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William Shenstone's years at Oxford.

William Shenstone's experiences as an undergraduate at Pembroke College, Oxford, were vividly conveyed by his friend and contemporary, Richard Graves, in his Recollection (1788),(1) but there has long been uncertainty for biographers about Shenstone's actual period of residence. It was known that he matriculated on 24 May 1732 and that he studied for a degree for four years, but otherwise there has been less clarity.

This can be explained. No biography of Shenstone was published during his lifetime and only a few letters have been discovered for this period of his life, mainly about his visit to Richard Graves's home at Mickleton Manor, Gloucestershire, in 1736. When Robert Dodsley published Shenstone's Works in 1764, the preface written by Dodsley(2) was intended to encourage readers to purchase rather than provide biographical details; and Dodsley had not come to know Shenstone as a friend until the mid 1750s. The details of Shenstone's life published in the Gentleman's Magazine(3) in 1764 were largely based on Dodsley's account. The preface to the third volume of Shenstone's Works in 1769, written by Richard Graves, dealt with the propriety of publishing private letters rather than biography.

It was not until 1781, eighteen years after Shenstone's death, that information about Shenstone's years at Oxford began to emerge when Nash's Collections for a History of Worcestershire and Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets included accounts of Shenstone's Oxford life. Nash's first volume was published on 4 April 1781; Johnson's Preface on Shenstone, Vol. X, was published on 17 May; both works were printed by John Nichols. Both writers had similar statements to make. To quote Nash:

Of this college he continued a member over ten years having at the end of the first four years put on a Civilian's gown, but with what design does not appear, for he never took a degree, and apparently never intended to follow any profession as he had long before succeeded to his patronal estate.(4)

Nash added a note that Shenstone finally left college on 25 March 1742. Nash's information was said to have come from John Scott Hylton, Shenstone's neighbour at Lapal House, Halesowen, who had not become friendly with Shenstone until 1752.(5) Johnson matched Nash's words in his remarks about Shenstone at Pembroke College:

Here it appears that he found delight and advantage, for he continued his name in the book ten years, though he took no degree. After the first four years he put on the civilian's gown, but without showing any intention to engage in the profession.(6)

Graves's response to Johnson was to elaborate on the details in his Recollection (1788). Graves knew about Shenstone's life while both of them lived at Pembroke College, but he graduated on 25 June 1736. That November he was elected a fellow of All Souls College and lost close contact with his friend. To quote Graves:

Mr Shenstone obtained no academical honours, nor took any degree in the university . . . as his fortune was a very sufficient foundation for a genteel profession, he intended to have take his degrees, and to have proceeded in the study of physic.

Graves also added, conveying his uncertainty:

Having once neglected to return to the university at the proper season, he deferred it from time to time, till at length he felt a reluctance to returning at all: so that, although he kept his name in the college books, and changed his commoner's gown for that of a civilian, yet he had now, I believe, no thoughts of proceeding to any degree; and seldom resided in college any more.(7)

Nineteenth-century biographers became more vague about Shenstone's Oxford days, typical being Gilfillan's remarks in the introduction to Shenstone's Poetical Works (1854):

After attending at Pembroke for four years, he put on the civilian's gown, but never went further in that direction. He continued his name on the college books for a considerable number of years after he had left.(8)

In the DNB entry, it is simply stated that 'he took no degree but kept his name on the college books until 1742'.(9)

Twentieth-century biographers seized upon Graves's remarks and generalized accordingly. Purkis, referring to the summer of 1736, said that Shenstone 'no doubt left Oxford for the long vacation with the full intention of returning as usual, but apparently he never did so'.(10) Williams also had Shenstone leaving Oxford in 1736, stating that 'he overstayed his college leave, and though his name remained on the books for some time, he never again returned to Oxford',(11) though her assertion was modified in her edition of Shenstone's Letters (1939) when she stated that his first poems were printed while he was still in Oxford in 1737.(12) Humphreys similarly relied on Graves's comment that Shenstone 'prolonged his stay in the country beyond what the business of the college regularly admitted'.(13)

The vagueness over two centuries has led general biographers to avoid remarks about Shenstone's Oxford dates or to state erroneously that he was educated at 'Pembroke College, Oxford (1732-6), but as was often the fashion left without taking his degree'.(14)

