When I first determined to write observations on our truly distinguished, and great English Poets, with an open impartiality, and with the best endeavours of my mind, I likewise determined to limit my views to those authours who had not only written excellently, but extensively. To this resolution, however, in the present instance, I have not adhered; and I hope that the enlargement of my plan will not be found to have been injudicious. Gray wrote but little poetry; yet he was a very great poet; and a great poet was never treated more unjustly, enviously, and malignantly, than he has been treated by Dr. Johnson. I wish that the late Mr. Mason, (who was himself a poet) or some other man of talents, who was honoured with his intimate acquaintance, had favoured the world with a deliberate, regular, and spirited vindication of the true character, and glory of his departed friend. The performance of this liberal office was, indeed, almost incumbent on such a person; it would have done great credit to the writer; would have given additional vivacity, and strength to the cause of literature; and would have spared inferiour efforts, and ingenuous pain to one of its ardent, though unfortunate professours.
There is a peculiarity of disposition, and of moral discipline, which, though they are not deemed provident, and safe, in the code of worldly wisdom, seem to deserve what they seldom obtain, the love, and esteem of mankind. A person who is actuated by these grand movers of his life, will publickly, and honestly, and ardently defend what he thinks gloriously right, reprobate what he thinks egregiously wrong, without any regard to political, or secular consequences. He will feel a generous resentment, or why not a generous indignation, which he will unreservedly express, when any species of great merit is insulted, and oppressed, by encroaching, and enormous power of any kind? But he will be particularly jealous of the rights, and glory, of the distinguished abilities of the mind. He will equally feel, with all the fine force of exquisite sensibility, the wrongs which they suffer, in himself, or others: from arbitrary, precipitate, and visionary, yet too popular, and decisive criticism; he will diligently, and zealously, (as if it were his own cause) vindicate injured, and calumniated genius; while, perhaps, its honours are not asserted by its bosom-friends; whose minds are not so easily thrown into warm, and adventurous motion. Let this temper, and this habit be termed arrogance; spleen; ill-nature; whatever people who are really of that description, may please to name them, they will be distinguished with epithets of a very different acceptation, by the few whose manners are directed by their impulse; and by the more frequent worth which can feel, and approve the disinterested, and benevolent spirit of independent minds.
I must own that the injustice, and absurdity of Johnson's crude, and invenomed strictures against Gray, have, in productions of occasional, and temporary criticism, frequently been brought forth, and sensibly, and forcibly, to publick view. But I shall beg leave to proceed in a manner different from that in which the criticks to whom I allude, gave their sentiments on this interesting subject. They were too complaisant; they payed too profound a deference to our Stagyrite; who, in his rudeness, and iniquity to a "sun of glory" who had lately set (and when he had set, could not "please" his "envy," nor escape his detraction) deserved, no complaisance, nor deference. They were "ravished;" they were infatuated, with the whistling of a name;" for in trifling times, there is as light, superficial, and volatile a fashion in literature, as in dress. I am far from meaning to retaliate injustice on the memory of Dr. Johnson; I am far from meaning that he owed his essential, permanent, and highly respectable importance, as an authour, to the delusive rays of fashion; that misleading, and fugitive meteor. I shall only assert, that a blind prejudice, which was ever stumbling on his authority; or, in other words, the indiscriminate fashion of admiring him, gave an oracular importance to much absurdity; to much nonsense, which discredited both his writings, and his conversation. And I likewise beg leave to declare that if any man proposes laws of criticism, and composition, to me, he must enforce them with something more solid, and respectable than his mere name. I will never take nominal dogmas, and nominal influence, for strength of argument; nor for elegance of sentiment, and taste. On the contrary; on account of the overbearing weight of a name, I will, at any time, the more minutely, strenuously, and pertinaciously endeavour to expose the fallacies which it has presumed to impose on the world; from an honest zeal completely to eradicate, and explode their usurpation, and tyranny. While we are engaged in this fair, and honourable cause, all our attention must be absorbed in truth; we must bring disingenuous, and base actions to their proper light; we must give them their proper names; indifferent to future stings, from venal criticks; to ignorant, yet deciding jests, from literary fops; and to frowns, and fulminations from the church.
I have another objection to the censures which I have seen of Dr. Johnson's treatment of Mr. Gray; they were not so particularly attentive to all that treatment as the merit of the poet, and the authority of the critick demanded. I should not have thought it requisite; I should not have thought it necessary, to persue the ridiculous cavils, and contemptuous insults, with which our gloomy, and supercilious critick hath endeavoured to obscure the glory of this admirable poet, in a closely connected train of inquiry, and refutation; if the literary edicts of that critick, which are often characterized with all the inconsistency, and freaks of despotism, had not long obtained, or rather arrogantly, and violently seized an implicit assent; a foolish, and servile veneration. If this abject submission had not ratified absurdity, the person who gives those unreasonable remarks his particular attention, must be as miserably, employed as he was, who made them; for considered in themselves, they are truly contemptible, and unworthy of the slightest notice. Hence, if several objects of this Lecture should seem to be minute, or tedious, permit me to observe that they will not be altogether without their important use. To show what is wrong, naturally introduces the ideas, and images of what is right. If they are not presented, or suggested, by the sufficiently extended thoughts, or clearness of the writer, they will arise in the mind of the judicious, and reflecting reader.
I should be presumptuous, as an authour, and ungrateful, as a scholar, if I did not, on this occasion, mention, with respect, Mr. Wakefield's edition of the Poems of Gray. I know that he has been industrious (and his industry is always illuminated with distinguished abilities) to vindicate from gross injustice this illustrious son of his alma mater; who, with all her passion for more abstruse, yet most respectable science, has been particularly auspicious to the education of poets; — has produced the greatest poet that ever existed in any age, or nation. But in the large, and exuberant field of liberal criticism, there will always be sufficient room for two, for any number of unfettered, and active spirits, to range; without the repulsive shock of a phlegmatick tautology. Such is the various constitution; and therefore such is the various display of the human mind. I write thus, because I have not in my possession Mr. Wakefield's edition of Gray. The literary thermometer is, here, at, its freezing point. The classical treasures, and arrangements of Rome extend not to Tomis. I read his book, with pleasure, many years ago; but of its contents I have not, at present, a strong recollection. They would have regulated my judgement, and adorned my sentiments. It is impossible for my best feelings not to fling aside every paltry caution (according to their usual ardour) and pay a short, but sincere tribute to the memory of that excellent man. His learning was extensive, and elegant; and it was modelled, and polished by a truly attick taste. The integrity of his heart did honour to the powers of his mind — (how conquerours, and splendid usurpers shrink before him!) — that integrity could not have been corrupted by an offer of the empire of the world! His very faults were glorious; they were the excesses of a mind of unbounded, and intrepid generosity; they resulted from a divine enthusiasm for civil, and religious freedom; for publick, and private virtue. I owe, this little tribute to his memory, from gratitude as well as from justice. Our sentiments on some of the most important subjects were diametrically opposite; yet we entertained for each other the warmest good wishes; the warmest mutual esteem. I add, with regret, that from our accidental situations, and connexions in life, there was no personal intercourse between us; but we interchanged unequivocal, and strong testimonies of the inevitable, and general unison of our minds; from the prevailing strain of our natures, and of our intellectual persuits. Let political, and ecclesiastical power look down from their artificial heights, and learn christian toleration, and benevolence, from two private men; whom a disdain of hypocrisy, and of misprision of truth, doomed to walk in the humble vale of life. Accept, thou amiable, and beautiful shade! this ingenuous, and respectful offering, to thy genius, and thy virtues! If thy happy, and eternal state admits any sublunary objects to thy view — that a friend bestowed on thy merit that honest eulogy which hireling state-scribblers denied thee, will, in some degree, deserve thy approbation. The recollection that I was honoured with the attention, and regard of Gilbert Wakefield, will always be propitious to every temper of my mind; it will invigorate my active; it will console my languid hours.
