1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Mason

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:57-58.



WILLIAM MASON, the friend and literary executor of Gray, long survived the connection which did him so much honour, but he appeared early as a poet. He was the son of the Rev. Mr. Mason, vicar of St. Trinity, Yorkshire, where he was born in 1725. At Pembroke college, Cambridge, he became acquainted with Gray, who assisted him in obtaining his degree of M.A. His first literary production was an attack on the Jacobitism of Oxford, to which Thomas Warton replied in his "Triumph of Isis." In 1753 appeared his tragedy of "Elfrida," "written," says Southey, "on an artificial model, and in a gorgeous diction, because he thought Shakspeare had precluded all hope of excellence in any other form of drama." The model of Mason was the Greek drama, and he introduced into his play the classic accompaniment of the chorus. A second drama, "Caractacus," is of a higher cast than "Elfrida:" more noble and spirited in language, and of more sustained dignity in scenes, situations, and character. Mason also wrote a series of odes on "Independence," "Memory," "Melancholy," and "The Fall of Tyranny," in which his gorgeousness of diction swells into extravagance and bombast. His other poetical works are his "English Garden," a long descriptive poem in blank verse, extended over four books, and an ode on the "Commemoration of the British Revolution," in which he asserts those Whig principles which be steadfastly maintained during the trying period of the American war. As in his dramas Mason had made an innovation on the established taste of the times, he ventured, with equal success, to depart from the practice of English authors, in writing the life of his friend Gray. Instead of presenting a continuous narrative, in which the biographer alone is visible, he incorporated the journals and letters of the poet in chronological order, thus making the subject of the memoir in some degree his own biographer, and enabling the reader to judge more fully and correctly of his situation, thoughts, and feelings. The plan was afterwards adopted by Boswell in his "Life of Johnson," and has been sanctioned by subsequent usage, in all cases where the subject is of importance enough to demand copious information and minute personal details. The circumstances of Mason's life are soon related. After his career at college, he entered into orders, and was appointed one of the royal chaplains. He held the living of Ashton, and was precentor of York cathedral. When politics ran high, he took an active part on the side of the Whigs, but was respected by all parties. He died in 1797.

Mason's poetry cannot be said to be popular, even with poetical readers. His greatest want is simplicity, yet at times his rich diction has a fine effect. In his "English Garden," though verbose and languid as a whole, there are some exquisite images. Thus, he says of Time, its

Gradual touch
Has mouldered into beauty many a tower
Which, when it frowned with all its battlements,
Was only terrible.

Of woodland scenery—

Many a glade is found
The haunt of wood-gods only; where, if art
E'er dared to tread, 'twas with unsandaled foot,
Printless, as if 'twere holy ground.

Gray quotes the following lines in one of Mason's odes as "superlative:"—

While through the west, where sinks the crimson day,
Meek twilight slowly sails, and waves her banners gray.