Shenstone, William (DNB00)

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SHENSTONE, WILLIAM (1714–1763), poet, born on 13 Nov. 1714, was baptised on 6 Dec. at Halesowen, Worcestershire. His father, Thomas, son of William Shenstone of Lappal, born in 1686, was churchwarden of Halesowen in 1723, and died in June 1724. His mother, who died in June 1732, aged 39, was Ann, eldest daughter and coheir of William Penn of Harborough Hall, Hagley. Shenstone had one brother, Thomas (1722–1751), who was brought up as an attorney, but never practised. The entries of the family in the Halesowen registers date back to the reign of Elizabeth (Grazebrook, Family of Shenstone the Poet, 1890).

Shenstone's first teacher was an old dame, Sarah Lloyd, whom he afterwards celebrated in the ‘Schoolmistress,’ and he soon acquired a great love for books. He was next sent to the Halesowen grammar school, and then to Mr. Crampton at Solihull. In May 1732 he matriculated from Pembroke College, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of Dr. Johnson. About the same time, on the death of his mother, Thomas Dolman, rector of Broome, near Kidderminster, who had married Shenstone's aunt, Mary Penn, became his guardian. When nineteen he wrote a mock-heroic poem, ‘The Diamond,’ and in 1737 he printed at Oxford, for private circulation, a small anonymous volume of ‘Poems on various Occasions, written for the entertainment of the author, and printed for the amusement of a few friends prejudiced in his favour.’ This volume, which Shenstone afterwards tried to suppress, contains the first draft of the ‘Schoolmistress.’ At Oxford he studied poetry in the company of his friends, Richard Jago [q. v.], Richard Graves [q. v.], and Whistler. He took no degree, but kept his name on the college books until 1742 (Nash, Worcestershire, i. 528 seq.).

In 1741 Shenstone published anonymously ‘The Judgment of Hercules,’ written in the preceding year; and in 1742 he brought out, also anonymously, a revised version of the ‘Schoolmistress,’ which was now described as ‘written at college, 1736.’ In this form the poem had twenty-eight stanzas, two of which were afterwards omitted; the completed poem has thirty-five stanzas (D'Israeli, Curiosities of Literature, pp. 355–6). He published no more poems, except in the ‘Collection of Poems’ issued by Robert Dodsley [q. v.] In the first and third volumes respectively of that ‘Collection’ (1748) were reprinted the ‘Schoolmistress’ and the ‘Choice of Hercules;’ the fourth volume (1755) contained the ‘Pastoral Ballad,’ &c.; while in the fifth volume (1758) the first forty-eight pages were devoted to verses written by Shenstone between 1730 and 1750, some of which would not have appeared had not Shenstone been ill at the time of publication. A lengthy correspondence with Dodsley is in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 28959).

Meanwhile Shenstone lived for a time with a relative who was tenant of the Leasowes, a property bought by Shenstone's grandfather. In 1745, on the death of his guardian, he took that estate into his own hands, and began what was really his life's work, the beautifying of the grounds, which became, in Johnson's words, ‘a place to be visited by travellers, and copied by designers.’ Shenstone holds an important place in the history of English landscape-gardening. With his income of 300l. a year, he spent far more than was wise in laying out his grounds, and was often troubled by depression and disappointments. In 1749 he wrote: ‘I lead the unhappy life of seeing nothing in the creation so idle as myself.’ Horace Walpole wrote of him: ‘Poor man! he wanted to have all the world talk of him for the pretty place he had made, and which he seems to have made only that it might be talked of’ (Letters, v. 169); and Gray said that 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’ (Works, 1884, iii. 344; cf. Addit. MS. 28958). In 1755 he told Graves that he was ‘cloyed with leisure’ (Addit. MS. 21508, f. 38).

