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In presenting the public with an account of the life of sir William Jones, I feel a particular anxiety to guard against the charge of presumption for an undertaking, which may be thought to require a more than ordinary share of learning and abilities. I hope, therefore, to have credit for a declaration, that nothing but the earnest solicitation of lady Jones, who knew my affection for her husband when living, and my unabated regard for his memory, and who conceived that these qualifications might supply the deficiency of more essential talents, could have prevailed upon me to enter upon a literary career, so foreign to the habits of a life, of which more than fifty years are now elapsed.
It may be proper to notice the materials which I have used in this compilation, and to explain the plan which I have adopted in the arrangement of them. The first is a single sheet written by sir William Jones, containing short notices of his situation and occupations during every year of his life; it is indeed extended beyond the date of his existence, to the 50th year, opposite to which the words cuv Sew, if God pleases, are inserted. It appears to have been hastily written a few months only before his death, and although the dates are sometimes inaccurate, and the notices too brief to supply more than a reference, it suggested enquiries which have sometimes terminated satisfactorily, though more frequently in disappointment. This paper however dictated the plan of the work; and I have endeavoured, as far as my materials permitted, to trace the life of sir William Jones year by year.
For the first twenty-two years of it, my authorities are ample and satisfactory; they consist principally of memoranda written by sir William himself, and in describing the occurrences of this period I have frequently availed myself of his own words. I wish indeed that I could have used them exclusively, but the paper is not altogether in a form to admit of publication.
The account of the last twelve years of his life in India is chiefly supplied by my own recollection, assisted by information collected from his writings and correspondence.
Of the events of his life between 1778, his twenty-second year, and the date of his embarkation for India in 1783, my information is less complete; although I have spared no diligence in endeavouring to collect all that could be obtained. I was in hopes that the recollection of his contemporaries at Oxford, where he occasionally resided until he left England, might have supplied some material anecdotes, and that farther information might have been procured from his companions in Westminster-hall, or on the circuit: but my researches have had little success, and I am chiefly indebted to his correspondence for the information which I have been able to communicate.
In the arrangement of these materials, it was my wish, as far as possible, to make sir William Jones describe himself; and with this view I have introduced his letters into the body of the Memoirs. They develop his occupations, hopes, pursuits, and feelings; and although the narrative, from the introduction of them, may lose something in point of connection, this inconvenience, I flatter myself, will be more than compensated by the letters themselves. By this mode
they will excite an interest, which they might have failed to produce, if the substance or subjects of them only had been interwoven into the narrative, with a reference to the letters themselves in the Appendix.'
The subject of these memoirs was the descendant of a family by no means remarkable for rank or lence. His grandfather was a yeoman, or little farmer, in the isle of Anglesey; where his father, who acquired no inconsiderable celebrity as a mathematician, and had the good fortune to obtain the friendship and patronage of lord Anson, lord Macclesfield, and sir Isaac Newton, was born in the year 1680. By a marriage with the daughter of Mr. Nix, a cabinet-maker of London, who from a humble origin had raised himself, by industry and perseverance, to a considerable degree of eminence in his line of business, he had three children; the last of whom, the celebrated character before us, was born in 1746.
At the age of three years Mr. Jones had the misfortune to lose his father, who died of a polypus of the heart: but he found in his widowed mother a preceptress peculiarly qualified to form his mind for every literary accomplishment of which it was susceptible; and to whose judgment and unwearied assiduity we are perhaps principally indebted for that harvest of learning and literary excellence which was afterwards so abundantly displayed upon the soil she so successfully cultivated. Her character and plan of education are thus ably described in the volume before us.
The care of the education of William now devolved upon his mother, who, in many respects, was eminently qualified for the task. Her character, as delineated by her husband with somewhat of mathematical precision, is this: "that she was virtuous without blemish, generous without extravagance, frugal but not niggard, cheerful but not giddy, close but not sullen, ingenious but not conceited, of spirit but not passionate, of her company cautious, in her friendship trusty, to her parents dutiful, and to her husband ever faithful, loving, and obedient." She had by nature a strong understanding, which was improved by his conversation and instruction. Under his tuition she became a considerable proficient in algebra, and with a view to qualify herself for the office of preceptor to her sister's son, who was destined to a maritime profession, made herself perfect in trigonometry and the theory of navigation. Mrs. Jones, after the death of her husband, was urgently and repeatedly solicited, by the countess of Macclesfield, to remain at Sherborne castle; but having formed a plan for the education of her son, with an unalterable determination to pursue it, and being apprehensive that her residence in Sherborne might interfere with the execution of it, she declined accepting the friendly invitation of the countess, who never ceased to retain the most affectionate regard for her.
In the plan adopted by Mrs. Jones for the instruction of her son, she proposed to reject the severity of discipline, and to lead his mind insensibly to knowledge and exertion, by exciting his curiosity, and directing it to useful objects. To his incessant importunities for information on casual topics of conversation, which she watchfully stimulated, she constantly replied, read, and you will know; a maxim, to the observance of which he always acknowledged himself indebted for his future attainments. By this method, his desire to learn became as eager as her wish to teach; and such was her talent of instruction, and his facility of retaining it, that in his fourth year he was able to read, distinctly and rapidly, any English book. She particularly attended at the same time to the cultivation of his memory, by making him learn and repeat some of the popular speeches in Shakespeare, and the best of Gay's Fables.
