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West Country Poets

BENJAMIN KENNICOTT, D.D. (1718-1783)

This Devonshire worthy was born at Totnes on April 4, 1718, and was the son of Benjamin KENNICOTT, barber and parish clerk of that town. The family of KENNICOTT appears to have been resident in Totnes for a lengthened period, and at one time to have occupied a good position in the borough, in 1606 one Gabriel KENNICOTT being Mayor of Totnes.  Benjamin the younger was educated at the Totnes Grammar School, a school founded by Edward VI. in 1554, and still held in a building adjoining the ancient Guildhall, and with it forming almost the only remains of the priory of Totnes.  This school was endowed by the trustees of Elizeus HELE; the Corporation in virtue of the endowment sending three boys to the school, who were educated free of expense; and as KENNICOTT's father held his office of parish clerk by the appointment of the Corporation, it seems probably that his son was one of the free boys.  After leaving school he obtained the office of master of the charity school - a school for the poorer children, boys and girls, who besides being taught to read and write, were instructed in the Christian religion as taught by the Church of England.  KENNICOTT was very musical, and composed some sacred music; he also took great delight in bell-ringing.  He was one of the ringers of the parish church in 1732, when only fourteen years of age, and ten years later he became leader, and drew up regulations to be observed by the Totnes ringers.  These regulations bear the date 1742, and in 1744 a change took place in KENNICOTT's position and prospects.  By lucky accident he gained a friend who sent him to Oxford, where he became one of the greatest scholars of his time.  As this incident introduces us to his poetical proclivities, we quote it in full.

KENNICOTT's sister was lady's-maid to the Hon. Mrs. Elizabeth COURTNEY, of Painsford, Ashprington, near TOTNES; and in 1743 that lady had a narrow escape from death, she having eaten some poisonous herb, which was concealed amongst some watercress.  The charity schoolmaster hearing of this, and the lady and her family being highly respected, he composed a poem on her recovery, which he 'humbly inscribed to Kellond COURTNEY, Esq., and his Lady'.*  It consists of no less than 334 lines; and by this effusion he attracted the attention fo the family, was taken by the hand, and in 1744 sent by his patrons to Oxford, where he became a student of Wadham College.  The poem was published for private circulation, and in 1747 he republished it; and in the preface speaks of being 'indebted to it, under Providence, for the happiness he then enjoyed.'  He also wrote 'Bidwell' (Dartington), an epistolary poem to a Mr. Richard HICKS, consisting of two hundred and twelve lines.  But he was indebted to other patrons fro some of his good fortune; amongst others to the Rev. F. CHAMPERNOWNE, and H.  FOWNES LUTTRELL, Esq.  At college he distinguished himself by his application to the higher branches of theology, and published several important works.  He was elected Fellow of Exeter College 1747; admitted to his B.A. degree without the usual fees a year before the usual time; took his M.A. degree in 1750, and in 1761 was made D.D., with a pension of £200 from the Crown.  In 1767 he was chosen keeper of the Radcliffe Library, and three years afterwards became a prebend of ?Westminster, which he afterwards exchanged for a canonry at Christchurch in 1770.   He was Vicar of Menheniot in Cornwall 1771081.  He was also Rector of Culham, a valuable living, which, it is said, he resigned because his studies prevented his residing on it.  He devoted more than thirty years of his life to the study of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.  His chief work was in connection with the collation and comparison of the various texts of the Hebrew Bible, in which labour he was supplemented by learned scholars in all parts of the world.  A good story is recorded of the worthy doctor, who, it was said, was a great lover of figs.  On the walls of Exeter College there grew a patriarchal fig-tree, which in one particular year only produced one particular fig.  This the doctor watched from day to day, and when it assumed substance and colour, to prevent any interference with it, he affixed a card over it a few days before it ripened, bearing the words, 'Dr. Kennicott's fig'; but the very morning on which he had hoped ot eat it, an irreverent undergraduate stole it, and worse still, reversed the card and left it where the fig should have been, with the slightly changed inscription, 'A fig for Dr. Kennicott'!

Dr. KENNICOTT died September 18, 1783, in the sixty-sixth year of his age.**

A PARADY ON YE CELEBRATED SOLILOQUY IN 'HAMLET'

To write or not to write!  that is the question!
Whether 'tis nobler with the pen to scribble
The flights and fancies of outrageous non-sense,
Or to lay down the quill, or forbear to tire
The patience of the world?  To write! to scrawl!
And by that scrawl to say we utter all the
Horrid stuff, and the thousand foolish whimsies
Labouring in the brain.  'Tis a deliverance
'Devoutly to be wished.'  To write! to scrawl!
To scrawl, perchance to blot! 'ay, there's the rub,'
For on a strict review what blots 'may come,'
When we have scribbled all the paper o'er,
'Must give us pause.' 'There's the respect,'
That stops the weak, presumptuous hand of fools,
'For who could bear' the sneers and scorns of wit,
The critic's laugh, the learned pedant's railing,
The spurns and insolence of common-sense,
The jokes of humour and the repartee,
When he himself might his quietus make
With mere blank paper?  Who would hisses hear,
Or groan or sweat at sound of catcall's squeak,
But that the itch of writing for the stage
(Where Garrick, with inimitable charm
Of graceful action, moves) 'puzzles the will,'
And makes us rather risque all ridicule
Than shun the Muses and forbear to rhyme?
Ambition thus makes asses of us all;
And thus each empty fellow, void of genius,
Is tempted to imagine he's a poet;
And petit-maitres, of great skill in dresssing,
Even from the fav'rite mirror 'turn away',
To gain the name of author.



*  A poem on the recovery of the Hon.  Mrs. Elizabeth Courtney from her late dangerous illness, humbly inscribed to Kellond Courtney, Esq., of Painsford, and his Lady.  Written in the year 1743, second edition, 1747, anon., 334 lines.
**Abridged from a paper by Mr. E, WINDEATT in 'Trans. Devon Assoc.,' vol.x., 1878.

Transcribed by Sandra Windeatt from: Wright, W. H. K.,(1896) West-Country Poets: Their Lives and Works. London: Elliot Stock, pp.48-51

Last updated 22 Jul 2011 - Brian Randell.

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