Lives of the Poets, by Samuel Johnson

Gray.

Thomas Gray, the son of Mr. Philip Gray, a scrivener of London, was born in Cornhill, November 26, 1716. His grammatical education he received at Eton, under the care of Mr. Antrobus, his mother’s brother, then assistant to Dr. George, and when he left school, in 1734, entered a pensioner at Peterhouse, in Cambridge. The transition from the school to the college is, to most young scholars, the time from which they date their years of manhood, liberty, and happiness; but Gray seems to have been very little delighted with academical gratifications; he liked at Cambridge neither the mode of life nor the fashion of study, and lived sullenly on to the time when his attendance on lectures was no longer required. As he intended to profess the common law, he took no degree. When he had been at Cambridge about five years, Mr. Horace Walpole, whose friendship he had gained at Eton, invited him to travel with him as his companion. They wandered through France into Italy; and Gray’s “Letters” contain a very pleasing account of many parts of their journey. But unequal friendships are easily dissolved; at Florence they quarrelled and parted; and Mr. Walpole is now content to have it told that it was by his fault. If we look, however, without prejudice on the world, we shall find that men whose consciousness of their own merit sets them above the compliances of servility are apt enough in their association with superiors to watch their own dignity with troublesome and punctilious jealousy, and in the fervour of independence to exact that attention which they refuse to pay. Part they did, whatever was the quarrel; and the rest of their travels was doubtless more unpleasant to them both. Gray continued his journey in a manner suitable to his own little fortune, with only an occasional servant. He returned to England in September, 1741, and in about two months afterwards buried his father, who had, by an injudicious waste of money upon a new house, so much lessened his fortune that Gray thought himself too poor to study the law. He therefore retired to Cambridge, where he soon after became Bachelor of Civil Law, and where, without liking the place or its inhabitants, or professing to like them, he passed, except a short residence at London, the rest of his life. About this time he was deprived of Mr. West, the son of a chancellor of Ireland, a friend on whom he appears to have set a high value, and who deserved his esteem by the powers which he shows in his “Letters” and in the “Ode to May,” which Mr. Mason has preserved, as well as by the sincerity with which, when Gray sent him part of Agrippina, a tragedy that he had just begun, he gave an opinion which probably intercepted the progress of the work, and which the judgment of every reader will confirm. It was certainly no loss to the English stage that Agrippina was never finished. In this year (1742) Gray seems to have applied himself seriously to poetry; for in this year were produced the “Ode to Spring,” his “Prospect of Eton,” and his “Ode to Adversity.” He began likewise a Latin poem, “De Principiis Cogitandi.”

It may be collected from the narrative of Mr. Mason that his first ambition was to have excelled in Latin poetry; perhaps it were reasonable to wish that he had prosecuted his design; for though there is at present some embarrassment in his phrase, and some harshness in his lyric numbers, his copiousness of language is such as very few possess; and his lines, even when imperfect, discover a writer whom practice would have made skilful. He now lived on at Peterhouse, very little solicitous what others did or thought, and cultivated his mind and enlarged his views without any other purpose than of improving and amusing himself, when Mr. Mason, being elected Fellow of Pembroke Hall, brought him a companion who was afterwards to be his editor, and whose fondness and fidelity has kindled in him a zeal of admiration which cannot be reasonably expected from the neutrality of a stranger and the coldness of a critic. In this retirement he wrote (1747) an ode on the “Death of Mr. Walpole’s Cat;” and the year afterwards attempted a poem of more importance, on “Government and Education,” of which the fragments which remain have many excellent lines. His next production (1750) was his far-famed “Elegy in the Churchyard,” which, finding its way into a magazine, first, I believe, made him known to the public.

An invitation from Lady Cobham about this time gave occasion to an odd composition called “A Long Story,” which adds little to Gray’s character. Several of his pieces were published (1753) with designs by Mr. Bentley; and, that they might in some form or other make a book, only one side of each leaf was printed. I believe the poems and the plates recommended each other so well that the whole impression was soon bought. This year he lost his mother. Some time afterwards (1756) some young men of the college, whose chambers were near his, diverted themselves with disturbing him by frequent and troublesome noises, and, as is said, by pranks yet more offensive and contemptuous. This insolence, having endured it awhile, he represented to the governors of the society, among whom perhaps he had no friends; and finding his complaint little regarded, removed himself to Pembroke Hall.

