1807 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Percival Stockdale, "Lecture XX. Gray" Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 2:611-41.



When he dismisses this fatal catastrophe, by remarking that it requires no expence of thought, he shows his own superficiality of thinking. This groundless remark equally charges Addison, Otway, Shakespeare, and many other illustrious poets, with a poverty of thought. A large expence of glorious thought has often preceded, while its tenour gradually prepared, and dignified the suicide of its dramatick heroes. But to endeavour to demolish the fame of a great poet by mere dogmatical assertion, or contemptuous insult; by rude, and precipitate attacks, unauthorized by a particle of reason, and argument; or more-desperately to promote your endeavour, to attempt, at one crash, profanely to strike to ruins the whole temple of the muses; to how all this unmerited contempt; to commit all this gothick violence, "requires no expence of thought."

The following quotation will bean emphatical instance of a very selfish depravity, which is too common to human nature; a keen perception of the faults of others; and at least an apparent insensibility to our own.

"These odes are marked by glittering accumulations of ungraceful ornaments; they strike rather than please; the images are magnified by affectation; the language is laboured into harshness. The mind of the writer, seems to work with unnatural violence. 'Double, double; toil, and trouble.' He has a kind of strutting dignity; and is tall by walking on tiptoe. His art, and his struggle are too visible; and there is too little appearance of ease, and nature." — If Mr. Gray ever affects this elaborate, and swelling dignity, it but seldom injures his poetry; and but in a small degree. But if I wished to give to any one an accurate idea of the ruling features of Johnson's eloquence, I should copy this faithful, and striking likeness which he has drawn of himself.

Notwithstanding the peremptory, and dictatorial sentence which is here passed on this poet; a sentence which, undoubtedly, many readers have deemed a piece of decisive, and unanswerable criticism; I am still convinced (and I trust that the opinion, of many respectable criticks will warrant my conviction) that the poetry of Mr. Gray is, in general, equally eminent for strength, and beauty; that it flows with that ardent, but happily attempered, and well-regulated spirit;; and with that harmony of its constituent parts as well as of its versification, which are the charming, and admirable effects of true genius; of a judicious plan, and of a masterly composition.

In a Life of Mr. Gray, which does far more justice to him both as a man, and a poet than has been vouchsafed to him by Dr. Johnson; I find that some superficial, and pedantick pretenders to a taste for poetry, have given almost the same character of the celebrated elegy which our leader in criticism, in the beginning of my last quotation, has applied, in general, to his Poems. "The elegy is thought by some" (says Dr. Knox, in his Essays) to be no more than a confused heap of splendid ideas, thrown together, without order, and without proportion." — The ideas of those people who had this opinion of that beautiful elegy, must always have been very confused: in estimating the merit of the poem, they could not disentangle that confusion, and make those ideas accompany the imagination, and sentiments of the poet, in a collateral order; in short, they could not raise their little minds to a height, in some degree, proportionable to the grandeur of the muse. So unjust, and disparaging a censure of a most excellent poem was very consonant with the abilities of weak, and insignificant criticks; nor was it inconsistent with Dr. Knox's abilities, when he reflected on the stupid opinion, to hesitate between assent, and disapprobation but it was unworthy of Dr. Johnson, who when he was distinguished by the Rambler; and when its authour was not yet tainted with a pension, nor intoxicated with adulation, wrote some papers of judicious, and elegant criticism; it was unworthy of his manly atchievements, to discredit his aged fame; and like a Dr. Knox, or the witling Kelly, to show a contempt of Mr. Gray's best productions.

Dr. Johnson informs us that "his translations of Northern, and Welsh Poetry deserve praise; the imagery is preserved; perhaps often improved; but the language is unlike the language of other poets." — Subjects, and their concomitant images, and scenes, injudiciously chosen by the poet, are equal to a privation of half of his natural powers of excellence. I again wish that these northern rhapsodies had for ever been confined to their own bleak, and dismal abodes. They have drawn a dark shade, and hideous figures over the splendid muse of Gray. The mechanical business of weaving; the texture of human entrails; and the gasping heads of warriours, for the weights of the loom, render all this martial havock still more disgusting. He says, that in his translations of these Northern Poems, "the language is unlike the language of other poets." — With this remark, I suppose, he meant invidiously to qualify the praise which he had given to these sanguinary numbers, with a peculiar absurdity; as they obtained that pittance of encomium which was denied to the beautiful, and sublime productions of Gray. But if we merely, and independently consider the substance of the remark, it is to the credit of the poet; for the grater the genius, his manner, or style, either in prose or poetry, will be the more original, and distinguishedly characteristick of himself; without degenerating into an affectation, and stiffness of language.

