1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Mason

Robert Southey, in "Sayers's Works" Quarterly Review 35 (1827) 195-97.



Beattie, and Crabbe and Crowe [William Crowe (1745-1829)] were in the vigour of their faculties, when Hayley was suffered to be the popular or fashionable poet of the day. Mason, also, was living, and, in one sense, flourishing; for he was in the enjoyment of a high and well-won reputation, and of preferment fully equal to the wants and wishes of a wise and moderate man. What Mason's wishes may have been we know not, for there is no man of equal eminence in that age, of whom his friends have thought proper to let the world know so little. The only collective edition of his works has neither life, nor biographical notice of the author, nor preface, nor prefatory advertisement of any kind an omission which, if there he no intention of supplying it, must be ascribed to a want of respect in his representatives.

Mason would have done greater things if he had been less successful at the commencement of his career. His Elfrida and his Caractacus met with the applause which they well deserved. They succeeded even in representation, (little as this might have been expected,) and so well, that they were represented at the provincial theatres. A story is remembered in the navy, of some unlucky Captain (not of Nelson's school), who at the close of a successful action, dissuaded the admiral from pursuing his victory, by saying that the day had been sufficiently glorious. By some such feeling Mason appears to have been seduced into habits of literary indolence. His desire of celebrity, and his fear that it had injured, by inflating him, are confessed with great truth and beauty in one of his elegies:

Too long, alas, my inexperienced youth,
Misled by flattering Fortune's specious tale,
Has left the rural reign of peace and truth,
The huddling brook, cool cave, and whispering vale.
Won to the world, a candidate for praise,
Yet, let me boast, by no ignoble art,
Too oft the public ear has heard my lays,
Too much its vain applause has touch'd my heart.

He lived nearly forty years after these lines were written, and if it appeared that this long portion of life had been devoted to the studies and duties of his profession, we might commend the motive, although we might doubt the necessity for such a sacrifice. But his duties left him ample leisure, and his professional writings are few and unimportant. It was because he thought his reputation "sufficiently glorious," that he made no endeavour to advance it. There was no decay of power. The English Garden, indeed, though far from worthless, is a bad poem; but his Curan and Argentile evinces that he might have succeeded as brilliantly in the romantic as in the classical drama, if he had applied to it the same determination of mind; and had he followed on in this course, he might have acquired the honour of reviving English tragedy, which was reserved for Joanna Baillie. The well-known satires which are ascribed to him are not here adduced, as exhibiting a spirit and vigour equal to the promise of his youth, because he never acknowledged them himself, nor have they been incorporated into the posthumous edition of his works. Without reference to these, we may discern in all his later pieces, few as they are, proofs of improved taste rather than of declining genius; they have the strength, without the effort, of his earlier compositions — the dignity, without the pomp — the beauty, without the fictitious ornaments. A more pleasing picture of placid and green old age has seldom been transmitted to us than he has left in his Anniversary Sonnets on his own Birthday, the last of which was written a few weeks only before his death: — We quote that for the year 1795.

A plaintive sonnet flowed from Milton's pen
When Time had stolen his three-and-twentieth year:
Say, shall not I, then, shed one tuneful tear,
Robb'd by the thief of threescore years and ten?
No! for the foes of all life-lengthen'd men,
Trouble and toil, approach not yet too near;
Reason, meanwhile, and health, and memory dear,
Hold unimpaired their weak, yet wonted reign;
Still round my sheltered lawn I pleased can stray,
Still trace my sylvan blessings to their spring.
BEING OF BEINGS! yes, that silent lay
Which musing gratitude delights to sing,
Still to thy sapphire throne shall Faith convey,
And Hope, the cherub of unwearied wing.

When Sayers was preparing to come forward upon the theatre of public life, Mason was considered as belonging to a former generation: his name was usually coupled with that of his friend Gray; and Gray having long been dead, Mason himself, out of the circle of his own friends, was hardly known to be among the living: they seemed to have taken leave of the world together