William Somervile

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William Somervile

William Somervile or Somerville (2 September 1675 – 19 July 1742) was an English poet.


The name Somervile is a corruption of Somerville, derived from Saint-Omer in Normandy.

The first of the Somervilles was Sir Gaulter de Somerville, who fought with William the Conqueror in England. He died at the end of the Eleventh Century and left three sons. William Somervile descended from the third son and was the last of the English Somerville house (a Scottish line continued). Their crest had inscribed on it, "The Woe Laird".

His family includes other famous figures in Scottish history. One of his relatives was named William de Somerville, who according to legend killed the last snake in Scotland. Philip of Whichnow, another relative, instituted the tradition of the Dunmow Flitch which is giving a gift of bacon to two people who have been married a year without having an argument. Philip's son Sir Thomas joined William Wallace to fight for the freedom of Scotland. James Somervile served with the French and Venetian service and when he returned home he held the rank of lieutenant-colonel.

Adult life[edit]

Somervile was the eldest son of a country gentleman, and was born at Edstone, in the parish of Warren, Warwickshire in 1677. He was educated at Winchester College and at New College, Oxford, where he studied law. While in school he did not show any hint of great knowledge of literature or seem to have a knack for writing poetry. His love of poetry did not come until he was of middle age. He was a part of the Whig Party. After his father's death in 1705 he lived on his estate. He was known to be very hospitable and convivial. This however plunged him into debt, which carried a heavy burden and consequently put him into the habits that ultimately shortened his life. He was not someone one would expect to become a poet, he rather enjoyed sports including horseback riding and hunting.[1]

While he lived on the estate left to him by his father in 1705. He devoted himself to field sports, which supplied the subjects of his best-known poems. His publications were The Two Springs (1725), a fable; Occasional Poems ... (1727); "The Chace" ("The Chase") (1735); Hobbinol, or the Rural Games (1740), a burlesque poem describing the Cotswold Games; and Field Sports (1742), a poem on hawking. While he wrote many types of poetry he never became very famous because of it. It is said that he "writes very well for a gentleman."[1]

"The Chace" ("The Chase") is perhaps his most famous poem which is in blank verse and due to his knowledge of sports he was able to write this poem with great enthusiasm. It passed through many editions. It was illustrated by Thomas Bewick (1796), by Thomas Stothard (1800), and by Hugh Thomson (1896), with a preface by RF Sharp.[1]

He died on 19 July 1742 and was buried at Wotton, near Henley on Arden. He was 66. When he died his estate passed on to James Lord Somervile under an arrangement in which Lord Somervile lent him money when "his circumstances became embarrassed." [2] His mother, who lived to be ninety, received a pension of £600 charged against the estate.[1]

When he died it was written[3]

Our old friend Somervile is dead! I did not imagine I could have been so sorry as I find myself on the occasion. Sublatum querimus. I can now excuse all his foibles: impute them to age, and to distress of circumstances. The last of these circumstances wrings my very soul to think on. For a man of high spirit, conscious of having (at least in one production) generally pleased the world, to be plagued and threatened by wretches that are low in every sense: to be forced to drink himself into pains of the body, in order to get rid of pains of the mind, is misery indeed.

Critical Evaluation[edit]

From what has been above remarked, the poetical character of Somervile will be easily deduced. He is strictly and almost solely a descriptive poet and his talent lies in delineating actual scenes with fidelity and spirit, adorning them with the beauties of diction, but leaving them to act upon the imagination by their own force, without aid from the creations of fancy. In classical allusion he is not deficient, but it is of the more common kind; and little occurs in his writings that indicates a mind inspired by that exalted enthusiasm which denotes the genius of superior rank. His versification is generally correct and well varied, and evidently flows from a nice and practiced ear. His language is well suited to his subjects, rising and sinking with them, and free from that stiffness and affectation so commonly attendant upon blank verse. It more resembles that of Armstrong, than of Thomson or Akenside. Some of his other poems shew him to have had a strong perception of the ludicrous; and in this, too, traits of humour are discernible. On the whole, Somervile occupies a respectable place among our native poets; and his Chase is probably the best performance upon that topic which any country has produced.

— Dr. John Aiken, A Critical Essay on The Chase [4]

Somervile has tried many modes of poetry; and though perhaps he has not in any reached such excellence as to raise much envy, it may commonly be said at least, that “he writes very well for a gentleman.” ... In his odes to Marlborough there are beautiful lines; but in the second ode he shows that he knew little of his hero, when he talks of his private virtues. His subjects are commonly such as require no great depth of thought or energy of expression. His fables are generally stale and therefore excite no curiosity.


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