1847 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

William Howitt, "Gray, at Stoke-Pogis" Homes and Haunts of the Most Eminent British Poets (1847) 1:272-85.



The life of Thomas Gray, the author of the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, was passed in London, in Cambridge, and at Stoke-Pogis, in Buckinghamshire, except what he spent in travelling, which was considerable. Gray was born in Cornhill, November 26, 1716. His parents were reputable citizens of London, his grandfather was a considerable merchant, but his father, Mr. Philip Gray, Mallet says, though he also followed business, was of an indolent and reserved temper; and therefore rather diminished than increased his paternal fortune. He had many children, of whom Thomas was the fifth; all except him died in their infancy. The business of Gray's father was, like that of Milton's, a money-scrivener. But, unlike Milton's father, Philip Gray was, according to Mallet, not only reserved and indolent, but of a morose, unsocial, and obstinate temper. His indolence led him to neglect the business of his profession; his obstinacy, to build a country house at Wanstead, without acquainting his wife or son of the design, to which he knew they would be very averse, till it was executed. This turned out a loss of two thousand pounds to the family; and the character of the father, which is supposed to have been stamped by bodily ailments, was the occasion of Gray, though an only child, being left with a very narrow patrimony. His mother, to provide for her family, entered into business independent of her husband, with her sister, Miss Antrobus. The two ladies kept a kind of India warehouse in Cornhill. As clever ladies in business generally do, they succeeded so well, that, on Mr. Gray's death, which happened about the time of the young poet's return from his first trip to the continent, they retired, and went to join housekeeping with their third sister, Mrs. Rogers, the widow of a gentleman of that name, who had formerly been in the law, and had retired to Burnham in Buckinghamshire, where we find Gray, on one occasion, describing, in a letter to Walpole, the uncle and the place thus. "The description of a road that your coachwheels have so often honoured, it is needless to give to you; suffice it that I arrived safe at my uncle's, who is a great hunter in imagination. His dogs take up every chair in the house, so I am forced to stand up at this present writing; and though the gout forbids him galloping after them in the field, yet he continues still to regale his ears and nose with their comfortable noise and stink. He holds me mighty cheap, I perceive, for walking when I should ride, and reading when I should hunt. My comfort amid all this is, that I have at the distance of half a mile, through a green lane, a forest — the vulgar call it a common — all my own, at least as good as so, for I spy no human thing in it but myself. It is a little chaos of mountains and precipices; mountains, it is true, that do not ascend much above the clouds, nor are the declivities quite so amazing as Dover cliff; but just such hills as people who love their necks as well as I do, may venture to climb, and crags that give the eye as much pleasure as if they were more dangerous. Both vale and hill are covered with most venerable beeches, and other very reverend vegetables, that like most other ancient people, are always dreaming out their old stories to the winds:—

And as they bow, their hoary tops relate,
In murmuring sounds, the dark decrees of Fate;
While visions, as poetic eyes avow,
Cling to each leaf and swarm on every bough.

At the foot of one of these squats me I, il penseroso, and there grow to the trunk for a whole morning. The timorous hare and sportive squirrel gambol around me like Adam in Paradise, before he had Eve; but I think he did not use to read Virgil, as I commonly do there. In this situation I often converse with my Horace, aloud too, that is, talk to you, but I do not remember that I ever heard you answer me. I beg pardon for taking all the conversation to myself, but it is entirely your own fault. We have old Mr. Southern at a gentleman's house a little way off, who often comes to see us. He is now seventy-seven years old, and has almost wholly lost his memory; but is as agreeable as an old man can be, at least I persuade myself so when I look at him, and think of Isabella and Oronoko."

