1795 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Shenstone

Robert Anderson, in Works of the British Poets (1795) 9:589-90.



The character of Shenstone has been drawn with sufficient accuracy by Dodsley and Mr. Graves. He seems to have had all the virtues and all the imperfections that attend a generous, easy, indolent disposition. To the essential duties and principles of revealed religion he was sincerely attached. Nothing could be more amiable than his social, or more unexceptionable than his moral character. He was the warmest and most affectionate friend, and never an inveterate enemy. In company with strangers, he felt an awkward restraint; where he was free, his conversation was sensible and sprightly. He sometimes indulged himself in strokes of humour, but the tender and pathetic were more congenial to the natural melancholy of his temper. He was fond of pictures, statues, medals, and every article of vertu, without being a virtuoso, or enthusiastically attached to them. In music and painting he had considerable taste and skill. He was fond of trinkets, such as rings, snuff-boxes, &c; and studied and drew sketches for them, from which the Birmingham people improved their toys. In his person, he was larger than the middle size, but rather of a robust than an elegant form. He had a dull heavy look, unless when his features were animated by any sprightly sentiment, which rendered them extremely pleasing. He was remarkable for wearing his grey hair in a peculiar manner. His favourite dress was a plain blue coat, and a scarlet waistcoat, with a broad gold lace, which he seldom changed either winter or summer.

As a poet, his merit is sufficiently ascertained; simplicity, delicacy, and tenderness, characterize his compositions more than strength and fire. Many of the feebler pieces, that abate our reverence for his genius, were the ebullitions of an active imagination abounding in leisure, and, for want of some useful employment, amusing itself with trifles. The selection was made by Dodsley, who has printed more than he should have done. Yet, under these disadvantages, his writings in the elegiac and pastoral style, justly entitle him to a high place among our English classics.

His prose essays, though many of them unfinished, discover much justness of thought and expression, and a considerable knowledge of the characters of men. His essays on Publications, and on allowing Merit in others, show his critical knowledge of books, and their authors. The Impromptu, and one or two more humorous essays, are in the style of Addison. His unconnected thoughts on Gardening, and on Men and Manners, discover, in general, his profound penetration and exquisite taste on almost every subject. Many of them have been adopted by men of more learning, but less genius, in finished treatises. Dr. Enfield has made some use of them in his Speaker, and Mr. Pratt has formed his Shenstone-Green upon one of his speculations.

Shenstone is chiefly admired as an elegiac and pastoral writer. In his elegiac capacity, he seems to have formed himself principally on the tender, the easy, and sweetly plaintive Hammond; whom, if he has not equalled in some departments of beauty, he has excelled in others. Hammond is generally more easy in his expression, more natural and passionate; but he is frequently less elegant, and, from too close a classical imitation, infinitely less original than Shenstone; who may, in some measure, claim the merit of originality in extending this species of poetry to so great a variety of subjects. Most of his elegies convey some moral instruction; and the expression and the imagery are generally tender and poetical. The fourth, the seventh, the tenth, eleventh, sixteenth, and twenty-sixth, deserve particular commendation....

His Pastoral Ballad has been universally admired, as excellent in its kind; a species of poetry, in which, from the real situation in life, a genius like Shenstone's could not but excel. Akenside preferred it to everything of the kind, either ancient or modern. And the rank which it still preserves among young people of the best taste, is a sufficient proof of its merit. Dr. Johnson, who had an aversion to pastorals in general, only "regrets that it is pastoral," and "sickens at the mention of the crook, the pipe, and the kids." But the ideas of rural innocence and simplicity are so congenial to the human mind, in its uncorrupted state, that, in spite of ridicule, they will always please the generality of mankind.

Of his lyric pieces, the Ode on Rural Elegance, Ode to Memory, Verses written towards the close of the Year 1748, the Princess Elizabeth, the Sky-lark, Nancy of the Vale, and Jemmy Dawson, deserve the highest praise. The first is an irregular ode; but the subject, which was then new, is treated in an agreeable manner, and illustrated with may pleasing instances, particularly with that of the amiable lady to whom it is inscribed, who had embellished Percy-Lodge with great taste, and had there reconciled Art and Nature, who are represented as having been long at variance. It concludes with an elegant apostrophe to the inhabitants of the groves to amuse, but not disturb the noble recluse in her solitude.

The Schoolmistress, Dr. Johnson pronounces "the most pleasing of his performances." Warburton (who read every thing) was of the same opinion; and with them the critics and the general readers of poetry agree. Though partly a burlesque poem, it abounds with picturesque strokes, and serious instruction. Of his Judgment of Hercules, the general opinion is justly favourable.

From the contempt which Dr. Johnson has thrown on his Moral Pieces in blank verse, he might have excepted the poem on Economy, addressed to young poets. "I would have ventured," says Mr. Graves, "to pronounce it not inferior to Philips's Splendid Shilling, if Mr. Shenstone had lived to correct his own manuscripts, and to prune off some few excrescences and luxuriances of youth when this poem was partly written, though not brought to its present state till he began to experience the futility of that youthful rant, 'that economy was beneath the care of a rational creature.'"

Shenstone enjoyed an intimacy with some of the most eminent of his poetical contemporaries, and carried on an occasional correspondence with persons distinguished for their learning, taste, and good sense. Thomson, Lyttleton, Somervile, Jago, Dodsley, Spence, &c. bear ample testimony to his genius and abilities.