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Of The Fleece,' which never became popular, and is now universally neglected, I can say little that is likely to recall it to attention. The woolcomber and the poet appear to me such discordant natures, that an attempt to bring them together is to couple the serpent with the fowl. When Dyer, whose mind was not unpoetical, has done his utmost, by interesting his reader, in our native commodity, by interspersing rural imagery, and incidental digressions, by clothing small images in great words, and by all the writer's arts of delusion, the meanness naturally adhering, and the irreverence habitually annexed to trade and manufac ture, sink him under insuperable oppression; and the disgust which blank verse, encumbering and encumbered, superadds to an unpleasing object, soon repels the reader, however willing to be pleased.
Let me however honestly report whatever may counterbalance this weight of censure. I have been told, that Akenside, who, upon a poetical question, has a right to be heard, said, 'that he would regulate his opinion of the reigning taste by the fate of Dyer's "Fleece;" for, if that were ill-received, he should not think it any longer reasonable to expect fame from excellence.'
WILLIAM SHENSTONE, the son of Thomas Shenstone and Anne Pen, was born in November, 1714, at the Leasowes in Hales-Owen, one of those insulated districts which, in the division of the kingdom, was appended, for some reason not now discoverable, to a distant county; and which, though surrounded by Warwickshire and Worcestershire, belongs to Shropshire, though perhaps thirty miles distant from any other part of it.
He learned to read of an old dame, whom his poem of 'The School-Mistress' has delivered to posterity; and soon received such delight from books, that he was always calling for fresh entertainment, and expected that, when any of the family went to market, a new book should be brought him, which, when it came, was in fondness carried to bed and laid by him. It is said, that, when his request had been neglected, his mother wrapt up a piece of wood of the same form, and pacified him for the night.
As he grew older, he went for awhile to the Grammarschool, in Hales Owen, and was placed afterward with Mr. Crumpton, an eminent school-master at Solihul, where he distinguished himself by the quickness of his
When he was young (June, 1724) he was deprived of his father, and soon after (August, 1726) of his grandfather, and was, with his brother, who died afterward unmarried, left to the care of his grandmother, who managed the estate.
From school he was sent in 1732 to Pembroke College, in Oxford, a society which for half a century has been eminent for English poetry and elegant literature. Here it appears that he found delight and advantage; for he continued his name in the book ten years, though he took no degree. After the first four years he put on the civilian's gown, but without shewing any intention to engage in the profession.
About the time when he went to Oxford, the death of his grandmother devolved his affairs to the care of the Reverend Mr. Dolman, of Brome, in Staffordshire, whose attention he always mentioned with gratitude.
At Oxford he employed himself upon English poetry; and in 1737 published a small miscellany, without his name. He then for a time wandered about, to acquaint himself with life, and was sometimes at London, sometimes at Bath, or any other place of public resort; but he did not forget his poetry. He published in 1741 his Judgment of Hercules,' addressed to Mr. Lyttelton, whose interest he supported with great warmth at an election; this was next year followed by 'The School Mistress.'
Mr. Dolman, to whose care he was indebted for his ease and leisure, died in 1745, and the care of his own fortune now fell upon him. He tried to escape it awhile, and lived at his house with his tenants, who were distantly related: but, finding that imperfect possession inconvenient, he took the whole estate into his own hands, more to the improvement of its beauty, than the increase of its produce.
Now was excited his delight in rural pleasures, and his ambition of rural elegance: he began from this time to point his prospects, to diversify his surface, to entangle his walks, and to wind his waters; which he did with such judgment and such fancy, as made his little domain the envy of the great, and the admiration of the skilful; a place to be visited by travellers, and copied by designers. Whe
ther to plant a walk in undulating curves, and to place a bench at every turn where there is an object to catch the view; to make water run where it will be heard, and to stagnate where it will be seen; to leave intervals where the eye will be pleased, and to thicken the plantation where there is something to be hidden; demand any great powers of mind, I will not inquire: perhaps a surly and sullen spectator may think such performances rather the sport than the business of human reason. But it must be at least confessed, that to embellish the form of Nature is an innocent amusement; and some praise must be allowed, by the most supercilious observer, to him who does best what such multitudes are contending to do well.
This praise was the praise of Shenstone; but, like all other modes of felicity, it was not enjoyed without its abatements. Lyttelton was his neighbour and his rival, whose empire, spacious and opulent, looked with disdain on the petty state that appeared behind it. For a while the inhabitants of Hagley affected to tell their acquaintance of the little fellow that was trying to make himself admired; but when by degrees the Leasowes forced themelves into notice, they took care to defeat the curiosity which they could not suppress, by conducting their visitants perversely to inconvenient points of view, and introducing them at the wrong end of a walk to detect a deception: injuries of which Shenstone would heavily complain. Where there is emulation there will be vanity; and where there is vanity there will be folly.*
The pleasure of Shenstone was all in his eye; he valued what he valued merely for its looks; nothing raised his indignation more than to ask if there were any fishes in his water.
