Rural Elegance: an Ode to the Late Duchess of Somerset. Written 1750.

A Collection of Poems by Several Hands. Vol. 5 [Robert Dodsley, ed.]

William Shenstone

In irregular ode in 27 stanzas, published in 1758 as the first poem in the fifth volume of Dodsley's famous miscellany. William Shenstone develops an argument for a forming republic of taste to refine the country gentry and attract the aristocracy to the countryside. The poem is addressed to the Duchess of Somerset, who as the Countess of Hertford had served as maid-in-waiting to Queen Caroline. She had patronised James Thomson and had been influential in spreading the new taste in landscape gardening. Shenstone's call to abandon the court reflects the politics of the Country Whigs, but also registers an important fact on the ground (as it were): throughout the later eighteenth century rural and provincial poets and artists would become increasingly important. Many would later acknowledge Shenstone's influence. His garden at the Leasowes was much admired in his lifetime and afterwards.

The irregular form of Rural Elegance recalls Abraham Cowley's treatment of the theme of liberty in his Essays on retirement, though irregularity also accords with Shenstone's own doctrines about landscape design. The poem also updates Spenser's romanticism, redefining virtue as aesthetic sensibility: "What tho' nor fabled dryad haunt their grove, | Nor naiad near their fountains rove, | Yet all embody'd to the mental sight, | A train of smiling virtues bright | Shall there the wise retreat allow, | Shall twine triumphant palms to deck the wanderer's brow" p. 115. One might compare the similarly irregular and more obviously Spenserian Percy Lodge (1755) which Moses Browne had written for the Countess of Hartford the year before.

Shenstone sent the poem in manuscript to the Duchess in the vain hope that she would do for his career what she had done for Thomson. But the Duchess was living as a virtual recluse, mourning the death of her son. Neither Shenstone nor Browne seem to have received much material benefit for their poems, though Robert Dodsley admired Shenstone's enough to place it first among the odes in the posthumous edition of the poems. The poet's frustrated attempt to win patronage through this poem is told at length through a series of his letters.

William Shenstone to Lady Luxborough: "I am almost afraid to acquaint you, that I had wellnigh finish'd an Ode which I intended to desire your Ladyship to present to her Grace. As it is now neither to be finish'd nor seen, I will venture to give you this short account of it, that it was written in the irregular way like that I had the Honour to present to you; that it turn'd chiefly on the Pleasures of Solitude and rural Amusement, and after excluding Several Classes of Men from any Pretensions to comprehend the Beauties of Nature, fix'd upon the Person of true Taste as the only adequate Spectator. Don't imagine I say this to excite curiosity" 6 March 1750; in Letters, ed. Mallam (1939) 192.

William Shenstone to Lady Luxborough: "I have after an unavoidable Delay, and some Difficulty, transcrib'd a Copy of this Ode To the Dutchess of Somerset. I have indeed accompany'd it with a few stiff Lines to her Grace; but I must absolutely depend upon your Ladyship to be presented properly: I mean with all that Respect and Deference of which you know me to be truly conscious for her Grace's exalted Character, and with all that profound Humility with which I ought to inscribe so superficial a Poem" 22 June 1753; in Letters, ed. Mallam (1939) 263-64.

William Shenstone to the Duchess of Somerset: "I find myself at length enabled to obey your Grace's Commands, after a Delay, but ill expressive of the Pleasure with which I received them. By some Means or other, the Original of this Ode was mislaid, and it was not immediately in my Power, from scattered Materials, to give it once more the Form, in which it now appears" 23 June 1753; in Letters, ed. Mallam (1939) 264-65.

Robert Dodsley to William Shenstone: "What is become of your Ode on Rural Elegance? I was in hopes to have seen it before this time: but I suppose it must now for some months suffer a severe and causeless Persecution under your hands, for faults which nobody but yourself could accuse it of. I am strongly tempted to come 'vi et armis,' and rescue it from your Cruelty. But I suppose you will pretend, like other Inquisitors, that You chastise and correct it for the good of its Soul. Well, You are its Creator, and must do what you please; but I dare say it is already, by Goodness, in a state of Salvation, and if You would set it at liberty, would immediately enter into a glorious Immortality" 3 May 1755; in Straus, Robert Dodsley (1910) 133.

Robert Dodsley to William Shenstone: "Pray send the Rural Elegance, and let me finish, for I shall now be in great trouble and anxiety which accompany'd with pain is too much. The Season is wasting, and I have between 6 and 7 hundred pounds bury'd in the Paper and print of this Edition, which I want to pay and can not till I publish. I fear it is impossible You should read or understand what I have writ" 21 January 1758; in Straus, Robert Dodsley (1910) 149.

