1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mason, William

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MASON, WILLIAM (1725-1797), English poet, son of William Mason, vicar of Holy Trinity, Hull, was born on the 12th of February 1725, was educated at St John's College, Cambridge, and took holy orders. In 1744 he wrote Musaeus, a lament for Pope in imitation of Lycidas, and in 1749 through the influence of Thomas Gray he was elected a fellow of Pembroke College. He became a devoted friend and admirer of Gray, who addressed him as “Skroddles,” and corrected the worst solecisms in his verses. In 1748 he published Isis, a poem directed against the supposed Jacobitism of the university of Oxford, which provoked Thomas Warton’s Triumph of Isis. Mason conceived the ambition of reconciling modern drama with ancient forms by strict observance of the unities and the restoration of the chorus. These ideas were exemplified in Elfrida (1752) and Caractacus (1759), two frigid performances no doubt intended to be read rather than acted, but produced with some alterations at Covent Garden in 1772 and 1776 respectively. Horace Walpole described Caractacus as “laboured, uninteresting, and no more resembling the manners of Britons than of Japanese”; while Gray declared he had read the manuscript “not with pleasure only, but with emotion.” In 1754 Mason was presented to the rectory of Aston, near Rotherham, Yorkshire, and in 1757 through the influence of the duke of Devonshire he became one of the king’s chaplains. He also received the prebend of Holme in York Minster (1756), was made canon residentiary in 1762, and in 1763 became precentor and prebendary of Driffield. He married in 1764 Mary Sherman, who died three years later. When Gray died in 1771 he made Mason his literary executor. In the preparation of the Life and Letters of Gray, which appeared in 1774, he had much help from Horace Walpole, with whom he corresponded regularly until 1784 when Mason opposed Fox’s India Bill, and offended Walpole by thrusting on him political advice unasked. Twelve years of silence followed, but in the year before his death the correspondence was renewed on friendly terms. Mason died at Aston on the 7th of April 1797.

His correspondence with Gray and Walpole shows him to have been a man of cultivated tastes. He was something of an antiquarian, a good musician, and an amateur of painting. He is said to have invented an instrument called the celestina, a modified pianoforte. Gray rewarded his faithful admiration with good-humoured kindness. He warned him against confounding Mona with the Isle of Man, or the Goths with the Celts, corrected his grammar, pointed out his plagiarisms, and laughed gently at his superficial learning. His powers show to better advantage in the unacknowledged satirical poems which he produced under the pseudonym of Malcolm Macgregor. In editing Gray’s letters he took considerable liberties with his originals, and did not print all that related to himself.

Mason’s other works included Odes (1756); The English Garden, a didactic poem in blank verse, the four books of which appeared in 1772, 1777, 1779 and 1782; An Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers (1774); an Ode to Mr Pinchbeck (1776) and an Epistle to Dr Shebbeare (1777)—all these by “Malcolm Macgregor”; Essay, Historical and Critical, of Church Music (1795), and a lyrical drama, Sappho (1797).

His poems were collected in 1764 and 1774, and an edition of his Works appeared in 1811. His poems with a Life are included in Alexander Chalmers’s English Poets. His correspondence with Walpole was edited by J. Mitford in 1851; and his correspondence with Gray by the same editor in 1853. See also the standard editions of the letters of Gray and of Walpole. There is a very pleasant picture of Mason’s character in Southey’s Doctor (ch. cxxvi.).