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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VII. Young, Collins and Lesser Poets of the Age of Johnson

§ 13. Shenstone’s Poetical Works and their characteristics

The immediate cause which places William Shenstone here next to Glover is merely chronological; but the sequence could hardly be better arranged for a reader of the two. As a relief from the probably vain attempt to read the London merchant, nothing could be better than the poems of the Worcestershire gentleman-farmer. Shenstone is not a great poet; but, perhaps, there has been a tendency, at all times, to treat him too lightly. Especially if his prose work on poetry be taken together with his poems, it may, not as a mere fancy, be found that very few of his contemporaries, perhaps none but Collins and Gray, had in them more of the root of the matter, though time and circumstance and a dawdling sentimental temperament intercepted and stunted fruit and flower. With his prose, we are here not directly concerned; but it is certainly surprising how, in a few aphoristic touches, he lays a finger on some of the chief faults of the poetry of his day. He did not quite practise what he preached: and there is no doubt that posterity has not been wholly unjust in associating the rococo decorations and the trivial artifices of the Leasowes with the poems which partly show direct connection with that estate. But artificial-pastoral was only a stage on the return to real nature; and the positive achievements of Shenstone’s poetry have much less of the toyshop and the marionette theatre about them than it has been customary to think or say. It is almost a pity that he was of Pembroke, Oxford; for, had he not been there, Johnson’s belittling would hardly have been accompanied by a sort of patronising endeavour to make the best of it—the most damaging form of disparagement.

In fact, it is very easily possible to assign him far less than his real value in the return to nature itself. When Fanny Burney, many years after his death, saw Knowle for the first time, she ranked it next to Hagley as the finest park she had seen, acknowledging, however, with frankness the culpable or regrettable absence of improvement by temples and grottoes, obelisks and view-seats. We should, of course exactly reverse the estimate. Yet Hagley and the (as some will have it) Naboth’s vineyard which patterned Hagley’s beautification were only schoolmasters to bring public attention, at any rate, from town to country—if to a country “townishly” bedizened and interfered with. The proper study of mankind ceased to be man only, when he busied himself with nature at all; even though for a time he might officiously intrude his own works upon her. One may smile at

  • But oh! the transport most ally’d to song
  • In some fair villa’s peaceful bound
  • To catch soft hints from Nature’s tongue
  • And bid Arcadia bloom around—
  • but it is only fair to remember that the earlier part of the same poem had almost expressly condemned meddling with nature as contained in the lines
  • ’T is Nature only gives exclusive right
  • To relish her supreme delight,
  • and, as if with half-surprise at its own boldness, allowed “pregnancy of [such] delight” to “thriftless furze” and “rough barren rock.”

    It may indeed be admitted that, both in his grounds and in his poems, Shenstone allowed the charms of the villa to overpower those of furze and rock.