William Mason describes Thomas Gray's scholarly enterprises, including the history of English poetry given up when Mason and Gray learned of Thomas Warton's project. This handsome quarto volume reprints manuscript poems and much of Gray's correspondence, including one of the letters to James Beattie that discuss the Minstrel. Since Gray lived as a virtual recluse, the publication of his letters was a major literary event.
The Memoirs became the prototype for many later biographical works organized around a chronological arrangement of correspondence. This marked an advance in biographical writing by permitting subjects to tell their own stories vividly in their own words, which Boswell would improve upon by carefully recording Johnson's conversation. However, the need to shape the letters into a narrative encouraged cutting, splicing, and emendations that have not endeared William Mason and his imitators to later scholars. The work of undoing Mason's editorial efforts began with the edition of Gray's works edited by John Mitford in 1815.
Critical Review: "In this volume we have a new species of biography; the Memoirs of Mr. Gray, consisting of his letters, and several pieces of poetry, selected from a large collection of manuscripts, ranged in proper order, and accompanied with occasional observations. The ingenious editor has adopted this plan with great propriety and judgment. For the life of his author did not abound with incidents; he has therefore considered him in his proper light, that of a scholar and a poet: he has furnished his readers of a classical turn, with a great variety of literary entertainment; and given them a faithful representation of the genius and virtues of his friend, in the genuine effusions of his heart, his familiar letters" 39 (May 1775) 378.
James Boswell: "Mr. Murphy said, that The Memoirs of Gray's Life set him much higher in his estimation than his poems did; 'for you there saw a man constantly at work in literature.' Johnson acquiesced in this; but depreciated the book, I thought, very unreasonably. For he said, 'I forced myself to read it, only because it was a common topick of conversation. I found it mighty dull; and, as to the style, it is fit for the second table.' Why he thought so I was at a loss to conceive. He now gave it as his opinion that 'Akenside was a superiour poet both to Gray and Mason'" Life of Johnson (1791) ed. G. B. Hill (1891) 3:37-37.
Alexander Chalmers: "Objections have been made to it, because the biographer seldom appears either as the narrator or the critic, but it must be allowed that the whole is rendered more interesting, and that the attention of the reader being constantly fixed on the principal character, he is enabled to form a more impartial opinion than if he had perused no evidence but the assertions of the biographer. The plan has since been followed in the cases of Johnson, Cowper, sir William Jones, Mrs. Carter, and Dr. Beattie, and where lives of equal importance to literary curiosity are to be recorded, which cannot be often, it appears to he not only the most engaging species of minute biography, but also the most impartial" Works of the English Poets (1810) 18:312.
George Dyer: "Mr Mason's Life of Gray is the history of a mere scholar, a sort of idle man of letters, little agitated or influenced by any circumstances of his age, and whose poetry was little affected by what was passing in the world: all that is local in one of his odes was written under the constraint of gratitude, if not as an exercise of office" Poetics (1812) 2:71-72.
Mary Russell Mitford: "From the moment in which Mason, by a happy inspiration, made Gray tell his own story, and by dint of his charming letters contrived to produce, from the uneventful life of a retired scholar, one of the most attractive books ever printed, almost every biographer of note has followed his example. The lives of Cowper, of Byron, of Scott, of Southey, of Charles Lamb, of Dr. Arnold, works full of interest and of vitality, owe their principal charm to this source. Nay, such is the reality and identity belonging to letters written at the moment, and intended only for the eye of a favorite friend, that it is probable that any genuine series of epistles, were the writer ever so little distinguished, would, provided they were truthful and spontaneous, possess the invaluable quality of individuality which so often causes us to linger before an old portrait of which we know no more than that it is a Burgomaster by Rembrandt, or a Venetian Senator by Titian. The least skillful pen, when flowing from the fullness of the heart, and untroubled by any misgivings of after publication, shall often paint with as faithful and life-like a touch as either of those great masters" Recollections of a Literary Life; or Books, Places, and People (1852) 411.
Edmund Gosse: "There were interesting and affecting lives of eminent men produced, no doubt, such as Walton's Donne and Herbert, Sprat's Cowley, and Oldys's Raleigh; but no biography, in anything like the full modern sense, had been published in this country till William Mason (1725-1797) published his Life and Letters of Gray in 1775. This timid and imperfect work, the system of which embraced the correspondence of the subject of the memoir, was the model on which Boswell constructed his infinitely bolder and more powerful work" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 359.
