« AnteriorContinuar »
interleaved copy of Linnæus remained to show the extent and accuracy of his knowledge in the natural sciences, particularly in botany, zoology, and entomology. Entomologists testified that his account of English insects was more perfect than any that had then appeared. His notes and papers, of which some have been published, others remain still in manuscript, give evidence, besides, of his knowledge of literature ancient and modern, geography and topography, painting, architecture and antiquities, and of his curious researches in heraldry. He was an excellent musician. Sir James Mackintosh reminds us, moreover, that to all the other accomplishments and merits of Gray we are to add this : 'that he was the first discoverer of the beauties of nature in England, and has marked out the course of every picturesque journey that can be made in it.'
Acquirements take all their value and character from the power of the individual storing them. Let us take, from amongst Gray's observations on what he read, enough to show us his power. Here are criticisms on three very different authors, criticisms without any study or pretension, but just thrown out in chance letters to his friends. First, on Aristotle :
In the first place he is the hardest author by far I ever meddled with. Then he has a dry consciousness that makes one imagine one is perusing a table of contents rather than a book; it tastes for all the world like chopped hay, or rather like chopped logic; for he has a violent affection to that art, being in some sort his own invention; so that he often loses himself in little trifling distinctions and verbal niceties, and what is worse, leaves you to extricate yourself as you can. Thirdly, he has suffered vastly by his transcribers, as all authors of great brevity necessarily must. Fourthly and lastly, he has abundance of fine, uncommon things, which make him well worth the pains he gives one. You see what you have to expect.'
Next, on Isocrates : • It would be strange if I should find fault with you for reading Isocrates; I did so myself twenty years ago, and in an edition at least as bad as yours. The Panegyric, the De Pace, Areopagitic, and Advice to Philip, are by far the noblest remains we have of this writer, and equal to most things extant in the Greek tongue; but it depends on your judgment to distinguish between his real and occasional opinion of things, as he directly contradicts in one place what he has advanced in another; for example, in the Panathenaic and the De Pace, on the naval power of Athens; the latter of the two is undoubtedly his own undisguised sentiment.'
After hearing Gray on Isocrates and Aristotle, let us hear him on Froissart :
'I rejoice you have met with Froissart, he is the Herodotus of a barbarous age; had he but had the luck of writing in as good a language, he might have been immortal. His locomotive disposition (for then there was no other way of learning things), his simple curiosity, his religious credulity, were much like those of the old Grecian. When you have tant chevauché as to get to the end of him, there is Monstrelet waits to take you up, and will set you down at Philip de Commines; but previous to all these, you should have read Villehardouin and Joinville.'
Those judgments, with their true and clear ring, evince the high quality of Gray's mind, his power to command and use his learning. But Gray was a poet ; let us hear him on a poet, on Shakespeare. We must place ourselves in the full midst of the eighteenth century and of its criticism ; Gray's friend, West, had praised Racine for using in his dramas 'the language of the times and that of the purest sort'; and he had added : 'I will not decide what style is fit for our English stage, but I should rather choose one that bordered upon Cato, than upon Shakespeare.' Gray replies :
As to matter of style, I have this to say: The language of the age is never the language of poetry; except among the French, whose verse, where the thought does not support it, differs in nothing from prose. Our poetry, on the contrary, has a language peculiar to itself, to which almost every one that has written has added something. In truth, Shakespeare's language is one of his principal beauties; and he has no less advantage over your Addisons and Rowes in this, than in those other great excellences you mention. Every word in him is a picture. Pray put me the following lines into the tongue of our modern dramatics :
“But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass "and what follows. To me they appear untranslateable; and if this be the case, our language is greatly degenerated.
It is impossible for a poet to lay down the rules of his own art with more insight, soundness, and certainty. Yet at that moment in England there was perhaps not one other man, besides Gray, capable of writing the passage just quoted.
Gray's quality of mind, then, we see; his quality of soul will no less bear inspection. His reserve, his delicacy, his distaste for many of the persons and things surrounding him in the Cambridge of that day,—this silly, dirty place,' as he calls it, -have produced an impression of Gray as being a man falsely fastidious, finical, effeminate. But we have already had that grave testimony to him from the Master of Pembroke Hall : 'The thoughts I have of him will last, and will be useful to me the few years I can expect to live.' And here is another to the same effect from a younger man, from Gray's friend Nicholls :
“You know,' he writes to his mother, from abroad, when he heard of Gray's death, that I considered Mr. Gray as a second parent, that I thought only of him, built all my happiness on him, talked of him for ever, wished him with me whenever I partook of any pleasure, and flew to him for refuge whenever I felt any uneasiness. To whom now shall I talk of all I have seen here? Who will teach me to read, to think, to feel? I protest to you, that whatever I did or thought had a reference to him. If I met with any chagrins, I comforted myself that I had a treasure at home ; if all the world had despised and hated me, I should have thought myself perfectly recompensed in his friendship. There remains only one loss more; if I lose you, I am left alone in the world. At present I feel that I have lost half of myself.