I thank God, the elegy written in the country church-yard, has passed through the fiery ordeal of this critical inquisitor, uninjured; and morally, and harmoniously triumphing in all its poetical virtues. But there is a perverseness, even in his praise. Almost every part of this poem is instructively, and pathetically fine: yet though the passage which begins — "yet even these bones from insult to protect;" — and to which the Doctor seems to have given his decided preference; by the rude monumental ornaments which it presents, is marked with rustick beauty; it is inferiour, in strength of sentiment, as it is in grandeur of objects, to other passages of the elegy.

None of Gray's Poems are so much read; are read with so much attention, and recollection as this elegy. This constant, and almost unavoidable preference, is not to be ascribed to its absolute, and unequalled, excellence; nor indeed, altogether, to the confined, and undistinguishing taste of the reader. In the higher powers, and atchievements of poetry, it is certainly inferiour to the Bard, and to the Progress of Poesy. But it comes peculiarly home to the most interesting affections; to the tender feelings; to the analogous, and endeared sentiments of mankind. People of all stations, professions, and attainments, are more deeply impressed; and more frequently, and with a more heart-felt pleasure, converse with those objects which they love, than with those which they admire.

It has been my literary fortune, because it has been extorted from me by sincerity, to differ extremely from Dr. Johnson, on many subjects; on many principles of criticism; while I have endeavoured to shelter transcendent poetical merit from the blight of envy. Which of us is right in our different estimations of genius, may possibly be ascertained, and decided, even in the present times; but probably, in times more free from personal prejudice; and therefore more just, and generous to honest fame.

The impartial diligence with which I wish to do some justice, to my critical task, obliges me, with regret, to say something unfavourable to an elegy which I very much admire. There is a peculiar propriety; there is a literary policy; (if the expression may be allowed) in the writer, who when he is to close any composition; summons, with a new effort, all his force, and taste, that he may bring his sentiments, and elegance, as it were to a poetical focus; and that he may thus leave, in the mind of the reader, a deep, and delightful impression. In this policy, Mr. Gray, at the end of his elegy, has been deficient, or unsuccessful. The epitaph, in strength, and eloquence, is inferiour to the rest of the elegy; and it is embarrassed with an abrupt, and ill-placed parenthesis; of which the unconnected introduction, and improper situation, unseasonably retard, and weaken the concluding sense. Pure impartiality, and equity, are favourite objects in my moral, and literary theory; I wish to omit no opportunity of making observations that may be of some advantage to young, and ingenuous minds, who may aspire to poetical, or to other literary distinctions. I write for my countrymen, and cotemporaries; notwithstanding all that has passed, and all that shall be repeated, they may vouchsafe to read me, before I die; if they do not, let me assure envy, and malice, that I have the consolation of a mind which can skim, in a moment, over their perishable enmity, and existence, and dart into futurity. Then, in spite of all that they can do, to depress, and damp my ardour, I shall still retain; under the pressure of adversity, and of age, my unwearied diligence; my honest ambition; for they are impelled, and animated, by the irresistible, and therefore, not presumptuous hope, that I write for ages.

His Welsh ode, and fragment, are not encumbered with the horrid machinery with which his Norwegian poetry is deformed; and therefore they afford us poetical pleasure. They did not, however, deserve the exertions of the man who wrote the Progress of Poesy, and the Elegy in the Country-Church-Yard. On his ode for the installation of the Duke of Grafton, I cannot dwell with so much pleasure as on most of his other poems. It is by no means destitute of that lively, and expressive imagination, and of those pleasing, and affecting sentiments, which, whenever he wrote, were at his command. To this ode, however, an, objection may perhaps, be justly made, which, in some degree, is applicable to the Bard; that it has too many allusions to passages in our history, which are remote from common knowledge, and memory; and, therefore, do not strike, and affect, with that immediate impulse, and sympathy, which are the spontaneous, and genuine effects of true poetry. In some parts of it, likewise, it sinks to an elaborate languour. Flattery, a degradation of the mind, which, in general, Mr. Gray disdained, is one of its humbling characteristicks. For this imperfection a generous critick will find an apology which redeems it, in gratitude, and the occasion.

