1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Somervile

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 28:216-17.



WILLIAM SOMERVILE, an English poet, was descended from a very ancient family in the county of Warwick. His ancestors had large possessions at Kingston, in Worcestershire, so early as the reign of Edward I. He was the son of Robert Somervile, of Edston, in Warwickshire, and, as he says himself, was born near Avon's banks. He was born at Edston, in Warwickshire, in 1692, bred at Winchester school, and chosen from thence fellow of New college, Oxford, as was his brother Dr. Somervile, rector of Adderbury, in Oxfordshire. Dr. Johnson says, he "never heard of him but as a poet, a country gentleman, and a useful justice of the peace;" and indeed very little is known of his history.

The following account, copied from the letters of his friend Shenstone, will be read with pain by those whom his poems have delighted. "Our old friend Somervile is dead! I did not imagine I could have been so sorry as I find myself on this occasion, 'Sublatum quaerimus.' I can now excuse all his foibles, impute them to age and to distress of circumstances; the last of these considerations wrings my very soul to think on. For a man of high spirit, conscious of having (at least in one production) generally pleased the world, to be plagued and threatened by wretches that are low in every sense, to be forced to drink himself into pains of the body in order to get rid of the pains of the mind, is a misery." He died July 14, 1743.

From lady Luxborough's Letters, p. 211, we find that Mr. Somervile translated from Voltaire the play of "Alzira," which was then in manuscript in her hands.

His distresses, says Dr. Johnson, need not be much pitied: his estate is said to have been fifteen hundred a year, which by his death devolved to lord Somervile, of Scotland. His mother, indeed, who lived till ninety, had a jointure of six hundred. Dr. Johnson regrets his not being better enabled to exhibit memorials of a writer, who at least must be allowed to have set a good example to men of his own class, by devoting part of his time to elegant knowledge; and who has shewn by the subjects which his poetry has adorned, that it is practicable to be at once a skilful sportsman and a man of letters. He tried many modes of poetry; and though perhaps he has not in any reached such excellence as to raise much envy, it may commonly be said at least, that "he writes very well for a gentleman." His serious pieces are sometimes elevated, and his trifles are sometimes elegant. His subjects are commonly such as require no great depth of thought or energy of expression. His fables are generally stale, and therefore excite no curiosity. Of his favourite, The Two Springs, the fiction is unnatural, and the moral inconsequential. In his Tales there is too much coarseness, with too little care of language, and not sufficient rapidity of narration. As a poet, however, he is chiefly known by his "Chace," which is entitled to great praise as a descriptive poem.