Son of Thomas Shenstone and Anne Penn, daughter of William Penn of Harborough Hall, then in Hagley (now Blakedown), Shenstone was born at the Leasowes, Halesowen. At that time this was an enclave of Shropshire within the county of Worcestershire and now in the West Midlands. Shenstone received part of his formal education at Halesowen Grammar School (now The Earls High School). In 1741, Shenstone became bailiff to the feoffees of Halesowen Grammar School.
While attending Solihull School, he began a lifelong friendship with Richard Jago. He went up to Pembroke College, Oxford in 1732 and made another firm friend there in Richard Graves, the author of The Spiritual Quixote.
Shenstone took no degree, but, while still at Oxford, he published Poems on various occasions, written for the entertainment of the author (1737). This edition was intended for private circulation only but, containing the first draft of The Schoolmistress, it attracted some wider attention. Shenstone tried hard to suppress it but in 1742 he published anonymously a revised draft of The Schoolmistress, a Poem in imitation of Spenser. The inspiration of the poem was Sarah Lloyd, teacher of the village school where Shenstone received his first education. Isaac D'Israeli contended that Robert Dodsley had been misled in publishing it as one of a sequence of Moral Poems, its intention having been satirical, as evidenced by the ludicrous index appended to its original publication.
In 1741 he published The Judgment of Hercules. He inherited the Leasowes estate, and retired there in 1745 to undertake what proved the chief work of his life, the beautifying of his property. He embarked on elaborate schemes of landscape gardening which gave The Leasowes a wide celebrity (see ferme ornée), but sadly impoverished the owner. Shenstone was not a contented recluse. He desired constant admiration of his gardens, and he never ceased to lament his lack of fame as a poet.
Shenstone died unmarried.
Shenstone's poems of nature were written in praise of her most artificial aspects, but the emotions they express were obviously genuine. His Schoolmistress was admired by Oliver Goldsmith, with whom Shenstone had much in common, and his Elegies written at various times and to some extent biographical in character won the praise of Robert Burns who, in the preface to Poems, chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), called him ... that celebrated poet whose divine elegies do honour to our language, our nation and our species. The best example of purely technical skill in his works is perhaps his success in the management of the anapaestic trimeter in his Pastoral Ballad in Four Parts (written in 1743), but first printed in Dodsley's Collection of Poems (vol. iv., 1755).
Arthur Schopenhauer mentions Shenstone in his discussion of equivocation. "[C]oncepts", Schopenhauer asserted, "which in and by themselves contain nothing improper, yet the actual case brought under them leads to an improper conception" are called equivocations. He continued:
But a perfect specimen of a sustained and magnificent equivocation is Shenstone's incomparable epitaph on a justice of the peace, which in its high-sounding lapidary style appears to speak of noble and sublime things, whereas under each of their concepts something quite different is to be subsumed, which appears only in the last word of all as the unexpected key to the whole, and the reader discovers with loud laughter that he has read merely a very obscene equivocation.[a]
Shenstone's works were first published by his friend Robert Dodsley (3 vols., 1764–1769). The second volume contains Dodsley's description of the Leasowes. The last, consisting of correspondence with Graves, Jago and others, appeared after Dodsley's death. Other letters of Shenstone's are included in Select Letters (ed. Thomas Hill 1778). The letters of Lady Luxborough (née Henrietta St John) to Shenstone were printed by T. Dodsley in 1775; much additional correspondence is preserved in the British Museum letters to Lady Luxborough (Add. MS. 28958), Dodsley's letters to Shenstone (Add. MS. 28959), and correspondence between Shenstone and Bishop Percy from 1757 to 1763 the last being of especial interest; To Shenstone was due the original suggestion of Percy's Reliques, a service which would alone entitle him to a place among the precursors of the romantic movement in English literature.
In a letter written in 1741 Shenstone became the first person to record the use of "floccinaucinihilipilification". In the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary this was recognised as the longest word in the English language.
- One of the five houses of Solihull School is named after him.
- One of the four houses of The Earls High School (formerly Halesowen Grammar School) is named after him.
- Solihull School's annual publication is named after him – The Shenstonian.
- Louis-René Girardin built a memorial in the French town of Ermenonville.
- A prominent public house (pub) in Halesowen (Queensway) is named "The William Shenstone". The walls are adorned with engravings of The Leasowes in Shenstone's time.
- Two roads in the area near to his home in the Leasowes Park are named in his honour: Shenstone Valley Road and Shenstone Avenue.
- This poem about the passing of wind, entitled Inscription, can be read at Inscription.
- Aitken, George Atherton (1897). "Shenstone, William". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 52. London: Smith, Elder & Co. pp. 48–50.
- Schopenhauer, Arthur (1969), "Chapter 7", The World as Will and Representation 2, Dover Publications9, p. 94
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Shenstone, William". Encyclopædia Britannica 24 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 389.. Endnotes see also:
- Richard Graves, Recollections of some particulars in the Life of the Late William Shenstone (1788);
- H. Sydney Grazebrook, The Family of Shenstone the Poet (1890); Lennox Morison,
- " Shenstone," in the Gentleman't Magazine (vol. 289, 1900, pp. 196–205);
- Alexander Chalmers, English Poets (1810, vol. xiii.), with " Life " by Samuel Johnson;
- "The Poetical Works of William Shenstone" (in Library Edition of the British Poets, 1854), with " Life " by George Gilfillan;
- T. D'Israeli, " The Domestic Life of a Poet: Shenstone vindicated," in Curiosities of Literature;
- " Burns and Shenstone," in Furth in Field (1894), by " Hugh Haliburton " (J. L. Robertson).
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- Shenstone and the Leasowes at the Revolutionary Players website
- Text of The Schoolmistress
- Essay, William Shenstone and the Leasowes: the English Landscape Garden in Transition, c.1740–1763
- Complete text, with annotations, of Shenstone's Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening (1764)
- Selected Works
- Archival material relating to William Shenstone listed at the UK National Archives
- Portraits of William Shenstone at the National Portrait Gallery, London
- Works by or about William Shenstone at Internet Archive
- Works by William Shenstone at LibriVox (public domain audiobooks)