The Bard was written between 1755 and 1757; its brief character of Elizabeth Tudor likely owes something to Spenser whose "fairy Fiction," the Bard predicts, will restore the British poetry destroyed with the Welsh bards. Along with Joseph Warton's Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1756) Thomas Gray's oft-reprinted Pindaric ode did much to establish the triad of Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton as the central axis of British romantic poetry. The condensation and combination of the three verse characters, in effect merging them into one voice, is but one of many striking effects in Gray's poem.
Headnote: "The following Ode is founded on a Tradition current in Wales, that EDWARD THE FIRST, when he compleated the conquest of that country, ordered all the Bards, that fell into his hands, to be put to death" p. 12.
Thomas Gray to William Mason: "There is no faith in man, no, not in a Welch-man, and yet Mr. Parry has been here and scratched out such ravishing blind harmony, such tunes of a thousand years old, with names enough to choke you, as have set all this learned body a-dancing, and inspired them with due reverence for Odikle [The Bard], whenever it shall appear. Mr. Parry (you must know) it was that has put Odikle in motion again, and with much exercise it has got a tender tail grown, like Scroddles [Mason], and here it is; if you do not like it, you may kiss it.... I am well aware of many weakly things here, but I hope the end will do. Pray give me your full and true opinion, and that not upon deliberation, but forthwith. Mr. Hurd himself allows that 'lion-port' is not too bold for Queen Elizabeth" May 1757; Correspondence of Gray and Mason, ed. John Mitford (1853) 80-82.
William Mason in his notes records that the conclusion gave Gray a great deal of trouble: "I promised the reader, in the 237th page of the Memoirs, to give him, in this place, the original argument of this capital Ode, as its author had set it down on one of the pages of his common-place book. It is as follows: 'The army of Edward I. as they march through a deep valley, are suddenly stopped by the appearance of a venerable figure seated on the summit of an inaccessible rock, who, with a voice more than human, reproaches the King with all the misery and desolation which he had brought on his country; foretells the misfortunes of the Norman race, and with prophetic spirit declares, that all his cruelty shall never extinguish the noble ardour of poetic genius in this island; and that men shall never be wanting to celebrate true virtue and valour in immortal strains, to expose vice and infamous pleasure, and boldly censure tyranny and oppression. His song ended, he precipitates himself from the mountain, and is swallowed up by the river that rolls at its foot.' Fine as the conclusion of this Ode is at present, I think it would have been still finer, if he could have executed it according to this plan; but unhappily for his purpose, instances of English Poets were wanting. Spenser had that enchanting flow of verse which was peculiarly calculated 'to celebrate Virtue and Valour'; but he chose to celebrate them, not literally, but in allegory. Shakespear, who had talents for every thing, was undoubtedly capable 'of exposing Vice and infamous Pleasure'; and the drama was a proper vehicle for his satire: but we do not ever find that he professedly made this his object; nay, we know that, in one inimitable character, he has so contrived as to make vices of the worst kind, such as cowardice, drunkenness, dishonesty, and lewdness, not only laughable, but almost amiable; for with all these sins on his head, who can help liking Falstaffe? Milton, of all our great Poets, was the only one 'who boldly censured Tyranny and Oppression': but he chose to deliver this censure, not in poetry, but in prose. Dryden was a mere court parasite to the most infinite of all courts. Pope, with all his laudable detestation of corruption and bribery, was a Tory; and Addison, though a Whig and a fine writer, was unluckily not enough of a Poet for his purpose. On these considerations Mr. Gray was necessitated to change his plan towards the conclusion: Hence we perceive, that in the last epode he praises Spenser only 'for his allegory,' Shakespear 'for his powers of moving the passions,' and Milton 'for his epic excellence.' I remember the Ode lay unfinished by him for a year or two on this very account; and I hardly believe that it would ever have had his last hand but for the circumstance of his hearing Parry play on the Welch Harp at a concert at Cambridge, (see Letter xxv. sect. iv.) which he often declared inspired him with the conclusion" Poems of Gray (1775) 91-92n.
Critical Review: "The subject is exquisitely chosen, and the piece executed by the hand of a master. One of the bards, who escaped this cruel massacre, is exhibited on the brow of a promontory, pronouncing imprecations against Edward and his posterity. This, we apprehend, is one of the most striking attitudes that ever were encountered" 5 (August 1757) 170.
Monthly Review: "The circumstances of grief and horror in the preparation of the votive web, and the mystic obscurity with which the prophecies are delivered, will give as much pleasure to those who relish this species of composition, as any thing that has hitherto appeared in our language, the Odes of Dryden himself not excepted" 17 (September 1757) 242.
