Richard Jago was born October 1, 1715. His family was of Cornish extraction; but his father, the Rev. Richard Jago, was Rector of Beaudesert, near Henley in Arden, in Warwickshire. He married Margaret, the daughter of William Parker, Gent. of Henley, 1711, by whom he had several children. The poet was his third son.
He received a good classical education under the Rev. Mr. Crumpton, an excellent country schoolmaster at Solihull, near Birmingham in Warwickshire; where he formed an acquaintance with several gentlemen who were his school-fellows; among others with Shenstone. A similarity of taste and of pursuits soon brought on an intimacy between these two poets, which continued without abatement till the death of Shenstone.
"From the acquaintance," says Mr. Graves, in his "Recollection of some particulars in the Life of Shenstone," "which I had with Mr. Jago, and some others who were bred under Mr. Crumpton, he seems to have given his pupils a more early taste for the English classics, than was commonly done in grammar schools at that time."
About 1732, he was removed from the school of Solihull, and entered as a servitor, of University College, Oxford; where he was privately visited by his school-fellow Shenstone, then a commoner of Pembroke College, who introduced him to the acquaintance of his fellow collegians, Anthony Whistler, Esq. of Whitchurch, Oxfordshire, author of the "Shuttle-cock," and several original poems in "Dodsley's Collection," Mr. Robert Binnel, author of some learned notes its Grainger's "Tibullus," and Mr. Richard Graves, the present rector of Claverton in Somersetshire, author of "The Spiritual Quixote," "Euphrosyne," "Columella," "Peter of Pontefract," and other ingenious performances.
On the humiliating situation in which he was placed at University College, his friend Mr. Graves makes the following liberal and indignant reflections, in his "Recollection, &c."
"Mr. Shenstone had one ingenious and much valued friend in Oxford, Mr. Jago, his schoolfellow, whom he could only visit in private, as he wore a servitor's gown; it being then deemed a great disparagement for a commoner to appear in public with one in that situation, which, by the way, would make one wish with Dr. Johnson, that there were no young people admitted in that servile state in a place of liberal education.
"Servitors, or Sizers as they are called in Cambridge, were probably appointed when colleges were first established, and when there was a scarcity of fit persons to supply the learned professions, that a greater number might have the advantage of literary instruction, by the poorer waiting on the more affluent students.
"But what good end can it answer in these times, when every genteel profession is overstocked, to rob our agriculture or our manufactures of so many useful hands, by encouraging every substantial farmer or mechanical tradesman, to breed his son to the church?
"If now and then a very uncommon genius in those walks of life discovers itself, there are seldom wanting gentlemen in the neighbourhood, who are proud of calling forth, and if necessary, of supporting, by a subscription, such extraordinary talents.
"Mr. Jago, however, who was the son of a clergyman in Warwickshire, with a large family, and who could not otherwise have given his son a liberal education, may be thought an instance in favour of this institution.
"But I make no doubt, that a respectable clergyman, as Mr. Jago's father was, might, by a very slight application to the head, or fellows of almost any college, have procured some scholarship or exhibition, for a youth of genius, and properly qualified; which, with a very small additional expense, might have supported him in the university, without placing him in so humiliating a situation, which in some future period of his life (when, perhaps, his parts might have raised him to some eminence in the world), might put it in the power of any purse-proud fellow collegian, to boast that he had waited on him in the college; though, perhaps, all the obligation he had lain under to such a patron, was the receiving sixpence a week, not as an act of generosity, but as a tribute imposed upon him by the standing rules of the society."
He took his degree of Master of Arts, July 9, 1738, having taken orders the year before, and served the curacy of Snitterfield, near Stratford upon Avon.
In 1744, he married Dorothea Susanna Fancourt, a daughter of the Rev. Mr. Fancourt, of Kilmcote in Leicestershire.
For several years after his marriage, he resided at Harbury; to which living he was instituted in 1746. At a small distance lay Chesterton, given him about the same time by Lord Willoughby de Broke; the two together amounting to about £100 a year.