The state of the authour's mind when he wrote the Long Story, to susceptible, and congenial minds, will account for the wildness, and extravagance of its humour, and its pictures. A poet, who had no very considerable worldly, and vulgar pretensions, was, undoubtedly, extremely pleased with the new attention which his genius had drawn from ladies of high rank, and fortune. This very flattering accident threw him into a kind of rapture which he probably had not before experienced, of playful thoughts, and, grotesque ideas, which he lavished on this long story; with more exuberance than judgement; with, more effort than wit: yet it must have been interesting to the self-love, and entertaining to the fancy of the persons to whom it was addressed. It could only have been written by a man of genius; but I cannot class it with Mr. Gray's happy productions.

I am here likewise obliged to observe that he entertained a very erroneous partiality for Pindar; and that his beauties are sometimes disfigured by an affected imitation of the desultory, and licentious poetry of the Grecian bard, and of his compounded, and complicated words; which, though they are agreeable to the genius of the Greek, are incongruous with the structure of the English language. Our early habits; and even our venial prejudices, mark, more or less, all, the tenour of our lives; all the variety of our persuits. Mr. Gray's college-life, though it produced effects in him, as it has, in many, which did honour to a celebrated university, and to its distinguished disciples; gave him a scholastick turn of mind, which; in some instances, was naturally transfused into his writings. Our faculties are absolutely invigorated; they take easier, and more graceful forms, from some familiarity with the gay tumult of life; from some experience of its dissipation. The stiffness of learning becomes flexible, and polite; its asperities are softened, and lubricated, by habitually, freely, and variously mixing with the world.

I have not given such large quotations from Gray as I have produced from our other great poets, to exemplify their general merit, and their varied excellence. His productions, comparatively with theirs, are few, and short; by the help of their impressive beauties, and of their moderate extent, they may be stored in a memory which is brightened with the colours of the muse; with her "orient hues, unborrowed of the sun."

I have for some time employed, and, on the whole, not disagreeably, (for I felt, as I wrote) in vindicating the genius, and the fame of an immortal poet, from the edicts of an unjust, and oppressive critical chair. I know that time never fails ultimately to distribute to distinguished intellectual desert that ample justice which is often denied to it by its own capricious, and iniquitous age. Therefore, while I dismiss my observations on the justly admired, but much injured works of a favourite authour, I shall cheerfully adopt the words of Dr. Johnson himself (and himself he unconsciously reprehended while he wrote them) as an infallible prophecy of the lasting honours which will be payed to the memory of Mr. Gray, and of every other illustrious writer who may suffer an unequal temporary fate. — "By the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary" [and let me add, with personal, and malignant] prejudices; after all the refinements of subtilty, and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claims to poetical honours."

Let the tyrannical, the insolent, and the inhumane, be branded, in, the name of virtue; of neglected, and oppressed genius, with their well-merited posthumous infamy. But let, the memory of departed worth, and talents, be protected with a moral, and intellectual zeal; and let them be adorned with never-fading laurel.

Dr. Johnson informs us that he "contemplated Gray's Poetry with less pleasure than his Life." — To his Life, or that which constituted his social, and moral character, I think that he has been as ungenerous as he was to his writings.