Critical Review: "Amongst the odes, the first, intituled Rural Elegance, to the duchess of Somerset, and that to Memory, are by far the best" 17 (May 1764) 342.

Samuel Johnson: "The Lyrick Poems are almost all of the light and airy kind, such as trip lightly and nimbly along, without the load of any weighty meaning. From these, however, Rural Elegance has some right to be excepted. I once heard it praised by a very learned lady; and though the lines are irregular, and the thoughts diffused with too much verbosity, yet it cannot be denied to contain both philosophical argument and poetical spirit" "Life of Shenstone" (1779); ed. Hill (1905) 3:356.

Richard Graves: "The merit of this poem cannot, I think, be disputed. The subject was then new; it is treated in an agreeable manner, and illustrated with many pleasing instances; particularly with that of the Duchess herself, to whom the ode is inscribed, and who had embellished Percy-Lodge with great taste, and had there reconciled Art and Nature, who are represented as having been long at variance. It concludes with an elegant apostrophe to the inhabitants of the groves, to amuse, but not disturb, the noble recluse in her solitude" Recollections of some Particulars in the Life of the late William Shenstone (1788) 124-25.

William Howitt: "No poet of the same pretensions has been so much known through his residence as Shenstone. Without the Leasowes he would have been nothing. His elegies and pastorals would have lain on the dustiest of book-shelves, and his Schoolmistress, by far the best of his productions, would hardly have retained vitality enough to make herself noticeable in the crowd of poetical characters. The Leasowes was the chief work of Shenstone's life, and it is the chief means of that portion of immortality which he possesses. Into every quarter of the kingdom the fame of this little domain has penetrated. Nature there formed the grand substratum of his art, and nature is always beautiful" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 1:229.

Myra Reynolds: "Though Shenstone's work is often undeniably tame and diffuse, and though his interests were bounded by his farm, he is of significance because of his thorough enjoyment of quiet country places, his indignant rejection of the utilitarian view of Nature, and his courageous plea for truth to English scenes" The Treatment of Nature in English Poetry (1909) 116.

While orient skies restore the day,
And dew-drops catch the lucid ray;
Amid the sprightly scenes of morn,
Will aught the Muse inspire?
Oh! peace to yonder clamorous horn
That drowns the sacred lyre!

Ye rural Thanes that o'er the mossy down
Some panting, timorous hare pursue;
Does nature mean your joys alone to crown?
Say, does she smoothe her lawns for you?
For you does Echo bid the rocks reply,
And urg'd by rude constraint resound the jovial cry?

See from the neighbouring hill, forlorn
The wretched swain your sport survey;
He finds his faithful fences torn,
He finds his labour'd crops a prey;
He sees his flock — no more in circles feed;
Haply beneath your ravage bleed,
And with no random curses loads the deed.

Nor yet, ye swains, conclude
That nature smiles for you alone;
Your bounded souls, and your conceptions crude,
The proud, the selfish boast disown:
Yours be the produce of the soil;
O may it still reward your toil!
Nor ever the defenceless train
Of clinging infants, ask support in vain!

But tho' the various harvest gild your plains,
Does the mere landschape feast your eye?
Or the warm hope of distant gains
Far other cause of glee supply?
Is not the red-streak's future juice
The source of your delight profound,
Where Ariconium pours her gems profuse,
Purpling a whole horizon round?
Athirst ye praise the limpid stream, 'tis true
But tho', the pebbled shores among,
It mimick no unpleasing song,
The limpid fountain murmurs not for you.

Unpleas'd ye see the thickets bloom,
Unpleas'd the Spring her flowery robe resume;
Unmov'd the mountain's airy pile,
The dappled mead without a smile.
O let a rural conscious Muse,
For well she knows, your froward sense accuse:
Forth to the solemn oak you bring the square,
And span the massy trunk, before you cry, 'tis fair.

Nor yet ye learn'd, nor yet ye courtly train,
If haply from your haunts ye stray
To waste with us a summer's day,
Exclude the taste of every swain,
Nor our untutor'd sense disdain:
'Tis Nature only gives exclusive right
To relish her supreme delight;
She, where she pleases kind or coy,
Who furnishes the scene, and forms us to enjoy.

