Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

The Domestic Life of a Poet. — Shenstone Vindicated.

The dogmatism of Johnson, and the fastidiousness of Gray, the critic who passed his days amidst “the busy hum of men,” and the poet who mused in cloistered solitude, have fatally injured a fine natural genius in Shenstone. Mr. Campbell, with a brother’s feeling, has (since the present article was composed) sympathised with the endowments and the pursuits of this poet; but the facts I had collected seemed to me to open a more important view. I am aware how lightly the poetical character of Shenstone is held by some great contemporaries — although this very poet has left us at least one poem of unrivalled originality. Mr. Campbell has regretted that Shenstone not only “affected that arcadianism” which “gives a certain air of masquerade in his pastoral character,” adopted by our earlier poets, but also has “rather incongruously blended together the rural swain with the disciple of virtù.” All this requires some explanation. It is not only as a poet, possessing the characteristics of poetry, but as a creator in another way, for which I claim the attention of the reader. I have formed a picture of the domestic life of a poet, and the pursuits of a votary of taste, both equally contracted in their endeavours, from the habits, the emotions, and the events which occurred to Shenstone.

Four material circumstances influenced his character, and were productive of all his unhappiness. The neglect he incurred in those poetical studies to which he had devoted his hopes; his secret sorrows in not having formed a domestic union, from prudential motives, with one whom he loved; the ruinous state of his domestic affairs, arising from a seducing passion for creating a new taste in landscape gardening and an ornamented farm; and finally, his disappointment of that promised patronage, which might have induced him to have become a political writer; for which his inclinations, and, it is said, his talents in early life, were alike adapted: with these points in view, we may trace the different states of his mind, show what he did, and what he was earnestly intent to have done.

Why have the “Elegies” of Shenstone, which forty years ago formed for many of us the favourite poems of our youth, ceased to delight us in mature life? It is perhaps that these Elegies, planned with peculiar felicity, have little in their execution. They form a series of poetical truths, devoid of poetical expression; truths — for notwithstanding the pastoral romance in which the poet has enveloped himself, the subjects are real, and the feelings could not, therefore, be fictitious.

In a Preface, remarkable for its graceful simplicity, our poet tells us, that “He entered on his subjects occasionally, as particular incidents in life suggested, or dispositions of mind recommended them to his choice.” He shows that “He drew his pictures from the spot, and, he felt very sensibly the affections he communicates.” He avers that all those attendants on rural scenery, and all those allusions to rural life, were not the counterfeited scenes of a town poet, any more than the sentiments, which were inspired by Nature. Shenstone’s friend Graves, who knew him in early life, and to his last days, informs us that these Elegies were written when he had taken the Leasowes into his own hands;1 and though his ferme ornée engaged his thoughts, he occasionally wrote them, “partly,” said Shenstone, “to divert my present impatience, and partly, as it will be a picture of most that passes in my own mind; a portrait which friends may value.” This, then, is the secret charm which acts so forcibly on the first emotions of our youth, at a moment when, not too difficult to be pleased, the reflected delineations of the habits and the affections, the hopes and the delights, with all the domestic associations of this poet, always true to Nature, reflect back that picture of ourselves which we instantly recognise. It is only as we advance in life that we lose the relish of our early simplicity, and that we discover that Shenstone was not endowed with high imagination.

These Elegies, with some other poems, may be read with a new interest when we discover them to form the true Memoirs of Shenstone. Records of querulous but delightful feelings! whose subjects spontaneously offered themselves from passing incidents; they still perpetuate emotions which will interest the young poet and the young lover of taste.

