1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:49-53.



THOMAS GRAY was born at Cornhill, London, December 26, 1716. His father, Philip Gray, was a money-scrivener — the same occupation carried on by Milton's father; but though a "respectable citizen," the parent of Gray was a man of harsh and violent disposition. His wife was forced to separate from him; and it was to the exertions of this excellent woman, as partner with her sister in a millinery business, that the poet owed the advantages of a learned education, first at Eton, and afterwards at Cambridge. The painful domestic circumstances of his youth gave a tinge of melancholy and pensive reflection to Gray, which is visible in his poetry. At Eton, the young student had made the friendship of Horace Walpole, son of the prime minister; and when his college education was completed, Walpole induced him to accompany him in a tour through France and Italy. They had been about a twelvemonth together, exploring the natural beauties, antiquities, and picture galleries of Rome, Florence, Naples, &c., when a quarrel took place between them at Reggio, and the travellers separated, Gray returning to England. Walpole took the blame of this difference on himself, as he was vain and volatile, and not disposed to trust in the better knowledge and the somewhat fastidious tastes and habits of his associate. Gray went to Cambridge, to take his degree in civil law, but without intending to follow up the profession. His father had died, his mother's fortune was small, and the poet was more intent on learning than on riches. He had, however, enough for his wants. He fixed his residence at Cambridge; and amidst its noble libraries and learned society, passed the greater part of his remaining life. He hated mathematical and metaphysical pursuits, but was ardently devoted to classical learning, to which he added the study of architecture, antiquities, natural history, and other branches of knowledge. His retired life was varied by occasional residence in London, where he revelled among the treasures of the British Museum; and by frequent excursions to the country on visits to a few learned and attached friends. At Cambridge Gray was considered as an unduly fastidious man, and this gave occasion to practical jokes being played off upon him by his fellow-inmates of St. Peter's college, one of which — a false alarm of fire, by which he was induced to descend from his window to the ground by a rope — was the cause of his removing (1756) to Pembroke Hall. In 1765 he took a journey into Scotland, and met his brother poet Dr. Beattie, at Glammis castle. He also penetrated into Wales, and made a journey to Cumberland and Westmoreland, to see the scenery of the lakes. His letters describing these excursions are remarkable for elegance and precision, for correct and extensive observation, and for a dry scholastic humour peculiar to the poet. On returning from these agreeable holidays, Gray set himself calmly down in his college retreat — pored over his favourite authors, compiled tables of chronology or botany, moralised on "all he felt and all he saw" in correspondence with his friends, and occasionally ventured into the realms of poetry and imagination. He had studied the Greek poets with such intense devotion and critical care, that their spirit and essence seem to have sunk into his mind, and coloured all his efforts at original composition. At the same time, his knowledge of human nature, and his sympathy with the world, were varied and profound. Tears fell unbidden among the classic flowers of fancy, and in his almost monastic cell, his heart vibrated to the finest tones of humanity.

Gray's first public appearance as a poet was made in 1747, when his "Ode to Eton College" was published by Dodsley. Two years afterwards, his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" was printed, and immediately became popular. His Pindaric Odes appeared in 1757, but met with little success. His name, however, was now so well known, that he was offered the situation of poet-laureate, vacant by the death of Colley Cibber. Gray declined the appointment; but shortly afterwards he obtained the more reputable and lucrative situation of Professor of Modern History, which brought him in about £400 per annum. For some years he had been subject to hereditary gout, and as his circumstances improved, his health declined. While at dinner one day in the college hall, he was seized with an attack in the stomach, which was so violent, as to resist all the efforts of medicine, and after six days of suffering, he expired on the 30th of July 1771, in the fifty-fifth year of his age. He was buried, according to his desire, by the side of his mother, at Stoke, near Eton — adding one more poetical association to that beautiful and classic district of England.

