1742 ca.
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[Hymn to Ignorance. A Fragment.]

The Poems of Mr. Gray. To which are prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings by W. Mason, M.A.

Thomas Gray


This early burlesque poem by Thomas Gray was posthumously published by William Mason in 1775; it was written, his editor speculates, upon his return to Cambridge following the unhappy journey to Italy with Horace Walpole. Roger Lonsdale points out as confirming evidence imitations of Book IV of Pope's Dunciad, published 1742. "Ignorance" is a curious fore-echo of the Miltonic gothicism that would dominate academic verse in the next quarter century, of which Gray's own Installation Ode (1769) is a prime example. While there are a few earlier examples of academic Miltonism, this might be considered as yet another example of a standard literary mode originating in the burlesque of a respected English poet.

William Mason: "Though I have said that Mr. Gray, on his return to Cambridge, laid aside Poetry almost entirely, yet I find amongst his papers a small fragment in verse, which bears internal evidence that it was written about this very time.... It seems to have been intended as a Hymn or Address to Ignorance; and I presume, had he proceeded with it, would have contained much good Satire upon false Science and scholastic Pedantry. What he writ of it is purely introductory; yet many of the lines are so strong, and the general cast of the versification so musical, that I believe it will give the generality of Readers a higher opinion of his poetical Talents, than many of his Lyrical Productions have done. I speak of the Generality; because it is a certain fact, that their taste is founded upon the ten-syllable couplets of Dryden and Pope, and upon that only" Poems of Mr. Gray, ed. Mason (1775) 175.

George Dyer: "But, really, the dull round of lecturing, the trifling vanities of public disputations, the little bustle of public offices, and gaudy days, in short, all that Gray, in his fastidious way, called 'college impertinences,' might naturally enough have no particular charm for men of such high minds and such extraordinary delicacy. Gray was entered of Peter House in 1733, and left off attending lectures in 1736. He took an L.L.B. degree in 1744, but never proceeded further" History of the University and Colleges of Cambridge (1814) 2:29.

Edward S. Creasy: "Gray's dislike at this period of his life to Cambridge, in all respects save as a city of libraries, is manifest from the following fragment of a Hymn to Ignorance, written by him soon after he became a resident there.... Many of his letters breathe the same sarcastic spirit in speaking of Cambridge studies and Cambridge men. He afterwards learned to think and speak more kindly and more wisely of his Alma Mater" Memoirs of Eminent Etonians (1850) 305.

James Russell Lowell: "In spite of the dulness of contemporary ears, preoccupied with the continuous hum of the prevailing hurdy-gurdy, it was the prevailing blast of Gray's trumpet that more than anything else called men back to the legitimate standard" "Pope" My Study Windows (1871) 387.

Edmund Gosse: "Gray, the most important poetical figure in our literature between Pope and Wordsworth, was born in London on the 26th of December 1716. He was educated at Eton, where his principal friends were Horace Walpole and Richard West (1717-42), the 'Favonius' of his correspondence, a lad of some tender elegiac promise. From Eton Gray proceeded in 1734 to Cambridge, which was henceforth to be his main domicile. He was admitted to Pembroke, but presently went over as a fellow-commoner to Peterhouse. While he was an undergraduate Gray began to publish Latin verses, and in 1738 to translate classical passages into excellent English verse. In 1739 he accompanied Horace Walpole to France and Italy in a tour which occupied three memorable years, and it was on first crossing the Alps that Gray became impressed with the noble beauty of mountain scenery, which had hitherto been regarded, even by poets, with more horror than admiration. In a letter to West (November 16, 1739) he uses the now famous phrase, describing the Alps, 'not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry.' In 1741 Gray and Walpole, who had been too long in exclusive mutual companionship, quarrelled, and each proceeded home alone; but in 1744 this breach was amicably healed. On the death of his father, which happened two months after the poet's return from Italy, he found the affairs of his family disordered, and in the winter of 1742 he returned to reside at Cambridge. This year, 1742, was that in which he began to be an original English poet. He wrote a fragment of a Thomsonian tragedy, Agrippina, his odes On Spring, On a Distant Prospect of Eton College, and On Adversity, the Sonnet on the Death of West, and began the Elegy in a Country Churchyard. To this fertile year succeeded five of almost total poetic stagnation, during which Gray, a victim to dejection, buried himself among the classics in his rooms at Peterhouse" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 236.



Hail, Horrors, hail! ye ever gloomy bowers,
Ye gothic fanes, and antiquated towers,
Where rushy Camus' slowly-winding flood
Perpetual draws his humid train of mud:
Glad I revisit thy neglected reign,
Oh take me to thy peaceful shade again.

But chiefly thee, whose influence breath'd from high
Augments the native darkness of the sky;
Ah Ignornace! soft salutary Power!
Prostrate with filial reverence I adore.
Thrice hath Hyperion roll'd his annual race,
Since weeping I forsook thy fond embrace.
Oh say, successful do'st thou still oppose
Thy leaden Aegis 'gainst our antient foes?
Still stretch, tenacious of thy right divine,
The massy sceptre o'er thy slumb'ring line?
And dews Lethean thro' the land dispense
To steep in slumbers each benighted sense?
If any spark of Wit's delusive ray
Break out, and flash a momentary day,
With damp, cold touch forbid it to aspire,
And huddle up in fogs the dangerous fire.

Oh say — she hears me not, but careless grown,
Lethargic nods upon her ebon throne.
Goddess! awake, arise, alas my fears!
Can powers immortal feel the force of years?
Not thus of old, with ensigns wide unfurl'd,
She rode triumphant o'er the vanquish'd world;
Fierce nations own'd her unresisted might,
And all was Ignorance, and all was night.

Oh sacred Age! Oh Times for ever lost!
(The School-man's glory, and the Church-man's boast.)
For ever gone — yet still to Fancy new,
Her rapid wings the transient scene pursue,
And bring the buried ages back to view.

High on her car, behold the Grandam ride
Like old Sesostris with barbaric pride;
**** a team of harness'd monarchs bend
*****

[pp. 176-77]