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THE LIFE OF
THIS illustrious poet was born at London, in 1688, and was descended from a good family of that name in Oxfordshire, the head of which was the Earl of Downe, whose sole heiress married the Earl of Lindsey. His father, a man of primitive simplicity and integrity of manners, was a merchant of London, who upon the Revolution, quitted trade, and converted his effects into money, amounting to near 10,000l. with which he retired into the country; and died in 1717, at the age of seventy-five.
Our poet's mother, who lived to a very advanced age, being ninety-three years old when she died, in 1733, was the daughter of William Turner, Esq. of York. She had three brothers, one of whom was killed, another died in the service of King Charles; and the eldest, following his fortunes, and becoming a general officer in Spain, left her what estate remained after sequestration and forfeitures of her family. To these circumstances our poet alludes in his Epistles to Dr. Arbuthnot, in which he mentions his parents:
Of gentle blood (part shed in honour's cause,
Nor marrying discord in a noble wife;
The good man walk'd innoxious through his age:
His life, though long, to sickness pass'd unknown;
The education of our great author was attended with circumstances very singular, and some of them extremely unfavourable; but the amazing force of his genius fully compensated the want of any advantage in his earliest instruction. He owed the knowledge of his letters to an aunt; and having learned very early to read, took great delight in it, and taught himself to write by copying after printed books, the characters of which he would imitate to great perfection. He began to compose verses farther back than he could well remember; and at eight years of age, when he was put under one Taverner, a priest, who taught him the rudiments of the Latin and Greek tongues at the same time, he met with Ogilby's Homer, which gave him great delight; and this was increased by Sandy's Ovid. The raptures which these authors, even in the disguise of such translations, then yielded him were so strong, that he spoke of them with pleasure ever after. From Mr. Taverner's tuition he was sent toa private school at Twiford, near Winchester, where he continued about a year, and was then removed to another near Hyde-Park Corner; but was so unfortunate as to lose under his two last masters what he had acquired under the first.
While he remained at this school, being permitted to go to the playhouse with some of his school-fellows of a more advanced age, he was so charmed with dramatic representations, that he formed the translation of the Iliad into a play, from several of the speeches in Ogilby's translation connected with verses of his own; and the several parts were performed by the upper boys of the school, except that of Ajax by the master's gardener. At the age of twelve our young poet went to his father, to reside at his house at Binfield, in Windsor Forest, where he was, for a few months, under the tuition of another priest, with as little success as before; so that he resolved now to become his own master, by reading those classic writers which gave him most entertainment; and by this method, at fifteen he gained a ready habit in the learned languages, to which be soon after added the French and Italian. Upon his retreat to the forest, he became first acquainted with
the writings of Waller, Spenser, and Dryden; in the last of which he immediately found what he wanted, and the poems of that excellent writer were never out of his hands; they became his model, and from them alone he learned the whole magic of his versification.
The first of our author's compositions now extant in print, is an Ode on Solitude, written before he was twelve years old; which, considered as the production of so early an age, is a perfect masterpiece: nor need he be ashamed of it had it been written in the meridian of his genius; while it breathes the most delicate spirit of poetry, it at the same time demonstrates his love of solitude, and the rational pleasures which attend the retreats of a contented country life.
Two years after this he translated the First Book of Statius's Thebais, and wrote a copy of verses on Silence, in imitation of the Earl of Rochester's Poem on Nothing. Thus we find him no sooner capa ble of holding the pen than he employed it in writing verses:
"He lisp'd in numbers, for the numbers came."
Though we have had frequent opportunity to observe that poets have given early displays of genius, yet we cannot recollect that amongst the inspired tribe one can be found who, at the age of twelve, could produce so animated an ode, or at the age of fourteen, translate from the Latin. It has been reported indeed concerning Mr. Dryden, that when he was at Westminster school, the master, who had assigned a poetical task to some of the boys of writ ing a paraphrase on our Saviour's miracle of turning water into wine, was perfectly astonished when young Dryden presented him with the following line, which he asserted was the best comment could be written upon it;
The conscious water saw its God and blush'd.