Of all the men of genius whom Eton has educated, there is no one who has blended his fame more closely with hers, than the poet Gray. Every reader of his poems is reminded or informed of Eton's beauties and glories; and very few of the hundreds who annually visit or revisit Eton, look upon the old College towers, and the fair fresh scenery around them, without feeling Gray's exquisite stanzas almost spontaneously revive in the memory.
THOMAS GRAY was born in Cornhill, on the 16th of December, 1716. He was the fifth among twelve children, of Mr. Philip Gray, a citizen and scrivener of London, and was the only one of the twelve who outlived the period of infancy.
Probably much of Gray's peculiarly retiring and sensitive character was owing to the circumstance of his thus being brought up an only child; and, though his father lived for many years after Gray had arrived at early manhood, the future poet was emphatically "the only child of his mother;" for the father, a harsh, selfish, violent, and unprincipled man, refused to put himself to any expense, or to take any trouble about his son's education; over which his mother watched with unremitting tenderness and care. Gray repaid his mother's love with the deepest reverence and affection to the end of her life. She lived long enough to witness her son's celebrity; and they frequently resided together. To quote the beautiful lines of Pope
Him did the tender office long engage
To rock the pillow of reposing age,
With lenient arts extend a Mother's breath,
Make Languor smile, and smooth the bed of Death,
Explore the thought, explain the asking eye,
And keep a while one parent from the sky.
Gray's mother died in 1753, and, according to his friend, Mason, Gray, for many years afterwards, never mentioned her name without a sigh.
Gray was indebted to this parent, not only for the rudiments of education which he learned from her lips, while at home, but for being sent to Eton, where Mr. Antrobus, a brother of his mother, was then an assistant-master. Gray was placed under his care; and at Eton he passed many years of industry and happiness, until 1734, when he entered as a pensioner at Peterhouse, in Cambridge.
Gray formed, at Eton, a friendship with Horace Walpole: and one more cordial and permanent with Richard West; the affectionate intimacy of those two kindred spirits was only terminated by West's death; and it forms one of the most pleasing features in Gray's Biography.
The two friends were temporarily separated on leaving Eton: West going to Oxford, and Gray to Cambridge; but they were regular correspondents, and their published letters are some of the most interesting and agreeable specimens of our epistolatory literature.
Gray found very little gratification at Cambridge in the society and manners of the young university men who were his contemporaries. They ridiculed his sensitive temper and retired habits, and gave him the nickname of "Miss Gray," for his supposed effeminacy. Nor does Gray seem to have lived on much better terms with his academic superiors. He abhorred mathematics, with the same cordiality of hatred which Pope professed towards them, and at that time concurred with Pope in thinking that the best recipe for dullness was to
Full in the midst of Euclid plunge at once,
And petrify a genius to a dunce.
"You must know," says Gray, in a letter written by him in his second year at Cambridge, to West, at Oxford, "You must know that I do not take degrees, and after this term shall have nothing more of College impertinencies to undergo." It must not, however, be supposed, that Gray's time at Cambridge was spent in idleness. He was at all times a diligent and systematic reader. Besides improving his acquaintance with the classics, he paid great attention, at this period, to modern languages and literature; and some of his Latin poems, and translations into English from the classical writers, were written by him during the first year that he spent at Cambridge.
In the spring of 1739, Gray set out, in company with Horace Walpole, and at his request, on a tour through France and Italy. They passed the following winter at Florence with Mr. (afterwards Sir) Horace Mann, the envoy at that court; and after visiting Rome and Naples, and seeing the remains of Hercullaneum, which had only been discovered the year before, they passed eleven months more at Florence. While here, Gray commenced his Latin poem "De Principiis Cogitandi," which shows how diligently and successfully he had studied the best features of Lucretius. There is, however, nothing in it to tempt a second reading; but there is another Latin poem of Gray's, written by him during his travels, which is equal to even his best English poems for the originality and grandeur of its thoughts, as well as for the grace of its diction. This is his Alcaic Ode, written in the Album of the Grande Chartreuse in Dauphiny, in August, 1741.
If the reader will turn back to the memoir of Robert Boyle, he will see the effect produced on that celebrated man by the wild scenery of this renowned spot. There is an admirable description of it in one of Gray's letters to his mother; and it inspired in him the following majestic stanzas:
"Oh Tu, severi Religio loci,
Quocunque gaudes nomine" (non leve
Nativa nam certe fluenta
Numen habet veteresque sylvas;
"Praesentiorem et conspicimus Deum
Per invias rupes, fera per juga,
Olivos que praeruptos, sonantes
Inter aquas, nemorumque noctem;"
Quam si repostus sub trabe citrea
Fulgeret auro, et Phidiaca manu)
Salve vocanti rite fesso, et
Da placidam juveni quietem.
Quod si invidendis sedibus et frui
Fortuna sacra lege silentii
Vetat volentem, me resorbens
In medios violente fluctus:
Saltem remote da, Pater, angulo
Horas senectae ducere liberas;
Tutumque vulgari tumultu
Surripias hominumque curis.
Let those who sneer at modern Latin poetry, try to produce anything from Horace that is superior to this ode, especially to the lines which I have Italicised. If it be said that Gray might have written his ideas in English, let the person who says so, try to turn these Alcaics into English, and see what appearance they will wear. They are as incapable of being translated without their force and grace evaporating in the process, as Horace is. The genius of every language is peculiarly adapted for the expression of some particular trains of thought. The Latin is incomparably the finest vehicle for such ideas as Gray felt at the Grand Chartreuse. This is no disparagement to our own language. Ours has its peculiar powers and graces, more numerous than those of the Latin, though different in kind. Can Shakespeare be Latinised?
I will bring together here one or two more specimens of Gray's Latin poetry. The first is a stanza of which Byron deeply felt the beauty and pathos, and which is the theme of one of the best of his minor poems; I mean of the one that commences thus:—
There's not a joy the world can give like what it takes away, &c.