Dr. Johnson's Life of Gray, like many of the pages which he gives to the other poets, is really destitute of strength, and elegance of composition; a defect which was partly a consequence of indolence, and declining talents; and partly of a confidence in his long-established literary character, and fame. But it must be evident to every dispassionate observer, that the whole tenour of his estimate of Gray flowed from that intoxication with which flattery, and applause are apt to shake the firmness of learning, and philosophy. The insults which he threw on Milton were odious; and they were without foundation; but they were, comparatively, desultory, and occasional; and some atonement was made for them by extorted, and high praise: nature, and God compelled what a perverse, and evil spirit reluctantly surrendered. When he sate down to write on Gray, he it determined uniformly to affront excellence which looked him full in the face; he was determined uniformly to contradict the voice of the many; which, on intellectual objects, is, of itself, by no means decisive to sensible, and thinking men but he was likewise determined, with the same unrelenting pertinacity, to contradict the voice of the learned, and elegant few; which, united to the verdict of the many, ascertains, and fixes the high pretensions of the poet; and is prophetick of his immortality. His smiles were those of Cassius; momentary, and invidious; and they were perfectly consistent with this dark, and obstinate uniformity. His parsimonious interspersions of praise were bestowed on passages not supereminently great; or on trifles, which, if the judgement of their authour had been properly respected, would never have been brought to light. He could endure the flowers that embellished the crown of Gray, but he sickened at the sight of the laurels that overshadowed them.
What could be the powerful, and propelling motives that drove Dr. Johnson to these bold, and unexampled hostilities? He was honest enough to acknowledge that he was envious: probably, then, he still felt the painful, and permanent effects of cotemporary glory; probably, like his friend Goldsmith, he had not yet recovered from the "coup de soleil" with which he had been struck from Gray's meridian splendour. Perhaps his envy, and hatred might extend to a whole numerous, and illustrious body; he might envy them their glorious affinity to the first of mortals; to a Newton, and a Milton; like an Oxonian, of old, and obsolete loyalty, he might hate them for their manly enthusiasm for William, and the revolution; while he sighed over the ruins of the Stuart-race, or, with a feverish, and wild ambition, he might aspire to a perfect originality in criticism; he might aspire to give new laws for poetical composition, which were totally of his own invention; laws, which were at war with the essence, and genuine ornaments of poetry; and, which, therefore, could only be adopted by the extreme weakness of passive obedience to a despotick master. The new poetical reign commenced with the sacrifice of a splendid victim selected from the old; and Gray was immolated at the inauguration of Johnson.
I should impartially, and sincerely suppose that nothing less than the combined force of all the sinister, and baleful causes which I have now mentioned, could have impelled our celebrated, but most illiberal critick to such a fastidious, and irrational contempt of the long-established constituents of a divine art, as they were founded in nature. Forgive this long, introduction to the main objects to which it leads my way. Let the powerful obstructions which I had to remove (I wish that they may have yielded to my efforts) be my ingenuous, and humble apology. I shall now take as just, and accurate a view as I can, of Mr. Gray's poetry, in the order in which it lies before me; and of the sophistry, quibbles, and indeed, violations of common knowledge, and of common sense, with which it was rudely, but I hope, impotently attacked, by Dr. Johnson.
"Gray's poetry" (says Johnson) "is now to be considered: and I hope not to be looked on as an enemy to his name, if I confess that I contemplate it with less pleasure than his life." — To his life he has been ungenerous; as I shall, hereafter, show. That mankind, especially in proportion as they are distinguished by superiour abilities, should have an ardent love of fame, is neither immoral, nor absurd. It is implanted in us by nature; or, in other words, by the Deity; and it stimulates to that intellectual cultivation which produces the most ornamental, and sublime sentiments, and habits of thinking, to its possessour, and to the world. The timid, affected, and conscious apology, which faintly varnishes this ominous introduction to gross illiberality, is a poor atonement for the offence. Johnson hath shown himself to be the greatest possible enemy to the name of Gray. He hath wantonly (I may add, with propriety) insolently disparaged, and vilified his poetical fame; than which, to a true poet, of however modest, and unassuming a nature, nothing can be dearer. We inflexibly persevere in a generous opposition to impotent, and to powerful malice; we endure every hardship; every mortification, to secure its glory. If we, therefore, consider the greatness of the object, and the victory which we gain over ourselves, to obtain it; must not the man who endeavours to deprive us of it, be deemed a kind of sacrilegious spoiler, by unprejudiced, and feeling minds?
The Ode on Spring; whether we take a view of its vernal imagery; of its instructive, solemn, and impressive morality; or of the easy, and happy art with which its imagery, and morality are blended, is supremely beautiful. There cannot be a finer ode on the subject, in any language.
"It has something poetical;" — "the conclusion is pretty." — This is a part of Johnson's supercilious, and ridiculous manner of abusing it. — "The language is too luxuriant." — This is the censure that he passed on a poetical style, the most accurate, elegant, and glowing that can be imagined. The rose, and the jasmine; the luxury, and delight of a healthy frame, are apt to disgust, and overpower a distempered constitution. His cavilling at "the cultured plain;" "the daisied bank;" and "the honied spring;" is too frivolous, and pedantick for my particular notice. He says that "the thoughts have nothing new;" "the morality is natural but too stale." — Our dictatorial critick ought to have known, that in the province of the moralist; nay even in the province of the poet; it is perhaps impossible to produce thoughts (by thoughts I here mean moral sentiments) absolutely new. Perhaps it was always impossible. Poetry has ever been only the bright, and decorated counterpart of the simpler, and fainter pictures in the human mind. It is the duty, as it is in the power of poetry, to illustrate, and enforce important, and well-known truths, with more vigour, and warmth of sentiment; with more aptitude, variety, and splendour of imagery, than can be exited, and created, by common men. The reader instantaneously feels, and acknowledges the propriety, the beauty, and the grandeur of the picture which is presented to his view; its objects are perfectly congenial with his own ideas, which are limited to a smaller scale, and to more frugal ornaments. The plainer, and humbler beings meet with joy, the noble strangers; whom they have long been taught to receive in a moment, as their undoubted friends; for nature had prepared; she had planned the charming interview. If the prototypes of this magnificent assemblage were not interwoven in the soul of man; bow could the immediate admiration; how could the immediate enthusiasm be produced, which, in sensible, and susceptible minds, true poetry never fails to raise?
If I recollect aright, I have made more ample observations on this unreasonable novelty, or originality; which, indeed, is often inconsiderately demanded;, in that part of my Lectures on Pope, where, I hope that I have refuted the unreflecting, and inconclusive irony, in which Dr. Johnson is too apt to, indulge himself; and with which he attempts to ridicule the moral, and religious theory of the Essay on Man; — which are urged with such poetical strength, and elegance; with such poetical beauty, and sublimity.
Ode the IId: — on the death of a favourite cat drowned in a tub of gold fishes.
