1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Thomas Campbell, in Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 504-05.



Mr Mathias, the accomplished editor of Gray, in delineating his poetical character, dwells with peculiar emphasis on the charm of his lyrical versification, which he justly ascribes to the naturally exquisite ear of the poet having been trained to consummate skill in harmony, by long familiarity with the finest models in the most poetical of all languages, the Greek and Italian. "He was indeed (says Mr. Mathias) the inventor, it may be strictly said so, of a new lyrical metre in his own tongue. The peculiar formation of his strophe, antistrophe, and epode, was unknown before him; and it could only have been planned and perfected by a master genius, who was equally skilled by long and repeated study, and by transfusion into his own mind of the lyric compositions of ancient Greece and of the higher 'canzona' of the Tuscan poets, 'di maggior carme e suono,' as it is termed in the commanding energy of their language. Antecedent to The Progress of Poetry, and to The Bard, no such lyrics had appeared. There is not an ode in the English language which is constructed like these two compositions; with such power, such majesty, and such sweetness, with such proportioned pauses and just cadences, with such regulated measures of the verse, with such master principles of lyrical art displayed and exemplified, and, at the same time, with such a concealment of the difficulty, which is lost in the softness and uninterrupted flowing of the lines in each stanza, with such musical magic, that every verse in it in succession dwells on the ear and harmonizes with that which has gone before."

So far as the versification of Gray is concerned, I have too much pleasure in transcribing these sentiments of Mr. Mathias, to encumber them with any qualifying remarks of my own on that particular subject; but I dissent from him in his more general estimate of Gray's genius, when he afterward speaks of it, as "second to none."

In order to distinguish the positive merits of Gray from the loftier excellence ascribed to him by his editor, it is unnecessary to resort to the criticisms of Dr. Johnson. Some of them may be just, but their general spirit is malignant and exaggerated. When we look to such beautiful passages in Gray's odes, as his Indian poet amidst the forests of Chili, or his prophet bard scattering dismay on the array of Edward and his awe-struck chieftains on the side of Snowdon — when we regard his elegant taste, not only gathering classical flowers from the Arno and Ilyssus, but revealing glimpses of barbaric grandeur amidst the darkness of Runic mythology — when we recollect his "thoughts that breathe, and words that burn" — his rich personifications, his broad and prominent images, and the crowning charm of his versification, we may safely pronounce that Johnson's critical fulminations have passed over his lyrical character with more noise than destruction.

At the same time it must be recollected, that his beauties are rather crowded into a short compass, than numerous in their absolute sum. The spirit of poetry, it is true, is not to be computed mechanically by tale or measure; and abundance of it may enter into a very small bulk of language. But neither language nor poetry are compressible beyond certain limits; and the poet whose thoughts have been concentrated into a few pages cannot be expected to have given a very full or interesting image of life in his compositions. A few odes, splendid, spirited, and harmonious, but by no means either faultless or replete with subjects that come home to universal sympathy, and an Elegy, unrivalled as it is in that species of composition, these achievements of our poet form, after all, no such extensive grounds of originality, as to entitle their author to be spoken of as in genius "second to none." He had not, like Goldsmith, the art of unbending from grace to levity. Nothing can be more unexhilarating than his attempts at wit and humour, either in his letters or lighter poetry. In his graver and better strains some of the most exquisite ideas are his own; and his taste, for the most part, adorned, and skilfully recast, the forms of thought and expression which he borrowed from others. If his works often "whisper whence they stole their balmy spoils," it is not from plagiarism, but from a sensibility that sought and selected the finest impressions of genius from other gifted minds. But still there is a higher appearance of culture than fertility, of acquisition than originality, in Gray. He is not that being of independent imagination, that native and creative spirit, of whom we should say, that he would have plunged into the flood of poetry had there been none to leap before him. Nor were his learned acquisitions turned to the very highest account. He was the architect of no poetical design of extensive or intricate compass. One noble historical picture, it must be confessed, he has left in the opening scene of his Bard; and the sequel of that ode, though it is not perhaps the most interesting prophecy of English history which we could suppose Inspiration to pronounce, contains many richly poetical conceptions. It is, however, exclusively in the opening of The Bard, that Gray can be ever said to have portrayed a grand, distinct, and heroic scene of fiction.

The obscurity so often objected to him is certainly a defect not to be justified by the authority of Pindar, more than any thing else that is intrinsically objectionable. But it has been exaggerated. He is nowhere so obscure as not to be intelligible by recurring to the passage. And it may be further observed, that Gray's lyrical obscurity never arises, as in some writers, from undefined ideas or paradoxical sentiments. On the contrary, his moral spirit is as explicit as it is majestic; and deeply read as he was in Plato, he is never metaphysically perplexed. The fault of his meaning is to be latent, not indefinite or confused. When we give his beauties re-perusal and attention, they kindle and multiply to the view. The thread of association that conducts to his remote allusions, or that connects his abrupt transitions, ceases then to be invisible. His lyrical pieces are like paintings on glass, which must be placed in a strong light to give out the perfect radiance of their colouring.