1750
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

A Long Story.

Designs by Mr. R. Bentley, for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray.

Thomas Gray


First published in 1753 with Richard Bentley's engravings. Thomas Gray's burlesque tale of magic and intrigue is unique in his oeuvre, though it fits nicely into a developing thread of narrative verse. Gray's allusions and borrowings are seldom obvious, though his guileful gallantry and sexual inversions have precedent in the Rape of the Lock, the courtly themes in Colin's Mistakes (not yet identified as by Matthew Prior), the burlesque fantastic in Parnell's A Fairy Tale, and the comic gothic in John Hughes's The Morning Apparition. In turn Coleridge's Christabel owes some of its queer self-reflexiveness to A Long Story, and Keats probably follows Gray as well as Coleridge in The Eve of St. Agnes. The fragmentary narrative describes a social call enveloped in faux Elizabethan trappings.

William Mason: "Lady Cobham, who now lived at the mansion-house at Stoke-Pogis, had read and admired [Gray's Elegy in manuscript]. She wished to be acquainted with the author; accordingly her relation Miss Speed and Lady Schaub, then at her house, undertook to bring this about by making him the first visit. He happened to be from home, when the Ladies arrived at his Aunt's solitary mansion; and, when he returned, was surprized to find, written on one of his papers in the parlour where he usually read, the following note: 'Lady Schaub's compliments to Mr. Gray; she is sorry not to have found him at home, to tell him that lady Brown is very well.' This necessarily obliged him to return the visit, and soon after induced himm to compose a ludicrous account of this little adventure for the amusement of the Ladies in question. He wrote it in ballad measure, and entitled it a Long Story: when it was handed about in manuscript, nothing could be more various than the opinions concerning it; by some it was thought a master-piece of original humour, by others a wild and fantastic farrago; and when it was published, the sentiments of good judges were equally divided about it" Poems of Mr. Gray, ed. Mason (1775) 211.

William Mason's note: "The mansion-house at Stoke Pogis, then in the possession of Viscountess Cobham. The style of building, which we now call Queen Elizabeth's, is here admirably described, both with regard to its beauties and defects; and the third and fourth stanzas delineate the fantastic manners of her time with equal truth and humour. The house formerly belonged to the Earls of Huntingdon and the family of Hatton" Poems of Mr. Gray, ed. Mason (1775) 214n.

Thomas Gray to Thomas Wharton: "The verses, which you so kindly try to keep in countenance, were written merely to divert Lady Cobham and her family, and succeeded accordingly; but being shewed about in town, are not liked there at all. Mrs. *, a very fashionable personage, told Mr. Walpole that she had seen a thing by a friend of his which she did not know what to make of, for it aimed at every thing, and meant nothing; to which he replied, that he had always taken her for a woman of sense, and was very sorry to be undeceived" 17 December 1750; Poems of Mr. Gray, ed. Mason (1775) 221.

Percival Stockdale: "That Mr. Gray should have authorized the publication of that confused, and tedious Poem, in the splendid edition of his best pieces, with Bentley's Designs, is a surprizing Phaenomenon in the literary world, and a very singular proof that an Authour is unqualified to judge of his own productions" in An Inquiry into the Nature, and Genuine Laws of Poetry (1778) 112-13.

John Penn: "On the death of Lady Cobham, the estate was purchased from her executors, by the family now in possession of it [the Penns]. The interior of the ancient mansion being found in a state of considerable decay, it was taken down in the year 1789, with the exception of a wing; which was preserved, partly for the sake of its effect as a ruin, harmonizing with the church-yard, the poet's house, and the surrounding scenery" Penn, Poems (1801) 1:64n.

Percival Stockdale: "The state of the authour's mind when he wrote the Long Story, to susceptible, and congenial minds, will account for the wildness, and extravagance of its humour, and its pictures. A poet, who had no very considerable worldly, and vulgar pretensions, was, undoubtedly, extremely pleased with the new attention which his genius had drawn from ladies of high rank, and fortune. This very flattering accident threw him into a kind of rapture which he probably had not before experienced, of playful thoughts, and, grotesque ideas, which he lavished on this long story; with more exuberance than judgement; with, more effort than wit: yet it must have been interesting to the self-love, and entertaining to the fancy of the persons to whom it was addressed. It could only have been written by a man of genius; but I cannot class it with Mr. Gray's happy productions" Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 2:621.