By this agreeable extract, however, we have outstepped the progress of Gray's life. He was educated at Eton, under the care of Mr. Antrobus, his mother's brother, then assistant to Dr. George, and when he left school, in 1734, entered a pensioner at Peterhouse in Cambridge. It was intended that he should follow the profession of the law, for which his uncle's practice and connexions seemed to open a brilliant way. He therefore lived on at college so long as his attendance on the lectures was required, but took no degree. His uncle's death put an end to his prospects of that kind, and he abandoned the idea of the legal profession. When he had been at Cambridge about five years, he agreed to make a tour on the continent with Horace Walpole; and they proceeded together through France to Italy, where they quarrelled and parted, taking different ways. On his return he again went to Cambridge, took the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law, and continued there, without liking the place or its inhabitants, as we are informed by both Johnson and Mallet, or professing to like them. His pleasure lay in wading through huge libraries, out of which, on a vast number of subjects, he extracted a vast amount of information. Such were Gray's assiduous study and research, that the following character of him by a cotemporary, the Rev. Mr. Temple, rector of St. Gluvias, in Cornwall, written a few months after his death, can scarcely be termed overdrawn. "Perhaps he was the most learned man in Europe. He was equally acquainted with the elegant and profound parts of science, and that not superficially but thoroughly. He knew every branch of history, both natural and civil; had read all the original histories of England, France and Italy; and was a great antiquarian. Criticism, metaphysics, morals, politics, made a principal part of his plan of study. Voyages and travels of all sorts were his favourite amusement; and he had a fine taste in painting, prints, architecture, and gardening."

He was, in fact, one of the first to open up the Northern antiquities and legendary literature, and most probably was the cause of Mallet turning to this subject: he was also one of the very first, if not the very first person, who began to trace out and distinguish the different orders of Anglo-Gothic architecture, by attention to the date of its creation. These were the studies, enough to occupy a life, which kept him close at Cambridge in his rooms for years, and once induced him to take lodgings for about three years near the British Museum, where he diligently copied from the Harleian and other manuscripts. The death of his most intimate friend, Mr. West, the son of the Chancellor of Ireland, soon after his return from the continent, tended only the more to fix this habit of retirement and study. He lived on at Peterhouse till 1756, when a curious incident drove him forth. Two or three young men of fortune, who lived in the same staircase, had for some time intentionally disturbed him with their riots, and carried their ill-behaviour so far as frequently to awaken him at midnight. After having borne their insults longer than might reasonably have been expected, even from a man of less warmth of temper, Mr. Gray complained to the governing part of the society; and not thinking his remonstrance sufficiently attended to, quitted the college. He took up his residence at Pembroke-hall, where he continued to reside till the day of his death, which occurred here in the fifty-fifth year of his age, July 30, 1771, being seized with gout in the stomach while at dinner in the college hall.

He had for the last three years been appointed Professor of History in this college, but such was his indolence, fastidiousness, or aversion to so public a duty that, to use the words of Johnson, "he was always designing lectures, but never reading them; uneasy at his neglect of duty, and appeasing his uneasiness with designs of reformation, and with a resolution which he believed himself to have made, of resigning the office if he found himself unable to discharge it." He continued thus to vacillate, and held on till his death. A circumstance which attached him more to Pembroke college was, that Mason was elected a Fellow of it in 1747; they grew warm friends, and Mason afterwards became his biographer.

Such was the general outline of Gray's life. In reading it we find the most interesting features those which he describes so well in his letters, his travels, and his occasional retreats at Stoke Pogis. He made a tour into the north of England, to the lakes, and into Scotland; at another time through Worcester, Hereford, Monmouth, and parts of the neighbouring counties; and all his details of such rambles, as they are given with an evident zest, are full of life and interest. In his prose, Gray gets out of the stiff and stilted formality of much of his poetry. He forgets his learning and his classical notions, and is at once easy, amiable, witty, and jocose. There was a degree of effeminacy about him, which you see in the portraits of him, which you do not the less detect in his poetry; but his prose gives you a far more attractive idea of him, as he must be in the familiar circle of his friends. On turning to Gray's account of those places which I have visited in various parts of the kingdom, I have always found him seizing on their real features, and impressed with their true spirit. Of this genuine feeling of nature his account of his visit to the Grande Chartreuse may be taken as a sufficient specimen.

