Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Spence, Joseph

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SPENCE, JOSEPH (1699–1768), anecdotist and friend of Pope, was born at Kingsclere in Hampshire on 25 April 1699, and was the son of Joseph Spence, rector of Winnal in the same county. At an early age ‘he was taken under the protection of Mr. Fawkener, an opulent relation.’ Fawkener provided for his education at Eton, where he did not continue long, and in 1715 was elected, at the reputed age of 14, scholar of Winchester. He matriculated from Magdalen Hall, Oxford, on 11 April 1717 (at the reputed age of 16), became fellow of New College in 1720, graduated B.A. on 9 March 1723–4, took holy orders in 1724, and proceeded M.A. in 1727. He had in 1726 published dialogues on Pope's translation of the ‘Odyssey’ (‘An Essay on Pope's Odyssey: in which some particular Beauties and Blemishes of that work are considered,’ London and Oxford, 1726, 8vo), which probably procured him the office of professor of poetry in the following year ‘on the first day he became capable of it.’ This was on 11 July 1728, when he succeeded Thomas Warton. He was elected in 1733 for a second term of five years. Spence, so far as can be ascertained, did not deliver any lectures. In 1728 he had obtained the small rectory of Birchanger in Essex, ‘where he indulged his natural inclination for gardening.’ His essay on the Odyssey had befriended him with Pope, and enabled him to begin making those notes of the conversation of Pope and his circle for which literary history stands deeply indebted to him. A favourable mention of James Thomson in his essay had been of great service to the author of the ‘Seasons,’ who became his intimate friend. His kindliness was also shown by the interest he took in Stephen Duck [q. v.], the peasant poet, for whom he procured the living of Byfleet in Surrey.

Amiable and high-principled, Spence was in request as a companion for young men of rank on continental tours, and successively accompanied Charles Sackville, earl of Middlesex (afterwards second Duke of Dorset) [q. v.], Mr. Trevor, and Henry Fiennes Clinton, ninth earl of Lincoln and afterwards second duke of Newcastle-under-Lyme [q. v.] In honour of his first pupil he reprinted, at Pope's suggestion, his ancestor's tragedy of ‘Gorboduc,’ with an introductory ‘Memoir’ (1736). On his third and last tour (1739–1742) he made the acquaintance of Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu and of Horace Walpole. On his return in 1742 he was presented by his college to the living of Great Horwood in Buckinghamshire, and appointed regius professor of modern history at Oxford, in all probability another academical sinecure.

Spence had been for some years engaged in preparing his ‘Polymetis,’ a treatise on classical mythology, as illustrated by ancient works of art and Latin writers. His collections for the book were commenced in 1732 under the title of ‘Noctes Florentinæ.’ ‘Polymetis: or an Enquiry concerning the agreement between the Works of the Roman Poets and the Remains of the Antient Artists,’ was published in folio with numerous plates in 1747, and, although severely criticised for its total neglect of Greek authors, brought its author 1,500l. A fourth edition appeared in 1777, and an abridgment in 1802. Like the ‘Essay on the Odyssey,’ it is in the form of dialogue. Although inadequate from the first, and long ago superseded, it remains an agreeable book, owing to the urbanity of its old-fashioned scholarship, the justice of some incidental observations, and its affluent stores of quotation; and, as an intellectual if heterogeneous banquet, may be compared with the ‘Deipnosophists’ of Athenæus. Gibbon speaks of its ‘taste and learning.’ ‘Polymetis’ remained Spence's only considerable contribution to classical scholarship; but in 1757 he communicated an ‘Account of some Antiquities at Herculaneum’ to the Royal Society, and a year before his death he edited the ‘Remarks and Dissertations on Virgil’ (1768) of his friend Edward Holdsworth [q. v.]

In 1749 Spence was presented by his former pupil, Lord Lincoln, with a house at Byfleet in Surrey; a relative of another travelling companion, Bishop Richard Trevor [q. v.], gave him a prebend at Durham in 1754; and he chiefly divided his time between these residences, making amends to his parishioners at Great Horwood for his long absences by the liberality of his benefactions. His generosity towards all kinds of persons is warmly eulogised, and he continued to be a friend to struggling authors, especially to Dodsley before his prosperous bookselling days. One of his earliest friends, Christopher Pitt [q. v.], and one of the latest, Shenstone, unite in their testimony to his gentleness and urbanity. Gardening continued to be his favourite recreation; he also made several tours in England. His health failed during the later years of his life, and when, on 20 Aug. 1768, he was found dead in a canal in his garden, there were rumours of suicide, but the cause of death was more probably a fit (cf. Gent. Mag. 1819, ii. 412). He was buried in Byfleet church, where there is a monument with an inscription by Bishop Lowth. His executors were Lowth, Edward Rolle (his deputy at Oxford), and Dr. James Ridley, who had in 1764 given an attractive portrayal of his old friend in the ‘Tales of the Genii’ under the transparent disguise of ‘Phesoi Ecneps, Dervise of the Groves.’

