1822 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Tobias Oldschool, Gentleman, "Eminent Authors: Gray" Literary Speculum 1 (March 1822) 307-08.



Few of the English poets have possessed a finer vein of thought than Gray; there is an exquisite pathos in his pieces, which the illiterate, equally with the learned, feel and appreciate. The tones of his lyre are echoed from the chords of the heart; we sympathise with its mournful notes, every sentence breathed from the lips of his pensive muse comes home to our bosoms, and we seem to hear the voice of some dear friend, whose tongue has long forgotten its music in the silence of the grave. The works of Gray are not numerous; he left to his country only a few diamonds, but they are of the finest water, and a few diamonds are more valuable than many pearls. We cannot but regret the brevity of his poems, yet had he never written anything except the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, he would have been entitled to the fame, which he has received from an admiring posterity. Perhaps no performance was ever more read or praised. The very first stanza powerfully arrests our attention; as we proceed, the interest increases, and it is triumphantly supported to the conclusion of the poem. Dr. Johnson, who was not always a candid critic, seems to have desired to depreciate the merit of Gray; yet even he has acknowledged in the most unequivocal manner, that his Elegy was strikingly original, and fully deserved the praise it had received. Indeed, among all the whims of criticism, we have never heard of any attempt to convince the public, that they were wrong as to their opinion of this beautiful production. Speaking of this piece, we may call it, "What oft was thought but ne'er so well express'd," for although the strain of poetry throughout is always dignified, and often sublime, there is a bewitching simplicity in the poet's style, which seems rather to awaken our own recollections, than to excite new ideas. For instance, the train of thought conveyed to the mind, in that part of the Elegy where the subjoined stanza occurs, is so perfectly natural and obvious, that we cannot but wonder no previous writer had adopted it.

Yet even these bones from insult to protect,
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes, and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.

Many other passages of a similar description might be adduced but if we begin quoting from a production like this, we shall not know where to pause, since all its parts are equally admirable. It will be proper, however, to notice a stanza omitted in most editions, but which originally appeared as a parenthesis immediately previous to the epitaph, it is as follows:

There scatter'd oft, the earliest of the year,
By hands unseen, are showers of vi'lets found,
The red-breast loves to build sod warble there,
And little footsteps lightly print the ground.

On the whole, we may safely pronounce the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, to be the most beautiful pathetic effusion in the English language. There have been many imitations of this poem, but the happiest is Cunningham's "Elegy on a Pile of Ruins." The Bard is a remarkably fine production. The commencement, which describes the inspired Son of Song, observing from a rock the march of Edward and his army, is sublime, and the conclusion is spirited, and highly poetical. The Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, and the Ode to Adversity are faultless. But the Progress of Poesy, though it has many beauties, is less fascinating. These are the principal poems of Gray, yet we must not forget his lines on a favorite cat, which, notwithstanding the severe censure of a celebrated critic, is a very pleasing performance, and conveys an excellent moral. But we may, without fear, leave the fame of Gray to the public, who have much too good a taste to be reasoned out of their admiration of poetry so harmonious, interesting, original, and pathetic.