In 1759 he published “The Progress of Poetry” and “The Bard,” two compositions at which the readers of poetry were at first content to gaze in mute amazement. Some that tried them confessed their inability to understand them, though Warburton said that they were understood as well as the works of Milton and Shakespeare, which it is the fashion to admire. Garrick wrote a few lines in their praise. Some hardy champions undertook to rescue them from neglect; and in a short time many were content to be shown beauties which they could not see.

Gray’s reputation was now so high that, after the death of Cibber, he had the honour of refusing the laurel, which was then bestowed on Mr. Whitehead. His curiosity, not long after, drew him away from Cambridge to a lodging near the Museum, where he resided near three years, reading and transcribing, and, so far as can be discovered, very little affected by two odes on “Oblivion” and “Obscurity,” in which his lyric performances were ridiculed with much contempt and much ingenuity. When the Professor of Modern History at Cambridge died, he was, as he says, “cockered and spirited up,” till he asked it of Lord Bute, who sent him a civil refusal; and the place was given to Mr. Brocket, the tutor of Sir James Lowther. His constitution was weak, and, believing that his health was promoted by exercise and change of place, he undertook (1765) a journey into Scotland, of which his account, so far as it extends, is very curious and elegant; for, as his comprehension was ample, his curiosity extended to all the works of art, all the appearances of nature, and all the monuments of past events. He naturally contracted a friendship with Dr. Beattie, whom he found a poet, a philosopher, and a good man. The Mareschal College at Aberdeen offered him a degree of Doctor of Laws, which, having omitted to take it at Cambridge, he thought it decent to refuse. What he had formerly solicited in vain was at last given him without solicitation. The Professorship of History became again vacant, and he received (1768) an offer of it from the Duke of Grafton. He accepted, and retained, it to his death; always designing lectures, but never reading them; uneasy at his neglect of duty, and appeasing his uneasiness with designs of reformation, and with a resolution which he believed himself to have made of resigning the office if he found himself unable to discharge it. Ill-health made another journey necessary, and he visited (1769) Westmoreland and Cumberland. He that reads his epistolary narration wishes that, to travel, and to tell his travels, had been more of his employment; but it is by studying at home that we must obtain the ability of travelling with intelligence and improvement. His travels and his studies were now near their end. The gout, of which he had sustained many weak attacks, fell upon his stomach, and, yielding to no medicines, produced strong convulsions, which (July 30, 1771) terminated in death. His character I am willing to adopt, as Mr. Mason has done, from a letter written to my friend Mr. Boswell by the Rev. Mr. Temple, rector of St. Gluvias in Cornwall; and am as willing as his warmest well-wisher to believe it true:—

“Perhaps he was the most learned man in Europe. He was equally acquainted with the elegant and profound parts of science, and that not superficially, but thoroughly. 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. With such a fund of knowledge, his conversation must have been equally instructing and entertaining; but he was also a good man, a man of virtue and humanity. There is no character without some speck, some imperfection; and I think the greatest defect in his was an affectation in delicacy, or rather effeminacy, and a visible fastidiousness, or contempt and disdain of his inferiors in science. He also had, in some degree, that weakness which disgusted Voltaire so much in Mr. Congreve: though he seemed to value others chiefly according to the progress they had made in knowledge, yet he could not bear to be considered merely as a man of letters; and, though without birth or fortune or station, his desire was to be looked upon as a private independent gentleman, who read for his amusement. Perhaps it may be said, What signifies so much knowledge, when it produced so little? Is it worth taking so much pains to leave no memorial but a few poems? But let it be considered that Mr. Gray was to others at least innocently employed; to himself certainly beneficially. His time passed agreeably; he was every day making some new acquisition in science; his mind was enlarged, his heart softened, his virtue strengthened; the world and mankind were shown to him without a mask; and he was taught to consider everything as trifling and unworthy of the attention of a wise man except the pursuit of knowledge and practice of virtue in that state wherein God hath placed us.”

To this character Mr. Mason has added a more particular account of Gray’s skill in zoology. He has remarked that Gray’s effeminacy was affected most “before those whom he did not wish to please;” and that he is unjustly charged with making knowledge his sole reason of preference, as he paid his esteem to none whom he did not likewise believe to be good.

