1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Samuel Egerton Brydges, "Traits in the Character of Gray the Poet" Censura Literaria 7 (1808) 395-99.



Can we judge of a man's actions by the hues of his mind? I am afraid that we cannot with any reasonable certainty. They who are bold in intellect are often timid in conduct; and imbecility, or, at least, a morbid delicacy, marks the personal character of many, whose abstract sentiments are constantly distinguished by vigour and energy. Instead of withdrawing on this account our admiration from individuals, we must only lament the inconsistencies of our weak and imperfect nature!

These remarks have immediately resulted from contemplating the mental and moral traits of Gray, the poet. His faculties were endowed with uncommon strength; he thought with a manly nervousness; and he penetrated forcibly to the bottom of every subject, which engaged his attention. But his petty manners were disagreeably effeminate and fastidious; his habits wanted courage and hardiness; and his temper and spirits were a prey to feebleness, indolence, and trivial derangements. His heart was pure; and his conduct, I firmly believe, stained with no crime. He loved virtue for its own sake, and felt a just, and never slackened indignation at vice. But the little irritations of his daily temper were too much affected by trifles; he loved to assume the character of the fine gentleman; a mean and odious ambition in any one; but scarcely to be forgiven in a man of genius. He would shrug his shoulders, and distort his voice into fastidious tones; and take upon him the airs of what folly is pleased to call high company.

High company! What is it? By whom is the name so impudently engrossed? Perhaps in any country it is a distinction of little value; at least it is beneath a man of genius; but in this country, in the sense, which it is meant to convey, it does not exist! Mere wealth, however got, has been so long allowed to obtain admission, and to form a large portion among the upper orders of society, that it does not even imply a prevalence of well-educated, and early polished manners! From the changes produced by commerce, the revenues of the old and permanent families are inadequate to the purposes of luxuries; and adventurers and placemen enjoy, for the most part, the preeminence derived from the splendour of money.

Gray in early life had lived much, and travelled, with his intimate friend and school-fellow, Horace Walpole; and I am afraid that there was some little tinge of adulation in his manners towards him; notwithstanding Gray's love of independence triumphed, and separated them abroad. It was Walpole's misfortune to be a coxcomb; and though brought up under a father, who, whatever were his merits and importance, had certainly no pretensions to refined and polished manners, he much affected, as new nobility are apt to do, what is vulgarly called the "haut ton:" his love of literature and his talents (for his talents were of no mean order) were constantly teaching him a better lesson; the whispers of authorship at times soothed him with the hopes of a more honourable distinction; but his struggles are apparent, and often ridiculous; and he could never separate the claims of the man of fashion from those of the writer; nor of the writer from those of the man of fashion.

But Gray, as Mason well observes, had no pretensions to the paltry superiority either of birth or fortune; in him therefore it was a still more lamentable foible to indulge any vanity of this kind. Or rather to assume the first appearance of such a weakness; for his friends who knew him intimately, say that on a nearer inspection it wore off! He was excessively shy and reserved; and was content to let it take the dress of pride and reserve.

We expect in one, whose "mind is his kingdom," a manner careless of little observances, absent, silent or talkative by fits, indifferent to petty distinctions, scorning puffed-up rank, ardent in opinion, and eloquent and forcible, if unequal, in language. Too vehement for affectation or precision, we expect to see him with a neglected person, and eyes beaming an irregular and fearful fire. If there should enter one in a habit neat and studied, with a formal and "travelled" and artificial address; an effeminate voice; and looks rolling warily as if to catch minute breaches of form; should we believe that man to be a poet?

In the freedom of the closet, in the hours of unrestrained solitude, the little vile passions of artificial society never mingled themselves with the purity of Gray's thoughts. There his expanded soul contemplated nature in its general operations; and studied the movements of the human bosom independent of the casual effects of particular seasons and places. The sentiments of the Elegy in the Churchyard must be delightful to all ranks and conditions, in every, country, and in every state of our civilized nature.

It seems extraordinary that one, who could write so well, should have written so little: nor am I sure that he can be quite acquitted of having hidden that talent, which is not given to be hidden. "Of him to whom much is given, much shall be required." The larger portion, and the best, of his poems, were composed in the year, in which he lost his friend West. Did low spirits suppress his future efforts? Or were his powers paralyzed by too anxious a desire to preserve rather than hazard his established fame? Such an anxiety would prove that timid weakness, which seems to me the main defect in the poet's character.

Facility is acquired by practice; and case and simplicity of manner, which are among the greatest charms of composition, are the probable result. Gray therefore might even have improved his powers by further exercise. But even if he had not, it becomes a manly mind not to be too fearful of fame: we should endeavour to deserve it by rational means; and have the fortitude to endure the consequences, if we fail. A petty solicitude never yet obtained its end.

It is not sufficient to feel and think poetically; before any one can win the wreath of a poet, he must be able to arrest, clothe in language, and communicate to others, his thoughts. This is, in truth, the very difficulty and essence of the art; our ideas are so transient and fugitive, (and they are generally so in proportion to the richness and variety of the mind, which produces them,) that it requires great happiness, great practice, and a great and rapid command of words to seize and delineate them. If they are not thus seized, if the production is the result of slow thoughts, and forced conceptions, they may wear the outward form of poetry, and obtain the praise of a cold-hearted critic who judges by rule; but they will never exhibit the charms of true poetry, nor be permanently popular.

Gray therefore would have deserved still better of posterity, if he had exercised the wonderful faculties given him by Nature more frequently.

April 8, 1808.