Jenyns, Soame

, an elegant and ingenious writer, was born in Great Ormond-street, London, at twelve o’clock at night, 1703-4. The day of his birth he could not ascertain, and considering himself at liberty to choose his birth-day, he fixed it on new-year’s day. His father, sir Roger Jenyns, knt. was descended from the ancient family of the Jenyns’s of Churchill, in Somersetshire. His country residence was at Ely, where his useful labours as a magistrate, and his loyal principles, procured him the honour of knighthood from king William. He afterwards removed to Bottisham-hall, which he had purchased, a seat not far from Cambridge. Our author’s mother was one of the daughters of sir Peter Soame, of Hayden, in the county of Essex, bart. a lady of great beauty, and highly esteemed for her piety, understanding, and elegance of manners.

Mr. Jenyns received the first, part of his education at home, under the care of the rev. Mr. Hill, and afterwards of the rev. Stephen White, who became rector of Holton, in Suffolk. In 1722 he was removed to Cambridge, and admitted as a fellow-commoner of St. John’s, under Dr. Edmondson, at that time one of the principal tutors of the college. Here he pursued his studies with great industry for three years, and found so much satisfaction in the regular discipline and employments of a college life, that he %vas often heard to say he accounted the days he had lived there, among the happiest in his life. He left the university, however, without taking a degree, in consequence, probably, of his marriage, which took place when he was | very young. His first wife was the natural daughter of his uncle, colonel Soame, of Deerham Grange, in Norfolk. With this lady he received a very considerable fortune, but in all other respects the union was unhappy. After some years she eloped from him with a Leicestershire gentleman; and a separation being agreed upon in form, Mr. Jenyns consented to allow her a maintenance, which was regularly paid until her death, in 1753. This affair, it may be conjectured, interrupted the plan of life he had formed after leaving Cambridge. If we may judge from his poetical efforts, his turn was gay, lively, and satirical. His songs and other amatory pieces were probably written when young, and bespeak a mind sufficiently at ease to trifle with the passions, and not always attentive to delicacy where it interfered with wit. His first publication, and perhaps his best, was the “Art of Dancing,” printed in 1730, and inscribed to lady Fanny Fielding, one of the daughters of the earl of Denbigh, and afterwards countess of Winchelsea. He did not put his name to this poem; but when discovered, it was considered as the prelude to greater performances. It must be confessed there is an ease and elegance in the versification which brought him near to the most favourite poets of his day. In 1735 he wrote the “Epistle to Lord Lovelace,” and this was followed by other pieces of poetry, which he contributed to Dodsley’s collection, and afterwards printed in a volume, in 1752. He wrote also some occasional essays on political topics, the precise dates of which cannot now be ascertained, as he never put his name to any of his works. They have, however, been since collected by Mr. Cole in that edition of his works which was published in 4 vols. 8vo, 1790, and again in 1793.

Soon after his father’s death, at the general election in 1742, he was unanimously chosen one of the representatives for the county of Cambridge. From this time he continued to sit in parliament, either for the county or borough of Cambridge, until 1780, except on the call of a new parliament in 1754, when he was returned for the borougli of Dumvich. In 1755, he was appointed one of the lords commissioners of the board of trade and plantations, at which he sat during. all changes of administration, until the business of the board, which was not great, was removed into another department. At the time of its abolition, it consisted of our author, the present earl of | Carlisle, the late lord Auckland, and Gibbon the historian. Mr. Cumberland, the well-known dramatic poet, was secretary. His parliamentary conduct was more uniform than is supposed to be consistent with freedom of opinion, or the usual attachments of party. When he was first elected a member, he found sir Robert Walpole on the eve of being dismissed from the confidence of the House of Commons, and he had the courage, unasked and unknown, to give his support to the falling minister, as far as he could without contributing his eloquence, for Mr. Jenyns seldom spoke, and only in reply to a personal question. He was conscious that he could make no figure as a public speaker, and early desisted from the attempt. After the dismissal of sir Robert Walpole, he constantly ranked among the friends of government. Without giving a public assent to every measure of the minister for the day, he contrived to give him no offence, and seems very early to have conceived an abhorrence of systematic oppositions. What his opinions were on great constitutional questions, may be found in his writings, where, however, they are not laid down with much precision, and seem at no time of his life to have been steady. In his attendance at the board of trade, he was very assiduous, and bestowed much attention on the commercial interests of his country. He has not left any thing in print expressly on this subject, but his biographer has given some of his private opinions, which are liberal and manly.

