Having brought these volumes to their conclusion in the manner which the editor proposed to himself, he may perhaps, without impropriety, be allowed to subjoin a few observations. The intention of their publication was to hold forth to the learned and to the philosophick world the literary and moral portraiture of Mr. Gray, in his own dimensions, as he was. It is presumed also that the selections from his manuscripts, now offered to the reader, will give additional dignity and stability to his fame and to his works, which can only perish with the language which they adorn.
It never was the opinion of the editor that the remains, or fragments, of departed genius should be gathered up in such a manner as that nothing should be lost. The splendour of many an illustrious name has been obscured, and the reputation of established excellence has been lessened, by the indiscriminate and unthinking, though amiable, zeal of posthumous kindness. When, indeed, with unequalled and an unaffected modesty, Virgil directed his unfinished Aeneid to be consigned to oblivion and to the flames, all mankind at that period (and it is still the united voice of every succeeding age and nation ) joined in that impassioned remonstrance which a fond credulity ascribed to the pen of Augustus;
Supremis potuit vox improba verbis
Tam dirum mandare nefas? ergo ibit in ignes,
Magnaque doctiloqui morietur Musa Maronis?
That universal voice and that remonstrance were heard with the desired effect, and the laurel on the tomb of Maro quickened into everlasting verdure.
In our own country, who is there, that loves the language of the heart and simplicity of diction, who has not felt an unavailing regret, that the familiar letters of Cowley were kept from the world by the timid caution of misjudging friendship? His Essays and Discourses in prose loudly declare what we have lost. Such examples indeed are rare. Surely, whatever writings can in any manner sustain or amplify the character of great departed writers either as men of virtue, or of ability, or of learning, in their specifick or in their varied modes of excellence, may be offered to the world with propriety and with mutual advantage. The selections, which are now presented to the reader, in the judgment of the editor, not only sustain, but amplify the character and the fame of Mr. Gray; and therefore he consented to the labour of the selection and of the publication.
These manuscript volumes were the deliberate, solemn, and final bequest of Mr. Gray to his accomplished and learned friend, Mr. Mason, "to preserve or destroy at his own discretion." Perhaps in his discerning mind there might have been a secret consciousness of the value and of the consequence of the donation; and he might have remembered what Dryden once expressed of a celebrated character:
E'en they, whose Muses have the highest flown,
Add not to his immortal memory,
But do an act of friendship to their own.
In this instance, however, the author of Caractacus was happily destined, by his talents and by his affection, to unite them both.
A few years after Mr. Gray's decease, Mr. Mason gratified an anxious publick with his letters, and with such original compositions as he deemed most appropriated to the plan which he laid down for the volume which he printed. With these he contented himself; but he preserved the volumes of the original manuscripts, and bequeathed them to Mr. Gray's intimate and highly respected friend, Mr. Stonhewer, who afterwards left them by will to the Master and Fellows of Pembroke Hall in Cambridge. When they came into the possession of Mr. Stonhewer, the present editor repeatedly hinted to that gentleman the propriety of making a selection of them for publication; and had a longer life been granted to him, it is not very improbable that Mr. Stonhewer might have acceded to the proposal. After having presented to the world the private letters of Mr. Gray to his intimate friends (and who is there who has not approved Mr. Mason's determination, and admired the volume?), surely, whatever related merely to criticism, to philosophy, or to general literature, might be communicated without the least breach of that delicacy of friendship, the discussion of which once so much amused the leisure, and piqued the curiosity, of the learned world. The present editor, indeed, very often reminded Mr. Stonhewer of the necessity, as well as of the propriety, of such an undertaking by some person, who felt an unfeigned veneration for the great name of their author. He added (for he then thought that it was Mr. S.'s intention to bequeath them, not to Mr. Gray's own College, but to some very publick repository) that it should be done before the papers were left accessible to every eye, and open to every prying copyist. He feared, that such valuable manuscripts might be garbled, or mutilated, or detailed, or retailed in separate uninteresting scraps, in ephemeral or monthly publications, with an eager inconsiderate haste, to no other purpose but that of indulging an idle and fruitless inquisitiveness. He wished not for partial, transitory, interrupted glances upon such writings, but for their full effect. He wished indeed, that the whole of Mr. Gray's works, all which had been already communicated, and those compositions which remained unknown but to the few, might appear TOGETHER in a manner worthy of their illustrious author and of his country; that they might form one dignified portraiture and representation of his genius and of his erudition; and which, as from the junction or apposition of so many bright and superiour luminaries, might present to the eye of the mind their collected, steady, and united splendour. The present editor thought that, in this manner, kindness to the remains, and honour to the memory, of Mr. Gray would be best shewn, by so worthy a discharge of the noble confidence which he had reposed in the discretion of his respected friends.
On the mention of the remains and of the memory of Mr. Gray, if a short apostrophe may be heard and forgiven, it is hoped that indulgence may be shewn to that which follows:
Lord of the various lyre! devout we turn
Our pilgrim steps to thy supreme abode,
And tread with awe the solitary road
To deck with votive wreaths thy hallowed urn!
Yet, as we wander through this dark sojourn,
No more the notes we hear, that all abroad
Thy fancy wafted, as the inspiring God
Prompted the thoughts that breathe, the words that burn.
But hark: a voice, in solemn accents clear,
Bursts from heaven's vault that glows with temperate fire;
"Cease, mortal, cease to drop the fruitless tear,
Mute though the raptures of his full-strung lyre:
E'en his own warblings, lessened on his ear,
Lost in seraphick harmony expire."
But to return. — In whatever manner Mr. Mason judged most proper to dispose of the manuscripts, he was at full liberty to adopt it and either to select and to publish a portion of them, or to withhold them altogether; and gratitude is due to him for what he gave to the world. It is, however, a matter of some surprise, that Mr. Mason restricted himself in limits so circumscribed, when the whole was before him, and many a composition seemed, as it were, eagerly to demand an admission:
Non sola haec carmina suasit
Delius, aut solis jussit requiecere Apollo;
Quarendae nobis sedes: ne linque laborem.
But when at last, by a most appropriate and happy destiny, the writings of Mr. Gray were reconducted to the spot which gave them birth, to those very groves where the poet describes his Camus as lingering with delight, where Science had so eminently marked him for her own, where he had sojourned so long with freedom by his side (so he assures us), and wrapped in the arm of that quiet, which a kindred poet indeed declares to be "the companion of obscurity," but which is the best possession of poets and of philosophers; (for never yet was poet or philosopher worthy of the name, who felt not at his heart the power of those words, "me dulcis SATURET quies!") — when, as it may be expressed, the literary remains of Mr. Gray arrived within the precincts where they would be, their wonted fires might be expected again to live in them, and their light might be relumined under the influence of their own sun and of their own constellations;
Atque iterum solemque suum, sua sidera, noscant.