The poetry of Gray is all comprised in a few pages, yet he appears worthy to rank in quality with the first order of poets. His two great odes, "The Progress of Poesy," and "The Bard," are the most splendid compositions we possess in the Pindaric style and measure. They surpass the odes of Collins in fire and energy, in boldness of imagination, and in condensed and brilliant expression. Collins is as purely and entirely poetical, but he is less commanding and sublime. Gray's stanzas, notwithstanding their varied and complicated versification, flow with lyrical ease and perfect harmony. Each presents rich personification, striking thoughts, or happy imagery — "Sublime their starry fronts they rear." "The Bard" is more dramatic and picturesque than "The Progress of Poesy," yet in the latter are some of the poet's richest and most majestic strains. As, for example, the sketch of the savage youth of Chili:—

In climes beyond the solar road,
Where shaggy forms o'er ice-built mountains roam,
The muse has broke the twilight gloom,
To cheer the shivering native's dull abode.
And oft beneath the odorous shade
Of Chili's boundless forests laid,
She deigns to hear the savage youth repeat,
In loose numbers wildly sweet,
Their feather-cinctured chiefs and dusky loves.
Her track, where'er the goddess roves,
Glory pursue and generous shame,
The unconquerable mind and Freedom's holy flame.

Or the poetical characters of Shakspeare, Milton, and Dryden:—

Far from the sun and summer gale,
In thy green lap was Nature's darling laid,
What time, where lucid Avon strayed,
To him the mighty mother did unveil
Her awful face: the dauntless child
Stretched forth his little arms, and smiled.
"This pencil take," she said, "whose colours clear
Richly paint the vernal year:
Thine, too, these golden keys, immortal boy!
This can unlock the gates of Joy;
Of Horror that, and thrilling Fears,
Or ope the sacred source of sympathetic Tears."

Nor second he, that rode sublime
Upon the seraph-wings of Ecstacy,
The secrets of the abyss to spy.
He passed the flaming bounds of space and time:
The living throne, the sapphire-blaze,
Where angels tremble while they gaze,
He saw; but blasted with excess of light,
Closed his eyes in endless night.
Behold where Dryden's less presumptuous car
Wide o'er the fields of glory bear
Two coursers of ethereal race,
With necks in thunder clothed, and long-resounding pace.

The "Ode to Eton College," the "Ode to Adversity," and the far-famed "Elegy," present the same careful and elaborate finishing; but the thoughts and imagery are more simple, natural, and touching. A vein of moral feelings, and solemn or affecting associations, is presented to the mind, in connection with beautiful natural scenery and objects of real life. In a letter to Beattie, Gray remarks — "As to description, I have always thought that it made the most graceful ornament of poetry, but never ought to make this subject." He practised what he taught; for there is always some sentiment or reflection arising out of the poet's descriptive passages. These are generally grave, tender, or pathetic. The cast of his own mind, and the comparative loneliness of his situation and studies, nursed a sort of philosophic spleen, and led him to moralise on the vanity of life. Byron and others have attached inordinate value to the "Elegy," as the main prop of Gray's reputation. It is, doubtless, the most frequently read and repeated of all his productions, because it is connected with ordinary existence and genuine feeling, and describes, in exquisite harmonious verse, what all persons must, at some time or other, have felt of imagined. But the highest poetry can never be very extensively popular. A simple ballad air will convey pleasure to a greater number of persons than the most successful efforts of accomplished musical taste and genius; and, in like manner, poetry which deals with subjects of familiar life, must find more readers than those inspired flights of imagination, or recondite allusions, however graced with the charms of poetry, which can only be enjoyed by persons of fine sensibility, and something of kindred taste and knowledge. Gray's classical diction, his historical and mythological personifications must ever be lost on the multitude. Even Dr. Johnson was tempted into a coarse and unjust criticism of Gray, chiefly because the critic admired no poetry which did not contain some weighty moral truth, or some chain of reasoning. To restrict poetical excellence to this standard, would be to blot out Spenser from the list of high poets and to curtail Shakspeare and Milton of more than half their glory. Let us recollect with another poet — the author of the "Night Thoughts" — that "a fixed star is as much in the bounds of nature as a flower of the field, though has obvious and of far greater dignity."

