1845 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Mason

John Holland, "Rev. William Mason" Poets of Yorkshire; comprising Sketches of the Lives, and Specimens of the Writings of those Children of Song (1845) 80-82.



This individual, one of the most distinguished of the Yorkshire poets, was a native of Hull, with which town his name had been associated for more than one generation. His grandfather, Hugh Mason, was appointed Collector of Customs at that port in 1696; and his father, the Rev. William Mason, was vicar of the Holy Trinity Church from 1722 to 1753, when he died. Our poet was born in 1725, and received the rudiments of his education in his native place. In 1742 he was entered at St. John's College Cambridge, where, in 1749, he took the degree of M.A. having previously written a "Monody on the death of Pope, and his pieces "Il Bellicoso," and "Il Pacifico," which were revised by Gray, and laid the foundation of that friendship between the poets which terminated but with life. In 1752 he published "Elfrida," and in 1759, "Caractacus," both dramatic poems, constructed on the models of the ancients, they were performed at Covent Garden Theatre, but without success; nor, though abounding with fine passages, have they been much more attractive to the general reader. Having taken orders in 1754, he was presented to the rectory of Aston, in Yorkshire, at which place he was generally beloved, and unremitting in the discharge of his clerical duties. In 1765, he married Miss Shearman, of Hull, which lady died two years afterwards at Bristol, where her husband inscribed near her grave those beautiful and well-known lines, concerning which, Chalmers has justly remarked, would not be easy to discover a poem which conveys more quick sympathy in the whole range of elegiac poetry. In 1772, Mason published the first, and in 1782, the last book of the "English Garden," a beautiful didactic poem in blank verse, in the exordium of which, he tells the reader that it was undertaken less "to court the world's applause," than "to soothe that agony of heart, which they alone who best have loved — who best have been beloved, can feel and pity, when the object of their love is no more!" His own garden adjoining the pleasant parsonage at Aston, was beautifully laid out—

He taught one little acre to command
Each envied happiness of scene and shade.

Here Gray visited the worthy rector; and the writer of this brief notice can never forget the delight with which many years ago he explored, with a friend, these secluded haunts of the Musae Masoni. Entering the garden, and stepping into a beautiful shrubby walk, continued all round a verdant lawn; our eyes were first arrested by a bust of Milton, on a pedestal, cloistered in the trees; on passing this illustrious janitor, and continuing our walk beneath some fine acacias, we reached a sort of summer-house, built of wood, and closely invested with the tendrils and festoons of the evergreens and flowering plants which were disposed around it. Over the front, on a tablet, was painted the following stanza from the early editions of Gray's Elegy:—

Here scatter'd oft, the earliest of the year,
By hands unseen, are showers of violets found,
The red-breast loves to build and warble here,
And little footsteps lightly print the ground.

This verse perfectly accords with the sweet seclusion of the spot, which is rendered more particularly interesting by having been once honoured with the presence of Gray himself, when he paid Mr. Mason a visit in 1770, a short time before his death. On entering this recess, we at once discovered ourselves in a temple of the Muses: on either hand, the ceiling, displayed embossed medallions of Mason and Gray; on a circular stone was engraven a lyre, and around it the following inscription: — [Greek characters]. Upon the floor stood two urns and pedestals, dedicated to the memory of the friendly poets. It was impossible to look on these affecting memorials of departed genius without recurring with ineffable pleasure to those lines which open the third book of the English Garden:—

Closed is that curious eye by death's cold hand,
That mark'd each error of my careless strain
With kind severity; to whom my Muse
Still loved to whisper, what she meant to sing
In louder accent; to whose taste supreme
She first and last appeal'd, nor wish'd for praise,
Save when his smile was herald to her fame.
Yes, thou art gone; yet Friendship's faultering tongue
Invokes thee still; and still, by Fancy soothed,
Fain would she hope her Gray attends the call.
Why, then, alas, in this my favourite haunt,
Place I the urn, the bust, the sculptured lyre,
Or fix this votive tablet, fair inscribed
With numbers worthy thee, for they are thine?
Why, if thou hear'st me still, these symbols sad
Of fond memorial? Oh, my pensive soul
He hears me not, nor ever more shall hear
This theme his candour, not his taste, approved.

Gray died in 1771, the year after his visit to Aston; and a volume of very pleasing "Memoirs" of him was published in 1775, by his poetical friend and literacy executor. Mason was not only a poet, but possessed considerable accomplishments in the sister arts of painting and music, particularly the latter; for he was Precentor of York Cathedral, and not only composed a Te Deum and other pieces for the choir, but an "Essay Historical and Critical on English Church Music." He died April 7, 1797, at Aston, where, as well as in Westminster Abbey, there is an inscription to his memory. As a poet, Mason may be said to have been the last bright link between the eras of Pope and Cowper. Viewed in this position, few modern bards, as Chalmers remarks, deserve a higher rank in lyric and descriptive composition; nor has he given any finished piece to the world from which examples of excellence may not be quoted.