Then hither bring the fair ingenuous mind,
By her auspicious aid refin'd;
Lo! not an hedge-row hawthorn blows,
Or humble hare-bell paints the plain,
Or valley winds, or fountain flows,
Or purple heath is ting'd in vain:
For such the rivers dash the foaming tides,
The mountain swells, the dale subsides;
Ev'n thriftless furze detains their wandering sight,
And the rough barren rock grows pregnant with delight.

With what suspicious fearful care
The sordid wretch secures his claim,
If haply some luxurious heir
Should alienate the fields that wear his name!
What scruples lest some future birth
Should litigate a span of earth!
Bonds, contracts, feoffments, names unmeet for prose,
The towering Muse endures not to disclose;
Alas! her unrevers'd decree,
More comprehensive and more free,
Her lavish charter, Taste, appropriates all we see.

Let gondolas their painted flags unfold,
And be the solemn day enroll'd,
When, to confirm his lofty plea,
In nuptial sort, with bridal gold,
The grave Venetian weds the sea:
Each laughing Muse derides the vow;
Ev'n Adria scorns the mock embrace,
To some lone hermit on the mountain's brow,
Allotted, from his natal hour,
With all her myrtle shores in dow'r.
His breast to admiration prone
Enjoys the smile upon her face,
Enjoys triumphant every grace,
And finds her more his own.

Fatigu'd with form's oppressive laws,
When SOMERSET avoids the Great;
When cloy'd with merited applause,
She seeks the rural calm retreat;
Does she not praise each mossy cell,
And feel the truth my numbers tell?
When deafen'd by the loud acclaim,
Which genius grac'd with rank obtains,
Could she not more delighted hear
Yon throstle chaunt the rising year?
Could she not spurn the wreaths of fame,
To crop the primrose of the plains?
Does she not sweets in each fair valley find,
Lost to the sons of pow'r, unknown to half mankind?

Ah can she covet there to see
The splendid slaves, the reptile race,
That oil the tongue, and bow the knee,
That slight her merit, but adore her place?
Far happier, if aright I deem,
When from gay throngs, and gilded spires,
To where the lonely halcyons play,
Her philosophic step retires:
While studious of the moral theme,
She, to some smooth sequester'd stream
Likens the swain's inglorious day;
Pleas'd from the flowery margin to survey,
How cool, serene, and clear the current glides away.

O blind to truth, to virtue blind,
Who slight the sweetly-pensive mind!
On whose fair birth the Graces mild,
And every Muse prophetic smil'd.
Not that the poet's boasted fire
Should Fame's wide-echoing trumpet swell;
Or, on the music of his lyre
Each future age with rapture dwell;
The vaunted sweets of praise remove,
Yet shall such bosoms claim a part
In all that glads the human heart;
Yet these the spirits, form'd to judge and prove
All nature's charms immense, and Heav'n's unbounded love.

And oh! the transport, most ally'd to song,
In some fair villa's peaceful bound,
To catch soft hints from Nature's tongue,
And bid Arcadia bloom around:
Whether we fringe the sloping hill,
Or smoothe below the verdant mead;
Whether we break the falling rill,
Or thro' meandering mazes lead;
Or in the horrid bramble's room
Bid careless groups of roses bloom;
Or let some shelter'd lake serene
Reflect flow'rs, woods and spires, and brighten all the scene.

O sweet disposal of the rural hour!
O beauties never known to cloy!
While worth and genius haunt the favour'd bow'r,
And every gentle breast partakes the joy!
While Charity at eve surveys the swain,
Enabled by these toils to chear
A train of helpless infants dear,
Speed whistling home across the plain;
See vagrant Luxury, her hand-maid grown,
For half her graceless deeds attone,
And hails the bounteous work, and ranks it with her own.

Why brand these pleasures with the name
Of soft, unsocial toils, of indolence and shame?
Search but the garden, or the wood,
Let yon admir'd carnation own,
Not all was meant for raiment, or for food,
Not all for needful use alone;
There while the seeds of future blossoms dwell,
Tis colour'd for the sight, perfum'd to please the smell.

Why knows the nightingale to sing?
Why flows the pine's nectareous juice?
Why shines with paint the linnet's wing?
For sustenance alone? For use?
For preservation? Every sphere
Shall bid fair pleasure's rightful claim appear.
And sure there seem, of human kind,
Some born to shun the solemn strife;
Some for amusive tasks design'd,
To soothe the certain ills of life;
Grace it's lone vales with many a budding rose,
New founts of bliss disclose,
Call forth refreshing shades, and decorate repose.

