Thomas Gray's grand Pindaric ode, written between 1751 and 1754, is one of the few really successful essays in this difficult form. Gray uses lyric compression to make a conscise summary of the heroic ambitions of English literature in the middle eighteenth-century: Augustan Rome yields to the spirit of liberty enjoyed by Greeks, savages, and Elizabethans. James Thomson, William Collins, and both Wartons had expressed similar sentiments in their poetry, though no one had stated the argument so eloquently and concisely as Gray.
In a note added in 1768, Gray discusses Spenser and imitation: "Progress of Poetry from Greece to Italy, and from Italy to England. Chaucer was not unacquainted with the writings of Dante or Petrarch. The Earl of Surrey and Sir Tho. Wyatt had travelled in Italy, and formed their taste there; Spenser imitated the Italian writers; Milton improved on them; but this School expired soon after the Restoration, and a new one arose on the French model, which has subsisted ever since."
The sentiment that liberty fosters poetry was an eighteenth-century commonplace, perhaps derived from Longinus through Shaftesbury. (The opposing sentiment, that poetry flourishes under a benevolent tyrant like Augustus or Elizabeth, was also a commonplace.)
Thomas Gray to Thomas Wharton: "With regard to publishing, I am not so much against the thing itself, as of publishing this Ode alone. I have two or three ideas more in my head; what is to come of them? Must they too come out in the shape of little sixpenny flams, dropping one after another till Mr. Dodsley thinks fit to collect them with Mr. This's Song, and Mr. Tother's Epigram, into a pretty volume? I am sure Mason must be sensible of this, and therefore cannot mean what he says; neither am I quite of your opinion with regard to strophe and antistrophe; setting aside the difficulty to execution, methinks it has little or no effect on the ear, which scarce perceives the regular return of metres at so great a distance from one another: to make it succeed, I am persuaded the stanzas must not consist of above nine lines each at the most. Pindar has several such Odes" 9 March 1755; Poems of Mr. Gray, ed. Mason (1775) 232-33.
Richard Hurd to Thomas Gray: "I give you thanks for the favour of your Odes, which I have received after a tedious expectation. You may be sure the title-page amused us a good deal, but Mr. Brown has explained it. It is not worth while to tell you how they are received here. But every body would be thought to admire. 'Tis true, I believe, the greater part don't understand them" 16 August 1757; in Correspondence of Hurd and Mason (1932) 36.
Samuel Richardson to Susanna Duncombe: "'My opinion of Mr. Grey's Odes'? You know I admire the author. I have heard that you and Mr. G— have both studies them together, and have found out all their beauties. I have no doubt but they are numberless — but indeed have not had head clear enough to read them more than once, as yet. But from you, I expect the result of Mr. G—'s studies, and discoveries on the subject, as also your marginal notes; which will not, I hope, be too severe, &c." 19 September 1757; in Correspondence of Samuel Richardson, ed. Barbauld (1804) 2:310.
Critical Review: "The first of these odes is addressed to the Aeolian lyre, which it emulates in the enchanting softness, ravishing flow, and solemn tones of melody" 5 (August 1757) 167.
William Mitford: "Stanzas like the Italian heroic have been lately used among us with very good effect in poems which partake some more of the lyric and some more of the elegiac style, as in the choice of Hercules, in Akenside's ode to the country gentlemen of England, and many others. But the system of Pindaric stanzas used by Grey and Mason, tho its effect when happily produced commands all admiration, requires yet so mechanical a nicety in the disposition of the rimes, that it seems too great a cramp upon poetical genius, and one cannot but wish that a freer career were open to the sublime flights of lyric invention" Essay upon the Harmony of Language (1774) 180-81.
William Mason: "I remember some years after I was also the innocent cause of his delaying to finish his fine ode on the progress of Poetry. I told him, on reading the part he shewed me, that 'though I admired it greatly, and thought that it breathed the very spirit of Pindar, yet I suspected it would by no means hit the public taste.' Finding afterwards that he did not proceed in finishing it, I often expostulated with him on the subject; but he always replied, 'No, you have thrown cold water upon it.' I mention this little anecdote, to shew how much the opinion of a friend, even when it did not convince his judgment, affected his inclination" Poems of Mr. Gray, ed. Mason (1775) 145n.
Percival Stockdale: "In his Progress of Poetry He has caught the true spirit of the Ode; He has conducted it with judgment, enriched it with invention, and raised it to sublimity. In the different encomiums which, in that Ode, He pays to our greatest English poets, he justly, and nobly distinguishes, and characterizes their different, and peculiar merits" An Inquiry into the Nature, and Genuine Laws of Poetry (1778) 100.
