1771
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[To James Beattie; on The Minstrel.]

An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, LL.D. [William Forbes, ed.]

Thomas Gray


Thomas Gray thinks "we should wholly adopt the language of Spenser's time, or wholly renounce it." James Beattie did not take this advice, and was vindicated when the diction of the Minstrel set the norm for poetic diction in later romantic poetry. He did, however, incorporate some suggested changes in his second edition.

Beattie's remarks on Gray's remarks are preserved, e.g., "Mr. Gray has been very particular. I am greatly obliged to him for the freedom of his remarks, and think myself as much so for his objections as for his commendations" Forbes, Life of Beattie (1806) 1:202n. Sir William Forbes prints a table of the changes made in an appendix.

William Cowper to Joseph Hill: "His later Epistles, I think, are worth little, as such, but might be turned to excellent account by a young student of taste and judgement" 25 May 1777; in Southey, Life and Works of Cowper (1835-37) 15:38.

Leigh Hunt: "Gray appears to us to be the best letter-writer in the language. Others equal him in particular qualities, and surpass him in amount of entertainment; but none are so nearly faultless. Chesterfield wants heart, and even his boasted 'delicacy'; Bolingbroke and Pope want simplicity; Cowper is more lively than strong; Shenstone reminds you of too many rainy days, Swift of too many things which he affected to despise, Gibbon too much of the formalist and the litterateur.... Gray is the 'melancholy Jacques' of English literature, without the sullenness or causticity. His melancholy is the diviner sort of Milton and Beaumont, and is always ready to assume a kindly cheerfulness" Selections from English Authors, in Works (1854) 3:115.

Robert Southey commented on Gray's remarks as reprinted by Forbes: "Gray's — the verbal ones are not good" Common Place Book (1849-51) 3:515.

Samuel Rogers: "I was a mere lad when Mason's Gray was published. I read it in my young days with delight, and have done so ever since: the letters have for me an inexpressible charm; they are as witty as Walpole's, and have, what his want, true wisdom" Table Talk (1856) 35.

Duncan C. Tovey: "His criticism is just but with two notable exceptions. He truly remarks that too much is given to descriptions and reflections; Beattie does not know what to do with his minstrel when he has made him. Yet Gray's remarks are in two particulars disappointing. In direct contrast to his doctrine as stated to West in April, 1742, he says 'I think we should wholly adopt the language of Spenser's time or wholly renounce it....' And he objects to Beattie's use of alliteration: if he had confined himself to censuring one line in the part of the poem which was sent him, 'The long-robed minstrels wake the warbling lyre' it would have been well. As it is, Beattie had an easy retort upon him with, 'Nor cast one longing, lingering look behind' in the 'Elegy'" Cambridge History of English Literature (1913) 10:148-49.




Cambridge, 8th March, 1771.

The "Minstrel" came safe to my hands, and I return you my sincere thanks for so acceptable a present; in return I shall give you my undisguised opinion of him, as he proceeds, without considering to whom he owes his birth, and sometimes without specifying my reasons; either because they would lead me too far, or because I may not always know what they are myself.

I think we should wholly adopt the language of Spenser's time, or wholly renounce it. You say, you have done the latter; but, in effect, you retain "fared," "forth," "meed," "wight," "weary," "gaude," "shene," "in sooth," "aye," "eshew," etc.: obsolete words, at least in these parts of the island, and only known to those that read our ancient authors, or such as imitate them.

St. 2, v. 5. The "obstreperous" trump of fame hurts my ear, though meant to express a jarring sound.

St. 3, v. 6. "And from his bending," etc., the grammar seems deficient: yet as the mind easily fills up the ellipsis, perhaps it is an atticism, and not inelegant.

St. 4, and ult. "Pensions, posts, and praise." I cannot reconcile myself to this, nor to the whole following stanza; especially "the plaister of thy hair."

"Surely the female heart," etc. St. 6. The thought is not just. We cannot justify the sex from the conduct of the Muses, who are only females by the help of Greek mythology; and then, again, how should they bow the knee in the fane of a Hebrew or Philistine devil? Besides, I am the more severe, because it serves to introduce what I most admire.

St. 7. "Rise, sons of harmony," etc. This is charming; the thought and the expression. I will not be so hypercritical as to add, but it is lyrical, and therefore belongs to a different species of poetry. Rules are but chains, good for little, except when one can break through them; and what is fine gives me so much pleasure, that I never regard what place it is in.

St. 8, 9, 10. All this thought is well and freely handled, particularly, "Here peaceful are the vales," etc. "Know thine own worth," etc. "Canst thou forego," etc.

St. 11. "O, how canst thou renounce," etc. But this, of all others, is my favourite stanza. It is true poetry; it is inspiration; only (to shew it is mortal) there is one blemish; the word "garniture" suggesting an idea of dress, and, what is worse, of French dress.

St. 12. Very well. "Prompting th' ungenerous wish," etc. But do not say "rambling muse"; "wandering," or "devious," if you please.

St. 13. "A nation fam'd," etc. I like this compliment to your country; the simplicity, too, of the following narrative; only in st. 17 the words "artless" and "simple" are too synonymous to come so near each other.

St 18. "And yet poor Edwin," etc. This is all excellent, and comes very near the level of st. 11 in my esteem; only, perhaps, "And some believed him mad," falls a little too flat, and rather below simplicity.

St. 21. "Ah, no!" By the way, this sort of interjection is rather too frequent with you, and will grow characteristic, if you do not avoid it.

In that part of the poem which you sent me before, you have altered several little particulars much for the better.

St. 34. I believe I took notice before of this excess of alliteration. "Long," "loaded," "loud," "lament," "lonely," "lighted," "lingerging," "listening"; though the verses are otherwise very good, it looks like affectation.

St. 36, 37, 38. Sure you go too far in lengthening a stroke of Edwin's character and disposition into a direct narrative, as of a fact. In the meantime, the poem stands still, and the reader grows impatient. Do you not, in general, indulge a little too much in description and reflection? This is not my remark only, I have heard it observed by others; and I take notice of it here, because these are among the stanzas that might be spared; they are good, nevertheless, and might be laid by, and employed elsewhere to advantage.

St. 42. Spite of what I have just now said, this digression pleases me so well, that I cannot spare it.

St. 46, v. ult. The "infuriate" flood. I would not make new words without great necessity; it is very hazardous at best.

St. 49, 50, 51, 52. All this is very good; but "medium" and "incongruous," being words of art, lose their dignity in my eyes, and savour too much of prose. I would have read the last line — "Presumptuous child of dust, be humble and be wise." But, on second thoughts, perhaps — "For thou art but of dust" — is better and more solemn, from its simplicity.

St. 63. "Where dark" etc. You return again to the charge. Had you not said enough before ?

St. 54. "Nor was this ancient dame," etc. Consider, she has not been mentioned for those six stanzas backward.

St. 56, v. 5. "The vernal day." With us it rarely thunders in the spring, but in the summer frequently.

St. 57, 58. Very pleasing, and has much the rhythm and expression of Milton in his youth. The last four lines strike me less by far.

St. 59. The first five lines charming. Might not the mind of your conqueror be checked and softened in the mid-career of his successes by some domestic misfortune (introduced by way of episode, interesting and new, but not too long), that Edwin's music and its triumphs may be a little prepared, and more consistent with probability ?

I am happy to hear of your successes in another way, because I think you are serving the cause of human nature, and the true interest of mankind. Your book is read here too, and with just applause.


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