Language and allusions of this kind may perhaps be allowed on so favourite a theme: and in this place the editor cannot but acknowledge with pleasure the ready and flattering willingness with which the learned and reverend Joseph Turner, D.D. Dean of Norwich, the Master, and the Fellows, of Pembroke Hall in Cambridge, consigned the manuscripts to his sole care and discretion, to select or to withhold whatever he judged most proper. The editor hopes that he has performed that office under the guidance of a regulated zeal and of an affectionate reverence for the memory of their great author: though unhappily for himself, he cannot even say, "Virgilium vidi."
The volumes which contain the manuscripts are three in number, in small folio: they form, what is strictly called a commonplace book, and of course the heads of the articles have no connection with each other from the manner of their being disposed, but are taken "ad libitum." Whatever parts Mr. Mason selected, he has marked them in the respective volumes as published in his Memoirs of the life of Gray.
When they came into the hands of the present editor, he deemed it proper to form some arrangement of them as to the subjects, and to place them in such a manner as was best adapted to produce the effect which he wished, and to exhibit the various, accurate, and profound erudition of their author. He conceived that the best mode would be to divide them into sections, admitting only those compositions, remarks, or fragments which were original; as there are many articles which are only compilations from different authors, or abridgments from works of eminence or of curiosity, which, though drawn up with great ability, can never be styled, or considered, as part of an author's works. He thought that the best method would be the following one. 1. To select all the disquisitions or remarks relating to the earlier English poetry, which were composed at the time when Mr. Gray conceived the idea of writing its history, in conjunction with Mr. Mason. 2. To choose a few poetical translations of great merit (as unfortunately, no original unpublished poetry was to be found among the MSS.), with some curious miscellaneous articles on subjects of antiquity and of classical learning; to which he thought it proper to add some notes on Aristophanes, from a separate MS. presented to him by Mr. Stonhewer. 3. The remarks on the geography of some parts of India and of Persia claimed a minute attention, and formed of themselves an entire section, worthy of every commendation which a felicity of inquiry, with extensive, varied, and learned researches, aided by sagacity of conjecture and by apposite illustrations from authors ancient and modern, can demand. And, 4. Mr. Gray's account of most of the Dialogues and Epistles of Plato, with his notes upon them; but the editor has already offered a few observations on the subject in the introduction to this section.
By this arrangement and disposition, it is easy, without blending one subject with another, to consider all that has been selected; which, with Mr. Gray's poems, letters, compositions, occasional observations and fragments, given before to the world by Mr. Mason, form the complete picture of his mighty mind and of the stores of erudition with which it was enriched and adorned. As an appendix, the editor, was happy to be enabled to present a specimen of Mr. Gray's Illustrations of the "Systema Naturae" of Linnaeus, from the original interleaved edition in his own hand-writing, and which by many persons will be considered as of no common merit and curiosity. They may possibly excite a wish for more ample communications of the contents of those volumes; but in this respect the editor thinks that he has offered all which could be required of him as a specimen:
Caetera jam extremo prudens sub line lahorum
Praeterit, atque allis post se memoranda relinquit.
The general tenour of Mr. Gray's life, and of his occupations, is best collected from his own letters, and from the connecting narrative by Mr. Mason; nor is there any very material information to be obtained in addition to it. There are, however, a few not unpleasing recollections, which were communicated to the present editor by his intimate friend, the Rev. Norton Nicholls, of which some notice may be taken.
The predominant bias of Mr. Gray's mind was a strong attachment to virtue, to "the exercise of right reason," as he used frequently to call it in the words of Plato: and if any person were mentioned to him as a man of ability, of genius, or of science, he always inquired, "Is he good for any thing?" No admiration of genius, no deference to learning could subdue, or even soften, his version to the vicious, to the profligate, and to the unprincipled. The great object of his detestation was Voltaire: he said almost prophetically, (considering the time when he said it) that no one could even conjecture the extent of the publick mischief (that was his term) which Voltaire would occasion. His aversion indeed was constant and unmitigated; yet the pleasantry and wit of some of his writings amused him, and he seemed to agree in opinion with the late Dr. Robertson on the Essay on Universal History; as the refusal of Voltaire to subjoin the authorities for his facts, to which he was fully competent and of which he was well informed, was and continues to be the real cause of the neglect of that singular work. His tragedies Mr. Gray esteemed next in rank to those of Shakspeare, and he often said, that his literary fame would have been higher if he had never published any other compositions.
He once made it his particular request to a friend of his, who was going to the continent, that he would not pay a visit to Voltaire; and when his friend replied, "What can a visit from a person like me to him signify?" he rejoined with peculiar earnestness, "Sir, every tribute to such a man signifies." It is to be wished, that all reflecting minds would consider the spirit, the virtue, and the love of mankind, which dictated this answer by Mr. Gray; and that they would not only consider, but apply it with judgment on proper occasions; for it is interesting in its consequences to society and to government. Such was Mr. Gray's opinion, and such was his salutary apprehension of Voltaire's power or influence under any semblance, whether of determined hostility, or of simulated friendship, or of pacifick deportment;
Seu torvam assumat faciem et furialia membra;
Seu frontem obscenam rugis aret; induat albos
Seu vitta crines, et ramum innectat olivae;
in all and under every form he regarded him as an object to be personally avoided upon publick principles; and it would seem, as if the Alecto of the poet were present to the mind of Mr. Gray, whenever he contemplated the mischief to be apprehended; for he knew that Voltaire could in a moment fling aside the weeds of peace, and that war and death were in his hand. Let the wounds and the desolation of France and of Europe speak the rest. The influence of bad examples is indeed more fatal than that of crimes; and it should never be forgotten, that more empires have perished from a contempt or a neglect of religion, and from a continued systematick violation of morality, than from any violation of the civil laws.
Mr. Gray had a similar aversion to Mr. Hume, and for the same reasons: nor could he ever be reconciled to any deliberate enemy of religion; as he always asserted that, added to other publick considerations, such men, whether in writing or in libertine conversation, took away the best consolation of man, without even pretending to substitute any consideration of value in its place.
It has been expressed, without due reflection, that Mr. Gray "had a contempt or disdain of his inferiours in science." He despised none but pretenders to science, or those who abused their knowledge or their talents. To the few who sought him he was mild, affable, and communicative; and on any subject, on which he was consulted, would throw even a prodigality of light and of information. He had, indeed, a certain dignity of deportment, and he was a man so well bred, that if he ever felt contempt or bitterness rising in his breast, you might be sure his equal had awaked them.
Some little misunderstanding having taken place between a common friend of Mr. Gray and of Mr. Nicholls, and a third person, Mr. Gray, in a private letter to Mr. Nicholls on the subject of it (now in the possession of the editor), made some remarks which are worthy of remembrance, as they are an honour to the affections of his heart, to the delicacy of his feeling, and to the acuteness of his penetration. "Remind him," (says Mr. Gray to Mr. Nicholls), "Remind him eloquently (that is, from your heart, and in such expressions as that will furnish) how many idle suspicions a sensible mind, naturally disposed to melancholy and depressed by misfortunes, is capable of entertaining, especially if it meets with but a shadow of neglect, or of contempt, from the very (perhaps the only) person, in whose kindness it had taken refuge. Remind him of his former goodness, frankly and generously shewn to —, and beg him not to destroy the natural effects of it by any appearance of pique or of resentment; for that even the fancies and the chimaeras of a worthy heart deserve a little management and even respect. Assure him, as I believe you safely may, that a few kind words, the slightest testimony of his esteem, will brush away all —'s suspicions and gloomy thoughts, and that, after this, there will need no constraint on his own behaviour, no not so much as in the most trifling matter; for when one is secure of a person's intentions, all the rest passes for nothing." Observations like these might have a most beneficial and extensive influence, if carried into private life, with Mr. Gray's benevolent, affecting, and gentleman-like spirit.