"We took the longest road, which lies through Savoy, on purpose to see a famous monastery called the Grande Chartreuse, and had no reason to think our time lost. After travelling seven days, very slow, — for we did not change horses, it being impossible for a chaise to go fast in these roads, — we arrived at a little village among the mountains of Savoy, called Echelles; from whence we proceeded on horses, who are used to the way, to the mountain of the Chartreuse. It is six miles to the top; the road runs winding up it, commonly not six feet broad; on the one hand is the rock, with woods of pine-trees hanging over head; on the other a monstrous precipice, almost perpendicular, at the bottom of which rolls a torrent, that sometimes tumbling among the fragments of stone that have fallen from on high, and sometimes precipitating itself down vast descents with a noise like thunder, which is made still greater by the echo from the mountains on each side, concurs to form one of the most solemn, the most romantic, and the most astonishing scenes I ever beheld. Add to this the strange views made by the crags and cliffs on the other hand; the cascades that in many places throw themselves from the very summit down into the vale and the river below, and many other places impossible to describe, — you will conclude we had no occasion to repent of our pains. This place St. Bruno chose to retire to, and upon its very top founded the aforesaid convent, which is the superior of the whole order. When we came there, the two fathers who are commissioned to entertain strangers, — for the rest must neither speak to one another, nor to any one else, — received us very kindly, and set before its a repast of dried fish, eggs, butter, and fruits, all excellent of their kind, and extremely neat. They pressed us to spend the night there, and to stay some days with them, but this we could not do; so they led its about their house, which is, you must think, like a little city; for there are a hundred fathers, besides three hundred servants, that make their clothes, grind their corn, press their wine, and do everything among themselves. The whole is quite orderly and simple: nothing of finery; but the wonderful decency, and the strange situation, more than supply the place of it. In the evening we descended by the same way, passing through many clouds that were then forming themselves on the mountain's side, and pursued our journey towards Chamberry."

It is, however, at Stoke Pogis that we seek the most attractive vestiges of Gray. Here he used to spend his vacations, not only when a youth at Eton, but during the whole of his future life, while his mother and his aunts lived. Here it was that his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, his celebrated Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, and his Long Story, were not only written, but were mingled with the circumstances, and all the tenderest feelings of his own life.

His mother and aunts lived at an old-fashioned house in a very retired spot at Stoke, called West End. This house stood in a hollow, much screened by trees. A small stream ran through the garden, and it is said that Gray used to employ himself when here much in this garden, and that many of the trees still remaining are of his planting. On one side of the house extended an upland field, which was planted round so as to give a charming, retired walk; and at the summit of the field was raised an artificial mound, and upon it was built a sort of arcade or summer-house, which gave full prospect of Windsor and Eton. Here Gray used to delight to sit. Here he was accustomed to read and write much; and it is just the place to inspire the Ode on Eton College, which lay in the midst of its fine landscape, beautifully in view. The old house inhabited by Gray and his mother has just been pulled down, and replaced by an Elizabethan mansion by the present proprietor, Mr. Penn, of Stoke Park, just by. The garden, of course, has shared in the change, and now stands gay with its fountain and its modern green house, and, excepting for some fine trees, no longer reminds you of Gray. The woodland walk still remains round the adjoining field, and the summer-house on its summit, though now much cracked by time, and only held together by iron cramps. The trees are now so lofty that they completely obstruct the view, and shut out both Eton and Windsor.

It was at this house, now destroyed, that the two ladies from the Park made their memorable visit, which gave occasion to the Long Story. The facts were these. Gray had finished his Elegy, and had sent it in manuscript to Horace Walpole, by whom it was shown about with great applause. Amongst the rest of the fashionable world to whom it was thus communicated, Lady Cobham, who now lived at the Mansion-house at Stoke Pogis, had read and admired it. Wishing to make the acquaintance of the author, and hearing that he was so near her, her relatives, Miss Speed and Lady Schaub, then at her house, undertook to bring this about by making him the first visit. He happened to be from home when the ladies arrived at his aunts' solitary mansion; and when he returned, was surprised to find, written on one of his papers in the parlour where he usually read, the following note: — "Lady Schaub's compliments to Mr. Gray. She is sorry not to have found him at home, to tell him that Lady Brown is very well." Thus necessarily obliged him to return the visit, and soon after induced him to compose a ludicrous account of this little adventure for the amusement of the ladies in question. This was a mere jeu d'esprit, and extravagant as some parts of it are, is certainly very clever; Gray regarded it but as a thing for the occasion, and never included it in his published poems. But Mallet tells us that when it appeared, though only in manuscript, it was handed about, and the most various opinions pronounced on it. By some it was thought a master-piece of original humour, by others a wild and fantastic farrago. It in truth much more resembles his prose, and proves, that if he had not always had the fear of the critics before his eyes, he would have written with far more freedom and life than he often did. We may take a few stanzas, as connected with our further subject.