Percival Stockdale: "If the reasoning, and sentiments of a Poem are at all obscure, it's Authour has defeated the aim of Poetry, which is, immediately to affect the mind. It deserves not to be read. But if the subject of a Poem is obscure, or not generally known, or not interesting, and if it abounds with allusions, and facts of this improper, and uninteresting character, the writer who chuses the subject, and introduces those improper, and unaffecting allusions, and facts, betrays a great want of poetical judgment, and taste. Mr. Gray had a vitiated fondness for such insipid fable, narrative, and references" in An Inquiry into the Nature, and Genuine Laws of Poetry (1778) 102-03.
Richard Graves: "A new aera or school of poetry seems to have commenced with Mr. Gray, as different from the simplicity of Addison, Pope, and Parnel, as Pindar's or Horace's Odes from Homer or Virgil; and, as the sublime, which is the characteristic of Gray, often borders on obscurity, some passages in his poems might, perhaps, be interpreted according to the inclination of the reader" Lucubrations (1786) 218n.
Anna Seward to Francis Noel Clarke Mundy: "So your learned pedant asserted, that nothing could be more absurd than the idea, in Gray's Welch Bard, that the victorious army of Edward were alarmed, and that one of it chiefs stood entranced, at the voice of an old man from a rock. He who could talk thus of Gray's Old Man, must have an imagination dull as that of an old woman, whose youth had been occupied in making pies and puddings, — and nursing rickety children. He an admirer of Shakespeare! Whip me such critics, and such admirers, round Parnassus, O ye muses!" 10 October 1787; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 1:342.
Edward Gardner: "Another excellence observable in Gray, is his judicious use of Alliteration. Johnson snarls at this art, as detracting from sublimity; but our poet has applied it in such a manner, that it adds to, rather than lessens the force of the idea. Alliteration is skilfully used when it fixes the attention on a striking thought or epithet. 'Ruin seize thee, ruthless King.' Here the emphasis and the alliteration fall together, and point out the cause and the occasion of it; and many more such instances might be produced" in "The Poetry of Gray" Miscellanies, in Prose and Verse (1798) 1:39-40.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "An Author is obscure, when his conceptions are dim and imperfect, and his language incorrect, or unappropriate, or involved. A poem that abounds in allusions, like the Bard of Gray, or one that impersonates high and abstract truths, like Collins's Ode on the poetical character, claims not to be popular — but should be acquitted of obscurity. The deficiency is in the Reader. But this is a charge which every poet, whose imagination is warm and rapid, must expect from his contemporaries. Milton did not escape it; and it was adduced with virulence against Gray and Collins. We now hear no more of it; not that their poems are better understood at present, than they were at their first publication; but their fame is established; and a critic would accuse himself of frigidity or inattention, who should profess not to understand them" preface to Poems (1803) ix-x.
Percival Stockdale: "The whole strain, and pictures of the poem deserve our admiration. The concluding stanza (that part of a poem which should always particularly draw forth the attention, and exertion of the poet) is extremely interesting; not only by its peculiar poetical excellence but by the series of elegant, and grand objects, which are brought to our lively, and ardent recollection. The moral, and inexhaustible magick of Spenser; the all-subduing muse of Shakespeare; the empress of the heart of man; the unequalled, and heavenly sublime of Milton; the graceful, and powerful negligence of Dryden, which conquers while it seems to play; the ethereal spirit, and the captivating harmony of Pope, are predicted, and painted in numbers worthy, of the national glory which they anticipate" Lectures on the truly eminent English Poets (1807) 2:588-89.
Thomas James Mathias: "He was indeed the inventor, it may be strictly said so, of a new lyrical metre in his own tongue. The peculiar formation of his strophe, antistrophe, and epode was unknown before him; and it could only have been planned and perfected by a master genius, who was equally skilled by long and repeated study, and by transfusion into his own mind, of the lyrick compositions of ancient Greece, and of the higher canzoni of the Tuscan poets 'di maggior carme e suono;' as it is termed in the commanding energy of their language. Antecedent to 'The Progress of Poetry' and to 'The Bard,' no such lyricks had appeared. There is not an ode in the English language which is constructed, like these two compositions, with such power, such majesty, and such sweetness, with such proportioned pauses and just cadences, with such regulated measures of the verse, with such master principles of lyrical art displayed and exemplified, and, at the same time, with such a concealment of the difficulty, which is lost in the softness and uninterrupted flowing of the lines in each stanza with such a musical magick, that every verse in it in succession dwells on the ear, and harmonizes with that which has gone before. If indeed the veil of classical reverence and of pardonable prejudice can be awhile removed, and if with honest unshrinking criticism we consider the subject as exemplified in Greece, and in Italy ancient and modern, and weigh the merits of any single composition of Pindar, of Horace, of Dante, of Petrarch, or of any of their successors, it will fade before that excellence which encompasses, with an incommunicable brightness, THE BARD OF GRAY" Works of Gray, ed. Mathias (1814) 2:607-08.