The Latin lines of Gray which inspired Byron, are:
O lachrymarum fons, tenero sacros
Ducentium ortus ex animo; quarter
Felix! in imo qui scatentem
Pectore te, pia Nympha, sensit.
The next (and last) two Latin stanzas by Gray which I shall quote, are the two first of a set of Sapphics, addressed by him to Mr. West, at a time when each of these poets believed himself to be intended for the Bar. They betray an amusing horror of Westminster Hall:
Barbaras aedes aditure mecum
Quas Eris semper fovet inquieta,
Lis ubi late sonat et togatum
Dulcius quanto, patulis sub ulmi
Hospitae ramis temere jacentem
Sic libris horas, tenuique inertes
I fear that, in order to feel fully these lines, they must be read, as I now read them, on a beautiful May morning, and with the consciousness of being obliged to hurry down to Westminster.
Horace Walpole and Gray did not complete their projected tour together. They quarrelled while in Italy, and Gray returned to England alone. I cannot understand why Johnson should have chosen to doubt Horace Walpole's account of this difference between them, the whole blame of which he throws upon himself. He says that Gray was "too serious a companion." "I had just broke loose," says Walpole, "from the restraint of the university, with as much money as I could spend; and I was willing to indulge myself. Gray was for antiquities, &c., whilst I was for perpetual balls and plays: the fault was mine." (Walpoliana, i. ex.) Gray turned his steps homewards, and arrived in England in September, 1741, just in time to be present at his father's death.
Gray had intended, on leaving Cambridge, to devote himself to the study of the law. His travels had now, for two years and a half, diverted him from this object; and after his father's death he appears soon to have given it up. He went, indeed, to reside at Cambridge for the professed purpose of taking the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law, but continued to reside there after taking the degree.
Gray probably felt conscious that the profession which he had originally designed to follow, was one for which he was naturally unfit, and he certainly had at no time shown any zeal to commence it. One of his reasons for avowedly giving up all projects of a forensic career is creditable to his filial piety and kindness, though I do not suppose that the abandonment of professional prospects which he evidently disliked, was a very heavy sacrifice. Soon after his father's death, the family property was found to be so much less than what had been reckoned on, that Gray perceived, that the heavy expenses incidental on preparing for the bar and on the customary briefless first years of a barrister's attendance on circuit and at Westminster, would make serious inroads on the family fund, and trench upon the means of maintaining in comfort his mother and his aunt, to both of whom he was fondly attached. The expenses of living quietly at Cambridge were comparatively trifling, and Cambridge accordingly became Gray's principal abode: though throughout his mother's lifetime he paid her long visits. Fortunately for the lovers of Gray's poetry, his mother passed her latter years in the country, and generally lived not far from Eton.
The incalculable advantages which the university and college libraries offer to a literary man, must have aided greatly in causing Gray to reside so much at Cambridge, for he neither liked the place nor the general tone of its society. One of his biographers (with whom I can but seldom concur) truly points out the feature in Gray's character, which must have made books, and not men, his tests of the value of any particular dwelling-place. Gray's life was "the life of a student giving himself up to learning, and moreover accounting it an end in itself, and its own exceeding great reward. For it is not so much that he kept aloof from the active pursuits of life for the purpose of authorship, as that he comparatively sacrificed even this and the fame which belongs to it, by devoting his time almost entirely to reading. Writing was with him the exception, and that too a rare one. His life was spent in the acquisition of knowledge; and there is no doubt that he was a man of considerable learning. His acquaintance with the classics was profound and extensive. He had thought at one time of publishing an edition of Strabo; and he left behind him many notes and geographical disquisitions, which, together with notes on Plato and Aristophanes, were edited by Mr. Mathias. He was besides a very skilful zoologist and botanist. His knowledge of architecture has been already mentioned. He was well versed moreover in heraldry, and was a diligent antiquarian." Knight's Cyclopaedia.
Gray's dislike at this period of his life to Cambridge, in all respects save as a city of libraries, is manifest from the following fragment of a Hymn to Ignorance, written by him soon after he became a resident there:—
Hail, horrors, hail! ye ever gloomy bowers,
Ye gothic fanes, and antiquated towers!
Where rushy Camus' slowly-winding flood
Perpetual draws his humid train of mud:
Glad I revisit thy neglected reign:
Oh, take me to thy peaceful shade again.
But chiefly thee, whose influence breathed from high,
Augments the native darkness of the sky;
Ah, Ignorance! soft salutary power!
Prostrate with filial reverence I adore.
Thrice hath Hyperion roll'd his annual race,
Since weeping I forsook thy fond embrace.
Oh, say, successful dost thou still oppose
Thy leaden aegis 'gainst our ancient foes?
Still stretch, tenacious of thy right divine,
The massy sceptre o'er thy slumbering line?
And dews Lethean thro' the land dispense,
To steep in slumbers each benighted sense?
If any spark of wit's delusive ray
Break out, and flash a momentary day,
With damp cold touch forbid it to aspire,
And huddle up in fogs the dangerous fire.
Oh, say, — She hears me not, but, careless grown,
Lethargic nods upon her ebon throne.
Goddess I awake, arise: alas! my fears
Can powers immortal feel the force of years?
Not thus of old, with ensigns wide unfurl'd,
She rode triumphant o'er the vanquish'd world:
Fierce nations owed her unresisted might
And all was ignorance, and all was night:
Oh sacred age! Oh times for ever lost
(The schoolman's glory, and the churchman's boast,)
For ever gone — yet still to fancy new,
Her rapid wings the transient scene pursue,
And bring the buried ages back to view."
Many of his letters breathe the same sarcastic spirit in speaking of Cambridge studies and Cambridge men. He afterwards learned to think and speak more kindly and more wisely of his Alma Mater.
