1763 ca. ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Shenstone

A Lady, "Character of Mr. Shenstone, in a Letter to the Editor of his Works [Robert Dodsley]" European Magazine 45 (February 1805) 89-90 & n.



In speaking of Mr. Shenstone, I need say nothing of his poetical genius, or that exquisite taste he displayed in those beautiful walks that surround his house; they are too well known to the world to need enlarging upon. I shall only observe, that in his charming scenes, he had no guide, no example, but Nature. In return he embellishes her with real, not fantastic, ornaments. If I may be allowed the expression, she came forth from his hands with all the elegance of a court lady, arrayed in the simple garb of a lovely shepherdess.

My lost friend was the eldest son of a plain uneducated country gentleman, who farmed his own estate. His father being told of his son's extraordinary capacity, he resolved to give him a learned education, and sent him a Commoner to Pembroke College, in Oxford, where he acquired a character made up of two opposites, the scholar and the beau.* In the latter character he by no means shone, if I may judge of him, for the last ten years of his life.

His father designed him for the Church, but he never could be persuaded to take orders, having several objections to what is called orthodoxy.

In his religious principles, if he was not quite a believer, he was at least an humble doubter. He had the most awful notions of the power, wisdom, and goodness of God; but in his private opinion adhered to no particular sect, and hated all religious disputes. He said, I remember, once to me, that he had observed that all zealots in religious controversies hated those most who approached the nearest to their own sect. "For instance," says he, "the Papists love a Turk better than a Protestant Christian; the Church of England zealots hate a Presbyterian more than a Papist, &c." Such observations as these he would sometimes make amongst his intimates, but he always prudently avoided these in mixed company.

In his political principles he was a friend to the revolution, and approved monarchy under such restrictions as were then established, as the very best form of government. But whatever his own opinions about religion were, yet he showed great tenderness to those who differed from him. Tenderness was indeed his peculiar characteristic. His friends, his domestics, his poor neighbours, all daily experienced his benevolent turn of mind. Indeed, the excess of this virtue in him sometimes bordered upon weakness: but if he was convinced, that any amongst those ranked in the class of friends had treated him ungenerously, he was not easily reconciled. He used a maxim which exactly suits my own turn of mind. "I never," says he, "will be a revengeful enemy; but I cannot, it is not in my nature, to be half a friend." His nature was unsuspicious; but when suspicion was once awakened, it was not easily laid asleep again; however, it then only stood on the defensive.

He was not an economist; he exceeded the bounds of his paternal estate, which he has considerably encumbered; and yet, when we consider the perfect paradise he raised around him, the hospitality with which he lived, his charities to the indigent, his great indulgence to his servants, whom he treated like humble friends; I say, when we consider all this, done with an estate not more than 300 per annum, we may rather wonder if he has left any thing considerable behind him, than blame his economy. This was, perhaps, a principal reason why he never married; for he was no enemy to wedlock, and had a very high opinion of individuals of our sex; was fond of their society, and was no stranger to the tenderest impressions. One he received in his youth was with difficulty surmounted. The object was the subject of that sweet pastoral ballad I know you admire, "When forc'd the dear nymph to forego."

I remember he once said, in conversation about the merits of each sex, "I do believe there is (pardon me, Madam,) more intrinsic worth scattered among the bulk of men than women; and yet I have no idea of perfection in a man, and I can conceive it possible in a female character; at least, I think complete virtue much more likely to be found in individuals of your sex than ours." Don't fancy I bowed; I bowed not to him for this: I was not so vain.

In his conversation he was rather elegant than sprightly; yet he had his hour of wit and humour, and was capable of the most refined gallantry: but this was in general checked, perhaps as much by a natural indolence as by his good nature; for he often held a lodge in his friend Thomson's Castle. His address was perfectly easy and unaffected. He received all strangers with equal civility, never courting persons of title. He had a noble pride, that left it to such to court him.

His person was, as to height, somewhat above the middle stature, but largely and rather clumsily formed. His face plain, till you conversed with him. In his dress he was naturally negligent, even to a fault; yet, when he knew of company, always attired in the very dress and manner that beaux appeared in 30 years ago. He wore his own hair, in a most remarkable manner. This was not affectation of singularity, but a total want of observation in that article.

I have now given you an abstract of his character, from the highest to the lowest parts of it. I take some grateful pleasure in this poor tribute which I pay to his memory; to the memory of a worthy, obliging, and elegant friend. Some tears, too, I have paid; but I will dry them up. He is not lost. He has only changed his mode of existence. You and I, my friend, must change ours. May the exchange to us, when it comes, be as happy as I believe his to be; and then the time and manner how is of little consequence.

* Editor's note: A friend of Mr. Shenstone, who knew him from his youth, is desirous of vindicating him in this part of his character. The word "beau" is expressive of the character of a man whose principal study it is to adorn his person according to the prevailing fashions of the age, however fantastic or unnatural. Now Mr. Shenstone was remarkably negligent of his person and of his dress: yet it was a maxim with him, that without any regard to the fashion, every one ought to dress in a manner most becoming his person. And (if such a trifling circumstance is worth mentioning) Mr. Shenstone first copied that remarkable manner of wearing his hair (which the lady mentions,) from a print of the Duke of Gloucester, prefixed to Kennet's Antiquities of Rome, which fashion he retained as long as he lived. — Mr. GRAVES OF CLAVERTON.