From plains and woodlands; from the view
Of rural Nature's blooming face,
Smit with the glare of rank and place,
To courts the sons of Fancy flew;
There long had Art ordain'd a rival seat;
There had she lavish'd all her care
To form a scene more dazling fair,
And call'd them from their green retreat
To share her proud controul;
Had giv'n the robe with grace to flow,
Had taught exotic gems to glow;
And emulous of nature's pow'r,
Mimick'd the plume, the leaf, the flow'r;
Chang'd the complexion's native hue,
Moulded each rustic limb anew,
And warp'd the very soul!

Awhile her magick strikes the novel eye,
Awhile the faery forms delight;
And now aloof we seem to fly
On purple pinions thro' a purer sky,
Where all is wonderous, all is bright:
Now landed on some spangled shore
Awhile each dazled maniac roves
By saphire lakes, thro' em'rald groves.
Paternal acres please no more;
Adieu the simple, the sincere delight—
Th' habitual scene of hill and dale,
The rural herds, the vernal gale,
The tangled vetch's purple bloom,
The fragrance of the bean's perfume,
Be theirs alone who cultivate the soil,
And drink the cup of thirst, and eat the bread of toil.

But soon the pageant fades away!
'Tis Nature only bears perpetual sway.
We pierce the counterfeit delight,
Fatigu'd with splendor's irksome beams,
Fancy again demands the sight
Of native groves, and wonted streams,
Pants for the scenes that charm'd her youthful eyes,
Where Truth maintains her court, and banishes disguise.

Then hither oft ye senators retire,
With nature here high converse hold;
For who like STAMFORD her delights admire,
Like STAMFORD shall with scorn behold
Th' unequal bribes of pageantry and gold;
Beneath the British oak's majestick shade,
Shall see fair Truth, immortal maid,
Friendship in artless guise array'd,
Honour, and moral Beauty shine
With more attractive charms, with radiance more divine.

Yes, here alone did highest Heav'n ordain
The lasting magazine of charms,
Whatever wins, whatever warms,
Whatever fancy seeks to share,
The great, the various, and the fair,
For ever should remain!

Her impulse nothing may restrain—
Or whence the joy 'mid columns, tow'rs,
'Midst all the city's artful trim,
To rear some breathless vapid flow'rs,
Or shrubs fuliginously grim:
From rooms of silken foliage vain,
To trace the dun far distant grove,
Where smit with undissembled pain,
The wood-lark mourns her absent love,
Borne to the dusty town from native air,
To mimick rural life, and soothe some vapour'd fair.

But how must faithless Art prevail,
Should all who taste our joy sincere,
To virtue, truth, or science dear,
Forego a court's alluring pale,
For dimpled brook and leafy grove,
For that rich luxury of thought they love!
Ah no, from these the publick sphere requires
Example for it's giddy bands;
From these impartial Heav'n demands
To spread the flame itself inspires;
To sift Opinion's mingled mass,
Impress a nation's taste, and bid the sterling pass.

Happy, thrice happy they,
Whose graceful deeds have exemplary shone
Round the gay precincts of a throne,
With mild effective beams!
Who bands of fair ideas bring,
By solemn grott, or shady spring,
To join their pleasing dreams!
Theirs is the rural bliss without alloy,
They only that deserve, enjoy.
What tho' nor fabled Dryad haunt their grove,
Nor Naiad near their fountains rove,
Yet all embody'd to the mental sight,
A train of smiling Virtues bright
Shall there the wise retreat allow,
Shall twine triumphant palms to deck the wanderer's brow.

And though by faithless friends alarm'd,
Art have with Nature wag'd presumptuous war;
By SEYMOUR'S winning influence charm'd,
In whom their gifts united shine,
No longer shall their counsels jar.
'Tis hers to mediate the peace;
Near Percy-lodge, with awe-struck mien,
The rebel seeks her lawful Queen,
And havock and contention cease.
I see the rival pow'rs combine,
And aid each other's fair design;
Nature exalt the mound where Art shall build;
Art shape the gay alcove, while Nature paints the field.

Begin, ye songsters of the grove!
O warble forth your noblest lay;
Where SOMERSET vouchsafes to rove
Ye leverets freely sport and play.
—Peace to the strepent horn!
Let no harsh dissonance disturb the morn,
No sounds inelegant and rude
Her sacred solitudes profane!
Unless her candour not exclude
The lowly shepherd's votive strain,
Who tunes his reed amidst his rural chear,
Fearful, yet not averse, that SOMERSET should hear.