What has occurred to me from the slight inspection of his letters in which my undertaking has engaged me is, that his mind had a large grasp; that his curiosity was unlimited, and his judgment cultivated; that he was a man likely to love much where he loved at all; but that he was fastidious and hard to please. His contempt, however, is often employed, where I hope it will be approved, upon scepticism and infidelity. His short account of Shaftesbury (author of the “Characteristics”) I will insert:—

“You say you cannot conceive how Lord Shaftesbury came to be a philosopher in vogue; I will tell you: first, he was a lord; secondly, he was as vain as any of his readers; thirdly, men are very prone to believe what they do not understand; fourthly, they will believe anything at all, provided they are under no obligation to believe it; fifthly, they love to take a new road, even when that road leads nowhere; sixthly, he was reckoned a fine writer, and seems always to mean more than he said. Would you have any more reasons? An interval of about forty years has pretty well destroyed the charm. A dead lord ranks with commoners; vanity is no longer interested in the matter, for a new road has become an old one.”

Mr. Mason has added, from his own knowledge, that though Gray was poor he was not eager of money, and that out of the little that he had he was very willing to help the necessitous. As a writer, he had this peculiarity — that he did not write his pieces first rudely, and then correct them, but laboured every line as it arose in the train of composition; and he had a notion, not very peculiar, that he could not write but at certain times, or at happy moments — a fantastic foppery to which my kindness for a man of learning and virtue wishes him to have been superior.

Gray’s poetry is now to be considered; and I hope not to be looked on as an enemy to his name if I confess that I contemplate it with less pleasure than his Life. His ode “On Spring” has something poetical, both in the language and the thought; but the language is too luxuriant, and the thoughts have nothing new. There has of late arisen a practice of giving to adjectives derived from substantives the termination of participles; such as the CULTURED plain, the DAISIED bank; but I was sorry to see, in the lines of a scholar like Gray, the HONIED Spring. The morality is natural, but too stale; the conclusion is pretty.

The poem “On the Cat” was doubtless by its author considered as a trifle, but it is not a happy trifle. In the first stanza, “the azure flowers THAT blow” show resolutely a rhyme is sometimes made when it cannot easily be found. Selima, the cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to language and sense; but there is no good use made of it when it is done; for of the two lines

“What female heart can gold despise?

What cat’s averse to fish?”

the first relates merely to the nymph, and the second only to the cat. The sixth stanza contains a melancholy truth, that “a favourite has no friend;” but the last ends in a pointed sentence of no relation to the purpose. If WHAT GLISTERED had been GOLD, the cat would not have gone into the water; and if she had, would not less have been drowned.

“The Prospect of Eton College” suggests nothing to Gray which every beholder does not equally think and feel. His supplication to Father Thames to tell him who drives the hoop or tosses the ball is useless and puerile. Father Thames has no better means of knowing than himself. His epithet “buxom health” is not elegant; he seems not to understand the word. Gray thought his language more poetical as it was more remote from common use. Finding in Dryden “honey redolent of spring,” an expression that reaches the utmost limits of our language, Gray drove it a little more beyond common apprehension by making “gales” to be “redolent of joy and youth.”

Of the “Ode on Adversity,” the hint was at first taken from “O Diva, gratum quae regis Antium;” but Gray has excelled his original by the variety of his sentiments, and by their moral application. Of this piece, at once poetical and rational, I will not by slight objections violate the dignity.

