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JOHN DYER, of whom I have no other account to give than his own letters, published with Hughes's correspondence, and the notes added by the editor, have afforded me, was born in 1700, the second son of Robert Dyer of Aberglasney, in Caermarthenshire, a solicitor of great capacity and note.
He passed through Westminster school under the care of dr. Freind, and was then called home to be instructed in his father's profession. But his father died soon, and he took no delight in the study of the law; but, having always amused himself with drawing, resolved to turn painter, and became pupil to mr. Richardson, an artist then of high reputation, but now better known by his books than by his pictures.
Having studied awhile under his master, he became, as he tells his friend, an itinerant painter, and wandered about South Wales, and the parts adjacent; but he mingled poetry with painting, and, about 1727, printed Grongar Hill, in Lewis's miscellany.
Being, probably, unsatisfied with his own proficiency, he like other painters, travelled to Italy; and, coming back in 1740, published the Ruins of Rome.
If his poem was written soon after his return, he did not make much use of his acquisitions in painting, whatever they might be; for decline of health, and love of study, determined him to the church. He therefore entered into orders; and, it seems, married about the same time a lady of the name of Ensor; "whose grandmother," says he, was a Shakspeare, descended from a brother of every body's Shakspeare:" by her, in 1756, he had a son and three daughters living.
His ecclesiastical provision was for a long time but slender. His first patron, mr. Harper, gave him, in 1741, Calthorp in Leicestershire, of eighty pounds a year, on
which he lived ten years, and then exchanged it for Belchford in Lincolnshire, of seventy-five. His condition now began to mend. In 1751, sir John Heathcote gave him Coningsby, of one hundred and forty pounds a year; and, in 1755, the chancellor added Kirkby, of one hundred and ten. He complains that the repair of the house at Coningsby, and other expences, took away the profit. In 1757, he published The Fleece, his greatest poetical work, of which I will not suppress a ludicrous story. Dodsley the bookseller was one day mentioning it to a critical visitor, with more expectation of success than the other could easily admit. In the conversation the author's age was asked; and being represented as advanced in life, "He will," said the critic, "be buried in woollen."
He did not indeed long survive that publication, nor long enjoy the increase of his preferments; for in 1758 be died.
Dyer is not a poet of bulk or dignity sufficient to require an elaborate criticism. Grongar Hill is the happiest of his productions: it is not indeed very accurately written; but the scenes which it displays are so pleasing, the images which they raise are so welcome to the mind, and the reflections of the writer so consonant to the general sense or experience of mankind, that when it is once read, it will be read again.
The idea of the Ruins of Rome strikes more, but pleases less, and the title raises greater expectations than the performance gratifies. Some passages, however, are conceived with the mind of a poet; as when, in the neighbourbood of dilapidating edifices, he says,
The pilgrim oft,
Rattling around, loud thund'ring to the moon.
Of The Fleece, which never became popular, and is now universally neglected, I can say little that is likely to recall it to attention. The woolcomber and the poet appear to me such discordant natures, that an attempt to bring them
together is to couple the serpent with the fowl. When Dyer, whose mind was not unpoetical, has done his utmost, by interesting his reader in our native commodity, by interspersing rural imagery, and incidental digressions, by clothing small images in great words, and by all the writer's arts of delusion, the meanness naturally adhering, and the irreverence habitually annexed to trade and manufacture, sink him under insuperable oppression; and the disgust which blank verse, encumbering and encumbered, superadds to an unpleasing subject, soon repels the reader, however willing to be pleased.
Let me, however, honestly report whatever may counterbalance this weight of censure. I have been told, that Akenside, who, upon a poctical question, has a right to be heard, said, “That he would regulate his opinion of the reigning taste by the fate of Dyer's Fleece; for if that were ill received, he should not think it any longer reasonable to expect fame from excellence."
WILLIAM SHENSTONE, the son of Thomas Shenstone and Anne Pen, was born in November 1714, at the Leasowes in Hales-Owen, one of those insulated districts which, in the division of the kingdom, was appended, for some reason not now discoverable, to a distant county; and which, though surrounded by Warwickshire and Worcestershire, belongs to Shropshire, though perhaps thirty miles distant from any other part of it.
He learned to read of an old dame, whom his poem of the School-mistress has delivered to posterity; and soon received such delight from books, that he was always calling for fresh entertainment, and expected that, when any of the family went to market, a new book should be brought him, which, when it came, was in fondness carried to bed, and laid by him. It is said, that, when his request had been neglected, his mother wrapped up a piece of wood of the same form, and pacified him for the night.
As he grew older, he went for a while to the grammarschool in Hales-Owen, and was placed afterwards with mr. Crumpton, an eminent school-master at Solihul, where he distinguished himself by the quickness of his progress.
When he was young (June 1724) he was deprived of his father, and soon after (August 1726) of his grandfather; and was, with his brother, who died afterwards unmarried, left to the care of his grandmother, who managed the estate.
From school he was sent, in 1732, to Pembroke college in Oxford, a society which for half a century has been eminent for English poetry and elegant literature. Here it appears that he found delight and advantage; for he continued his name in the book ten years, though he took no degree. After the first four years he put on the civilian's gown, but without shewing any intention to engage in the profession.
About the time when he went to Oxford, the death of his grandmother devolved his affairs to the care of the reverend mr. Dolman, of Brome in Staffordshire, whose attention he always mentioned with gratitude.
At Oxford he employed himself upon English poetry; and in 1737 published a small miscellany, without his
He then for a time wandered about, to acquaint himself with life, and was sometimes at London, sometimes at Bath, or any other place of public resort; but he did not forget his poetry. He published in 1741 his Judgment of Hercules, addressed to mr. Lyttelton, whose interest he supported with great warmth at an election: this was next year followed by the School-mistress.
Mr. Dolman, to whose care he was indebted for his ease and leisure, died in 1745, and the care of his own fortune® now fell upon him. He tried to escape it a while, and lived at his house with his tenants, who were distantly related: but finding that imperfect possession inconvenient, he took the whole estate into his own hands, more to the improvement of its beauty, than the increase of its produce.
Now were excited his delight in rural pleasures, and his ambition of rural elegance: he began from this time to point his prospects, to diversify his surface, to entangle his walks, and to wind his waters; which he did with such judgment and such fancy, as made his little domain the envy of the great, and the admiration of the skilful; a place to be visited by travellers, and copied by designers. Whether to plant a walk in undulating curves, and to place a bench at every turn where there is an object to catch the view-to make water run where it will be heard, and to stagnate where it will be seen-to leave intervals where the eye will be pleased, and to thicken the plantation where there is something to be hidden-demands any great powers of mind, I will not inquire: perhaps a sullen and surly spectator may think such performances rather the sport than the business of human reason. But it must be at least confessed, that to embellish the form of nature is an innocent amusement; and some praise must be allowed,