As a poet, his excellence will be confessed by all who are entitled to judge of it, except now and then by a jealous critic educated at Oxford, and assiduous in depreciating the merit of every author, who flourished at a rival university. On his poetry, it is needless to bestow praises, or to repel the attacks of envy and rancour. If Gray was not a poet of the first order, there is no poetry existing; and if his bold expressions be nonsense, so are the most rapturous passages of Sophocles, Klopstock, Shakspeare and Milton, and the sublimest figures of divine inspiration. In sublimity, pathos, and enthusiasm, he is perhaps excelled by Dryden and Collins; but in richness of imagery, glow of expression, and harmony of numbers, he surpasses the two great masters of English lyric poetry.
Gray's poems are not numerous; but all of them, at least his serious pieces, have great merit; and whoever writes but as correctly as he has written, will not find himself able to write much. His pieces have all the marks of close study and patient revision; and the smallness of their number, compared with the length of time he was known as a poet, sufficiently shows, that they were kept long under his own eyes, before they were submitted to those of the public. They may, therefore, be regarded as a kind of standard of the correctness to which English poetry has arrived in our days.
The Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, is, perhaps, the first of the kind in any language; its subject, like the subject of Milton's Epic, is universally interesting, the allegorical imagery is sublime, and the natural description picturesque; the sentiment is mostly simple and pathetic, and the versification has a melody, which has not often been attained, and cannot be surpassed.
The principal respect in which it has been supposed defective is want of a plan. Dr. Knox, in his Essays, has observed, "that it is thought by some to be no more than a confused heap of splendid ideas, thrown together without order, and without proportion." That it is, however, not destitute of plan, is sufficiently demonstrated by [John] Scott [of Amwell], in his Critical Essays. The analysis shows, that it is perfectly regular, though simple in its general plan; but the arrangement might perhaps have been in some parts improved. Some passages have been censured by Mr. Kelly, in the Babler, with great injustice. Unacknowledged imitations of Collins, Young, Pope, Tickell, Thomson, &c. have been pointed out by other critics. These, however, are by no means certain. There are so many instances of a coincidence totally casual, that it is difficult to ascertain what is, or is not really a designed or accidental imitation. When Gray condescends to imitate, he recovers his level at least by some new thoughts, some dignity of verse, or some luminous embellishments of diction.