1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Shenstone

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:35-36.



WILLIAM SHENSTONE added some pleasing pastoral and elegiac strains to our national poetry, but he wanted, as Johnson justly remarks, "comprehension and variety." Though highly ambitious of poetical fame, he devoted a large portion of his time, end squandered most of his means, in landscape-gardening and ornamental agriculture. He reared up around him a sort of rural paradise, expending his poetical taste and fancy in the disposition and embellishment of his grounds, till at length pecuniary difficulties and distress drew a cloud over the fair prospect, and darkened the latter days of the poet's prospect, Swift, who entertained a mortal aversion to all projectors, might have included the, unhappy Shenstone among the fanciful inhabitants of his Laputa. The estate which he laboured to adorn was his natal ground. At Leasowes, in the parish of Hales Owen, Shropshire, the poet was born in November 1714. He was taught to read at what is termed a dame school, and his venerable preceptress has been immortalised by his poem of the "Schoolmistress." At, the proper age he was sent to Pembroke college Oxford, where he remained four years. In 1745, by the death of his parents and an elder brother, the paternal estate fell to his own care and management, and he began from this time, as Johnson characteristically describes it, "to point his prospects, to diversify his surface, to entangle his walks, and to wind his waters; which he did with such judgment and fancy, as made his little domain the envy of the great and the admiration of the a place to be visited by travellers and copied by designers." Descriptions of the Leasowes have been written by Dodsley and Goldsmith. The property was altogether not worth more than £300 per annum, and Shenstone had devoted so much of his means to external embellishment, that he was compelled to live in a dilapidated house, not fit, as he acknowledges, to receive "polite friends." An unfortunate attachment to a young lady, and disappointed ambition — for he aimed at political as well as poetical celebrity — conspired, with his passion for gardening and improvement, to fix him in his solitary situation. He became querulous and dejected, pined at the unequal gifts of fortune, and even contemplated with a gloomy joy the complaint of Swift, that he would be "forced to die in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole." Yet Shenstone was essentially kind and benevolent, and he must at times have experienced exquisite pleasure in his romantic retreat, in which every year would give fresh beauty, and develop more distinctly the creations of his taste and labour. "The works of a person that builds," he says, "begin immediately to decay, while those of him who plants, begin directly to improve." This advantage he possessed, with the additional charm of a love of literature; but Shenstone sighed for more than inward peace and satisfaction. He built his happiness on the applause of others, and died in solitude a votary of the world. His death took place at the Leasowes, February 11, 1763.

The works of Shenstone were collected and published after his death by his friend Dodsley, in three volumes. The first contains his poems, the second, his prose essays, and the third his letters and other pieces. Gray remarks of his correspondence, that it is "about nothing else but the Leasowes, and his writings with two or three neighbouring clergyman who wrote verses too." The essays are good, displaying an ease and grace of style united to judgment and discrimination. They have not the mellow ripeness of thought and learning of Cowley's essays, but they resemble them more closely than any others we possess. In poetry, Shenstone tried different styles; his elegies barely reach mediocrity; his levities, or pieces of humour, are dull and spiritless. His highest effort is the "Schoolmistress," a descriptive sketch in imitation of Spenser, so delightfully quaint and ludicrous, yet true to nature, that it has all the force and vividness of a painting by Teniers or Wilkie. His "Pastoral Ballad," in four parts, is also the finest English poem of that order. The pastorals of Spenser do not aim at lyrical simplicity, and no modern poet has approached Shenstone in the simple tenderness and pathos of pastoral song. Mr. Campbell seems to regret the affected Arcadianism of these pieces, which undoubtedly present an incongruous mixture of pastoral life and modern manners. But, whether from early associations (for almost every person has read Shenstone's ballad in youth), or from the romantic simplicity, the true touches of nature and feeling, and the easy versification of the stanzas, they are always read and remembered with delight. We must surrender up the judgment to the imagination in perusing them, well knowing that no such Corydons or Phylisses are to be found; but this is a sacrifice which the Faery Queen equally demands, and which few readers of poetry are slow to grant. Johnson quotes the following verses of the first part, with the striking eulogium, that, if any mind denies its sympathy to them, it has no acquaintance with love or nature —

I prized every hour that went by,
Beyond all that had pleased me before;
But now they are past, and I sigh,
And I grieve that I prized them no more.

When forced the fair nymph to forego,
What anguish I felt in my heart!
Yet I thought (but it might not be so)
'Twas with pain that she saw me depart.

She gazed as I slowly withdrew,
My path I could hardly discern
So sweetly she bade me adieu,
I thought that she bade me return.

We subjoin the best part of the "Schoolmistress;" but one other stanza is worthy of notice, not only for its intrinsic excellence, but for its having probably suggested to Gray the fine reflection in his elegy — "Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest," &c. Mr. D'Israeli has pointed out this resemblance in his "Curiosities of Literature," and it appears well-founded. The palm of merit, as well as originality, seems to rest with Shenstone; for it is more natural and just to predict the existence of undeveloped powers and great eminence in the humble child at school, than to conceive they had slumbered through life in the peasant in the grave. Yet the conception of Gray has a sweet and touching pathos, that sinks into the heart and memory.