1770
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[Letter to James Beattie; on The Minstrel.]

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

Thomas Gray


Thomas Gray suggests that James Beattie conclude the Minstrel by having Edwin "do some great and singular service to his country" and shares his contempt for David Hume. Though he toyed with a continuation, Beattie may have already have decided to leave his poem in the form we know it, the two cantos corresponding to the opposition between retired and active life common in Spenser imitations such as Thomson's Castle of Indolence. Gray's suggestion was later taken up by Richard Polwhele and William Cameron in their attempts to complete the narrative.

William Mason adds: "Dr. Beattie received only one letter more from his correspondent, dated March 8, 1771. It related to the first book of the Minstrel, now sent to him in print, and contained criticisms on particular passages, and commendations of particular stanzas. Those criticisms the author attended to in a future edition, because his good taste found that they deserved his attention; the passages therefore being altered, the strictures die of course. As to the notes of commendation, the Poem itself abounds with so many striking beauties, that they need not even the hand of Mr. Gray to point them out to a reader of any feeling" 385n.

Beattie was much more selective in the changes he made than Mason implies, and left a set of criticisms on Gray's criticisms reprinted in Forbes's Life of Beattie (1806) which reprints Gray's letter. William Wordsworth commented that the Spenserian stanza "is exquisitely harmonious also in Thomson's hands, and fine in Beattie's Minstrel; but these two latter poems are merely descriptive and sentimental; and you will observe that Spenser never gives way to violent and conflicting passion, and that his narrative is bare of circumstances, slow in movement, and (for modern relish) too much clogged with description" to Catherine Grace Godwin, ca. 1829; in Letters, ed. Knight (1907) 2:403.

Town and Country Magazine: "A very elegant edition of the works of that celebrated bard, to which are prefixed several original letters, and memoirs relative to Mr. Gray, that have never before appeared in print, and which cannot fail gratifying the curiosity of the literati" 7 (June 1775) 324.

William Hazlitt: "His poetry is too scholastic and elaborate, and is too visibly the result of laborious and anxious study. But, in his letters, he at once becomes on easy, and graceful, and feeling writer. The composition of familiar letters just suited his indolence, his taste, and his humour. His remarks on poetry are nearly as good as poetry itself; — his observations on life are full of sagacity and fine understanding; — and his descriptions of natural scenery, or Gothic antiquities, are worth their weight in gold.... We are much more edified by one letter of Cowper, than we should be by a week's confinement and hard labour in the metaphysical Bridewell of Mr. Coleridge; and a single letter from the pen of Gray, is worth all the pedlar-reasoning of Mr. Wordsworth's Eternal Recluse, from the hour he first squats himself down in the sun to the end of his preaching. In the first we have the light unstudied pleasantries of a wit, and a man of feeling; — in the last we are talked to death by an arrogant old proser, and buried in a heap of the most perilous stuff and the most dusty philosophy" in review of Walpole, Letters; Edinburgh Review 31 (December 1818) 83-84.

Thomas Frognall Dibdin: "Delightful indeed are these Letters: evincing the taste of a virtuoso, the attainments of a scholar, and the gaiety of a classical wit" Library Companion (1824) in Moulton Library of Literary Criticism (1901-05) 3:562.

Edward Smedley to H. Hawkins: "I never met with Gray's criticism on Collins. It is not given by Mason. It would have great weight with me, for I seldom find reason, in the end, to differ from Gray's judgment. It has been the fashion to call him 'fastidious': it would be more just to say he is 'correct,' which those who find fault with him are not" 26 April 1828; Poems of the late Rev. Edward Smedley (1837) 309.

John Mitford: "I possess a few very interesting Letters fro Dr. Beattie to Mason, giving an account of his Conversations with Mr. Gray, when the latter was in Scotland, dated from Aberdeen. See also Forbes's Life, vol. 1. p. 95" in Correspondence of Thomas Gray and William Mason, ed. John Mitford (1853) 409-10n.




Pembroke Hall, July 2, 1770.

I rejoice to hear that you are restored to a better state of health, to your books, and to your muse once again. That forced dissipation and exercise we are obliged to fly to as a remedy, when this frail machine goes wrong, is often almost as bad as the distemper we would cure; yet I too have been constrained of late to pursue a like regimen, on account of certain pains in the head (a sensation unknown to me before), and of great dejection of spirits. This, Sir, is the only excuse I have to make you for my long silence and not (as perhaps you may have figured to yourself) any secret reluctance I had to tell you my mind concerning the specimen you so kindly sent me of your new Poem: On the contrary, if I had seen anything of importance to disapprove, I should have hastened to inform you, and never doubted of being forgiven. The truth is, I greatly like all I have seen, and wish to see more. The design is simple, and pregnant with poetical ideas of various kinds, yet seems somehow imperfect at the end. Why may not young Edwin, when necessity has driven him to take up the harp, and assume the profession of a Minstrel, do some great and singular service to his country? (what service I must leave to your invention) such as no General, no Statesman, no Moralist could do without the aid of music, inspiration, and poetry. This will not appear an improbability in those early times, and in a character then held sacred, and respected by all nations. Besides, it will be a full answer to all the Hermit has said, when he dissuaded him from cultivating these pleasing arts; it will shew their use, and make the best panegyric of our favourite and celestial science. And lastly (what weighs most with me), it will throw more of action, pathos, and interest into your design, which already abounds in reflection and sentiment. As to description, I have always thought that it made the most graceful ornament of poetry, but never ought to make the subject. Your ideas are new, and borrowed from a mountainous country, the only one that can furnish truly picturesque scenery. Some trifles in the language or versification you will permit me to remark. * * * [Mason's note: A few paragraphs of particular criticism are here omitted.]

I will not enter at present into the merits of your Essay on Truth, because I have not yet given it all the attention it deserves, though I have read it thro' with pleasure; besides I am partial; for I have always thought David Hume a pernicious writer, and believe he has done as much mischief here as he has in his own country. A turbid and shallow stream often appears to our apprehensions very deep. A professed sceptic can be guided by nothing but his present passions (if he has any) and interests; and to be masters of his philosophy we need not his books or advice, for every child is capable of the same thing, without any study at all. Is not that naivete and good humour, which his admirers celebrate in him, owing to this, that he has continued all his days an infant, but one that has unhappily been taught to read and write? That childish nation, the French, have given him vogue and fashion, and we, as usual, have learned from them to admire him at second hand.


[pp. 383-85]