Duncan C. Tovey: "He garbled Gray's letters ruthlessly; in their unmutilated form, they would have disposed for ever of his claims to be his friend's 'compere.' He may be excused for not wishing to figure before the public as 'dear Skroddler'; but, when he pleads the boyish levity of some of the letters as an excuse for expurgations, he knows better, and is simply posing, often substituting his own bombast for Gray's plain speaking" Cambridge History of English Literature (1913) 10:153.
SECTION THE FIFTH.
The Reader will have gathered, from the preceding series of letters, that the greatest part of Mr. Gray's life was spent in that kind of learned leisure, which has only self-gratification for its object: He will probably be surprized that, with so very strait an income, he should never have read with a view of making his researches lucrative to himself, or useful to the public. The truth was, Mr. Gray had ever expunged the word "lucative" from his own vocabulary. He may be said to have been one of those very few personages in the annals of literature, especially in the poetical class, who are devoid of self-interest, and at the same time attentive to economy; and also, among mankind in general, one of those very few economists who possess that talent, untinctured with the slightest stain of avarice. Were it my purpose in this place to expatiate on his moral excellencies, I should here add, that when his circumstances were at the lowest, he gave away such sums in private charity as would have done credit to an ampler purse: But it is rather my less-pleasing province at present to acknowledge one of his foibles; and that was a certain degree of pride, which led him, of all other things, to despise the idea of being thought an author professed. I have been told indeed, that early in life he had an intention of publishing an edition of Strabo; and I find amongst his papers a great number of geographical disquisitions, particularly with respect to that part of Asia which comprehends Persia and India; concerning the ancient and modern names and divisions of which extensive countries, his notes are very copious. The indefatigable paths which he also took with the writings of Plato, and the quantity of critical, as well as explanatory observations, which he has left upon almost every part of his works, plainly indicate, that no man in Europe was better prepared to republish and illustrate that Philosopher than Mr. Gray. Another work, on which he bestowed uncommon labour, was the "Anthologia." Amongst the books, which his friendship bequeathed to me, is Henry Steven's edition of the collection of Greek Epigrams, interleaved; in which he has transcribed several additional ones that he selected in his extensive reading, has inserted a great number of critical notes and emendations, and subjoined a copious Index, to which every Epigram is arranged under the name of its respective author. This manuscript, though written in that exact manner, as if intended for the press, I do not know that it was ever Mr. Gray's design to make public. The only work, which he meditated upon with this direct view from the beginning, was a History of English Poetry. He has mentioned this himself in an advertisement prefixed to those three fine imitations of Norse and Welch Poetry, which he gave the world in the last edition of his Poems. But the slight manner, in which he there speaks of that design, may admit here of some additional explanation. Several years ago I was indebted to the friendship of the present learned Bishop of Gloucester for a curious manuscript paper of Mr. Pope's, which contains the first sketch of a plan for a work of this kind, and which I have still in my possession. Mr. Gray was greatly struck with the method which Mr. Pope had traced out in this little sketch; and on my proposal of engaging with him in compiling such a history, he examined the plan more accurately, enlarged it considerably, and formed an idea for and introduction to it. In this was to be ascertained the origin of Rhyme; and specimens given, not only of Provencal Poetry, (to which alone Mr. Pope seemed to have adverted) but of the Scaldic, British, and Saxon; as, from all these different sources united, English Poetry has its original: though it could hardly be called by that name till the time of Chaucer, with whose school (i.e. the Poets who wrote in his manner) the history itself was intended to commence. The materials which I collected for this purpose are too inconsiderable to be mentioned: but Mr. Gray, besides versifying those Odes that he published, made many elaborate disquisitions into the origin of Rhyme, and that variety of Metre, to be found in the writings of our ancient Poets. He also transcribed many parts of the voluminous Lidgate, from Manuscripts which he found in the University Library and those of private Colleges; remarking, as he went along, the several beauties and defects of this immediate scholar of Chaucer. He however soon found that a work of this kind, pursued on so very extensive a plan, would become almost endless: and hearing at the same time that Mr. Thomas Warton, Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, (of whose abilities, from his observations on Spenser, we had each of us conceived the highest opinion) was engaged in a work of the same kind, we by mutual consent relinquished our undertaking; and soon after, on that Gentleman's desiring a sight of the plan, Mr. Gray readily sent him a copy of it.
At a time when I am enumerating the more considerable of Mr. Gray's antiquarian pursuits, I must not omit to mention his great knowledge of Gothic Architecture....