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How part is spun in silken threads, and clings
That cracks, as if the axis of the world
Was broke, and heaven's bright towers were downwards hurl'd. He sung how earth's wide ball, at Jove's command,
Did in the midst on airy columns stand;
And how the soul of plants, in prison held,
Hence springs the oak, the beauty of the grove,
He sung the embryo's growth within the womb,
THE brevity with which I am to write the account of ELIJAH FENTON is not the effect of indifference or negligence. I have sought intelligence among his relations in his native country, but have not obtained it.
He was born near Newcastle, in Staffordshire, of an ancient family, whose estate was very considerable; but he was the youngest of eleven children, and being, therefore, necessarily destined to some lucrative employment, was sent first to school, and afterwards to Cambridge; but, with many other wise and virtuous men, who, at that time of discord and debate, consulted conscience, whether well or ill informed, more than interest, he doubted the legality of the government, and, refusing to qualify himself for public employment by the oaths required, left the university without a degree; but I never heard that the enthusiasm of opposition impelled him to separation from the church.
By this perverseness of integrity he was driven out a commoner of Nature, excluded from the regular modes of profit and prosperity, and reduced to pick up a livelihood uncertain and fortuitous, but it must be remembered that he kept his name unsullied, and never suffered himself to be reduced, like too many of the same sect, to mean arts and dishonourable shifts. Whoever mentioned Fenton, mentioned him with honour.
The life that passes in penury must necessarily pass in obscurity. It is impossible to trace Fenton from year to year, or to discover what means he used for his support. He was awhile secretary to Charles, Earl of Orrery, in Flanders, and tutor to his young son, who afterwards mentioned him with great esteem and tenderness. He was at one time assistant in the school of Mr. Bonwicke, in Surrey; and at another kept a school for himself, at Seven-oaks, in Kent, which he brought into reputation; but was persuaded to leave it (1710) by Mr. St. John, with promises of a more honourable employment.
His opinions, as he was a nonjuror, seem not to have been remarkably rigid. He wrote with great zeal and affection the praises of Queen Anne, and very willingly and liberally extolled the Duke of Marlborough, when he was (1707) at the height of his glory.
He expressed still more attention to Marlborough and his family, by an elegiac pastoral on the Marquis of Blandford, which could be prompted only by respect or kindness; for neither the Duke nor Duchess desired the praise, or liked the cost of patronage.
The elegance of his poetry entitled him to the company of the wits of his time, and the amiableness of his manners made him loved whenever he was known. Of his friendship to Southern and Pope there are lasting monuments.
He published in 1707 a collection of poems.
By Pope he was once placed in a station that might have been of great advantage. Craggs, when he was advanced to be secretary of state (about 1720) feeling his own want of literature, desired Pope to procure him an instructor, by whose help he might supply the deficiencies of his education. Pope recommended Fenton, in whom Craggs found all that he was seeking. There was now a prospect of ease and plenty, for Fenton had merit and Craggs had generosity; but the small-pox suddenly put an end to the pleasing expectation.
When Pope, after the great success of his "Iliad," undertook the "Odyssey," being, as it seems, weary of translating, he determined to engage auxiliaries. Twelve books he took to himself, and twelve he distributed between Broome and Fenton: the books allotted to Fenton were the first, the fourth, the nineteenth, and the twentieth. It is observable, that he did not take the eleventh, which he had before translated into blank verse; neither did Pope claim it, but committed it to Broome. How the two associates performed their parts is well known to the readers of poetry, who have never been able to distinguish their books from those of Pope.
In 1723 was performed his tragedy of "Mariamne;" to which Southern, at whose house it was written, is said to have contributed such hints as his theatrical experience supplied. When it was shewn to Cibber, it was rejected by him, with the additional insolence of advising Fenton to engage himself in some employment of honest labour, by which he might obtain that support which he could never hope from his poetry. The
play was acted at the other theatre; and the brutal petulance of Cibber was confuted, though, perhaps, not shamed, by general applause. Fenton's profits are said to have amounted to near a thousand pounds, with which he discharged a debt contracted by his attendance at court.
Fenton seems to have had some peculiar system of versification. "Mariamne" is written in lines of ten syllables, with few of those redundant terminations which the drama not only admits, but requires, as more nearly approaching to real dialogue. The tenor of his verse is so uniform that it cannot be thought casual; and yet upon what principle he so constructed it, is difficult to discover.
The mention of his play brings to my mind a very trifling occurrence. Fenton was one day in the company of Broome, his associate, and Ford, a clergyman, at that time too well known, whose abilities, instead of furnishing convivial merriment to the voluptuous and dissolute, might have enabled him to excel among the virtuous and the wise. They determined all to see "The Merry Wives of Windsor," which was acted that night; and Fenton, as a dramatic poet, took them to the stage-door; where the door-keeper, inquiring who they were, was told that they were three very necessary men, Ford, Broome, and Fenton. The name in the play which Pope restored to Brook was then Broome.
It was perhaps after this play that he undertook to revise the punctuation of Milton's poems, which, as the author neither wrote the original copy nor corrected the press, was supposed capable of amendment. To this edition he prefixed a short and elegant account of Milton's life, written at once with tenderness and integrity.
He published likewise (1729) a very splendid edition of Waller, with notes, often useful, often entertaining, but too much extended by long quotations from Clarendon. Illustrations drawn from a book so easily consulted should be made by reference rather than transcription.
The latter part of his life was calm and pleasant. The relict of Sir William Trumbull invited him, by Pope's recommendation, to educate her son; whom he first instructed at home, and then attended to Cambridge. The lady afterwards detained him with her as the auditor of her accompts. He often wandered to London, and amused himself with the conversation of his friends.
He died, in 1730, at Easthampstead in Berkshire, the seat of Lady Trumbull; and Pope, who had been always his friend, honoured him with an epitaph, of which he borrowed the two first lines from Crashaw.
Fenton was tall and bulky, inclined to corpulence, which he did not lessen by much exercise; for he was very sluggish and sedentary, rose late, and when he had risen, sat down to his books or papers. A woman that once waited on him in a lodging told him, as she said, that he would "lie a-bed, and be fed with a spoon." This, however, was not the worst that might have been prognosticated; for Pope says, in his Letters, that "he died of indolence;" but his immediate distemper was the gout.
Of his morals and his conversation the account is uniform: he was never named but with praise and fondness, as a man in the highest degree amiable and excellent. Such was the character given him by the Earl of Orrery, his pupil; such is the testimony of Pope; and such were the suffrages of all who could boast of his acquaintance.
By a former writer of his life a story is told which ought not to be forgotten. He used, in the latter part of his time, to pay his relations in the country a yearly visit. At an entertainment made for the family by his elder brother, he observed, that one of his sisters, who had married unfortunately, was absent; and found, upon inquiry, that distress had made her thought unworthy of invitation. As she was at no great distance, he refused to sit at the table till she was called, and when she had taken her place was careful to shew her particular attention.
His collection of poems is now to be considered. The Ode to the Sun is written upon a common plan, without uncommon sentiments; but its greatest fault is its length. No poem should be long of which the purpose is only to strike the fancy, without enlightening the understanding by precept, ratiocination, or narrative. A blaze first pleases and then tires the sight.
Of "Florelio" it is sufficient to say, that it is an occasional pastoral, which implies something neither natural nor artificial, neither comic nor serious.
The next Ode is irregular, and therefore defective. As the sentiments are pious, they cannot easily be new; for what Johnson's Lives. II.