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With Life, Critical Dissertation, and
REV. GEORGE GILFILLAN.
THE LIFE AND POETRY
Poets, viewed as to the quality of their writings, may be fairly divided into the following classes. There are, first, the equable, highly polished, and equal writers, like Pope—in whom there are neither great swellings nor great sinkings. There are, second, the fluctuating, uncertain, untutored, but divinely-inspired children of genius, like Shakspeare—whose faults, although not equal to their beauties, either in number or in degree, are yet sufficiently numerous, and sufficiently marked, to disturb somewhat the pleasure with which their writings are read. There is, thirdly, that class of gifted and cultured minds to which Milton belonged—whose beauties and blemishes are alike colossal; the former, however, outnumbering the latter; and the latter springing more from the necessary limitations and inevitable weakness of the human mind itself, than from individual imperfection. There is, fourthly, a class of wealthy but careless minds, like Butler's who throw out masses of unpolished ore, mingled inseparably with much dross. There is, again, a school of writers, all whose writings, amidst their brilliance, truth, and depth, are affected with a species of morbid weakness, and whose poetry reminds you of a fine voice cracked. And there is another class still, whose general works are inferior, but who, in happier moods, have thrown off some genuine inspirations, which reflect a lustre on their other writings, and secure themselves an imperishable name. It is with this last-mentioned class
that we are disposed to rank Shenstone and his poetry. The fact of his having written the “ Schoolmistress” and the “ Pastoral Ballad,” alone entitles him to be ranked amongst the classical poets of our literature.
WILLIAM SHENSTONE was born on the 18th of November 1714, at the place afterwards famous as the Leasowes, in the district of Hales-Owen,-a district which, although thirty miles distant from any part of Shropshire, and surrounded by Warwickshire and Worcestershire, is held to belong to Shropshire; a fact which will remind a Scotchman of the similar case of Broughty Ferry, near Dundee, which belongs legally to the parish of Caputh, in the Stormonth, although it be more than twenty-five miles distant from it. His father, Thomas Shenstone, was proprietor of the small estate of the Leasowes, and is described as a person of much good sense, although of limited information. His mother was Ann Penn, of the Penns of Harborough, an ancient family who had a property in the parish of Hagley, of which, after the death of her brother, she became co-heiress, and left to her son an income from her moiety, of £300 a year. William was sent first to the school of an old woman named Sarah Lloyd, who sat afterwards for the picture of the “ Schoolmistress.” He became early enamoured of books, and stipulated that when any of the family went to market, they should bring him back a new volume, which, if he had retired to rest, was carried to his bed and laid beside him. If this at any time was neglected, his mother is said to have wrapped up a piece of wood of the same form, and thus satisfied him till morning. transferred afterwards from his “ dame school” to the Grammar school of Hales-Owen, and thence to an academy at Solihul, near Birmingham, kept by a Mr Crumpton, where most of the gentlemen's and noblemen's sons in the neighbourhood received their education. Here he distinguished himself by the quickness of his acquisitive powers and by his diligence. He was very early left alone in the world. His mother, father, grandfather, and, some time after, his only brother died, and he was cast on the care of his grandmother,
who also managed the estate. In 1732, he was sent to Pembroke College, Oxford,-a college celebrated for having reared Dr Johnson, Sir William Blackstone, and many other distinguished men, and which Johnson, in allusion to this, called
nest of singing-birds.” About this time his grandmother died, and the management of his affairs devolved on the Rev. Mr Dolman of Brome, in Staffordshire, who approved himself a kind and faithful guardian.
At college Shenstone appears to have been happier than at any other period of his life. He intermingled social enjoyments with regular if not hard study, and became the centre of a little circle of youths of similar pursuits. Such were Whistler and Graves, the latter of whom became a very accomplished person, and has left some interesting, although short and slight reminiscences of his friend the poet. Pembroke College, like all other colleges, in times past and present, was subdivided into a number of smaller societies or clubs, collected through the attraction of common mental or physical tastes. Mr Graves gives rather a picturesque account of these little societies: one being a “very sober little party, who amused themselves in the evening with reading Greek and drinking water;" another, a " set of jolly, sprightly young fellows, who drank ale, smoked tobacco, punned, and sung bacchanalian catches the whole evening; a third, consisting of gentlemen commoners, who (like the bear-leader in Goldsmith, who detested everything low, and made his bear dance only to the “ genteelest tunes ")" considered the abovementioned as very Low company (on account of the liquor they drank), and treated their novices with port-wine and arrack punch, keeping late hours, and drinking their favourite toasts on their knees; and a fourth, which formed a sort of flying squadron of plain, sensible, matter-of-fact men, confined to no club, but associating occasionally with each party.” Mr Graves met Mr Shenstone in each of these clubs (except that of the water-drinkers !) by turns, and gradually became intimate with him, as well as with Mr Whistler, who gave some promise at that time of becoming a tolerable poet. The three were inseparable-read plays and Spectators, sipped Florence