If, from the subsequent eminence of sir William Jones, any general conclusion should be eagerly drawn in favour of early tuition, we must not forget to advert to the uncommon talents both of the pupil and the teacher.
In common cases, premature instruction has often been found to retard, rather than accelerate, the progress of the intellectual faculties; and the success of it so much depends upon the judgment of the tutor, and the capacity of the scholar, upon the skill of the one, as well as upon the disposition and powers of the other, that it is impossible to prescribe a general rule, when instruction ought to begin, or a general mode, by which it should be conveyed: the determination in both cases must be left to the discretion of parents, who ought to be the most competent to decide.' P. 8.
The public education of this amiable youth commenced at Harrow school, first under the care of Dr. Thackeray, and afterwards of Dr. Sumner; to the latter of whom he seems to have been the most attached, and in truth with the greatest reason, the austerity and severe dicipline of the former having nearly given him an insuperable aversion to classical pursuits. The talents of his juvenile mind, however, burst, like the sun, through every casual cloud of opprobrium and opposition, and in process of time displayed a strength and variety of attainment that captivated every heart, and surmounted every difficulty. In the work before us we have numerous proofs of his early proficiency. There is a letter addressed by him to his sister, upon the death of a gentleman whom she highly esteemed, written at the age of fourteen, which we would readily transcribe, if our limits did not prohibit us, as affording a specimen of most excellent moral consolation, and as almost worthy the pen of Seneca. We cannot refrain, however, from copying the following ode, addressed at the same age to sir John Parnell, who was at that time a fellow school-boy. It contains a neat imitation of a well-known ode of Horace, and may not unaptly be compared with several specimens of Pope's early and premature powers.
'How quickly fades the vital flow'r !'
The early joys of blooming youth,
'Can zeal drear Pluto's wrath restrain?
His hallow'd shrine with blood,
In vain, my Parnell, wrapt in ease,
In vain we shun th' autumnal blast,
‹ Our house, our land, our shadowy grove,
Ah me, we soon must leave!
Of all our trees, the hated boughs
Their fragrance o'er our grave.
To others shall we then resign
With them a more deserving heir,
Shall stain the stucco floor.' P. 31.
From the school at Harrow, and the affectionate tuition. of Dr. Sumner, our pupil, in his seventeenth year, removed to Oxford; in which university, after a few months residence, he was unanimously elected one of the four scholars on the foundation of sir Simon Bennett, "to whose munificence he was ever proud to acknowledge his obligations." Here he pursued his studies with indefatigable labour, and especially directed them to a knowledge of the Hebrew, Arabic, and Persic tongues; while, during the vacations, he acquired at home a sufficient acquaintance with the Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese; and, as well for the sake of health as external accomplishments, attended the schools of Angelo for a knowledge of riding and fencing. At the age of nineteen he received, through the interest of Dr. Shipley, who only knew him from several of his juvenile compositions, an invitation to become private tutor to lord Althorpe, now earl Spencer,
who was then but seven years old: an invitation which he cheerfully accepted, and which laid the first foundation for his connexion with Dr. Shipley's family. In the course of the ensuing summer he was moreover fortunate enough to be elected fellow on sir Simon Bennett's foundation; so that he now found himself sufficiently well provided for to refrain from any farther trespass on the limited income of his mother, as well as to refuse the post of interpreter for Eastern languages, which was at this period offered him by the duke of Grafton, then at the head of the treasury.
When lord Althorpe repaired to Spa, for the benefit of his health, Mr. Jones accompanied him, and there improved himself in the German language. On his return home, with an insatiable desire of being accomplished in every science as well as polite art, he applied himself to the Welsh harp, under Evans, and to dancing, under Gallini: in the latter pursuit he acquired considerable grace; but the former he soon relinquished, from ignorance of the principles of music, and want of time to make himself master of them. During this period he first laid his hands on Fortescue's Treatise on the Laws of England, which gave him the earliest idea of studying general law as a profession; and in which he would probably at this moment have made a more rapid progress, had he not been diverted from all farther prosecution of this subject for the present by the circumstance that induced him to undertake the laborious, and we may add unprofitable, translation of the Life of Nadir Shah, written not more than twelve years antecedently in the Persic tongue by Mirza Mohammed Mahadi Kahn de Mazenderan. The whole of this transaction is explained so much more at large in the biography before us than in any account hitherto communicated to the public, that we shall offer no apology for relating it in the noble author's own words.
The king of Denmark, upon a visit to this country, had brought with him an eastern manuscript, containing the life of Nadir Shah, which he was desirous of having translated in England. The secretary of state, with whom the Danish minister had conversed upon the subject, sent the volume to Mr. Jones, requesting him to give a literal translation of it in the French language; but he wholly declined the task, alleging for his excuse the dryness of the subject, the difficulty of the style, and chiefly his want both of leisure and ability to enter upon an undertaking so fruitless and laborious. He mentioned, however, a gentleman, with whom he was not then acquainted, but who had distinguished himself by the translation of a Persian history, and some popular tales from the Persic, as capable of gratifying the wishes of his Danish majesty. Major Dow, the writer alluded to, excused himself on account of his numerous engagements; and the application to Mr. Jones was renewed. It was hinted, that his com