Richard Lovell Edgeworth and Maria Edgeworth: "This story depends upon nothing more than tradition. — It is a tradition, however, that has furnished a subject for a very fine ode, which, although it is obscure, has obtained a high rank in English poetry, a rank which it has preserved, notwithstanding the criticisms of Doctor Johnson, in his life of Gray. — An author like Johnson, who is himself a poet, should be cautious how he takes to pieces the structure of any work of imagination, which has gained the approbation of the public. His own poetry, is subject to a similar process, and he must be a poet of the very highest powers whose works can bear to be thus scrutinised. — I shall not trouble my young reader with criticisms, but I shall proceed with the poem, requesting indulgence in the arduous task which I have undertaken. It would not be difficult to explain this ode to persons used to the Lyric eccentricities of the ancients, — Lyric poetry is a certain species of poetry usually sung to the lyre, and in which the boldest flights of imagination, and the greatest irregularities of expression were allowed. It is not easy to make children attend to an explanation of that which they fancy they already understand; nor is it easy, after they have heard the praises lavished upon a poem, to make them perceive that parts of it are inaccurate. — Therefore to attempt to explain Gray's celebrated Bard, is a task much more difficult, than to explain an ordinary poem, which prejudice had neither extolled nor depreciated above or below its merit" Readings in Poetry (1816) 142-44.
Joseph Cradock: "Garrick, it was well known, was a great mimick, and by his imitation at times rendered Johnson absolutely ridiculous. He would, in Johnson's uncouth manner, growl over four lines of Gray's Bard, without articulating many of the words. Once, however, amongst some partial friends, after a supper in Southampton-street, I ventured to assure Garrick that I could give those lines of 'Ruin seize thee, ruthless king,' without articulating any word at all; and, after a trail, this honourable palm was yielded up to me" Literary and Miscellaneous Memoirs (1828) 1:37.
George Saintsbury: "In a letter to West, when the writer was about six-and-twenty, we find it stated with equal dogmatism, truth, and independence of authority that 'the language of the age is never the language of poetry except among the French, whose verse, where the thought or image does not support it, differs nothing from prose,' with a long and valuable citation, illustrating this defence of 'poetic diction,' and no doubt thereby arousing the wrath of Wordsworth. Less developed, but equally important and equally original, is the subsequent description of our language as not being 'a settled thing' like the French. Gray, indeed, makes this with explicit reference only to the revival of archaisms, which he defends; but, as we see from other places as well as by natural deduction, it extends to reasonable neologisms also. In this respect Gray is with all the best original writers, from Chaucer and Langland downwards, but against a respectably mistaken body of critics who would fain not merely introduce the caste system into English, but, like Sir Boyle Roche, make it hereditary in this caste not to have any children" History of English Criticism (1911) 249-50.
The third act of James Boaden's Cambro-Britons (1798) is a dramatization of Gray's Bard.
"Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!
Confusion on thy banners wait,
Though fann'd by Conquest's crimson wing
They mock the air with idle state!
Helm, nor Hauberk's twisted mail,
Nor even thy virtues, Tyrant, shall avail
To save thy secret soul from nightly fears,
From Cambria's curse, from Cambria's tears!"
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 quivering lance.
On a rock, whose haughty brow
Frowns o'er old Conway's foaming flood,
Robed in the sable garb of woe,
With haggard eyes the Poet stood;
(Loose his beard, and hoary hair
Stream'd, like a meteor, to the troubled air)
And, with a Master's hand and Prophet's fire,
Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre.
"Hark, how each giant-oak, and desert cave,
Sighs to the torrent's aweful voice beneath!
O'er thee, oh King! their hundred arms they wave,
Revenge on thee in hoarser murmurs breathe;
Vocal no more, since Cambria's fatal day,
To high-born Hoel's harp, or soft Llewellyn's lay.
"Cold is Cadwallo's tongue,
That hush'd the stormy main:
Brave Urien sleeps upon his craggy bed:
Mountains, ye mourn in vain
Modred, whose magic song
Made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-top'd head.
