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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Shenstone (1714–1763)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
TURNING over the pages of a certain eighteenth-century annual, the reader comes upon a brown and yellow engraving of a landscape garden: of walks in undulating curves, miniature lakes, little white cascades, Greek temples, pines and cypresses cut in grotesque shapes. Aquatic birds peer from out the reeds, and doves flutter in the trees. Beneath the picture is written:—
  “Oh, may that genius which secures my rest,
  Preserve this villa for a friend that’s near.
Ne’er make my vintage glad the sordid breast,
  Ne’er tinge the lip that dares be insincere.”
The villa referred to, were it visible, would, according to the owner’s biographer, prove to be “mean; for he did not improve it. When he came home from his walks, he might find the floors flooded by a shower through the broken roof, but could spare no money for its reparation.”
  1
  Would that the artist of the engraving of Leasowes, famous in song and story, had introduced that biographer and his subject into the picture,—Shenstone, “larger than the middle size, somewhat clumsy in his form, decked in crimson waistcoat and white breeches, his gray hair streaming on his shoulders,” leading the wheezy, sneezing Johnson in front of some simpering Italian divinity set in a damp grotto, and bidding him admire her! But Shenstone, like most minor poets of whom Johnson wrote, was unfortunate in having Johnson for a critic. There was no possible sympathy between the two. Johnson hated the country, hated affectation, hated a poseur. Shenstone was the child of his time, whose literary progenitors were poets of fashionable society: the child of the time when the changes were rung on Damons, Melissas, Philomels, and Cynthias; when Phœbus was invoked, and Delia’s eyebrows inspired a sonnet. Coming close on the heels of a generation of poetasters, Shenstone could think of no better way of realizing Pope’s ideal in the ‘Ode to Solitude’ than to retire to his country seat, and seek the admiration of the world as an Arcadian hermit. He owes his distinction to his choice of subjects and his peculiarity of life, as much as to his verses. No poet of the same pretension is so well known by his residence. Without Leasowes, the ‘Elegies’ might have lain on the dustiest of bookshelves, and ‘The Schoolmistress’ have scarcely sustained enough vitality to survive. But through Leasowes, Shenstone lives. In his day, landscape gardening was a novelty; and in adorning his little estate he gratified his taste, his innocent vanity, and his indolence. The feet of his stanzas are as ingeniously varied as the walks through his domain. The flights of his Muse were bounded by the limits of his estate; but they were not less inventive and fantastic than the little surprises and turns of wood and waterfall, nor less musical than the songs of his birds. The deaths of his friends were commemorated by Grecian urns under weeping willows, and then by elegies inspired by the urns.  2
  The revolution which has taken place in English poetry has flattened Shenstone’s verses; and to realize the reaction from the extreme of artificial pathos to straightforward, manly expression, one has but to read his once popular ‘Jemmy Dawson,’ and ‘The Dying Kid,’ and then Hood’s ‘Eugene Aram,’ and Wordsworth’s ‘White Doe of Rylstone’—which, but for the feeble ballads of the Leasowes poet, might never have been written.  3
  Johnson’s criticism of the ‘Pastoral Ballad’ is not less interesting as betraying his notion of the province of poetry than as a criticism of Shenstone. “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 country life.”  4
  But the volume Johnson scorned, beguiled many of Shenstone’s cultivated contemporaries by its mellifluous seesaw, and its jingling resonance comes back to the reader of to-day.
  “I have found out a gift for my fair:
I have found where the wood-pigeons breed.”
The elegiac form and triple rhythm please the fancy in the still remembered
  “Yet time may diminish the pain.”
  5
  Shenstone made no mean rank for himself, in the time when people were reading Pope’s Homer, Addison’s ‘Cato,’ and Dodsley’s ‘Economy of Human Life,’—the ‘Proverbial Philosophy’ of his day. ‘The Schoolmistress’ is a sketch drawn from life, and in versification and style closely imitated Spenser. Goldsmith and Gray both knew it; and profited by its beauties and its faults when they wrote ‘The Deserted Village’ and ‘The Elegy in a Country Church-yard.’  6
  Shenstone’s ‘Essays’ are quiet moralizings about Leasowes; though he could be playfully humorous now and then, as when he said:—“I have an alcove [his villa], six elegies, a seat, two eulogies (one on myself), four songs, and a serpentine river, to show you when you come.”  7
  He had a queer vanity to be thought a scholar; which made him keep his name on the Oxford books (Pembroke was his college) for ten years, though he never studied enough to take a degree. Gray ridiculed his love of the great, and his affected pose as a recluse; but one can fancy the proud, shy creature peeping through some high latticed window when the guests from Hagley, Lord Lyttelton’s estate, arrived,—maddened, as one of Shenstone’s commentators remarks, if they took the wrong direction, and frantic lest the exclamations he heard were in derision, not pleasure.  8
  He was born at Leasowes in November 1714, and died there of a “putrid fever,”—as Dr. Johnson describes it, not without some satisfaction as a fit ending for so ill-regulated a life,—February 11th, 1763. The great man’s opinion of our poet is however fairly just, and not unkindly.  9
  “His good qualities are earnestness and simplicity. Had his mind been better stored with knowledge, whether he would have been a great man or not, I know not: he certainly would have been agreeable.”  10
  He published ‘Miscellanies’ (1737), ‘The Judgment of Hercules’ (1740), ‘The Schoolmistress’ (1742); and ‘Elegies; Songs, and Pastoral Ballads’ (1743), edited by his friend Dodsley. His ‘Letters and Essays’ appeared in 1750.  11
 
 
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