The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 14. His Schoolmistress and Miscellaneous Poems
One of the censor’s ironical anecdotes is that “nothing roused Shenstone’s indignation more than to ask if there were any fishes in his water.” The obvious innuendo has a certain justice; but it may, to some extent, be retorted that he did try to “stock” some part of his poetical water—very profitably. His Moral Pieces, had they stood alone, would either have excluded him from notice here altogether, or have left him with a line of condemnation. The Judgment of Hercules has the smoothness, but also the insignificance, of the average eighteenth century couplet; Economy, The Ruined Abbey, and Love and Honour, the frigid bombast and the occasional sheer “measured prose” of its worst blank-verse. If The Progress of Taste deserves a less harsh judgment, it is because Shenstone, there, is writing autobiographically, and, consequently, with his heart in the matter; while, as to form, he takes refuge in the easy “Hudibrastics” which the age generally wrote well, and sometimes excellently. But, elsewhere, if the sense of impar congressus is too frequently with us, there are, also, frequent alleviations; while that other and consoling sense of reading one who, at least, is a seeker after true poetry is seldom absent. The Schoolmistress (which, we know, was undertaken irreverently and converted the author in the writing) has generally been admitted to be one of the happiest things of its kind, so far as its author intended (and he has defined his intention very strictly) to reach. Even the tea-garden “inscriptions” are saved by the best-known of them, “Here in cool grot,” which, by the exclusion of some of the unlucky poetic lingo of the time, and the substitution for it of better phrase, could be made a really charming thing. Whether there are enough good things in Levities to save the others is a nicer question: but, some things are certainly good. And the same is the case with Elegies, which occupies the other wing of his array. But it has practically long been decided that Shenstone must be judged by The Schoolmistress and the Miscellaneous Poems conscientiously subtitled “Odes, Songs, Ballads etc.” Of The Schoolmistress we have spoken; of the others we may now speak.