"The poem on the Cat" (says our hypercritick) "was, doubtless, by its authour considered as a trifle; but it is not a happy trifle." — The authour of this immortal ode knew that the magick of the poet could turn trifles into "speciosa miracula;" could "give to airy nothing — a local habitation, and a name." — Therefore he must have been conscious that this ode was genuine poetry; and that it was one of his harbingers to fame. It was a very happy trifle; and be must have been a very unhappy critick who condemned it. To call to remembrance all the trifles which great poets have ennobled, and transmitted to future ages, would be an impertinent, and infinite labour. This ode has all the richness of imagery, and diction; it has that salutary, and pathetick moral sentiment, which characterize the productions of Gray. The picturesque description of the vase, and of the situation, and beauty of the cat; her different progressive attempts to seize the shining objects which tempted her to her destruction; and her neglected imploring cries, give to an attentive, and lively mind, a degree of dramatick interest in the fate of the unfortunate Selima. Domestick animals, indeed, are only despised by cold, and unfeeling souls; but, here, the regard which they gain from heart, and sentiment, is augmented by the inspiring force of poetry. An importance is given to the life of this humble favourite; a dignity to her death; and an old, and trite proverb recovers youth, and strength, and authority, by a pertinent, and impressive, though humorous application.
Dr. Johnson remarks that in the first stanza, "the azure flowers that blow," — "show resolutely a rhyme is sometimes made when it cannot easily be found." — a fault, likewise, is, sometimes, indeed, often, by our critick, resolutely made, when it cannot easily be found. The mention of the blowing of the flowers enhances the painting; and more strongly impresses on the fancy their luxuriance, and expansion.
"Selima" — "the Nymph" — "the Cat;" — are the different appellations that Mr. Gray, gives to this little animal which he hath consecrated to fame. The interchange of nymph, and cat incurrs the captious disapprobation of our stern critick. If we recurr to the variety, and complexion of Ovidian fable; and to that fair licence in poetry which a generous Longinus would allow, though it is altogether prohibited by a rigorous Johnson; we shall find that these varied terms do not deserve his abrupt censure, as "violating poetical sense, and language;" — with which on the contrary, they are perfectly consonant. I believe that I may venture to assert, without adopting an unjust se verity, that in his treatment of our truly eminent poets, he sometimes violates common sense; and sometimes, with all his philology, common, but proper language. The poet here observes a very judicious, and characteristick propriety; which either a critical phlegm could not feel, or an envious jealousy wished to depress. When the colouring, and personifications of poetry were to be presented; when the watery gods were to be invoked; when the cruel inattention of the nereids, and dolphins was to be mentioned; the titles of Selima; the hapless nymph; the presumptuous maid, were very apposite, and happy precursors, and concomitants of all this fine poetical imagery. But when he humorously enforced a short moral apostrophe with a familiar, and natural reference to the old remark on a cat's propensity to fish, the domestick, and general name of the animal could only be used with propriety. Poetry is of an elastick, active, and pervading nature. Both gods, and men will allow that it is her divine right "to dart," and with a momentary rapidity of transition, "from heaven to earth; from earth to heaven." — If the literary walk of Johnson is, too often, a measured march in buskins; that heavy stateliness is incompatible with her gliding ease; with her graceful flexibility. I wonder, that, amidst the havock which he is constantly making of Gray's beautiful machinery, he did not damn these gods of the water to perdition; and leave poor Selima, not only in the poetical, but in the literal impossibility of being heard.
"The last stanza" (says he) "ends in no relation to the purpose. If what glistered had been gold, the cat would not have gone into the water; and if she had, would not the less have been drowned." — Our prejudices, and passions, make us write as well as act, in diametrical opposition to right reason. I give this remark on the close of the ode, as a piece of absolute nonsense; a characteristick that Johnson frequently, and haughtily misapplies even to the celebrated passages of our great poets. At least, I own that I can make no good sense of the futile observation; whether I endeavour to find its own more independent meaning; or its intended application. It is one of the most leaden of prosaick bullets; it flies off from every aim at its object; and like the rest of the random shot, leaves Gray invulnerable. A homely adage of our ancestors, but useful, and important to prudence, morality, and religion; and therefore, to our happiness, acquires (as I have already observed) an elegance, and force, from a casual, and slight event a that event is adorned, and heightened by the ingenious, but unconstrained, and assimilating art, and address of the poet. Nothing could have found a flaw in this little compact, and harmonious poetical fabrick, but an obstinate and implacable enmity against distinguished merit. Surely it must now be evident that "the last stanza ends in a great, and essential relation to the main purpose."
I should not so particularly have answered this despicable criticism, had it not been obtruded on the world under the sanction of a great name; and had I not long been convinced, though unwillingly, and with extreme regret, that with all our natural, and manly love of liberty, we are slavishly prone to an indolent acquiescence in usurped, and excessive power; to an implicit, and dastardly obedience to its iniquitous, and oppressive edicts, in the literary, as well as in the political empire. I flatter myself that I have already given to the unprejudiced, free, and distinguishing reader a critical demonstration of the injustice, and absurdity of Dr. Johnson's observations on the poems of Mr. Gray. Therefore, in the prosecution of my defence (of my vindication, I hope) of this excellent, and admired poet, it will not be requisite (and it would be tedious, and fatiguing) to follow him uninterruptedly' through all his mazes of ill-connected sophistry, and arbitrary assertion. But when I take a view of Gray's longer productions, I shall not omit to examine, and to endeavour to refute our unsparing critick's principal strictures on their principal parts: hence the beauty, or grandeur of the whole structure will be sufficiently seen; and the spirit, and tendency of all the unavailing attacks on its strength, and symmetry will be sufficiently evinced, and exposed.
It is difficult to say whether his ode on a distant prospect of Eton-College is more to be admired for its descriptive excellence; for its animated, and forcible images; or for its virtuous, and spirited admonitions; for the melancholy, but interesting, and salutary strain of its edifying morality. The pure health; the sparkling vivacity, the freedom from care; the joyous days, and balmy nights; the active, and ardent sports of our early youth; are here recorded with a lively, and picturesque remembrance; and they are powerfully, and instructively contrasted with the ungoverned, and baleful passions; which, in our maturer years, are destructive of our virtue; and consequently, of our happiness; and which are personified, and painted with an energetick propriety. The contrast is continued, and completed by an equally animated, and afflictive being, which is given by poetry to external human calamities; and to the infirmities, and distempers of age. [The former evils may my mind, by its intent, and spirited exertions, repell, or defeat; for the latter, by its dispatch, and fortitude, may it be vigorously prepared.] The conclusion of the poem reminds us of the general sufferings of mortality; and consequently, of the moderated attachment that we should entertain for the most attractive objects of the present world. The kindness of Providence to youth, who indulges it with the bright enjoyment of he sunshine of life, unclouded with the prospect of a tumultuous futurity; makes the last reflexion of the moral and pensive muse.