The first of his celebrated odes, that to Spring, was written by him in 1742. He designed it for the perusal of his friend West, before whom he was in the habit of laying all his compositions; but West died (June 1st, 1742) before the poem reached him. Gray felt this blow acutely; for his friendships, though few and not quickly formed, were exceedingly warm, and West had been his chosen companion and correspondent from boyhood. Johnson says of West, that he "deserved his [Gray's] esteem by the powers which he shows in his Letters, and in the Ode 'to May,' which Mr. Mason has preserved, as well as by the sincerity with which, when Gray sent him part of 'Agrippina,' a tragedy that he had just begun, he gave an opinion which probably intercepted the progress of the work, and which the judgment of every reader will confirm. It was certainly no loss to the English stage that 'Agrippina' was never finished."
Johnson might have added that Gray's readiness in deferring to his friend's opinion, and giving up his tragedy, was also no slight proof of Gray's good sense and candour. Johnson throughout his "Life of Gray" insinuates, without expressly charging, that Gray was a vain, peevish man. Certainly this immolation of "Agrippina" by her own parent, like Iphigenia, shows strongly that Gray was free from that morbid conceit, which is too often a characteristic of the "Genus irritabile vatum."
In the autumn of this year, probably in the course of a visit to his mother, who lived at Stoke, near Windsor, Gray wrote his beautiful Etonian lay, the far-famed "Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College." It is delightful to watch the fondness with which Gray ever regarded the place of his education, and his gratitude for the benefits which he had received there. A living Etonian poet, an editor of Gray, has truly and beautifully expressed the enduring effect which Eton and Eton scenery produced upon Gray's mind. I cannot pay Mr. Moultrie a higher compliment than by placing his stanza on Eton and Gray in juxta-position with THE ODE. I ought perhaps to apologise to some of my readers for quoting lines so familiar to them as these of Gray; but I could not let a volume written in honour of Eton pass forth to the world without embodying in it the noble and melodious homage paid to her by one of the most gifted of her sons. I must trust to my Etonian readers agreeing with me that THE ODE well rewards one perusal more.
ODE ON A DISTANT PROSPECT OF ETON COLLEGE.
Ye distant spires, ye antique towers,
That crown the wat'ry glade,
Where grateful Science still adores
Her Henry's holy shade;
And ye that from the stately brow
Of Windsor's heights th' 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.
Ah, happy hills, ah pleasing shade,
Ah, fields belov'd in vain,
Where once my careless childhood stray'd,
A stranger yet to pain!
I feel the gales, that from ye blow,
A momentary bliss bestow,
As waving fresh their gladsome wing,
My weary soul they seem to sooth,
And, redolent of joy and youth,
To breathe a second spring.
Say, father Thames, for thou hast seen
Full many a sprightly race
Disporting on thy margent green
The paths of pleasure trace,
Who foremost now delight to cleave,
With pliant arm thy glassy wave?
The captive linnet which enthrall?
What idle progeny succeed
To chase the rolling circle's speed,
Or urge the flying ball?
While some on earnest business bent
Their murm'ring labours ply,
'Gainst graver hours, that bring constraint
To sweeten liberty;
Some bold adventurers disdain
The limits of their little reign,
And unknown regions dare descry:
Still as they run they look behind,
They hear a voice in every wind,
And snatch a fearful joy.
Gay Hope is theirs by Fancy fed,
Less pleasing when possest;
The tear forgot as soon as shed,
The sunshine of the breast,
Theirs buxom health, of rosy hue,
Wild wit, invention ever-new,
And lively cheer of vigour born;
The thoughtless day, the easy night,
The spirits pure, the slumbers light,
That fly th' approach of morn.
Alas, regardless of their doom,
The little victims play;
No sense have they of ills to come,
Nor care beyond to-day:
Yet see, how all around them wait
The ministers of human fate,
And black Misfortune's baleful train,
Ah, show them where in ambush stand,
To seize their prey the murderous band!
Ah, tell them they are men!
These shall the fury passions tear,
The vultures of the mind,
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,
And Shame that sculks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy with rankling tooth,
That inly gnaws the secret heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care,
Grim-visag'd comfortless Despair,
And Sorrow's piercing Ddrt.
Ambition this shall tempt to rise,
Then whirl the wretch from high,
To bitter Scorn a sacrifice,
And grinning Infamy.
The Stings of Falsehood those shall try,
And hard Unkindness' alter'd eye,
That mocks the tear it forc'd to flow;
And keen Remorse with blood defil'd,
And moody Madness laughing wild
Amid severest woe.
Lo! in the vale of years beneath,
A grisly troop are seen,
The painful family of Death,
More hideous than their queen:
This racks the joints, this fires the veins,
That every labouring sinew strains,
Those in the deeper vitals rage:
Lo! Poverty, to fill the band,
That numbs the soul with icy hand,
And slow-consuming Age.
To each his sufferings: all are men,
Condemn'd alike to groan,
The tender for another's pain;
Th' unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their Paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
'Tis folly to be wise.
Johnson, who criticises Gray in more than even his usual spirit of sullen sarcasm, condemns this ODE wholesale, and says of it, that "the 'Prospect of Eton College' suggests nothing to Gray which every beholder does not equally think and feel." It is strange that Johnson should not have perceived that in saying this he was in fact pronouncing the highest eulogium on the Ode: especially as in another part of his "Life of Gray" he has the good sense to adduce as a convincing proof of the excellence of some of the stanzas in "The Elegy," the fact that "he who reads them persuades himself that he has always felt them." Perhaps "every beholder" (or at least every Etonian beholder) may at the "Prospect of Eton College" "equally think and feel" what Gray did, but who before Gray ever expressed those thoughts and feelings? and who, since Gray, has not experienced them the more vividly and the more pleasingly, by reason of the beauty and truthfulness with which Gray has expressed them?
