1859 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Shenstone

Leigh Hunt, in A Book for a Corner (1859) 30-31.



The Schoolmistress is one of those poems (delightful, to our thinking) which are to be read with a smile on the face, and thoughtfulness at heart: — the smile, for the assumption of dignity in its tone; the thoughtfulness, for the human interest of the subject. It is Shenstone's masterpiece. Its playful imitation of the manner of Spenser saved him from that inferior artificial style of the day, which injured the natural feeling of most of his other poems; and the manliness at the heart of its gentle wisdom ought to have saved the writer from the fears which he condescended to entertain, lest undiscerning critics should take it for something as dull as themselves. The poem has the pungent sweetness and balminess of the herbs described in its cottage garden. We never think of it without seeming to inhale their fragrance. The good dame, the heroine of the poem, was the schoolmistress of Shenstone's own infancy. He was the offspring of a race now almost extinct, the small uneducated country-gentleman, farming his own estate; and he was sent to the first nurse-like teacher that presented herself in the neighbourhood. Her name was Sarah Lloyd. Let this be known, for the glory and encouragement of all such educers of infant "bards sublime," or future "Chancellors in embryo." The birch-tree is not so much in request as it was in her days. The "little bench of heedless bishops" may not look at it without "shaping it into rods," "and tingling at the view." The change is better for all parties, considering that a proper amount of healthy vigour, reflection, and superiority to petty pains is to be secured by better means. It is not for its mode of infant training that the poem is here reprinted; but for its archness, its humour, its agreeable description, and the writer's thoughtful humanity.