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." The author of the Fairy Queen was one of his most favourite poets; and it is a notice worthy of all acceptation among the higher votaries of the divine art, when they are assured, that Mr. Gray never sate down to compose any poetry without previously, and for a considerable time, reading the works of Spenser.
Dryden was so high an object of his admiration, that he could not very patiently hear his works criticised. Absalom and Achitophel, and Theodore and Honoria stood in the first rank of poems in his estimation, and he admired his plays as poetry, though not as dramatick compositions: and he thought the prose of Dryden almost equal to his poetry.
Far above all poets, of all ages and of all countries, he placed Shakspeare. He said, that the justest idea even of the historical characters which he exhibited might be taken from his plays. He shewed Mr. Nicholls a manuscript, which he had copied from the original in the British Museum, containing the Report of the Commissioners appointed and sent by king Henry the eighth to endeavour to prevail with queen Katharine to lay aside the title of Queen, and to assume that of Princess of Wales; which agrees not only with the sentiments, but sometimes with the very words, of Shakspeare in his play of Henry the Eighth.
He loved the poetry of Pope, and his art of condensing thoughts he peculiarly admired, as it fixed them in the mind. Of his letters he observed, that they were not good letters, but better things. His translation of Homer's Iliad he esteemed highly, and when he heard it criticised as wanting the simplicity of the original, and as not having a just idea of Homer's style and manner, and other similar objections made to the work, he always said, that, however just some of those observations might be, there would never be another translation of the Iliad equal to it.
Speaking of Dr. Middleton's style, the elegance of which he admired, he mentioned it as a matter of consideration, whether style in one language can be acquired by being conversant with authors of a polished style in another language; as whether, for example, Dr. Middleton could have acquired his flowing diction from the great attention which he paid to the writings of Cicero. It may here be noticed, that Mr. Gray considered many of the sermons of Bishop Sherlock as specimens of pulpit eloquence never exceeded.
Lord Clarendon was, in his estimation, the first of our historians, and indeed of almost all modern historians. Of the History of Florence by Machiavelli he always said (and surely with truth), that was written with the simplicity of a Greek history. He considered Rapin's as the only valuable general History of England; and hinted, that if an abler writer, with a brilliant and animated style were to consult his copious and excellent marginal references, and would have recourse to the original and contemporary authors, and to the memoirs and state papers, and to all the curious document so well pointed out by Rapin, a General History of England might be planned and composed, worthy of the subject and of the nation's attention.
The poem called The Spleen, written by Matthew Green, attracted his notice; he admired the originality of the thoughts and of the expression, the propriety of the allusions, and the sprightliness of the wit. He was pleased with the sermons of Sterne, who principal merit, as he thought, consisted in his pathetick powers, in which he never failed, though be was very often unsuccessful in his attempts at humour.
Among modern poets he thought most favourably of Goldsmith. Mr. Nicholls was with him one summer at Malvern, when he received the Deserted Village, which Mr. Gray desired him to read aloud; he listened to it with fixed attention from the beginning to the end, and then exclaimed, "That man is a poet."
One day Mr. Nicholls calling at his apartments found him absorbed in reading a newspaper with particular earnestness; and a soon as he was seated, Mr. Gray said to him, in an animated tone: "Take this: here is such writing as I never before saw in a newspaper." This was the very first letter which appeared under the signature of Junius.
In offering information of this nature, it cannot be expected that the present editor should observe any particular method in communicating it; but he hopes that it will be kindly received in the form of recollections, living as they rise, either in his memory or from writing, and expressed in a manner which he considers as best adapted to the end which he proposes, from their interest or from their variety.
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, as 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."
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 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.
These verses may remind us of an exquisite stanza, which it is singular that he omitted in his Elegy, as, to the account of his morning-walk and of his noontide repose, it completed that of the whole day by adding his evening saunter:
Him have we seen the greenwood side along,
As homeward oft he hied, his labour done,
What time the woodlark piped her farewell song,
With wistful eyes pursue the setting sun.
It is impossible, in this and in the preceding stanzas, not to hear the stream of Dorick harmony flowing through the lines: [Greek characters].
Among the writers of his time Mr. Gray was particularly struck with Rousseau. His Emile, as a system of education, he regarded as ridiculous and impracticable, and always said, that before it could be adopted, men must begin by creating a new world. But then, (how could it be otherwise?) what Shakspeare terms, "the flashes and outbreaks of a fiery mind," the glowing eloquence, and the wild originality of thought, so often and so vigorously displayed in that singular work, attracted and arrested his attention as a man of genius. His opinion of Rousseau's Nouvelle Eloise he has himself expressed and given in one of his letters. He thought the story ill-composed, the incidents improbable, the characters unnatural and vicious, and the tendency of it immoral and mischievous; which latter defect, in his mind, nothing could redeem. Very different indeed was his judgment of the Clarissa of Richardson. He said, that he knew no instance of a story so well told; and he spoke with high commendation of the strictly dramatick propriety and consistency of the characters, perfectly preserved and supported from the beginning to the end, in all situations and circumstances, in every word, and action, and look. In the delineation of Lovelace alone he thought that the author had failed; for, as he had not lived among persons of that rank, it was not possible for him to give, from the life, the portrait of a profligate man of fashion. Mr. Gray was much pleased with an answer which Dr. Samuel Johnson once gave to a person on the different and comparative merits of Fielding and of Richardson: "Why, sir, Fielding could tell you what o'clock it was; but, as for Richardson, he could make a clock, or a watch."
Mr. Gray always considered, that the Encyclopaedias and universal Dictionaries of various kinds, with which the world now abounds so much, afforded a very unfavourable symptom of the age in regard to its literature; as no real or profound learning can be obtained but at the fountain-head. Dictionaries like these, as he thought, only served to supply a fund for the vanity or for the affectation of general knowledge, or for the demands of company and of conversation; to satisfy which, he said, such dictionaries were fully competent.
Speaking of a modern writer, whose poetry was sometimes too languid, Mr. Gray said, it was not a matter of wonder, for he never gave himself time to think; but he imagined that he should succeed best by writing hastily in the first fervour of his imagination: and therefore he never waited for epithets, if they did not occur at the time readily, but left spaces for them and put them in afterwards. This enervated his poetry, and will do so universally if that method is adopted; for nothing is done so well as at the first concoction: and he added, "We think in words: poetry consists in expression, if that term be properly understood."