Before quoting Mr. Moultrie's lines on Gray and Eton, I will insert two anecdotes which are given in Mathias's edition of Gray's works, and which prove both how deeply Gray imbued his mind with the Classics at Eton, and also that his poetical genius was first awakened there.
"Mr. Nicholls being once in company with the illustrious author of the 'Analysis of Ancient Mythology,' asked his opinion of Mr. Gray's scholarship when at Eton School. Mr. Bryant said in answer, 'Gray was an excellent scholar: I was next boy to him in the school, and at this minute I happen to recollect a line of one of his school exercises which, if you please, I will repeat, for the expressions are happy; it is on the subject of the freezing and thawing of words in the 'Spectator':
Descendere jugis, et garrulus ingruit imber.
"Mr. Nicholls once asked Mr. Gray, if he recollected when he first felt in himself the strong predilection to poetry, and he replied, 'I believe it was when I began at Eton to read Virgil for my own amusement, and not in school-hours as a task.'"
I will now give part of Mr. Moultrie's stanzas on the poet and the place. He thus addresses Eton, and alludes to Gray:—
There is no feature in thy fair domain
Which of decay or change displays a trace,
No charm of thine but doth undimm'd remain,
O Thou my boyhood's blest abiding-place,
While five-and-twenty years with stealthy pace
Have cool'd thy son's rash blood, and thinn'd his hair;—
The old expression lingers on thy face,
The spirit of past days unquench'd is there,
While all things else are changed, and changing everywhere.
And through thy spacious courts, and o'er thy green
Irriguous meadows, swarming as of old,
A youthful generation still is seen,
Of birth, of mind, of humour manifold:
The grave, the gay, the timid, and the bold,—
The noble nursling of the palace-hall,—
The merchant's offspring, heir to wealth untold,—
The pale-eyed youth, whom learning's spells enthral,—
Within thy cloisters meet, and love thee, one and all.
Young art thou still, and young shalt ever be
In spirit, as thou wast in years gone by;
The present, past and future blend in thee,
Rich as thou art in names which cannot die,
And youthful hearts already beating high
To emulate the glories won of yore;
That days to come may still the past outvie,
And thy bright roll be lengthen'd more and more
Of statesman, bard, and sage well versed in noblest lore.
Such tribute paid thee once, in pensive strains,
One mighty in the realm of lyric song,—
A ceaseless wanderer through the wide domains
Of thought which to the studious soul belong;—
One far withdrawn from this world's busy throng,
And seeking still, in academic bowers,
A safe retreat from tumult, strife, and wrong;
Where, solacing with verse his lonely hours,
He wove ambrosial wreaths of amaranthine flowers.
To him, from boyhood to life's latest hour,
The passion, kindled first beside the shore
Of thine own Thames, retained its early power;
'Twas his with restless footsteps to explore
All depths of ancient and of modern lore;
With unabated love to feed the eye
Of silent thought on the exhaustless store
Of beauty, which the gifted may descry
In all the teeming land of fruitful phantasy.
To him the Grecian muse, devoutly woo'd,
Unveil'd her beauty, and entranced his ear,
In many a rapt, imaginative mood,
With harmony which only Poets hear
Even in that old, enchanted atmosphere:
To him the painter's and the sculptor's art
Disclosed those hidden glories, which appear
To the clear vision of the initiate heart
In contemplation calm, from worldly care apart.
Nor lack'd he the profounder, purer sense
Of beauty, in the face of Nature seen;
But loved the mountain's rude magnificence,
The valley's glittering brooks and pastures green,
Moonlight, and morn, and sunset's golden sheen,
The stillness and the storm of lake and sea,
The hedgerow elms, with grass-grown lanes between,
The winding footpath, the broad, bowery tree,
The deep, clear river's course, majestically free.
Such were his haunts in recreative hours,—
To such he fondly turn'd, from time to time,
From Granta's cloister'd courts, and gloomy towers,
And stagnant Camus' circumambient slime;
Well pleas'd o'er Cambria's mountain-peaks to climb,
Or, with a larger, more adventurous range,
Plant his bold steps on Alpine heights sublime,
And gaze on Nature's wonders vast and strange;
Then roam through the rich South with swift and ceaseless change.
Yet with his settled and habitual mood
Accorded better the green English vale,
The pastoral mead, the cool, sequestered wood,
The spacious park fenced in with rustic pale,
The pleasant interchange of hill and dale,
The churchyard darken'd by the yew-tree's shade,
And rich with many a rudely-sculptured tale
Of those beneath its turf sepulchral laid,
Of human tears that flow, of earthly hopes that fade.
Such were the daily scenes with which he fed
The pensive spirit first awoke by Thee;
And blest and blameless was the life he led,
Sooth'd by the gentle spells of poesy.
Nor yet averse to stricter thought was he,
Nor uninstructed in abstruser lore;
But now with draughts of pure philosophy
Quench'd his soul's thirst, — now ventured to explore
The fields by science own'd, and taste the fruits they bore.
With many a graceful fold of learned thought
He wrapp'd himself around, well pleased to shroud
His spirit, in the web itself had wrought,
From the rude pressure of the boisterous crowd;
Nor loftier purpose cherish'd or avow'd,
Nor claim'd the prophet's or the teacher's praise;
Content in studious ease to be allow'd
With nice, artistic craft to weave his lays,
And lose himself at will in song's melodious maze.
Slow to create, fastidious to refine,
He wrought and wrought with labour long and sore,
Adjusting word by word, and line by line,
Each thought, each phrase remoulding o'er and o'er,
Till art could polish and adorn no more,
And stifled fancy sank beneath the load
Of gorgeous words and decorative lore
In rich profusion on each verse bestow'd,
To grace the shrine wherein the poet's soul abode.
