Kirkby, July 28, 1788.
My visit, my dear Polwhele, has at length been paid to the author of Elfrida. I went there on the Monday, and returned on the Saturday, consequently had time sufficient to form an idea of his character. You can easily conceive, that the man who first introduced himself to your friendship at college, by observing at collections when going up to be examined, (do you recollect this?) that he felt the tortures of the d—d, would experience some degree of diffidence and trepidation on hearing his name announced as he entered under Mason's roof. And not the less so, when I tell you, that my friend H. had been endeavouring to beguile the length of the way, by expatiating on the pleasure he felt in introducing me to a character of such eminence, and that he hoped Mr. Mason would find that his account of me was neither visionary nor exaggerated. There was a kind of sedate benignity in his countenance, however, which soon dissipated these terrors of apprehension, and taught me instantaneously to rely on him as a man, the leading traits of whose disposition were feeling and reflection. This immediate impression of his character I found afterwards to be strictly just. I never yet met with a human being, whose head and heart appear to act and re-act so reciprocally, so concordantly upon each other, as his. 'Tis this harmonious conjunction of body and mind, which in my opinion constitutes the genuine poet. 'Tis this which enables him to mark the beauties of nature, to taste their effects, and to groupe them in such a manner as to affect, through the medium of imitative representation, others of equal susceptibility with himself.
I cannot say for some time that I felt myself at my ease. I could not help considering him (see with what awe you poets strike us inferior mortals!) as a species of being of a higher order of intelligence! as a writer whose honours were blooming rich around him; and as one whose name time had already begun to immortalize on his rock of adamant; his condescension however, soon enabled me to collect myself. I afterwards conversed with him freely and unreservedly upon general topics, and enjoyed the satisfaction of having my vanity flattered, on perceiving that we mutually coalesced in our principles and opinions.
In his style of conversation, you can trace nothing of the "vis vivida" of the poet. Here his inventive powers apparently lie dormant. Those flashes of genius, those intellectual emanations which we are taught to believe great men cannot help darting forward, in order to lighten up the gloom of colloquial communication, he seems to consider as affected; he therefore rejects them whenever they occur, and appears to pride himself on the preference which he gives to simplicity and perspicuity. Conversation (if you will excuse a pedantic allusion!) with him resembles the style of painting mentioned in the earlier part of the Athenian History, which consisted in representing the artist's ideas in a simple unaffected point of view, through the medium of one colour only; whereas his writings are like the pictures of Polignotus. They glow with all the warmth of an invigorated imagination, an animated diction, and a rich luxuriant phraseology.
'Tis unnecessary, I presume, to tell you, that Polygnotus was the first person who introduced the mixture of colours.
His manners, too, are equally as chaste and unaffected as his conversation. The stream that winds its easy way through woods and verdant meads, is not less artificial or more insinuating than he is in doing the honours of the table, or promoting the graces of the drawing room. That peculiar happiness which some few I have met with possess, of reconciling you implicitly to their superiority, he enjoys in an eminent degree, by the amiability of his sentiments, the benignity of his attention, and particularly by an indescribable way with him, of making you appear to advantage, even when he convinces you of the erroneousness of your opinions, or the inconclusiveness of your reasoning.
In regard to his morals, I believe from what I have collected, that few can look back upon a period of sixty years existence, spent so uniformly pure and correct. In the course of our chit chat, he informed me, in an unostentatious, unaffected manner, that he never was intoxicated but once. I give the man credit for the possession of the sublimest merit, that can say this at his time of life. I give him the same degree of credit, likewise, for another instance of temperance equal to this, though not of the same species; when he was a young man, he made a determination as soon as he came to the possession of his present property, which at that time was entailed upon him, to accept of no additional preferment. This resolution he has invariably adhered to, though many have been the temptations to induce him to break through it. But I should not omit mentioning, that when he came to the possession of his estate, the first thing he did to testify to the world his principles, was the giving up his Chaplainship to the King. A priest (says he) in that situation, cannot help looking forward towards a Bishoprick — a species of ambition incompatible with the simplicity and purity of the christian character; for the moment (he superadded) that a man aspires to the purple, that very moment virtue goes out of him.
He may, with great truth, be said to be the successor of Pope in the elegancy of his retirement, and the respectability of his connections. He has about £1500 per annum to live upon; and one third of this, I am informed, he devotes to patronage and charity. He keeps a regular table of two courses, which is open to all his friends who visit him, without waiting for the formality of an invitation.
His genius (you observe I write without order or method) is not confined to poetry. It has penetrated the regions of the other arts; and that too with no small success. Some of his productions in painting rise considerably above mediocrity, and have extorted praise even from the sublime Sir Joshua. His compositions in music, specimens of which he has given me, possess so many strokes of originality, that I am convinced had he devoted the same proportion of time in cultivating the smiles and good opinion of that bewitching nymph as he has done to her Parnassian sisters', he would have been equally interesting and great: even in architecture he has shewn the same elegance and taste. His house at Aston, with the ornaments, &c. were made after his own designs.
You would have been highly delighted had you spent the week with us. We constituted among us a little academy of the Arts and Sciences. In one corner of the library his curate was constructing a dial; in another, Mr. H. was copying a head of Addison, which Mr. Mason intended as a present to the Bishop of Worcester [Richard Hurd]; in a third was your friend, placed at the piano-forte, correcting some of Mr. M's. productions; and, lastly, there was he himself sitting pensively, "bodying forth the forms of things unknown." I wished very earnestly for you; I knew it was a set that was exactly calculated for your character.
We conversed much upon poetry; and particularly upon Dryden. Would you conceive it, that he disapproves of many parts of the celebrated Ode on St. Cecilia's Day. He objected, in some respects, against the measure, as partaking too much of the ballad species and as being too remote from the lyric genius such as
War, he sung, is toil and trouble,
Honour but an empty bubble, &c.
With ravish'd ears
The monarch hears, &c.
The repetition of "Fall'n, fall'n, fall'n, fall'n, &c." he said, was devoid of all meaning; and that it rather tended to excite something bordering on the ludicrous, than to add to the pathetic impressions already excited.
Gray he seems to idolize. He says he had more true poetical enthusiasm, more of that divine, phrenzy which constitutes what ought to be deemed the true bard, (but which the present rage after philosophical pursuits has nearly extinguished,) than all the modern poets put together. ***
We conversed, too, about yourself. Praise from such a character as Mason, must be deemed sterling. Receive it, therefore, with due respect, when I tell you, that he passed the highest compliments on your Theocritus. He said, that for smoothness, and harmony of versification, you had considerably exceeded your originals. In particular, he instanced those lines in the "Vernal Voyage," from the 165th line to the 176th. When I told him that you had completed that volume within the small space of six months, he appeared surprised, and observed, "with application such powers of mind might aspire to the completion of great things."...