« PrécédentContinuer »
different. This objection, belonging to a busy man, in a busy age, was not, however, heard then; people did not grudge the time for reading it and musing upon it, and they thought it touched many a chord of feeling not heard before. But Gray's popularity in his Elegy did not serve him, as it ought, in recommending his two noble Pindaric Odes which followed a few years later. Noble they certainly are, though they do not touch the heart like the other. We, who know to our cost what obscure verse is, are amused to find the outcry that was then raised against the obscurity of these poems. Their author resented this more than he seems to have valued his former praises, though nothing connected with his own compositions affected him very deeply. The composure with which he bore a parody from the pen of Coleman, seems to have surprised his contemporaries, who were liable to get themselves into great heats, and forget their dignity on such occasions. Probably his slowness to publish these poems tended to this philosophy. "The Progress of Poesy' was written two years before it was printed, and the 'Bard' remained unfinished from 1755 to 1757, till the author was inspired by the visit to Cambridge of a blind Welsh Harper, of whom he says: Mr. Parry has been here, 6 and scratched out such ravishing, blind harmony, such tunes of a thousand years old, with names enough to choke you, as have set all this learned body a-dancing, and inspired them ' with due reverence for Odikle' (or the little ode; this sort of nicknames to people and things was one of Gray's humours) 'whenever it shall appear. Mr. Parry, you must know, it was,
that has put Odikle in motion again." They were published in 1757, eight years after the Elegy,' and were, comparatively, coldly received. This is his answer to Mr. Hurd's acknowledgment of his copy:
Stoke, Aug. 25, 1757.
'Dear Sir, I do not know why you should thank me for what you had a right and title to; but attribute it to the excess of your politeness, the more so, because no one else has made me the same compliment. As your acquaintance in the University (you say) do me the honour to admire, it would be ungenerous in me not to give them notice that they are doing a very unfashionable thing; for all people of condition are agreed not to admire or even understand. One very great man writing to an acquaintance of his and mine, says that he had read them seven or eight times, and that now when he next sees me, he shall not have above thirty questions to ask. Another peer believes that the last stanza of the second ode relates to King Charles the First and Oliver Cromwell. Even my friends tell me they do not succeed, and write me many topics of consolation on that head; in short, I have heard of nobody but a player, and a Doctor of Divinity, (Garrick and Dr. Warburton,) that profess their esteem for them. Oh yes! a lady of quality, a friend of Mason's, who is a great reader; she knew there was a compliment to Dryden, but never suspected there was anything said about Shakspeare or Milton, till it was explained to her; and wishes there had been titles prefixed, to tell what they were about.'— Mitford, p. 95.
To Mason he writes:
' I would not have put another note to save the souls of all the owls in London. It is extremely well as it is-nobody understands me, and I am perfectly satisfied. Even the Critical Review (Mr. Franklin I am told), that is rapt and surprised, and shudders at me, yet mistakes the Æolian lyre for the harp of Æolus, which indeed, as he observes, is a very bad instrument to dance to. If you hear anything (though it is not very likely, for I know my day is over), you will tell me. Lord Littelton and Mr. Shenstone admire me, but wish I had been a little clearer. Mr. (Palmyra) Wood owns himself disappointed in his expectations. Your enemy, Dr. Brown, says I am the best thing in the language. Mr. Fox, supposing the Bard sung his song but once over, does not wonder if Edward the First did not understand him. This last criticism is rather unhappy, for though it had been sung a hundred times under his window, it was absolutely impossible King Edward should understand him; but that is no reason for Mr. Fox, who lives about 500 years after him. It is very well; the next thing I print shall be in Welsh-that's all.'-Ibid. p. 99.
Out of spite,' as he expresses it, Gray published the next edition with notes, which are certainly a curiosity in their way: the lady of quality can no longer miss Shakspeare and Milton, whose names answer at the foot of the page to the numbers affixed to the allusion to them; and the historic notices in the second Ode, which,' as he says, 'alluded to a few common 'facts to be found in any sixpenny History of England, by way of question and answer, for the use of children,' are as carefully guarded from misapprehension. He is equally careful to do justice to the writers from whom he may chance to have taken a hint, as far as he recollects, though we believe in many of these cases he did not really take a hint at all, only observed a resemblance.