The last stanza refers not to the ode on Eton, but to Gray's other odes. I do not quite concur in the criticisms which are expressed in it, and in the stanza which precedes it; but I was unwilling to mar by dissevering Mr. Moultrie's beautiful poetry.
In the same year (1742) Gray wrote the "Hymn to Adversity." The "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" was also commenced at this period, but not finished until several years afterwards.
He had been reconciled to Horace Walpole after their return to England; and Walpole, who valued Gray's poetry very highly, being desirous of preserving what he had already written, as well as of perpetuating the merit of their deceased friend West, endeavoured to prevail with Gray to publish his own poems, together with those of West; but Gray declined it, conceiving their productions united, would not suffice to fill even a small volume.
In 1747, Gray became acquainted with Mr. Mason, then a scholar of St. John's College, and afterwards Fellow of Pembroke Hall. Mr. Mason, who was a man of great learning and considerable taste for poetry, had written the year before, his "Monody on the death of Pope," and his "Il Bellicoso," and "Il Pacifico;" and Gray revised these pieces at the request of a friend. This laid the foundation of a friendship that terminated but with life: and Mr. Mason, after the death of Gray, collected his friend's works, and superintended their publication.
In 1747, Gray commenced a poem on "Government and Education:" but he only completed a small portion of his intended work. The lines which we possess are justly admired; and the following description has always been a standard quotation whenever the overthrow of the Roman empire has been referred to. It is now coming into favour as an effective passage respecting the invasions past, present, and future, which Western Europe has experienced, is experiencing, and is likely to experience, from Russia:—
Oft o'er the-trembling nations from afar
Has Scythia breath'd the living cloud of war;
And where the deluge burst with sweepy sway,
Their arms, their kings, their gods, were rolled away,
As oft have issu'd, host impelling host,
The blue-ey'd myriads from the Baltic coast;
The prostrate South to the destroyer yields
Her boasted titles, and her golden fields:
With grim delight the brood of Winter view
A brighter day, and heav'ns of azure hue,
Scent the new fragrance of the breathing rose,
And quaff the pendent vintage as it grows.
In 1750 the "Elegy" was completed. Gray showed this to Horace Walpole; and as several friends obtained copies of the manuscript, the poem soon found its way into a magazine. Gray being annoyed at this, wrote to Waipole, and requested him to place the "Elegy" immediately in Dodsley's hands for publication. This was done; and the instantaneous popularity of the poem gained for Gray a reputation like that which "Childe Harold" afterwards conferred on Byron, and of which he said, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous." The "Elegy" ran immediately through eleven editions, and was translated into other languages. Even Johnson, on the subject of this poem, relaxes from his Rhadamanthine austerity. He says: "In the character of his 'Elegy' I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The 'Churchyard' abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning 'Yet e'en these bones,'' are to me original: I have never seen the
Yet e'en these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd Muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey
This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
E'en from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires.
notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus, it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him."
Heartily concurring in this last sentence, I shall add neither quotation nor comment; save observing that even in this poem so eminently and so truthfully descriptive of simple English scenery, and of the homeliest yet holiest feelings of the heart, Gray's stores of reading both in ancient and modern literature are liberally employed to add dignity and beauty to his stanzas. It has frequently been pointed out that the idea of the first line—
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.
is taken from Dante—
Era gia l' ora che volge '1 disio
A 'naviganti, e' ntenorisce il cuore:
Lo di ch' han detto a' dolci amici addio,
E che lo nuovo peregrin d' amore
Punge, se ode Squilla di lontano
Che paja il giorno pianger che si muore.
Another passage in "The Elegy," (and that a favourite one with most readers,) is taken from Lucretius—
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
At the commencement of the most beautiful but most melancholy argument on the folly of considering Death an Evil, with which Lucretius ends the third book of his poem, are these lines which the imaginary adversary of the Poet is supposed to use in order to prove how bitter Death is:—
Nam jam nee domus accipiet te laeta, nec uxor
Optima, non dulces occurrent oscula nati
Praeripere, et trecita pectus dulcedine tangent.
Gray has missed the image which is given in the first syllable of the word "Praeripere."
Some stanzas have been preserved to us, which Gray had intended for portions of "The Elegy," but which he ultimately omitted. One of these is of exquisite beauty, and I wonder with Byron (who quotes and admires it) how Gray could have had the heart to reject it:
There scattered oft, the earliest of the year,
By hands unseen are showers of violets found;
The redbreast loves to build and warble there,
And little footsteps lightly print the ground.
Hark, how the sacred calm that breathes around,
Bids every fierce tumultuous passion cease;
In still small accents whispering from the ground
A grateful earnest of eternal peace.
Another of these rejected stanzas was an expansion of a couplet which Gray once extemporised. I quote the couplet as being most beautiful, and because the anecdote connected with it is worth recording:—
"One fine morning in the spring, Mr. Nicholls was walking in the neighbourhood of Cambridge with Mr. Gray, who feeling the influence of the season, and cheered with the melody of the birds on every bough, turned round to his friend and expressed himself extempore in these beautiful lines—
There pipes the wood-lark, and the song-thrush there
Scatters his loose notes in the waste of air."