Before his removal from Harbury, he had the misfortune to lose his amiable companion, who died in 1751, leaving him a numerous family of small children, and from such a loss the most inconsolable widower.
In 1754, Lord Clare, afterwards Earl Nugent, who had a great regard for him, by his interest with Dr. Madox, Bishop of Worcester, procured him the Vicarage of Snitterfield, where he had formerly been curate, worth about £140 a year; whither he removed, and where he resided the remainder of his life.
In 1759, he married a second wife, Margaret, the daughter of James Underwood, Esq. of Budgely in Staffordshire.
While he was engaged in the duties of his profession as a country clergyman, which be performed with exemplary diligence, he found leisure to indulge his early propensity to the study of poetry; and carried on a constant correspondence with his friend Shenstone, on the subject of their literary studies and poetical compositions.
It appears from Shenstone's Letters, published In 1769, that he communicated from time to time to Mr. Jago and Mr. Graves, the detail of his improvements at the Leasowes, an account of the visits he received from people of rank, and the ordinary occurrences of his life. His eleventh Elegy is addressed to Jago. He appears also to have lived in intimacy with Somervile, Mr. Hylton, Lady Luxborough, and other friends of Shenstone.
In 1752, his Elegy on the Blackbirds was published by Dr. Hawkesworth in the Adventurer, and attributed to West, it was afterwards inserted in Dodsley's "Collection," with his name.
When it first appeared with his name in Dodsley's Collection, a manager of the Bath theatre boasted in the circle of his acquaintance, that he was the author of it, and that Jago was a fictitious name which he had adopted from the celebrated tragedy of Othello.
It is remarkable, that Dr. Johnson, in his "Life of West," leaves this affair still dubious; when it is demonstrable, from the very letters of Shenstone to which he refers, that Jago was the real author.
The case seems to have been thus: As Shenstone was fond of communicating any poetical productions of his friends, which he thought would do them credit, he probably gave a copy of Jago's elegy to the Lyttleton family at Hagley, where West frequently visited. And as West thought it worthy to appear in the Adventurer, he might send it to Dr. Hawkesworth without mentioning Jago's name, which was then very little known in the world. So that Dr. Hawkesworth might well imagine that West himself was the author of it, as Dr. Johnson has hinted.
However this may be, there is a living evidence, Mr. Hylton, the editor of his poems, who is able and ready to support indisputably, Jago's claim to this beautiful elegy, as well as to the others of the Swallows and Goldfinches.
In 1767, he published his Edge-Hill or the rural prospect delineated and moralized, a poem, in four books, 4to, which completely established his poetical reputation.
In 1768 he published his Labour and Genius, or the Mill-stream and the Cascade, a Fable, written in the year 1762, and inscribed to the late William Shenstone, Esq, 4to. It consists chiefly of encomiums on the genius and taste of Shenstone.
In 1771, he was presented by Lord Willoughby de Broke, to the living of Kilmcote, before mentioned, with near £300 a year, and resigned the vicarage of Harbury.
During the latter part of this life, as the infirmities of age came upon him, he seldom went far from home. He amused himself at his leisure, in improving his vicarage-house, and ornamenting his grounds, which were agreeably situated, and had many natural beauties.
After a short illness, he died on the 8th of May 1781, in the 66th year of his age; and was buried according to his desire, in a vault which he had made for his family in the church at Snitterfield.
He had children only by his first wife; three sons, who died before him, and four daughters, three of whom were living in 1784.
