1748
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

The School-Mistress, a Poem in imitation of Spenser.

A Collection of Poems in three Volumes. By Several Hands. Second Edition. [Robert Dodsley, ed.]

William Shenstone


35 Spenserians. Originally published in twelve stanzas in 1737 and augmented to 28 stanzas in 1742, the School-Mistress here assumed its familiar form, as published in Dodsley's Collection (a still later version was destroyed by William Shenstone's executors). With Gray's Elegy, Goldsmith's The Deserted Village, and Burns's Cotter's Saturday Night, the School-Mistress was among the small group of eighteenth-century Spenserian poems regularly reprinted, imitated, and parodied well into the nineteenth-century.

Advertisement: "What particulars in Spenser were imagin'd most proper for the Author's imitation on this occasion, are his language, his simplicity, his manner of description, and a peculiar tenderness of sentiment remarkable throughout his works."

In the central eighteenth stanza, the young lad admires the image of St. George on the back of his horn-book when he ought to have been conning his letters: "The work so gay, that on their backs is seen, | St. George's high atchievements does declare" 1:254. This decoration really did appear on the old horn-books, as appears from a note to Richard Polwhele's amusing satire on modern education (and conflation of Shenstone with Goldsmith), The Deserted-Village School (1813): "I have heard three silly objections to the old horn-book. The letters are protected by horn, — a presupposition, it seems, that children are so dirty, or careless, as to soil or destroy their alphabets if not so guarded. Besides, it is too gaudily got up, as if children must necessarily be attracted to their task by paint or gilding. A third objection is, that the vulgar device on the back of it, can only serve to sanction and perpetuate a ridiculous and superstitious legend" Essay on Marriage (1823) 207n.

The first edition of Dodsley reprints 1742, as the poet mentions to Lady Luxborough: "As to Dodsley's Collection I find it approv'd on all Hands; tho' I should have been much better pleas'd with him, if he had giv'n me previous notice e'er he publish'd my Schoolmistress; that I might have spruc'd he up a little before she appeared in so much Company" 25 March 1748; Letters, ed. Mallam (1939) 99-100.

William Shenstone to Lady Luxborough: "My Schoolmistress, I suppose, is much more in Spenser's way than any one wou'd chuse to write in that writes quite gravely; in which Case The Dialect and stanza of Spenser is hardly preferable to modern Heroic. I look upon my Poem as somewhat more grave than Pope's Alley, and a good deal less than Mr. Thomson's Castle, &c: At least I meant it so, or rather I meant to skreen the ridicule which might fall on so low a subject (tho' perhaps a picturesque one) by pretending to simper all the time I was writing. And now I am come to give an excuse, which will, with your Ladyship's Candour, apologize for this blotted Letter. I have the Schoolmistress to write over for Dodsley before I go to Bed to-night, consisting now of above 350 lines, in which I expect to make 350 blunders. His miscellanies are gone he says a second time to the Press, and I have reason to doubt whether my Improvements will even now come time enough" 1 June 1748; Letters, ed. Mallam (1939)107-08.

William Shenstone to Lady Luxborough: "I thank you for your little Strictures on the School-Mistress. I have sacrificed my Partiality to your unbiassed Judgment; 'Multa gemens,' have I sacrificed it. The Truth is, I am not quite convinced (tho' I have acted as if I were) that one should give up any Part, that appears droll in itself, and makes the Poem, on the whole, more agreeable, for the Sake of rendering it a more perfect Imitation of Spencer. But when you have more Leisure, and I collect my Pieces, I don't despair of furnishing a more compleat Edition yet" June 1748; Letters, ed. Mallam (1939) 110.

Thomas Gray to Horace Walpole: "The School Mistress is excellent in its kind and masterly; and (I am sorry to differ from you, but) London [by Samuel Johnson] is to me one of those few imitations that have all the ease and all the spirit of an original" 1748; Works, ed. Gosse (1895) 2:219-20.

Critical Review: "the School-mistress, a piece universally and deservedly admired, and which is, to say the truth, fairly worth the whole collection [of Shenstone's collected Works]. After the great and merited applause which Mr. Shenstone met with on account of this little imitation of Spenser, we are suprised to find nothing of the same nature occuring thro' all his works" 17 (May 1764) 340.

Oliver Goldsmith: "This poem is one of those happinesses in which a poet excels himself, as there is nothing in all Shenstone which any way approaches it in merit; and, though I dislike the imitations of our old poets in general, yet, on this minute subject, the antiquity of the style produces a very ludicrous solemnity" Beauties of English Poesy (1767) 1:69.