From 1753 to 1756 Gray, as Horace Walpole expresses it, "was in flower." The "Ode on the Progress of Poetry," and "The Bard," were then written. Johnson has poured forth his blackest vials of wrath on these celebrated productions of Gray's pen, and even more favourable critics have been displeased with their accumulation of gaudy and cumbrous ornaments. On this point, namely, how far Gray errs by adorning the diction of his lyrics, I will cite the authority of a modern critic, whose accuracy of taste will hardly be disputed: I mean Sir James Mackintosh. After describing Goldsmith, he says of Gray—
"Gray was a poet of a far higher order, and of an almost opposite kind of merit. Of all English poets he was the most finished artist. He attained the highest degree of splendour of which poetical style seems to be capable. If Virgil and his scholar Racine may be allowed to have united somewhat more ease with their elegance, no other poet approaches Gray in this kind of excellence. The degree of poetical invention diffused over such a style, the balance of taste and of fancy necessary to produce it, and the art with which an offensive boldness of imagery is polished away, are not indeed always perceptible to the common reader, nor do they convey to any mind the same species of gratification which is felt from the perusal of those poems which seem to be the unpremeditated effusions of enthusiasm; but to the eye of the critic, and more especially to the artist they afford a new kind of pleasure, not incompatible with a distinct perception of the art employed, and somewhat similar to the grand emotions excited by the reflection on the skill and toil exerted in the construction of a magnificent palace. They can only be classed among the secondary pleasures of poetry, but they never can exist without a great degree of its higher excellencies. Almost all his poetry was lyrical — that species which, issuing from a mind in the highest state of excitement, requires an intensity of feeling which for a long composition the genius of no poet could support. Those who complain of its brevity and rapidity only confess their own inability to follow the movements of poetical inspiration. Of the two grand attributes of the Ode, Dryden had displayed the enthusiasm, Gray exhibited the magnificence."
Certainly, Gray's Odes (with the exception of the Etonian Ode,) never obtained such popularity as was acquired by "The Elegy;" but many passages of them have passed into the universal currency of favourite quotations, and are cited and appreciated by all. Take, for instance, the allusion in "The Bard," to the early part of Richard the Second's reign.
Fair laughs the Morn, and soft the Zephyr blows,
While proudly riding o'er the azure realm,
In gallant trim the gilded vessel goes;
Youth on the prow, and Pleasure at the helm;
Regardless of the sweeping Whirlwind's sway,
That, hush'd in grim repose, expects his evening prey.
And the following true and beautiful stanza from his unfinished poem, "On the Pleasures arising from Vicissitude."
See the wretch that long has tost
On the thorny bed of pain,
At length repair his vigour lost,
And breathe and walk again.
The meanest flow'ret of the vale,
The simplest note that swells the gale,
The common sun, the air, the skies,
To him are op'ning Paradise.
In 1756 Gray having experienced some incivilities at Peter House, removed, or (in the technical phrase) migrated, to Pembroke Hall. On the death of Cibber, in 1757, he had the honour of refusing the Laureateship which was offered him by the Duke of Devonshire. He applied himself now for some time to the study of architecture; and from him Mr. Bentham derived much valuable assistance in his well-known "History of Ely." He at this time left Cambridge for London, and took lodgings near the British Museum; where he passed the greater part of three years of intense study. At the end of that time he returned to Cambridge. In 1765 he visited Scotland, and was there received with many signs of honour. The University of Aberdeen proposed to confer on him the degree of Doctor of Laws; but he declined the honour, thinking that it might appear a slight and contempt of his own university, where he says "he passed so many easy and happy hours of his life, where he had once lived from choice, and continued to do so from obligation." In 1768 the professorship of modern history at Cambridge became vacant, and Gray, who on the occasion of the preceding vacancy had applied unsuccessfully, was now appointed by the Duke of Grafton. In the succeeding year the Duke of Grafton was elected Chancellor of the University, and Gray wrote the installation ode.
The extreme difficulty of the subject must be remembered in criticising this production. It is hardly possible to deal in panegyric to living statesmen without incurring at least the semblance of adulation: and it is very hard to recount the genealogical honours of existing personages and institutions without drawling into pedantic dulness. Gray has avoided both these faults in his justly celebrated stanzas. He has with admirable skill glanced at the brightest points in the character of each founder of Cambridge, and has made them pass before our eyes, as Hallam well expresses it, like "shadows over a magic glass" [author's note: Hallam's Constitutional History, vol. i. p. 47]:—
But hark! the portals sound, and pacing forth
With solemn steps and slow,
High potentates and dames of royal birth,
And mitred fathers in long order go:
Great Edward, with the lilies on his brow,
From haughty Gallia torn,
And sad Chatillon, on her bridal morn
That wept her bleeding love, and princely Clare,
And Anjou's heroine, and the paler rose,
The rival of her crown and of her woes,
And either Henry there,
The murder'd saint, and the majestic lord,
That broke the bonds of Rome.
(Their tears, their little triumphs o'er,
Their human passions now no more,
Save Charity, that glows beyond the tomb,)
All that on Granta's fruitful plain
Rich streams of regal bounty pour'd,
And bade these awful fanes and turrets rise.
The concluding stanza also of this Ode is deservedly a general favourite —
Through the wild waves as they roar,
With watchful eye and dauntless mien
Thy steady course of honour keep,
Nor fear the rocks, nor seek the shore
The star of Brunswick smiles serene,
And gilds the horrors of the deep.
In 1769 he visited the counties of Westmoreland and Cumberland. "The Lakes" had not then become a regular district for tourists; and very few Englishmen, even among those who could declaim about Switzerland, were aware of the beautiful scenery of this part of our island. Indeed, susceptibility to the beauties of nature was not the characteristic of the literary men of the time; most of whom, like Johnson, thought a walk down Fleet Street the most delightful and the most picturesque in its objects of all the tours that could be made. Gray has the merit of fully appreciating the romantic and inspiring views of the region which Wordsworth has since made classic ground. Gray's letters to Dr. Wharton, descriptive of his journey, are the most expressive and the most accurate accounts of those now celebrated scenes, which we possess.