Fortunately, the Battels Books of Pembroke College, Oxford, can help to clarify the situation and leave future biographers in no doubt. The crucial comment in eighteenth-century statements is that Shenstone in 1736 'put on a Civilian's gown', that is, was seen by Pembroke College to have become a student of Civil Law. The Battels Books, with two foolscap pages devoted to each week, set out the name of each member of the college at the time and the charge for that week, listing fellows and graduates first, followed by undergraduates in chronological order according to their date of matriculation.(15) In Shenstone's time there were about fifty names on the Battels Books of whom some thirty were undergraduates. The detailed items were written in a shorthand used in the buttery but the date of each week and the amount due are set out clearly. Some entries refer to college dues or indicate a multiple of five pence a week which was apparently the cost of retaining a room in college, but periods of continuous residence are readily identifiable.(16)

Shenstone's name first appears for 19 May 1732 inserted as 'Gulielmus Shenstone' between two other names. From 26 May it was given a separate line and his name was then entered continuously until 26 March 1742. His periods of continuous residence, over 150 weeks in total, may best be set out as follows:

Weeks ending 3 November-15 December 1732 2 February-24 August 1733 29 February-20 December 1734 25 April-18 July 1735 12 March-16 August 1736 4 March-15 July 1737 20 April-10 August 1739

In passing, it is interesting to note that Shenstone's name fascinated someone in the buttery in 1736 because it was written twelve times on the fly-leaf. His average bill was approximately ten shillings per week, typical of the charges commoners were incurring.

The crucial date in the Battels Books is 2 April 1736 because the position of Shenstone's name was altered. For three weeks it was written twice, on the first page with the graduates and on the second page with the undergraduates. From 23 April onwards his name was placed on the first page and he was referred to as [D.sup.s] Shenstone, the abbreviation standing for 'Dominus' [Bachelor of Arts]. Those in Pembroke's buttery believed that he had graduated. By 1742 his name was heading the list of graduates.

No doubt Shenstone changed his course of study in 1736, though he never claimed to have an Oxford degree. His spending also increased, in 1737 rising on a number of occasions to over a pound a week. It is also clear that he was in residence when his Poems Upon Various Occasions were published by Leonard Lichfield of Holywell Street in late April 1737. This first collection, incidentally, has one of two title-pages, one bearing his name, the other anonymous. On the fly-leaf of his copy which bore his name he added the note: 'Mem. 50 Copies of this were printed & given away' but it is not clear if this refers solely to the named copies.(17)

From mid-July 1737 until mid-April 1739 Shenstone was away from Oxford but he returned to Pembroke College for a further sixteen weeks of residence under the new Master Dr John Ratcliff whom he praised in a poem written at the college and dated 29 May 1739 Oxford, however, had changed; his friends had moved on. Although he kept his name on the books for almost a further three years, in early August 1739 he brought his residence to an end.

F. D. A. BURNS Kingswinford

1 R. Graves, Recollection of some Particulars in the life of the late William Shenstone (1788), 13-22.

2 Cf. R. Dodsley, Letters, ed. J. E. Tierney (1988), 115 n. I.

3 Gentleman's Magazine, xxiv (1764), 170.

4 T. R. Nash, Collections for a History of Worcestershire, (1781), 529 30.

5 Cf. Shenstone, Letters, ed. M. Williams (1939), 338.

6 S. Johnson, Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, 'William Shenstone'. See also J. H. Leicester, 'Johnson's Life of Shenstone: Some Observations on the Sources', Johnsonian Studies (1962), 189-222.

7 R. Graves, Recollection (1788), 31 2, 36.

8 Shenstone, Poetical Works, ed. Gilfillan (1854), viii.

9 DNB, lii, 48-9.

10 E. M. Purkis, William Shenstone (1931), 24.

11 M. Williams, William Shenstone (1935), 11.

12 Shenstone, Letters, ed. M. Williams (1939), xi.

13 A. R. Humphreys, William Shenstone (1937), 22.

14 Penguin Companion to Literature, I (1971), 474.

15 I am indebted to the Master and Fellows of Pembroke College, Oxford and to G. R. F. Bredin, former Bursar of the college for permission to consult the Battels Books.

16 Cf. G. B. Hill, Dr Johnson, His Friends and His Critics (1878), 23-5, 36, 330-2.

17 Sotheby Catalogue (28-9 October 1968), Lot 432, 102-3.
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Author:Burns, F.D.A.
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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