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Shenstone’s Schoolmistress

THE inimitable “Schoolmistress” of SHENSTONE is one of the felicities of genius; but the purpose of this poem has been entirely misconceived. Johnson, acknowledging this charming effusion to be “the most pleasing of Shenstone’s production,” observes, “I know not what claim it has to stand among the moral works.” The truth is, that it was intended for quite a different class by the author, and Dodsley, the editor of his works, must have strangely blundered in designating it “a moral poem.” It may be classed with a species of poetry till recently rare in our language, and which we sometimes find among the Italians, in their rime piacevoli, or poesie burlesche, which do not always consist of low humour in a facetious style with jingling rhymes, to which we attach our idea of a burlesque poem. There is a refined species of ludicrous poetry, which is comic yet tender, lusory yet elegant, and with such a blending of the serious and the facetious, that the result of such a poem may often, among its other pleasures, produce a sort of ambiguity; so that we do not always know whether the writer is laughing at his subject, or whether he is to be laughed at. Our admirable Whistlecraft met this fate! “The Schoolmistress” of SHENSTONE, has been admired for its simplicity and tenderness, not for its exquisitely ludicrous turn!

This discovery I owe to the good fortune of possessing the original edition of “The Schoolmistress,” which the author printed under his own directions, and to his own fancy. To this piece of LUDICROUS POETRY, is he calls it, “lest it should be mistaken,” he added a LUDICROUS INDEX, “purely to show fools that I am in jest.” But the fool, his subsequent editor, thought proper to suppress this amusing “ludicrous index,” and the consequence is, as the poet foresaw, that his aim has been “mistaken.”

The whole history of this poem, and this edition, may be traced in the printed correspondence of SHENSTONE. Our poet had pleased himself by ornamenting “A sixpenny pamphlet” with certain “seemly” designs of his, and for which he came to town to direct the engraver; he appears also to have intended accompanying it with “The deformed portrait of my old school-dame, Sarah Lloyd.” The frontispiece to this first edition represents the “thatched house” of his old schoolmistress, and before it is the “birch tree,” with the sun setting and gilding the scene.” He writes on this, “I have the first sheet to correct upon the table. I have laid aside the thoughts of fame a good deal in this unpromising scheme and fix them upon the landskip which is engraving, the red letter which I propose, and the fruit-piece which you see, being the most seemly ornaments of the first sixpenny pamphlet that was ever so highly honoured. I shall incur the same reflection with Ogilby, of having nothing good but my decorations. I expect that in your neighbourhood and in Warwickshire there should be twenty of my poems sold. I print it myself. I am pleased with Mynde’s engravings.”

On the publication SHENSTONE has opened his idea on its poetical characteristic. “I dare say it must be very incorrect; for I have added eight or ten stanzas within this fortnight. But inaccuracy is more excusable in ludicrous poetry than in any other. If it strikes any, it must be merely people of taste; for people of wit without taste, which comprehends the larger part of the critical tribe, will unavoidably despise it. I have been at some pains to recover myself from A. Philips’ misfortune of mere childishness, ‘Little charm of placid mien,’ &c. I have added a ludicrous index purely to show (fools) that I am in jest; and my motto, ‘O, quà sol habitabiles illustrat oras, maxima principum!’ is calculated for the same purpose. You cannot conceive how large the number is of those that mistake burlesque for the very foolishness it exposes; which observation I made once at the Rehearsal, at Tom Thumb, at Chrononhotonthologos, all which are pieces of elegant humour. I have some mind to pursue this caution further, and advertise it ‘The Schoolmistress,’ &c.a very childish performance every body knows (novorum more). But if a person seriously calls this, or rather burlesque, a childish or low species of poetry, he says wrong. For the most regular and formal poetry may be called trifling, folly, and weakness, in comparison of what is written with a more manly spirit in ridicule of it.”

This first edition is now lying before me, with its splendid “red-letter,” its “seemly designs,” and, what is more precious, its “index.” SHENSTONE, who had greatly pleased himself with his graphical inventions, at length found that his engraver, Mynde, had sadly bungled with the poet’s ideal. Vexed and disappointed, he writes, “I have been plagued to death about the ill-execution of my designs. Nothing is certain in London but expense, which I can ill bear.” The truth is, that what is placed in the landskip over the thatched house, and the birch-tree, is like a falling monster rather than a setting sun; but the fruit-piece at the end, the grapes, the plums, the melon, and the Catharine pears, Mr. Mynde has made sufficiently tempting. This edition contains only twenty-eight stanzas, which were afterwards enlarged to thirty-five. Several stanzas have been omitted, and they have also passed through many corrections, and some improvements, which show that SHENSTONE had more judgement and felicity in severe correction, than perhaps is suspected. Some of these I will point out.*

In the second stanza, the first edition has,

In every mart that stands on Britain’s isle,
In every village less reveal’d to fame,
Dwells there in cottage known, about a mile,
A matron old, whom we schoolmistress name.

