Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mason, William (1724-1797)
MASON, WILLIAM (1724–1797), poet, born 12 Feb. 1724, was son of William Mason by his first wife, Sarah. The father was appointed vicar of Holy Trinity, Kingston-upon-Hull, in 1722, and held that benefice until his death on 26 Aug. 1753 (Tickell, Hist. of Kingston-upon-Hull, p. 804; cf. Foster, Yorkshire Pedigrees; Correspondence with Walpole, ii. 411). Mason's grandfather, Hugh Mason, was appointed collector of customs at Hull in 1696. His great-grand-father, Robert (1633-1719), son of Valentine Mason (1583-1639), successively vicar of Driffield and Elloughton, Yorkshire, was sheriff of Hull in 1675 and mayor in 1681 and 1696 respectively; one of his daughters, the poet's grandaunt, married an Erasmus Darwin, the great-uncle of the physician and poet (see Diary of Abraham de la Pryme, Surtees Soc., p. 219).
William entered St. John's College, Cambridge, 30 June 1743, was elected scholar in the following October, graduated B.A. 1745, and M.A. 1749. He had shown some literary and artistic tastes, which were encouraged by his father. In 1744 he wrote a 'monody' upon Pope's death in imitation of 'Lycidas.' It was not published till 1747. He had become known to Gray, then resident at Pembroke Hall, and by Gray's influence was elected fellow of Pembroke. He had entered St. John's with a view to a Platt fellowship, but the Pembroke fellowships were then `reckoned the best in the university.' The fellows voted for Mason in 1747, but the master disputed their right to choose a member of another college, and his final election did not take place till 1749 (Mason's letter of 13 Nov. 1747 in Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 710-11, and Gray to Wharton, 9 March 1748-9). He became intimate with Gray, who was a good deal amused with the simplicity, openness, and harmless vanity of his young admirer. Gray says that Mason `reads little or nothing, writes abundance, and that with a design to make a fortune by it' (Gray to Wharton, 8 Aug. 1749). In 1748 Mason published a poem called `Isis,' denouncing the Jacobitism of Oxford. Thomas Warton replied by `The Triumph of Isis,' which is thought by those who have read both to be the better of the two. Mason never republished this poem till he collected the volume which appeared posthumously. According to Mant (Life of Warton), he expressed pleasure some years later when he was entering Oxford that as it was after dark he was not likely to attract the notice of the victims of his satire. In 1749 he was employed to write an ode upon the Duke of Newcastle's installation as chancellor, which Gray (ib.) thought `uncommonly well on such an occasion.' Mason was also known by 1750 to Hurd, then resident at Cambridge. Cambridge was then divided between the `polite scholars' and the `philologists,' and the philologists thought that the 'polite scholars, including Gray, Hurd, and Mason, were a set of arrogant coxcombs' (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. v. 613). Hurd introduced his young friend to Warburton, who had been pleased by the monody on Pope, and who condescended to approve Mason's `Elfrida,' a dramatic poem on the classical model, which appeared in the beginning of 1752. Warburton writes to Hurd (9 May 1752) of some offer made to Mason by Lord Rockingham.
