Copy of an original Letter from Mr. Gray to Mr. T. Warton, on the History of English Poetry.

Gentleman's Magazine 53 (February 1783) 100-01.

Thomas Gray

"Communicated by a Gentleman of Oxford" — presumably the recipient. Thomas Gray of Cambridge sends to Thomas Warton at Oxford an outline for a history of literature; he describes Edmund Spenser as the founder of a school that includes Drayton, Fairfax, Phineas Fletcher, Arthur Golding, Thomas Phaer, and John Milton. Gray's scheme is an elaboration of one done by Alexander Pope; in the event, Thomas Warton chose to organize his material as a chronicle rather than by schools.

Thomas Warton replied: "I am infinitely obliged to you for the favour of your letter. Your Plan for the History of English Poetry is admirably constructed, and much improved from an idea of Pope, which Mr. Mason obligingly sent me by application from our friend Dr. Hurd. I regret that a writer of your consummate taste should not have executed it. Although I have not followed this plan, yet it is of great service to me, and throws much light on many of my periods, by giving connected views and details. I begin with such an introduction, or general dissertation, as you had intended: viz. on the Northern Poetry, with its introduction into England by the Danes and Saxons, and its duration. I then begin my History at the conquest, which I write chronologically in sections; and continue, as matter successively offers itself, in a series of regular annals, down to and beyond the Restoration. I think with you that dramatic poetry is detached from the idea of my work, that it requires a separate consideration, and will swell the size of my book beyond all bounds. One of my sections, a very large one, is entirely on Chaucer, and exactly fills your title of Part Second. In the course of my annals, I consider collaterally the poetry of different nations as influencing our own. What I have at present finished ends with the section on Chaucer, and will almost make my first volume: for I design two volumes in quarto. This first volume will soon be in the press. I should have said before, that although I proceed chronologically, yet I often stand still to give some general view, as perhaps of a particular species of poetry, &c. and even anticipate sometimes for this purpose. These views often form one section: yet are interwoven into the tenour of the work, without interrupting my historical series. In this respect, some of my sections have the effect, of your parts or divisions" April 20, 1770; Alexander Chalmers, Works of the English Poets (1810) 18:81.

Richard Hurd to Thomas Gray: "I hope you don't forget, among your other amusements this summer, your design for a history of the English poetry. You might be regulating your plan, and digesting the materials you have by you. I shall teaze you perpetually, till you set about the project in good earnest. It is a wonderful favourite with me, and will, I am certain, in your hands be a work of much use as well as elegance" 16 August 1757; in Correspondence of Hurd and Mason (1932) 37.

Robert Anderson: "The only work which [Gray] meditated upon with that view from the beginning was a History of English Poetry, upon a plan sketched out by Pope. He has mentioned this himself in an advertisement prefixed to those three fine imitations of Norse and Welch poetry, which he gave to the world in the last edition of his poems. But after he had made some considerable preparations for the execution of this design, and Mr. Mason had offered his assistance, he was informed that Mr. Warton was engaged in a work of the same kind. The undertaking was therefore relinquished by mutual consent; and, in 1770, on Mr. Warton's desiring a sight of the plan, he readily sent him the following 'sketch of the arrangement of the subject' in a letter, which was published in the Gentleman's Magazine for February 1783" British Poets (1795) 10:198.

Thomas Campbell: "Those writers [Pope and Gray] had suggested the imposing plan of arranging the British Poets, not by their chronological succession, but their different schools. Warton deliberately relinquished this scheme; because he felt that it was impracticable, except in a very vague and general manner. Poetry is of too spiritual a nature, to admit of its authors being exactly grouped, by a Linnaean system of classification. Striking resemblances and distinctions will, no doubt, be found among poets; but the shades of variety and gradation are so infinite, that to bring every composer within a given line of resemblance, would require a new language in the philosophy of taste. Warton, therefore, adopted the simpler idea of tracing our poetry by its chronological progress" Specimens of the British Poets (1819; 1845) 619

The full text of the letter, with a previously unpublished concluding paragraph, is printed from MS in David Fairer's edition of the correspondence of Thomas Warton.

