Sir William Jones

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:115-17.

"It is not Sir William Jones's poetry," says Mr. Southey, "that can perpetuate his name." This is true: it was as an oriental scholar and legislator, an enlightened lawyer and patriot, that he earned his laurels. His profound learning and philological researches (he was master of twenty-eight languages) were the wonder and admiration of his contemporaries. Sir William was born in London in 1746. His father was an eminent mathematician, but died when his son was only three years of age. The care of educating young Jones devolved upon his mother, who was well qualified for the duty by her virtues and extensive learning. When in his fifth year, the imagination of the young scholar was caught by the sublime description of the angel in the tenth chapter of the Apocalypse, and the impression was never effaced. In 1753 he was placed at Harrow school, where he continued nearly ten years, and became an accomplished and critical classical scholar. He did not confine himself merely to the ancient authors usually studied, but added a knowledge of the Arabic characters, and acquired sufficient Hebrew to read the Psalms. In 1764 he was entered of University college, Oxford. Here his taste for oriental literature continued, and he engaged a native of Aleppo, whom he had discovered in London, to act as his preceptor. He also assiduously perused the Greek poets and historians. In his nineteenth year, Jones accepted an offer to be private tutor to Lord Althorp, afterwards Earl Spencer. A fellowship at Oxford was also conferred upon him, and thus the scholar was relieved from the fear of want, and enabled to pursue his favourite and unremitting studies. An opportunity of displaying one branch of his acquirements was afforded in 1768. The king of Denmark in that year visited England, and brought with him an eastern manuscript, containing the life of Nadir Shah, which he wished translated into French. Jones executed this arduous task, being, as Lord Teignmouth, his biographer, remarks, the only oriental scholar in England adequate to the performance. He still continued in the noble family of Spencer, and in 1769 accompanied his pupil to the continent. Next year, feeling anxious to attain an independent station in life, he entered himself a student of the Temple, and, applying himself with his characteristic ardour to his new profession, he contemplated with pleasure the "stately edifice of the laws of England," and mastered their most important principles and details. In 1774 he published Commentaries on Asiatic Poetry, but finding that jurisprudence was a jealous mistress, and would not admit the eastern muses to participate in his attentions, he devoted himself for some years exclusively to his legal studies. A patriotic feeling was mingled with this resolution. "Had I lived at Rome or Athens," he said, "I should have preferred the labours, studies, and dangers of their orators and illustrious citizens — connected as they were with banishment and even death — to the groves of the poets or the gardens of the philosophers. Here I adopt the same resolution. The constitution of England is in no respect inferior to that of Rome or Athens." Jones now practised at the bar, and was appointed one of the Commissioners of Bankrupts. In 1778, he published a translation of the speeches of Isaeus, in causes concerning the law of succession to property at Athens, to which he added notes and a commentary. The stirring events of the time in which he lived were not beheld without strong interest by this accomplished scholar. He was decidedly opposed to the American war and to the slave trade, then so prevalent, and in 1781 he produced his noble Alcaic Ode, animated by the purest spirit of patriotism, and a high strain of poetical enthusiasm. He also joined in representing the necessity that existed for a reform of the electoral system in England. But though he made speeches and wrote pamphlets in favour of liberty and pure government, Jones was no party man, and was desirous, he said, of being transported to the distance of five thousand leagues from all the fatal discord of contending politicians. His wishes were soon accomplished. He was appointed one of the judges of the supreme court at Fort William, in Bengal, and the honour of knighthood was conferred upon him. He married the daughter of Dr. Shipley, bishop of St Asaph; and in April 1783, in his thirty-seventh year, he embarked for India, never to return. Sir William Jones entered upon his judicial functions with all the advantages of a high reputation, unsullied integrity disinterested benevolence, and unwearied perseverance. In the intervals of leisure from his duties, he directed his attention to scientific objects, and established a society in