Somerville, William (1675-1742) (DNB00)

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SOMERVILLE, WILLIAM (1675–1742), poet, came of an ancient family long settled at Aston-Somerville in Gloucestershire. To this family belonged John Somerville [q. v.], on whose attainder a younger brother, Sir William, contrived to retain or recover both estates. The poet, fourth in descent from this Sir William, was the eldest son of Robert Somervile of Edstone, and Elizabeth his wife, eldest daughter of Sir Charles Wolseley (d. 1714) [q. v.], bart., of Wolseley in the parish of Colwich, Staffordshire, where he was born on 2 Sept. 1675. He had five brothers and one sister. He is said to have received his early education at Stratford-on-Avon. In 1690 he was admitted as ‘founder's kin’ at Winchester, whence, on 24 Aug. 1694, he proceeded to New College, Oxford, where he obtained a fellowship. On 3 Oct. 1696 he was admitted a student at the Middle Temple, but retained his fellowship till 1705. On his father's death in the same year he settled at Edstone, where he spent the rest of his life.

His life at Edstone was that of a country gentleman, taking his share in the business and pleasures of his station. He had the reputation of being a good justice, and he enjoyed the esteem of his neighbours, among whom were Lord Lyttelton, Shenstone, and Jago the poets, and Lady Luxborough [see Knight, Henrietta], the half-sister of Bolingbroke. Dr. Thomas, whose edition of Dugdale's ‘Warwickshire’ was published in 1730, calls him in that work ‘viciniæ suæ ornamentum’ (ii. 829). In politics he was a whig.

Of his devotion to field sports there is ample evidence in his writings. The only form of sport condemned in them is coursing, which he sternly denounced. He took an active part in the management of his kennels, which consisted of ‘about twelve couples of beagles, bred chiefly between the small Cotswold harrier and the southern hound; six couples of fox-hounds, rather rough and wire-haired; and five couples of otter-hounds, which in the winter season made an addition to the fox-hounds’ (Sporting Mag. 1832).

His revenue, which amounted to about 1,500l., was burdened with an annuity of 600l. to his mother, whose death, at the age of ninety-eight, occurred only a month before his own. In 1730, being in embarrassed circumstances, he made an arrangement with James, thirteenth lord Somerville, in the peerage of Scotland, who also claimed descent from the Somervilles of Wichnour, by which, in consideration of the relief of burdens, he settled on his lordship the reversion of his estates after his death [see Somerville, John Southey, fifteenth Lord]. Shenstone, in one of his letters, says that Somerville was improvident, and that in his later years he fell into the habit of intemperate drinking (Shenstone, Works, iii. 66).

His leisure was devoted to literature, and the earliest of his verses to which a date (about 1712) can be assigned were addressed to Marlborough, to Charles Montagu, earl of Halifax, General James (afterwards first Earl) Stanhope, and Addison, all statesmen of his own political party. It appears from the verses addressed to him by Allan Ramsay that some of his poems were circulated privately before publication. His first published volume was ‘The Two Springs,’ a fable, 1725, fol. This was followed in 1727 by ‘Occasional Poems, Translations, Fables, Tales,’ &c., 8vo, which included most of his writings up to the date of publication. ‘The Chase,’ his most famous production, appeared in 1735 (London, 4to, 9th edit. 1796); ‘Hobbinol, or the Rural Games,’ a burlesque in blank verse (dedicated to Hogarth), in 1740, 4to (but he states in the preface that much of it had been in circulation before); ‘Field Sports,’ a poem on hawking, was published in folio in 1742, the year of his death. He left to Lord Somerville, his executor and residuary legatee, a manuscript volume of unpublished poems; and Lady Luxborough mentions that she had in her possession a translation which he had executed of Voltaire's ‘Alzire,’ and also several ‘little poems and impromptus, for the most part too trivial or too local for the press’ (Letters, ed. 1775, p. 211).

Somerville died at Edstone on 17 July 1742. He married, on 1 Feb. 1708, Mary, daughter of Hugh Bethell, esq., of Rise in Yorkshire. His wife died childless on 5 Sept. 1731. They are both buried in the chantry chapel of the church of Wootton-Wawen. There is an epitaph by himself, and in the churchyard is an inscription by him in commemoration of his huntsman and butler, James Boeter, who ‘was hurt in the hunting field and died of this accident.’

Somerville's fame rests chiefly on ‘The Chase,’ a poem of four books in blank verse, to which ‘Field Sports’ may be considered a supplement. It contains a vivid description of his favourite pastime and some lively pictures of animal life. It has always been held in high esteem by sportsmen, and many editions of it have been published, the finest being that of 1796, with illustrations by the brothers Bewick, of whose art it exhibits some of the best examples. The edition of 1800 has designs by Stothard. In 1896 it was reissued with illustrations by Mr. Hugh Thomson. A collective edition of Somerville's poetical works appeared in 1801, and a ‘Diamond’ edition in 1825–6. His poems figure in the collections of Johnson, Anderson, Chalmers, Bell, Sanford, and Park.

Somerville was tall and handsome and ‘very fair’ (ib. p. 277). At Wolseley there is a portrait of him when a boy. Another painted by Dahl in 1702, is in the possession of the Hon. Mrs. Ralph Smyth, fourth daughter of the seventeenth Baron Somerville. A half-length engraving of it is prefixed to the second volume of the ‘Memorie of the Somervilles.’ A later portrait by Kneller was presented by the poet to his neighbour, Christopher Wren, esq., of Wroxhall Abbey, son of Sir Christopher, and is now in the possession of his descendant, Catherine, daughter of Chandos Wren Hoskyns, and widow of the Rev. C. F. C. Pigott, rector of Edgmond, Shropshire. An engraving of it by Worthington, from a drawing by Thurston, was published in 1821. Lady Luxborough mentions a portrait by Worlidge, besides another which belonged to herself. [Registers and tombstones; Johnson's Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham; Visitation of Warwickshire, 1619; Dugdale's Warwickshire; Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Sporting Magazine, February 1832; Memorie of the Somervilles; Shenstone's Letters; Lady Luxborough's Letters; Cecil's Records of the Chase; Colvile's Worthies of Warwickshire; Notices of the Churches of Warwickshire; Gent. Mag. July 1742 and 1814, i. 439; Genealogist, new ser. vol. xiii.; private information.]

G. W. C.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.255
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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257 ii 38 Somerville, William: after 1801 insert and a ‘diamond’ edition in 1825-6