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When howling winds and beating rain,
In tempests shake the sylvan cell ; Or 'midst the chase, on every plain,
The tender thought on thee shall dwell ;
Each lonely scene shall thee restore ;
For thee the tear be duly shed ; Beloved till life can charm no more,
And mourned till pity's self be dead.
[Thomas Gray was born in London on the 26th of December 1716. His father is described as 'a citizen and money-scrivener'; we should say nowadays, he was on the stock-exchange. He appears to have been a selfish, extravagant, and violent man. Mr. Antrobus, Gray's uncle on the mother's side, was one of the assistant masters at Eton, and at Eton, under his care, Gray was brought up. At Eton he formed a friendship with Horace Walpole, and with Richard West, whose father was Lord Chancellor of Ireland. At Cambridge Gray did not read mathematics and took no degree. He occupied himself with classical literature, history and modern languages; several of his translations and Latin poems date from this time. He intended to read law; but a few months after his leaving Cambridge, Horace Walpole invited him to be his companion on a tour through France and Italy. The friends visited Paris, Florence and Rome, and remained abroad together more than two years. Gray saw and noted much; on this journey were produced the best of his Latin poems. Walpole, however, the son of the Prime Minister, and rich, gave himself airs; a difference arose which made Gray separate from him and return alone to England. He was reconciled with Walpole a year or two later ; but meanwhile his father died, in 1741 ; his mother went to live at Stoke, near Windsor; and Gray, with a narrow income of his own, gave up the law and settled himself in college at Cambridge. In 1742 he lost his friend West; the Ode to the Spring was written just before West's death, the Ode on the Prospect of Eton, the Hymn to Adversity, and the Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, were written not long after. The first of Gray's poems which appeared in print was the Ode on the Prospect of Eton, published in folio by Dodsley in 1747; • little notice,' says Warton, 'was taken of it.' The Elegy was handed about in manuscript before its publication in 1750; it was popular instantly, and made Gray's reputation. In 1753 Gray lost his mother, to whom he owed everything, and whom he devotedly loved. In 1755 The Progress of Poesy was finished, and The Bard begun. The post of Poet-Laureate was offered to Gray in 1757, and declined by him. He applied to Lord Bute, in 1762, for the professorship of modern history at Cambridge, but in vain. Six years afterwards the professorship again became vacant, and the Duke of Grafton gave it to Gray without his applying for it. The year afterwards the Duke of Grafton was elected Chancellor of the University, and Gray composed for his installation the well-known Ode for Music. It was the last of his works. He talked of giving lectures as professor of history, but his health was bad, and his spirits were low; Gray was the most temperate of men, but he was full of hereditary gout. Travelling amused and revived him; he had made with much enjoyment journeys to Scotland, Wales, and the English Lakes, and in the last year of his life, 1771, he entertained a project of visiting Switzerland. But he was too unwell to make the attempt, and he remained at Cambridge. On the 24th of July, while at dinner in the College hall, he was seized with itness; convulsions came on, and on the 30th of July, 1771, at the age of fifty-four, Gray died. He was never married.]
James Brown, Master of Pembroke Hall at Cambridge, Gray's friend and executor, in a letter written a fortnight after Gray's death to another of his friends, Dr. Wharton of Old Park, Durham, has the following passage :
‘Everything is now dark and melancholy in Mr. Gray's room, not a trace of him remains there ; it looks as if it had been for some time uninhabited, and the room bespoke for another inhabitant. The thoughts I have of him will last, and will be useful to me the few years I can expect to live. He never spoke out, but I believe from some little expressions I now remember to have dropped from him, that for some time past he thought himself nearer his end than those about him apprehended.'
He never spoke out. In these four words is contained the whole history of Gray, both as a man and as a poet. The words fell naturally, and as it were by chance, from their writer's pen ; but let us dwell upon them, and press into their meaning, for in following it we shall come to understand Gray.
He was in his fifty-fifth year when he died, and he lived in ease and leisure, yet a few pages hold all his poetry; he never spoke out in poetry. Still, the reputation which he has achieved by his few pages is extremely high. True, Johnson speaks of him with coldness and disparagement. Gray disliked Johnson, and refused to make his acquaintance ; one might fancy that Johnson wrote with some irritation from this cause. But Johnson was not by nature fitted to do justice to Gray and to his poetry ; this by itself is a sufficient explanation of the deficiencies of his criticism of Gray.
