For the few particulars which are recorded of the personal history of PENROSE, the world is indebted to his relation, John Pettit Andrews, Esq., the editor of his works, and author of The History of Great Britain, 3 vols. 4to, 1794-95, and other literary performances.
The facts stated in the present account, are chiefly taken from the brief "Introduction" of Mr. Andrews, dated "The Grove, Nov. 1781," with such additional information as the Gentleman's Magazine, and other publications, have supplied.
Thomas Penrose was born in 1743. He was the son of the Rev. Mr. Penrose, rector of Newbury in Berkshire, descended from an ancient family in Cornwall; a man of high character and abilities, and beloved and respected by all who knew him.
Being intended for the church, after passing through the usual course of school education in the country; he was entered at Christ Church College, Oxford, where he pursued his studies, for some time, with remarkable success.
In the summer 1762, his eager turn to the naval and military line, overpowering his attachment to his real interest, he left his college, and embarked in the private expedition against Buenos Ayres, in South America, under the command of Captain Macnamara, an adventurer of spirit and experience.
The embarkation was made from the Tagus, Aug. 30, 1762; and the force, partly English, and partly Portuguese, consisted of the Lord Clive of 64 guns; the Ambuscade of 40, on board which Penrose acted as a lieutenant of marines; the Gloria of 38; and some small armed vessels and store-ships. They had on board about 500 soldiers.
The Spaniards having, some time before, taken the Portuguese settlement of Nova Colonia they judged it necessary to begin with the recovery of that settlement before they made any attack upon Buenos Ayres.
Though the enterprize was not without danger, there was great reason to expect success. The ships were in good order, and the men in good spirits. They advanced to the attack with horns sounding and drums beating; and every thing expressed hope and joy.
This gay preparative was followed by a fierce fire, supported on both sides for four hours, at a very small distance, with uncommon resolution; but the spirit and perseverance of the Spaniards, were more than equalled by the British ships, whose fire at length became superior. The Spanish batteries were almost silenced. The English were in expectation of seeing the colours immediately struck, when just as their success seemed certain, by some unknown accident, the Lord Clive took fire. In an instant she was all in a blaze. The same moment discovered the flames, and the impossibility of extinguishing them.
Then was to be seen a most dreadful spectacle. All the sides of the ship were immediately crowded with naked men, who, but a few minutes before, reckoned themselves almost in the assured possession of wealth and conquest, precipitating themselves into the sea, with the melancholy alternative of a death by fire or water. The enemy's fire, which recommenced on this accident, redoubled their distress; and many who might have escaped drowning, perished by the shot. Captain Macnamara was drowned; and of 340 souls, only 78 in all escaped.
The other vessels of the squadron, far from being able to afford any assistance to the sufferers, were obliged to get off as expeditiously as thy could, lest they should have been involved in the same fate.
The Ambuscade with difficulty escaped. She was little better than a wreck. She had sixty shot in her hull, and six feet of water in her hold; and all her rigging was miserably mangled. By exertion of uncommon efforts, they made a shift to get into the Portuguese settlement at Rio Janeiro.
Amidst the preparations for the attack of Nova Colonia, the attention of Penrose was occupied by the tender remembrance of Miss Mary Slocock, of Newbury, the lady whom he afterwards married, to whom, with equal collectedness and tranquillity of mind, he wrote the verses on board the Ambuscade, Jan. 6, 1763:
Amidst this nobly awful scene,
Ere yet fell slaughter's rage begin,
Ere death his conquests swell,
Let me to love this tribute pay,
For Polly frame this parting lay,
Perhaps my last farewell.
For since full low among the dead,
Must many a gallant youth be laid,
Ere this day's work be o'er,
Perhaps even I, with joyful eyes,
That saw this morning's sun arise,
Shall see it set no more.
On leaving the river of Plate, after the unsuccessful attack of Nova Colonia, in which he was wounded, he solaced his sorrow for the melancholy loss of his companions, by inscribing an elegy to the memory of the unfortunate sufferers:
Adieu! ye walls; thou fatal stream farewell,
By war's sad chance, beneath whose muddy waves,
Full many a gallant youth untimely fell,
Full many a Briton found an early grave!
Beneath thy tide, ah! silent now they roll,
Or tread with mangled limbs thy sandy shore:
The trumpet's call no more awakes their soul;
The battle's voice, thy now shall hear no more.
