1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Edward Gardner, "The Poetry of Gray" Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse (1798) 1:29-45.



When the Booksellers applied to Dr. Johnson, to undertake the composition of critical and biographical prefaces to the works of the British Poets, they were probably influenced by the eminence of his character, and by a persuasion that what he did, could not be ill done. Yet Johnson (with reverence be it spoken) appears to have had few ideas of Poetry, beyond nervous, sententious couplets, interspersed with a few loose metaphors and images. He seems not to have considered, that it should be confined to individual objects, especially to those of a picturesque kind, and applicable to the sense of vision [author's note: Drawin's Loves of the plants. Vol 2. Notes], that general expressions should be avoided, and a peculiar appropriate language adhered to [author's note: Wharton's essay on Pope; Stuart's Philos. human mind]; that abstract qualities should be clothed in corporeal attributes, aptly and poetically imagined [author's note: Wharton's Hist. Eng. Poetry], that the personification, or allegoric figure, should be indistinct, so as to keep in the back-ground, and not to destroy the appearance of probability [author's note: Darwin's ut supr.]; that the epithet should be sparingly used [author's note: Wharton's Hist. Eng. Poet.], and convey a separate idea. Yet these, however they may have escaped the notice of Johnson, are constituent principles of Poetry; and though we find in his prefaces, no allusions to the production of the "Ideal presence," yet the creation of it is one of the specific ends of the art [author's note: Darwin ut supr.].

If we try Gray by these principles, we shall find him entitled to the praise of a true poet. Johnson's sneer at his style, as approaching to the bombast, with the application of "Double double, toil and trouble," is invidious to the last degree. Perhaps there never was a Poet, in whom the magnificent was less mingled with the bombast; and we may with equal truth affirm that the Biographer displayed more acrimony of censure, and more puerility of ridicule in his criticism on the works of Gray, than in any of the others which constitute the work. Are we to trace the cause of this disgusting partiality, to the poetical character of the author of "The Bard," and his own? This accounts for it on the principle of self love.

JOHNSON'S poems are the effusions of a masculine mind, energetically delivering moral truths, which would have appeared to more advantage, had they been expressed in that peculiar and vigorous language which constitutes the style of his prose compositions, but which with a laborious toil, yet with a happy imitative skill, he has dragged into verse. Gray, with all the fire which marks the poetical character, has succeeded in transporting the soul of the reader beyond the limits of common reflection, and in kindling the rapturous glow of exquisite feeling. Johnson possessed great vigor of intellect, which was chiefly employed in unlimited researches into the general nature of the human mind: Gray's attention was exclusively directed to its sublime, its beautiful, its pleasing, and its tender.

The Critic's censure on the prospect of Eton College, is playfully severe. The address to Father Thames to tell who

Now delight to cleave
With pliant arm the glassy wave,

strongly displays that tenderness of soul which generally accompanies Genius. The Poet had delighted in boyish sports; the remembrance of them had produced a soothing pleasure; and the wish to know who among his successors at Eton partook of the same diversions, is highly natural. When Johnson tells us that "Father Thames had no better means of knowing than himself," he displays a surliness of language, and a contemptible proof of his critical taste. The question, if admitted to be unjustly put, would destroy a very considerable portion of the poetical beauties of SPENCER, SHAKESPEAR, and MILTON.

It would be tedious to follow Johnson through all his reprehensions of Gray; that the latter was without faults cannot be affirmed; but the severity of the Biographer has converted the most trifling errors into crimes of magnitude, and has labored to transform many sublime passages into "cumbrous splendor, and distorted figure."

The poems of Gray display the polish of a beautiful correctness, worth of praise and imitation, nor does it ever lead him into stiffness or formality. He possessed a pure and exquisite taste in the fine arts. The beautiful image of

With arms sublime that float upon the air,
In gliding state she wins her easy way.

was probably borrowed from painting; from which captivating art, many of his ideas are evidently drawn.

Can we refuse the praise of magnificence to the following lines:

—Down the eastern hills afar
Hyperion's march they spy, and glitt'ring shafts of war.

Does the mere use of the classical word "Hyperion," justify the critic's illiberal sneer at it?

Under what an exquisitely beautiful figure is the voluptuous magnificence of RICHARD the Second's reign described—

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 at the prow, and Pleasure at the helm.

And how aptly is the picture finished with

—The sweeping whirlwind's sway,
That hush'd in grim repose, expects his ev'ning prey.

GRAY was eminently qualified to excel in the tender style, of which numberless instances might be produced; we will content ourselves with one. The heart that does not feel the soothing swell of pensive melancholy from the line, "And pity dropping soft the sadly pleasing tear," must be insensible to the effect of genuine poetry.