In the spring of 1770, Gray was attacked by a violent illness which overtook him, as he was projecting a tour in Wales; but recovering, he was able to effect the tour in the autumn. His respite, however, was but a short one; and having suffered for some months previous from a violent cough and great depression of spirits, he was induced to leave Cambridge for London in order to obtain medical advice in May 1771. He was now sinking under the repeated and violent attacks of an hereditary gout, to which he had long been subject, notwithstanding he had observed the most rigid abstemiousness throughout the whole course of his life. By the advice of his physicians, he removed from London to Kensington; the air of which place proved so salutary, that he was soon enabled to return to Cambridge, whence he designed to make a visit to his friend Dr. Wharton, at Old Park, near Durham, in the hope that the excursion would tend to the re-establishment of his health; but on the 24th of July he was seized while at dinner in the College-hall, with a sudden nausea, which obliged him to retire to his chamber. The gout had fixed on his stomach in such a degree, as to resist all the powers of medicine. On the 29th he was attacked with a strong convulsion, which returned with increased violence the ensuing day; and on the evening of the 31st of May, 1771, he departed this life in the fifty-fifth year of his age. He was buried by the side of his mother in Stoke churchyard.
There are several of Gray's poetical compositions to which I have not adverted in the preceding biographical sketch. His powers of humour are proved, not so much by "the Long Story" as by the two admirable political pasquinades, which are very puritanically excluded from the common collections of his poems. That on Lord Sandwich and the Cambridge University election which begins—
Where sly Jeremy Twitcher;
is the very raciest and tartest piece of the kind in our language.
Gray's translations from the Norse and Welch are universally popular. The "Descent of Odin" is generally one of the first pieces of English poetry which a clever child voluntarily learns by heart, nor is it less a favourite with grown up critics. It is worth while to compare a portion of it with the original Norse. We see thus what Gray's taste led him to adopt, and what to modify. It also shows his skill and genius in adding, when desirable, to the archaic simplicity of the original. The poem begins in the original with a stanza about the Gods having unpleasant dreams about Balder. This was wisely left out by Gray, and he at once sets Odin on horseback on a somewhat proverbial journey.
I give a strictly literal translation parallel with the Norse, and Subjoin Gray's paraphrase:—
Upp reis Odinn,
Ok hann a Sleipni
Sothul umm lagthi.
Reith hann nither pathan
Metti han hvelpi
Theim er or Helju kom.
Sa var blodrigr
Um brjost framan:
Ok galdrs fothur
Gol um lengi.
Framm reith Odinn
Hann kom at hafnu
Up rose Odin
Of men King.
Eke he on Sleipner
Rode he netherward thence
He met the Whelp
That out of Hell came.
He was bloody
On breast in forwards:
And the spell's father
Yelled at from long off.
Forward rode Odin,
The field-way thundered,
He came to the high Hell's house.
Uprose the King of Men with speed,
And saddled straight his coal-black steed;
Down the yawning steep he rode,
That leads to Hela's drear abode.
Him the Dog of Darkness spied,
His shaggy throat he open'd wide,
While from his jaws, with carnage fill'd,
Foam and human gore distill'd;
Hoarse he bays with hideous din,
Eyes that glow, and fangs that grin;
And long pursues, with fruitless yell,
The father of the powerful spell.
Onward still his way he takes,
(The groaning Earth beneath him shakes,)
Till full before his fearless eyes
The portals nine of Hell arise.
I think that Gray has not in every instance preserved the force of the original. "The Dog of Darkness" is hardly equal to "The Whelp that came out of Hell," and the couplet
Onward still his way he takes,
(The groaning Earth beneath him shakes,)
dilutes rather than represents
Forward rode Odin,
The field-way thundered.
A little farther on in the poem, Gray has very much improved the old Norse Bard. I mean the highly poetical lines which he places in the mouth of the Prophetess—
Long on these mouldering bones have beat
The winter's snow, the summer's heat,
The drenching dews, and driving rain!
Let me, let me sleep again.
In the original she only says
I was with snow snowed on,
And with rain stricken,
And with dew bedewed;
Dead was I long.
I have already quoted a passage from one of Gray's biographers in which the variety and accuracy of his learning are justly commended. His intimate friend, Mason, in a letter written soon after Gray's death, thus described him:—
"Perhaps he was the most learned man in Europe. He was equally acquainted with the eloquent 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 study; voyages and travels of all sorts were his favourite amusements, and he had a fine taste in painting, prints, architecture, and gardening. With such a fund of knowledge, his conversation must have been equally instructing and entertaining; but he was also a good man, a man of virtue and humanity. There is no character without some speck, some imperfection, and I think the greatest defect in his was an affectation in delicacy, or rather effeminacy, and a visible fastidiousness, or contempt and disdain of his inferiors in science. He also had, in some degree, that weakness which so much disgusted Voltaire in Mr. Congreve: though he seemed to value others chiefly according to the progress they made in knowledge, yet he could not bear to be considered merely as a man of letters; and though without birth, or fortune, or station, his desire was to be looked upon as a private independent gentleman, who read for his amusement. Perhaps it may be said, what signified so much knowledge, when it produced so little? Is it worth taking so much pains to leave no memorial but a few poems? But let it be considered that Mr. Gray was to others at least innocently employed; to himself, certainly beneficially. His time passed agreeably; he was every day making some new acquisition in science; his mind was enlarged, his heart softened, his virtue strengthened; the world and mankind were shown to him without a mask; and he was taught to consider everything as trifling, and unworthy of the attention of a wise man, except the pursuit of knowledge and practice of virtue, in that state wherein God hath placed us."
Mathias's edition of Gray should be consulted in order to see how far Gray was in advance of his age, and how many subjects which now are eagerly cultivated as vehicles of notoriety, Gray earnestly studied a century ago; because he, while the mass neglected them, was capable of discerning their intrinsic importance; because to him the worship of Truth was not mere lip-worship; but he could act as well as talk in the spirit of the great maxim,
Imprimis Hominis est veri investigatio;
and because, to him (as already expressed), "Knowledge was its own exceeding great reward."