Unguarded, malice, or undistinguishing errour, sometimes, when it means to express its contempt, bestows involuntary praise, Johnson observes that "the prospect of Eton-College suggests nothing to Gray which every beholder does not equally think, and feel." — In a qualified, and limited, but not in his extravagant, and impossible sense, I admit the truth of the proposition. I am glad to know, from our papal chair of critical infallibility, that Mr. Gray, in this instance, like himself, and every, true poet, in other instances, where the scenes of nature, and human feelings are to he described, coincides with the general views, and sentiments of mankind. The prospect, however, of Eton-College would not have suggested, even to a well-cultivated mind, such a variety of interesting thoughts, and expressive images; so poetical a landscape, and so poetically peopled, as arose in the warm, and fertile mind of Gray, when he composed his noble poem. "His supplication to Father Thames" (continues Johnson) [I could at first, hardly believe my sight] — "to tell him who drives the hoop, or tosses the ball, is useless, and puerile: Father Thames had no better means of knowing than himself." — I produce this icy, chillness, thrown over the heat, and action of poetry, as the feeble dotage of contradiction; as the last, and deepest floundering of critical malignity. Deliberately to refute a quirk of folly, of which a school-boy would have been ashamed; which would not have escaped from the ignorance of a peasant, would be to catch the Siberian frost of the critick. Let rivers, if you please, Dr. Johnson, flow on, in prose, in their usual, and unexalted course: let their transparent waters traverse blooming vales, and venerable groves; unconscious of the verdant, and romantick banks which adorn them. But in verse they shall still enjoy the higher animation; the superiour attributes, which have ever been given to them by creating poets; by them they shall still be deified; they shall contend with heroes; they shall be charmed with musick; from the enraged, and foaming Xanthus of Homer, who attempted to overwhelm Achilles; and who panted under the punishment of Vulcan; to the mild; and attentive Eurotas of Virgil; who ordered his laurels to learn the sublime, and the tender strains of Silenus; — and to the winding Thames of Pope, who commanded his willows to repeat the harmonious elegy of Thyrsis; after he had heard it with emotion.
As the superficial, bald, and mutilating manner in which our disdainful critick refers to the objects of the poet's invocation to Thames is worthy of the remark with which it is accompanied, I shall quote the elegant passage; in which a reader of taste will be pleased, to observe that poetical power can give importance, and dignity even to puerile diversions.
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, delights 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?
We are told that his epithet, "buxom health," is not elegant; — and that "he seems not to understand the word." — A writer, who, practically, at least, had no dislike to coarse, and low expressions, should have been cautious of censuring a want of elegance. None but himself would pronounce the epithet "buxom," as it is here applied to health, inelegant; or in any way, improper. But "Gray seems not to understand the word." — To show whether he, or Johnson better understood it, I shall appeal to Johnson himself; his very dictionary condemns him. His second definition of "buxom" is, gay, lively; brisk; under, which definition Crashaw has, "the buxom morn;" — Milton — "a daughter fair;" — "so "buxom, blithe, and debonair." — And Philips has his — "buxom damsels." His third definition of the word is — "wanton, jolly;" and this definition is authenticated by Dryden's "buxom bride of Jove." — And by his "buxom god of wine." It must now be evident that "buxom" is a very pertinently, and strongly proper epithet for health; and that Gray was perfectly acquainted with the signification of the word; which Johnson had either forgotten, or would not recollect.
"Gray" ( continues the Doctor,) thought his language more poetical as it was more remote from common use." Finding in Dryden, "honey redolent of spring," — "an expression that reaches the utmost limits of our language; Gray drove it a little more beyond common apprehension, by making gales to be redolent of joy, and youth." — This flimsy sophistry is really sickening to sense; but it came from Johnson; therefore I shall answer it as satisfactorily, yet as concisely as I can. To my answer I must premise that Dr. Johnson's reprehension of an authour for thinking his "language," either of poetry, or prose, more "poetical," or more eloquent, "as it was more remote from common use," or driven beyond common apprehension, was urged by him, with a very bad grace. The fault, I own, might, sometimes, be objected to Gray; but it was a predominant characteristick of Johnson. The writer who was industrious to make one part of a sentence commensurate, with the other; to make it its antithesis, or its reflexion; and who often loaded his periods with scholastick, and heavy words; must have been blind to his own very exceptionable style, when he warmly recommended the attick purity, and ease of Addison: and the great moralist, whose life was deformed with intolerably rough, and rude manners; and often indirect return for hospitality, and kindness; exerted but an incongruous, and inconsistent zeal for the gentle, and humane precepts of our humble, and divine master.
He tells us that Dryden's "honey redolent of spring," — "reaches the utmost limits of our language." This observation, as far as it is applied to language, is not sense. He should have said that it went as far as a propriety of poetical imagery could go; that it reached the utmost limits of poetical licence. On the contrary; the figures have a natural, and spontaneous affinity; the ideas coincide, without the least constraint; they are congenial with one another. The odour of honey reminds us of spring; need I, then, elaborately to prove, that in the most warrantable force of the poetical style, it is redolent of spring? To show, therefore, that Gray, with the fairest latitude, as a poet, made his "gales" to be "redolent of joy, and youth," will be, almost tautology. Pierced with chilling blasts from these northern heaths, I have at once a pleasing, and a melancholy remembrance, that the vernal gales from the heights of Windsor are often impregnated with anaromatick fragrance. As these fragrant gales announce the spring; as they, make a charming part of the vernal sweets; surely to the obvious fancy of the poet; to the obvious fancy of the common man, they may be redolent of spring. And between the healthy, lively, and gay spring, and the joyous youth of man, is there not a most natural, and striking analogy, and similitude? Have they not been felt, and approximated, by the poets of almost every succeeding age? — "O! primavera, giovenhi del anno!" — says the elegant Guarini. If, then, Dryden's honey redolent of spring, may be easily allowed; I hope that the "gales" of Gray, "redolent of joy, and youth," areas well supported; and that they are not driven, with the least violence, beyond common apprehension. We might reasonably suppose that Dr. Johnson, from many of his critiques on our English poets; but particularly from his remarks on Gray, had drank a Lethe to all his poetical knowledge; either from the stupifying effects of prejudice, or of more venial age,
The Hymn to Adversity is, in every respect, worthy of is authour. It abounds with his force of instructive, and pathetick sentiment, and of animated, and adventurous fancy. The alarming, and terrifying effects of adversity on vice, and tyranny; its repulsive influence on the selfish, trifling, and vain idolaters of good fortune; and its maternal, and salutary discipline on the mind of persevering, and benevolent virtue, are happily distinguished, and described. In this hymn, likewise, Gray's fortunate, and high talent, in forming the persons of his imagination, and invention, is as, eminent as in any of his other poems. The conclusion of his invocation to Adversity evinces the humane, and good, as well as the great man; it is a faithful, and glowing transcript of that amiable christianity which was intimately felt by his heart, and vigorously enforced by his mind.
Between Mr. Gray, and Mr. West, a most affectionate friendship had long subsisted; a friendship which was formed, and established by a similarity of persuits as well as of dispositions. It has been remarked, and I believe with justice, that his grief, and permanent regret for the death of that amiable, and accomplished young man, gave a lasting, and, insurmountable addition to that philosophical, and fine melancholy, which, always, more or less, makes a part of the constitution of great genius. This tender, and indelible concern; this pathetically eloquent inmate of the mind, which points to Heaven, did honour to the deeply impressible sensibility, and to the thinking powers of Gray. The death of a friend excites, in common minds, a merely instinctive, and temporary grief, which is thrown aside sooner than its external emblems. But as the grief of our poet was more deeply, and firmly rooted, it was more productive; it insinuated itself, with accessory, and sublime ideas, into his imagination; it gave a persuasive, a commanding awe; a moral majesty to his muse.