On dreary Arvon's shore they lie,
Smear'd with gore, and ghastly pale:
Far, far aloof th' affrighted ravens sail;
The famish'd Eagle screams, and passes by.
Dear lost companions of my tuneful art,
Dear, as the light, that visits these sad eyes,
Dear, as the ruddy drops that warm my heart,
Ye died amidst your dying country's cries—
No more I weep. They do not sleep.
On yonder cliffs, a griesly band,
I see them sit, they linger yet,
Avengers of their native land:
With me in dreadful harmony they join,
And weave with bloody hands the tissue of thy line.
"'Weave the warp, and weave the woof,
The winding-sheet of Edward's race.
Give ample room, and verge enough
The characters of hell to trace.
Mark the year, and mark the night,
When Severn shall re-eccho with affright
The shrieks of death, thro' Berkley's roofs that ring,
Shrieks of an agonizing King!
She-Wolf of France, with unrelenting fangs,
That tear'st the bowels of thy mangled Mate,
From thee be born, who o'er thy country hangs
The scourge of Heav'n. What terrors round him wait!
Amazement in his van, with Flight combined,
And sorrow's faded form, and solitude behind.
"'Mighty Victor, mighty Lord,
Low on his funeral couch he lies!
No pitying heart, no eye, afford
A tear to grace his obsequies.
Is the sable Warriour fled?
Thy son is gone. He rests among the Dead.
The Swarm, that in thy noon-tide beam were born?
Gone to salute the rising Morn.
Fair laughs the Morn, and soft the Zephyr blows,
While proudly riding o'er the azure realm
In gallant trim the gilded Vessel goes;
Youth on the prow, and Pleasure at the helm;
Regardless of the sweeping Whirlwind's sway,
That, hush'd in grim repose, expects his evening-prey.
"'Fill high the sparkling bowl,
The rich repast prepare,
Reft of a crown, he yet may share the feast:
Close by the regal chair
Fell Thirst and Famine scowl
A baleful smile upon their baffled Guest.
Heard ye the din of battle bray,
Lance to lance, and horse to horse?
Long Years of havock urge their destined course,
And thro' the kindred squadrons mow their way.
Ye Towers of Julius, London's lasting shame,
With many a foul and midnight murther fed,
Revere his Consort's faith, his Father's fame,
And spare the meek Usurper's holy head.
Above, below, the rose of snow,
Twined with her blushing foe, we spread:
The bristled Boar in infant-gore
Wallows beneath the thorny shade.
Now, Brothers, bending o'er th' accursed loom,
Stamp we our vengeance deep, and ratify his doom.
"'Edward, lo! to sudden fate
(Weave we the woof. The thread is spun.)
Half of thy heart we consecrate.
(The web is wove. The work is done.)'
Stay, oh stay! nor thus forlorn
Leave me unbless'd, unpitied, here to mourn:
In yon bright track, that fires the western skies,
They melt, they vanish from my eyes.
But oh! what solemn scenes on Snowdon's height
Descending slow their glittering skirts unroll?
Ye unborn Ages, crowd not on my soul!
No more our long-lost Arthur we bewail.
All-hail, ye genuine Kings, Britannia's Issue, hail!
"Girt with many a Baron bold
Sublime their starry fronts they rear;
And gorgeous Dames, and Statesmen old
In bearded majesty, appear.
In the midst a Form divine!
Her eye proclaims her of the Briton-Line;
Her lyon-port, her awe-commanding face,
Attemper'd sweet to virgin-grace.
What strings symphonious tremble in the air,
What strains of vocal transport round her play!
Hear from the grave, great Taliessin, hear;
They breathe a soul to animate thy clay.
Bright Rapture calls, and, soaring, as she sings,
Waves in the eye of Heav'n her many-colour'd wings.
"The verse adorn again
Fierce War, and faithful Love,
And Truth severe, by fairy Fiction drest.
In buskin'd measures move
Pale Grief, and pleasing Pain,
With Horrour, Tyrant of the throbbing breast.
A Voice, as of the Cherub-Choir,
Gales from blooming Eden bear;
And distant warblings lessen on my ear,
That lost in long futurity expire.
Fond impious Man, think'st thou yon sanguine cloud,
Rais'd by thy breath, has quench'd the Orb of day?
To-morrow he repairs the golden flood,
And warms the nations with redoubled ray.
Enough for me: with joy I see
The different doom our Fates assign.
Be thine Despair, and scept'red Care;
To triumph, and to die, are mine."
He spoke, and headlong, from the mountain's height
Deep in the roaring tide he plung'd to endless night.