Though the Ambuscade escaped, and he recovered from the wound he received in the engagement, yet the hardships which he afterwards sustained in a prize sloop, in which he was stationed, utterly ruined his constitution.
Returning to England, with ample testimonials of his gallantry and good behaviour, he finished, at Hertford College, Oxford, his academical studies; and, having taken orders, accepted the curacy of Newbury, the income of which, by the voluntary subscription of the inhabitants,was considerably enlarged.
In 1764, he lamented the loss of a sister, in a pathetic Elegy to the Memory of Miss Mary Penrose, who died, Dec. 18, in the nineteenth year of her age.
In 1768, he married Miss Slocock of Newbury, whose beauty and accomplishments had made an early impression on his susceptible heart.
In 1774, he published a Sermon, preached at the funeral of the Rev. John Geree, 4to, which was followed, in 1775, by his Flights of Fancy, 4to; consisting of three short poems, the Helmets, the Carousal of Odin, and Madness; which were read with general approbation.
The year following, he expressed his disapprobation of the conduct of government towards America, in his Address to the Genius of Britain, 4to; in which he requested that power to solicit his Majesty to put an end to our civil dissensions; but it was nothing more than "operam atque oleum perdere."
In 1777, he published a Sermon preached on the national fast, 4to, which was the last publication he gave to the world.
After he had continued in the station of a curate about nine years, it seemed as if the clouds of disappointment, which had hitherto overshadowed his prospects, and tinctured his poetical essays with gloom, were clearing away; for he was then presented by a friend, who knew his worth, and honoured his abilities, to the rectory of Beckingham and Standerwick, in Somersetshire, worth near £500 per annum. It came, however, too late; for the state of his health, which had been for some time declining, was now such as left little hope, except in the assistance of the waters of Bristol.
Thither he went, and there he died in 1779, in the 36th year of his age; leaving one child, Thomas, admitted on the foundation of Winchester College in 1781.
His Flights of Fancy, and Address to the Genius of Britain, were reprinted, with several pieces, never before printed, in one volume 12mo, under the title of Poems, by the Rev. Mr. Penrose, 1781, with an "Introduction" by James Pettit Andrews, Esq. containing a short account of his life and character. They are now, reprinted from the edition 1781, received, for the first time, into a collection of classical English poetry.
"Mr. Penrose," says Mr. Andrews, who knew him well, "was respected for his extensive erudition, admired for his eloquence, and equally beloved and esteemed for his social qualities. By the poor, towards whom he was liberal to his utmost ability, he was venerated to the highest degree. In oratory and composition, his talents were great. His pencil was ready as his pen; and on subjects of humour, had uncommon merit. To his poetical abilities, the public, by their reception of his Flights of Fancy, &c. gave several favourable testimonies. To sum up the whole, his figure and address were as pleasing as his mind was ornamented.
"Such was Mr. Penrose, to whose memory I pay this just and willing tribute, and to whom I consider it as an honour to be related:
Multis ille bonis flebilis occidet—
Nullis flebilior quam mihi."
Penrose has written but little; but his Flights of Fancy, if he had written nothing else, are sufficient to entitle him to a classical distinction among the poets of our country.
All his compositions bear evident marks of a natural enthusiasm, harmony, and simplicity. But it is in the higher kinds of poetry, which require the most vigorous exertions of fancy, and to which a laboured and artificial diction is best suited, that he chiefly excels. His lyric compositions are characterised by a luxuriance of imagination, a wild sublimity of fancy, and a command of language, which entitle them to rank with the productions of Collins, Gray, and other writers of the same school. They are replete with the same spirit of impersonation, the same animation of sentiment, the same magnificence of phraseology, the same general and expanded description. But they have more of the spirit and manner of Collins than of Gray. They are impregnated with the genuine seeds of poetry; but they have more of the enthusiasm that "delights and chills," than of the "pomp and prodigality of heaven."
