Shenstone’s School-Mistress by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

The inimitable “School-Mistress” of Shenstone is one of the felicities of genius; but the purpose of this poem has been entirely misconceived. Johnson, acknowledging this charming effusion to be “the most pleasing of Shenstone’s productions” observes, “I know not what claim it has to stand among the moral works.” The truth is, that it was intended for quite a different class by the author, and Dodsley, the editor of his works, must have strangely blundered in designating it “a moral poem.” It may be classed with a species of poetry, till recently, rare in our language, and which we sometimes find among the Italians, in their rime piacevoli, or poesie burlesche, which do not always consist of low humour in a facetious style with jingling rhymes, to which form we attach our idea of a burlesque poem. There is a refined species of ludicrous poetry, which is comic yet tender, lusory yet elegant, and with such a blending of the serious and the facetious, that the result of such a poem may often, among its other pleasures, produce a sort of ambiguity; so that we do not always know whether the writer is laughing at his subject, or whether he is to be laughed at. Our admirable Whistlecraft met this fate![1] “The School-Mistress” of Shenstone has been admired for its simplicity and tenderness, not for its exquisitely ludicrous turn!

This discovery I owe to the good fortune of possessing the edition of “The School-Mistress,” which the author printed under his own directions, and to his own fancy.[2] To this piece of LUDICROUS POETRY, as he calls it, “lest it should be mistaken,” he added a LUDICROUS INDEX, “purely to show fools that I am in jest.” But “the fool,” his subsequent editor, who, I regret to say, was Robert Dodsley, thought proper to suppress this amusing “ludicrous index,” and the consequence is, as the poet foresaw, that his aim has been “mistaken.”

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The whole history of this poem, and this edition, may be traced in the printed correspondence of Shenstone. Our poet had pleased himself by ornamenting “A sixpenny pamphlet,” with certain “seemly” designs of his, and for which he came to town to direct the engraver; he appears also to have intended accompanying it with “The deformed portrait of my old school-dame, Sarah Lloyd.” The frontispiece to this first edition represents the “Thatched-house” of his old schoolmistress, and before it is the “birch-tree,” with “the sun setting and gilding the scene.” He writes on this, “I have the first sheet to correct upon the table. I have laid aside the thoughts of fame a good deal in this unpromising scheme; and fix them upon the landskip which is engraving, the red letter which I propose, and the fruit-piece which you see, being the most seemly ornaments of the first sixpenny pamphlet that was ever so highly honoured. I shall incur the same reflection with Ogilby, of having nothing good but my decorations. I expect that in your neighbourhood and in Warwickshire there should be twenty of my poems sold. I print it myself. I am pleased with Mynde’s engravings.”

On the publication Shenstone has opened his idea on its poetical characteristic. “I dare say it must be very incorrect; for I have added eight or ten stanzas within this fortnight. But inaccuracy is more excusable in ludicrous poetry than in any other. If it strikes any, it must be merely people of taste; for people of wit without taste, which comprehends the larger part of the critical tribe, will unavoidably despise it. I have been at some pains to recover myself from A. Phi**** misfortune of mere childishness, ‘Little charm of placid mien,’ etc. I have added a ludicrous index purely to show (fools) that I am in jest; and my motto, ‘O, qua sol habitabiles illustrat oras, maxima principum!’ is calculated for the same purpose. You cannot conceive how large the number is of those that mistake burlesque for the very foolishness it exposes; which observation I made once at the Rehearsal, at Tom Thumb, at Chrononhotonthologos, all which, are pieces of elegant humour. I have some mind to pursue this caution further, and advertise it ‘The School-Mistress,’ etc. a very childish performance everybody knows (novorum more). But if a person seriously calls this, or rather burlesque, a childish or low species of poetry, he says wrong. For the most regular and formal poetry may be called trifling, folly, and weakness, in comparison of what is written with a more manly spirit in ridicule of it.’

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This edition is now lying before me, with its splendid “red-letter,” its “seemly designs,” and, what is more precious, its “Index.” Shenstone, who had greatly pleased himself with his graphical inventions, at length found that his engraver, Mynde, had sadly bungled with the poet’s ideal. Vexed and disappointed, he writes, “I have been plagued to death about the ill-execution of my designs. Nothing is certain in London but expense, which I can ill bear.” The truth is, that what is placed in the landskip over the thatched-house, and the birch-tree, is like a falling monster rather than a setting sun; but the fruit-piece at the end, the grapes, the plums, the melon, and the Catharine pears, Mr. Mynde has made sufficiently tempting. This edition contains only twenty-eight stanzas, which were afterwards enlarged to thirty-five. Several stanzas have been omitted, and they have also passed through many corrections, and some improvements, which show that Shenstone had more judgment and felicity in severe correction than perhaps is suspected. Some of these I will point out.[3]

In the second stanza, the first edition has,

In every mart that stands on Britain’s isle,
In every village less reveal’d to fame,
Dwells there in cottage known about a mile,
A matron old, whom we schoolmistress name.