Samuel Johnson: "These odes are marked by glittering accumulations of ungraceful ornaments: they strike, rather than please; the images are magnified by affectation; the language is laboured into harshness. The mind of the writer seems to work with unnatural violence. 'Double, double, toil and trouble.' He has a kind of strutting dignity, and is tall by walking on tiptoe. His art and his struggle are too visible, and there is too little appearance of ease and nature" "Life of Gray" in Lives of the English Poets (1779-81); ed. Hill (1905) 3:440.
Isaac Reed: "His excellence as a poet will be confessed by all who are entitled to judge of it, except now and then by a jealous critic educated at Oxford, and assiduous in depreciating the merit of every author who flourished at a rival university. We do not, however, pretend that Mr. Gray's performances are alike exempt from defects; for in his Odes he sometimes appears to have been more attentive to the glitter of words, than the distinctness of ideas. And yet, if these truly original pieces maintain their reputation till the critics who censure them can impair it by producing better, they may at least be satisfied with their present security" Biographia Dramatica; or, A Companion to the Playhouse (1782) 1:197.
Anna Seward to Court Dewes: "The times of Swift and Pope had no lyric poet. Ours have four very resplendent ones, Collins, Gray, Mason, and Warton. One of these four, considering the superiority of his imagery and numbers, may fairly be described as the greatest lyrist the world has produced" 9 April 1788; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 2:86.
Thomas Green: "Looked over some of Gray's Poems. I am almost tempted to agree in Johnson's character of these compositions. There is an encumbered heaviness in them, and over-laboured obscurity, and vehement straining — even where he affects to trifle, very revolting to my taste" 27 January 1798; Extracts from the Diary of a Lover of Literature (1810) 60.
John Aikin: "Gray gives a representation of Fancy that seems quite original.... There is something bold and striking in this imagery, but it is not correct. It has a mixture of metaphor and common language. Fancy may suggest words and thoughts, but an urn cannot contain them. The painted vase ["pictur'd urn"] is a happy instrument or bearing for this fictitious personage; but she should scatter from it material forms, not sounds and ideas" "Personification in Poetry" Monthly Magazine 7 (May 1799) 292.
Anna Seward: "Pindar could not carry the excellence of higher in the Greek language; therefore if any superiority remains to the ancient classic, respecting his metre, it must result from the more sonorous tones of the Greek, not from transcendence of genius in it's great lyrist, compared with the British poet. Whatever importance the fashion of that period might attach to Pindar's themes, however mythologic and historic allusion might give them auxiliar elevation, yet the foot-races of children, though the sons of princes, and the chariot-races of youthful heroes, possess no eternity of attraction compared to the subject of Gray's Progress of Poesy, and of his Bard. For the first, the physical and moral powers of the muses; their universal powers of the muses; their universal influence, in different degrees, in every clime; the three great seats of their empire, Greece, Italy, and England, Dramatic, Epic, and Lyric Poetry, supported in Britain by Shakespear, Milton, and Dryden.... Ah! when will our schools and universities, exchange classical partiality for patriotism, and become just to the exalted merits of the English Poets?" Memoirs of Dr. Darwin (1804) 419-22.
Thomas James Mathias: "He was indeed the inventor, it may be strictly said so, of a new lyrical measure 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 lyric composition of ancient Greek 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 lyrics had appeared. There is not an ode in the English language which is constructed like these two compositions; with such power, such majesty, such sweetness, with such proportioned pauses and just cadences, with such regulated measures of the verse, with such master principles of lyric 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 of each stanza, with such a musical magic, that every verse in it in succession dwells on the ear and harmonizes with that which is gone before" Works of Gray (1814) in Moulton Library of Literary Criticism (1901-05) 3:565.
John Mitford: "The system was too refined, the ideal abstractions too remote, and the language perhaps too learned and elaborate. There was no story to unfold by which passion could be excited, nor any narrative to allure by which curiosity could be gratified. The reviewers of the day cavilled at them; the men of wit endeavoured to hold them up to ridicule; and even Hurd, the leading critic of that age, mentioned them with a courteous and attempted praise, as beyond the common vein of such things" Correspondence of Gray and Mason (1853) xi.