We are told that "Gray seems to have been very little delighted with academical gratifications: he liked, at Cambridge, neither the mode of life, nor the fashion of study; and lived sullenly on, to the time when his attendance on lectures was no longer required." — If he who reads this passage does not already see clearly, in the biographer, a sullen dislike to the person whose life he writes, he must be more prejudiced in favour of Johnson than prepared properly to esteem Gray. Without doubt he was highly gratified with the leisure which he had to persue his studies, and to propitiate the muses; — with the happy opportunities for intellectual improvement which were afforded him by a seat of learning which had but one rival in the world; and by the enjoyment of learned, and select society. There is a delicacy; a pensiveness; a melancholy, interwoven with true genius; especially when that genius is inspired into a delicate bodily constitution; — which is a very different quality from sullenness. — Sullenness frowns on mankind; this gentle quality commiserates all their pains; and with justice, many of their pleasures. A person of this frame, and with these habits, will naturally love retirement; and in the love of retirement, sullenness, I hope, is not naturally included. He was averse, perhaps too averse, from science; from the mathematical studies, for which Cambridge has been long renowned; but every generous mathematician will pardon this dislike, in a mind heated with the flame of poetry, and glowing with the vivid, and various hues of imagination. Youth, high in health, and spirits, and with luxury at its command, will often be too much addicted to dissipation, licentiousness, and noisy mirth. And age, if it is thoroughly acquainted with human nature; and if it throws its impartial reflexions back to its own entrance on life; will rather tenderly regret than severely condemn these irregularities. They were altogether incompatible with Mr. Gray's health, and with the current of his mind; and they frequently, and very disagreeably, and rudely interrupted, and molested, his studies, and his peace. This inconsiderate, and indeed very uncivil, and ungentlemanlike treatment, might, in the mildest, and most amiable disposition, excite vexation, and resentment; but even the shade that was drawn over a luminous, and beautiful mind, by offence, and irritation, bore no resemblance to the selfish, morose, and proud sullenness, which brooded in the mind of Johnson when he wrote the Life of Gray.

Where he mentions the poet's travelling with Mr. Walpole, he says that "they wandered through France into Italy;" an expression which would justly have excited laughter, and contempt, if it had been used by any writer but Dr. Johnson. "Gray's Letters" (he adds) "contain a very pleasing account of many parts of their journey." — Then they were written by a man who travelled with plan, and attentive observation; and not by a careless, and bewildered wanderer. Johnson seems every where industrious to counteract the judgement, and system of Gray, as a writer: he commends those fugitive pieces on which the authour set no value; and which, he would have wished, had never seen the light: and he treats the poems with contempt which had been long admired by the most respectable judges of literary merit; and which were ardently, and carefully composed by the strenuous, and anxious candidate for immortality.

On his rupture with Mr. Walpole he makes the following observation. — "If we look without prejudice on the world, we shall find that men whose consciousness of their own merit sets them above the compliance of servility, are apt enough, in their association with superiours" [he might, perhaps, without impropriety, have added, in fortune] "to watch their own, dignity with troublesome, and punctilious jealousy; and in the fervour of independence to exact that attention which they refuse to pay." — As he thought it proper to make a comment on the quarrel of the two friends; and as Mr. Walpole had taken the blame of it to himself, I think that it would have been but fair, and liberal, to let the censorial weight of the comment press on the superiour fortune, and inferiour mind. I will, not say that his remark is altogether invidious, and without foundation; but I will venture to assert, that "if without prejudice we look on the world, we shall find" that external, and accidental power is not satisfied with continuing to usurp from genius the established, and ridiculous precedence which has been given to it by that world; but that it often aggravates this usurpation by its own personal presumption, and insolence, in a direct violation of the order of God, and nature. If Mr. Walpole was, in one instance, liberal to a poet, surely the critick might, in the same instance, have been equally liberal; who had long been, himself, an authour; and who, as a poet, had written many lines which have an indisputable claim to excellence. Though I must be allowed to think, from my knowledge of mankind, and from some knowledge of high life; that though Walpole's concession was, in truth, the effect of conscious arrogance, yet when he made that concession, he meant not that it should be believed; but that it should be accepted by the offended person, and pass with the world; as a fine specimen of the Chesterfield-school; as an ample apology, from fortune to talents, for any rudeness; as a charming example of complete politeness; — his mean idolaters would say, of magnanimity. I must farther observe, that as infirmities, and faults are mixed with the virtues of the best men, it is impossble for the most impartial, and candid moral writer, repeatedly, and variously to censure the misconduct of others, without tacitly including his own; but that an instance cannot easily be produced of one who like Dr. Johnson, so often, and so strongly inveighed against a laboured pomp of diction, and disagreeable, and domineering manners; while both these properties made a very prominent part of his own character, as an authour, and a man.