His house was mean, and he did not improve it; his care was of his grounds. When he came home from his walks,
* This charge against the Lyttelton family has been denied with some degree of warmth by Mr. Potter, and since by Mr. Graves. The latter says, "The truth of the case, I believe, was, that the Lyttelton family went so frequently with their family to the Leasowes, that they were unwilling to break in upon Mr. Shenstone's retirement on every occasion, and therefore often went to the principal points of view without waiting for any one to conduct them regularly through the whole walks. Of this Mr. Shenstone would sometimes peevishly complain: though, I am persuaded, he never really suspected any ill-natured intention in his worthy and much-valued neighbours.'-R.
he might find his floors flooded by a shower through the broken roof; but could spare no money for its reparation.
In time his expenses brought clamours about him, that overpowered the lamb's bleat and the linnet's song; and his groves were haunted by beings very different from fauns and fairies. He spent his estate in adorning it, and his death was probably hastened by his anxieties. He was a lamp that spent its oil in blazing. It is said, that, if he had lived a little longer, he would have been assisted by a pension: such bounty could not have been ever more properly bestowed; but that it was ever asked is not certain; it is too certain that it never was enjoyed.
He died at the Leasowes, of a putrid fever, about five on Friday morning, February 11, 1763; and was buried by the side of his brother in the church-yard of HalesOwen.
He was never married, though he might have obtained the lady, whoever she was, to whom his Pastoral Ballad' was addressed. He is represented by his friend Dodsley as a man of great tenderness and generosity, kind to all that were within his influence; but, if once offended, not easily appeased: inattentive to economy, and careless of his expenses. In his person he was larger than the middle size, with something clumsy in his form; very negligent of his clothes, and remarkable for wearing his grey hair in a particular manner; for he held that the fashion was no rule of dress, and that every man was to suit his appearance to his natural form.+
His mind was not very comprehensive, nor his curiosity
Mr. Graves, however, expresses his belief that this is a groundless surmise Mr. Shenstone,' he adds, was too much respected in the neighbourhood to be treated with rudeness; and though his works (frugally as they were managed), added to his manner of living, must necessarily have made him exceed his income, and, of course, he might sometimes be distressed for money, yet he had too much spirit to expose himself to insults from triling sums, and guarded against any great distress, by anticipating a few hundreds: which his estate could very well bear, as appeared by what remained to his executors, after the payment of his debts, and his legacies to his friends, and annuities of thirty pounds a year to one servant, and six pounds to another; for his will was dictated with equal justice and generosity.-R."
+These,' says Mr. Graves, were not precisely his sentiments, though he thought right enough, that every one should, in some degree, consult his particular shape and complexion in adjusting his dress; and that no fashion ought to sanctify what was ungraceful, absurd, or really deformed.'
active; he had no value for those parts of knowledge which he had not himself cultivated.
His life was unstained by any crime; the Elegy on Jesse, which has been supposed to relate an unfortunate and criminal amour of his own, was known by his friends to have been suggested by the story of Miss Godfrey, in Richardson's 'Pamela.'
What Gray thought of his character, from the perusal of his letters, was this:
I have read too an octavo volume of Shenstone's Letters. Poor man! he was always wishing for money, for fame, and other distinctions; and his whole philosophy consisted in living against his will in retirement, and in a place which his taste had adorned, but which he only enjoyed when people of note came to see and commend it; his correspondence is about nothing else but this place and his own writings, with two or three neighbouring clergymen, who wrote verses too.'
His poems consist of elegies, odes, and ballads, humorous sallies, and moral pieces.
His conception of an elegy he has in his preface very judiciously and discriminately explained. It is, according to his account, the effusion of a contemplative mind, sometimes plaintive, and always serious, and therefore superior to the glitter of slight ornaments. His compositions suit not ill to this description. His topics of praise are the domestic virtues, and his thoughts are pure and simple; but, wanting combination, they want variety. The peace of solitude, the innocence of inactivity, and the unenvied security of an humble station, can fill but a few pages. That of which the essence is uniformity will be soon described. His elegies have therefore too much resemblance of each other.
The lines are sometimes such as elegy requires, smooth and easy; but to this praise his claim is not constant; his diction is often harsh, improper, and affected; his words ill-coined, or ill-chosen; and his phrase unskilfully inverted.
The lyric 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