When Mr. Nicholls once asked Mr. Gray, why he never finished that incomparable Fragment on "The Alliance between good Government and good Education in order to produce the happiness of mankind," he said, he could not; and then explained himself in words of this kind or to this effect: "I have been used to write chiefly lyrick poetry, in which, the poems being short, I have accustomed myself to polish every part of them with care; and as this has become a habit, I can scarcely write in any other manner: the labour of this in a long poem would hardly be tolerable; and, if accomplished, it might possibly be deficient in effect by wanting the chiaro-oscuro." Whether Mr. Gray's admirers will acquiesce in that opinion, may admit of a doubt; for a greater desideratum in poetry, in literature, and in political philosophy cannot be named. It was however one of Mr. Gray's opinions, that in a long poem, in order to produce effect, it was even necessary to have weak parts, and he instanced in Homer, and particularly in Milton, who (he said) now and then, at intervals, rolls on in sounding words which perhaps have little meaning. But it must here be considered, that Mr. Gray is speaking of Homer and of Milton, and of poets of the highest ranks. The editor is inclined in this place to insert the very appropriate and well expressed eulogy on the cenotaph of Mr. Gray in Westminster Abbey, written by Mr. Mason:
No more the Grecian Muse unrivalled reigns;
To Britain let the nations homage pay:
She felt a Homer's fire in Milton's strains,
A Pindar's rapture in the lyre of Gray.
When the late Duke of Grafton was elected Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, it is known that Mr. Gray, from an impulse of what he looked on as a species of duty, spontaneously offered to write the Ode for his Grace's Installation. He considered it nevertheless as a sort of task, as a set composition; and a considerable time passed before he could prevail upon himself, or rather before he actually felt the power, to begin it. But one morning after breakfast, Mr. Nicholls called on him, and knocking at his chamber door, Mr. Gray got up hastily, and threw it open himself, and running up to him, in a hurried voice and tone exclaimed, "Hence, avaunt; 'tis holy ground!" — Mr. Nicholls was so astonished, that he thought his senses were deranged; but Mr. Gray in a moment after resumed his usual pleasant manner, and repeating several verses at the beginning of that inimitable composition, said — "Well: I have begun the Ode, and now I shall finish it." It would seem, by this interesting anecdote, that the genius of Gray sometimes resembled the armed apparition in Shakspeare's master-tragedy; "He would not be commanded."
Mr. Gray often amused himself in making compilations from works of eminence in different departments of literature, from travels, from antiquities, and, in general, from all subjects which are covered by the indefinite, yet not inexpressive, term of Belles Lettres. He has left short but curious notices of all the cathedrals of England with his accustomed ability and interesting manner. The materials he collected from various sources, but chiefly from Bishop Godwin and Browne Willis: he consulted also Leland, Somner, Wren's Parentalia, Lowth's Life of Wickham, and other writers. He composed with great care a description of all the monuments of the royal family of England, which remained to the middle of the eighteenth century (and which indeed remain to this day) undestroyed from the Conquest, A.D. 1066. The subject was, perhaps, never before treated in a separate form: it is compiled chiefly from Sandford, with references to Leland and to Montfaucon's Monumens de la Monarchie Francoise, with some few notes of his own. As these writings cannot properly be considered as original, they could not, to the regret of the editor, make a part of the selection from his manuscripts.
Mr. Gray's knowledge and love of the Gothick architecture are well known: he not only felt the superiority of its effect in sacred edifices, but he admired the elegance and the good taste of many of its ornaments. He never made the distinction, which it is now not uncommon to hear, between Saxon and Norman, nor did he ever make use of the latter term. He said, that he knew no instance of a pointed arch before the reign of king John. All round arches, since the age of Roman architecture, he called Saxon, with their zig-zag and other appropriate ornaments, and these he attributed to a period not more recent than the reign of king John. It may be here observed, that he was at first much pleased with Strawberry Hill, but when Mr. Horace Walpole added the gallery with its gilding and glass, he said, that "he had degenerated into finery."
Mr. Gray's notices relating to the cathedrals and royal monuments of England, which have been just mentioned, are pleasing instances of his indefatigable industry, of the variety of his researches, and of his strong attachment to the antiquities of his own country. His attention to subjects of heraldry and of genealogy was very great; and the papers on these topicks are not inconsiderable. They are not merely confined to English subjects, nor even to those of Europe, for he frequently wandered into Asia with the curiosity of a traveller and of an antiquary; and he marked and delineated the genealogies of some of the higher oriental dynasties; in which it is rather surprising that he should have found so many attractions and inducements to such minute and laborious attention.
If we regard the classical amusements of Mr. Gray, we shall find them always marked with the peculiar cast of his genius, and with the same accuracy and propriety with which he illustrated more important subjects. For instance; his continued annotations on the Anthologia Graeca, with all the parallel and apposite passages from different authors which he produced and adapted, with the supplemental collection of Epigrams in his own hand writing which he added to his copy, and with the elegant and finished translations in Latin verse of some of them, (of which a specimen has been given in this volume,) evince a diligence and a pleasing variety of reading: it is, however, rarely accompanied by that emendatory criticism which, since his day, has been the favourite, and not inglorious, pursuit of modern scholars of eminence in England. His predilection for the Anthologia Graeca was such, that he actually arranged all the epigrams under their different authors, and gave, seriatim, the subject of each distinct epigram in English, in a manner which probably was never before attempted. In such a scholar, engaged, as he was, in so many grave, dignified, and sublime speculations, "admiranda quidem levium haec spectacula rerum." They are indeed only noticed as such; but it proves the very high estimation in which he, in common with every scholar of taste, held those brief compositions, in which true simplicity of diction and native force of sentiment are so frequently and so pleasingly united. If a new edition of the Anthologia were at any future period to be undertaken, access to this interleaved edition would be desirable; but any selection of the notes, if unaccompanied by the Greek text, would be without effect.
He was very conversant (and it is not surprising that he was) with the French Memoires de l'Academie des Inscriptions et des Belles Lettres, from which he abridged a variety of curious papers; nor indeed does any collection of the kind, in any language, abound with so much amusing, diversified, interesting, and often profound learning and information as these valuable Memoires.
In regard to study in general as pursued by Mr. Gray, we may call to mind, that, when a friend once enquired of Michael Angelo, why he led so solitary a life: "Art" (he replied) "is a jealous thing; it requires the whole and entire man." Mr. Gray was accustomed to say, that he well knew, from experience, how much might be done by a person who would have recourse to great original writers only, who would read with a method, and would never fling away his time on middling or on inferiour authors. In this particular indeed, no man ever gave more powerfully the precept and the example. Mr. Gray knew, that, by this unremitted culture of the mind conducted with judgment, it is not uncommon to find persons, when their understandings are matured, become members of society intrinsically more excellent, and publickly more distinguished, than those who were originally their superiours by nature, but who trusted to their parts alone, and were content with desultory application. Remarks, or even hints, of this kind, from a man like Mr. Gray, should receive such attention and observation, "as fits a scholar's remembrance;" and therefore they have found a place in these recollections.