Nothing can show his inveterate prejudice against Milton more than that slight regard with which he mentions his Latin poetry; while he speaks with great esteem of the pieces which Gray wrote in that language. But every impartial, and good critick will find that they have no very superiour merit; but that Milton, as a Latin poet, is a rival of the great Buchanan. And here I must remark the fastidious, and unreflecting taste of those criticks who fancy that it is impossible to write in a new, and interesting manner, in Latin verse, or prose. Is it not as practicable for a man of genius, of the present times, if he makes it an object of his study, and ambition, to form, in both species of composition, a Latin style, not mechanically imitative, but expressive of the strain of his own mind, as it is to form such a style in a modern language, from an intimate, and familiar acquaintance with its best authours? We are authorized by several illustrious examples to answer this question in the affirmative. Polignac, Milton, and Buchanan, give an irrefragable sanction to the affirmation.

Mr. Gray was, at Peter-House, repeatedly, and very much disturbed, by contemptuous, and insolent treatment; Which greatly discredited the young men who thus disturbed him. — "This insolence" (says Dr. Johnson) "having endured it awhile, he represented to the governours of the society, among whom, perhaps; he had no friends; and finding his complaint little regarded, removed himself to Pembroke-Hall." — From our knowledge of the history of social life; from the selfish, and cowardly nature of man; a person may, certainly, have few friends, who deserves to have many. But I think that it cannot fairly be deemed captious, or splenetick, to insist, that the supposition of Mr. Gray's want of friends has an invidious, and ungenerous air; and that it naturally tends to make an inconsiderate reader suspect that there was something in his conduct, and manners, which repelled friendship. But it is evident (not, indeed, from what we learn immediately from his biographer,) that he was a virtuous, and amiable man; therefore, if he had no friends among the governours of St. Peter's College, the severity of implication which is connected with the fact, should fall on those who withheld, not on him who did not enjoy the friendship.

I am now writing agreeably to the order in which his Life of Gray proceeds: where he introduces, in that narrative, the two celebrated odes, he tells us that Warburton replied to the stupid charge of obscurity which had been brought against them; that "they were understood as well as the works of Milton, and Shakespeare;" "which" (adds Dr. Johnson) "it is the fashion to admire." — Who would deign any answer to a remark which confounds all the possible eternal energy of nature, and of poetry, co-operating on the human mind, — with the temporary, light, and despicable influence of fashion?

In justice to the memory of the poet, I shall here observe, that the anxiety, and pain which he felt for having omitted to give lectures on modern history, of which he was the professour, showed a delicate sense of what he owed to conscience, and to society.

The rough critick allows that "his mind had a large grasp." — Most undoubtedly it had; but I should have wished to express the idea by a metaphor not quite so coarse, and vulgar. — "He was fastidious, and hard to please." — He never showed those qualities so flagrantly as they acted in you, when you wrote his Life.

The Doctor observes that he had "a notion not very peculiar; that he could not write but at certain times; or at happy moments; a fantastick foppery, to which my kindness for a man of learning, and virtue wishes him to have been superiour." — Yet the kindness which you have shown for this man of learning, and virtue, has been a deliberate, and almost unrelenting injustice, to his virtue, and to his talents; which deserved more respect than all the learning in the world. To the proposition, however, which immediately follows this profession of kindness, I reply, that in proportion as a man is phlegmatick, and dull; in proportion s he sinks to a mere machine; his gross faculties are at his command; they will act, whenever he chuses, in their heavy way. But this voluntary motion cannot be acquired by a fine mental frame, which has every other advantage. It is exquisitely, if not "tremblingly alive all o'er:" a heavy atmosphere will weaken, and depress; pure sky will animate, and invigorate its exertions. Intruding, and disagreeable ideas will check; more painful objects will break the spell of the poetical magick. But when its process is not retarded by these oppressive clouds; and rude interruptions; when the natural, and moral world are equally benign; it advances, and is completed with a delightful agitation; with an ethereal rapture of the soul. As I am always gratified when my sentiments on any interesting subject are supported by respectable authority, it gives me pleasure to know that this opinion is very far from being peculiar: and that its reverse could only be pronounced a fantastick foppery, by a hard, and positive disposition; ignorant of the constitution, and powers of the human mind, as they are affected in this respect; and particularly of the frame, and action of genius.