John Duncombe: "By the School-Mistress Mr. Shenstone was first introduced to the poetical world. The mention of Vernon in stanza xxvii, ascertains the area when it was written" "Dodsley's Collection" Gentleman's Magazine 50 (March 1780) 122.

Isaac D'Israeli: "The Schoolmistress of SHENSTONE has been admired for its simplicity and tenderness, not for its exquisitely ludicrous turn! This discovery I owe to the good fortune of possessing the original [1742] edition of The Schoolmistress, which the author printed under his own directions, and to his own fancy. To this piece of LUDICROUS POETRY, as he calls it, 'lest it should be mistaken,' he added a LUDICROUS INDEX, 'purely to show fools that I am in Jest.' But the fool, his subsequent editor, thought proper to suppress this amusing 'ludicrous index,' and the consequence is, as the poet foresaw, that his aim has been 'mistaken'" "Shenstone's Schoolmistress" in Curiosities of Literature (1791-24; 1866) 361.

Anna Seward to Richard Polwhele: "we owe the happiest imitation of Spenser's best manner to this poet. The School-mistress is alone sufficient to entitle its author to a high seat in the poetic fane of Britain" 25 May 1792; Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 1:294-95.

Lancelot Raymond: "Spirit of Shenstone! O vouchsafe thine aid! | Awhile to me, thy firm admirer true: | That spirit, which so faithfully displayed | Thy humble old School-mistress to our view— | Certes a finer sketch, no poet ever drew!" in The Village Schoolmaster. A Poem (1823) 7.

William Goodhugh: "The inimitable schoolmistress of Shenstone is one of the felicities of genius" The English Gentleman's Library Manual (1827) 255.

John Taylor Esq.: "It is my opinion, and was the opinion of Dr. Wolcot, that if Shenstone had written nothing but The Schoolmistress, he would have been entitled to a high rank among the British poets" Records of my Life (1832) 2:59.

W. J. Courthope: "His sense of the proprieties of style is more happily illustrated in The Schoolmistress, which, as Johnson says, is a delightful performance, but which also shows how completely the memory of the chivalrous era had died out of English society since the Revolution of 1688" History of English Poetry (1895-1910) 5:374.

Herbert E. Cory: "It is a disgrace to the anthology-men that this poem is left to the student of literature, and not dragged out of the mildewed volumes of Shenstone to the popularity it could easily attain in fresh print between pretty covers. Nobody who reads can ever forget the little old school-mistress" "Spenser, Thomson, and Romanticism" PMLA 26 (1911) 62.

Harko Gerrit De Maar: "A comparison between the three versions of The Schoolmistress (1737, 1742, 1764) shows that as the poem increased in length, the diction increased in opulence, until what was at first intended as a burlesque became in the third version a conscious and deliberate effort to secure picturesque ornament" History of Modern English Romanticism (1924) 53.

Oliver Elton: "This poem, which contains, says the author, 'a deformed portrait of my old schoolmistress Sarah Lloyd,' rose at once above the mob of contemporary imitations. It was not, and is not, obscured by the Castle of Indolence (1748), where a different aspect of the Faerie Queene is reproduced. Indeed, Shenstone does not so much parody the sage and serious poet, as catch and rival, and that with grace and brilliancy, the strain of his more sportive passages. He finds a 'very singular pleasure' in Spenser's 'simplicity and obsolete phrase,' which thus afford 'the greatest scope for a ludicrous imitation.' He also feels that the concluding alexandrine has an 'extreme majesty.' The burlesque is thus of the most affectionate kind; and as it goes on, Shenstone seems to be carried away by his author, pure poetry comes more and more to usurp on mimicry, when the children are loosed from school and from the fear of the birchen rod: 'But now Dan Phoebus gains the middle sky . . .'" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 2:13.

William Shenstone had the warrant of Guardian No. 22 for introducing associating the pastoral genre with the simplicity and innocence of children.



Ah me! full sorely is my heart forlorn,
To think how modest worth neglected lies!
While partial Fame doth with her blasts adorn
Such deeds alone, as pride and pomp disguise;
Deeds of ill sort, and mischievous emprize!
Lend me thy clarion, goddess! let me try
To sound the praise of merit, ere it dies;
Such as I oft have chaunced to espy,
Lost in the dreary shades of dull obscurity.

In every village mark'd with little spire,
Embow'r'd in trees, and hardly known to Fame,
There dwells, in lowly shed, and mean attire,
A matron old whom we School-mistress name;
Who boasts unruly brats with birch to tame:
They grieven sore, in piteous durance pent,
Aw'd by the pow'r of this relentless dame;
And oft-times, on vagaries idly bent,
For unkempt hair, or task unconn'd, are sorely shent.