Edmund Gosse: "The first period of Gray's literary career now closes. In 1754 he opened a second by finishing a very important poem, a resonant ode on The Progress of Poesy, composed in competition with the triumphal epinikia of Pindar, in very elaborate stanza-form. A second Pindaric ode on The Liberty of Genius was planned about the same time, but of this there exists only a fragment of the argument. A third effort in the same direction, The Bard, begun in the winter of 1754, was completed in the summer of 1757. Meanwhile Gray, dissatisfied with the want of notice taken by the Peterhouse authorities of a rude practical joke upon him by some undergraduates, moved over to Pembroke in 1756. In this latter college he was among personal friends, and this remained his home until he died. He never held a fellowship or any college office. In 1757 he printed at Strawberry Hill the two Pindaric poems under the title Odes. They were instantly and decisively successful; Gray was acknowledged to be the leading poet of the day, and a few months later he was offered, and declined, the office of poet-laureate at the death of Colley Cibber. The remainder of his life was very uneventful" History of Eighteenth-Century Literature (1889) 237-38.
William Minto: "The emotions to which lyrical expression is given in the Progress of Poesy and the Bard are as purely individual as the most singular of Wordsworth's meditations of rustic life. Johnson's criticisms of these wonderful wonders of wonders, as he called them, are savage and unsparing. Sometimes this is attributed to personal jealousy. It is a superficial view, and unjust to the great critic.... We can understand Johnson's want of sympathy without ascribing any part of it to personal jealousy. They appeal really to scholars and historians. The Greek motto fixed to the Progress of Poesy signifies that they are vocal only to the initiated. There is not a line that is not charged with a historical allusion. So marvellous is the rhythm that single stanzas may be read with delight; but the significance of the whole demands study" Literature of the Georgian Era (1894) 83-84.
George Saintsbury: "As for the two great regularised Pindarics, the Johnsonian criticism about the stanza being too long, and the ear being kept waiting for its pleasure, is, of course, merely the 'aeternum vulnus' of the slighted couplet. There is nothing like leather, and this is not leather. No such objection will be made here, and undoubtedly there are many fine prosodic phrases in the pair. But the extreme artificiality of the diction is far more seldom melted or veiled by a real rush of melodiously adjusted sound; and the adjustments themselves partake too much of artifice. It is by no means certain that Gray's best work, prosodically, is not the simple and beautiful 'Vicissitude'" History of English Prosody (1906-10) 2:517.
Oliver Elton: "The notes to the Progress of Poesy mention its debts to King David, Job, Ezekiel, Homer, Pindar, Phrynichus, Lucretius, Virgil, Petrarch, and Abraham Cowley. Yet the foundation for Gray's language and numbers is supplied by none of these, but by the masters, Milton and Dryden, whom he honours in the text. Dryden, whom he admired to the end, and whom he could scarcely bear to hear criticised, had hitherto been his chief model; but Gray is now aiming at a different kind of grandeur, and finds it in Milton; Dryden, with his 'less presumptuous car,' coming second, though only second. It is hard to trace in his language anything of Spenser, in spite of the statement of Mathias that 'Mr. Gray never sat down to compose any poem, without previously, and for a considerable time, reading the verses of Spenser.' But the faults and virtues of Gray are almost complementary to those of Spenser; he does not expand and flow, but stops and condenses; and there is a note of oratory, in all his verse, which is foreign to Spenser altogether" Survey of English Literature 1730-1780 (1928) 2:71.
Arthur Johnston: "Gray was not influenced by Spenser. He is Spenserian (and Miltonic) in believing that 'the language of the age is never the language of poetry,' but his diction is never Spenserian. Any Spenserian words he uses occur also in Milton or Dryden, Pope or Thomson" Spenser Encyclopedia (1992) 340.
Allusions to Spenser and the Spenserians are noted in Roger Lonsdale, Poems of Collins, Gray, and Goldsmith (1969).
A burlesque, "The Progress of Party" was published in the European Magazine 2 (October 1782) 310-11.
Awake, Aeolian lyre, awake,
And give to rapture all thy trembling strings.
From Helicon's harmonious springs
A thousand rills their mazy progress take:
The laughing flowers, that round them blow,
Drink life and fragrance as they flow.
Now the rich stream of music winds along,
Deep, majestic, smooth, and strong,
Thro' verdant vales, and Ceres' golden reign:
Now rowling down the steep amain,
Headlong, impetuous, see it pour:
The rocks, and nodding groves rebellow to the roar.