In the character of Gray there are some seeming inconsistencies. As a man, he was nice, reserved, and proud — a haughty retired scholar; yet we find him in his letters full of English idiom and English feeling, with a touch of the gossip, and sometimes not over fastidious in his allusions and remarks. He was indolent, yet a severe student — hating Cambridge and its college discipline, yet constantly residing there, He loved intellectual ease and luxury, end wished, as a sort of Mohammedan paradise, to "lie on a sofa, and read eternal new romances of Marivaux and Crebillon." Yet all he could say of Thomson's "Castle of indolence," when it was first published, was, that there were some good verses in it! Akenside, too, whom he was so well fitted to appreciate, he thought "often obscure, and even unintelligible." As a poet, Gray studied in the school of the ancient and Italian poets, labouring like an artist to infuse part of their spirit, their melody, and even some of their expressions, into his inimitable Mosaic work, over which he breathed the life and fragrance of eternal spring. In his country tours, the poet carried with him a pIano-convex mirror, which, in surveying landscapes, gathers into one confined glance the forms and tints of the surrounding scene. His imagination performed a similar operation in collecting, fixing, and appropriating this materials of poetry. All is bright, natural, and interesting — rich or magnificent — but it is seen but for a moment. Yet, despite his classic taste and models, Gray was among the first to welcome and admire the Celtic strains of Macpherson's Ossian; and he could also delight in the wild superstitions of the Gothic nations: in translating from the Norse tongue the "Fatal Sisters" and the "Descent of Odin," he called up this martial fire, the rude energy and abruptness of the ancient ballad minstrels. Had his situation and circumstances been different, the genius of this accomplished and admirable poet would in all probability have expanded, so as to embrace subjects of wider and more varied interest — of greater length and diversity of character.

The subdued humour and fancy of Gray are perpetually breaking out in his letters, with brief picturesque touches that mark the poet and man of taste. The advantages of travelling and of taking notes on the spot, he has playfully but admirably summed up in a letter to a friend, then engaged in making a tour in Scotland — "Do not you think a man may be the wiser (I had almost said the better) for going a hundred or two of miles; and that the mind has more room in it than most people seem to think, if you will but furnish the apartments? I almost envy your last month, being in a very insipid situation myself; and desire you would not fail to send me some furniture for my Gothic apartment, which is very cold at present. It will be the easier task, as you have nothing to do but transcribe your little red books, if they are not rubbed out; for I conclude you have not trusted everything to memory, which is ten times worse than a lead pencil. Half a word fixed upon or near the spot is worth a cartload of recollection. When we trust to the picture that objects draw of themselves on our mind, we deceive ourselves; without accurate and particular observation, it is but ill-drawn at first, the outlines are soon blurred, the colours every day grow fainter, and at last, when we would produce it to anybody, we are forced to supply its defects with a few strokes of our own imagination."

Impressed with the opinion he here inculcates, the poet was a careful note-taker, and his delineations are all fresh and distinct. Thus, he writes in the following graceful strain to his friend Nicholls, in commemoration of a tour which he made to Southampton and Netley Abbey: — "My health is much improved by the sea, not that I drank it or bathed in it, as the common people do: no, I only walked by it, and looked upon it. The climate is remarkably mild, even in October and November; no snow has been seen to lie there for these thirty years past; the myrtles grow in the ground against the houses, and Guernsey lilies bloom in every window; the town clean and well-built, surrounded by its old stone-walls, with their towers and gateways, stands at the point of a peninsula, and opens full south to an arm of the sea, which having formed two beautiful hays on each hand of it, stretches away in direct view, till it joins the British Channel; it is skirted on either side with gently-rising grounds, clothed with thick wood, and directly cross its mouth rise the high lands of the isle of Wight at some distance, but distinctly seen. In the bosom of the woods (concealed from profane eyes) lie hid the ruins of Netley Abbey; there may be richer and greater houses of religion, but the abbot is content with his situation. See there, at the top of that hanging meadow, under the shade of those old trees that bend into a half circle about it, he is walking slowly (good man!), and bidding his beads for the souls of his benefactors, interred in that venerable pile that lies beneath him. Beyond it (the meadow still descending) nods a thicket of oaks that mask the building, and have excluded a view too garish and luxuriant for a holy eye; only on either hand they leave an opening to the blue glittering sea. Did you not observe how, as that white sail shot by and was lost, he turned and crossed himself to drive the tempter from him that had thrown that distraction in his way? I should tell you that the ferryman who rowed me, a lusty young fellow, told me that he would not for all the world pass a night at the abbey (there were such things near it), though there was a power of money hid there. From thence I went to Salisbury, Wilton, and Stonehenge; but of these I say no more; they will be published at the university press.