Elegy IV., the first which Shenstone composed, is entitled “Ophelia’s Urn,” and it was no unreal one! It was erected by Graves in Mickleton Church, to the memory of an extraordinary young woman, Utrecia Smith, the literary daughter of a learned but poor clergyman. Utrecia had formed so fine a taste for literature, and composed with such elegance in verse and prose, that an excellent judge declared that “he did not like to form his opinion of any author till he previously knew hers.” Graves had been long attached to her, but from motives of prudence broke off an intercourse with this interesting woman, who sunk under this severe disappointment. When her prudent lover, Graves, inscribed the urn, her friend Shenstone, perhaps more feelingly, commemorated her virtues and her tastes. Such, indeed, was the friendly intercourse between Shenstone and Utrecia, that in Elegy XVIII., written long after her death, she still lingered in his reminiscences. Composing this Elegy on the calamitous close of Somerville’s life, a brother bard, and victim to narrow circumstances, and which he probably contemplated as an image of his own, Shenstone tenderly recollects that he used to read Somerville’s poems to Utrecia:—

Oh, lost Ophelia; smoothly flow’d the day

To feel his music with my flames agree;

To taste the beauties of his melting lay,

To taste, and fancy it was dear to thee!

How true is the feeling! how mean the poetical expression!

The Seventh Elegy describes a vision, where the shadow of Wolsey breaks upon the author:

A graceful form appear’d,

White were his locks, with awful scarlet crown’d.

Even this fanciful subject was not chosen capriciously, but sprung from an incident. Once, on his way to Cheltenham, Shenstone missed his road, and wandered till late at night among the Cotswold Hills on this occasion he appears to have made a moral reflection, which we find in his “Essays.” “How melancholy is it to travel late upon any ambitious project on a winter’s night, and observe the light of cottages, where all the unambitious people are warm and happy, or at rest in their beds.” While the benighted poet, lost among the lonely hills, was meditating on “ambitious projects,” the character of Wolsey arose before him; the visionary cardinal crossed his path, and busied his imagination. “Thou,” exclaims the poet,

Like a meteor’s fire,

Shot’st blazing forth, disdaining dull degrees.

Elegy vii.

And the bard, after discovering all the miseries of unhappy grandeur, and murmuring at this delay to the house of his friend, exclaims —

Oh if these ills the price of power advance,

Check not my speed where social joys invite!

The silent departure of the poetical spectre is fine:

The troubled vision cast a mournful glance,

And sighing, vanish’d in the shades of night.

And to prove that the subject of this elegy thus arose to the poet’s fancy, he has himself commemorated the incident that gave occasion to it, in the opening:—

On distant heaths, beneath autumnal skies,

Pensive I saw the circling shades descend;

Weary and faint, I heard the storm arise,

While the sun vanish’d like a faithless friend.

Elegy vii.

The Fifteenth Elegy, composed “in memory of a private family in Worcestershire,” is on the extinction of the ancient family of the Penns in the male line.2 Shenstone’s mother was a Penn; and the poet was now the inhabitant of their ancient mansion, an old timber-built house of the age of Elizabeth. The local description was a real scene —“the shaded pool”—“the group of ancient elms”—“the flocking rooks,” and the picture of the simple manners of his own ancestors, were realities; the emotions they excited were therefore genuine, and not one of those “mockeries” of amplification from the crowd of verse-writers.

The Tenth Elegy, “To Fortune, suggesting his Motive for repining at her Dispensations,” with his celebrated “Pastoral Ballad, in four parts.” were alike produced by what one of the great minstrels of our own times has so finely indicated when he sung —

The secret woes the world has never known;

While on the weary night dawn’d wearier day,

And bitterer was the grief devour’d alone.

In this Elegy Shenstone repines at the dispensations of Fortune, not for having denied him her higher gifts, nor that she compels him to

Check the fond love of art that fired my veins;

nor that some “dull dotard with boundless wealth” finds his “grating reed” preferred to the bard’s, but that the “tawdry shepherdess” of this dull dotard, by her “pride,” makes “the rural thane” despise the poet’s Delia.

Must Delia’s softness, elegance, and ease,

Submit to Marian’s dress? to Marian’s gold?

Must Marian’s robe from distant India please?

The simple fleece my Delia’s limbs infold!

Ah! what is native worth esteemed of clowns?

’Tis thy false glare, O Fortune! thine they see;

Tis for my Delia’s sake I dread thy frowns,

And my last gasp shall curses breathe on thee!

