Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by George Saintsbury
William Shenstone (17141763)
[Shenstone was born at the Leasowes, near Hales Owen in 1714: he died at the same place in 1763. In 1737, while still at Pembroke College, Oxford, he published some miscellaneous poems anonymously. The Judgment of Hercules appeared in 1741, The Schoolmistress next year. His works, prose and verse, were published in 1764, the year after his death.]
SHENSTONE is our principal master of what may perhaps be called the artificial-natural style in poetry; and the somewhat lasting hold which some at least of his poems have taken on the popular ear is the best testimony that can be produced to his merit. It is very hard to shape any critical canons likely to pass muster nowadays, and yet capable of saving the bulk of his verse. But the first and second of his Pastoral Ballads always fix themselves in the memory of those who, possessing that faculty, are set in childhood to the not very grateful task of learning them; and on re-reading them years after, they do not wholly lose their charm, though the reader may be tempted rather to smile than to sympathise. The Schoolmistress, especially the charming passage here, as usually, given, has something of the same grace, so has the Dying Kid; while the poem on St. Valentines Day would perhaps be the best of Shenstones works but for some inexcusable negligences of expression which ten minutes study would have corrected. It is difficult to believe that Shenstone ever gave much study to his work, or that he possessed any critical faculty. His elegies, though not always devoid of music, are but dreary stuff, and his more ambitious poems still drearier. His attempts at the style of Prior and Gay are for the most part valueless. Yet when all this is discarded, My banks they are furnished with bees, and a few other such things, obstinately recur to the memory and assert that their author after all was a poet. In the mixture of grace and pathos with a certain triviality, with much that is artificial, and with not a little that is downright foolish, Shenstone comes nearer to Goldsmith than to any other English author. His tenderness, his knowledge of human nature, and his literary power, are of course far inferior to Goldsmiths, yet if inferior in degree he is nevertheless not wholly dissimilar in kind. The really affecting elegy on Jessy is an instance of the genuine feeling which, in an age when such feeling was not common, he possessed; nor are other instances of the same kind hard to be found in him.
As concerns the formal part of poetry, his management of the anapaestic trimeter is unquestionably his chief merit. In the Spenserian stanza he is commendable, and dates fortunately prevent the charge that if The Castle of Indolence had not been written neither would The Schoolmistress. His anapaests are much more original. The metre is so incurably associated with sing-song and doggrel, that poems written in it are exposed to a heavy disadvantage, yet in the first two pastoral ballads at any rate this disadvantage is not much felt. Shenstone taught the metre to a greater poet than himself, Cowper, and these two between them have written almost everything that is worth reading in it, if we put avowed parody and burlesque out of the question. Perhaps the history of his gardening at the Leasowes has mixed itself up too thoroughly with Shenstones work, and has soiled his harmless pastorals with memories of the tumble-down huts, the broken benches, the mouldy statues, and all the rest of the draggled finery which in our climate is associated more or less with this style of decoration and of which almost everybody has seen examples. But it really seems that he had, as his well-meaning French panegyrist asserted, a mind natural even though the Arcadian greens rural which he laid must have smacked far less of nature than of art. The crook and the pipe and the kid, of which Johnson speaks so contemptuously, are somehow or other less distasteful in Shenstone than in any other poet. For in the first place one cannot help remembering that the man did, as few men have done, try to turn his life in accordance with his verse, and Worcestershire (nominally Shropshire) into the likeness of the counterfeit Arcadia. Secondly there is an inoffensiveness about him which conciliates and disarms. He was not a great poet, perhaps indeed he was a very small one; but he was a poet somehow, and he wore his rue with a sufficient difference from other poets to deserve that his name should live long in the history of English verse.