"Of the Ode on Adversity" (says Johnson)," the hint was at first taken from — "O! Diva, gratum que regis Antium;" but Gray has excelled his original, by the variety of his sentiments, and by their moral application. Of this piece, at once poetical, and rational, I will not, by slight objections, violate the dignity." If, in using the word "slight," he had any reference to almost all his objections to Mr. Gray's poetry, the epithet was completely applicable. If Gray took the hint for his Hymn to Adversity from Horace's Ode to Fortune (though I lay very little stress on the supposition) it was merely a hint; and therefore Dr. Johnson is not warranted to mention the one, at large, as the original of the other. Gray raises the spirit of his ode with the most important, and interesting moral topicks; Horace encourages the destructive spirit of ambition; the domineering spirit of his country. The ode of the English eminently excells that of the Roman poet, both in the dignity of its substance, and in the energy of its manner. The ancient poet has his "purpurei tyranni;" the modern, his purple tyrants; by the study of polite literature, we, naturally, we necessarily imbibe the strain of thinking, and the style of our great ancestors; I mean, freely, and generously; not with a servile, and timorous imitation. When this is not the case, what rich treasures are squandered on dullness, and inattention! Yet to kindred, and fraternal souls, thus born, and thus educated, pedantry, and its almost constant companion, envy, will not allow on just, and fair principles, a mutual similarity of language; a striking congeniality of thought. The scholastick drone subsists by invading the honey of the attick bee.
Dr. Johnson acquires very little credit, either s a man, or a critick, by asserting that the Ode to Adversity is an imitation of the Ode to Fortune; and by bestowing on it very luke-warm, and inadequate praise. He has, however, given less praise to those productions of Mr. Gray which have equal, and to those which have superiour, and more diversified merit. Tell me, ye spirits, who are freeborn; and unsubmitting to every arbitrary yoke; tell me if I am tainted with Johnsonian spleen, if I suspect, and apprehend, that this poor mite of lordly approbation, insignificant as it is, was an artful deception; to veil that pride, and envy, which were eager to depress contiguous, and transcendent merit; and which were anxious to conciliate a blind confidence in literary dogmas; whose manner insulted urbanity; and whose criticism insulted nature? "Timeo Danaos, vel dona ferentes;" not only if they are specious, and have a religious mystery; but even if they are homely, and parsimonious; and held forth with a relutcant, and aukward hand.
I really think that we may venture to assert, without hyperbolical compliment, that the progress of poesy is an ode which has not its superiour in the poetical world. With every generous, and unprejudiced mind, who zealously enters into the powers, and privileges of poetry; into a complete sense of the pleasure which it affords, and of the dignity which it holds, among the gifts of nature; — with every mind so trained, and so habituated, this ode must always be a particular, a captivating favourite. It has all the boldness, and fire of Pindar; with a more connected series of fine, and affecting sense, and sentiment; with a more characteristick application, and force of those emblematical figures which give this authour a very high rank among inventive poets. We pass from the comprehensive history of the art to its consoling, and animating, morality; to its beneficent effects on the hearty and mind; and to its elegant, and sublime exemplifications in diversified genius; with frequent, and pleasing recurrences; because with distinct, and easy transitions. The original objects; the native description, are interspersed, and blended with their poetical adjuncts; with their metaphors, and similes, in the manner of Pindar; but without the least embarrassment, or confusion. The arrangement of the poem; the selection, and the richness of its imagery; the delicacy, and yet the spirit of its flow, are worthy of Pope; the pomp, and grandeur of its higher machinery are truly Miltonian; with the rapture which he emulates, he once more transports us to the living throne; the "sapphire blaze." Do not you already lose your patience with any gothick barbarity that would attempt to marr, and disfigure all this excellence? The conclusion of this ode must be peculiarly admired by every one, who, with an ethereal flame, persues, or feels the honour of genius, and of virtue. His profound deference to Dryden, his great master; his nobly humble homage to the good; his independent, and ardent assertion of the infinite superiority of poetical talents to merely nominal greatness, to the playthings of his Walpole; all these manly sentiments are as generously, and finely conceived as they are happily described, and painted. They equally demand our admiration, and gratitude; our gratitude for the proper esteem which they inculcate of our best possessions, and consolations; our admiration of the living pictures of supreme poetical genius; pictures which are amicable, though opposite; — which are nearly allied, though contrasted.
It is not without extreme reluctance; it is not without shivering, and recoiling, that I pass from the luxuriant vales, and Parnassian heights of Gray, to the "barren rocks, and bleak mountains" of Johnson. I must endure the pain of quoting, and replying to some of the harsh, and incoherent stuff (believe me, the term is not opprobrious) which he throws out against this incomparable poem. — "My process has now brought me" (says he) "to the wonderful wonder of wonders; the two sister-odes; by which, though either vulgar ignorance, or common sense, at first, universally rejected them, many have been since persuaded to think themselves delighted. I am one of those that are willing to be pleased; and therefore would gladly find the meaning of the first stanza of the progress of poetry." I am sure that Johnson's admirers ought to have wondered, and been ashamed, at the manner in which he ushers in, what he presumed to write against those beauties which be could not see; or rather which he could not endure. This introduction is more worthy of a Dennis, a Theobald, or a Gildon, than of a strenuous advocate for the most benevolent morality; and of a man whom his country has honoured with the chair of respectable criticism. The process of Dr. Johnson is of a spurious, and unnatural chymistry; which proceeds by no just, and regular analysis; he puts not the gold of Gray to a fair, and honourable torture; from which it will always issue with, approved purity, and lustre; but in direct violation of all critical science, he labours to transmute it into the lead of Blackmore, or of Pomfret (two of his most eminent English poets) with a degenerate, and debasing alchymy. — "I am one of those" (says the good-natured Doctor) "who are willing to be pleased." If I thought myself authorized by Homer to adopt the military delicacy of his heroes, I should apply to you, sir, while you are writing in this manner, of Gray, and while at the same time, you profess a disposition to be pleased, some epithets which Achilles bestows on Agamemnon. A greater unwillingness to be pleased; a more obstinate determination not to be pleased, was never more evident (to every unprejudiced reader) in any one than it is in you; in many passages of your critical biography; but especially in your life of this much injured, and illustrious poet. His two intermediate falsehoods, in this paragraph, in asserting that these odes were at first "universally rejected" by any class of sensible readers; and the insult which he offers to men of learning and taste, who, he tells us, were afterwards, "persuaded to think themselves delighted;" — but who, undoubtedly, met the genius of the poet, with a lively, and unaffected pleasure; — deserve no particular, and argumentative attention.
The varied, rich, and vigorous opening of the Progress of Poesy is perfectly intelligible, and clear to every one whose soul is susceptible; moderately informed; and: untainted with spleen. Permit me to retort on his weak objections to a magnificent, and sublime simile, the sentence of contempt which it incurrs from him; that they are nonsense. He could only have passed this groundless, and rude sentence, from inadvertent, or wilful inattention, to the general nature, and use similes. Poets, in forming similes, (especially, the ancient poets, whom Johnson idolized) give a wide expansion, and indefinite latitude to fancy. They sport, and loosely wanton with their adscititious images; they seem to lose sight of the substantial, and main objects which those images were summoned to illustrate. They frequently so far indulge themselves in this pleasing deviation, that in some similes, we can find but a very few images, in a great number, which, throw a light, and lustre, on the agents, or passions, which they were intended to represent. Nor is it uncommon with eminent, and judicious poets to interchange the ornament, and the substance; Independently to use a metaphor, or a part of a simile, for their immediate, and literal ideas. Dr. Johnson might have been a master of this critical doctrine (so I presume to call it; for it has been transmitted, and repeated by many superiour judges) from his intimate acquaintance with the old poets; but particularly with Homer; whom he idolized; and in comparison with whom I once heard him say, that all other poets, ancient, and modern, were but babies. Greek scholars, of more moderate, and reasonable tempers than Johnson will pertinaciously maintain the same absurd notion; the same extravagant preference; it certainly betrays a literary infatuation; a scholastick imbecility.