Testimonies such as these are not called forth by a fastidious effeminate weakling ; they are not called forth, even, by mere qualities of mind; they are called forth by qualities of soul. And of Gray's high qualities of soul, of his otrovdalórns, his excellent seriousness, we may gather abundant proof from his letters. Writing to Mason who had just lost his father, he says :
"I have seen the scene you describe, and know how dreadful it is; I know too I am the better for it. We are all idle and thoughtless things, and have no sense, no use in the world any longer than that sad impression lasts; the deeper it is engraved the better.' And again, on a like occasion to another friend :
He who best knows our nature (for he made us what we are) by such afflictions recalls us from our wandering thoughts and idle merriment, from the insolence of youth and prosperity, to serious reflexion, to our duty, and to himself; nor need we hasten to get rid of these impressions. Time (by appointment of the same Power) will cure the smart and in some hearts soon blot out all the traces of sorrow; but such as preserve them longest (for it is partly left in our own power) do perhaps best acquiesce in the will of the chastiser.'
And once more to Mason, in the very hour of his wife's death; Gray was not sure whether or not his letter would reach Mason before the end :
'If the worst be not yet past, you will neglect and pardon me ; but if the last struggle be over, if the poor object of your long anxieties be no longer sensible to your kindness or to her own sufferings, allow me, at least in idea, (for what could I do, were I present, more than this?) to sit by you in silence and pity from my heart not her, who is at rest, but you, who lose her. May He, who made us, the Master of our pleasures and of our pains, support you! Adieu.'
Seriousness, character, was the foundation of things with him ; where this was lacking he was always severe, whatever might be offered to him in its stead. Voltaire's literary genius charmed him, but the faults of Voltaire's nature he felt so strongly that when his young friend Nicholls was going abroad in 1771, just before Gray's death, he said to him : 'I have one thing to beg of you which you must not refuse.' Nicholls answered : 'You know you have only to command; what is it?' 'Do not go to see Voltaire, said Gray; and then added : 'No one knows the mischief that man will do.' Nicholls promised compliance with Gray's injunction,
but what,' he asked, “could a visit from me signify?' 'Every tribute to such a man signifies,' Gray answered. He admired Dryden, admired him, even, too much ; had too much felt his influence as a poet. He told Beattie 'that if there was any excellence in his own numbers, he had learned it wholly from that great poet'; and writing to Beattie afterwards he recurs to · Dryden, whom Beattie, he thought, did not honour enough as
a poet : 'Remember Dryden,' he writes, and be blind to all his faults.' Yes, his faults as a poet ; but on the man Dryden, nevertheless, his sentence is stern. Speaking of the Poet-Laureateship,
Dryden,' he writes to Mason, 'was as disgraceful to the office from his character, as the poorest scribbler could have been from his verses.' Even where crying blemishes were absent, the want of weight and depth of character in a man deprived him, in Gray's judgment, of serious significance. He says of Hume: 'Is not that naïveté 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 ?'
And with all this strenuous seriousness, a pathetic sentiment, and an element, likewise, of sportive and charming humour. At Keswick, by the lakeside on an autumn evening, he has the accent of the Rêveries, or of Obermann, or Wordsworth :
* In the evenirig walked down alone to the lake by the side of Crow Park after sunset and saw the solemn colouring of light draw on, the last gleam
of sunshine fading away on the hill-tops, the deep serene of the waters, and the long shadows of the mountains thrown across them, till they nearly touched the hithermost shore. At distance heard the murmur of many water-falls, not audible in the day-time. Wished for the Moon, but she was dark to me and silent, hid in her vacant interlunar cave.'
Of his humour and sportiveness his delightful letters are full ; his humour appears in his poetry too, and is by no means to be passed over there. Horace Walpole said that “Gray never wrote anything easily but things of humour ; humour was his natural and original turn.'
Knowledge, penetration, seriousness, sentiment, humour, Gray had them all ; he had the equipment and endowment for the office of poet. But very soon in his life appear traces of something obstructing, something disabling ; of spirits failing, and health not sound ; and the evil increases with years. He writes to West in 1737 :
Low spirits are my true and faithful companions; they get up with me, go to bed with me, make journeys and returns as I do; nay and pay visits and will even affect to be jocose and force a feeble laugh with me; but most commonly we sit alone together, and are the prettiest insipid company in the world.'
The tone is playful, Gray was not yet twenty-one. "Mine,' he tells West four or five years later, ‘mine, you are to know, is a white Melancholy, or rather Leucocholy, for the most part ; which, though it seldom laughs or dances, nor ever amounts to what one calls joy or pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of a state.' But, he adds in this same letter :
• But there is another sort, black indeed, which I have now and then felt, that has something in it like Tertullian's rule of faith, Cre?o quia impossibile est; for it believes, nay, is sure of everything that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and on the other hand excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and everything that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us! for none but he and sunshiny weather can do it.'
Six or seven years pass, and we find him writing to Wharton from Cambridge thus :
•The spirit of laziness (the spirit of this place) begins to possess even me, that have so long declaimed against it. Yet has it not so prevailed, but that I feel that discontent with myself, that ennui, that ever accompanies it in its beginnings. Time will settle my conscience, time will reconcile my - languid companion to me; we shall smoke, we shall tipple, we shall doze