To the lovers of poetry, that is, to all who have the smallest share of taste or feeling, the life of a poet is always interesting. Like other lives of private men, it may produce no striking incidents, no remarkable turns or vicissitudes of fortune; yet will it exhibit the history of a fertile mind, and of a period in which the production of celebrated works will form the distinguished aeras. The life of Mr. Bowles, as far as poetry is not concerned, will be that of a private clergyman, attentive to the duties of his ministry, studious of the welfare of his flock, and watchful to prevent the inroads of fanaticism among them; making it at the same time, his pleasure and amusement to do justice to the rural beauties of his parsonage, and to improve them by tasteful embellishments. Even this picture of tranquil usefulness and simple pleasures is not without its charms, but is not sufficiently varied to command the continued attention of the reader; it is as a poet that Mr. B. demands the pen of a biographer, though finally his least conspicuous labours may prove to have been the most truly valuable.
Mr. Bowles's family has been clerical for at least three generations; his father, William Thomas Bowles, being the only son of Dr. Bowles, vicar of Brackley in Northamptonshire. But, though moved by preferment into different situations, the family is originally of Wilts, and ancient in that county. The Rev. William Thomas Bowles married Bridget, one of the three daughters of Dr. Grey, author of Memoria Technica and other well-known works. By her he had seven children, of whom the eldest son was WILLIAM LISLE BOWLES, the subject of the present memoir.
Family connection early determined that Winchester should be the place of his education; to which school he was sent in 1776. An uncle of his father's had long been a fellow of that college, contemporary with Lowth, and other distinguished men; of whose kind attention to himself, with some pleasing account of the singularities of his character, Mr. B. has gratefully spoken in a very late publication. Bowles was not to be overlooked, even where he had so many competitors as at Winchester, and he was soon particularly noticed by Dr. Warton. By the year 1781, he had risen to be the senior boy of that illustrious seminary. In that situation, he would infallibly have succeeded to New College, having been sent first on the roll, to the two foundations, had it not happened that no, vacancy, occurred in his year, excepting what were of necessity reserved for the founder's kin.
He was entered therefore at Trinity college, Oxford, where his master's brother, the celebrated Thomas Warton, was fellow and tutor. These were auspicious beginnings for a poetical mind; and they certainly produced their due effect upon B. who, in his first year, obtained the chancellor's prize, for a Latin composition on the siege of Gibraltar, which was, accordingly recited in the theatre. It is still extant in the collection of Oxford Prize Poems, published by Mr. Valpy; and in the second volume of the author's poems. It is a composition of extraordinary merit, and classical beauty, for so young a writer.
Mr. Bowles was already a scholar of Trinity, for which foundation as well as for Winchester, like every worthy pupil of a worthy seminary, he has felt through life a constant and increasing affection; strongly expressed, with respect to the latter, in one of his most recent productions. The poetical spirit being strong within him, Mr. Bowles very early appeared before the public as an author, in his native language. His first publication, consisting of Seventeen Sonnets, appeared in 1789; his Verses to Howard, on his account of Lazarettos, in the same year; inscribed to his worthy master Dr. Warton. In 1790 his muse wept over the Tomb of Howard, whose merits he had so lately celebrated. His Verses to the Philanthropic Society followed; and a Monody written at Matlock. All of which were well received by the public. The sonnets in particular were so much distinguished, that they had gone through five editions before the end of 1797.
Of these Sonnets, the fame has been so widely spread, and so firmly established, that they have operated somewhat to the injury of Mr. B.'s general character as a poet; causing, him, by careless persons, to be considered merely as a writer of sonnets, whereas these poems, excellent as they are in their kind, form but a very small and comparatively inconsiderable part of Mr. B.'s composition; and his larger poems are, in many instances, full as much distinguished, in their respective classes, as any of his sonnets. Justice has, in one case, been done to his merits, but certainly not always in the other. The sonnets, however, have had the peculiar good fortune to correct the taste and animate the exertions of another poet, who has thus gratefully acknowledged his obligations. Having said that they were first presented to him by a particular friend, he adds: "It was a double pleasure to me, and still remains a tender recollection, that I should have received from a friend so revered, the first, knowledge of a poet, by whose works, year after year, I was so enthusiastic delighted and inspired." Confessing, then, some mental errors into which he had been in danger of falling, he proceeds: "But from this danger I was chiefly withdrawn, by the genial influence of a style of poetry, so tender, and yet so manly; so natural and real, and yet so dignified and harmonious, as the sonnets, &c. of Mr. Bowles" [Author's note: Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, vol. 1 p. 25]. Such a testimony, from such a man, is truly valuable, and we have peculiar pleasure in recording it.
Mr. Bowles took his degree of master of arts in 1792; and, on the death of his father, who was rector of Uphill and Brean in Somersetshire, he quitted Oxford, entered into orders, and soon after went to serve a curacy in Wiltshire. In the second part of his sonnets, there are traces of disappointed hope, from the death of a beloved female, most eloquently and pathetically lamented. Time, however, appears to have produced its natural effect; and in 1797 he formed a union, most fortunate in its influence upon his happiness, with a sister the former object of his affection, a daughter of Dr. Wake, then prebendary of Westminster; and a lineal descendant of the archbishop of that name. In the same year, by favour of the late Lord Somers, he was presented to the living of Dumbleton, in Gloucestershire. In 1803, he was installed a prebendary in the church of Salisbury; and soon after received from Archbishop Moore the valuable rectory of Bremhill, Wilts, his present, and from that time his constant residence. A debt of gratitude to Dr. Grey, the maternal grandfather of Mr. B. was thus repaid by the archbishop; and the gift has proved auspicious, both to the object of it and to the place.