The Delia of our poet was not an “Iris en air.” Shenstone was early in life captivated by a young lady, whom Graves describes with all those mild and serene graces of pensive melancholy, touched by plaintive love-songs and elegies of woe, adapted not only to be the muse but the mistress of a poet. The sensibility of this passion took entire possession of his heart for some years, and it was in parting from her that he first sketched his exquisite “Pastoral Ballad.” As he retreated more and more into solitude, his passion felt no diminution. Dr. Nash informs us that Shenstone acknowledged that it was his own fault that he did not accept the hand of the lady whom he so tenderly loved; but his spirit could not endure to be a perpetual witness of her degradation in the rank of society, by an inconsiderate union with poetry and poverty. That such was his motive, we may infer from a passage in one of his letters. “Love, as it regularly tends to matrimony, requires certain favours from fortune and circumstances to render it proper to be indulged in.” There are perpetual allusions to these “secret woes” in his correspondence; for, although he had the fortitude to refuse marriage, he had not the stoicism to contract his own heart in cold and sullen celibacy. He thus alludes to this subject, which so often excited far other emotions than those of humour:—“It is long since I have considered myself as undone. The world will not, perhaps, consider me in that light entirely till I have married my maid!”

It is probable that our poet had an intention of marrying his maid. I discovered a pleasing anecdote among the late Mr. Bindley’s collections, which I transcribed from the original. On the back of a picture of Shenstone himself, of which Dodsley published a print in 1780, the following energetic inscription was written by the poet on his new-year’s gift:—

“This picture belongs to Mary Cutler, given her by her master, William Shenstone, January 1st, 1754, in acknowledgment of her native genius, her magnanimity, her tenderness, and her fidelity.

“W. S.”

“The Progress of Taste; or the Fate of Delicacy,” is a poem on the temper and studies of the author; and “Economy; a Rhapsody addressed to Young Poets,” abounds with self-touches. If Shenstone created little from the imagination, he was at least perpetually under the influence of real emotions. This is the reason why his truths so strongly operate on the juvenile mind, not yet matured: and thus we have sufficiently ascertained the fact, as the poet himself has expressed it, “that he drew his pictures from the spot, and he felt very sensibly the affections he communicates.”

All the anxieties of a poetical life were early experienced by Shenstone. He first published some juvenile productions, under a very odd title, indicative of modesty, perhaps too of pride.3 And his motto of Contentus paucis lectoribus, even Horace himself might have smiled at, for it only conceals the desire of every poet who pants to deserve many! But when he tried at a more elaborate poetical labour, “The Judgment of Hercules,” it failed to attract notice. He hastened to town, and he beat about literary coffee-houses; and returned to the country from the chase of Fame, wearied without having started it.

A breath revived him — but a breath o’erthrew.

Even “The Judgment of Hercules” between Indolence and Industry, or Pleasure and Virtue, was a picture of his own feelings; an argument drawn from his own reasonings; indicating the uncertainty of the poet’s dubious disposition; who finally by siding with Indolence, lost that triumph which his hero obtained by a directly opposite course.

In the following year begins that melancholy strain in his correspondence which marks the disappointment of the man who had staked too great a quantity of his happiness on the poetical die. This is the critical moment of life when our character is formed by habit, and our fate is decided by choice. Was Shenstone to become an active or contemplative being? He yielded to nature!4