He tells us that "the second stanza, exhibiting Mars' car, and Jove's eagle, are unworthy of notice;" — and that the third stanza sounds big with Delphi, and Egean, and Ilissus, and Meander." If there ever was an instance of a most disingenuous contradiction, and distortion of poetical elegance, and beauty; and of low, spiritless ridicule; it is what I have now quoted. But he exposes himself; not Gray, to just ridicule. For what can be more contemptible, and ridiculous, than to deny a poet the apt, and pertinent use of those scenes, and images, of which the greatest poets have availed themselves, in all ages? — "Criticism" (says he) " disdains to chase a school-boy to his common places." — and should not I disdain to chase the nonsense which madly bespatters capital poetry? I have condescended, however, to persue you through your new meanders; they are not taken only by ductile dulness; but likewise by artfully insidious; or precipitately despairing envy.
"Idalia's velvet green, has something of cant." — What he means by this favourite word, which he uses lavishly, and promiscuously, Heaven knows; it is one of the ungentlemanlike, and nauseously vulgar expressions, to which the Doctor often descends.
I agree with Dr. Johnson, but not in his vague, vulgar, and contemptuous manner, in disapproving "Idalia's velvet green." — The epithet diminutively shrinks, with the little formality of human manufacture: it debases the simple, and free luxuriance of rural nature. I beg leave to recommend to young poets a practical recollection of Dr. Johnson's just, and important observation; — that "an epithet or metaphor drawn from nature, ennobles art; an epithet, or metaphor drawn from art degrades nature." I likewise agree with Dr. Johnson in disapproving the epithet of "many-twinkling feet." The Greek language admits it; but it violates the English idiom. Whether, indeed, we consider, the words of this epithet, or their combination, they are equally unfavourable to the poet.
Our noble poet sings, in his liberal, and splendid strains, that in the good days of Greece, the beautiful, and the grand objects of nature contributed to the inspiration of the poet;—
Till the sad Nine, in Greece's evil hour,
Left their Parnassus, for the Latian plains;
Alike they scorn the pomp of tyrant power,
And coward vice that revels in her chains:
When Latium had her lofty spirit lost,
They sought, Oh! Albion, next, thy sea-encircled coast!
"His position is, at last, false," (says the Doctor.) — "In the time of Dante, and Petrarch, from whom we derive our first school of poetry, Italy was over run by 'tyrant power,' and" 'coward vice;' nor was our state much better, when we first borrowed the Italian arts."
I would almost as willingly allow that the unrivalled poetical genius of England owed the origin of its high cultivation to Frenchmen as to Italians. All Mr. Gray's progress of poetry is historically right. The dispersion of men of talents, and erudition, from Constantinople, and the art of printing, soon conveyed learning over Europe. It would be ungrateful not to acknowledge that some noble Italian families greatly promoted its diffusion: the names of Medici, and of Colonna will be ever dear to the lovers of the muses: yet Chaucer was conversant with the, ancient authours in their original languages; of those authours there were English translations in the time of Shakespeare; and it is evident, from his works, that he had acquired great deal of useful, and elegant knowledge, independently of Italian aid. The divine Milton was profoundly, and universally learned. His various, and extensive knowledge went far beyond the tinsel of Italy, and the frippery of France. It will likewise be found, that in proportion as our political, and civil freedom, opened, our minds were enlarged; that poetry shook off the shackles of the tyrant, and took her unlimited, her celestial range. But if Dr. Johnson would have stooped from his imperial heights to the wholesome ground of dispassionate recollection, or inquiry; he would have found, and perhaps to his surprize, and antipathy, that England enjoyed; under the reign of Edward the third an ambitious, and warlike prince, infinitely more constitutional freedom than under the ignominious, and melancholy auspices of two of his royal favourites, the execrable brothers of the Stuart-line; nay, with respect to parliamentary freedom, the source from which all political, and civil purity, and corruption flow, more than we enjoy at the present day.
But as truth is as dear to me as liberty, I must observe, that while we view a most respectable, and philosophical theory, we must not forget incontrovertible, and memorable facts. The moral salubrity of freedom will, undoubtedly, in general be more favourable than any other species of government, to the health, vigour, and atchievements of the human mind. But the best authorized; the most prevailing general rules, will sometimes admit exceptions. Two of the most arbitrary monarchs that ever lived, were the most attentive, and generous patrons of the muses; who never found amore agreeable abode than in their dominions. The Roman poetry was at its highest glory in the reign of Augustus; and the French literature, in that of Louis the fourteenth. For this good fortune of letters, under the zenith of despotism, easy, and evincing reasons might be produced; and. in my introduction to these Lectures, I believe that I have proposed them. I hope, however, that I have said enough to show that Mr. Gray's "position was not false." "Of the third ternary" (observes our critick) "the first gives a mythological birth of Shakespeare. What is said of that mighty genius is true; but it is not said happily; the real effects of this poetical power are put out of sight by the pomp of machinery." — Not by the pomp of machinery; but by that affected blindness that will not see. The pomp of the machinery raises, with a corresponding sympathy, the secluded scenes of nature; it is distinct, well arranged; rising in a sublime order; and beautifully, and forcibly expressive of the future variety, and greatness of the infant genius. To read the stanza with attention, gives us a flagrant instance of Dr. Johnson's injustice to Mr. Gray. He adds — "where truth is sufficient to fill the mind, fiction is worse than useless; the counterfeit debases the genuine." This remark might have been applicable to a moral, or metaphysical disquisition; but to apply it to poetry, was the very quintessence of absurdity. — When his mind was in its meridian, how contemptible, and ridiculous would he have thought the critick who had thrown forth a stricture similar to that with which he here attacks the figurative, and sublime poetry of Gray, on the following noble lines in an excellent prologue written by himself, fifty-five years ago? — In these lines, truth which is "sufficient to fill the mind," and to which the same great dramatick genius is evidently entitled, is certainly not "debased," but exalted, and aggrandized, "by fiction,"
Each change of many-coloured life he drew;
Exhausted worlds, and then imagined new;
Existence saw him spurn her bounded reign;
And panting time toiled after him in vain.
We are told that "in all Gray's odes "there is a kind of cumbrous splendour that we wish away." Indiscriminate praise is neither sensible, nor honourable. The poetry of Gray may, sometimes, perhaps, with all its excellences, be too elaborate, and injudiciously charged with learned ornaments. But thou literary empirick, (for in thy treatment of Gray, I cannot sincerely call thee a regular physician) "heal thyself." The fault which he accidentally, and slightly commits, is habitual, and prominent in thee. The writings of thy best, and most vigorous days, are loaded with that "cumbrous splendour;" — with that gorgeous, and heavy dress, which true taste most devoutly "wishes away."
We are likewise told that "the car of Dryden has nothing peculiar; it is a car, in which any other rider may be placed." — This is, again, an instance of unjust, and impotent cavil; of unmeaning petulance. The car of Dryden moved with an accurate succeeding propriety, after "the seraph wings of ecstacy," on which Milton "rode." The wide field of glory stretched before him; the fiery, and ethereal spirit of his coursers; and their "long-resounding pace;" admirably describe the easy, and ardent flow; the negligent, and impetuous majesty of his numbers. "Bright-eyed Fancy hovering o'er" his lyre, and enriching it with her treasures, most expressively presents to us the modern, and the greater Timotheus; completely prepared for the celebration of Alexander's Feast.
I have used my utmost endeavours to vindicate the beauty, and the grandeur of this ode from the captious, and arbitrary injustice of a critick, whose sentence, I fear, has, yet, too much authority. If in executing this task, I have shown a warm resentment against the offender, I hope that my disinterested zeal for illustrious, and injured merit, will be my sufficient apology.