The fine imitations of Norse and Welsh poetry, in the Descent of Odin,' the Fatal Sisters,' and the Triumphs of Owen,' show his love of the romantic school of poetry which then dawned. His antiquarian enthusiasm on such subjects and his passion for ancient ballads remind us of Walter Scott. It unfortunately made him a little credulous, and he was a resolute dupe of Ossian, at least for a time, choosing to believe in the genuineness of Macpherson's imitations against his better judgment. It is time, however, that we bring our remarks to a close, and yet we cannot do so without proving, by selecting here and there a picture from amongst his descriptions of scenery, that if his poems are few, it was from no lack of the poetic faculty, nor that this gift failed him as years gained upon him. He was, all his life, capable of the most intense pleasure from the impressions of sense; he had that 'organic sensibility' indispensable in his art,-the power of identifying himself with the scene, and with this the artist's gift of making others see and feel with him.
Take a scene amongst the rocks in Craven; it is for the
kind of life with which he invests the inanimate stone that we instance it:
'I followed my guide a few paces, and the hills opened again into no large space; and then all farther way is barred by a stream that, at the height of about fifty feet, gushes from a hole in the rock, and spreading in large sheets over its broken front, dashes from steep to steep, and then rattles away in a torrent down the valley: the rock on the left rises perpendicular, with stubbed yew-trees and shrubs staring from its side, to the height of at least 300 feet; but these are not the thing: it is the rock to the right, under which you stand to see the fall, that forms the principal horror of the place. From its very base it begins to slope forwards over you in one block or solid mass, without any crevice in its surface, and overshadows half the area below with its dreadful canopy. When I stood, at, I believe, four yards distance from its foot, the drops, that perpetually distil from its brow, fell on my head; and on one part of the top more exposed to the weather, there are loose stones, that hang in air, and threaten visibly some idle spectator with instant destruction; it is safer to shelter yourself close to its bottom, and trust to the mercy of that enormous mass which nothing but an earthquake can stir. The gloomy, uncomfortable day well suited the savage aspect of the place, and made it still more formidable; I stayed, not without shuddering, a quarter of an hour; and thought my trouble richly paid, for the impression will last my life.' -Mason, vol. ii. p 287.
Mountain scenery always impressed him in the same overpowering way, as in the following brief notice (not description) of the Scottish mountains:
'I am returned from Scotland, charmed with my expedition. It is of the Highlands I speak; the Lowlands are worth seeing once, but the mountains are extatic, and ought to be visited in pilgrimage once a year. None but those monstrous creatures of God know how to join so much beauty with so much horror. A fig for your poets, painters, gardeners, and clergymen, that have not been among them: their imagination can be made up of nothing but bowling-greens, flowering-shrubs, horse-ponds, Fleet-ditches, shell-grottoes, and Chinese rails. Then I had so beautiful an autumn, Italy could hardly produce a nobler scene; and this so sweetly contrasted with that perfection of nastiness, and total want of accommodation, that Scotland only can supply. Oh, you would have blessed yourself! I shall certainly go again. What a pity it is I cannot draw, nor describe, nor ride on horseback!'--Mitford, p. 349.
By the way, his love of the picturesque brought him into scenes but little suited to his fastidious refinement; his raptures are interspersed with such notices as these. Of Edinburgh:
I am not sorry to have seen that most picturesque (at a dis'tance) and nastiest (when near) of all capital cities. Here' (at Dunkeld)-and he has been describing the adjacent scenery with great enthusiasm- here we passed the night; if I told you how, you would bless yourself.' And he unaffectedly admits, in the midst of genuine raptures, his satisfaction that the walks are clean; for you know I am no lover of dirt.' But glorious lakes, and tumbling torrents, and prodigious mountains, and awful heights, and rushing rivers, and terrible precipices, which
draw from him the tribute due to Scotch scenery, - Since I saw the Alps I have seen nothing sublime till now,'-triumph over his disgusts. The poet gets the better of the man, precise old bachelor as he was.