It was now that he entered into another species of poetry, working with too costly materials, in the magical composition of plants, water, and earth; with these he created those emotions which his more strictly poetical ones failed to excite. He planned a paradise amidst his solitude. When we consider that Shenstone, in developing his fine pastoral ideas in the Leasowes, educated the nation into that taste for landscape-gardening, which has become the model of all Europe, this itself constitutes a claim on the gratitude of posterity.5 Thus the private pleasures of a man of genius may become at length those of a whole people. The creator of this new taste appears to have received far less notice than he merited. The name of Shenstone does not appear in the Essay on Gardening by Lord Orford: even the supercilious Gray only bestowed a ludicrous image on these pastoral scenes, which, however, his friend Mason has celebrated; and the genius of Johnson, incapacitated by nature to touch on objects of rural fancy, after describing some of the offices of the landscape designer, adds, that “he will not inquire whether they demand any great powers of mind.” Johnson, however, conveys to us his own feelings, when he immediately expresses them under the character of a “sullen and surly speculator.” The anxious life of Shenstone would, indeed, have been remunerated, could he have read the enchanting eulogium of Wheatley on the Leasowes; which, said he, “is a perfect picture of his mind — simple, elegant, and amiable; and will always suggest a doubt whether the spot inspired his verse, or whether in the scenes which he formed, he only realized the pastoral images which abound in his songs.” Yes! Shenstone would have been delighted, could he have heard that Montesquieu, on his return home, adorned his “Château gothique, mais orné de bois charmans, dont j’ai pris l’idée en Angleterre;” and Shenstone, even with his modest and timid nature, had been proud to have witnessed a noble foreigner, amidst memorials dedicated to Theocritus and Virgil, to Thomson and Gesner, raising in his grounds an inscription, in bad English, but in pure taste, to Shenstone himself for having displayed in his writings “a mind natural,” and in his Leasowes “laid Arcadian greens rural.” Recently Pindemonte has traced the taste of English gardening to Shenstone. A man of genius sometimes receives from foreigners, who are placed out of the prejudices of his compatriots, the tribute of posterity!

Amidst these rural elegancies which Shenstone was raising about him, his muse has pathetically sung his melancholy feelings —

But did the Muses haunt his cell,

Or in his dome did Venus dwell? —

When all the structures shone complete,

Ah, me! ’twas Damon’s own confession,

Came Poverty, and took possession.

The Progress of Taste.

The poet observes, that the wants of philosophy are contracted, satisfied with “cheap contentment,” but

Taste alone requires

Entire profusion! days and nights, and hours

Thy voice, hydropic Fancy! calls aloud

For costly draughts. ——


An original image illustrates that fatal want of economy which conceals itself amidst the beautiful appearances of taste:—

Some graceless mark,

Some symptom ill-conceal’d, shall soon or late

Burst like a pimple from the vicious tide

Of acid blood, proclaiming want’s disease

Amidst the bloom of show.


He paints himself:—

Observe Florelio’s mien;

Why treads my friend with melancholy step

That beauteous lawn? Why pensive strays his eye

O’er statues, grottos, urns, by critic art

Proportion’d fair? or from his lofty dome

Returns his eye unpleased, disconsolate?

The cause is, “criminal expense,” and he exclaims —

Sweet interchange

Of river, valley, mountain, woods, and plains,

How gladsome once he ranged your native turf,

Your simple scenes how raptured! ere


Had lavish’d thousand ornaments, and taught

Convenience to perplex him, Art to pall,

Pomp to deject, and Beauty to displease.


While Shenstone was rearing hazels and hawthorns, opening vistas, and winding waters;

And having shown them where to stray,

Threw little pebbles in their way;

while he was pulling down hovels and cowhouses, to compose mottos and inscriptions for garden-seats and urns; while he had so finely obscured with a tender gloom the grove of Virgil, and thrown over, “in the midst of a plantation of yew, a bridge of one arch, built of a dusty-coloured stone, and simple even to rudeness,”6 and invoked Oberon in some Arcadian scene,

Where in cool grot and mossy cell

The tripping fauns and fairies dwell;

the solitary magician, who had raised all these wonders, was, in reality, an unfortunate poet, the tenant of a dilapidated farm-house, where the winds passed through, and the rains lodged, often taking refuge in his own kitchen —

Far from all resort of mirth,

Save the cricket on the hearth!

In a letter7 of the disconsolate founder of landscape gardening, our author paints his situation with all its misery — lamenting that his house is not fit to receive “polite friends, were they so disposed;” and resolved to banish all others, he proceeds:

“But I make it a certain rule, ‘arcere profanum vulgus.’ Persons who will despise you for the want of a good set of chairs, or an uncouth fire-shovel, at the same time that they can’t taste any excellence in a mind that overlooks those things; with whom it is in vain that your mind is furnished, if the walls are naked; indeed one loses much of one’s acquisitions in virtue by an hour’s converse with such as judge of merit by money — yet I am now and then impelled by the social passion to sit half an hour in my kitchen.”

