1802 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Alexander Thomson, in "On the Poetical Character of Gray" Scots Magazine 64 (June 1802) 484.



A poet, so full of originality in the plan, disposition and substance of his pieces, and at the same time, so addicted to imitation in the article of language, that most of his poems might without injustice be called centos, is surely a phenomenon in the history of literature; and exhibits a contrast so singular, as well deserves all the diligence of a critic, to place it in the clearest and most striking light. To this undertaking, I therefore applied myself with that minuteness of attention which the subject demanded; a minuteness, however, which was rendered agreeable by my fondness for the writings of a favourite poet, until at last, I completed what may be considered as a perpetual commentary upon the verses of Gray.

The illustrations collected by Mr. Wakefield are chiefly from the classics, although, in most cases, it was quite needless for that learned commentator to carry his researches far from home. From the pages of six of our own poets: of Spencer and Shakespeare, of Milton and Dryden, and of Pope and Thomson, it can easily be proved, that the greater part of Gray's language is derived. Were each of these writers to reclaim with strictness, his own share of that poet's phraseology, his thoughts, however sublime and original, would remain, I am much afraid, for the most part, the mere naked enunications of his meaning, destitute of all poetical embellishment.

I shall no doubt be censured by some readers, for dwelling so often, and with such minuteness on this inquiry into the language of Gray. But as the compositions of that poet are so few in number, and of such brevity, that they may be supposed to have obtained a place in the memory of every one of genuine taste, I trust, that such persons will be far from thinking such an investigation too minute; as they will feel a certain degree of interest in tracing out the origin of almost every line; to which will be added, upon many occasions, the pleasure of beholding, with how much dexterity, the original atoms of diction are improved, by the arts of addition, omission, and combination.