Improved thus:–

In every village mark’d with little spire,
Embower’d in trees, and hardly known to fame,
There dwells in lowly shed and mean attire,
A matron old, whom we schoolmistress name.

The eighth stanza, in the first edition, runs,

The gown, which o’er her shoulders thrown she had,
Was russet stuff (who knows not russet stuff?)
Great comfort to her mind that she was clad
In texture of her own, all strong and tough;
Ne did she e’er complain, ne deem it rough, etc.

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More elegantly descriptive is the dress as now delineated:–

A russet stole was o’er her shoulders thrown,
A russet kirtle fenced the nipping air;
‘Twas simple russet, but it was her own:
‘Twas her own country bred the flock so fair,
‘Twas her own labour did the fleece prepare, etc.

The additions made to the first edition consist of the 11, 12, 13, 14, and 15th stanzas, in which are so beautifully introduced the herbs and garden stores, and the psalmody of the schoolmistress; the 29th and 30th stanzas were also subsequent insertions. But those lines which give so original a view of genius in its infancy,

A little bench of heedless bishops here,
And there a chancellor in embryo, etc.

were printed in 1742; and I cannot but think that the far-famed stanza in Gray’s Elegy, where he discovers men of genius in peasants, as Shenstone has in children, was suggested by this original conception:

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood,

is, to me, a congenial thought, with an echoed turn of expression of the lines from the School-Mistress.

I shall now restore the ludicrous INDEX, and adapt it to the stanzas of the later edition.

Introduction 1
The subject proposed 2
A circumstance in the situation of the MANSION OF EARLY
DISCIPLINE, discovering the surprising influence of the
connexions of ideas 3
A simile; introducing a deprecation of the joyless effects
Some peculiarities indicative of a COUNTRY SCHOOL, with a
short sketch of the SOVEREIGN presiding over it 5
Some account of her NIGHTCAP, APRON, and a tremendous
description of her BIRCHEN SCEPTER 6
A parallel instance of the advantages of LEGAL GOVERNMENT
with regard to children and the wind 7
Her gown 8
Her TITLES, and punctilious nicety in the ceremonious
assertion of them
A digression concerning her HEN'S presumptuous behaviour, with
a circumstance tending to give the cautious reader a more
accurate idea of the officious diligence and economy
of an old woman. 10
A view of this RURAL POTENTATE as seated in her chair of state,
conferring HONOURS, distributing BOUNTIES, and dispersing
The ACTION of the poem commences with a general summons,
follows a particular description of the artful structure,
decoration, and fortifications of an HORN-BIBLE 18
A surprising picture of sisterly affection
by way of episode 20, 21
A short list of the methods now in use to avoid a
whipping--which nevertheless follows 22
The force of example 23
A sketch of the particular symptoms of obstinacy as they
discover themselves in a child, with a simile illustrating
a blubbered face 24, 25, 26
A hint of great importance 27
The piety of the poet in relation to that school-dame's memory,
who had the first formation of a CERTAIN patriot.
[This stanza has been left out in the later editions; it refers
to the Duke of Argyle.]
The secret connexion between WHIPPING and RISING IN THE WORLD,
with a view, as it were, through a perspective, of the same
LITTLE FOLK in the highest posts and reputation 28
An account of the nature of an EMBRYO-FOX-HUNTER.--
[Another stanza omitted.]
A deviation to an huckster's shop 32
Which being continued for the space of three stanzas, gives the
author an opportunity of paying his compliments to a particular
county, which he gladly seizes; concluding his piece with
respectful mention of the ancient and loyal city of SHREWSBURY.

[Footnote 1:
“Prospectus and specimen of an intended national work by William and Robert Whistlecraft, of Stowmarket, in Suffolk; harness and collar makers; intended to comprise the most interesting particulars relating to King Arthur and his Round Table.” The real author of Mr. Whistlecraft’s specimen was the Right Hon. J. Hookham Frere, who has the merit of having first introduced the Italian burlesque style into our literature. Lord Byron composed his “Beppo” confessedly after this example. “It is,” he writes, “a humorous poem; in, and after, the excellent manner of Mr. Whistlecraft;” who published this “specimen” only, which was little read. ]

[Footnote 2:
The original edition was printed in 1757 without engravings. They occur only in that which is described in our text. ]

[Footnote 3:
I have usually found the School-Mistress printed without numbering the stanzas; to enter into the present view it will be necessary for the reader to do this himself with a pencil-mark. ]

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