Mr. Gray much regretted that he had never applied his mind to the study of the mathematicks, and once, rather late in life, he hinted to his friend an intention to undertake it. No one was ever more convinced of its dignity and of its importance. He wished however to appreciate it with discreet approbation, not considering it as the only mode by which the understanding could be matured; as he conceived that a fixed attention to any works of close and deep reasoning might produce the same accurate precision of thought. But he felt (and he owned it too) the commanding power of those speculations, to which the mathematician alone can conduct the patient inquirers into nature; and he could not but admire the strong and animated expressions of Halley,
Nubem pellente Mathesi
Claustra patent coeli, rerumque immobilis ordo,
while he contemplated with reverence the laws and the system of the universe fixed by a sublime geometry.
The language of modern Italy, in prose and in poetry, made a very favourite part of Mr. Gray's study. He was accurately and intimately conversant with the higher Tuscan poets, whom he might be allowed to call his great progenitors or precursors. His genius was eminently formed and disposed to accompany that traveller, who returned from the nethermost abyss, from the abodes of terrour, of sorrow, and of despair, who, having read the record on the portal of the Inferno, dared also to make, what a kindred poet in after ages styled, "the eternal blazon." Nor were the steps of Gray to be found less frequently, nor less honourably, in the bowers of Valclusa or on the shores of Parthenope. From every mountain and from every stream, in that favoured and illustrious country, "inspiration breathed around him;" and from a dignified familiarity with the works of the poets, who had consecrated those chosen retreats as their own, he imparted a lyrical strength and a harmony, hitherto unknown, to his native language.
He was indeed the inventor, it may be strictly said so, of a new lyrical metre in his own tongue. The peculiar formation of his strophe, antistrophe, and epode was unknown before him; and it could only have been planned and perfected by a master genius, who was equally skilled by long and repeated study, and by transfusion into his own mind, of the lyrick compositions of ancient Greece, and of the higher canzoni of the Tuscan poets "di maggior carme e suono;" as it is termed in the commanding energy of their language. Antecedent to "The Progress of Poetry" and to "The Bard," no such lyricks had appeared. There is not an ode in the English language which is constructed, like these two compositions, with such power, such majesty, and such sweetness, with such proportioned pauses and just cadences, with such regulated measures of the verse, with such master principles of lyrical art displayed and exemplified, and, at the same time, with such a concealment of the difficulty, which is lost in the softness and uninterrupted flowing of the lines in each stanza with such a musical magick, that every verse in it in succession dwells on the ear, and harmonizes with that which has gone before. If indeed the veil of classical reverence and of pardonable prejudice can be awhile removed, and if with honest unshrinking criticism we consider the subject as exemplified in Greece, and in Italy ancient and modern, and weigh the merits of any single composition of Pindar, of Horace, of Dante, of Petrarch, or of any of their successors, it will fade before that excellence which encompasses, with an incommunicable brightness, THE BARD OF GRAY.
An attentive and competent judge will be inclined to attribute this not only to Gray's genius, which was second to none, but to the peculiar turn of his poetical studies. Before him, with the exception of Milton, no English poet had taken equal draughts from the Ilyssus and from the Arno: "impiger hausit spumantem pateram:" or, to drop that allusion, no one had read with equal discernment the odes of Pindar, the choral harmonies of the Greek tragedians, and all the higher canzoni of Dante, and of Petrarch, and of their illustrious successors. It was from his ear, so exquisitely fine and so musically formed; it was from the contemplation of the legitimate structure of a lyrical stanza, of the necessity of its regularity, and of the labour and of the polish which are required not only to perfect every verse, but every single expression in every verse; it was indeed from all these views combined, that Mr. Gray revolted from the vapid, vague, and unmeaning effusions of writers who, refusing to submit to the indispensable laws of lyrical poetry, or from ignorance of them, called their own wildness, genius, and their contempt-of rules, originality. He fixed his attention on all the most finished models of Greece and of modern Italy, he seized and appropriated their specifick and their diversified merits, united their spirit, improved upon their metre, and then, in conformity with his great preconceived idea, he gave at once in lyrick poetry to every succeeding age the law, the precept, and the example. The lovers of the languages of Greece, of modern Italy, and of England, may appeal with confidence to the lyre of Gray, when they are inclined to hail the poetical union of the Ilyssus, of the Arno, and of the Thames, and may adapt on that occasion a few animated lines from a Tuscan poet of the Greek school:
Di sua cetra invaghito,
Ii gran Toscano fiume
Alla superba Tamigina sponda
Corse a mischiar la sua volubil onda,
Reale incontro! cento vati e cento
Da' fonti e fiumi Argivi
Uscir' dagli antri vivi,
E ricchi di non soilto ornamento!
It is highly gratifying to observe the very marked attention which Mr. Gray certainly gave to the language of modern Italy, to its origin and to its progress, to a language indeed which alone seems to have been at once created, as it were, and perfected. If a remark or two on this subject may be allowed, it must be said, that we do not find the same satisfaction, when we would trace the origin of the Greek tongue. Our means of investigation are here wholly inadequate. When, for instance, we have recourse to Homer, as to the first writer in the Greek language, we are lost in the abyss of antiquity: whatever can be advanced, however ingenious, is little more than conjecture. Neither manuscripts, nor inscriptions, nor contemporary authors, can he called to our assistance; and when all our sagacity and all our industry have been baffled and deluded, we are at last fain to amuse ourselves with endeavours to ascertain the primary forms of the original Greek characters, and then, with some legitimate rites of classical incantation, from the depths of Eleusis we summon up the buried majesty of THE DIGAMMA. These are the pleasing unreproved speculations of learned leisure, though we are sometimes, rather hastily, induced to regard them as a knowledge of the subject. At other times, we turn for imaginary recreation to the "old Bard eloquent," and with German dexterity attempt to divide what is indivisible; we separate the portions of his poems, take his best parts, his affecting episodes, his battles, his shield, or his games, distribute them liberally among the ancient rhapsodists and forgotten troubadours of the Archipelago, and put, as it were, the very genius of Homer into commission.
But when we approach modern Italy with the same earnestness, the view is as different as it is satisfactory. In the twelfth century (the best Italian criticks will tell us so) we have history and matter of fact for every step we take in the investigation After some feeble momentary gleams from Guittone of Arezzo, Cino of Pistoja, and a very few others of less note in that age, Dante, with Petrarch not far from his side, burst forth, and with an originality of genius and of conception, created and exhibited at once the full power of his language in force, in softness, and in dignity.
The interest, which Mr. Gray felt on the subject of Italian literature, induces the editor of these volumes to add a few more observations upon it. To persons who are accurately versed in the language, the literature, and in the poetry of modern Italy, it cannot but be surprising, that it should be peremptorily and ignorantly degraded as the language of conceit, and of false thought; and that its votaries should be marked as admirers of tinsel and not of gold. Of what authors, and of what poets, do these objectors speak? In charity to their knowledge and to their judgment it must be supposed, that they speak not of Dante, of Petrarch, of Poliziano, of Lorenzo, of Bembo, of Ariosto, of Tasso, of Chiabrera, of Filicaja, of Redi, of Menzini, of Guidi, and of all the consecrated bards,
Dextra laevaque per Arni
Convalles, laetumque choro paeana canentes,
Inter odoratum lauri nemus—
it cannot, cannot be. The poetical hosts of the Arno and of the Sorga have never wanted living leaders and living defenders, and it is sufficient for their champion to come forth with a sling and a stone against the hardiest opposer.