I have repeatedly read, and with repeated pleasure, the literary, and moral character which is drawn, of Mr. Gray, by Mr. Temple; and which is inserted in Dr. Johnson's Life of the poet. I passed many happy hours with that gentleman, in my younger years. But I have one capital objection to that character; it seems to undervalue the effects, and the fame of poetical genius. "Perhaps it may be said" (observes the good clergyman) "what signifies so much knowledge, when it produced so little? Is it worth taking so much pains, to leave no memorial but a few poems?" — This question, I think, will only be urged by inelegant, and unfeeling souls. The few poems which were published by Mr. Gray did the greatest honour to their authour's mind, and to a studious, and literary life. For the improvement of our best sentiments; for the incitement to our best actions; they are worth a thousand volumes of systematical morality; they are worth a thousand bodies of technical divinity. Those gloomy reasoners; those enthusiastick visionaries, drag you to a knowledge of your duties; or they rather make you forget that knowledge, in mental slumbers; or disperse it in fantastick dreams. The poet, at once, attacks the source of our generous affections; he seizes your, heart; he ravishes you into virtue; and from time to time, by the repetition of his enchanting strains, he keeps up your sublime emotions. Noble, and pathetick poems, like those of Gray, evidently written to meliorate, and refine our nature; ate the heavenly panaceas of soul; the

—certa piacula quae te
Terpure lecto poterunt recreare libello.

"There is no character" (says Mr. Temple, in his moral, and literary picture of Gray) "without some speck; some imperfection; and I think the greatest defect in his, was an affectation in delicacy; or rather effeminacy.; and a visible fastidiousness, or contempt, and disdain of his inferiours in science. He also had, in some degree, that weakness which disgusted Voltaire so much in Mr. Congreve: though he seemed to value others chiefly, according to the progress they had made in knowledge, yet he could not hear to be considered merely as a Man of letters; and though without birth, of fortune, or station, his desire was to be looked upon as a private, independent gentleman, who read for his amusement."

The distinguished, and great genius will always have some painful circumstances in his fortune, and some humiliating properties in his constitution, to remind him that he is nearly related to the large family of common mortals. What seems more inconsistent; more incompatible with fine, and exalted talents; than the false delicacy; the languid effeminacy, of a vain, and superficlal coxcomb?

Oh! what a miracle to man is man!

The essential form, and the habitual conduct of the human mind are infinitely diversified. In social intercourse, his evident disdain of his inferiours in learning, and abilities, was equally unworthy of the generous current of his soul. When envious, and malignant ignorance, and dulness, publickly affect to despise genius; when they conspire with adversity to depress it; they deserve no quarter. When they are civil, and inoffensive: when they are not presumptuous; it is immoral; it is cruel, in any way to despise them; to make them painfully sensible of their inability to shine. We ought rather to raise them to a temperate satisfaction in themselves, than sink them to a mortifying consciousness of their natural disadvantages.

His affected contempt of the literary, and poetical character (for it must only have been affected) was extremely reprehensible, it was shamefully ungrateful, as well as absurd, and ridiculous, in Congreve, who was indebted to his genius for a profusion of emoluments, of honours, and of fame. Voltaire, in his resentment of that insolence, showed a proper sense of the dignity of literary distinction, and a proper zeal for its glory. "Evil communication corrupts good manners." Perhaps Mr. Gray caught the infection of this personal, but little visionary consequence, from his intimacy with Mr. Walpole. But he should have left the presumptuous conceit; the painted dream of vanity, to him, and to all other beings, who prefer the delusions of art; the pageantry of human power, before the endowments of nature; before the inspiration of the Almighty. Pride; — that pride which arrogates to itself an imaginary, and supercilious importance, ill becomes the constitutional state of man; a state which, in its nature, is transitory, and afflicted with many pains. But if any gift of Heaven demands all enthusiasm of gratitude to its Divine Donour; if any gift of Heaven warrants a strong, and ardent consciousness of its inestimable value; an internal, pure, and pious triumph in our existence; a triumph too emphatical for expression, and too spiritual for show; — it is that intellectual force, and fire; that creative, and diversified expansion of mind, which gives birth to rich, various and interesting thoughts; and embodies them in congenial forms; — it is that irresistible, and victorious energy of soul, which conquers all difficulties, and is superiour to all situations; which opposes to insolence its repelling spring; to envy its indefatigable perseverance; — which disengages itself from earth, and asserts its immortality.