"P.S. — I must not close my letter without giving you one principal event of my history, which was, that (in the course of my late tour) I set out one morning before five o'clock, the moon shining through a dark and misty autumnal air, and got to the sea-coast time enough to be at the sun's levee. I saw the clouds and dark vapours open gradually to right and left, rolling over one another in great smoky wreaths, and the tide (as it flowed gently in upon the sands) first whitening, then slightly tinged with gold and blue; and all at once a little line of insufferable brightness that (before I can write these five words) was grown to half an orb, and now to a whole one, too glorious to be distinctly seen. It is very odd it makes no figure on paper; yet I shall remember it as long as the sun, or at least as long as I endure. I wonder whether anybody ever saw it before? I hardly believe it."

Much as has since been written on the lake country, nothing can exceed the beauty and finish of this miniature picture of Grassmere: — "Passed by the little chapel of Wiborn, out of which the Sunday congregation were then issuing. Passed a beck [rivulet] near Dunmailrouse, and entered Westmoreland a second time; now begin to see Helmcrag, distinguished from its rugged neighbours not so much by its height, as by the strange broken outline of its top, like some gigantic building demolished, and the stones that composed it flung across each other in wild confusion. Just beyond it opens one of the sweetest landscapes that art ever attempted to imitate. The bosom of the mountains spreading here into a broad basin, discovers in the midst Grassmere water; its margin is hollowed into small bays with bold eminences, some of them rocks, some of soft turf, that half conceal and vary the figure of the little lake they command. From the shore a low promontory pushes itself far into the water, and on it stands a white village with the parish church rising in the midst of it; hanging inclosures, corn fields, and meadows green as an emerald, with their trees, hedges, and cattle, fill up the whole space from the edge of the water. Just opposite to you is a large farm-house, at the bottom of a steep smooth lawn embosomed in old woods, which climb half way up the mountain's side, and discover above them a broken line of crags, that crown the scene. Not a single red tile, no glaring gentleman's house or garden walls, break in upon the repose of this little unsuspected paradise; but all is peace, rusticity, and happy poverty, in its neatest and most becoming attire."

The sublime scenery of the Grande Chartreuse, in Dauphiny (the subject of Gray's noble Alcaic ode), awakened all his poetical enthusiasm. Writing to his mother from Lyons, he says — "It is a fortnight since we set out hence upon a little excursion to Geneva. 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 having travelled seven days very slow (for we did not change horses, it being impossible for a chaise to go post in these roads), we arrived at a little village among the mountains of Savoy, called Echelles; from thence we proceeded on horses, who are used to the way, to the mountain of the Chartreuse. It is six miles to the top; the read runs winding up it, commonly not six feet broad; on one hand is the rock, with woods of pine-trees hanging overhead; 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 still made 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 particulars impossible to describe, you will conclude we had no occasion to repent 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 one to another, nor to any one else) received us very kindly, and set before us a repast of dried fish, eggs, butter, and fruits, all excellent in 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 us 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 this 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."

In a subsequent letter to his poetical friend West. Gray again adverts to this memorable visit: "In our little journey up the Grande Chartreuse," he says, "I do not remember to have gone ten paces without an exclamation that there was no restraining. Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry. There are certain scenes that would awe an atheist into belief, without the help of other argument. One need not have a very fantastic imagination to see spirits there at noonday. You have Death perpetually before your eyes, only so far removed, as to compose the mind without frightening it."

In turning from these exquisite fragments of description to the poetry of Gray, the difference will be found to consist chiefly in the rhyme and measure: in loftiness of sentiment and vividness of expression, the prose is equal to the verse.