1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Shenstone

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 27:446-49.



WILLIAM SHENSTONE, eldest son of a plain uneducated country gentleman, of Hales-Owen, Shropshire, who farmed his own estate, was born Nov. 18, 1714. He learned to read of an old dame, commemorated in his poem of the "School-mistress;" and soon received such delight from books, that he was always calling for new entertainment, and expected that, when any of the family went to market, a new book should be brought him, which, when it came, was in fondness carried to bed and laid by him. It is said, that, when his request had been neglected, his mother wrapped up a piece of wood of the same form, and pacified him for the night. As he grew older, he went for a while to the grammar-school in Hales-Owen, and was placed afterwards with Mr. Crumpton, an eminent schoolmaster at Solihul, where he distinguished himself by the quickness of his progress. When he was young (June 1724) he was deprived of his father; and soon after (August 1726) of his grandfather; and was, with his brother, who died afterwards unmarried, left to the care of his grandmother, who managed the estate. From school he was sent in 1732 to Pembroke-college in Oxford, a society which for half a century had been eminent for English poetry and elegant literature. Here it appears that he found delight and advantage; for he continued his name there ten years, though he took no degree. After the first four years he put on the Civilian's gown, but without shewing any intention to engage in the profession. About the time when he went to Oxford, the death of his grandmother devolved his affairs to the care of the reverend Mr. Dolman, of Brome in Staffordshire, whose attention he always mentioned with gratitude. At Oxford he amused himself with English poetry; and in 1737, printed at Oxford, for private circulation, a small miscellany of juvenile verses, without his name. He then for a time wandered about, to acquaint himself with life; and was sometimes at London, sometimes at Bath, or any place of public resort; but he did not forget his poetry. He published in 1740 his "Judgment of Hercules," addressed to Mr. Lyttelton, whose interest he supported with great warmth at an election: this was, two years afterwards, followed by the "School-mistress." Mr. Dolman, to whose care he was indebted for his ease and leisure, died in 1745, and the care of his own fortune now fell upon him. He tried to escape it a while, and lived at his house with his tenants, who were distantly related; but, finding that imperfect possession inconvenient, he took the whole estate into his own hands, more to the improvement of its beauty than the increase of its produce. His delight in rural pleasure was now excited, and his ambition of rural elegance: he began from this time, says Johnson, "to point his prospects, to diversify his surface, to entangle his walks, and to wind his waters; which he did with such judgment and such fancy, as made his little domain the envy of the great, and the admiration of the skilful; a place to be visited by travellers, and copied by designers." Of these employments Dr. Johnson has perhaps formed a harsh estimate, yet Shenstone's affectionate apologist, Mr. Greaves, is obliged to confess that he spent his whole income in adorning the Leasowes, and that it added little to his comfort, the only happiness he felt being confined to the moment of improvement. It is said, that, if he had lived a little longer, he would have been assisted by a pension: such bounty could not have been ever more properly bestowed; and overtures appear to have been made for that purpose, but they came too late: he died at the Leasowes, of a putrid fever, Feb. 11, 1763; and was buried by the side of his brother in the church-yard of Hales-Owen. He was never married, though it appears that he was twice in love, and Johnson says he might have obtained the lady, whoever she was, to whom his "Pastoral Ballad" was addressed. He is represented by his friend Dodsley as a man of great tenderness and generosity, kind to all that were within his influence; but if once offended, not easily appeased; inattentive to oeconomy, and careless of his expences; in his person larger than the middle size, with something clumsy in his form; very negligent of his cloaths, and remarkable for wearing his grey hair in a particular manner; for beheld that the fashion was no rule of dress, and that every man was to suit his appearance to his natural form. These, says Mr. Greaves, were not precisely his sentiments, though he thought right enough, that every one should, in some degree, consult his particular shape and complexion in adjusting his dress; and that no fashion ought to sanctify what was ungraceful, absurd, or really deformed.

His life was unstained by any crime, for the Elegy on "Jessy," which has been supposed to relate an unfortunate and criminal amour of his own, was known by his friends to have been suggested by the story of Miss Godfrey in Richardson's "Pamela."

His "Works" were collected by Mr. Dodsley, in 3 vols. 8vo, and still retain a good share of popularity. The first consists of elegies (of which there are twenty-six), odes, songs, and ballads, levities, or pieces of humour, and moral pieces; many of which are distinguished by elegance and simplicity. The second contains his prose works, and consists of several detached observations on men, manners, and things, thrown together in small chapters, without any order or connection. His sentiments and reflections are for the most part natural and just; many of them new, lively, and entertaining, a few of them rather paradoxical, and some that are false and ill-supported, though, upon the whole, they seem to have been the genuine fruits of a good understanding and an amiable disposition. The third volume consists of "Letters to his Friends." On his general merits as a writer, Mr. Greaves says, that Shenstone, "through indolence and ill-health, and perhaps too great a fondness for amusement, lavished and exhausted the talents given him by nature on a few topics which presented themselves to his imagination; but in those few he generally excelled."