In Mathias's second volume are collected Gray's "Observations on English Metre, or the Pseudo-Rhythmus, or Rhyme, on the Poems of Lydgate;" his "Critical and Explanatory Notes on Aristophanes;" his valuable "Memoirs on the Geography of Ancient India, Parthia, and Bactriana;" his "Analysis of the Works of Plato;" and his "Notes on Linnaeus's System of Nature." This volume alone might be referred to as sufficient fruit of a long and learned life.
Gray's prose compositions are so little known, that I shall, in conclusion, cite one of them, which shows his piety as well as his learning; and which was an important service rendered by him to the cause of the highest and holiest of truths. Lord Bolingbroke's anti-Christian writings were published in Gray's lifetime. In them Lord Bolingbroke has called in question the moral attributes of the Deity, and maintained this position, "That we have no adequate ideas of his goodness and his justice, as we have of his natural ones, his wisdom and his power." This is the main pillar of Bolingbroke's philosophical system, and this Gray overthrew in the following masterly argument:—
"I will allow Lord Bolingbroke, that the moral as well as the physical attributes of God must be known to us only 'a posteriori,' and that this is the only real knowledge we can have either of the one or the other; I will allow, too, that perhaps it may be an idle distinction which we make between them, his moral attributes being as much in his nature and essence as those we call his physical; but the occasion of our making some distinction is plainly this; his eternity, infinity, omniscience, and almighty power are not what connect him, if I may so speak, with us his creatures. We adore him, not because he always did in every place, and always will, exist; but because he gave and still preserves to us our own existence by an exertion of his goodness. We adore him, not because he knows and can do all things, but because he made us capable of knowing and of doing what may conduct us to happiness; it is, therefore, his benevolence which we adore — not his greatness or power; and if we are made only to bear our part in a system, without any regard to our own particular happiness, we can no longer worship him as our all-bounteous parent; there is no meaning in the term. The idea of his malevolence (an impiety I tremble to write) must succeed. We have nothing left but our fears, and those, too, vain; for whither can they lead but to despair, and the sad desire of annihilation? If, then, justice and goodness be not the same in God as in our ideas, we mean nothing when we say that God is necessarily just and good; and, for the same reason, it may as well be said that we know not what we mean, when, according to Dr. Clarke (Evid. 26th), we affirm that he is necessarily a wise and intelligent being. What then can Lord Bolingbroke mean, when he says that everything shows the wisdom of God; and yet adds, everything does not show in like manner the goodness of God conformably to our ideas of this attribute in either? By wisdom, he must only mean, that God knows and employs the fittest means to a certain end, no matter what that end may be: this, indeed, is a proof of knowledge and intelligence, but these alone do not constitute wisdom; the word implies the application of these fittest means to the best and kindest ends — or who will call it true wisdom? even amongst ourselves it is not held as such. All the attributes, then, that he seems to think apparent in the constitution of things, are his unity, infinity, eternity, and intelligence, from no one of which, I boldly affirm, can result any duty of gratitude or adoration incumbent on mankind, more than if he, and all things round him, were produced, as some have dared to think, by the necessary working of eternal matter in an infinite vacuum: for what does it avail to add intelligence to those other physical attributes, unless that intelligence be directed, not only to the good of the whole, but also to the good of every individual, of which the whole is composed.
"It is therefore no impiety, but the direct contrary, to say that human justice and the other virtues, which are indeed only various applications of human benevolence, bear some resemblance to the moral attributes of the Supreme Being: it is only by means of that resemblance we conceive them in him, or their effects in his works: it is by the same means only that we comprehend those physical attributes which his Lordship allows to be demonstrable. How can we form any notion of his unity, but from that unity of which we ourselves are conscious? how of his existence, but from our own consciousness of existing? how of his power, but of that power which we experience in ourselves? Yet neither Lord Bolingbroke nor any other man, that thought on these subjects, ever believed that these our ideas were real and full representations of these attributes in Divinity. They say he knows; they do not mean that he compares ideas which he has acquired from sensation, and draws conclusions from them. They say he acts: they do not mean by impulse, nor as the soul acts on an organised body. They say he is omnipotent and eternal: yet on what are their ideas founded, but on our own narrow conceptions of space and duration, prolonged beyond the bounds of space and time? Either, therefore, there is a resemblance and analogy (however imperfect and distant) between the attributes of the Divinity and our conceptions of them, or we cannot have any conceptions of them at all: he allows we ought to reason from earth, that we do know, to heaven, which we do not know: how can we do so but by that affinity which appears between one and the other?
"In vain, then, does my Lord attempt to ridicule the warm but melancholy imagination of Mr. Wollaston in that fine soliloquy: 'Must I then bid my last farewell to these walks when I close these lids, and yonder blue regions and all this scene darken upon me and go out? Must I then only furnish dust to be mingled with the ashes of these herds and plants, or with this dirt under my feet? Have I been set so far above them in life, only to be levelled with them in death?' No thinking head, no heart, that has the least sensibility, but must have made the same reflection; or at least must feel not the beauty alone, but the truth of it, when he hears it from the mouth of another. Now, what reply will Lord Bolingbroke make to these questions which are put to him, not only by Wollaston, but by all mankind? He will tell you that we, that is, the animals, vegetables, stones, and other clods of earth, are all connected in one immense design; that we are all dramatis personae in different characters, and that we were not made for ourselves, but for the action; that it is foolish, presumptuous, impious, and profane to murmur against the Almighty author of this drama, when we feel ourselves unavoidably unhappy. On the contrary, we ought to rest our head on the soft pillow of resignation, on the immoveable rock of tranquillity; secure, that if our pains and afflictions grow violent indeed, an immediate end will be put to our miserable being, and we shall be mingled with the dirt under our feet, a thing common to all the animal kind; and of which he who complains does not seem to have been set by his reason so far above them in life, as to deserve not to be mingled with them in death. Such is the consolation his philosophy gives us, and such is the hope on which his tranquillity was founded."
(Memoir in Mathias's Edition. — Life by Mitford. — Johnson's Lives of the Poets.)