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 "Schoolmistress" 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 wrapped up a piece of wood of the same form, and pacified him for the night. As he grew older, he went for a while to the Grammar-school in Hales-Owen, and was placed afterwards with Mr. Crumpton, an eminent schoolmaster at Solihul, where he distinguished himself by the quickness of his progress.
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 afterwards 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 showing 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 Rev. 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 "Schoolmistress."
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. Whether 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 the 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, demands any great powers of mind, I will not inquire: perhaps a sullen and surly 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 themselves 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, 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 Leasowes, of a putrid fever, about five on Friday morning, February 11, 1763, and was buried by the side of his brother in the churchyard of Hales-Owen.
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 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 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. Of the rest I cannot think any excellent; the "Skylark" pleases me best, which has, however, more of the epigram than of the ode.
But the four parts of his "Pastoral Ballad" demand particular notice. I cannot but regret that it is pastoral: an intelligent reader acquainted with the scenes of real life sickens at the mention of the CROOK, the PIPE, the SHEEP, and the KIDS, which it is not necessary to bring forward to notice; for the poet's art is selection, and he ought to show the beauties without the grossness of the country life. His stanza seems to have been chosen in imitation of Rowe's "Despairing Shepherd." In the first are two passages, to which if any mind denies its sympathy, it has no acquaintance with love or nature:—
"I prized every hour that went by,
Beyond all that had pleased me before:
But now they are past, and I sigh,
And I grieve that I prized them no more.
When forced the fair nymph to forego,
What anguish I felt in my heart!
Yet I thought (but it might not be so)
'Twas with pain that she saw me depart.
She gazed, as I slowly withdrew,
My path I could hardly discern;
So sweetly she bade me adieu,
I thought that she bade me return."
In the second this passage has its prettiness; though it be not equal to the former:—
"I have found out a gift for my fair:
I have found where the wood pigeons breed:
But let me that plunder forbear,
She will say 'twas a barbarous deed:
For he ne'er could be true, she averred,
Who could rob a poor bird of its young;
And I loved her the more when I heard
Such tenderness fall from her tongue."
In the third he mentions the common-places of amorous poetry with some address:—
"'Tis his with mock passion to glow!
'Tis his in smooth tales to unfold,
How her face is as bright as the snow,
And her bosom, be sure, is as cold:
How the nightingales labour the strain,
With the notes of this charmer to vie:
How they vary their accents in vain,
Repine at her triumphs, and die."
In the fourth I find nothing better than this natural strain of Hope:—
"Alas! from the day that we met,
What hope of an end to my woes,
When I cannot endure to forget
The glance that undid my repose?
Yet Time may diminish the pain:
The flower, and the shrub, and the tree,
Which I reared for her pleasure in vain,
In time may have comfort for me."
His "Levities" are by their title exempted from the severities of criticism, yet it may be remarked in a few words that his humour is sometimes gross, and seldom sprightly.
Of the Moral Poems, the first is the "Choice of Hercules," from Xenophon. The numbers are smooth, the diction elegant, and the thoughts just; but something of vigour is still to be wished, which it might have had by brevity and compression. His "Fate of Delicacy" has an air of gaiety, but not a very pointed and general moral. His blank verses, those that can read them, may probably find to be like the blank verses of his neighbours. "Love and Honour" is derived from the old ballad, "Did you not hear of a Spanish Lady?"—I wish it well enough to wish it were in rhyme.
The "Schoolmistress," of which I know not what claim it has to stand among the Moral Works, is surely the most pleasing of Shenstone's performances. The adoption of a particular style, in light and short compositions, contributes much to the increase of pleasure: we are entertained at once with two imitations of nature in the sentiments, of the original author in the style, and between them the mind is kept in perpetual employment.
The general recommendation of Shenstone is easiness and simplicity; his general defect is want of comprehension and variety. Had his mind been better stored with knowledge, whether he could have been great, I know not; he could certainly have been agreeable.