« PreviousContinue »
LIFE OF MASON.
BY MR. CHALMERS.
These Memoirs of Mr. Mason are far less complese than could have been wished. He is said to have left his poems, and some unpublished works, for the benefit of a charitable institution; but eleven years have elapsed since his death, and no step has been taken to fulfill his intention, or to honour his memory. What is now offered, has been collected from various sources, and it is hoped without falling into any very important errour.
William Mason was the son of the vicar of St. Trinity Hall, in the East Riding of Yorkshire, and was born in the year 1725. His education, previously to his going to the university, was probably superintended by his father, whose indulgence, in permitting him to follow the bent of his youthful mind towards poetry and painting, he acknowledges in an Epistolary Address, written in 1746. He went to Cambridge in 1742-3, and was entered of St. John's College, where his tutor, Dr. Powell, encouraged him to publish his excellent Monody to the Memory of Pope, which appeared in 1747. He took his bachelor's degree in 1745, and his master's in 1749; but little else has been recorded of his academical progress, except that his attachment to the Muses continued during his residence at the university, of which he took leave in an ode complimentary to his college and his tutor.
In 1747, by means of Gray, with whom he had become acquainted, and who, on account of ill-treatment had left Peterhouse for Pembroke Hall, he was nominated to a vacant fellowship in the latter college, but owing to a dispute between the fellows and their master, he was not elected till 1749. His own account of this affair has lately been published.-“ I have had the honour since I came here last to be elected by the fellows of Pembroke into their society; but the master, who has the power of a negative, has made use of it on this occasion, because he will not have an extraneus when they have fit persons in their own college. The fellows say, they have a power from their statutes indifferenter eligere er utraque academia, and are going to try it with him at common law, or else get the king to appoint a visitor. If this turns
out well it will be a very lucky thing for me, and much better than a Platt', which I came hither with an intention to sit for, for they are reckoned the best fellowships in the university.”
His intimacy with Gray was cordial and lasting. Their correspondence shows the high respect they had for each other, and their friendship was never interrupted by the freedom and unfeigned candour with which they criticised each other's perform
About this time, Gray describes him as a young man “ of much fancy, little judgment, and a good deal of modesty," as “ a good and well-meaning creature, but in simplicity, a child; he reads little or nothing, writes abundance, and that with a design to make a fortune by it,” which does not, however, appear to bave been the case; a little vain, but in so harmless and comical a way that it does not offend: a little ambitious, but withal so ignorant of the world and its ways, that this does not hurt him in one's opinion; so sincere and undisguised, that no mind with a spark of generosity would ever think of hurting him, he lies so open to injury; but so indolent, that if he cannot overcome this habit, all his good qualities will signify nothing at all." Some of these characteristics of the poetical temperament adhered to our author throughout life; others were effaced by a closer intimacy with the world.
He appears to have been early attached to what he considered as the cause of freedom. Of this he gave proof in a poem entitled Isis, which was printed in 1748, directed chiefly against the supposed Jacobitism of Oxford. Whatever truth might be in the accusation, it had the bappy effect of producing The Triumph of Isis, by Mr. Thomas Warton, which Mason had the candour to allow was a superior poem. Thus early these two writers attracted notice by the defence of their respective universities; but their generous rivalship did not end in mutual respect, for which perhaps, the difference of political principle may in some measure account.
Mason was now requested to compose ani ode for the installation of the Duke of Newcastle, as chancellor of the university of Cambridge in 1749, to which he does not appear to have acceded with much love of the subject. Gray thought his production "uncommonly well for such an occasion," but the author had no pleasure in the recollection, and omitted it in his works.
In 1752, ke published Elfrida, a dramatic poem, constructed on the model of the ancients, to which he was enthusiastically attached, and having once formed the opinion that dramas might be successfully written in this way he persisted in it to the last, contrary to argument and experience. In the present instance he attempted the plan with certain limitations. He professed that his intention was only to follow the ancient method as far as it is probable a Greek poet, were he alive, would now do, in order to adapt himself to the genius of our times, and the character of our tragedy. How far he has executed an intention, evidently suggested by a series of conjectures, will hardly now admit of a question. All critics are agreed that Elfrida is neither
The Platt fellowships at St. John's are similar to what are called the bye-fellowships in some other colleges at Cambridge, and are not on the foundation. Their original number was six, with a stipend of 201. per annum each, besides rooms and commons at the fellows' table. They were founded by William Platt, esq. an opulent citizen of London. See Gent. Mag. vol. Ixvi, p. 452. and fol. lxxi, p. 681 ; in which Mr. Mason's account of this affair is given. C.