Joseph Cradock: "From recollection I am sure Lord Sandwich was aware of him; for, about the time he offered himself as High Steward, contrary to his usual maxim of not seeing an enemy on public occasions, he once said to me, I have my private reasons for knowing of his absolute inveteracy. Of this I have now seen proof in the poem of Jemmy Twitcher, published by Mr. Mitford, and directly applying to that contest. His Long Story indeed had been printed; but the world in general did not see the meaning of it, and it was every where disputed whether there was any humour or not" Literary and Miscellaneous Memoirs (1828) 4:223-24.

Leigh Hunt: "The Long Story is so entitled in depreciation of any tedium which the reader might experience in perusing a poetical adventure of the author's who was too sensitive on such points. He pleasantly pretends that he has omitted five hundred stanzas. The occasion of the poem was a visit paid him by two ladies, who did him the honor of being their own introducers. Gray was at the house of his aunt, in his native village of Stoke Pogeis, near Windsor. His mother was there also. The Viscountess Cobham, who possessed the mansion-house of the place, wished to make the poet's acquaintance. The ladies in question undertook to break the ice for her. Not finding him at home, they left a card, intimating that they came to tell him of the good health of a Lady Brown, a friend of his. Shy and sequestered as he was, the poet returned the visit; and he takes the opportunity of describing the house, and complimenting its inmates.... Gray's pleasantry came to him through his melancholy, assisted by the general delicacy of his perceptions, and his willingness to be pleased. Though a little too cautious of committing his dignity, he was not one of those who 'take a calamity for an affront.' He was willing to give and to receive pleasure, and this is a disposition which Nature is sure to reward. In the Long Story we see him hesitating at first whether he should go to the 'great house.' He was not only loth to be disturbed in his sequestered habits; he was jealous of what might be thought of his humble independence, and his footing as a 'gentleman.' (He was the son of a scrivener.) But good-nature prevails, not unaccompanied by a willingness to find himself among ladies of rank and elegance; and though he might as well have dropped the circumstance of his secreting himself, he has made a charming picture both of the interview of the ladies with his mother and aunt (whom he pretends they pinched and 'rummaged' like fairies), and of the great Elizabethan house, with its old associations, — things in which he delighted; for he was an antiquary with all the zest of a poet. The whole poem is full of picturesqueness, fancy, and wit" Selections from English Authors, in Works (1854) 3:140-41.

Ralph Straus: "His friend, the younger Richard Bentley, a son of the famous Master of Trinity, was an artist, and Walpole seems to have suggested to Gray that his six Odes should be published in one volume with illustrations by Bentley. Dodsley was naturally eager, but seems to have objected not only to the price proposed — half a guinea — but also to the word 'Ode' — one of the six poems being the Long Story. 'I do not wonder at Dodsley,' writes Gray in reply to a letter from Walpole on the point; 'You have talked to him of six Odes, for so you are pleased to call everything I write, though it be but a receipt to make apple-dumplings. He has reason to gulp when he finds one of them only a long story.' The volume, it seems, had already been printed off, but Dodsley was still doubtful about the price, and therefore suggested that an engraving should be taken from Walpole's picture of Mr. Gray — by Eckhardt — to make a frontispiece. This was a common enough practice at the time, and Dodsley thought that it would help to make purchasers believe they were getting full value for their money" Robert Dodsley (1910) 159.

After its appearance in Designs by Mr. R. Bentley, for Six Poems, Thomas Gray tried to suppress A Long Story, which had its next official publication in William Mason's Memoirs of Gray. A continuation, dated 1783, was published by John Penn of Stoke Park in Poems (1801), and a continuation of that continuation, by Henry James Pye in Verses on Several Subjects (1802). Like Gray, the grandson of William Penn and the poet laureate are duly attentive to the spirit of the place, and each introduces a new ghost associated with the house.



In Britain's Isle, no matter where,
An ancient pile of building stands:
The Huntingdons and Hattons there
Employ'd the power of Fairy hands

To raise the cieling's fretted height,
Each pannel in achievements cloathing,
Rich windows that exclude the light,
And passages, that lead to nothing.

Full oft within the spatious walls,
When he had fifty winters o'er him,
My grave Lord-Keeper led the Brawls;
The Seal, and Maces, danc'd before him.

His bushy beard, and shoe-strings green,
His high-crown'd hat, and sattin-doublet,
Mov'd the stout heart of England's Queen,
Tho' Pope and Spaniard could not trouble it.

What, in the very first beginning!
Shame of the versifying tribe!
Your Hist'ry whither are you spinning?
Can you do nothing but describe?

A House there is, (and that's enough)
From whence one fatal morning issues
A brace of Warriors, not in buff,
But rustling in their silks and tissues.

