ELIJAH FENTON, an ingenious English poet, was born at Shelton, near Newcastle-under-Line, in Staffordshire, May 20, 1683. His father, who was possessed of a competent estate, was of an ancient family in that county, an attorney at law, and one of the coroners for the county of Stafford. He died in 1694, aged fifty-six. His mother is said to have descended in a direct line from one Mare, an officer in the army of William the Conqueror. Being the youngest of twelve children, he was necessarily destined to some lucrative employment, and the church was fixed upon for his future profession. Accordingly, after going through a proper course of grammatical education, he was, July 1, 1700, admitted a pensioner of Jesus college, Cambridge, where he prosecuted his studies with remarkable diligence and assiduity; but after taking his bachelor's degree, in 1704, he inclined to the sentiments of the nonjurors of that time, and consequently refusing to take the oaths to government, was obliged to quit the university, which, however, he is said to have done without separating from the church.
He was now induced to trust to his abilities for a subsistence, but whatever his difficulties or discouragements, he kept his name unsullied, and never descended to any mean or dishonourable shifts. Indeed, whoever mentioned him, mentioned him with honour, in every period of his life. His first employ he owed to a recommendation to Charles earl of Orrery, whom he accompanied to Flanders, in quality of secretary, and returned with his lordship to England in 1705. Being then out of employment, he became assistant in the school of Mr. Bonwicke, (see BONWICKE), at Headley, near Leatherhead, in Surrey; after which he was invited to the mastership of the free grammar school at Sevenoaks, in Kent, and in a few years brought that seminary into much reputation, while he enjoyed the advantage of making easy and frequent excursions to visit his friends in London. In 1710 he was prevailed upon by Mr. St. John (lord Bolingbroke) to give up what was called the drudgery of a school, for the worse drudgery of dependence on a political patron, from whom, after all, he derived no advantage. When Steele resigned his place of commissioner in the stamp-office, Fenton applied to his patron, who told him that it was beneath his merit, and promised him a superior appointment; but this, the subsequent change of administration prevented him from fulfilling, and left Fenton disappointed, and in debt. Not long after, however, his old friend the earl of Orrery appointed him tutor to his son, lord Broghill, a boy of seven years old, whom he taught English and Latin until he was thirteen. About the time this engagement was about to expire, Craggs, secretary of state, feeling his own want of literature, desired Pope to procure him an instructor, by whose help he might supply the deficiencies of his education. Pope recommended Fenton, but Craggs's sudden death disappointed the pleasing expectations formed from this connection.
His next engagement was with Pope himself, who after the great success of his translation of the Iliad, undertook that of the Odyssey, and determined to engage auxiliaries. Twelve books he took to himself, and twelve he distributed between Broome and Fenton. According to Johnson and Warton, Fenton translated the first, fourth, nineteenth and twentieth. But John, earl of Orrery, in a letter to Mr. Duncombe, asserts that Fenton translated double the number of books in the Odyssey that Pope has owned. "His reward," adds the noble writer, "was a trifle, an arrant trifle. He has even told me, that he thought Pope feared him more than he loved him. He had no opinion of Pope's heart, and declared him, in the words of bishop Atterbury, Mens curva in corpore curvo." It is, however, no small praise to both Fenton and Broome, that the readers of poetry have never been able to distinguish their books from those of Pope. In 1723, Fenton's tragedy of "Mariamne" was brought on the stage in Lincoln's- inn- fields, and was performed with such success, that the profits of the author are said to have amounted to nearly a thousand pounds, with which he very honourably discharged the debts contracted by his fruitless attendance on Mr. St. John. The poetical merit of this tragedy is confessedly great, but the diction is too figurative and ornamental. Colley Cibber has been termed insolent for advising Fenton to relinquish poetry, by which we presume he meant dramatic poetry; but Cibber, if insolent, was not injudicious, for Mariamne has not held its place on the stage. In 1727, Fenton revised a new edition of Milton's Poems, and prefixed to it a short but elegant and impartial life of the author. In 1729 he published a very splendid edition of Waller, with notes, which is still a book of considerable value.
The latter part of Mr. Fenton's life was passed in a manner agreeable to his wishes. By the recommendation of Pope to the widow of sir William Trumbull, that lady invited him to be tutor to her son, first at home, and afterwards at Cambridge; and when disengaged from this attendance on her son, lady Trumbull retained Fenton in her family, as auditor of her accounts, an office which was probably easy, as he had leisure to make frequent excursions to visit his literary friends in London. He died July 13, 1730, at East-Hampstead, in Berkshire, lady Trumbull's seat, and was interred in the parish-church, and his tomb was honoured with an epitaph by Pope. In person, Fenton was tall and bulky, inclined to corpulence, which he did not lessen by much exercise, as he was sluggish and sedentary, rose late, and when he had risen, sat down to his book or papers. By a woman who once waited on him in a lodging, he was told, that he would ''lie a-bed, and be fed with a spoon." Pope says in one of his letters, that he died of indolence and inactivity; others attribute his death to the gout; to which lord Orrery adds, "a great chair, and two bottles of port in a day." Dr. Johnson observes, that "Of his morals and his conversation, the account is uniform. He was never named but with praise and fondness, as a man in the highest degree amiable and excellent. Such was the character given him by the earl of Orrery, his pupil; such is the testimony of Pope; and such were the suffrages of all who could boast of his acquaintance." There is a story relating to him, which reflects too much honour upon his memory to be omitted. It was his custom in the latter part of his life, to pay a yearly visit to his relations in the country. An entertainment being made for the family by his elder brother, he observed that one of his sisters, who had been unfortunate in her marriage, was absent; and, upon inquiry, he found that distress had made her thought unworthy of an invitation; but he refused to sit at the table until she was sent for; and, when she had taken her place, he was careful to shew her particular attention.
Fenton's principal reputation as a poet rests on his "Mariamne,'' and his share in the Odyssey; but his "Miscellaneous Poems," printed in 1717, have procured him it place among the English Poets in Dr. Johnson's collection, who has, upon the whole, a less favourable opinion of them than Dr. Warton, yet he allows him the praise of an excellent versifier and a good poet.