The Bard is an ode which is highly poetical, in sentiment, and in figure. It is superiour in vigour, and in ornament, to the most animated odes of Horace. It has all that is legitimately bold, and striking in Pindar, without his wildly abrupt, and rhapsodical transitions. The fire, and invention of the poet are judiciously modelled, and tempered with the art, and symmetry of composition. The whole strain, and pictures of the poem deserve our admiration. The concluding stanza (that part of a poem which should always particularly draw forth the attention, and exertion of the poet) is extremely interesting; not only by its peculiar poetical excellence but by the series of elegant, and grand objects, which are brought to our lively, and ardent recollection. The moral, and inexhaustible magick of Spenser; the all-subduing muse of Shakespeare; the empress of the heart of man; the unequalled, and heavenly sublime of Milton; the graceful, and powerful negligence of Dryden, which conquers while it seems to play; the ethereal spirit, and the captivating harmony of Pope, are predicted, and painted in numbers worthy, of the national glory which they anticipate. I am now obliged to say something on the outrages on all the just, and universally established laws of criticism, which are committed by Johnson, in his remarks on this ode; because they are the outrages of Johnson.
He, at first, bestows some praise on this poem. But he soon repents of his parsimonious tribute; and sagaciously observes that "to copy is less than to invent, and the copy has been unhappily produced at a wrong time. The fiction of Horace [the prophecy of Nereus] was, to the Romans credible; but its revival disgusts us with apparent, and unconquerable falsehood. Incredulus odi." — Nothing but the blindness of partiality, or the feeblest intellectual weakness can acquiesce in all this nonsense. Algarotti, and he, and other such criticks would persuade us that this ode is an imitation of Horace's prophecy of Nereus. If Mr. Gray really thought, even superficially of that prophecy, when he intended to write this far superiour ode, his memory must only have glanced for a moment, at the production of Horace. Nereus prophecies to Paris the destruction of his country, while he sails with Helen to Troy; and the Bard of Gray predicts to Edward the woes that Heaven will send to him, and his posterity, for the selfish, and inhuman massacre of his poetical brothers. The subject as well as the strain of the two odes are as different as we can suppose. Nereus prophesied, and the Welsh bard prophesied; this is all the plagiarism, or all the imitation; yet for such resemblance as this; or even for more trivial similarities; a professed critick, from whom you might expect sensible observations; or a dull, and corresponding pedant, who is continually popping up his head in as dull a Magazine, or Review, discovers, with a most pervading penetration, emulations, imitations, and thefts, in some great ancient or modern poet; of which he never dreamed; and which never met a moment of his waking hours. Let me again observe, that if you endeavour to deprive poetry of all its fair, and embellishing licence, you proclaim your ignorance of the art; and you attack, its very vitals. The Romans no more believed the prophecy of Nereus, than the English believe the prophecy of Gray's Welsh Bard; or the agency of the Sylphs, and Gnomes, in Pope's Rape of the Lock. Let us now judge if "the fiction of Horace was, to the Romans, credible;" whether "its revival disgusts us with apparent, and unconquerable falsehood;" and whether the unfortunate existence of poetry is to be reduced to the chronology of states.
One might suppose that Dr. Johnson had totally forgotten the wide range of poetry; and the rational sense in which its extensive liberties were accepted, both by the ancient, and modern world. Did he insult the powerful, and unbounded fancy of Shakespeare; did he exclaim against it, — "incredulous odi"? — Did he show it any disrespect, when he sate, in critical judgement, on the airy dagger of Macbeth; and on the prophecies of his witches, and of their apparitions? We give not a particle of absolute credit to those fictions; yet we are delighted with them, from the art, and fervour of genius, with which they are presented. Long, since the days of sacred inspiration, a human, but extraordinary foresight of future events has been extensively believed; at least, by popular superstition; nay, the belief of it, in several parts of the world, is not yet extinct. Therefore, on a foundation thus prepared; I may say, thus natural, a poet may very warrantably raise his prophetical superstructure; without violating a sufficient consistency between the boldness of his muse, and the habitual, and liberal sentiments of mankind. Our very certainty, as believers in revelation, that prophets have existed, makes this poetical use of prophecy, with reasonable men, in some degree, glide more easily into critical approbation. It is very warrantable, and fair for a modern poet, on the free ground, without which he could not act, to suppose that the Deity, who formerly denounced, by his prophets, to profane, and barbarous tyrants, a series of their particular punishments, might, in later times, repeat such terrours, on extraordinary occasions. Therefore, with all the probability, and propriety, which a true critick would require, Mr. Gray makes his Bard predict to Edward the woes which were to afflict himself, and his race, for the murder of those innocent, and virtuous men, who were born to give, the world its most impressive instruction, and its noblest entertainment. I hope that it is now evident that Dr. Johnson's disgust against the prophecy of the Bard was by no means the result of a distinguishing judgement, or of a classical taste.
What immediately follows is only a continuation of this critical dotage; of this mad violation of all the rights of poetry. Little could Gray have imagined that in an enlightened age, and by a critick whom England has too superstitiously revered, a privilege, the free, indispensable, and eternal use of which, by his cotemporary, and preceding poets, he hath generously praised, would be denied to him, — "of dressing truth severe in fairy fiction." — Little could he have imagined, that this literary Diogenes would have thus contemptuously trampled on the magnificent apparel of our poetical Platos.
"We are improved" (he adds) "only as we find something to be imitated, or declined. I do not see that the Bard promotes any truth, moral, or political." — It is not always the duty of poetry to promote truths either moral, or political. It is to the honour of Gray's poetry, that, through its general tenour, it promotes both; and the ode, which, not from its own faults,- incurs all this supercilious disdain, clearly, and strongly inculcates political as well as moral truth. It augments our esteem of that divine art which inspires a love of liberty, and virtue; and it exposes the folly, and madness of that ambition which would secure itself by crimes.
"His stanzas are too long" (says the critick) "especially in his epodes; the ode is finished before the ear has learned its measures; and consequently, before it can receive pleasure from their consonance, and recurrence." — If an untuned ear, and a disgusted mind cannot harmonize with judicious, and charming versification; well divided, and emphatical; the reader, not the poet is to be blamed.
"Of the first stanza" (continues our critick) " the abrupt beginning has been celebrated. But technical beauties can give" praise only to the inventor. It is in the power of any man to rush abruptly upon his subject that has read the poem of Johnny Armstrong — 'Is there ever a man in all Scotland?'" — The beginning of the ode has, indeed, been justly celebrated for its very forcible propriety; for its immediate, and impetuous expression of the grief, and indignation of the Bard. To nature, then, and to the common emotions of the human mind, it owes its origin; not to deliberate, and ingenious invention. Those emotions may break forth in a similar manner, on an infinite variety of occasions; therefore this abruptness of exordium, especially as it borrows neither words, nor ideas, may be used by poets, with an unlimited repetition. If this was not a just account of the source, and character of this kind of exordium, it could not have been so often used by different poets; it could not have been so often used by the same poet, without a servile, and hackneyed imitation; which would have deadened, instead of animating, the beginning of many beautiful, and sublime odes. I suppose that Dr. Johnson never thought of despising the "Quem virum, aut heroa;" — the "Bacchum in remotis carmina rupibus;" — or the "Qualem ministrum fulminis alitem," of Horace. He had as little reason to despise the "Ruin seize thee, ruthless king," of Gray. And because it is in the power of a poetaster to imitate, or naturally to seize one of the distinguished, yet easy properties of a great poet; should the latter be illiberally, and invidiously, brought, for a moment, into any degree of competition with the former? Nothing less than the overflowing bile of the jaundiced fiend could have impelled this miserable retort, from the ballad of Johnny Armstrong. It is again throwing the dirt of the dunces of Pope: it is Dennis; or Welstead; or Oldmixon; not what Dr. Johnson ought to have been.