His poem of Edge-Hill, Labour and Genius, Elegies, &c. were reprinted, as they were corrected, improved, and enlarged by him, a short time before his death, with Adam, or the Fatal Disobedience, an Oratorio, compiled from the Paradise Lost of Milton, and adapted to music; and some additional pieces, never before printed, in one volume 8vo. under the title of poems, Moral and Descriptive, by the late Richard Jago, M.A. with a preface, containing an account of his life and character, by his friend Mr. Hylton, which has been chiefly followed in this account. They are now reprinted from the edition 1784, for the first time received into a collection of classical English poetry. The Oratorio is omitted in thus edition; because it is merely a compilation from the Paradise Lost, in the language of Milton, adapted to representation. An Oratorio, on a similar plan, intitled, "Paradise Lost," was presented to the world, by the amiable and ingenious naturalist and poet Mr. Stillingfleet, in 1760.
The character of Jago appears to have been truly amiable and respectable. To his learning, taste, and good sense, Shenstone, Graves, &c. bear ample testimony. His moral and intellectual character has been so accurately delineated by the friendly pencil of Mr. Hylton, as to render the after-strokes of a casual hand unnecessary.
"Mr. Jago in his person," says Mr. Hylton, who knew him well, "was about the middle stature. In his manner, like most people of sensibility, he appeared reserved amongst strangers; amongst his friends he was free and easy, and his conversation sprightly and entertaining. In domestic life, he was the affectionate husband, the tender parent, the kind master, the hospitable neighbour, and sincere friend, and both by his doctrine and example, a faithful and worthy minister of the parish over which he presided.
"To do justice to Mr. Jago's character as a poet, would require the pen of a more able writer. It may safely be asserted, however, on the authority of the public approbation which they have already met with, that the pieces on which we rest his poetical fame, viz. his poem of Edge-Hill, his fable of Labour and Genius, and his Elegies on the Blackbirds, &c. are all excellent in their kind.
"The poem of Edge-Hill, though the subject is local and chiefly descriptive, yet he has contrived to make it generally interesting, by his historical narrations and digressive episodes; and by his philosophical disquisitions or moral reflections; particularly the philosophical account of the Origin of Mountains, which is equally curious and poetical. His description of the Earl of Leicester's Entertainment of Queen Elizabeth, at Kenelworth Castle, which is truly characteristic of that pedantic age; as the moral reflections on the ruins and departed grandeur of that superb structure, is in the best manner of Young, in his Night Thoughts. The story of the youth restored to sight, from the Tatler, is told with so many natural and affecting circumstances, as makes Mr. Jago's poetical much superior to Sir Richard Steele's prose narration. The historical account of the important battle of Kineton or Edge-Hill, contains some curious facts not generally known, as well as very suitable reflections, religious and moral, on the fatal effects of civil discord.
"The fable of Labour and Genius, the subject of which was suggested by Mr. Shenstone, is told with some humour, and great clearness and precision, with a very useful moral forcibly inculcated.
"In the beautiful elegy on the Blackbirds, as well as in the others of the Swallows and Goldfinches, Mr. Jago's original genius appears, and as Thomson says, he has
—touch'd a theme
Unknown to fame, the passion of the groves.
"Among the additional pieces, which now make their first appearance, the Roundelay for the Stratford Jubilee, in particular, is beautifully expressive and characteristic of Shakspeare's versatile genius and multifarious excellence."
These observations might be still augmented, by a more minute examination and developement of the beauties in his Edge-Hill and Elegies, which, if he had written nothing else, are sufficient to entitle him to a classical distinction among the poets of our country.
As a descriptive poet, he evinces a picturesque imagination, a correct judgment, and a delicate taste, refined by a careful perusal of the ancient classics. His Edge-Hill ranks with the "Cooper's Hill" of Denham, the "Grongar Hill" of Dyer, and similar compositions of other writers, who have proved their powers in loco-descriptive poetry. It is written in blank verse, and exhibits a specimen of great strength and harmony in that metre. The diction is elegant and poetical. He discovers no want of ease or fancy; and shows a goodness of disposition in every part of his work.