And all in sight doth rise a birchen tree,
Which Learning near Her little dome did stowe;
Whilom a twig of small regard to see,
Tho' now so wide it's waving branches flow;
And work the simple vassals mickle woe:
For not a wind might curl the leaves that blew,
But their limbs shudder'd, and their pulse beat low;
And, as they look'd, they found their horror grew,
And shap'd it into rods, and tingled at the view.

So have I seen (who has not, may conceive,)
A lifeless phantom near a garden plac'd:
So doth it wanton birds of peace bereave,
Of sport, of song, of pleasure, of repast;
They start, they stare, they wheel, they look aghast:
Sad servitude! such comfortless annoy
May no bold Briton's riper age e'er taste!
Ne Superstition clog his dance of joy,
Ne vision empty, vain, his native bliss destroy.

Near to this dome is found a patch so green,
On which the tribe their gambols do display:
And at the door impris'ning board is seen,
Lest weakly wights of smaller size shou'd stray;
Eager, perdie, to bask in sunny day!
The noises intermix'd, which thence resound,
Do Learning's little tenement betray:
Where sits the dame, disguis'd in look profound,
And eyes her fairy-throng, and turns her wheel around.

Her cap, far whiter than the driven snow,
Emblem right meet of decency does yield:
Her apron dy'd in grain, as blue, I trowe,
As is the Hare-bell that adorns the field:
And in her hand, for scepter, she does wield
Tway birchen sprays; with anxious Fear entwin'd,
With dark Distrust, and sad Repentance fill'd;
And stedfast Hate, and sharp Affliction join'd,
And Fury uncontroul'd, and Chastisement unkind.

Few but have ken'd, in semblance meet pourtray'd,
The childish faces of old Eol's train;
Libs, Notus, Auster: these in frowns array'd,
How then would fare or earth, or sky, or main,
Were the stern god to give his slaves the rein?
And were not she rebellious breasts to quell,
And were not she her statutes to maintain,
The cott no more, I ween, were deem'd the cell,
Where comely peace of mind, and decent order dwell.

A russet stole was o'er her shoulders thrown;
A russet kirtle fenc'd the nipping air;
'Twas simple russet, but it was her own;
'Twas her own country bred the flock so fair;
'Twas her own labour did the fleece prepare;
And sooth to say, her pupils, rang'd around,
Thro' pious awe, did term it passing rare;
For they in gaping wonderment abound,
And think, no doubt, she been the greatest wight on ground.

Albeit ne flatt'ry did corrupt her truth,
Ne pompous title did debauch her ear;
Goody, good-woman, gossip, n'aunt, forsooth,
Or dame, the sole Additions she did hear;
Yet these he challeng'd, these she held right dear:
Ne would esteem him act as mought behove,
Who should not honour'd eld with these revere:
For never title yet so mean could prove,
But there was eke a Mind which did that title love.

One ancient hen she took delight to feed,
The plodding pattern of the busy dame;
Which, ever and anon, impell'd by need,
Into her School, begirt with chickens, came;
Such favour did her past deportment claim:
And, if Neglect had lavish'd on the ground
Fragment of bread, she would collect the same;
For well she knew, and quaintly could expound,
What sin it were to waste the smallest crumb she found.

Herbs too she knew, and well of each could speak
That in her garden sipp'd the silv'ry dew;
Where no vain flow'r disclos'd a gawdy streak;
But herbs for use, and physick, not a few,
Of grey renown, within those borders grew:
The tufted Basil, pun-provoking Tyme,
Fresh Baum, and Marygold of chearful hue;
The lowly Gill, that never dares to climb;
And more I fain would sing, disdaining here to rhime.

Yet Euphrasy may not be left unsung,
That gives dim eyes to wander leagues around;
And pungent Radish, biting infant's tongue;
And Plantain ribb'd that heals the reaper's wound;
And Marj'ram sweet, in shepherd's posie found;
And Lavender, whose spikes of azure bloom
Shall be, ere-while, in arid bundles bound,
To lurk amidst the labours of her loom,
And crown her kerchiefs clean, with mickle rare perfume.

And here trim Rosmarine, that whilom crown'd
The dantiest garden of the proudest peer;
Ere, driven, from its envy'd site, it found
A sacred shelter for it's branches here;
Where edg'd with gold it's glitt'ring skirts appear.
Oh wassel days! O customs meet and well!
Ere this was banish'd from its lofty sphere:
Simplicity then sought this humble cell,
Nor ever would She more with thane and lordling dwell.