We may add a further explanation of them which is supplied by Mr. Cole's papers. “When Johnson was publishing his Life of Gray,' says Mr. Cole, 'I gave him several anecdotes, but he was very anxious as soon as possible to get to the end of his labours.' Johnson was not naturally in sympathy with Gray, whose life he had to write, and when he wrote it he was in a hurry besides. He did Gray injustice, but even Johnson's authority failed to make injustice, in this case, prevail. Lord Macaulay calls the Life of Gray the worst of Johnson's Lives, and it had found many censurers before Macaulay. Gray's poetical reputation grew and flourished in spite of it. The poet Mason, his first biographer, in his epitaph equalled him with Pindar. Britain has known, says Mason,
'a Homer's fire in Milton's strains,
A Pindar's rapture in the lyre of Gray.' The immense vogue of Pope and of his style of versification had at first prevented the frank reception of Gray by the readers of poetry. The Elegy pleased ; it could not but please : but Gray's poetry, on the whole, astonished his contemporaries at first more than it pleased them ; it was so unfamiliar, so unlike the sort of poetry in vogue. It made its way, however, after his death, with the public as well as with the few ; and Gray's second biographer, Mitford, remarks that the works which were either neglected or ridiculed by their contemporaries have now raised Gray and Collins to the rank of our two greatest lyric poets.' Their reputation was establishe at any rate, and stood extremely high, even if they were not popularly read. Johnson's disparagement of Gray was called 'petulant,' and severely blamed. Beattie, at the end of the eighteenth century, writing to Sir William Forbes, says : ‘Of all the English poets of this age Mr. Gray is most admired, and I think with justice.' Cowper writes : 'I have been reading Gray's works, and think him the only poet since Shakespeare entitled to the character of sublime. Perhaps you will remember that I once had a different opinion of him. I was prejudiced.'' Adam Smith says:
Gray joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope ; and nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more.' And, to come nearer to our own times, Sir James Mackintosh speaks of Gray thus : 'Of all English poets he was the most finished artist. He attained the highest degree of splendour of which poetical style seemed to be capable.'
In a poet of such magnitude, how shall we explain his scantiness of production? Shall we explain it by saying that to make of Gray a poet of this magnitude is absurd ; that his genius and resources were small and that his production, therefore, was small also, but that the popularity of a single piece, the Elegy,a popularity due in great measure to the subject,-created for Gray a reputation to which he has really no right? He himself was not deceived by the favour shown to the Elegy. "Gray told me with a good deal of acrimony,' writes Dr. Gregory, 'that the Elegy owed its popularity entirely to the subject, and that the public would have received it as well if it had been written in prose:' This is too much to say; the Elegy is a beautiful poem, and in admiring it the public showed a true feeling for poetry. But it is true that the Elegy owed much of its success to its subject, and that it has received a too unmeasured and unbounded praise.
Gray himself, however, maintained that the Elegy was not his best work in poetry, and he was right. High as is the praise due to the Elegy, it is yet true that in other productions of Gray he exhibits poetical qualities even higher than those exhibited in the Elegy. He deserves, therefore, his extremely high reputation as a poet, although his critics and the public may not always have praised him with perfect judgment. We are brought back, then, to the question : How, in a poet so really considerable, are we to explain his scantiness of production ?
Scanty Gray's production, indeed, is ; so scanty that to supplement our knowledge of it by a knowledge of the man is in this case of peculiar interest and service. Gray's letters and the records of him by his friends have happily made it possible for us thus to know him, and to appreciate his high qualities of mind and soul. Let us see these in the man first, and then observe how they appear in his poetry; and why they cannot enter into it more freely and inspire it with more strength, render it more abundant.
We will begin with his acquirements. 'Mr. Gray was,' writes his friend Temple, 'perhaps the most learned man in Europe. He knew every branch of history both natural and civil ; had read all the original historians of England, France, and Italy; and was a great antiquarian. Criticism, metaphysics, morals, politics, made a principal part of his study. Voyages and travels of all sorts were his favourite amusements; and he had a fine taste in painting, prints, architecture and gardening.' The notes in his VOL. III,