Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Tasker, William

TASKER, WILLIAM (1740–1800), poet and antiquary, born in 1740, was the only son of William Tasker (1708–1772), rector of Iddesleigh, Devonshire, from 6 July 1738, who married Jane, ‘the last branch of the ancient family of the Vickries;’ she died at Iddesleigh on 30 June 1795, aged 83 (Gent. Mag. 1795, ii. 616; monument at Iddesleigh).

Tasker was educated at Barnstaple, and matriculated from Exeter College, Oxford, on 20 Feb. 1758. He remained there as sojourner until 10 March 1762, and graduated B.A. on 2 Feb. 1762. On 24 June 1764 he was ordained deacon, and on the next day was licensed to the curacy of Monk-Okehampton, near his father's parish. He was ordained priest on 12 July 1767.

At his father's death Tasker was instituted (6 Nov. 1772), on his mother's presentation, to the vacant rectory of Iddesleigh. He had all the imprudence of the poetic race, and on 23 March 1780 the revenues of his benefice were placed under sequestration. His own complaint was that the sequestration was obtained in an ‘illegal mode’ by his ‘unletter'd brother-in-law,’ arising out of ‘merciless and severe persecutions and litigations.’ By 1790 this enemy was dead, and after ‘a continual struggle with sickness and adversity’ Tasker died in great agonies at Iddesleigh rectory on 4 Feb. 1800. He was buried close by the chancel, near his father's tomb, a mural tablet being erected on the north side of the tower. The widow, Eleonora Tasker, died at Exbourne on 2 Jan. 1801, aged 56, and was buried in the same grave with her husband. They had no children.

The description of Tasker's interview with Dr. Johnson on 16 March 1779 is one of the most lifelike passages in Boswell. Boswell found Tasker submitting his poems to the judgment of the ‘great critick.’ ‘The bard was a lank, bony figure, with short black hair; he was writhing himself in agitation while Johnson read, and, showing his teeth in a grin of earnestness, exclaimed in broken sentences and in a keen, sharp tone, “Is that poetry, sir—is it Pindar?”’ Some time later Isaac D'Israeli, while at a watering-place on the coast of Devonshire, recognised Tasker by this description. Tasker was a friend of Dr. William Hunter, attended his lectures, and studied botany in the gardens at Kew. He was ‘a well-known physiognomist, and of his day the greatest Greek scholar of the west. He had studied the human countenance and was an adept in anatomy’ (Mrs. Bray, Life of her Husband, vol. i. pp. xii–xiii; and Tamar and the Tavy, iii. 194–5).

Tasker's works included: 1. ‘Ode to the Warlike Genius of Great Britain’ (anon.), 1778; 2nd edit. 1779; 3rd edit., with other poems, 1779. The principal of the other poems was ‘An Ode to Curiosity: a Bath-Easton Amusement;’ 2nd edit. 1779, which had been previously published as ‘by Impartialist.’ The ‘Ode to the Warlike Genius’ was inscribed to Lord Amherst, and it was inserted in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ 1798, ii. 1066, and in the volumes for 1799. Some new stanzas were spoken before the king at Weymouth (Gent. Mag. 1798, ii. 882). 2. ‘Carmen Seculare of Horace, translated into English verse’ (anon.), 1779. 3. ‘Congratulatory Ode to Admiral Keppell’ (anon.), 1779. 4. ‘Elegy on the Death of David Garrick’ (anon.), 1779; 2nd edit., with additions, 1779. 5. ‘Ode to Memory of Bishop Wilson,’ 1780; reproduced in the bishop's works (1781 edit.), vol. i. app. pp. cxxxi–iv. 6. ‘Ode to Speculation: a poetical Amusement for Bath Easton,’ 1780. 7. ‘Select Odes of Pindar and Horace translated,’ with original poems and notes, vol. i. only, 1780; 2nd edit. in 3 vols. 1790–3. Prefixed to the second edition is a portrait in an oval frame ‘Cross pinxit. W. N. Gardiner, sculpt.’ Most of Tasker's published poems were reproduced in this edition, which also included letters on the anatomy of Homer. 8. ‘Annus Mirabilis, or the Eventful Year 1782,’ 1783. 9. A series of letters [chiefly on the wounds and deaths in the ‘Iliad,’ ‘Æneid,’ and ‘Pharsalia’], 1794; 2nd edit. 1798. Several of the letters are on the bites of vipers, and contain curious information. 10. ‘Arviragus: a Tragedy,’ 1796; 2nd edit. 1798. It was twice performed in March 1797 at the Exeter Theatre. 11. Extracts from his naval and military poems, Bath, 1799. Tasker was employed at the time of his death on a history of physiognomy from Aristotle to Lavater, and many letters by him on this subject appeared in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ (vols. lxvii–ix.).

[Foster's Alumni Oxon.; Boase's Exeter Coll. Commoners, p. 316; Boswell's Johnson, ed. Hill, iii. 373–5; Gent. Mag. 1781 p. 227, 1791 i. 161, 1800 i. 283–4, 1801 i. 90; Nichols's Lit. Anecd. ix. 206–8; Genealogist, 1883, vii. 263–4; Halkett and Laing's Anon. Literature, i. 309, 477, 735, iii. 1803; information from Mr. Arthur Burch, F.S.A., diocesan registry, Exeter.]

W. P. C.