Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bowles, William Lisle
BOWLES, WILLIAM LISLE (1762–1850), divine, poet, and antiquary, was born on 24 Sept. 1762 at King's Sutton, Northamptonshire, of which his father was the vicar. Both his father and mother, as he tells us in his autobiographical preface to 'Scenes and Shadows of Days Departed,' were descended from old and much-respected families. In 1776 he was placed at Winchester School, under Dr. Joseph Warton, who, discerning his taste for poetry and general literature, did his best to foster it by encouragement and training. On the death of his old master, Bowles wrote a monody which expresses his regard for his character. On leaving Winchester he was elected in 1781 a scholar of Trinity College, Oxford, of which Joseph Warton's brother, Thomas Warton—professor of poetry at Oxford and eventually poet laureate—was the senior fellow. In 1783 the young student, by his poem entitled 'Calpe Obsessa, or the Siege of Gibraltar,' carried off the chancellor's prize for Latin verse. Here, however, any signal distinctions at the university seem to have ended. It was not until 1792 that he obtained his degree. Having entered holy orders he first officiated as curate of Donhead St. Andrew in Wiltshire. In 1792 he was appointed to the rectory of Chicklade in Wiltshire, which he resigned in 1797, on being presented to the rectory of Dumbleton in Gloucestershire. In the same year he was married to Magdalene, daughter of Dr. Wake, prebendary of Westminster, whom he survived. In 1804 he became vicar of Bremhill, Wiltshire, where, greatly beloved by his parishioners, he thenceforth generally resided till near the close of his life. In 1804 he was also made prebendary of Stratford in the cathedral church of Salisbury, of which in 1828 he became canon residentiary. Ten years earlier he had been appointed chaplain to the prince regent.
About 1787, the year of his leaving college, Bowles fell in love with Miss Romilly, niece of Sir Samuel Romilly; but his suit, probably for want of sufficient means on his part, was rejected. After a while he formed a second attachment, but the hopes to which it gave rise were unhappily cut short by the lady's death. Bowles then turned for consolation to poetry. During a tour through the north of England, Scotland, and some parts of the continent, he composed the sonnets which first brought him before the public. The little volume was published at Bath in 1789, under the title of 'Fourteen Sonnets written chiefly on Picturesque Spots during a Journey.' Their success was extraordinary, the first small edition being speedily exhausted, while Coleridge, then in his seventeenth year, expressed his delight at the restoration of a natural school of poetry, a tribute which he confirmed later by celebrating the praise of Bowles in a fine sonnet. The simplicity and earnestness of Bowles had all the charm of novelty and contrast. His pensive tenderness, delicate fancy, refined taste, and, above all, his power to harmonise the moods of nature with those of the mind, were his chief merits. He was a true though not a great poet, having neither depth of thought nor vigour of imagination. The qualities of his early sonnets are common to all his poetry, though in his longer works they frequently sink into a graceful feebleness. His 'Verses to John Howard' appeared in 1789, and were reprinted in 1790. In 1805 this collection had passed into an illustrated ninth edition. 'Coombe Ellen' and 'St. Michael's Mount' were published in 1798; 'The Battle of the Nile' appeared in 1799; 'The Sorrows of Switzerland' in 1801; 'The Picture' in 1803; 'The Spirit of Discovery,' his longest poem, in 1804; 'Bowden Hill' in 1806; 'The Missionary of the Andes' in 1815; 'The Grave of the last Saxon' in 1822; 'Ellen Gray' in 1823; 'Days Departed' in 1828; 'St. John in Patmos' in 1833; 'Scenes and Shadows of Days Departed,' with an autobiographical introduction, in 1837; and 'The Village Verse-Book,' a series of hymns composed by himself for the use of children, in the same year. In 1806, not in 1807 (as is erroneously stated by Gilfillan and others), Bowles issued in ten volumes his memorable edition of Pope, with a sketch of his life and strictures on his poetry. His comments on Pope's life are undoubtedly written in a severe, if not a hostile spirit. It has been justly urged, that while he omitted no detail that could harm Pope's memory, he either left out or mentioned coldly such facts as did him honour. These errors drew upon the biographer stinging assaults from Byron both in verse and prose. Bowles's estimate of Pope as a poet gave rise to a long controversy, in which much bitterness was displayed. Bowles's proposition that 'images drawn from what is beautiful or sublime in nature are more sublime and beautiful than images drawn from art, and that they are therefore per se more poetical, and that passions are more adapted to poetry than manners,' is by no means refuted by Campbell's assertion that 'the exquisite description of artificial objects and manners is no less characteristic of genius than the description of physical appearances.' Bowles never denied that many artificial objects are beautiful. Byron's instances, in opposition to Bowles, go chiefly to show that certain natural objects are less interesting than certain artificial ones, and that by laws of association the latter at times, especially when unfamiliar, strike us more than the former, though intrinsically superior, when custom has lessened their effect. The doctrine of Bowles is not shaken by either of his principal antagonists. If it exclude Pope from the small band of the very highest poets, his critic nevertheless declares that in the second rank none were superior to him. Besides his poetical claims, those of Bowles as an antiquary are by no means inconsiderable. Of his labours in this capacity his 'Hermes Britannicus,' published in 1828, is perhaps the most important. He wrote largely also upon ecclesiastical matters. Upon crime, education, and the condition of the poor he addressed a letter to Sir James Mackintosh. His sermons, though scarcely eloquent, have a rare union of dignity with simplicity of style. He was an active but lenient magistrate. In character he seems to have been ardent and impulsive, but genial and humane. Moore, the poet, in his journal, gives some interesting particulars of him, illustrating his keen susceptibility to impressions, his high-church principles, his love of simple language in the pulpit, together with certain eccentricities, such as his constant refusal to be measured by a tailor. His health had failed some time before his death, which took place when he was eighty-eight at the Close, Salisbury. Of his numerous productions, in addition to his poems, the following, besides those already named, may be cited as representative:
- 'The Parochial History of Bremhill,' 1828.
- 'Life of Bishop Ken,' 1830.
- 'Annals and Antiquities of Lacock Abbey,' 1835.
- 'A few Words to Lord Chancellor Brougham on the Misrepresentation concerning the Property and Character of the Cathedral Clergy of England,' Salisbury, 1831.
- 'The Cartoons of Raphael.'
- 'Sermons preached at Bowood,' 1834.
[Bowles's Poetical Works, collected edition, with Memoir, &c., by Rev. George Gilfillan, Edin., 1855; Eng. Cyclop. Biog. vol. i., 1856; Bowles's Autobiog. Introd. to Scenes and Shadows of Departed Days, 1837; Maginn's Gall, of Illust. Characters, ed. by G. W. Bates, 1873; Bowles's edition of Pope in ten vols., 1806; Campbell's Specimens of British Poets, &c., with an Essay on Poetry, 1819; Bowles's Invariable Principles of Poetry, 1819; Byron's Letter to John Murray and Observations upon Observations, &c., 1821; Bowles's Letters to Byron and Campbell, 1822; Quarterly Rev., May to July 1820, June to October 1825; Memoirs, Journal, and Correspondence of Thomas Moore, edited by Lord John Russell, 1853.]