In 1757, he published his “Free Inquiry into the Nature and Origin of Evil,” which brought him into notice as one of the most elegant writers of English prose that had appeared since ^he days of Addison. But the charms of style could not protect this singular work from objections of the most serious kind. It produced from Dr. Johnson, who was then editor of the “Literary Magazine,” a critical dissertation or review, which is perhaps the first of his compositions for strength of argument, keenness of reply, and brilliancy of wit. That Mr. Jenyns felt the force of this powerful refutation may be readily supposed, but it were to be wished he had not retained his resentment for so many years, and then given it vent in a paltry epitaph on Dr. Johnson, which his biographer thought worthy of a place in his works.

Other answers appeared to his “Inquiry” of less consequence: Johnson’s, after having been read with eagernesE | in the Magazine, was printed in a small volume of which two editions were very soon sold. To a subsequent edition of the “Inquiry,” Mr. Jenyns prefixed a preface, containing a general answer to his opponents, but without retracting any of his positions. In 1761 he reprinted it, along with his poems, in 2 vols. 12mo, and added the papers he had contributed to “The World,” which are among the first in a collection written by the first wits of their time. There are points in them which prove either the natural purity of his style and delicacy of his humour, or that he must have “given his days and nights to Addi­$on.” It was in one of these papers that he first expressed an opinion in favour of the doctrine of a pre-existent state, which he afterwards insisted upon more seriously in the third letter on the “Origin of Evil.

In 1767 he published a small pamphlet entitled “Thoughts on the Causes and Consequences of the present high price of Provisions.” Various writers at that time had employed their pens on this subject, some arraigning the bounties on corn, and others blaming the practices of forestallers and monopolizers. Mr. Jenyns imputes the high price of provisions to the increase of the national debt, and the increase of our riches, that is, to the poverty of the public, and the wealth of private individuals. These positions are maintained with much ingenuity, but experience has shewn that the influence of such causes has not increased proportionally, and that with ten times more debt and more wealth than the nation had at that time, the price of provisions is found to rise and fall in fluctuations which cannot be explained by his theory. If provisions were dear with the national debt and private wealth of 1767, they ought in 1814 to be inaccessible to all but the most opulent classes. The newspapers were filled with answers to Mr. Jenyns’s, pamphlet, and the return of plenty made it be forgotten.

But the performance which excited most attention was published by our author in 1776, and seems, indeed, to form an important sera in his life. In his younger days he had imbibed the principles of infidelity; and, it has been said, was not sparing in his avowal of them. Time and reflection brought him to a sense of his folly. He studied the Holy Scriptures with care, and probably called to his aid some of those able defence*, of Christianity which the infidels of the eighteenth century had provoked. It is | certain, however, that he had now adopted the common creed, although with some singular refinements of his own, and determined to avow his sentiments in justice to the cause he had neglected or injured. With this honourable resolution, he published “A View of the Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion,” which, was at first read as an able defence of Christianity; and the accession of an ingenious layman to the supporters of religion was welcomed by the clergy at large. Others, however, could not help being suspicious of its tendency, and regarded the author as in many points proving himself to be an insidious enemy to the cause he pretended to plead. Those who call themselves rational Christians thought he yielded too much to the orthodox believer; and the orthodox believer was shocked that he had conceded the possibility of certain miracles being forgeries. A controversy *


The following are the titles of the principal pamphlets written on this occasion. “A Letter to Soame Jenyns, esq. wherein the futility and absurdity of some part of his reasoning, in his View of the Internal Evidence of the Christian Religion, is set forth and‘ exposed. By a Clergyman of the church of England.” “Observations on S. J.’s View, &c. addressed to its almost Christian author. By W. Kenrick, LL.D.” “A Letter to Soame Jenyns, esq. occasioned by an assertion contained in his View, &c. By G. U. ” “Short Strictures on certain passages in a View, &c. By a Layman.” “A Series of Letters addressed to S. J. on occasion of his View, &c. By A. Maclaine, D. D. Minister of the English church at the Hague.” “An Examination of the Arguments contained in Dr. Maclaine’s Answer to S. J. esq. on his View, &c. with general thoughts and reflections thereon. By the Rev. Edward Fleet, jun. B. A. of Oriel college, Oxford.” “A Full Answer to a late View, &c. in a Dialogue between a rational Christian and his Friend. By the Editor (the Rev. Mr. Taylor) of Ben. Mordecai’s Letters to Elisha Levi.” “Philosophical Disquisitions ou the Christian Religion. Addressed to Soame Jenyns, esfj.” “An Address and Reply, &c. By the Rev. Edward Fleet.

immediately took place, and continued for some time, greatly to the advantage of Mr.Jenyns’s book, which sold most extensively while the controvery was kept alive, and disappeared with the last answer. During its circulation it excited the attention of persons of rank, and probably did good. The great error is his neglect of the external evidences, and his admitting the use of reason in some instances, while he refuses it in others.