But the solicitude of friends and the fate of Somerville, a neighbour and a poet, often compelled Shenstone to start amidst his reveries; and thus he has preserved his feelings and his irresolutions. Reflecting on the death of Somerville, he writes —

“To be forced to drink himself into pains of the body, in order to get rid of the pains of the mind, is a misery which I can well conceive, because I may, without vanity, esteem myself his equal in point of economy, and consequently ought to have an eye on his misfortunes —(as you kindly hinted to me about twelve o’clock, at the Feathers.)— I should retrench — I will — but you shall not see me — I will not let you know that I took it in good part — I will do it at solitary times as I may.”

Such were the calamities of “great taste” with “little fortune;” but in the case of Shenstone, these were combined with the other calamity of “mediocrity of genius.”

Here, then, at the Leasowes, with occasional trips to town in pursuit of fame, which perpetually eluded his grasp; in the correspondence of a few delicate minds, whose admiration was substituted for more genuine celebrity; composing diatribes against economy and taste, while his income was diminishing every year; our neglected author grew daily more indolent and sedentary, and withdrawing himself entirely into his own hermitage, moaned and despaired in an Arcadian solitude.8 The cries and the “secret sorrows” of Shenstone have come down to us — those of his brothers have not always! And shall dull men, because they have minds cold and obscure, like a Lapland year which has no summer, be permitted to exult over this class of men of sensibility and taste, but of moderate genius and without fortune? The passions and emotions of the heart are facts and dates only to those who possess them.

To what a melancholy state was our author reduced, when he thus addressed his friend:—

“I suppose you have been informed that my fever was in a great measure hypochondriacal, and left my nerves so extremely sensible, that even on no very interesting subjects, I could readily think myself into a vertigo; I had almost said an epilepsy; for surely I was oftentimes near it.”

The features of this sad portrait are more particularly made out in another place.

“Now I am come home from a visit, every little uneasiness is sufficient to introduce my whole train of melancholy considerations, and to make me utterly dissatisfied with the life I now lead, and the life which I foresee I shall lead. I am angry and envious, and dejected and frantic, and disregard all present things, just as becomes a madman to do. I am infinitely pleased (though it is a gloomy joy) with the application of Dr. Swift’s complaint, ‘that he is forced to die in a rage, like a poisoned rat in a hole.’ My soul is no more fitted to the figure I make, than a cable rope to a cambric needle; I cannot bear to see the advantages alienated, which I think I could deserve and relish so much more than those that have them.”

There are other testimonies in his entire correspondence. Whenever forsaken by his company he describes the horrors around him, delivered up “to winter, silence, and reflection;” ever foreseeing himself “returning to the same series of melancholy hours.” His frame shattered by the whole train of hypochondriacal symptoms, there was nothing to cheer the querulous author, who with half the consciousness of genius, lived neglected and unpatronised. His elegant mind had not the force, by his productions, to draw the celebrity he sighed after, to his hermitage.

Shenstone was so anxious for his literary character, that he contemplated on the posthumous fame which he might derive from the publication of his letters: see Letter lxxix., On hearing his letters to Mr. Whistler were destroyed; the act of a merchant, his brother, who being a very sensible man, as Graves describes, yet with the stupidity of a Goth, destroyed the whole correspondence of Shenstone, for “its sentimental intercourse.” — Shenstone bitterly regrets the loss, and says, “I would have given more money for the letters than it is allowable for me to mention with decency. I look upon my letters as some of my chefs-d’œuvre — they are the history of my mind for these twenty years past.” This, with the loss of Cowley’s correspondence, should have been preserved in the article, “of Suppressors and Dilapidators of Manuscripts.”

Towards the close of life, when his spirits were exhausted, and “the silly clue of hopes and expectations,” as he termed them, was undone, the notice of some persons of rank began to reach him. Shenstone, however, deeply colours the variable state of his own mind —”Recovering from a nervous fever, as I have since discovered by many concurrent symptoms, I seem to anticipate a little of that ‘vernal delight’ which Milton mentions and thinks

——— able to chase

All sadness but despair —

at least I begin to resume my silly clue of hopes and expectations.”

