connexions; this did not proceed from misanthropic cynicism, but from natural reserve; yet it caused the superficial observer to deem him proud and unsocial. That he possessed the Christian virtues in an eminent degree, and fulfilled the duties of his sacred character in an exemplary manner cannot be doubted, and it appears to be no fiction that he
Sought from the dross of earth the soul to raise,
And sunk the poets in the Christian's praise.