The Stanza of the Bard beginning "On a rock whose haughty brow" is commended with faint praise by Johnson; therefore we do not hazard the danger of differing from him, if we are profuse of our admiration of its six concluding lines:

Hark how each giant Oak, and desert Cave,
Sighs to the torrent's awful voice beneath:
O'er thee, O King, their hundred arms they wave,
Revenge on thee, in hoarser murmurs breathe;
Vocal no more since Cambria's fatal day,
To high-born Hoel's harp, or soft Llewellin's lay.

It is superfluous to multiply specimens. The majestic sublimity, and exquisite imagery displayed in the two sister odes (as our critic calls them) claim that encomium in reality, which he bestowed upon them ironically — They are "a wonderful effort of the mind."

The strictures on "the azure flowers that blow," is hypercritical in the highest degree. A taste not rendered fastidious by endless refinements, would never have objected to this elegant addition, which renders the line more beautifully poetical. The expression is neither feeble nor tautological; Gray was too much a master of language, too much accustomed to versification, to have used it, merely on account of the rhyme.

We will not presume to cavil with a Cambrian writer [author's note: Mr. Owen; Pref. to the Odes of Llywarchen] on the propriety with which Gray has applied the runic imagery: but to the praise of universal magnificence, of sublimity without depression, of a beautiful selection of appropriate language, and of pure classical correctness, he is justly entitled; nor is there a poet except Shakespear, who so often creates the ideal presence.

Another excellence observable in Gray, is his judicious use of Alliteration. Johnson snarls at this art, as detracting from sublimity; but our poet has applied it in such a manner, that it adds to, rather than lessens the force of the idea. Alliteration is skilfully used when it fixes the attention on a striking thought or epithet.

Ruin seize thee, ruthless King.

Here the emphasis and the alliteration fall together, and point out the cause and the occasion of it; and many more such instances might be produced.

A trait of the genius of Lucan may be observed in Gray. In times when the chief posts of excellence are filled, they who wish to excel, are naturally tempted to soar with bolder wings, for they deem that they can only hope to equal, but not surpass classical purity. Perhaps the attempt is more necessary in an age when literary appetite is infected with empiricism. It is however to be remembered, that the genius of Lucan, like that of Gray, is always elevated to the spirit of Poetry, and notwithstanding the "double double, toil and trouble," the ideas of our bard are exquisitely beautiful, though of subordinate degrees of merit. The various lights and shades are so admirably attempered, such harmonious proportions are observed, and the whole so disposed with regard to effect, that the intrinsic brilliancy of the materials always appears, but chastened by a classical judgment, which has clothed in a garb of decorous elegance the bold and showy beauty of the muse, and corrected by a virgin reserve, her meretricious coquetry.

The genius of Gray has been assimilated to that of Milton [author's note: Wharton's observ. on Milton], but if Gray had a clearer conception of ideal perfection yet a sense of feeling and impression accompanies the sublime of Milton, which arrests the sympathy of the reader more strongly than the artificiality of Gray; and though they resemble each other in many points, particularly in the felicity of allegoric personification, yet there are traces of a mighty gigantic strength, of an Herculean muscular vigor, which is not to be discerned in the more Apolline features of the sublime of his counterpart. Gray seems to have preferred the graceful glory of his own Hyperion, to the sweeter majesty of imperial Jove; but to the inferior qualities of consistency and correctness, Gray is much more eminently entitled; nor is it the malignant cavil of a Zoilus, a Rymer, or a Voltaire, to notice the obvious absurdity of making our general ancestors discourse of good and evil, before they had eaten of the tree of knowledge.

In the mechanism of Poetry, Gray attained the acme of perfection. His elegance is never attended with want of strength: his novelty is never marked by sophistication, and excess of imagery: he never declines, in his poetical sentiments, into ratiocination, and mere good sense. In his union of abstracted qualities with sensible objects, in the lightning of his beak, and terror of his eye, he condenses the grand and sublime. In the structure of his verse, he steers in a most happy medium, between the frigid didactic, and the flowery descriptive; between the dull and the gaudy. He enfeebles nothing by superfluity, never attenuates by poverty, nor obscures by imbecility of conception. In his fulness he is not redundant, nor is his easiness lost in precision. In the harmony of numbers he is only exceeded by Collins.

Gray wrote but little, but in every thing he was a master. The sublime of his Ode, and the pathos of his Elegy, is universally felt and acknowledge. All his works exhibit strong proofs of a mind cultivated to its utmost extent. His classical allusions are peculiarly just and happy.

The celebrated Elegy in a Country Church-Yard, is praised even by Johnson. The universal voice had already pronounced its eulogium; and the courage of this tremendous critic was not hardy enough to oppose the torrent of general impression. As a specimen of natural plaintive poetry, our language has never produced its equal; and it may be questioned, whether the best production of any future Poet in the pensive way will not be that which bears the nearest resemblance to this charming Elegy.

Let us, then, acknowledge the force of unbiassed truth, and of natural feeling, and reject the dictatorial arrogance of a Critic, who, however conspicuous for the native vigor of his understanding, has never been celebrated for the candor of his remarks, when the objects of them happened to clash with his political, or religious prejudices.