In 1754 Mason was presented by Robert D'Arcy, fourth earl of Holderness [q. v.], to the rectory of Aston, near Rotherham, Yorkshire. He became chaplain to Holderness and resigned his fellowship at Pembroke. Warburton told him that if he took orders he should `totally abandon his poetry,' and Mason, says, agreed that decency and religion demanded the sacrifice. If so, Mason soon changed his mind. He visited Germany in 1755, and had hopes of appointments from various great men (correspondence with Gray). He was appointed one of the king's chaplains in ordinary, through the interest of the Duke of Devonshire, on 2 July 1757, and the appointment was renewed under George III on 19 Sept. 1761. On 6 Dec. 1756 he was appointed to the prebend of Holme in York Cathedral, was made canon residentiary on 7 Jan. 1762, and on 22 Feb. 1763 became precentor and prebendary of Driffield (resigning Holme) (Le Neve, Fasti, and Correspondence with Walpole, ii. 411). He held his living and his precentorship till his death. He built a parsonage at Aston, thereby, as he told Walpole (21 June 1777), making a `pretty adequate' return for the patronage of Lord Holderness, whose family retained the advowson. He resided three months in the year at York, and had, as chaplain, to make an annual visit to London. He resigned his chaplaincy in 1773 (to Walpole, 17 May 1772, and 7 May 1773; Correspondence with Walpole (Mitford), ii. 212), finding, as he said, that the journey to London was troublesome, and being resolved to abandon any thoughts of preferment. Holderness behaved so `shabbily' to him (to Walpole, 3 Feb. 1774), that he declined coming to Strawberry Hill at the risk of encountering his patron. Mason came into an estate in the East Riding upon the death of John Hutton of Marsh, near Richmond, Yorkshire, on 12 June 1768. His income (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 241) is said to have been 1 ,500l. a year.
Though performing his ecclesiastical duties regularly, Mason never gave up his literary pursuits. In 1756 he published four odes. In 1757 some apology was made for not offering him the laureateship, vacant by the death of Gibber, which was declined by Gray and given to W. Whitehead. In 1759 he published his `Caractacus,' a rather better performance in the `Elfrida' style, which Gray had carefully criticised in manuscript and read `not with pleasure only but with emotion' (to Mason, 28 Sept. 1757). Mason's odes and the choruses in his dramas show a desire to imitate Gray, and the two were parodied by George Colman the elder [q. v.] and Robert Lloyd [q. v.] in their `Odes to Obscurity and Oblivion' (published in Lloyd's 'Poems'). Gray declined (to Mason, 20 Aug. 1760) to `combustle' about it, and Mason was equally wise. Mason published some `elegies' in 1762, and in 1764 a collection of his poems, omitting `Isis' and the `Installation Ode,' with a prefatory sonnet to Lord Holderness.
On 25 Sept. he married, at St. Mary's, Lowgate, Mary, daughter of William Sherman of Kingston-upon-Hull (register entry given in Notes and Queries, 6th ser. iv. 347). She soon fell into a consumption and died at Bristol, where she had gone to drink the Clifton waters, on 27 March 1767. She was buried in the north aisle of Bristol Cathedral, where there is a touching inscription by her husband (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 240), the last three lines of which were written by Gray. (The epitaph now in the cathedral is given in Mason, Works; Nichols, Lit. Anecd. ii. 240, gives an entirely different epitaph, and wrongly dated 24 March; information from Mr. William George of Bristol.) Mason appears to have done little for some time; Gray visited him for the last time in the summer of 1770, and on his death (30 July 1771) left the care of his papers to his friend. Mason had been to the last an affectionate disciple of Gray, who called him `Scroddles,' and condescended to a minute revision of all his poems before publication. Mason published Gray's `Life and Letters' in 1774. His plan of printing the letters as part of the life, said to have been suggested by Middleton's `Cicero,' was followed by later writers, including Boswell. Johnson himself had thought meanly of the 'Life,' describing it as `fit for the second table,' but he was doubtless not uninfluenced by Mason's whiggism in politics. Mason took great liberties with the letters, considering them less as biographical documents than as literary material to be edited and combined (see, e.g., his letter to Walpole of 28 June 1773, where he proposes to alter Gray's French and `run two letters into one'). The book, however, is in other respects well done. It brought him into a long correspondence with Horace Walpole, who supplied him with materials, and whom he consulted throughout. The correspondence continued after the publication of the life, and