1772 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

James Boswell, "Sketch of the Character of the celebrated Mr. Gray" London Magazine 41 (March 1772) 140.



The great and universal fame which Mr. Gray acquired by the few, but very excellent poetical pieces which he published, and which, both for pathetick, and sublime sentiment and expression, with uncommon elegance and correctness, may be ranked with the Elegiack, and Lyrick productions of any age or country, has rendered him an important character in the literary world. It may indeed be observed, that his poetry was in so superior a stile, that it could be relished only by the few, whose taste is exquisite, and whose minds are cultivated to a high degree. His poetry, to use his own words,

Wing'd its distant way
Above the tenor of a vulgar fate.

And hence we may remark, that upon the death of Churchill, who was a popular poet, a poet who wrote to the times, there were many occasional publications: whereas, upon the death of Mr. Gray, there has been only one, viz. an irregular ode, of which an account has been given in the London Magazine for January last, pag. 31.

It must give great pleasure to all admirers of true genius, to be informed that we are to have the life of Mr. Gray, written by his ingenious friend Mr. Mason. There can be no doubt that this work will be admirably executed, as there are united in Mr. Mason, both the inclination, and the talents to do justice to Mr. Gray; and it is said that Mason, who is Mr. Gray's executor, is to oblige the world with several performances, not only in verse, but in prose, which Mr. Gray left behind him, with full power to his friend to publish whatever he should think proper.

In the mean time, in some degree to gratify a natural and agreeable curiosity, the readers of the London Magazine are presented with a short sketch of the character of Mr. Gray, by a gentleman of much learning and ingenuity, who knew him well.

"Perhaps he was the most learned man in Europe. He was equally acquainted with the elegant and profound parts of science, and not superficially but thoroughly. He knew every branch of history, both natural and civil; had read all the original historians of England, France, and Italy; and was a great antiquarian. Criticism, metaphysicks, morals, politicks made a principal part of his plan of study; voyages and travels of all sorts were his favourite amusement; and he had a fine taste in painting, prints, architecture, and gardening. With such a fund of knowledge, his conversation must have been equally instructing and entertaining; but he was also a good man, a well-bred man, a man of virtue and humanity. There is no character without some speck, some imperfection; and we th ink the greatest defect in his was affectation in delicacy, or rather effeminacy, and a visible fastidiousness, or contempt and disdain of his inferiors in science. He also had in some degree that weakness which disgusted Voltaire so much in Mr. Congreve: Though he seemed to value others, chiefly according to the progress they had made in knowledge; yet he could not bear to be considered himself merely as a man of letters, and though without birth or fortune, or station, his desire was to be looked upon as a private independent gentleman, who read for his amusement. Perhaps it may be said, what signifies so much knowledge, when it produced so little? It is worth taking so much pains to leave no memorial but a few poems? But let it be considered that Mr. Gray was to others, at least innocently employed; to himself, certainly beneficially. His time passed agreeably; he was every day making some new acquisition in science; his mind was enlarged, his heart softened, his virtue strengthened; the world and mankind were shewn to him without a mask; and he was taught to consider every thing as trifling, and unworthy of the attention of a wise man, except the pursuit of knowledge, and the practice of virtue, in that state wherein God hath placed us."