Improved thus:

In every village marked with little spire,
Embower’d in trees, and hardly known to fame,
There dwells, in lowly shed and mean attire,
A matron old, whom we schoolmistress name.

The eighth stanza, in the first edition, runs,

The gown, which o’er her shoulders thrown she had,
Was russet stuff (who knows not russet stuff?)
Great comfort to her mind that she was clad
In texture of her own, all strong and tough;
Ne did she e’er complain, ne deem it rough, &c.

More elegantly descriptive is the dress as now delineated:

A russet stole was o’er her shoulders thrown,
A russet kirtle fenced the nipping air;
’Twas simple russet, but it was her own:
’Twas her own country bred the flock so fair,
’Twas her own labour did the fleece prepare, &c.

The additions made to the first edition consist of the 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15th stanzas, in which are so beautifully introduced the herbs and garden stores, and the psalmody of the schoolmistress; the 29th and 30th stanzas were also subsequent insertions. But those lines which give so original a view of genius in its infancy,

A little bench of heedless bishops here,
And there a chancellor in embryo, &c.,

were printed in 1742; and I cannot but think that the far-famed stanzas in Gray’s Elegy, where he discovers men of genius in peasants, as SHENSTONE has in children, was suggested by this original conception:

Some mute, inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood,

is, to me, a congenial thought, with an echoed turn of expression of the lines from the schoolmistress.

I shall now restore the ludicrous INDEX, and adapt it to the stanzas of the later edition.

The subject proposed2
A circumstance in the situation of the MANSION OF EARLY DISCIPLINE, discovering the surprising influence of the connexion of ideas3
A simile; introducing a deprecation of the joyless effects of BIGOTRY and SUPERSTITION4
Some peculiarities indicative of a COUNTRY SCHOOL, with a short sketch of the SOVEREIGN presiding over it5
Some account of her NIGHT-CAP, APRON, and a tremendous description of her BIRCHEN SCEPTRE6
A parallel instance of the advantages of LEGAL GOVERNMENT with regard to children and the wind7
Her gown8
Her TITLES, and punctilious nicety in the ceremonious assertion of them9
A digression concerning her HEN’s presumptuous behaviour, with a circumstance tending to give the cautious reader a more accurate idea of the officious diligence and economy of an old woman . . . 10
A view of this RURAL POTENTATE as seated in her chair of state, conferring HONOURS, distributing BOUNTIES, and dispersing PROCLAMATIONS16
The ACTION of the poem commences with a general summons; follows a particular description of the artful structure, decoration, and fortifications of an HORN-BIBLE18
A surprising picture of sisterly affection by way of episode20, 21
A short list of the methods now in use to avoid a whipping—which nevertheless follows22
The force of example23
A sketch of the particular symptoms of obstinacy as they discover themselves in a child, with a simile illustrating a blubbered face24, 25, 26
A hint of great importance27
The piety of the poet, in relation to that school-dame’s memory, who had the first formation of A CERTAIN patriot.
[This stanza has been left out in the later editions; it refers to the Duke of Argyle.]
The secret connexion between WHIPPING and RISING IN THE WORLD, with a view, as it were, through a perspective of the SAME LITTLE FOLK in the highest posts and reputation28
An account of the nature of an EMBRYO FOX-HUNTER [Another stanza omitted.] 
A deviation to an huckster’s shop32
Which being continued for the space of three stanzas, gives the author an opportunity of paying his compliments to a particular county, which he gladly seizes; concluding his piece with respectful mention of the ancient and loyal city of SHREWSBURY. 

* I have usually found the Schoolmistress printed without numbering the stanzas; to enter into the present view it will be necessary for the reader to do this himself with a pencil-mark.

Editor’s Notes

 § Two new footnotes were added to this article in later editions of the Curiosities, first, upon the sentence ‘Our admirable Whistlecraft met this fate:’

“Prospectus and specimen of an intended national work by William and Robert Whistlecraft, of Stowmarket, in Suffolk; harness and collar makers; intended to comprise the most interesting particulars relating to King Arthur and his Round Table.” The real author of Mr. Whistlecraft’s specimen was the Right Hon. J. Hookham Frere, who has the merit of having first introduced the Italian burlesque style into our literature. Lord Byron composed his “Beppo” confessedly after this example. “It is,” he writes, “a humorous poem; in, and after, the excellent manner of Mr. Whistlecraft;” who published this “specimen” only, which was little read.

And, second, further to the first sentence in the second paragraph:

The original edition was printed in 1757 without engravings. They occur only in that which is described in our text.