Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Harrison, William (1685-1713)

HARRISON, WILLIAM (1685–1713), poet and diplomatist, was admitted scholar of Winchester College in 1698, coming from the neighbouring parish of St. Cross, and being aged 13. In 1704 he was elected to a scholarship at New College, Oxford, and after two years of probation succeeded to a fellowship in 1706, when he had ‘arrived to a great perfection in all kinds of polite literature.’ Addison became his friend, and obtained for him the post of governor to a son of the Duke of Queensberry at a salary of 40l. a year. With this and his fellowship, which he retained for his life, Harrison plunged into London society, and was recommended by Addison to Swift, who thereupon writes to Stella: ‘There is a young fellow here in town [October 1710] we are all fond of, and about a year or two come from the university, one Harrison, a pretty little fellow, with a great deal of wit, good sense, and good nature; has written some mighty pretty things; that in your 6th Miscellanea about the sprig of an orange is his. The fine fellows are always inviting him to the tavern, and make him pay his club.’ Swift took to him, and was resolved to stir up people to do something for him; ‘he is a whig, and I will put him upon some of my cast whigs.’ When Steele discontinued the ‘Tatler,’ a continuation by Harrison suggested itself to St. John and Swift, though the latter doubted its success, as he did not approve of the editor's ‘manner.’ The first number came out 13 Jan. 1711, when the same critic wrote: ‘There is not much in it, but I hope it will mend. I am afraid the little toad has not the true vein for it.’ A day or two later Swift gave hints for another number of the new paper; in February Congreve, ‘blind as he is,’ ‘gave a paper he had written out for little Harrison;’ and in March Swift dictated a paper. It ran in all to fifty-two numbers, twice a week, between 13 Jan. and 19 May 1711. Between these dates Swift introduced Harrison in person to St. John, who obtained for him the post of secretary to Lord Raby, the ambassador extraordinary at the Hague to arrange the treaty with France. St. John gave him fifty guineas for the expenses of his journey, and on 20 April 1711 he set off for Holland. In time, but after some trouble with the previous holder of the office, he became queen's secretary to the embassy at Utrecht, and in January 1713 returned to England with the barrier treaty. ‘His pay,’ writes Swift, ‘is in all 1,000l. a year, and they have never paid him a groat. He must be 300l. or 400l. in debt at least.’ Next day it turned out that Harrison had not a farthing in his pocket. Soon he was attacked by fever and inflammation on his lungs; whereupon Swift got thirty guineas for him from Bolingbroke, with an order on the treasury for 100l., and removed him to Knightsbridge. On 14 Feb. 1713 Swift went to call on him, and, dreading the worst, was afraid to knock. Harrison had died an hour before. ‘No loss ever grieved Swift so much.’ When informed of Harrison's illness, Young, according to his own account, ‘night to day in painful journey join'd’ to find him speechless and at the point of death. Apparently Harrison died in Young's presence. Lady Strafford writes: ‘His brothere poets bury'd him, as Mr. Addison, Mr. Philips, and Dr. Swift.’

A copy of Harrison's chief poem is in the Bodleian Library in ‘Gough, Oxford 103.’ The title-page runs: ‘Woodstock Park, a poem, by William Harison [sic] of New College, Oxon., 1706.’ It is also printed in Dodsley's ‘Collection,’ v. 188–201. The third ode of Horace, imitated by him as ‘To the Yacht which carried the Duke of Marlborough to Holland, 1707,’ is included in Duncombe's ‘Horace,’ i. 16–18, and several of his poetical pieces are inserted in Steele's ‘Poetical Miscellanies,’ 1714, pp. 244–50. He was the author of the lines entitled ‘The Medicine, a Tale,’ printed in the second number of the original ‘Tatler,’ and reprinted, with most of his other poems excepting ‘Woodstock Park,’ in Nichols's ‘Collection,’ iv. 180–5, vii. 234–7. Harrison was a general favourite. Tickell, at the end of his poem on the prospects of peace (1713), designates him ‘That much lov'd youth;’ and Young, in the epistle to Lord Lansdowne, praises him as possessing ‘friends indeed, good nature in excess.’ The ‘Tatler’ which he edited in 1711 was reprinted in duodecimo in 1712 and subsequent years as Steele's ‘Tatler,’ vol. v. (Aitken, Steele, i. 295, 300–2, 418, ii. 404, 425). Some of the essays are reprinted in Nichols's well-known edition of the ‘Tatler,’ vol. vi. A very long letter written by Harrison from Utrecht to Swift on 16 Dec. 1712 is in the latter's works, 1883 ed., xvi. 14–18.

[Johnson's Poets (Cunningham), iii. 311–12; Jacob's Poets, i. 70–1; Kirby's Winchester Scholars, p. 215; Wentworth Papers, pp. 188, 191, 319–24; Forster's Swift, pp. 286–7, 381–3, 443–6, 452; Craik's Swift, 202, 212, 255; Swift's Works (1883 ed.), ii. 43–4, 144–7, 150, 162–3, 174, 199, 232, iii. 101–2, 109–12; Gent. Mag. 1777 pp. 261, 419, 1780 p. 173.]

W. P. C.