The 1851 sale catalogue of Gray's library contains the following note describing his 1730-38 edition of Milton's Works: "it is interleaved having thereon an abundance of passages in MS. selected from the Scriptures, and from various Authors, Ancient and Modern, wherein a similitude of thought, or expression, to that of Milton, has been considered to be observable by Gray. In addition to literary value, the writing of these extracts affords a series of specimens of Calligraphy; see in particular the extracts from Greek Authors. The following Authors are quoted, Homer, Theocritus, Thucydides, Diodorus Siculus, Plato, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Theodectes, Virgil, Horace, Lucretius, Cicero, Claudian, Statius, Dante, Petrarch, Chaucer, Gawin Douglas, Spenser, Shakspeare, Ben Jonson, &c." A. N. L. Munby, Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons (1971-75) 2:52.

Pembroke Hall, April 15, 1770.


Our friend, Dr. Hurd, having long ago desired me, in your name to communicate any fragments or sketches of a design, I once had, to give a History of English Poetry, you may well think me rude or negligent, when you see me hesitating for so many months, before I comply with your request, and yet, believe me, few of your friends have been better pleased than I, to find this subject (surely neither unentertaining nor unuseful) had fallen into hands so likely to do it justice. Few have felt a higher esteem for your talents, your taste, and industry. In truth, the only cause of my delay, has been a sort of diffidence, that would not let me send you anything, so short, so slight, and so imperfect as the few materials I had begun to collect, or the observations I had made on them. A sketch of the division or arrangement of the subject, however, I venture to transcribe; and would wish to know, whether it corresponds in any thing with your own plan, for I am told your first volume is in the press.


On the Poetry of the Gallic or Celtic nations, as far back as it can be traced. On that of the Goths, its introduction into these islands by the Saxons and Danes, and its duration. On the origin of rhyme among the Franks, the Saxons, and Provencaux. Some account of the Latin rhyming poetry, from its early origin, down to the fifteenth century.


On the School of Provence, which rose about the year 1100, and was soon followed by the French and Italians. Their heroic poetry, or romances in verse allegories, fabliaux, syrvientes, comedies, farces, canzoni, sonnetts, ballades, madrigals, sestines, etc. Of their imitators, the French; and of the first Italian School, commonly called the Sicilian, about the year 1200, brought to perfection by Dante, Petrarch, Boccace, and others. State of poetry in England from the Conquest, 1066, or rather from Henry the Second's time, 1154, to the reign of Edward the Third, 1327.


On Chaucer, who first introduced the manner of the Provencaux, improved by the Italians into our country. His character, and merits at large. The different kinds in which he excelled. Gower Occleve, Lydgate, Hawes, Gawen Douglas Lyndesay, Bellenden, Dunbar, etc.


Second Italian School, of Ariosto, Tasso, etc., an improvement on the first, occasioned by the revival of letters, the end of the fifteenth century. The Lyric Poetry of this and the former age, introduced from Italy by Lord Surrey, Sir T. Wyat, Bryan Lord Vaulx, etc., in the beginning of the sixteenth century.


Spenser, his character. Subject of his poem, allegoric and romantic, of Provencal invention: but his manner of tracing it borrowed from the second Italian school. — Drayton, Fairfax, Phineas Fletcher, Golding, Phaer, etc. This school ends in Milton. A third Italian school, full of conceit, began in Queen Elizabeth's reign, continued under James, and Charles the First, by Donne, Crashaw, Cleveland; carried to its height by Cowley, and ending perhaps in Sprat.


School of France, introduced after the Restoration. — Waller, Dryden, Addison, Prior, and Pope, — which has continued to our own times.

You will observe that my idea was in some measure taken from a scribbled paper of Pope, of which I believe you have a copy. You will also see, I had excluded Dramatic poetry entirely; which if you had taken in, it would at least double the bulk and labour of your book. — I am, sir, with great esteem your most humble and obedient servant,


[Works, ed. Gosse (1895) 3:364-67]