In Britain's isle, no matter where,
An ancient pile of building stands
The Huntingdons and Hattons there
Employed the power of fairy hands
To raise the ceiling's fretted height,
Each pannel in achievements clothing,
Rich windows that exclude the light,
And passages that lead to nothing.
Full oft within the spacious walls,
When he had fifty winters o'er him
My grave Lord Keeper led the brawls;
The seal and maces danced before him.
His bushy beard, and shoe-strings green,
His high-crowned hat, and satin doublet,
Moved the stout heart of England's Queen,
Though Pope and Spaniard could not trouble it....

A house there is, and that's enough,
From whence one fatal morning issues
A brace of warriors, not in buff,
But rustling in their silks and tissues.
The first came cap-a-pie from France,
Her conquering destiny fulfilling,
Whom meaner beauties eye askance,
And vainly ape her art of killing.
The other Amazon, kind Heaven
Had armed with spirit, wit, and satire;
But Cobham had the polish given,
And tipped her arrows with good-nature.
To celebrate her eyes, her air—
Coarse panegyrics would but tease her:
Melissa is her nom de guerre;
Alas who would not wish to please her!
With bonnet blue, and capuchine,
And aprons long, they bid their armour,
And veiled their weapons bright and keen,
In pity to the country farmer.
Fame, in the shape of Mr. P-t—
By this time all the parish knew it—
Had told that thereabouts there lurked
A wicked imp they call a poet;
Who prowled the country, far and near,
Bewitched the children of the peasants,
Dried up the cows, and lamed the deer,
And sucked the eggs, and killed the pheasants.
My lady heard their joint petition,
Swore, by her coronet and ermine,
She'd issue out her high commission,
To rid the manor of such vermine.
The heroines undertook the task,
Through lanes unknown, o'er stiles they ventured,
Rapped at the door, nor stayed to ask,
But bounce into the parlour entered.
The trembling family they daunt,
They flirt, they sing, they laugh, they tattle,
Rummage his mother, pinch his aunt,
And upstairs in a whirlwind rattle, etc.

The ancient pile here mentioned, was the Manor-house, Stoke Park, which was then in the possession of Viscountess Cobham. This place and the manor had been in some remarkable hands. The manor was so called from the Pogies, the ancient lords of that name. The heiress of this family, in the reign of Edward the Third, married Lord Molines, who shortly afterwards procured a licence from the king to convert the manor-house into a castle. From him it descended to the Lords Hungerford, and from them to the Hastings, Earls of Huntingdon, and was afterwards the residence of Lord Chancellor Hatton. Sir Christopher Hatton had won his promotion with Queen Elizabeth through his graceful person and fine dancing, and is very picturesquely described by Gray, with "his shoe-strings green, high-crowned hat, and satin doublet," leading off the brawls, a sort of figure-dance then in vogue, before the queen. Sir Edward Coke, having married an heiress of the Huntingdon family, became the next possessor; and here, in the year 1601, he was honoured with a visit from Elizabeth, whom he entertained in a very sumptuous style. After the death of the Viscountess Cobham, the estate was purchased by Mr. William Penn, chief proprietor of Pennsylvania, a descendant of the celebrated William Penn, the founder of that State.

This old manor-house has since been swept away, as Gray's residence is also, and a large modern mansion now occupies its place. This was built from a design by Wyatt, in 1789, and has since been altered and enlarged. It is built chiefly of brick, and covered with stucco, and consists of a large square centre, with two wings. The north, or entrance front, is ornamented with a colonnade, consisting of ten Doric columns, and approached by a flight of steps leading to the Marble Hall. The south front, 196 feet long, is also adorned with a colonnade, consisting of twelve fluted columns of the old Doric order. This is surrounded by a projecting portico of four Ionic columns, sustaining an ornamental pediment; and again on the top of the house by a dome.

