Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Jenyns, Soame

JENYNS, SOAME (1704–1787), miscellaneous writer, son of Sir Roger Jenyns, kt., of Bottisham Hall, near Cambridge, was born in London on 1 Jan. 1704. His mother was a daughter of Sir Peter Soame, bart., of Haydon, Essex. In 1722 he was entered at St. John's College, Cambridge, as a fellow-commoner, and he left the university without a degree in 1725. His first publication was ‘The Art of Dancing: a Poem,’ issued anonymously in 1727, with a dedication to Lady Fanny Fielding. It was followed in 1735 by ‘An Epistle to Lord Lovelace’ (verse); and in 1752 appeared a collection of Jenyns's ‘Poems,’ chiefly reprinted from ‘Dodsley's Miscellany.’ At the general election in 1742 he was chosen one of the members for the the county of Cambridge, and he continued to represent the county or borough of Cambridge until 1780 (except at the call of a new parliament in 1754, when he was returned for Dunwich). He was appointed in 1755 one of the commissioners of the board of trade and plantations. In 1757 appeared his ‘Free Enquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil,’ which attracted much notice. Dr. Johnson wrote a brilliant and slashing review of it in the ‘Literary Magazine.’ The ‘Enquiry’ and the poems were republished in 1761, 2 vols. ‘Miscellanies,’ 1770, 1 vol., comprised the poems, essays contributed to the ‘World,’ the ‘Enquiry’ (5th edit., with an additional preface and explanatory notes), ‘Reflections on several Subjects,’ ‘Short but serious Reasons for a National Militia. Written in the year 1757,’ ‘The Objections to the Taxation of our American Colonies by the Legislature of Great Britain briefly considered,’ 1765, and ‘Thoughts on the Causes and Consequences of the present High Price of Provisions,’ 1767. In 1776 appeared ‘View of the internal Evidence of the Christian Religion,’ which reached a tenth edition in 1798, and was translated into several foreign languages. Dr. Johnson remarked that it was ‘a pretty book, not very theological, indeed; and there seems to be an affectation of ease and carelessness, as it were not suitable to his character to be very serious about the matter.’ Hannah More knew ‘a philosophical infidel’ who was converted to Christianity by a study of the ‘View;’ but she thought that Jenyns ‘perhaps brings rather too much ingenuity into his religion.’ A long controversy was waged over the book, and many writers pressed forward to attack and defend the author. Some divines rejoiced that Jenyns had discarded his early scepticism and embraced orthodoxy; others questioned his sincerity and disliked his ingenious paradoxes. In 1782 appeared ‘Disquisitions on several Subjects,’ and in 1784 ‘Thoughts on Parliamentary Reform.’ Jenyns died of a fever, 18 Dec. 1787, at his house in Tilney Street, Audley Square, London. He married, first, Mary, sole daughter of Colonel Soame of Dereham, Norfolk; secondly, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Grey, esq.; but left no issue by either marriage.

Jenyns's ‘Works’ in verse and prose were collected in 1790, 4 vols. 8vo, by his literary executor, Charles Nalson Cole, who prefixed a brief memoir; the collection was reissued in 1793, 4 vols. The poems, which are of little value, are included in Anderson's and Chalmers's collections. A neat edition of the ‘Disquisitions on several Subjects’ was published by Charles Baldwyn in 1822. In the ‘Retrospective Review,’ 1820, ii. 291–304, there is a very laudatory notice of the ‘Disquisitions.’ Jenyns's prose style was regarded by his contemporaries as a model of ease and elegance. It was highly commended by Burke, and Boswell allowed that ‘Jenyns was possessed of lively talents … and could very happily play with a light subject.’ His metaphysical speculations were not profound, and his political views were short-sighted; but he wrote some agreeable essays (though Charles Lamb entered his works on the list of ‘books which are no books’). Cumberland, who knew him well, declares that ‘he was the man who bore his part in all societies with the most even temper and undisturbed hilarity of all the good companions whom I ever knew,’ and that he ‘gave a zest to every company he came into.’ Though he was a good-natured man and free from malice, he strongly resented the attack made on him by Dr. Johnson. Shortly after Johnson's death he had the bad taste to print a poor epitaph, in which occur the lines:—

Boswell and Thrale, retailers of his wit,
Will tell you how he wrote, and talk'd, and cough'd, and spit.

This was the only indiscretion into which he allowed himself to be betrayed, and Boswell retaliated with sufficient severity.

[Memoir by Charles Nalson Cole, prefixed to Soame Jenyns's Works, 1790; Boswell's Johnson, 1848, pp. 68, 106, 392, 590, 593; Memoirs of Richard Cumberland, pp. 247–9; Retrospective Review, 1820, ii. 291–304; Chalmers's Biog. Dict.; Allibone's Dict. of Authors.]

A. H. B.