The first came cap-a-pee from France
Her conqu'ring destiny fulfilling,
Whom meaner Beauties eye askance,
And vainly ape her art of killing.

The other Amazon kind Heaven
Had arm'd with spirit, wit, and satire:
But COBHAM had the polish given,
And tip'd her arrows with good-nature.

To celebrate her eyes, her air—
Coarse panegyricks would be teaze her.
Melissa is her Nom de Guerre.
Alas, who would not wish to please her!

With bonnet blue and capucine,
And aprons long they hid their armour,
And veil'd their weapons bright and keen
In pity to the country-farmer.

Fame in the shape of Mr. P—t
(By this time all the Parish know it)
Had told, that thereabouts there lurk'd
A wicked Imp they called a Poet,

Who prowl'd the country far and near,
Bewitch'd the children of the peasants,
Dried up the cows, and lam'd the deer,
And suck'd the eggs, and kill'd the pheasants.

My Lady heard their joint petition,
Swore by her coronet and ermine,
She'd issue out her high commission
To rid the manour of such vermin.

The Heroines undertook the task,
Thro' lanes unknown, they ventur'd,
Rap'd at the door, nor stay'd to ask,
But bounce into the parlour enter'd.

The trembling family they daunt,
They flirt, they laugh, they tattle,
Rummage his Mother, pinch his Aunt,
And up stairs in a whirlwind rattle.

Each hole and cupboard they explore,
Each creek and cranny of his chamber,
Run hurry-skurry round the floor,
And o'er the bed and tester clamber,

Into the Drawers and China pry,
Papers and books, a huge Imbroglio!
Under a tea-cup he might lie,
Or creased, like dogs-ears, in a folio.

On the first marching of the troops
The Muses, hopeless of his pardon,
Convey'd him underneath their hoops
To a small closet in the garden.

So Rumor says. (Who will, believe.)
But that they left the door a-jar,
Where, safe and laughing in his sleeve,
He heard the distant din of war.

Short was his joy. He little knew,
The power of Magick was no fable.
Out of the window, whisk, they flew,
But left a spell upon the table.

The words too eager to unriddle
The Poet felt a strange disorder:
Transparent birdlime form'd the middle,
And chains invisible the border.

So cunning was the Apparatus,
The powerful pothooks did so move him,
That, will he, nill he, to the Great-house
He went, as if the Devil drove him.

Yet on his way (no sign of grace,
For folks in fear are apt to pray)
To Phoebus he prefer'd his case,
And beg'd his aid that dreadful day.

The Godhead would have back'd his quarrel,
But with a blush on recollection
Own'd, that his quiver and his laurel
'Gainst four such eyes were no protection.

The Court was sate, the Culprit there,
Forth from their gloomy mansions creeping
The Lady Janes and Joans repair,
And from the gallery stand peeping:

Such as in silence of the night
Come (sweep) along some winding entry
(Styack has often seen the sight)
Or at the chappel-door stand sentry;

In peaked hoods and mantles tarnish'd,
Sour visages, enough to scare ye,
High Dames of honour once, that garnish'd
The drawing-room of fierce Queen Mary!

The Peeress comes. The Audience stare,
And doff their hats with due submission:
She curtsies, as she takes her chair,
To all the People of condition.

The Bard with many an artful fib,
Had in imagination fenc'd him,
Disprov'd the arguments of Squib,
And all that Groom could urge against him.

But soon his rhetorick forsook him,
When he the solemn hall had seen;
A sudden fit of ague shook him,
He stood as mute as poor Macleane.

Yet something he was heard to mutter,
"How in the park beneath an old tree
(Without design to hurt the butter,
Or any malice to the poultry,)

"He once or twice had pen'd a sonnet;
Yet hoped, that he might save his bacon:
Numbers would give their oaths upon it,
He ne'er was for a conj'rer taken."

The ghostly Prudes with hagged face
Already had condemn'd the sinner.
My Lady rose, and with a grace—
She smiled, and bid him come to dinner.

"Jesu-Maria! Madame Bridget,
Why, what can the Viscountess mean?
(Cried the square Hoods in woful fidget)
The times are alter'd quite and clean!

"Decorum's turn'd to mere civility;
Her air and all her manners shew it.
Commend me to her affability!
Speak to a Commoner and Poet!"

[Here 500 Stanzas are lost.]

And so God save our noble King,
And guard us from long-winded Lubbers,
That to eternity would sing,
And keep my Lady from her Rubbers.

[pp. 14-23]