Somerville was a handsome noisy squire, a strapping fellow six feet high, a hard rider, a crack shot. No more characteristic specimen of the sporting country gentleman, pure and simple, could be imagined, or one less likely to develope into a poet. It was, in fact, not until fast living had begun to break down his constitution that he took to literature as a consolation. One of his earliest exercises was an epistle addressed to Addison, who had bought a property in Warwickshire, and so had become Somerville's neighbour. This poem is neatly and enthusiastically versified, and contains the well-known compliment which pleased Dr. Johnson so much:—
When panting Virtue her last efforts made,
You brought your Clio to the virgin's aid.
Somerville was the disciple of Addison, but he enjoyed at the same time the friendship of Pope. A lyric correspondence with Allan Ramsay tells us more about his person than we should otherwise have known, and an epistle to James Thomson displays the respect with which he learned to contemplate his own literary judgment. A friendship with the boyish Shenstone was the last event of a career that ended very plaintively, in pain, financial ruin, and drunkenness. His life is a singular variant of the pagan ideal of the time; it is curious to find a boisterous squire, of the coarse type that Fielding painted in the next generation, assuming the airs of a stoic and a wit, and striking the fashionable Cato attitude in top-boots and a hunting-belt.
Somerville, who was a well-read man, took the Cynegetica of Gratius Faliscus as his model, when he produced his best poem, The Chase. Like the Latin poet, he alternates moral maxims with practical information about the training and the points of hounds. This epic, which is in four books, discusses in its first part the origin of hunting, the economy of kennels, the physical and moral accomplishments of hounds, and the choosing of a good or bad scenting day. The second book, which possesses more natural language and a finer literary quality than the others, commences with directions for hare-hunting, and closes with a moral reproof of tyranny. In the third book hunting is treated from an antiquarian and an exotic standpoint, while the fourth deals with the breeding of hounds, their diseases, and the diseases they cause, such as hydrophobia. It will hardly be guessed from such a sketch of the contents that The Chase is a remarkably readable and interesting poem: it is composed in blank verse that is rarely turgid and not very often flat, and the zeal and science of the author give a certain vitality to his descriptions which compels the reader's attention. People that have a practical knowledge of the matters described confess that Somerville thoroughly understood what he was talking about, and that in his easy chair before the fire he "plied his function of the woodland" no less admirably than he had done in the saddle in his athletic youth.
The success of The Chase induced him, when he was quite an old man, to sing of fishing and of the bowling green; but on these subjects he was less interesting than on hunting. His Hobbinol, a sort of mock-heroic poem on rural games, written in emulation of The Splendid Shilling of John Philips, was intended to be sprightly, and only succeeded in being ridiculous. Less foolish, but somewhat coarsely and frivolously easy, were his Fables, in the manner of Prior. Posterity, in short, has refused to regard Somerville in any other light than as the broken-down squire, warming himself with a mug of ale in his ancestral chimney corner, and instructing the magnificent Mr. Addison in the mysteries of breeds and points.