WILLIAM SHENSTONE was the eldest son of Thomas Shenstone, a plain, uneducated, country gentleman, who farmed his own estate; and Anne Pen: he was born at the Leasowes, in Hales-Owen, in Shropshire, in November 1714.
He learned to read of an old dame, to whom perhaps we are indebted for his poem of the School-mistress, descriptive of his female pedagogue; he was soon removed to the grammar-school in Hales-Owen; and afterwards placed under the tuition of Mr. Crumpton, at Solihul: where he distinguished himself be so rapid a progress, as to induce his father to determine on giving him a learned education. In 1732 he was sent to Pembroke-college in Oxford, being designed for the church; but, though he had the most awful notions of the wisdom, power, and goodness of God, he never could be persuaded to enter into orders. After his first four years residence at the university he assumed the civilian's gown, but without shewing any intention to engage in the profession. It is to be presumed, however, that he found both delight and advantages at college, as he continued there ten years, though he took no degree: during which period he employed himself in writing English poetry; a small miscellany of which, without his name, was published in 1737: in 1740 he published his Judgment of Hercules, addressed to Mr. Lyttelton; and about two years afterwards he produced his imitation of Spenser, The School-mistress.
His progenitors being all deceased before the expiration of his minority, the management of his affairs was entrusted to the reverend Mr. Dolman, of Brome in Staffordshire; to whose attention he was indebted for his ease and leisure; whose integrity he always acknowledged with gratitude; and upon whose death, in 1745, the care of his own fortune unavoidably fell upon him.
The sordid inheritor ruminates on how-much-per-acre the land does, or may be made to, produce; the prodigal heir calculates what ready cash may be raised by the selling of so-much timber, or the sale of the mansion-house: Shenstone surveyed his paternal fields only with a view to their improvement in picturesque beauty, and spent his small estate in adorning it.
In the preface to his "Works in Verse and Prose," the ingenious and ingenuous Mr. Dodsley says, "He was no oeconomist; the generosity of his temper prevented him from paying a proper regard to the use of money; he exceeded therefore the bounds of his paternal fortune, which before he died was considerably encumbered. But when one recollects the perfect paradise he had raised around him, the hospitality with which he lived, his great indulgence to his servants, his charities to the indigent, and all done with an estate not more than three hundred pounds a year, one should rather be led to wonder that he left any thing more behind him, than to blame his want of oeconomy. He left however more than sufficient to pay all his debts; and by his will appropriated his whole estate for that purpose." — "His person," Mr. Dodsley adds, "as to height, was above the middle stature, but largely and rather inelegantly formed: his face seemed plain until you conversed with him, and then it grew very pleasing. In his dress he was negligent, even to a fault; though when young, at the university, he was accounted a beau. He wore his own hair, which was grey very early, in a particular manner; not from any affectation of singularity, but from a maxim he had laid down, that without too slavish a regard to fashion, every one should dress in a manner most suitable to his own person and figure." In November, 1751, he lost an only and beloved brother; whose death he thus pathetically laments, in a letter to his friend Mr. Graves: — "How have I prostituted my sorrow on occasions that little concerned me! I am ashamed to think of that idle 'Elegy upon Autumn,' when I have so much more important cause to hate and to condemn it now; but the glare and gaiety of the Spring is what I principally dread; when I shall find all things restored but my poor brother, and something like those lines of Milton will run for ever in my thoughts:
—Thus, with the year,
Seasons return; but not to me returns
A brother's cordial smile, at eve or morn.
I shall then seem to wake from amusements, company, every sort of inebriation with which I have been endeavouring to lull my grief asleep, as from a dream; and I shall feel as if I were, that instant, despoiled of all I have chiefly valued for thirty years together; of all my present happiness, and all my future prospects. The melody of birds, which he no more must hear; the chearful beams of the sun, of which he no more must partake; every wonted pleasure will produce that sort of pain to which my temper is most obnoxious."
Whether it might be from consideration of the narrowness of his income, or whatever motive, he never married; tho', it is said, he might have obtained the lady who was the subject of his admired PASTORAL BALLAD, in four parts; "Absence, Hope, Solicitude, Disappointment:" but, from the title of the last division of the Ballad, it should seem that the fair one, whoever she might be, was inexorable.
This elegant poet, and amiable man, being seized by a putrid fever, died at his "beautiful" Leasowes, about five on Friday morning, February 11, 1763; and was buried by the side of his beloved brother in the churchyard of Hales-Owen.
The incidents of his life are few and simple; consisting only of occasional jaunts to London, Bath, &c. the improving and adorning of his estate; the paying and receiving visits; and the producing one of the most pleasing, if not sublime, collections of poetry in the English language.
Sublimity indeed as not the attribute of Shenstone; neither does he seem to have had the relish for it in the writings of others, which might have been expected in a poet of so tender and polished a genius.
Of Milton's sublime Masque he says, "Comus I have once been at, for the sake of the songs, though I detest it in any light; but as a dramatic piece the taking of it seems a prodigy: yet indeed such-a-one, as was pretty tolerably accounted for by a gentleman who sate by me in the boxes. This learned sage, being asked how he liked the play, made answer, 'He could not tell — pretty well, he thought — or indeed as well as any other play — for as for what was said, he owned, he never understood any thing of the matter.'
"I told him, I thought a great many of his admirers were in his case, if they would but own it." Had this confession been made on seeing "Comus," as of late years it has been presented, in a mutilated, mangled state, it would not be surprising; but the above was written in the year 1740, soon after its revival, with Dalton's congenial insertions, accompanied by Arnes's delightful melodies; graced and enriched by the action and harmony of Quin, Milward, Beard, Mrs. Clive, Mrs. Arne, and Mrs. Cibber.
To do Shenstone justice, it must be acknowledged, that he seems to have taken great pains to acquire a taste for Spenser (See his Letters), but never to have thoroughly accomplished it; he wrote, himself, so much to the ear, that "Where more is meant than meets the ear," was "caviare" to him: and his is chiefly pleased with the ludicrous of the sublime author of the "Four Hymns in honour of Love, Beauty, Heavenly Love, and Heavenly Beauty;" "Daphnaida;" "The Ruines of Time;" "The Tears of the Muses;" &c. &c. and the unrivalled, tho' but half-finished, "Faerie Queene."
The freedom of animadversion here assumed, is not, it is hoped, used arrogantly; it relates merely to taste, which varies mentally, as well as corporeally, in almost every man: the blameless subject of these strictures, let his writings or opinions have been what they might, made one flight above most men:
"HIS LIFE WAS UNSTAINED BY ANY CRIME."