Oh! Sovereign of the willing soul,
Parent of sweet and solemn-breathing airs,
Enchanting shell! the sullen Cares
And frantic Passions hear thy soft controul.
On Thracia's hills the Lord of War,
Has curb'd the fury of his car,
And drop'd his thirsty lance at thy command.
Perching on the scept'red hand
Of Jove, thy magic lulls the feather'd king
With ruffled plumes, and flagging wing:
Quench'd in dark clouds of slumber lie
The terror of his beak, and light'nings of his eye.
Thee the voice, the dance, obey,
Temper'd to thy warbled lay.
O'er Idalia's velvet-green
The rosy-crowned Loves are seen
On Cytherea's day
With antic Sports, and blue-eyed Pleasures,
Frisking light in frolic measures;
Now pursuing, now retreating,
Now in circling troops they meet:
To brisk notes in cadence beating
Glance their many-twinkling feet.
Slow melting strains their Queen's approach declare:
Where'er she turns the Graces homage pay.
With arms sublime, that float upon the air,
In gliding state she wins her easy way:
O'er her warm cheek, and rising bosom, move
The bloom of young Desire, and purple light of Love.
Man's feeble race what Ills await,
Labour, and Penury, the racks of Pain,
Disease, and Sorrow's weeping train,
And Death, sad refuge from the storms of Fate!
The fond complaint, my Song, disprove,
And justify the laws of Jove.
Say, has he given in vain the heav'nly Muse?
Night, and all her sickly dews,
Her Spectres wan, and Birds of boding cry,
He gives to range the dreary sky:
Till down the eastern cliffs afar
Hyperion's march they spy, and glitt'ring shafts of war.
In climes beyond the solar road,
Where shaggy forms o'er ice-built mountains roam,
The Muse has broke the twilight-gloom
To chear the shiv'ring Native's dull abode.
And oft, beneath the od'rous shade
Of Chile's boundless forests laid,
She deigns to hear the savage Youth repeat
In loose numbers wildly sweet
Their feather-cinctured Chiefs, and dusky Loves.
Her track, where-e'er the Goddess roves,
Glory pursue, and generous Shame,
Th' unconquerable Mind, and Freedom's holy flame.
Woods, that wave o'er Delphi's steep,
Isles, that crown th' Egaean deep,
Fields that cool Ilissus laves,
Or where Meander's amber waves
In lingering Lab'rinths creep,
How do your tuneful echoes languish,
Mute, but to the voice of Anguish?
Where each old poetic Mountain
Inspiration breath'd around:
Ev'ry shade and hallow'd Fountain
Murmur'd deep a solemn sound:
Till the sad Nine in Greece's evil hour
Left their Parnassus for the Latian plains.
Alike they scorn the pomp of tyrant-Power,
And coward Vice, that revels in her chains.
When Latium had her lofty spirit lost,
They sought, oh Albion! next thy sea-encircled coast.
Far from the sun and summer-gale,
In thy green lap was Nature's Darling laid,
What time, where lucid Avon stray'd,
To Him the mighty Mother did unveil
Her aweful face: The dauntless Child
Stretch'd forth his little arms, and smil'd.
This pencil take (she said) whose colours clear
Richly paint the vernal year:
Thine too these golden keys, immortal Boy!
This can unlock the gates of Joy;
Of Horrour that, and thrilling Fears,
Or ope the sacred source of sympathetic Tears.
Nor second He, that rode sublime
Upon the seraph-wings of Extasy,
The secrets of th' Abyss to spy.
He pass'd the flaming bounds of Place and Time:
The living Throne, the saphire-blaze,
Where Angels tremble, while they gaze,
He saw; but blasted with excess of light,
Closed his eyes in endless night.
Behold, where Dryden's less presumptuous car,
Wide o'er the fields of Glory bear
Two Coursers of ethereal race,
With necks in thunder cloath'd, and long-resounding pace.
Hark, his hands the lyre explore!
Bright-eyed Fancy hovering o'er
Scatters from her pictur'd urn
Thoughts, that breath, and words, that burn.
But ah! 'tis heard no more—
Oh! Lyre divine, what daring Spirit
Wakes thee now? tho' he inherit
Nor the pride, nor ample pinion,
That the Theban Eagle bear
Sailing with supreme dominion
Thro' the azure deep of air:
Yet oft before his infant-eyes would run
Such forms, as glitter in the Muse's ray
With orient hues, unborrow'd of the Sun:
Yet shall he mount, and keep his distant way
Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate,
Beneath the Good how far — but far above the Great.