But can we so forget the common vicissitudes of taste, of words, and of style in every age of every language? Is modern Italy alone, for a few extravagant and erring spirits, to be called to so severe an account? if we are extreme to mark every impropriety of forced thought, or of expression, where will Shakspeare, or Milton, and other poets of eminence, appear? Had the language of ancient Latium no decline, no fall? Are all the writers of Greece indiscriminately blameless and perfect? Were there no variations in their taste and judgment? If Greece had her age of Pericles, and Rome the age of her Augustus; does not modern Italy demand and fix our attention and our admiration on that of her tenth Leo? Are all her poets to be confounded with the wild genius and licentious spirit of Marino and of his school? No nation was ever more sensible of its errours under the influence of that poet; none was ever more ready to acknowledge them. Did not all the learned in Rome, at the close of the seventeenth century, rise as one man to correct the depravation of their language? At that period good taste returned, under the auspices of the original Arcadia and of all the lesser Academies, or Colonies, throughout Italy dependent on that parent institution. Before the criticks of the Arcadia, (the Pastori, as they modestly styled themselves,) with Crescimbeni for their conductor and with the adorato Albano for their patron, all that was depraved in language and in sentiment, vicious metaphors, immoderate hyperboles, false thoughts, conceits, and capricious imagery, with all the barbarous and corrupted phraseology which had so long deformed their speech, fled and disappeared. No nation was ever more ardent to vindicate itself and to wipe away such stains; no nation ever maintained with a more becoming jealousy the high prerogative of its ancient dignity; no nation ever rose with such an exterminating zeal to depose the usurpers of the legitimate rights of literature and of poetry, and to fix their sovereignty on the lawful basis of sound learning and of correct taste.
Yet here in England we are still, in our earlier years, almost insensibly trained to neglect or to despise the language of modern Italy, by the artful insinuations scattered throughout our most popular moral miscellany by that polished sage, from whose hand the wound might have been least expected, by the virtuous and accomplished Addison. From disingenuous hints, from attempts to resolve the character and the merits of the language of Italy into opera airs and silly madrigals, and from the perpetual ridicule with which the ENGLISH SPECTATOR so unworthily, and indeed so ignorantly, abounds on this subject, an effect has been produced which has hitherto been fatal to its credit and to its cultivation in Great Britain. But it must be remembered, that, at that period the star of French literature was lord of the ascendant, and that all the bolder and more invigorating influences, which had descended on Spenser and on Milton from the luminaries of Italy, were felt no longer. We are now once more called upon, as in the name of an august triumvirate, by Spenser, by Milton, and by Gray, to turn from the unpoetical genius of France; and, after we have paid our primal homage to the bards of Greece and of ancient Latium, we are invited to contemplate, with a studious admiration, the literary and poetical dignity of modern Italy. If the influence of their persuasion and of their example should prevail, a strong and steady light may be relumined and diffused among us; a light, which may once again conduct the powers of our rising poets, from wild whirling words, from crude, rapid, and uncorrected productions, from an overweening presumption, and from the delusive conceit of a pre-established reputation, to the labour of thought, to patient and to repeated revision of what they write, to a reverence for themselves and for an enlightened publick, and to the fixed unbending principles of legitimate composition.
To return. — In addition to the valuable manuscripts of Mr. Gray, whence these volumes have been formed, there is reason to think that there were some other papers, "folia Sibyllae," in the possession of Mr. Mason; but, though a very diligent and anxious inquiry has been made after them, they cannot be discovered since his death. There was however one Fragment, by Mr. Mason's own description of it, of very great value, namely, "The Plan of an intended Speech in Latin on his appointment as Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge." Mr. Mason says, "Immediately on his appointment, Mr. Gray sketched out an admirable plan for his inauguration speech; in which, after enumerating the preparatory and auxiliary studies requisite, such as ancient history, geography, chronology, &c. he descended to the authentick sources of the science, such as publick treaties, state-records, private correspondence of ambassadors, &c. He also wrote the exordium of this thesis, not indeed so correct as to be given by way of fragment, but so spirited, in point of sentiment, as leaves it much to be regretted that he did not proceed to its conclusion." This fragment cannot now be found, and, after so very interesting a description of its value and of its importance, it is the more to be regretted, that the delicacy of Mr. Mason would not allow him to print it, merely because it was not quite correct in his opinion, or that the latinity perhaps might not have received the last touches of Mr. Gray's hand. It is difficult to conceive how Mr. Mason could prevail upon himself to withhold it. There was surely, even from his own account, every reason and every inducement to publish it. We all knew the power of Mr. Gray's pen in the Latin and in his own language, and we needed no conviction of his ability to have polished and to have completed it. If there be a subject on which, more perhaps than on any other, it would have been peculiarly desirable to know and to follow the train of his ideas, it is that of modern history, in which no man was more intimately, more minutely, or more extensively conversant than Mr. Gray. We are told, that this fragment was "so spirited in point of sentiment, as leaves it much to be regretted that it was not concluded." These were motives, as one would think, strong for the deed of publication.
It was not the lyre only which Mr. Gray could strike with the hand of a master and with the fire of a prophet; he foresaw and he felt (and sometimes too he would describe) the symptoms of the approaching decline or ruin of dignified literature and of established governments, from fashionable philosophers, historians, poetasters, and sciolists, who composed and disseminated their works through out Europe in the French language. He knew that history was the most effectual political philosophy, as it teaches by examples. It may well be conceived, that a sketch or plan from his hand on the subjects of history, and on those which belonged to it, might have taught succeeding ages how to conduct these important researches with national advantage, and, like some wand of divination, it might have
Pointed to beds where sovereign gold doth grow.
If indeed Mr. Gray had lived to fill the chair of the historical professor (never before so dignified in any age) in the bosom of a learned and illustrious university, in which the very life-springs of all publick action and of all publick political conduct must primarily receive their original strength and their future direction, he might, from the soundness of uncontaminated principles and from the depth, the extent, and the solidity of his knowledge, have taught the rising youth of this country, the hope of England, not only to imitate but to emulate the glory of it, its ancient statesmen. Then indeed — "Visa potens; propria haec si dona fuissent."
If the Fragment, the loss of which is so much regretted, could have been discovered, the present editor would have deliberately presented it to the reader, with any slight imperfection it might have had. The ideas, the plan, and the manner of conducting the mind, independent of the language and of the style, would have ensured publick attention; and it may be presumed, (such was Mr. Gray's habit of accurate composition) that neither the language nor the style would have been found to be very materially deficient;
Such prompt eloquence
Flowed from his lips, in prose or numerous verse,
More tuneable than needed lute or harp
To add more sweetness.