was published by Mitford in 1851. Walpole supplied the country parson with the freshest town gossip and `criticised' the works submitted to him, if criticism be a name applicable to unmixed flattery. They corresponded in particular about Mason's `Heroic Epistle,' a sharp satire, in the style of Pope, upon `Sir William Chambers' [q. v.], whose `Dissertation upon Oriental Gardening' appeared in 1772. This and some succeeding satires under the pseudonym of `Malcolm Macgregor' are very smartly written. Mason took great pains to conceal the authorship, and even his correspondence with Walpole is so expressed that the secret should not be revealed if the letters were opened at the post-office. The friendship, like most of Walpole's, led to a breach. Both correspondents were whigs, and even played at republicanism. When, however, Mason took a prominent part in the agitation which began with the Yorkshire petition for retrenchment and reform in the beginning of 1780 (he was a leading member of the county association for some years), Walpole thought that his friend was going into extremes. He remonstrated in several letters, and the friendship apparently cooled. Mason afterwards became an admirer of Pitt, to whom he addressed an ode, and he took the side of the court in the struggle over Fox's India Bill. Walpole thought that Mason had persuaded their common friend, Lord Harcourt, to oppose Fox's measure and become reconciled to the crown. In a couple of letters (one probably not sent) he showed that he could be as caustic on occasion as he had been effusive. In the suppressed letter he says that Mason had `floundered into a thousand absurdities' through a blind ambition of winning popularity. The letter actually sent was not milder in substance, and the friendship expired. In 1796 Mason again wrote to Walpole, however, and one or two civil letters passed between them. The French revolution had frightened both of them out of any sympathy for radical reforms.
Mason continued his literary labours after the ' Life of Gray.' His `Elfrida' was brought out at Covent Garden on 21 Nov. 1772 by Colman without his consent, and again, with alterations by himself, at the same theatre on 22 Feb. 1779. The `Caractacus,' also corrected by himself, was performed at Covent Garden on 1 Dec. 1776, and was again produced on 22 Oct. 1778. The success of both plays was very moderate. In 1778 he wrote an opera called `Sappho,' to be set to music by Giardini. Some other theatrical writings remained in manuscript. In 1777 he had a lawsuit with John Murray, the first publisher of the name, who had infringed his copyright by publishing extracts from Gray. Mason obtained an injunction, but Murray attacked him effectively in a pamphlet 'Concerning Mr. Mason's Edition of Mr. Gray's Poems, and the Practices of Booksellers,' 1777. Mason's other works are given below.
In 1797 Mason hurt his shin on a Friday in stepping out of his carriage. He was able to officiate in his church at Aston on the Sunday, but died from the injury on the following Wednesday, 7 April. A monument was erected to him in Westminster Abbey, close to Gray's, and the Countess Harcourt placed a cenotaph in the gardens at Nuneham. There is also a monument in Aston Church.
Mason was a man of considerable abilities and cultivated taste, who naturally mistook himself for a poet. He accepted the critical canons of his day, taking Gray and Hurd for his authorities, and his' serious attempts at poetry are rather vapid performances, to which his attempt to assimilate Gray's style gives an air of affectation. The `Heroic Epistle' gives him a place among the other followers of Pope's school in satire.
He was a good specimen of the more cultivated clergy of his day. He improved his church and built a village school (Mason and Walpole Corresp., i. xxiii). He had some antiquarian taste, like his friends Gray and Walpole. It was by his and Gray's criticisms that Walpole's eyes were opened to Chatterton's forgery. Mason was an accomplished musician. He composed some church music and published an essay upon the subject. He is said by a doubtful authority (Encycl. Brit. 1810) to have invented an improvement of the pianoforte brought out by Zumpe. Mrs. Delany says that he also invented a modification called the `Celestina,' upon which he performed with much expression; this is the instrument mentioned in the `Mason and Walpole Correspondence' as the celestinette (Encycl. Brit. 9th ed. `Pianoforte;' Grove, Dictionary of Music, `Mason' and 'Pianoforte;' Mrs. Delany, Autobiography, &c., 2nd ser. ii. 90). He was also something of an artist, and a portrait which he painted of the poet Whitehead was in 1853 bequeathed by the Rev. William Alderson, together with the poet's favourite chair, to the Rev. John Mitford, the editor of the `Gray and Mason Correspondence' (Gent. Mag. 1853, i. 338).