"The initial resemblances, or alliterations, ruin, ruthless, helm, or hauberk, are below the grandeur of a poem that endeavours at sublimity." The endeavours of the poet have been completely successful; the ode is extremely sublime; nor can it be dragged down from its heights by the most ponderous critical gravitation. When the lines which contain these obnoxious words are read by unprejudiced candour, and good sense, they will not be charged with affected initial resemblances; with studied alliteration. They flowed on, without embarrassment, or constraint; in the genial stream of the poet's thought. What a poor pretender to poetry must he be, who is afraid to use two words in the same line which begin with the same letter? And to what a diminutive size must that critical mind be shrivelled; to what a suspicion, and jealousy of letters; who attributes this casual coincidence to meretricious art; to the little patches of poetry?
Our critick thus proceeds: — "In the second stanza the Bard is well described; but in the third we have the puerilities of obsolete mythology. When we are told that Cadwallo 'hushed the stormy main;' and that Modred 'made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topped head;' attention recoils from the repetition of a tale that even when it was first heard, was heard with scorn."
This dramatick heightening, this bold animation of the material objects of nature, will never be scorned but by an austere, and irreconcileable scorner. The mythology, and the practice will never be obsolete, while the world produces true, and fairly adventurous poets. And this vivid, and actuating spirit will always be warrantable; it will always be agreeable; it will always give a lively pleasure; while its objects are not mean; while they do not excite laughter, and ridicule; and while, in poetical form, and colour, they are not incompatible, or inconsistent with the principal object. My attention recoils not; it is more eagerly attracted to the musick, and poetry of the Bard; while he recites the mighty magick; the "speciosa miracula," of the harps of Modred, and Cadwallo.
Some examples from ancient, and great poets, of giving life, and motion to matter; and of representing future events, by figures which could never be literally realized, will be a decisive, and I hope, an agreeable refutation of Dr. Johnson's objections to the similar liberties of our English poet.
In the sixth eclogue of Virgil, when Silenus begins his song—
Tum vero in numerum Faunos, ferasque videres
Ludere; tum rigidos motare cacumina quercus.
Horace adorns one of his noblest odes with the miraculous effects of the musick, and poetry of Orpheus:
—vocalem temere insecutae
Arte materna rapidos morantem
Fluminum lapsus, celeresque ventos;
Blandum et auritas fidibus canoris
I suppose that Dr. Johnson would not have pleaded, in favour of Horace, and Virgil, that this poetical kind of omnipotence was at all believed by Augustus, or Maecenas; or by any other friends, and admirers of those immortal poets. Neither it, nor the mythology from which it originated, was more credited by them than it is by modern Europe. The objects were the productions of a sportive, and pleasing imagination; they were embellished with elegant, vigorous, and harmonious numbers; and elevated, and dignified by these enchanting aids, from which the "potestas quidlibet audendi" receives its sanction, they afforded amusement; they gave delight to the fancy to which they were addressed.
I am happy to have an opportunity of paying at once my critical respect, and my religious veneration to the sacred writings. The few passages that I shall quote are eminent examples of the pathetick, and exhilarating style of a beautiful hyperbole. — "Thou crownest the year with thy goodness; and thy clouds drop fatness. They shall drop upon the dwellings of the wilderness; and the little hills shall rejoice on every side, The folds shall be full of sheep; the valleys also shall stand so thick with corn, that they shall laugh, and sing." — Psalm LXV, vs. 13th 14th. The muse of the royal poet who was graced with a pastoral animation while she walked on earth, assumed a celestial animation when she mounted to Heaven. — "Their voices" [the voices of the stars, and planets] "are heard among them: their sound is gone out into all lands; and their words unto the ends of the world. In them hath he set a tabernacle for the sun; who cometh forth as a bridegroom out of his chamber; and rejoiceth as a giant to run his course." — Psalm XIXth, vs. 4th, 5th. The verse which I shall now transcribe is a part of the prophet Isaiah's lively, and strong description of the spiritual kingdom of the Messiah. The mild, and amiable virtues which distinguish that kingdom, are, a union of the most separate interests, of the most divided passions, into peace, benevolence, and pure and cordial affection. The picture in the page of the prophet is prominent, and engaging; but it is, as yet, weakly reflected back, by the practice of the world. — "The wolf shall dwell with the lamb; and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf, and the young lion; and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them." — Isaiah: c. XIth, v. 6th. If we consider the licence of poetry alone, the critical scorn with which Dr. Johnson treated the prodigious effects of the strains of Modred, and Cadwallo, would have been applicable, with equal justice, to these passages. But from this profane as well as injudicious contempt, he was perfectly secured, by his early prejudices, and partialities; and what was more to his credit, by his unshaken belief in religion.
The winding-sheet of Edward is next examined by our curious critick. His miserable quibble on the mode of weaving it, and his general censure of Gray's manner of conducting this part of his machinery, are too trifling, and despicable for particular animadversion. Solemnly to observe that "theft is dangerous;" after owning that Mr. Gray had informed us that he had borrowed the weaving of the web of Edward's destiny from the northern bards, is an ill-timed and preposterous austerity, which may, with equal reason, condemn all avowed imitation; all new poetical objects, which are either adopted from books, or from the immense page of nature. I could wish, indeed, that the elegant muse of Gray had been satisfied with the genial regions of classical poetry; and had never deviated into the cold, and dreary land of Norwegian fable, and gothick mythology. Its disgusting imagery was unworthy of her powers; it degraded her dignity. A fastidious delicacy in mental, as in domestick luxury, is sometimes cloyed with its exquisite gratifications; and has recourse to inferiour, and vulgar fare. By this degeneracy of mental perception, Gray's taste in reading as well as in writing, was sometimes extremely corrupted. He admired the Fingal of Macpherson, and spoke with contempt of the Eloisa of Rousseau.
The first stanza of the 'second division of stanzas thus begins:
Weave the warp, and weave the woof;
The winding-Sheet of Edward's race;
Give ample room, and verge enough
The characters of hell to trace.
The third verse Johnson calls "a wretched line." I think that he alone could have given it this epithet. It is sufficiently strong for the poet's purpose. Poetry as well as prose, must, or should relax, as its objects are weaker; otherwise it infallibly degenerates into bombast. If its diction was always elevated, and highly coloured, we should be justly, and equally disgusted with its sameness, and its impropriety.
To his personification of thirst, and hunger, and to his mode of introducing them, I think that I may venture to assert that no critick but Dr. Johnson would have objected.
"The ode" (he says) "might have been concluded with an action of better example. But suicide is always to be had, without expence of thought." — If suicide is ever excusable; if it is ever justifiable; like the Bard of our poet — "headlong from the mountain's height;" — "deep in the roaring tide to plunge to endless night;" — it is when we terminate our life to avoid a worse death, which we should certainly incurr, from the mandate of a tyrant. How could our critick presume to think that it was the intention of the poet to make the suicide of the Bard exemplary? The religious, and superstitious severity of Johnson often counteracted, and for a time, extinguished his humanity. Every breast that is adorned with a sensible, and generous morality; every breast that is adorned with a properly understood, and genuine christian morality; will feel the tenderest compassion, and make the largest allowances, for many cases of suicide; an unfortunate, and deplorable act, which has been committed some of the greatest, and best of men.