"The title is Edge-Hill," he informs us, in his introduction, "a place taken notice of by all the topographical writers who have had occasion to mention it; for its extensive and agreeable prospect, and farther, unhappily distinguished by being the scene of the first battle between the forces of King Charles and those of the Parliament, under the command of the Earl of Essex, in the year 1642. These two circumstances of natural beauty and historical importance, coinciding with the affection of the writer for his native country, lying at the foot of this celebrated mountain, presented to his mind a theme for poetical imagery too pleasing to be resisted by him His business, therefore, was first to select a stock of materials fit for his purpose, and then to arrange then, in the best manner he could. Both these points he endeavoured to effect, not only by consulting his eye, but also by considering the character, natural history, and other circumstances of such places as were most likely to afford matter for ornament or instruction of this kind; forming from the whole, by an imaginary line, a number of distant scenes, placed in the most advantageous light, and corresponding with the different times of the day, each exhibiting an entire picture, and containing its due proportion of objects and colouring.
"In the execution of this design, he endeavoured to make it as extensively interesting as he could, by the frequent introduction of general sentiments, and moral reflections and to enliven the descriptive part by digressions and episodes belonging to, or deducible from the subject; divesting himself as much, as possible of all partiality in matters of a public concernment; in private ones, following with more freedom, the sentiments and dictates of his own mind."
That poetry which is employed in rural description, lies under many disadvantages. Though there is a variety, there is likewise an uniformity in the works of nature, which renders it difficult to embellish such subjects that have not been exhibited by former writers. Hence it arises, that he who has perused one descriptive poem of this kind, is often struck with a seeming repetition of ideas; and more sensibly so, where the places described have no previous seat in his own imagination. The poet who describes, or the reader who peruses descriptions of scenes familiar to him, will easily find the distinct images awakened by general terms; but he who is to impress a local picture in his fancy, merely from the combination of words, will find little novelty in these reiterated descriptions of country prospects. The poem of Edge-Hill is local; and though it is embellished with strong painting, apt allusions, historical incidents, and moral reflections, yet its descriptions are not always adapted exclusively to the place it professes to celebrate. Like the descriptions of Thomson, they do not always apply to any particular spot, or raise any ideas of locality, but more frequently please, by exhibiting the general views and effects of nature. The different times of the day, Morning, Noon, Afternoon, and Night, produce an agreeable diversity of description. Pathetic reflections, and moral instructions, are often happily introduced, in places where one expects only painting and amusement. Through the whole poem, the description of plates, and images raised by the poet, are still tending to some hint, or leading to some reflection upon moral life or political institution, that have a relation to the object. But the moralizing of his rural paintings, is sometimes attended with quaintness, and a forced manner. Nor is it difficult to investigate the cause: All moral truths are of an abstracted nature; and when we attempt to illustrate them by objects of the senses, the transition from the natural simplicity of the latter, to the refinement of the former, is incompatible with that ease which we expect to find in poetical descriptions, and interrupts that attention which we are always inclined to afford. The digressions and episodes arise naturally from the subject, and enliven the description; but the episode of the blind youth in the third book, is perhaps too long. Where episodes are introduced, in works of this kind, they should be related in no very tedious or circumstantial manner; because we are not willing to be long detained from the principal subject. The famous story of the Lady Godiva of Coventry, will be read with pleasure. The rules he lays down for the situation and construction of a rural seat, are worthy of the genius and taste of Shenstone. They show him to have been a man of true taste and good observation.
Of his Elegies on the Blackbirds, Goldfinches, and Swallows, the extensive popularity is the best eulogium. They are characterized by an amiable humanity, and tender simplicity of thought and expression, which justly entitle him to the exclusive distinction of the "poet of the birds." They have received the highest applause from Dr. Aikin, in his ingenious and entertaining "Essay on the application of Natural History to poetry." Graeme, Mr. Pratt, and other poets, have successfully employed similar circumstances of fictitious distress in their compositions; but the praise of invention, and the palm of merit, in this species of elegy, belong to Jago.
Respecting his fable of Labour and Genius, the present writer is happy to coincide with the judgment of Mr. Hylton.
His Eclogues and smaller pieces, have considerable merit; but they require no distinct examination, or particular criticism.