1819 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Richard Henry Dana, in Review of Hazlitt's English Poets; North American Review [Boston] 8 (March 1819) 307-09.



Collins' fame is well established, and his character understood, notwithstanding Johnson would have made the world as insensible to his merits as he himself was. About Gray we still hold disputes. He is no favourite with Mr. Coleridge, we believe, and there is some truth in the remark that his personifications sometimes depend more upon the capital letter which they begin with, than any property they possess, to produce the effect of an image upon our minds. They would have stood but a poor chance of distinction in the pages of some old books where every noun is complimented in the same way. Gray certainly often deceived himself and his readers into the belief, that they were in the midst of a poetical scenery and a crowd of imagery, when all, in fact, was general, undefined and confused to the eye. There was a talk of a multitude of things, but no reality. Yet there. is a tender and sentimental moralizing, which is pleasant and good for its. And though he has stolen more than any other man who has written so little, and has sometimes injured what he stole, still there is often a highly poetical character, and a taste and richness in his epithets and combinations.

Mr. Hazlitt says of the "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eaton College," though mechanical, "it touches on certain strings about the heart that vibrate in unison with it to our latest breath. No one ever passes by 'Windsor's stately heights,' without thinking of Gray."

We can hardly believe that Gray's Pindaric Odes are generally given up at present, and we think with him and Beattie, and against the opinion of Mr. Hazlitt, that the Elegy is not his greatest production. We had much rather have written the Bard. It required another and a much higher order of mind. It is a poem of vast and awful conception, and is sustained with terrible energy. There is nothing of conceit in the startling abruptness of the opening, but it is in perfect agreement with the state of superstitious dread, which was the only kind of terrour fitted to move the bold and barbarous minds of that age. The situation of the Bard, and then again of Edward and his army, opens as wild, dark and grand a scene, as ever lay before us. It is not made out by nice delineations, or a multiplying of particulars, — but one or two grand, leading circumstances, told to us in close and energetic and at the same time picturesque language, turn our light imagination into a gloomy and awful region of bare and rough mountains, wandered over by giant forms.

Such were the sounds that o'er the crested pride
Of the first Edward scatter'd wild dismay,
As down the steep of Snowdon's shaggy side
He wound with toilsome march his long array.
Stout Glo'ster stood aghast in speechless trance:
To arms! cried Mortimer, and couch'd his quiv'ring lance.

It is in vain to say that any other than a mind of lofty poetical conceptions could have so imagined and expressed this. There are instances in the Bard of the faults we just now mentioned; but all and more than we have said, or have time to say, is due to it as a whole. To his character and to his prose writings Mr. Hazlitt has done justice. We have still better authority to the merits of his letters; for .Cowper somewhere says, that "they have all the wit, without any of the ill nature of Swift's." He is almost the only man of whom it can be said, his wit alone makes the heart better.

We should not have said thus much of Gray — and we have been able to do no more than hint an opinion — were not his situation singularly unfortunate. Those who call themselves of the school of genuine English poetry, say that he is not of them, — that he wants truth and closeness of description, for the eye to dwell upon and run over its parts, — that he is too vague, — that he does not seem to be in love with nature and the character of his fellow men — that he studied these too little, and books too much. There is some truth in this, but it is carried too far; and those of the present day, who are so inveterately natural, are in some little danger of putting nature herself to school. They have looked at nature closely, but rather too much in one aspect, and with a set of feelings and associations that want variety. And when a mind, without doubt poetical, works in a way differing from their rules, they shut it out from their number. They are wrong in this, and we think them far from right in the sweeping clause of excommunication against Gray, with all his faults. Perhaps, however, this treatment towards him was to be expected from such men. But, surely, it was a matter of surprise, that those who are not of the vulgar — who never soil their shoes in muddy lanes or in the wet grass, of a morning — who make mouths at their mother tongue, and have only "fed on the dainties that are bred in a book," — should turn their backs upon a man who was as classical and fastidious as heart could wish — who "spoke scholarly and wisely," and was always in his very best apparel. We can give no reason for it, unless it was that the true native genius of English poetry was easily discovered through these disguises. We think it was; and for this, we like him, and for this he should fare better with the English school. Though Milton's learning was the occasion of some faults of manner, he had a mind strong enough to bear up under it, and put it all to use. Gray would have been a better poet had he been less of a scholar.