In a former letter he had, however, given them up: “I begin to wean myself from all hopes and expectations whatever. I feed my wild-ducks, and I water my carnations. Happy enough if I could extinguish my ambition quite, to indulge the desire of being something more beneficial in my sphere. — Perhaps some few other circumstances would want also to be adjusted.”

What were these “hopes and expectations,” from which sometimes he weans himself, and which are perpetually revived, and are attributed to “an ambition he cannot extinguish”? This article has been written in vain, if the reader has not already perceived, that they had haunted him in early life; sickening his spirit after the possession of a poetical celebrity, unattainable by his genius; some expectations too he might have cherished from the talent he possessed for political studies, in which Graves confidently says, that “he would have made no inconsiderable figure, if he had had a sufficient motive for applying his mind to them.” Shenstone has left several proofs of this talent.9 But his master-passion for literary fame had produced little more than anxieties and disappointments; and when he indulged his pastoral fancy in a beautiful creation on his grounds, it consumed the estate which it adorned. Johnson forcibly expressed his situation: “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.”

1 This once-celebrated abode of the poet is situated at Hales-Owen, Shropshire.

2 This we learn from Dr. Nash’s History of Worcestershire.

3 While at college he printed, without his name, a small volume of verses, with this title, “Poems upon various Occasions, written for the Entertainment of the Author, and printed for the Amusement of a few Friends, prejudiced in his Favour.” Oxford, 1737. 12mo. — Nash’s “History of Worcestershire,” vol. i. p. 528.

I find this notice of it in W. Lowndes’s Catalogue; 4433 Shenstone (W.) Poems, 3l. 13s. 6d. —(Shenstone took uncommon pains to suppress this book, by collecting and destroying copies wherever he met with them.)— In, Longman’s Bibliotheca Anglo-Poetica, it is valued at 15l. Oxf. 1737. Mr. Harris informs me, that about the year 1770, Fletcher, the bookseller, at Oxford, had many copies of this first edition, which he sold at Eighteen pence each. These prices are amusing! The prices of books are connected with their history.

4 On this subject Graves makes a very useful observation. “In this decision the happiness of Mr. Shenstone was materially concerned. Whether he determined wisely or not, people of taste and people of worldly prudence will probably be of very different opinions. I somewhat suspect, that ‘people of worldly prudence’ are not half the fools that ‘people of taste’ insist they are.”

5 Shenstone’s farm was surrounded by winding walks, decorated with vases and statues, varied by wood and water, and occasionally embracing fine views over Frankley and Clent Hills, and the country about Cradley, Dudley, Rawley, and the intermediate places. Some of his vases were inscribed to the memory of relatives and friends. One had a Latin inscription to his cousin Maria, another was dedicated to Somerville his poet-friend. In different parts of his domain he constructed buildings at once useful and ornamental, destined to serve farm-purposes, but to be also grateful to the eye. A Chinese bridge led to a temple beside a lake, and near was a seat inscribed with the popular Shropshire toast to “all friends round the Wrekin,” the spot commanding a distant view of the hill so named. A wild path through a small wood led to an ingeniously constructed root-house, beside which a rivulet ran which helped to form the lake already mentioned; on its banks was a dedicatory urn to the Genio Loci. The general effect of the whole place was highly praised in the poet’s time. It was neglected at his death; and its description is now but a record of the past.

6 Wheatley, on “Modern Gardening,” p. 172. Edition 5th.

7 In “Hull’s Collection,” vol. ii. letter ii.

8 Graves was supposed to have glanced at his friend Shenstone in his novel of “Columella; or, the Distressed Anchoret.” The aim of this work is to convey all the moral instruction I could wish to offer here to youthful genius. It is written to show the consequence of a person of education and talents retiring to solitude and indolence in the vigour of youth. Nichols’s “Literary Anecdotes,” vol. iii. p. 134. Nash’s “History of Worcestershire,” vol. i. p. 528.

9 See his “Letters” xl. and xli., and more particularly xlii. and xliii., with a new theory of political principles.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53