Here oft the dame, on Sabbath's decent eve,
Hymned such psalms as Sternhold forth did mete,
If winter 'twere, she to her hearth did cleave;
But in her garden found a summer seat:
Sweet melody! to hear her then repeat
How Israel's sons, beneath a foreign king,
While taunting foe-men did a song intreat,
All, for the Nonce, untuning ev'ry string,
Up hung their useless lyres — small heart had they to sing.

For she was just, and friend too virtuous lore,
And pass'd much time in truly virtuous deed;
And, in those Elfins' ears, would oft deplore
The times, when truth by Popish rage did bleed;
And tortious death was true devotion's meed;
And simple faith in iron chains did mourn,
That would on wooden image place her creed;
And lawny saints in smould'ring flames did burn:
Ah! dearest Lord, forefend, thilk days should e'er return!

In elbow-chair, like that of Scottish stem
By the sharp tooth of cank'ring eld defac'd,
In which, when he receives his diadem,
Our sovereign prince and liefest liege is plac'd,
The matron sate; and some with rank she grac'd,
(The source of childen's and of courtier's pride!)
Redress'd affronts, for vile affronts there pass'd;
And warn'd them not the fretful to deride,
But love each other dear, whatever them betide.

Right well she knew each temper to descry;
To thwart the proud, and the submiss to raise;
Some with vile copper prize exalt on high,
And some entice with pittance small of praise;
And other some with baleful sprig she 'frays;
Ev'n absent, she the reins of pow'r doth hold,
While with quaint arts the giddy crowd she sways;
Forewarn'd, if little bird their pranks behold,
'Twill whisper in her ear, and all the scene unfold.

Lo now with state she utters the command!
Eftsoons the urchins to their tasks repair;
Their books of stature small they take in hand,
Which with pellucid horn secured are;
To save from finger wet the letter's fair:
The work so gay, that on their backs is seen,
St. George's high atchievements does declare;
On which thilk wight that has y-gazing been,
Kens the forth-coming rod, unpleasing sight, I ween!

Ah luckless he, and born beneath the beam
Of evil star! it irks me whilst I write!
As erst the bard by Mulla's silver stream,
Oft, as he told of deadly dolorous plight,
Sigh'd as he sung, and did in tears indite.
For brandishing the rod, she doth begin
To loose the brogues, the stripling's late delight!
And down they drop; appears his dainty skin,
Fair as the furry coat of whitest Ermilin.

O ruthful scene! when from a nook obscure,
His little sister doth his peril see:
All playful as she sate, she grows demure;
She finds full soon her wonted spirits flee;
She meditates a pray'r to set him free:
Nor gentle pardon could this dame deny,
(If gentle pardon could with dames agree)
To her sad grief that swells in either eye,
And wrings her so that all for pity she could dye.

Nor longer can she now her shrieks command;
And hardly she forbears, thro' awful fear,
To rushen forth, and, with presumptuous hand,
To stay harsh justice in its mid career.
On thee she calls, on thee her parent dear!
(Ah! too remote to ward the shameful blow!)
She sees no kind domestick visage near,
And soon a flood of tears begins to flow;
And gives a loose at last to unavailing woe.

But ah! what pen his piteous plight may trace?
Or what device his loud laments explain?
The form uncouth of his disguised face?
The pallid hue that dies his looks amain?
The plenteous show'r that does his cheek distain?
When he, in abject wise, implores the dame,
Ne hopeth ought of sweet reprieve to gain;
Or when from high she levels well her aim,
And, thro' the thatch, his cries each falling stroke proclaim.

The other tribe, aghast, with sore dismay,
Attend, and conn their tasks with mickle care:
By turns, astony'd, ev'ry twig survey,
And, from their fellow's hateful wounds, beware;
Knowing, I wist, how each the same may share:
Till Fear has taught them a performance meet,
And to the well-known chest the dame repair;
Whence oft with sugar'd cates she doth 'em greet,
And ginger-bread y-rare; now, certes, doubly sweet!

See to their seats they hye with merry glee,
And in beseemly order sitten there;
All but the wight of bum y-galled, he
Abhorreth bench and stool, and fourm, and chair;
(This hand in mouth y-fix'd, that rends his hair;)
And eke with snubs profound, and heaving breast,
Convulsions intermitting! does declare
His grievous wrong; his dame's unjust behest;
And scorns her offer'd love, and shuns to be caress'd.

