1788 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Robert Greville to Richard Polwhele, 7 March 1788; Polwhele, Traditions and Recollections (1826) 1:211-14.



March 7, 1788.

Six weeks, my dear Polwhele, have I resided in this place with the D. and am not certain whether I shall not be obliged to reside as much longer. I begin now to be heartily sick of this idle dissipated life, and to pant for the peace and tranquillity of K. Here is nothing pursued after, but eating, drinking, and card-playing. As for the last, it absolutely constitutes the very existence of the inhabitants. They would literally die of the "taedium vitae" without it. I do not know what occasions it, but I have observed in most cathedral towns the same turn; and, what is worse, generally unattended with any thing to compensate for this contemptible manner of spending their time. At L[ichfield] they are absolutely a century behind the rest of their neighbours in literature and taste.

Dr. G. however, who is the Precentor of the Church, has contributed to make my time glide away much more satisfactorily than it otherwise would have done in his absence. He is a well-known Cambridge character; a man of first-rate abilities, and possessed of a most uncommon fund of solid information. He is very warmly my friend, and interests himself very much in my welfare. If you were to be present at some of our morning tete-a-tetes it would recall to your mind many of our college disputations; for we sometimes enter into the discussion of a literary point with as much spirit and animation as if our reputation depended upon the event.

This morning he entertained me with an account of Gray the poet, with whom he lived for some years upon terms of the closest intimacy. He speaks in the highest raptures of his poetical powers and abilities, and asserts that he was superior to all mankind in every thing he undertook. He gave me a specimen of his satirical talents, which were written under a caricature (designed and etched by Mason his brother poet) of a person [Henry Etough] who was originally a Jew, but who renounced his religion for the sake of a valuable living. The lines are

Such Tophet was;-so grinn'd the bawling fiend,
Affrighted Prelates bowed and call'd him friend.
Our Mother Church, with half averted sight,
Blush'd as she bless'd the griesly proselyte.
Hosannas rung through Hell's tremendous borders,
And Satan's self had thoughts of taking orders.

To understand the second line, 'tis necessary to inform you, that this Tophet kept the conscience of the minister.

As I am in a scribbling mood I cannot resist communicating to you some more stanzas of the above author. They were given me by Miss W. The thought is chaste and elegant; but I cannot discover the hand of Gray in them.

Thyrsis, when he left me, swore
Ere 'twas Spring he would return!
Ah! what means that opening flower
And the bud that decks yon thorn?

'Tis the lark that upwards springs!
'Tis the nightingale that sings!
Idle notes! untimely green,
Why this unavailing haste?

Gentle gales and sky serene
Prove not always winter past!
Cease my fears, my doubts to move,
Spare the honour of my love.

Gray's effeminacy was the means of making him a perpetual subject of ridicule among the young men of the University. He took it into his head, the Doctor informed me, of once letting his whiskers grow, in order to counteract the idea of his being less masculine than befitted the character of the sublime author of the Bard. A wag of the same college bribed one of the scouts to let his whiskers grow likewise. As he was a large black looking fellow, he very soon exceeded Gray in the dimensions of his mustachios; and when a vulgar joke from a bed-maker was superadded to this piece of ridicule, the poor poet was obliged to give up to the wits this only proof of' his manhood.

Sunday night, 9th. — To day has been passed away in conviviality and parade. We have just parted with the Judge (Baron Thompson) and with about 30 council, who dined and spent the evening here. His Lordship appears to be a sensible penetrating character, and was patronized and promoted to his present elevated station by the Chancellor, on account of those qualities. I should have been happy to have enjoyed more of his conversation, but I was obliged to preside at the side table. where, if we did not equal the opposite table in the depth of our remarks, we exceeded it in the brilliancy of our repartees.

Your friend,

R. G.