It must however be repeated, that Mr. Mason's right to use his own discretion was unquestionable; and the preceding observations are offered with respect and with deference to the character and to the judgment of so elegant a poet, of so cautious a critick, and of a friend so affectionate.
But if omissions of this nature be sometimes reprehensible, there is an evil far more fatal and more prejudicial, in its consequences, to the fame of the wise and great who, after a life of utility and of dignity, have sunk to rest with the gratitude and with the admiration of their country. The allusion is here made to a custom much too prevalent, perhaps in every country, of searching or ransacking the private papers of deceased authors of merit, and of printing every trifle which can be found, any little song or epigram, or any short effusion of temporary satire or of local pleasantry, which it was never the design of the writers to preserve: trifles indeed which they would willingly have suppressed at once, or would have recalled from any friend to whom they might have given them in confidence. It is well known, that many of Mr. Gray's jeux d'esprit of this description were handed about in his life time, which occasioned him great uneasiness accompanied with a suitable eagerness to recal them, which proved to he in vain: for it should be remembered that even the words of any man of genius, like Gray, are no longer his own than while he keeps them unspoken. Affectionate veneration for his memory, and a friendly attention even to his peculiarities, or to any supposed wish of his, plead strongly for their exclusion.
There were however a few stanzas, written under the impulse of a virtuous indignation at some reports, mixed up with all the bitterness of the political prejudice of the time, on the view of Kingsgate, in the Isle of Thanet in Kent, in which he describes the situation chosen, about the year 1764, by the first Lord Holland for his mansion, and the artificial ruins erected on the cliffs contiguous to it. As he seldom vented his powers in strains of a higher mood, with all the enthusiasm, and (it must be added) with some of the invention of a poet, and with the magick wildness of a painter, it is desirable to preserve the following animated descriptive stanzas, all political and personal reflections being set aside and forgotten:
On this congenial spot he fixed his choice;
Earl Goodwin trembled for his neighbouring sand:
Here sea-mews scream and cormorants rejoice,
The mariner, though shipwrecked, fears to land.
Here reign the blustering North and blighting East;
No tree is heard to whisper, bird to sing:
Yet Nature cannot furnish out the feast,
Art he invokes new horrours still to bring.
Now mouldering fanes and battlements arise,
Arches and turrets nodding to their fall;
Unpeopled palaces delude his eyes,
And mimick desolation covers all.
The variety and the extent of Mr. Gray's reading often (and perhaps involuntarily) occasioned his adoption of many phrases and expressions from distinguished writers, which, from his manner of subjoining short references to his poems in the form of notes, it appears that he was very solicitous to acknowledge whenever they occurred. The memory of many a scholar has often increased the number of these references, and it is pleasing to observe their propriety, as they can never detract from the originality of such an author. The greatest poets of modern Italy in every age, Ariosto, Tasso, and their successors, have in their works adopted and incorporated phrases (and even entire lines) from the fathers of their verse, the primal glory of the Tuscan literature, Dante and Petrarch: nor was this imputed to imitation. In mere language, what was once well expressed by the two Florentines with energy, with softness, or with majesty, was considered and deemed, by the higher poets and criticks of that illustrious nation, as fixed and as common to all who had sense, and spirit, and judgment to use them; and they regarded the casual, or the deliberate, adoption of such phrases or of such lines, not as servile imitation, not as poverty of invention, but as an homage to the great creators of their language, and to the authors and finishers of their harmonious expression. Spenser, Shakspeare, and Milton, were to Gray, and should be so to his successors, what Dante and Petrarch were to Ariosto and Tasso. It will be no injury to true criticism to adopt the liberal spirit of Italy in this matter, and poetry in England may again send forth, what Milton would call, "mellifluous streams," when drawn from the original fountains of the Ilyssus and of the Arno.
After these incidental remarks, the present editor should perhaps apologise for himself, as he also is inclined to mark a very few singular coincidences, where the expressions might seem peculiar, and originating with Mr. Gray. When, for instance, he tells us, that, at the frown of adversity, laughter and thoughtless joy disappear, "and leave us leisure to be good"; it is singular to find those curious and happy expressions in the poems of a writer, whom Dryden once dignified and hailed after death as the Marcellus of our tongue, Oldham, where he says, "I have not yet the leisure to be good." When we read of "the ruddy drops that warm the heart," Gray informs us, that the phrase is from Shakspeare; yet it is to be remarked, that the idea and the words, whether of Shakspeare or of Gray, are to be found in the Agamemnon of the primal tragedian of Athens, [Greek characters]: but in bold and terrifick conceptions, who were more congenial with Aeschylus than Shakspeare and Gray? Even in the dark, but often sublime, poet of Chalcis we discover expressions not dissimilar to those of Gray: "the unfathomed caves of ocean" may remind a scholar of the [Greek characters] of Lycophron; and when Gray writes,
Iron sleet of arrowy shower
Hurtles in the darkened air,
he refers us to a passage in Milton's Paradise Regained, and to another in the Julius Caesar of Shakspeare. It is, however, not without some surprise, that we find, in the same tragick Monodia, "the arrows and their hurtling in the air" united in one lofty passage: [Greek characters].
In the celebrated and sublime eulogy on the author of Paradise Lost, (for in the ode on the Progress of Poetry no other work of Milton's is alluded to) when an allusion is made to the visions of glory before him, after he had passed the "flammantia moenia," the flaming bounds of place, and of time, and of the mortal creation, Gray turns to that inspired prophet who, "by the river of Chebar, when the heavens were opened, saw visions of God." The poet calls forth and adapts the expressions of that prophet, and with more than mortal rapture, exclaims,
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.
Surely the simple allusion to the loss of sight in Homer (the [Greek characters]) by Gray himself, or the mere dry political reference by Mr. Mason to the sonnet to Cyriack Skinner, or the idle mode of resolving it into a conceit, are, all of them, remarks either feeble, or inadequate, or unjust. Passages, like this, of a sublimity almost "past utterance," are scarcely matter of reasoning, but of strong sensation. To feel them is to explain them: or, like the subjects which they celebrate, it should only be said, that they "appear dark, with excessive bright."
It may however be observed, that Milton in his most eloquent oration, entitled "Defensio Secunda pro Populo Anglicano," descants on his own blindness, and he attributes it to his laborious unremitted exertions in a cause which (unjustifiable as that cause was and ever must be) he himself unhappily esteemed, "ex animo DEO teste" (they are his own words), to be his bounden duty and service to his country. In this apologetick oration is found a passage not very dissimilar in thought and in manner, and not inferiour in sublimity to that of the poet; and it is conceived in that devout prostration of the intellect before the throne of God, and with that grateful, profound, and unreserved submission to the divine will, which was the commanding attribute of Milton's mind. Some criticks may perhaps call this passage also a conceit; be it so: let them call it poetical, call it lyrical, if they choose, (and surely even in numerous prose, the harp of Milton was ever tuned), but let us hear the words; they are as follow: "Sane haud ultima Dei cura COECI sumus, qui nos, quo minus quicquam aliud PRAETER IPSUM cernere valemus, eo clementius atque benignius respicere dignatur. Vae, qui illudit nos; vae, qui laedit. Nos ab injuriis hominum non modo incolumes, sed pene sacros divina lex reddidit, divinus favor: nec tam hebetudine oculorum, quam caelestium alarum umbra, DEUS has nobis fecisse tenebras videtur." Now read the orator; bend before the prophet; catch the spirit of the poet; and while your heart is dilating with the majesty and with the pathos of the conceptions, you will feel all minute criticism sinking and lost in the mingled unresisted emotions of poetry, of eloquence, of devotion, and of genius.