His face besprent with liquid crystal shines,
His blooming face that seems a purple flow'r,
Which low to earth it's drooping head declines,
All smear'd and sully'd by a vernal show'r.
O the hard bosoms of despotick pow'r!
All, all, but she, the author of his shame,
All, all, but she, regret this mournful hour:
Yet hence the youth, and hence the flow'r, shall claim,
If so I deem aright, transcending worth and fame.

Behind some door, in melancholy thought,
Mindless of food, he, dreary caitiff! pines;
Ne for his fellow's joyaunce careth ought,
But to the wind all merriment resigns;
And deems it shame, if he to peace inclines:
And many a sullen look ascance is sent,
Which for his dame's annoyance he designs;
And still the more to pleasure him she's bent,
The more doth he, perverse, her haviour past resent.

Ah me! how much I fear lest pride it be!
But if that pride it be, which thus inspires,
Beware, ye dames! with nice discernment see,
Ye quench not too the sparks of nobler fires:
Ah! better far than all the muses' lyres,
All coward arts, is valour's gen'rous heat;
The firm fixt breast which Fit and Right requires,
Like Vernon's patriot soul; more justly great
Than craft that pimps for ill, or flow'ry false deceit.

Yet nurs'd with skill, what dazling fruits appear!
Ev'n now sagacious Foresight points to show
A little bench of heedless bishops here,
And there a chancellour in embryo,
Or bard sublime, if bard may e'er be so,
As Milton, Shakespeare, names that ne'er shall dye!
Tho' now he crawl along the ground so low,
Nor weeting how the muse shou'd soar on high,
Wisheth, poor starving elf! his paper-kite may fly.

And this perhaps, who, cens'ring the Design,
Low lays the house which that of cards doth build,
Shall Dennis be! if rigid fates incline,
And many an Epick to his rage shall yield;
And many a poet quit th' Aonian field;
And, sour'd by age, profound he shall appear,
As he who now with 'sdainful fury thrill'd
Surveys mine work; and levels many a sneer,
And furls his wrinkly front, and cries "What stuff is here."

But now Dan Phoebus gains the middle skie,
And Liberty unbars their prison-door;
And like a rushing torrent out they fly,
And now the grassy cirque han cover'd o'er
With boist'rous revel-rout and wild uproar;
A thousand ways in wanton rings they run,
Heav'n shield their short-liv'd pastimes, I implore!
For well may freedom, erst so dearly won,
Appear to British elf more gladsome than the sun.

Enjoy, poor imps! enjoy your sportive trade;
And chase gay flies and cull the fairest flow'rs;
For when my bones in grass-green sods are laid,
For never may ye taste more careless hours;
In knightly castles, or in ladies bow'rs.
O vain to seek delight in earthly thing!
But most in courts where proud ambition tow'rs;
Deluded wight! who weens fair peace can spring
Beneath the pompous dome of Kesar or of king.

See in each sprite some various bent appear!
These rudely carol most incondite lay;
Those saunt'ring on the green, with jocund leer
Salute the stranger passing on his way;
Some builden fragile tenements of clay;
Some to the standing lake their courses bend,
With pebbles smooth at Duck and Drake to play;
Thilk to the huxter's sav'ry cottage tend,
In pastry kings and queens th' allotted mite to spend.

Here, as each season yields a different store,
Each season's stores in order ranged been;
Apples with cabbage-net y-cover'd o'er,
Galling full sore th' un-money'd wight, are seen;
And goose-b'rie clad in liv'ry red or green;
And here of lovely dye, the Cath'rine-pear,
Fine pear! as lovely for thy juice, I ween:
O may no wight e'er penny-less come there,
Lest smit with ardent love he pine with hopeless care!

See! cherries here, ere cherries yet abound,
With thread so white in tempting posies ty'd,
Scatt'ring like blooming maid their glances round,
With pamper'd look draw little eyes aside;
And must be bought tho' penury betide.
The plumb all azure and the nut all brown,
And here, each season, do those cakes abide,
Whose honour'd names th' inventive city own,
Rend'ring thro' Britain's isle Salopia's praises known.

Admir'd Salopia! that with venial pride
Eyes her bright form in Severn's ambient wave,
Fam'd for her loyal cares in perils tried,
Her daughters lovely, and her striplings brave;
Ah! 'midst the rest, may flowers adorn his grave,
Whose art did first these dulcet cates display!
A motive fair to Learning's imps he gave,
Who chearless o'er her darkling region stray;
'Till reason's morn arise, and light them on their way.

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