Spence's character as a critic is fairly given by Dr. Johnson: ‘His learning was not very great, and his mind not very powerful; his criticism, however, was commonly just; what he thought, he thought rightly, and his remarks were recommended by coolness and candour.’

Spence left a collection of literary anecdotes which illustrates the benefit which a man of ordinary abilities may confer upon literature by a mere faithful record of what he has heard. Without his notes much of the literary history of the eighteenth century, and especially of that of Pope, his immediate circle, and his antagonists, would have been irretrievably lost. The conversational gleanings of his Italian tour are also interesting; and altogether the book presents an admirable view of the dominant literary and critical tendencies of the eighteenth century. The literary history of Spence's ‘Anecdotes’ is curious. During the writer's lifetime the manuscripts were lent to Warburton and to Warton, and were used to a slight extent in Owen Ruffhead's ‘Life of Pope.’ Spence undoubtedly designed them for posthumous publication, and is, indeed, said to have disposed of the copyright by anticipation to Dodsley; but his executors hesitated, and finally deferred to the objections of Lord Lincoln (then Duke of Newcastle). A copy made for the duke was, however, communicated to Dr. Johnson, who was indebted to it for many of the most important particulars in his ‘Lives’ of Pope and Addison. It was subsequently transcribed for Malone, who used it in preparing his ‘Life of Dryden.’ Malone's copy was to have served for an edition by William Beloe [q. v.], but Beloe died in 1817 before publishing it, and the manuscript was sold to John Murray; the latter kept it back until the announcement of another edition, by Samuel Weller Singer [q. v.], when he hurried it through the press, and the rival editions appeared on the same day in 1820. Singer's was the fuller and more authentic, being printed without omission of text or alteration of arrangement from Spence's own manuscript, which had remained in the hands of Spence's executor, Bishop Lowth, and been bequeathed or given by the bishop to a gentleman in his service named Forster, from whom it had passed to the bookseller, W. H. Carpenter. This edition also contained supplementary matter and a memoir of Spence by Singer. At Singer's death the manuscript (forming lot 21 of the Spence MSS.) was knocked down at Sotheby's for ten shillings on 3 Aug. 1858 (Notes and Queries, 2nd ser. vi. 120). A reprint, so exact as to preserve even mistakes and errata, was published in Russell Smith's ‘Library of Old Authors’ (1858). A ‘Selection’ was edited with an introduction by John Underhill in 1890.

Spence's miscellaneous writings include ‘An Account of Stephen Duck,’ 1731, subsequently prefixed to Duck's ‘Poems on Several Occasions’ in 1736; ‘An Account of the Life and Poems of Mr. Blacklock,’ the blind poet, 1754, which was prefixed to the ‘Poems’ of 1756 [see Blacklock, Thomas]; ‘A Parallel in the Manner of Plutarch’ between Robert Hill, the learned tailor, and Magliabecchi, 1757, which was included in Dodsley's ‘Fugitive Pieces’ in 1761 and several times reprinted [see Hill, Robert, (1699–1777)]. Besides other trifles, he also published ‘Crito’ (1725) and ‘Moralities’ (1753) under the pseudonym of Sir Harry Beaumont. At his death he left in manuscript a mock epic, ‘The Charliad,’ which was ‘wisely suppressed’ by Lowth (Brit. Mus. Add. MS. 25897). His autograph letters to his mother and various friends during his foreign tours are in Egerton MSS. 2234 and 2235. Spence's library was sold by B. White on 8 Aug. 1769 (see Catalogue in British Museum).

A portrait of Spence, painted by Isaack Whood in 1739, was engraved for ‘Polymetis’ by G. Vertue in 1746.

[Singer's Memoir of Spence, prefixed to his edition of the Anecdotes; Tyer's Historical Rhapsody on Mr. Pope; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ii. 373 sq. (with portrait); Walpole's Corresp. ed. Cunningham; Lives of the Poets, ed. Cunningham, iii. 350; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, passim; Pope's Works, ed. Elwin and Courthope, passim; Gent. Mag. 1768, p. 399; Monthly Review, March 1820; Quarterly Review, xxiii. 401 (art. by I. D'Israeli.)]

R. G.

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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337 i 25 Spence, Joseph: for Lyne read Lyme