For many years he corresponded regularly with Lady Luxborough, Lord Bolingbroke's sister; his letters are in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 28958), and Lady Luxborough's letters to him were published in 1775; but the correspondence is, in Walpole's words, ‘insipidity itself’ (Letters, vi. 285, vii. 24). Many others of Shenstone's letters are in the ‘Select Letters’ collected by his friend the actor, Thomas Hull [q. v.] (2 vols. 1778). Among his other friends were William Somerville, Joseph Spence (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 375), James Grainger, who addressed to him the second book of the ‘Sugar Cane’ (Nichols, Lit. Illustr. vii. 232), and Dr. Thomas (afterwards bishop) Percy. The correspondence with Percy, in the British Museum (Addit. MS. 28221), shows that Percy frequently consulted Shenstone while compiling the ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.’

At the beginning of 1763 Shenstone was hoping to receive a pension, for which application had been made to Lord Bute by Lord Loughborough, and he paid a visit to Lord Stamford at Enville in connection with this matter; but on his return he caught a chill, which developed into putrid fever, ‘hastened by his anxieties,’ and he died, unmarried, on 11 Feb. He was buried on the 15th by the side of his brother, in Halesowen churchyard, and an urn was erected to his memory in the church. By his will (P.C.C. 91, Cæsar), made a few days before his death, he left the Leasowes and other lands to his cousin, John Hodgetts of Birmingham, for life, and then to his cousin, Edward Cooke of Edinburgh, and his heirs for ever, with power to sell, preferably to his friends, especially the Hon. John Grey, youngest son of Lord Stamford. To his cousin, John Shenstone, and his heirs he left his estate at Quinton, Halesowen, and a house in Birmingham; and his servant, Mary Cutler, received an annuity of 30l. The executors were Dodsley, Graves, and John Hodgetts.

Portraits of Shenstone are prefixed to his ‘Poems’ and to Graves's ‘Recollections.’ He was a large, heavy, fat man, shy and reserved with strangers (Autobiography of Dr. A. Carlyle, p. 370). Dodsley says he was a man of great tenderness and generosity, but not easily appeased if offended; he was careless in his expenditure, and negligent in his dress, wearing his grey hair in a manner then unusual.

According to Percy, Shenstone had a choice collection of poems preparing for the press at the time of his death. His writings were collected by Dodsley and published in three volumes in 1764–9, the last volume consisting of letters which Shenstone, curiously enough, thought to be ‘some of my chefs-d'œuvre,’ and the second of prose ‘Essays on Men, Manners, and Things.’ Dodsley contributed a ‘Description of the Leasowes’ and a character of the poet.

Walpole called Shenstone ‘that water-gruel bard,’ and said he ‘was labouring all his life to write a perfect song, and, in my opinion at least, never once succeeded’ (Letters, vii. 54, viii. 509). Most of his verse is artificial and unreal, and has rightly been forgotten, but what remains is of permanent interest. He is best known by the ‘Schoolmistress,’ a burlesque imitation of Spenser, which was highly praised by Johnson and by Goldsmith (Works, ed. Cunningham, iii. 436); but many will value equally, in its way, the neatly turned ‘Pastoral Ballad, in four parts,’ written in 1743, which is supposed to refer to the author's disappointment in love, or the gently satirical ‘Progress of Taste,’ showing ‘how great a misfortune it is for a man of small estate to have much taste.’ Burns warmly eulogised Shenstone's elegies, which are also to some extent autobiographical, though it is difficult to say how far they are sincere.

[Johnson's Lives of the Poets; Graves's Recollections of some Particulars in the Life of the late William Shenstone, Esq. (which corrects Johnson's account at some points); Boswell's Johnson, 1853, pp. 356–7, 424–5, 485; Temple Bar, x. 397; Herald and Genealogist, vi. 366; Walpole's Letters; Memoirs of Amos Green, 1823, pp. 73, 278; Gray's Works; D'Israeli's Curiosities of Literature, pp. 406–11; Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. xii. 131, 219, 288, 468, 6th ser. iv. 485, v. 93; Gent. Mag. lxv. 905, lxvii. 102, lxxi. 593, lxxiii. 613, 724, lxxiv. 802, lxxxi, II. 505, lxxxvii. I. 297; Ward's English Poets. Among the British Museum MSS. is a notebook of Shenstone's, ‘Remarks on Paradise Lost,’ 1735 (Addit. MS. 28964).]

G. A. A.