Stoke Park, thus interesting both on account of these older associations, and of Penn and Gray, is about a couple of miles from Slough. The country is flat, but its monotony is broken up by the noble character and disposition of its woods. Near the house is a fine expanse of water, across which the eye falls on fine views, particularly to the south, of Windsor Castle, Cooper's Hill, and the Forest Woods. About three hundred yards from the north front of the house stands a column, sixty-eight feet high, bearing on the top a colossal statue of Sir Edward Coke, by Rosa. The woods of the park shut out the view of West End House, Gray's occasional residence, but the space is open from the mansion across the park, so as to take in the view both of the church and of a monument erected by the late Mr. Penn to Gray. Alighting from the carriage at a lodge, I entered the park just at the monument. This is composed of fine freestone, and consists of a large sarcophagus, supported on a square pedestal, with inscriptions on each side. Three of them are selected from the Ode to Eton College and the Elegy. They are—

Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Muttering his wayward fancies he would rove;
Now drooping, woeful, wan, like one forlorn,
Or crazed with care, or crossed in hopeless love.

One morn I missed him on the accustomed hill,
Along the heath, and near his favourite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he.

The second is from the Ode:—

Ye distant spires ye antique towers!
That crown the watery glade,
Where grateful science still adores
Her Henry's holy shade;
And ye, that from the stately brow
Of Windsor's heights the expanse below
Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey,
Whose turf, whose shade, whose flowers among
Wanders the hoary Thames along His silver winding way.

All, happy hills! ah, pleasing shade!
All, fields beloved in vain!
Where once my careless childhood strayed,
A stranger yet to pain I feel the gales, that from ye blow,
A momentary bliss bestow.

The third is again from the Elegy:—

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.

The fourth bears this inscription:—

This Monument, in honour of THOMAS GRAY,
Was erected A.D. 1799,
Among the scenery
Celebrated by that great Lyric and Elegiac Poet.
He died in 1771,
And lies unnoted in the adjoining Church-yard,
Under the Tomb-stone on which he piously
And pathetically recorded the interment
Of his Aunt and lamented Mother.

This monument is enclosed in a neatly kept garden-like enclosure, with a winding walk approaching from the shade of the neighbouring trees. To the right, across the park at some little distance, backed by fine trees, stands the rural little church and churchyard, where Gray wrote his Elegy, and where he lies. As you walk on to this, the mansion closes the distant view between the woods with fine effect. The church has often been engraved, and is therefore tolerably familiar to the general reader. It consists of two barn-like structures, with tall roofs, set side by side, and the tower and finely tapered spire rising above them at the northwest corner. The church is thickly hung with ivy, where

The moping owl may to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient, solitary reign.

The structure is as simple and old-fashioned, both without and within, as any village church can well be. No village, however, is to be seen. Stoke consists chiefly of scattered houses, and this is now in the midst of the park. In the churchyard,

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

All this is quite literal; and the tomb of the poet himself, near the south-east window, completes the impression of the scene. It is a plain brick altar tomb, covered with a blue slate slab, and, besides his own ashes, contains those of his mother and aunt. On the slab are inscribed the following lines by Gray himself: — "In the vault beneath are deposited, in hope of a joyful resurrection, the remains of Mary Antrobus. She died unmarried, Nov: 5, 1749, aged sixty-six. In the same pious confidence, beside her friend and sister, here sleep the remains of Dorothy Gray, widow; the tender, careful mother of many children, ONE of whom alone had the misfortune to survive her. She died March 11, 1753, aged sixty-seven."

No testimony of the interment of Gray in the same tomb was inscribed any where till Mr. Penn, in 1799, erected the monument already mentioned, and placed a small slab in the wall, under the window, opposite to the tomb itself, recording the fact of Gray's burial there. The whole scene is well worthy of a summer day's stroll, especially for such as, pent in the metropolis, know how to enjoy the quiet freshness of the country, and the associations of poetry and the past. The Great Western Railway now will set such down in about one hour at Slough, a pleasant walk from Stoke.

The late Mr. Penn, a gentleman of refined taste, and a great reverencer of the memory of Gray, possessed his autographs, which have been sold at great prices. It is to be regretted that his house, too, is now gone, but the church and the tomb will remain to future ages.