But whatever difference of opinion was excited by this performance, it would be unjust to question the author’s sincerity, or to omit the very explicit declaration he has made of his belief. “Should my work ever have the honour to be admitted into such good company (persons of fashion), they will immediately, I know, determine that it must be the work of some enthusiast or methodist, some | beggar, or some madman; I shall therefore beg leave to assure them, that the author is very far removed from all these characters; that he once perhaps believed as little as themselves; but having some leisure, and more curiosity, he employed them both in resolving a question which seemed to him of some importance: Whether Christianity was really an imposture, founded on an absurd, incredible, and obsolete fable, as many suppose it? or whether it is what it pretends to be, a revelation communicated to mankind by the interposition of some supernatural power? On a candid inquiry, he soon found that the first was an absolute impossibility, and that its pretensions to the latter were founded on the most solid grounds. In the further pursuits of his examination, he perceived at every step new lights arising, and some of the brightest from parts of it the most obscure, but productive of the clearest proofs, because equally beyond the power of human artifice to invent, and human reason to discover. These arguments, which have convinced him of the divine origin of this religion, he has here put together in as clear and concise a manner as he wa? able, thinking they might have the same effect upon others; and being of opinion, that, if there were a few more true Christians in the world, it would be beneficial to themselves, and by no means detrimental to the public.

In 1782 appeared another volume of doubtful tendency, and certainly more abounding in wild paradoxes, which he entitled “Disquisitions on several subjects.” These are metaphysical, theological, and political; and in all of them he advances, amidst much valuable matter, a number of fanciful theories, to which he seems to have been prompted merely by a love of novelty, or a desire to shew by what ingenuity opinions that contradict the general sense of mankind, may be defended. This volume, like the former, produced a few answers; and what perhaps disturbed our author’s tranquillity yet more, an admirable piece of humour, entitled “The Dean and the Squire,” by the author of the “Heroic Epistle to Sir William Chambers.” The Dean was Dr. Tucker, whose opinions on civil liberty approached those of our author. Tbe “Disquisitions” are, however, an extraordinary production from a man in his seventy-eighth year. Their style is, perhaps, more elegant and animated than that of any of his former writings, and if mere eloquence could atone for defect of argument, | they would yet continue to be read as models of pure and correct English.

In 1784, while the propriety of a parliamentary reformation was in agitation, he published some “Thoughts” on that subject, in which he repeated the objections he had already brought forward in his “Disquisitions,” to any of those innovations which, in his opinion, tended to anarchy. This was the last of our author’s productions. The infirmities of age were now creeping upon him, and closed his life Dec. 18, 1787, at his house in Tilney-street, Audleysquare. He was interred in Bottisham church, Dec. 27, where, in the parish register, the Rev. Mr. Lort Mansel, now Master of Trinity college, Cambridge, and bishop of Bristol, introduced a very elegant compliment to his memory.

Mr. Cole, his biographer, has drawn his character at great length, and with the partiality of a friend. Yet if we except the unsettled state of his opinions, much cannot be deducted from it. As the magistrate, and as the head of a family,*


This alludes to his establishment at Bottisham. He had no issue by either of his wives.

he was exemplary in the discharge of all religious and moral duties, and fulfilled his engagements with the strictest integrity, but with a punctuality which brought on him sometimes the charge of being penurious. As a politician we have seen him giving his uniform support to a succession of ministers, but as he did not conceal his opinions, they could not always be in unison with those of his party, and his integrity, at least, must have been generally acknowledged, since no party offered to remove him.

In private life he was, says Mr. Cole, a man of great mildness, gentleness, and sweetness of temper. His earnest desire was, as far as possible, never to offend any person. This is confirmed by the Rev. Mr. Cole of Milton, who is not remarkable for the lenity of his opinions respecting his contemporaries. “Mr. Jenyns was a man of lively fancy and pleasant turn of wit, very sparkling in conversation, and full of merry conceits and agreeable drollery, which was heightened by his inarticulate manner of speaking through his broken teeth, and all this mixed with the utmost humanity and good nature, having hardly ever heard him severe upon any one, and by no means satirical in his mirth and good-humour.