It is not necessary, in such a sketch as the present, to follow up the exact series of the author's productions, in regular order. Suffice it to say, that they have gradually increased to five volumes of poetry, of which the last consists entirely of The Missionary, a poem in heroic couplets, comprised in eight books, or cantos. The subject of this is the successful resistance of the natives of Chili, to the Spanish general, Valdivia; and it is treated with a spirit and felicity which place it very high among poems of that class. The sonnets occupy less than half of the first volume, the rest are chiefly poems of moderate extent, and in various styles; but in general upon well-chosen subjects, treated with the skill and feelings of a genuine poet. Dr. Warton, whose kindness encouraged his early disposition to poetry, was gratefully celebrated by Mr. B. in a Monody, which at once does honour to the master and the poet. This appears in the second volume; but is preceded by what we consider as the most beautiful descriptive poem in the language, entitled St. Michael's Mount. The truth and precision of the description, the brilliant clearness with which it is presented to the mind of the reader, the natural beauty of the sentiments, together with the harmony and classic purity of the language, place it, in our opinion, beyond all chance of competition. We might expatiate also, with great justice, on his smaller, as well as his larger on The Spirit of Discovery by Sea; but as the object of this slight account is rather to relate facts, than to record opinions, we forbear; having said thus much, chiefly to confirm our former assertion, that the general fame of this author has rather been obstructed than assisted, by the prevalent celebrity of his juvenile productions, the Sonnets.
Mr. Bowles, with the genuine relish of a poet for rural scenes, has made it, as already hinted, his amusement in the retirement of his parish, to embellish the garden and other grounds belong to the rectory. Its situation, on the southern slope of a gentle hill, commanding a prospect eminently dignified and beautiful, highly favoured and encouraged this blameless gratification. Like Shenstone he has scattered verses in his paths, and the shades of Bremhill will long testify that they were once the retreat and solace of a poet.
But poetry has by no means monopolized the attention of Mr. Bowles. Finding the religious steadiness of his Parish endangered, by the unceasing efforts of dissenting preachers and teachers, he has deeply studied the genuine tenets of our church, and particularly in their purest source, the Scriptures, with a penetrating and original view, he has also plunged into forgotten volumes of controversial divinity, and traced to their origin of the prevailing modern errors of enthusiasm. These enquiries have led to publish sermons, and other works, of plain but sound divinity; and have enabled him to teach it with unusual success, by oral instruction.
He has entered also into other controversies, and has most happily defended Public Schools, in a reply to the buffoonery and calumnies of the Edinburgh Review. He has defended his own alma mater, Winchester, against the attacks of Mr. Brougham, as we have already had occasion to mention. An edition of Pope's works, published in 1806, which he was induced to superintend, has involved him in some controversies, in which he has shewn, at least, that he is well able to defend his opinions; and has supported them by reasons which are not likely to be refuted. In consequence of this publication, he has also been accused of endeavouring to lower the poetical and moral character of Pope. It is our firm conviction, that both were very remote from his intention. To the poetical rank of that author he has certainly assigned a much higher station than was allowed him by a former editor, the acute and learned Dr. Warton; and if he has not placed him in the highest, it is in conformity with principles which he has clearly stated, and ably defended. We ought thence in candour to conclude that such was his real, not assumed, opinion; and he is not a writer to be suspected of lowering another poet to exalt himself. With respect to the moral character of Pope, certain facts appearing to be by more research established, the natural conclusions from them could not well be suppressed, without evincing a partiality which must have defeated itself. It is certainly more useful to the world to shew men as they really were, than to throw a false gloss over their lives, because they were distinguished by their genius. Doubtful accusations, of men who can no longer defend themselves, should certainly be avoided; but truth, when it comes to light, should not be suppressed; unless we would have it concluded, that great talents confer an exemption from all common rules of action; — an opinion which too many have taken up, even before their title to the privilege has been proved, to any one but themselves. This, at least, we can assert, that the feelings thus attributed to Mr. Bowles are inconsistent with the whole tenor of his original writings, to our certain knowledge, with his mature and disposition.
The character of Pope, with respect to some few points of morality, is still an agitated question. In this, if Mr. Bowles as a commentator, has taken the unfavourable side, we are convinced that it was from the unbiassed operation of his judgment. To vindicate one poet, it is by no means necessary to slander another, and, however this question may be ultimately decided, they who really know Mr. Bowles will remain assured, that what he asserted he believed; and what he thought himself obliged to censure, he censured with regret.
With all his studious occupations, Mr. B. has never shrunk from active duties. Of late years, he has borne his part in the magistracy of the county of Wilts.; and his retirement, though rural, is far from being secluded. Much literary and elegant society, at the house of a distinguished nobleman in his neighbourhood [Author's note: The Marquis of Lansdown], and occasionally at his own, together with an annual visit to the metropolis, enables him to keep pace with the world, in all that is worth observing of its proceedings or its manners.