Fenton, Elijah (DNB00)
FENTON, ELIJAH (1683–1730), poet, was born at Shelton, near Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, 20 May 1683. He was descended from an ancient family. His father, John Fenton, an attorney, who died in 1694, was coroner for the district, and must have left his children in good circumstances, since Elijah, though the eleventh child, was able to proceed to Cambridge. He graduated B.A. at Jesus College in 1704. He had been intended for a clergyman, but conscientious scruples led him to decline taking the oaths, and thus disqualified him for orders in the church of England. These objections would seem to have been rather religious than political, as they did not interfere with his subsequent panegyric upon Marlborough. He did not seek ordination at the hands of the nonjuring clergy, but appears to have almost immediately obtained employment as secretary to the Earl of Orrery, whom he accompanied to Flanders. After relinquishing his patron's service, he became assistant to Ambrose Bonwicke [q. v.], the well-known schoolmaster, at Headley in Surrey, and was shortly afterwards elected head-master of the grammar school at Sevenoaks, which he is said to have brought into reputation. He had already published a volume of poems in 1707, composed an elegy on the death of the Marquis of Blandford, Marlborough's son, and obtained sufficient reputation as a wit to attract (1710) an invitation from Bolingbroke to give up his school in hopes of a more suitable provision, which he was assured would be forthcoming. He is said to have unsuccessfully applied for the commissionership of stamps vacated by Steele, but this seems irreconcilable with his objection to take the oaths. Whatever the cause, Bolingbroke's promises were not fulfilled, but Fenton's disappointment was partly solaced by his old patron Orrery, who made him, about 1714, tutor to his son, Lord Broghill. This engagement continued for six years, and at its termination Pope procured him another as the instructor of Craggs, the new secretary of state, who was anxious to supply his deficiencies in literature. Fenton's prospects now seemed excellent, but they were speedily blighted by the untimely death of Craggs. Pope, however, always helpful and friendly, conferred on Fenton the distinguished honour of associating him with himself in his translation of the ‘Odyssey,’ allotting him the first, fourth, nineteenth, and twentieth books, and remunerating him with 300l. Southern, with whom Fenton had long been connected, assisted him with his dramatic experience in the composition of his tragedy of ‘Mariamne,’ which, after being rudely rejected by Cibber, was acted with success at the rival theatre in 1723. Fenton's profits are said to have amounted to nearly a thousand pounds. Pope soon obtained for him another tutorship in the family of a widow, Lady Trumbull, whose son he first educated at home, and afterwards accompanied to Cambridge. When the young man's education was complete, Lady Trumbull retained Fenton in the probably nominal employment of auditor of her accounts, and his latter years were spent in ease and comfort. He prefixed ‘a short and elegant’ account of Milton's life to an edition of his works, and undertook to amend the punctuation of ‘Paradise Lost,’ without, it may be feared, much insight into the matter. In 1729 he published a fine edition of Waller, with notes which Johnson considers even too copious. He died in August 1730, according to some accounts of gout, but in fact, Pope tells Broome, of want of exercise. He had translated the first book of Oppian, but the version appears to be lost, and had begun a tragedy on the subject of Dion, in which he had made little progress. Pope wrote his epitaph with point and feeling, but borrowed the first couplet from Crashaw.
Fenton is styled by Johnson ‘an excellent versifier and a good poet.’ He had, indeed, caught the trick of Pope's versification with such success that it has never been possible to distinguish his share of the version of the ‘Odyssey’ from Pope's by internal evidence. It is questionable whether he deserves the appellation of poet. His most considerable pieces, the ‘Hymn to the Sun,’ the ode to Lord Gower, the elegy on Lord Blandford, the ‘Epistles,’ are at most agreeable exercises in metre, and his general good taste does not preserve him from some rather ludicrous lapses. Perhaps his most memorable couplet is one in which he completely inverts the conclusions of modern science respecting the origin of the human species:—
Foes to the tribe from which they trace their clan
As monkeys draw their pedigree from man.
His tragedy exhibits considerable ability, but rather that of a playwright than of a poet. Mariamne's fate had already been the subject of one of Calderon's greatest plays, of which Fenton probably never heard. His lighter pieces are not deficient in sprightliness, but the humour is far inferior to that of his model Prior. On the whole he must be classed with those to whom poetry has been rather an amusement than an inspiration or an art. The testimony to his character is very high and uniform. ‘He was never,’ says his pupil Orrery, ‘named but with praise and fondness, as a man in the highest degree amiable and excellent.’ In face of this evidence, which is amply confirmed by particular anecdotes, the assertion that he spoke ungratefully of Pope may be dismissed as groundless. He seems to have had no fault except the indolence which shortened his life.[Johnson's Lives of the Poets; Pope's Correspondence; Chalmers's Dict.]