1853 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Rev. William Mason

John Mitford, in Correspondence of Thomas Gray and William Mason, ed. John Mitford (1853) ix-xiv.



It may perhaps be asked, why a narrative containing a more complete account of the circumstances of Gray's life, which would have included also a fuller mention of his friends, did not appear in Mason's Memoirs — a work that has formed the foundation of all subsequent biographies. That volume, which was dedicated by a grateful hand to the memory of his illustrious friend, and which has been ever esteemed a model of elegant composition and structure, was made with great and careful consideration of the duty to be performed, and with an unusual delicacy in the selection of the materials; and this was deemed requisite at the time, which followed so closely on Gray's death. Notwithstanding the general brightness of the poet's reputation, and the consent of the "chosen few" in the admission of his superior genius, the Elegy was in truth the only one of his poems that was universally popular. The subject of it was attractive; the imagery recommended by its elegance; and the sentiments and reflections were not too deep for the common apprehension. "The Churchard," Johnson says, "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 notions in any other place. Yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them." This was not the case with the Odes. The principals on which they were formed, and the ornaments they required, were less adapted to the public taste and knowledge. They were of too high a flight. The system was too refined, the ideal abstractions too remote, and the language too learned and elaborate. There was no story to unfold by which passion could be excited, nor any narrative to allure by which curiosity could be gratified. The reviewers of the day cavilled at them; the men of wit endeavoured to hold them up to ridicule; and even Hurd, the leading critic of that age, mentioned them with a courteous and attempered praise, as beyond the common vein of such things. Mason, therefore, was careful in the additions he made to what already had appeared, and did not even dare to present that beautiful torso or fragment alluded to in the note ["Fragment on Vicissitude"] without repairing and completing it with his own hands. While to enlarge the circle of personal anecdote, and to admit the public with open confidence into a more intimate knowledge of Gray's private life and habits of intercourse, Mason would have considered as almost treacherous to his friend, as it was also directly opposed to his own temper and conduct, which was, to all but his intimate friends, cold and reserved, and not without a disposition to form austere and perhaps unfavourable judgments of others.

Vigilantly to guard Gray's memory from any attack upon it, nor by imprudent or incautious admissions of his own to afford ground for critical animadversion or envious cavil, was his object. For this he kept some poetical pieces in reserve; for this he used the large epistolary stores, placed from various quarters in his hands, with a severe oeconomy of selection; and, with this in view, he abridged and transposed the letters he did publish so that scarcely one is entire or unaltered. Yet that Mason performed his work of love in the best manner it could have been done must be acknowledged; and into no other hands could it have been with such safety entrusted, for there were then difficulties in more freely opening the volume of private life. Within the walls of the university and without, there were private jealousies and personal animosities that might have been awakened; and in one or two instances, where Mason has seemed to break through his usual chain of reserve, I question whether he was not incited by the dislike which he himself felt for the persons held up to ridicule and contempt by his friend.