In all the variety of Mr. Gray's extensive reading, it has been seen how large a portion of his attention was given to Plato. No man was ever more enchanted with "Socratick sounds" than he was: yet in his poetry (and it is rather singular) none of those allusions are to be discovered, which Milton, whose fond and lingering steps are always to be traced in the grove of the philosopher, delighted to adopt in his earlier and more captivating compositions. Whence is this peculiarity? The sublimity of Gray was strictly lyrical; and the pathos of his poetry was drawn (eminently so in his Elegy) from the feelings of our common nature, from the trembling hopes of a suffering humanity, and from what he termed "the grateful earnest of eternal peace;" and whether in the sacred calm or in the fervour of his genius, he generally avoided all that could in any sense be called metaphysical.
When he turned to the fathers and to the masters of the ethnick philosophy, it was with other views and with other intentions: he approached and conversed with them, and he .learned how far unassisted reason could aspire or could reach, and no man marked better, than lie did, the fading of those intellectual stars, When day's bright lord ascends the hemisphere. What Mr. Gray sought, and what he learned, from the higher philosophers of Greece and of Rome was, to contemplate and to feel practically, within himself, what in their language they termed the ethick harmonies; and he was thence led to perceive and to acknowledge that adorable symmetry which is found in all the relations, and the proportions, and the aptitudes of created things in the expanded system of the universe, displayed by Plato and by Cicero with such magick of imagery, such magnificence of diction, and with such sublimity of conception. He traced the ideas on which these philosophers raised their imaginary republicks in all the solemn plausibilities of civilized society: he sought not only delight, but instruction, from their works; and he often wondered that so many, even among the learned, would turn aside, either with an affected disdain or with an idle neglect, from these original fountains of genius and of science. He bowed before the author of all order, the governour of the world, who never left HIMSELF without witness; and he saw that all the foundations of legitimate human polity were rooted and grounded in the will of the all-wise Creator. He saw accurately how far philosophy could be perfected as to its effect on human affairs, and where it was deficient: and he found that the greatest statesmen and the greatest theologians, in the best ages, began and conducted their studies under these guides, who imparted sobriety to their thoughts and stamped discretion upon their actions. Such statesmen and such theologians, with minds so highly cultivated, knew how to distinguish between philosophy and inspired theology, and they felt all the superiority and the authoritative pre-eminence of the latter: yet, when Socrates, and Plato, and Cicero, and Antoninus, and the philosophers who sate in fellowship with them, were the theme, such minds would join in the sublime, judgment which was once given of them, by an eloquent Divine, in words of power and of an indelible impression: "They were full of GOD: all their wisdom and deep contemplations tended only to deliver men from the vanity of the world and from the slavery of bodily passions, that they might act as spirits which came forth from God, and were soon to return unto HIM." In such a judgment and in thoughts like these, it may be presumed, that Mr. Gray joined and acquiesced; and with them the subject may be best concluded, and dismissed with dignity.
Nearly one hundred years have now passed, since the birth of Gray. As a poet and as an author, may we not consider him as holding a distinguished station among the legitimate ancients? So various and extensive was his command in every region of literature, and the application of his knowledge so just and accurate; so solid and unerring was his judgment; so rapid, yet so regulated, was the torrent of his imagination; so versatile was every faculty within him, whether to science, to poetry, to painting, or to musick; and so richly and so regally was he endowed with every liberal and kindred art and accomplishment, that a scholar, when he reflects, can scarcely refrain from exclaiming with the philosophick bard, [Greek characters].
We may, however, for a moment, standing on the vantage ground and with views unbroken, contemplate what is the power of a mind; like Gray's, and what is the place which it claims and takes by sovereignty of nature. Such, a mind respects the important distinctions of rank, of wealth, and of fortune; it understands their use, their necessity, and their specifick dignities, and it neither despises nor disdains them; but calmly, and without a murmur, leaves them all to the world and to its votaries:
Higher than their tops
The verdurous wall of Paradise upsprings,
And to that mind's bright ken gives prospect large
Over man's nether empire.
There are persons indeed, whose judgment and whose experience incline them to think, that worldly elevation tends only to lessen such a mind; and that the retirement of private life is the true scene in which such transcendent abilities can alone appear in their proper dimensions: and this they assert, without a wish to close up the avenues to wealth, to dignity, and to high offices, or to suppress the generally honourable and justifiable desire of obtaining them. "THE WORLD KNOWETH ITS OWN." Such persons, when thoughts like these predominate, will call to mind what has been performed in the depths of privacy: they will recollect the retirement and the labours of THE MANTUAN on the shores of his beloved Parthenope; they will, remember the work planned and perfected by the great FLORENTINE in his banishment; nor will THAT POET pass unnoticed, who from the recesses of Valclusa commanded the admiration of his own and of succeeding ages. Such persons will not suffer themselves to forget, that neither "heaven nor the deep tracts below" could conceal aught from the mighty mind of MILTON, when compassed round with darkness and with solitude: and they too will follow the venerable HOOKER, and will behold him in peace and in privacy, without disturbance, meditating and effecting the consummation of his unrivalled work, the everlasting possession and the impregnable bulwark of all that this nation holds most dear; in which, when he had first laid the deep foundations of law, of order, and of temporal polity, he assembled, as it were, within himself all the sanctities of heaven; and with the united energies of language, of reason, and of truth he finally vindicated and displayed triumphantly, before our christian country, the gradations, the dignities, and the majesty of her balanced state and of her temperate hierarchy. Such persons will also call to mind, that when, in our own days, the learned and accomplished friend of the author of "The Divine Legation" [Richard Hurd] had surveyed and considered maturely, with his accustomed precision, the life of Warburton and the extended literary labours of his gigantick, unwearied, and unbending mind, and had then contemplated his promotion to the prelacy, and the pressure of its duties and the time which they required, he could not forbear to express himself in the following memorable words: "I have sometimes doubted with myself, (said the illustrious and venerable biographer of Warburton) whether the proper scene of abilities LIKE HIS, BE NOT A PRIVATE STATION; WHERE, ONLY, GREAT WRITERS HAVE LEISURE TO DO GREAT THINGS." With this dignified opinion, thus applied to A GENIUS OF THE HIGHEST ORDER, the editor of these volumes finally consigns to the world and to posterity the character, the fame, and the works of THOMAS GRAY.
THOMAS JAMES MATHIAS.
London: March, 1814.