1821 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Henry Francis Cary, "On Gray's Opinion of Collins" London Magazine 4 (July 1821) 13-16.



I have often felt a strong desire to know what men of genius, who have lived in the same age and country, have thought of one another. It is a curiosity, that, as ill fortune will have it, does not stand much chance of being gratified. For whatever opinions they have recorded on this subject in their published writings, we may generally suspect of having been influenced either by personal partiality on the one hand, or a spirit of rivalry on the other. There remain only their letters to friends, in which they may happen to have declared their undisguised sentiments, or such casual hints as have dropped from them in familiar conversation, and been preserved by the zeal of biographers and writers of memoirs. It is from the latter source we collect that Milton thought of Dryden as little more than a man of rhyme, and that he highly esteemed the poetical abilities of Cowley. Posterity has not ratified the award; for it is probable that where Cowley has now one reader, Dryden might reckon not fewer than ten. It should he added, however, that the author of Paradise Lost did not live to witness the last effort of Dryden, his Fables, in which, though the produce of his old age, his imagination is more exuberant than it had before been.

In the letters of Gray, certainly never intended to see the light, there are many passages, in which, without the slightest reserve, he passes sentence on the merits of his contemporaries; and as he was entirely free from that esprit du corps, to which authors are to the full as liable as any other description of mortals, and always strictly maintained the character of a dilettante, no more concerned in the petty jealousies and factions of his poetical brethren, than the gods of Epicurus in the affairs of this lower world; there is no reason to suppose that his mind was under any bias on these occasions. In the earlier part of his life he met with Southern, the dramatic writer, who was then seventy-seven years old, and whose memory had nearly deserted him. With the enthusiasm natural to a young mind, Gray found him "as agreeable as an old man could be, or at least persuaded himself so, when he looked at him, and thought of Oroonoko and Isabella." Some years afterwards we find him speaking his mind very freely on Akenside's Pleasures of Imagination; then just published according to its first model. "I will tell you," says he to Doctor Wharton, who had the rare felicity of being a friend to both the bards, "though I have rather turned it over than read it, that it seems to me above the middling; and now and then, for a little while rises even to the best, particularly in description. It is often obscure, and even unintelligible, and too much infected with the Hutchinson jargon." (It must be recollected that Gray had early shown his aversion for metaphysics.) "In short, its great fault is, that it was published at least nine years too early." What follows, is in a strain of modesty, that I would beg leave most earnestly to recommend to the notice of our professional critics. "And so methinks in a few words 'a la mode du Temple,' I have very pertly dispatched what perhaps may for several years have employed a very ingenious man worth fifty of myself."

Of Thomson's Castle of Indolence, when that poem, so worthy of the author of the Seasons, first made its appearance, — he contented himself with saving very coldly, that "it had some good stanzas in it." But as he grew older, his reluctance to be pleased increased. "Dodsley's two last volumes were worse than his four first, and particularly Dr. Akenside was in a deplorable way."

To the excellence of Sterne, who, perhaps on the whole, may be considered as the most original writer of his day, he was, however, still alive; and even thought his sermons, "in the style most proper for the pulpit," as they were marked by "a strong imagination and a sensible heart; but you see him often tottering on the verge of laughter, and ready to throw his periwig in the face of his audience." Cowper has since put this mode of pulpit oratory, which indeed was somewhat too much in Friar Gerund's taste, entirely out of countenance; and will allow no preacher to be merry, till he can discover a jest in St. Paul's Epistles for his text. With the humour of the Bath Guide, where, to say the truth, humour was more in its place, Gray was not less delighted, and pronounced it to be "of a new and original kind." Of Lyttleton, — Matthew Green, the author of the Spleen, — Shenstone's Schoolmistress, — Johnson's London, — Dyer, — and several of the "Poetae Minimi" in Dodsley's Miscellany, he has past a tolerably fair judgement, (with the exception perhaps of Lowth,) in two of the letters to Walpole.

But what was his opinion, what his feelings with respect to a writer, who in the eyes of the next generation, was to be regarded as his rival, and either to contest or share with him the supremacy of the lyre? Had the name of Collins escaped him, or did he think it fit to be past over in silence, when he was thus pointing out to his friends, so many writers — good, bad, and indifferent — among their contemporaries? — Was the character of Collins of too high a species even for Gray himself to estimate on its first appearance? or was he too much disgusted with its faults to attend to the beauties?

These were questions, which I could never satisfactorily solve, till, happily for my peace of mind, some few years back Mr. Mitford gave the world those parts of Gray's correspondence with Dr. Wharton, which had been omitted by Mason. Guess, reader! if thou art not thyself a perfect non-conductor to this kind of fluid, guess, — I say, how pleasingly it glided through me, when the following paragraph presented itself to my view: — "Have you seen the works of two young authors, a Mr. Warton and a Mr. Collins, both writers of Odes? It is odd enough that each is the half of a remarkable man, and one the counterpart of the other. The first has but little invention, very poetical choice of expression, and, a good ear. The second a fine fancy, modelled upon the antique, a bad ear, great variety of words and images with no choice at all. They both deserve to last some years, but will not." So then one of the few copies of the odes, descriptive and allegorical, which had got abroad before their author, in his indignation at the cold reception given them by the public, committed the remainder to the flames, fell into the hands of Gray. How much it is to he regretted that poor Collins did not know the favourable sentence, but without the ill-boding and falsified prediction that was attached to it, passed upon them by so competent a judge. "A fine fancy modelled upon the antique! great variety of words and images." Such praise as this, and from one who was himself to bear the proud title of Britain's Pindar, among the sepulchres of her poets! It might have been enough, if he could have known all, not only to encourage the writer, then in the "morn and liquid dew" of his youth, to put forth new and yet more beautiful blossoms, but to have saved him from that fatal "blastment," which not long afterwards blighted and withered the whole plant.