Calcutta to promote inquiries by the ingenious, and to concentrate the knowledge to be collected in Asia. In 1784, his health being affected by the climate and the closeness of his application, he made a tour through various parts of India, in the course of which he wrote "The Enchanted Fruit, or Hindoo Wife," a poetical tale, and a "Treatise on the Gods of Greece, Italy, and India." He also studied the Sanscrit language, being unwilling to continue at the mercy of the Pundits, who dealt out Hindoo law as they please. Some translations from oriental authors, and original poems and essays, he contributed to a periodical established at Calcutta, entitled The Asiatic Miscellany. He meditated an epic poem on the "Discovery of England by Brutus," to which his knowledge of Hindoo mythology suggested a new machinery, the agency of Hindoo deities. To soften the violence of the fiction into harmony with probability, the poet conceived the future comprehension of Hindostan within the circle of British dominion, as prospectively visible in the age of Brutus, to the guardian angels of the Indian peninsula. This gorgeous design he had matured so far as to write the arguments of the intended books of his epic, but the poem itself he did not live to attempt. In 1789 Sir William translated an ancient Indian drama, "Sacontala, or the Fatal Ring," which exhibits a picture of Hindoo manners in the century preceding the Christian era. He engaged to compile a digest of Hindoo and Mahometan laws; and in 1794 he translated the Ordinances of Menu or the Hindoo system of duties, religious and civil. His motive to this task, like his inducement to the digest, was to aid the benevolent intentions of our legislature in securing to the natives, in a qualified degree, the administration of justice by their own laws. Eager to accomplish his digest, Sir William Jones remained in India after the delicate health of Lady Jones compelled her departure in December 1793. He proposed to follow her in the ensuing season, but in April he was seized with inflammation of the liver, which terminated fatally, after an illness of one week, on the 27th of April 1794. Every honour was paid to his remains, and the East India Company erected a monument to his memory in St Paul's Cathedral. The attainments of Sir William Jones were so profound and various, that it is difficult to conceive how he had comprised them in his short life of forty-eight years. As a linguist he has probably never been surpassed; for his knowledge extended to a critical study of the literature and antiquities of various nations. As a lawyer he had attained to a high rank in England, and he was the Justinian of India. In general science there were few departments of which he was ignorant: in chemistry, mathematics, botany, and music, lie was equally proficient. "He seems," says his biographer, "to have acted on this maxim, that whatever had been attained was attainable by him; and he was never observed to overlook or to neglect any opportunity of adding to his accomplishments or to his knowledge. When in India, his studies began with the dawn; and in seasons of intermission from professional duty, continued throughout the day; meditation retraced and confirmed what reading had collected or investigation discovered. By a regular application of time to particular occupations, he pursued various objects without confusion; and in undertakings which depended on his individual perseverance, he was never deterred by difficulties from proceeding to a successful termination." With respect to the division of his time, Sir William Jones had written in India, on a small piece of paper, the following lines:—

Sir Edward Coke:
Six hours in sleep, in law's grave study six,
Four spend in prayer — the rest on nature fix.

Seven hours to law, to soothing slumber seven,
Ten to the world allot, and all to heaven.

The poems of Sir William Jones have been collected and printed in two small volumes. An early collection was published by himself, dedicated to the Countess Spencer, in 1772. They consist of a few original pieces in English and Latin, and translations from Petrarch and Pindar; paraphrases of Turkish and Chinese odes, hymns on subjects of Hindoo mythology, Indian Tales, and a few songs from the Persian. Of these the beautiful lyric from Hafiz is the most valuable. The taste of Sir William Jones was early turned towards eastern poetry, in which he was captivated with new images, expressions, and allegories, but there is a want of chasteness and simplicity in most of these productions. The name of their illustrious author "reflects credit," as Campbell remarks, "on poetical biography, but his secondary fame as a composer shows that the palm of poetry is not likely to be won, even by great genius, without exclusive devotion to the pursuit."