Mr. Cumberland, in his Memoirs of his own Life, lately published, giyes us some characteristic traits of Mr. Jenyns, | which correspond with the above: " A disagreement about a name or a date will mar the best story that was ever put together. Sir Joshua Reynolds luckily could not hear an interrupter of this sort: Johnson would not hear, or if Vie heard him would not heed him: Soame Jenyns heard him, heeded him, set him right, and took up his tale where he had left it, without any diminution of its humour, adding only a few more twists to his snuff-box, a few more taps upon the lid of it, with a preparatory grunt or two, the invariable forerunners of the amenity that was at the heels of them. He was the man who bore his part in all societies with the most even temper and undisturbed hilarity of all the good companions whom I ever knew. He came into your house at the very moment you had put upon your card: he dressed himself, to do your party honour, in all the colours of the jay: his lace indeed had long since lost its lustre, but his coat had faithfully retained its cut since the days when gentlemen wore embroidered figured velvets with short sleeves, boot cuffs, and buckram skirts *. As nature cast him in the exact mould of an ill -made pair of stiff stays, he followed her so close in the fashion of his coat, that it was doubted if he did not wear them: because he had a protuberant wen just under his pole, he wore a wig that did not cover above half his head. His eyes were protruded like the eyes of the lobster, who wears them at the end of his feelers; and yet there was room between one of these and his nose for another wen that added nothing to his beauty: yet I heard this good man very innocently remark, when Gibbon published his History, that he wondered any body so ugly could write a book.

Such was the exterior of a man, who was the charm of the circle, and gave a zest to every company he came into. His pleasantry was of a sort peculiar to himself; it harmonized with every thing; it was like the bread to our dinner, you did not perhaps make it the whole, or principal part of your meal, but it was an admirable and wholesome auxiliary to your other viands. Soame Jenyns told you no long stories, engrossed not much of your attention, and was not angry with those that did. His thoughts were original, and were apt to have a very whimsical affinity to the paradox in them. He wrote verses upon dancing, and


The costume of his latter days was a Bath beaver surtout, with blue worsted boot stockings.

| prose upon the origin of evil yet he was a very indifferent metaphysician, and a worse dancer.*

It has been said he was in his young days a good dancer, and very fond of the amusement.

Ill-nature and personality, with the single exception of his lines upon Johnson, I never heard fall from his lips; those lines I have forgotten, though I believe I was the first person to whom he recited them: they were very bad, but he had been told f that Johnson ridiculed his metaphysics, and some of us had just then been making extempore epitaphs upon each other. Though his wit was harmless, the general cast of it was ironical; there was a terseness in his repartees that had a play of words as well as of thought; as when speaking of the difference between laying out money upon land or purchasing into the funds, he said, * One was principal without interest, and the other interest without principal.‘ Certain it is, he had a brevity of expression that never hung upon the ear, and you felt the point in the very moment that he made the push. It was rather to be lamented that his lady, Mrs. Jenyns, had so great a respect for his good sayings, and so imperfect a recollection of them, for though she always prefaced her recitals of them with ’ As Mr. Jenyns says,' it was not always what Mr. Jenyns said

This is not accurate. He well knew how Johnson had ridiculed his metaphysics many years before this period.

and never, I am apt to think, as Mr. Jenyns said but she was an excellent old lady, and twirled her ian with as much mechanical address as her ingenious husband twirled his snuff-box.”

This old lady was the second wife of Mr. Jenyns. His first died July 30, 1753, and in the month of February following he married Elizabeth, the daughter of Henry Grey, esq. of Hackney, Middlesex. She must at this time have been advanced in life, as she died at the age of ninety-four, July 25, 1796.

Mr. Jenyns’s poems were added to the second and third editions of Dr. Johnson’s Collection. As a prose writer, we have few that can be compared to him for elegance and purity. As a poet he has many equals and many superiors. Yet his poems are sprightly and pleasing and if we do not find much of that creative fancy which marks the true genius of poetry, there is the spirit, sense, and wit, which have rendered so many modern versifiers popular. 1


Life prefixed to his Works by Charles Nalson Cole, esq. Johnson and Chalmers’s English Poets, 21 vols. 8vo, 1810.