His Flights of Fancy consist of three poems. The first is intituled, The Helmets, wherein these formidable pieces of ancient armour, are supposed to rise and prognosticate civil dissension's in Britain, in consequence of the disturbances in America. It is written in blank verse, and affords a specimen of considerable strength and harmony in that metre. The general imagery is well conceived, the sentiments are happily suited to the subject, and the expression is often highly poetical. The predominant defect is an obscure magnificence. In the second poem, The Carousal of Odin, we recognize both the spirit and manner of Gray. It is evidently modelled upon his Norse Odes, and is impregnated with fire and poetical enthusiasm, in an uncommon degree. The last, intituled Madness, is a composition of a superior order, and challenges a comparison with the Music Ode of Dryden, the Passions of Collins, and the Bard of Gray. The disposition is artful and happy. The mind of the reader, after the horror excited by the view of "the fettered maniac," is relieved by a tender and pathetic melancholy on beholding the "poor distracted fair." And, again, that melancholy passes into a different, though a kindred pity, occasioned by the circumstances of the mimic monarch, whose disturbing the reveries of "the love-lorn maid," produces the finest poetical and dramatic effect. This evinces the poet's taste; for if the disposition had been different, the effect would have been less happy. He is not less fortunate in his description; the "maniac" appearing first in all the terrible circumstances of his character, and every suggestion of tenderness, and all the sensations of pity called up to qualify the attendant horror:
No pleasing memory left — forgotten quite
All former scenes of dear delight,
Connubial love — paternal joy, &c.
Nothing can be more finely pictured than the subject of the love madness. The whole description maintains the truest propriety, and is executed with the happiest care.
Now, sadly gay, of sorrows past she sings,
Now, pensive, ruminates unutterable things—
is one of these exquisite strokes that only can fall from the pencil of true genius. Equally happy too, is the expression itself, as the idea it conveys, — "ruminates unutterable things." It is impossible that the same idea should be so powerfully impressed by any other words.
The fetter'd maniac foams along,
(Rage the burden of his jarring song,)
In rage he grinds his teeth, and rends his streaming hair.
The second line is another instance of excellent and well adapted expression. Had it been smoothed and regulated by the word "is," after "rage," it would have wanted its present force, its characteristic dissonance, and harshness. The line that follows it is equally excellent. The picture of the "Momus of the flighty train," is entitled to great praise.
Merry mischief fills his brain,
Blanket-rob'd, and antic crown'd,
The mimic monarch skips around;
Big with conceit of dignity, he smiles,
And plots his frolics quaint, and unsuspected wiles.
His Address to the Genius of Britain, is written with a liberal spirit, and contains some pathetic passages and beautiful lines. It is devoted to his patriot feelings, and he delivers his sentiments (which may now be considered as prophetic) with a fervour that leaves no doubt on our minds of the virtue of his intentions. In this performance, there is considerable strength of numbers, of painting, and of fancy.
Of his posthumous poems, it is not to be expected that every piece will be equally correct and finished as it might have been, had he lived to superintend the publication itself. There are, however, several pieces, not unworthy of the same pen, which produced Madness. Of these, not the least beautiful, is the Field of Battle. To the reader of sensibility, it will be needless to point out the particular merit of the following stanzas, describing the distraction of the wife of an officer, in search of her husband, slain in battle.
She prest to hear — she caught the tale—
At every sound her blood congeal'd—
With terrour bold — with terror pale,
She sprung to search the fatal field.
O'er the sad scene, in dire amaze
She went — with courage not her own—
On many a corpse she cast her gaze—
And turn'd her ear to many a groan.
Drear anguish urged her to press
Full many a hand, as wild she mourn'd,
—Of comfort glad, the drear caress,
The damp bold dying hand return'd.
The exquisitely pathetic and natural thought contained in the two last lines, would scarcely have suggested itself to any one who had not been an eye-witness of the affecting scenes, subsequent to a military engagement; and who had not, probably, experienced, from the hand of some expiring friend, a return similar to what he has so feelingly described. The fragment, intituled The Curate, deserved great praise, for happy delineation of character, natural humour, quaint phraseology, tenderness of sentiment, and simplicity of expression. The verses to his wife, on the anniversary of their wedding day, shews the mind of the writer in an amiable point of view. The Hermit's Vision, Mortality, The Justice, Donnington Castle, Poverty, The Harp, are characterized by superior animation of sentiment, fertility of invention, and splendour of diction. Of his Elegies, the general character, both of the sentiment and the language, is tenderness and simplicity; the versification is harmonious, and a general air of classic elegance runs through the whole. His fragments and smaller pieces may be read with pleasure, though they have not a sufficient degree of merit to entitle them to a place among the favoured productions of poesy.