Mason's works are: 1. ' Musæus, a Monody to the Memory of Mr. Pope, in Imitation of Milton's "Lycidas,"' 1747. 2. 'Isis, a Monologue,' 1749. 3. `Ode on the Installation of the Duke of Newcastle as Chancellor of the University of Cambridge on 1 July 1749,' 1749. 4. 'Elfrida: written on the model of the antient Greek Tragedy,' 1752. 5. `Odes,' 1756. 6. 'Caractacus: written on the model of the antient Greek Tragedy,' 1759; a Greek translation was published in 1781 by George Henry Glasse [q.v.] 7. 'Elegies,' 1763. 8. `Animadversions on the Present Government of the York Lunatic Asylum,' &c., 1772. 9. `The English Garden,' bk. i. 1772; bk. ii. 1777; bk. iii. 1779; bk. iv. 1782. 10. 'An Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers,' 1773. 11. 'An Heroic Postscript,' 1774. 12. 'Life of Gray,' 1774. 18. `Ode to Mr. Pinchbeck, upon his newly invented Candle-snuffers, by Malcolm Macgregor, Author of the "Heroic Epistle,"' 1776. 14. `An Epistle to Dr. Shebbeare; to which is added an Ode to Sir Fletcher Norton, by Malcolm Macgregor,' &c., 1777. 15. `Ode to the Naval Officers of Great Britain,' 1779. 16. `Ode to William Pitt,' 1782. 17. `The Dean and the Squire, a Political Eclogue by the Author of the "Heroic Epistle," ' 1782. 18. 'The Art of Painting' (translated from Du Fresnoy, 'De Arte Graphica'), 1782. 19. `Collection of the Psalms of David' (used as anthems in York Cathedral), published `under the direction of W. Mason, by whom is prefixed a Critical and Historical Essay on Cathedral Music,' 1782 (the essay also published separately). 20. `Secular Ode,' 1788. 21. 'Life of W. Whitehead' (prefixed to Whitehead's `Poems'), 1788. 22. `Sappho, a Lyrical Drama in three Acts,' by Mason, with an Italian translation by Mathias, was published at Naples in 1809, first printed in the 1797 volume (below).
Besides the above, `Mirth, a Poem in Answer to Warton's "Pleasures of Melancholy," by a Gentleman of Cambridge' (1774), with dedication by `W. M.,' has been attributed to Mason, but can hardly be his. The `Archaeological Epistle' to Dean Miller, also attributed to him, was written by John Baynes (Nichols, Lit. Anecd. viii. 113).Mason's poems were collected in one volume in 1764, and in two volumes in 1774. A third volume, prepared by himself, was added in 1797. His `Works' were collected in four volumes in 1811.
[Chalmers' English Poets, xviii. 307-17, contains the first published life; lives prefixed to an edition of the English Garden in 1814 and, by S. W. Singer, to Mason's poems in vols. lxxvii. and lxxviii. of British Poets (Chiswick) in 1822 add little. J. Mitford edited Mason's correspondence with Walpole in 1851, and his correspondence with Gray in 1853. The letters to Walpole are reprinted, with one or two additions, in the notes to Cunningham's edition of Walpole's Correspondence. See also Letters of an Eminent Prelate (Warburton), 1809, pp. 71, 83, 87, 93, 100, 106, 171, 293, 300, 305, 341, 396, 418, 469, 475, 478; Biog. Dramatica; Genest's History of the Stage, v. 360-3, 563, vi. 87, 95, 271, 340, vii. 99; Mant's Life of Thomas Warton prefixed to Warton's Poetical Works, 1802, i. pp.xv-xxii; various lives of Gray; Nichols's Lit. Anecd.; Hartley Coleridge's Worthies of Yorkshire, for a life and a long criticism of the poems, and Southey's Doctor, chaps. lxvii. and cxxvi., and Commonplace Book, 4th ser. pp. 294-6.]