My process has now brought me to the WONDERFUL “Wonder of Wonders,” the two Sister Odes, by which, though either vulgar ignorance or common sense at first universally rejected them, many have been since persuaded to think themselves delighted. I am one of those that are willing to be pleased, and therefore would gladly find the meaning of the first stanza of the “Progress of Poetry.” Gray seems in his rapture to confound the images of spreading sound and running water. A “stream of music” may be allowed; but where does “music,” however “smooth and strong,” after having visited the “verdant vales, roll down the steep amain,” so as that “rocks and nodding groves rebellow to the roar”? If this be said of music, it is nonsense; if it be said of water, it is nothing to the purpose. The second stanza, exhibiting Mars’ car and Jove’s eagle, is unworthy of further notice. Criticism disdains to chase a schoolboy to his common-places. To the third it may likewise be objected that it is drawn from mythology, though such as may be more easily assimilated to real life. Idalia’s “velvet green” has something of cant. An epithet or metaphor drawn from Nature ennobles Art; an epithet or metaphor drawn from Art degrades Nature. Gray is too fond of words arbitrarily compounded. “Many-twinkling” was formerly censured as not analogical; we may say “many-spotted,” but scarcely “many-spotting.” This stanza, however, has something pleasing. Of the second ternary of stanzas, the first endeavours to tell something, and would have told it, had it not been crossed by Hyperion; the second describes well enough the universal prevalence of poetry; but I am afraid that the conclusion will not rise from the premises. The caverns of the North and the plains of Chili are not the residences of “glory and generous shame.” But that poetry and virtue go always together is an opinion so pleasing that I can forgive him who resolves to think it true. The third stanza sounds big with “Delphi,” and “AEgean,” and “Ilissus,” and “Meander,” and “hallowed fountains,” and “solemn sound;” but in all Gray’s odes there is a kind of cumbrous splendour which we wish away. His position is at last false. In the time of Dante and Petrarch, from whom we derive our first school of poetry, Italy was overrun by “tyrant power” and “coward vice;” nor was our state much better when we first borrowed the Italian arts. Of the third ternary, the first gives a mythological birth of Shakespeare. What is said of that mighty genius is true, but it is not said happily; the real effects of this poetical power are put out of sight by the pomp of machinery. Where truth is sufficient to fill the mind, fiction is worse than useless; the counterfeit debases the genuine. His account of Milton’s blindness, if we suppose it caused by study in the formation of his poem (a supposition surely allowable), is poetically true, and happily imagined. But the CAR of Dryden, with his TWO COURSERS, has nothing in it peculiar; it is a car in which any other rider may be placed.

“The Bard” appears, at the first view, to be, as Algarotti and others have remarked, an imitation of the prophecy of Nereus. Algarotti thinks it superior to its original; and, if preference depends only on the imagery and animation of the two poems, his judgment is right. There is in “The Bard” more force, more thought, and more variety. But to copy is less than to invent, and the copy has been unhappily produced at a wrong time. The fiction of Horace was to the Romans credible; but its revival disgusts us with apparent and unconquerable falsehood. INCREDULUS ODI. To select a singular event, and swell it to a giant’s bulk by fabulous appendages of spectres and predictions, has little difficulty; for he that forsakes the probable may always find the marvellous. And it has little use; we are affected only as we believe; we are improved only as we find something to be imitated or declined. I do not see that “The Bard” promotes any truth, moral or political. His stanzas are too long, especially his epodes; the ode is finished before the ear has learned its measures, and consequently before it can receive pleasure from their consonance and recurrence. Of the first stanza the abrupt beginning has been celebrated; but technical beauties can give praise only to the inventor. It is in the power of any man to rush abruptly upon his subject that has read the ballad of “Johnny Armstrong,”

“Is there ever a man in all Scotland —?”

The initial resemblances or alliterations, “ruin, ruthless,” “helm or hauberk,” are below the grandeur of a poem that endeavours at sublimity. In the second stanza the Bard is well described, but in the third we have the puerilities of obsolete mythology. When we are told that “Cadwallo hushed the stormy main,” and that “Modred made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topped head,” attention recoils from the repetition of a tale that, even when it was first heard, was heard with scorn. The WEAVING of the WINDING-SHEET he borrowed, as he owns, from the Northern Bards, but their texture, however, was very properly the work of female powers, as the act of spinning the thread of life in another mythology. Theft is always dangerous; Gray has made weavers of slaughtered bards by a fiction outrageous and incongruous. They are then called upon to “Weave the warp and weave the woof,” perhaps with no great propriety, for it is by crossing the WOOF with the WARP that men weave the WEB or piece, and the first line was dearly bought by the admission of its wretched correspondent, “Give ample room and verge enough.” He has, however, no other line as bad. The third stanza of the second ternary is commended, I think, beyond its merit. The personification is indistinct. THIRST and HUNGER are not alike, and their features, to make the imagery perfect, should have been discriminated. We are told in the same stanza how “towers are fed.” But I will no longer look for particular faults; yet let it be observed that the ode might have been concluded with an action of better example, but suicide is always to be had without expense of thought.

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. To say that he has no beauties would be unjust; a man like him, of great learning and great industry, could not but produce something valuable. When he pleases least, it can only be said that a good design was ill directed. His translations of Northern and Welsh poetry deserve praise; the imagery is preserved, perhaps often improved, but the language is unlike the language of other poets. In the character of his Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader, for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtlety and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The “Churchyard” abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas, beginning “Yet even these bones,” are to me original; I have never seen the notions in any other place, yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him.

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