Seldom has there been an instance of more just and appropriate criticism conveyed in so few words. It was indeed "a fine fancy, modelled upon the antique," so that an Englishman, who would form some conception of the lyrical parts of the Greek tragedians, and particularly Euripides, without going to the original sources, has nothing to do but to take up the Odes of Collins, and he will meet with as true a likeness of them as his own language can supply. He has not, like Gray or Chiabrera, taken entire pieces out of the ancients, and stuck them among his own workmanship. He does not—

Talk in a high sounding strain of the stars,

Of the eagle of Jove, and the chariot of Mars;

but he fills himself with the divinity, which breathes from their labours, and then goes home and works in the spirit that he has caught. It is for this reason, I suppose, that we have no editions of Collins, favourite as he is amongst us, stuffed with parallel passages from the bottom of the page, that sometimes rise so high as scarcely to leave room for the text to float on over their surface. We easily discover to what land he has traveled, as the pilgrims in the middle ages showed they had visited the Holy Sepulchre by the palm that was wreathed round their staff; but he brings home with him no relics to make a display of, no nails drawn out of the crosses of martyrs, no dry bones pilfered from tombs of Apostles and Saints.

The opening of his Ode to Liberty, to which we have scarcely any thing that is equal in its way, reminds us, it is true, of the beginning of a noble chorus in the Iphigenia at Aulis of Euripides, v. 1036; but it is merely in the manner, with which the music strikes up in each. "Who shall awake the Spartan fife?" I could not be quite so sure in what follows, that he had not lately been reading Statius; though it is likely, that if he had, the images only remained in his mind, unaccompanied by any consciousness of the quarter from whence they came.

And call in solemn sounds to life
The youths, whose locks divinely spreading,
Like vernal hyacinths in sullen hue,
At once the breath of fear and virtue shedding,
Applauding Freedom loved of old to view!

The "hyacinthine locks" were as old as Homer; and Milton, we know, has given them to Adam; but that with all their beauty they "shed the breath of fear," when overshadowing the brow of the young Spartans, had been observed by Statius.

Simplexque horrore decoro
Crinis et obsessae nondum primoque micanter
Flore genae. Talem Ledaeo gurgite pubem
Educat Eurotas.
Sylvae, 1. 2.

In the Ode to Mercy, again we might suspect him of having borrowed from the same writer, if the ornament were not carried with so much freedom by its wearer, as to take away all doubt of his having come honestly by it.

When he, whom e'en our joys provoke,
The fiend of Nature join'd his yoke,
And. rush'd in wrath to make our isle his prey,
Thy form from out thy sweet abode
O'ertook him on his blasted road,
And stopp'd his wheels, and look'd his rage away,
I see recoil his sable steeds, &c.

—adhuc temone calenti
Fervidus, in laevum torquet gradivus habenas.
Cum Venus ante ipsos nulla formidine gressum,
Fixit equos; cessere retro, jamjamque rigentes
Suppliciter posuere jugo.
Theb. 1. iii. 265.

But it is not only on the banks of the Ilissus, or the Tyber, that Collins has left us tidings of himself; we may sometimes hear notes from him that he has caught in other fields. Thus, in his Ode on the Poetical Character,

I view that oak the fancy'd glades among,
By which as Milton lay, his evening ear,
From many a cloud that dropp'd ethereal dew,
Nigh spher'd in heaven, its native strains could hear,
On which that ancient trump he reach'd was hung.

we are reminded of an Italian writer, Angiolo Costanzo, in one of those sonnets which the historian of their poetry has called the "Ideal of good sonneting." It is a little presumptuous to be sure; but, for the sake of our subject, I will venture on a translation of the one in question,

Quella cetra gentil, &c.
The harp, that whilom on the reedy shore
Of Mincius, to the listening shepherds sung
Such strains, as never haply, or before
Or sithence, mid the mountain cliffs have rung
Of Maenalus, or on Lycaeus hoar;
And sounded next, to bolder music strung,
The gifts of Pales, and what perils bore,
What toils achiev'd, that Phrygian goddess-sprung,
Now on an aged oak, making the gloom
More awful, hangs; where, if the wind have stirr'd,
Seems as a proud and angry voice were heard:
"Let none with unwise hardiment presume
To touch me; for, once vocal at command
Of Tityrus, I brook no meaner hand."

As to what Gray has said of "the bad ear" of Collins, and "the no choice at all of his words and images;" the latter, as far as the imagery is concerned, is plainly inconsistent with the praise he has bestowed on him. For his want of ear, the same charge has been brought against him by Johnson, who tells its that "his lines commonly are of slow motion, clogged and impeded with clusters of consonants;" so I suppose there is an end of the matter; though I would fain put in a word on his behalf even on this point. Thomas Warton pronounced the same judgment on Milton, but has surely merited the punishment of Midas for his pains