His descriptions of these scenes to his friends, do not aim at poetry or power, only at simple, truthful accuracy. So that passages of higher beauty occur, as it were, by chance, and often in brief sentences; as in this evening scene among the Westmoreland Lakes:
In the evening I walked alone down to the lake, by the side of Crowpark, after sunset, and saw the solemn colours of night 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 a distance was heard the murmurs of many water-falls, not audible in the day-time; I wished for the moon, but she was dark, and to me silent,
"Hid in her vacant interlunar cave." Mason, vol. ii. p. 266. Or this pretty realizing of a giddy height,—and he seems to have been susceptible of dizziness :
'From thence I was to walk a mile over very rough ground, a torrent rattling along on the left hand; on the cliffs above hung a few goats; one of them danced and scratched an ear with its hind foot in a place where I would not have stood stock-still
"For all beneath the moon."
Or passing notices, as—
'The craggy tops of a hundred nameless hills.'
Ibid. p. 286.
'Monmouth lies on the same river, in a vale that is the delight of my eyes, and the very seat of pleasure.'
'Saddleback, whose furrowed sides were gilt by the noonday sun, whilst its brow appeared of a sad purple from the shadow of the clouds as they sailed slowly by it.'
We often come upon a rich picturesque cluster of epithets, characteristic of his poetic style; as this description of Derwent
'Opposite are the thick woods of Lord Egremont and Newland Valley, with green and smiling fields embosomed in the dark cliffs; to the left the jaws of Borrowdale, with that turbulent chaos of mountain behind mountain rolled in confusion; beneath you, and stretching far away to the right, the shining purity of the lake reflecting rocks, woods, fields, and inverted tops of hills, just ruffled by the breeze, enough to show it is alive, with the little buildings of Keswick, Crosthwaite Church, and Skiddaw for a background at a distance. Behind you, the magnificent heights of Walla crag.'— Mason, vol. ii. p. 261.
Nor was his fancy idle in appropriately peopling such scenes. How well, for instance, his old abbot' becomes Nettley Abbey, and adds peace to a peaceful picture :
'In the bosom of the woods (concealed from profane eyes) he hid the ruins of Nettley Abbey; there may be richer and greater houses of religion,
but the abbot is content with his situation. See there, at the top of that hanging meadow, under the shade of those old trees that bend into a half circle about it, he is walking slowly (good man!) and bidding his beads for the souls of his benefactors, interred in that venerable pile that lies beneath him. Beyond it (the meadow still descending) nods a thicket of oaks, that mask the building and have excluded a view too garish and luxuriant for a holy eye; only on either hand they leave an opening to the blue glittering sea. Did you observe how, as that white sail shot by and was lost, he turned and crossed himself to drive the tempter from him who threw that distraction in his way?'-Ibid. p. 294.
Nothing in Gray was wholly fancy; even this chastened mood in his Abbot' has its counterpart in his own personal feelings. Though on such a subject these transpire too seldom, yet there is a consolatory genuineness when we do meet with them which satisfies us that his mind was ready and apt at religious meditation, and that his philosophy was that of a Christian: as where we find him thus musing on the benefits of sorrow and bereavement:
'He who best knows our nature (for He made us what we are), by such afflictions recals us from our wandering thoughts and idle merriment; from the insolence of youth and prosperity, to serious reflection, 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 but acquiesce in the will of the chastiser.'-Ibid. p. 246.
Such passages as these let us into the inner mind; but this is indeed peculiarly the effect of Gray's letters, and of all we are told about him: they show us the man. And he who in his own days was known intimately but to few, who even in his immediate neighbourhood was an object of curiosity to those whom only a few walls separated from him, who, from his reserved and recluse habits, was so rare a spectacle, that we are told, when he did appear in the College walks, or other public places, intelligence ran from college to college, and the tables, if it chanced to be dinnertime, were thinned by the desertion of the young men who thronged to behold him; while if he passed on some occasion of ceremony through the quadrangle of their college, every man would take off his cap out of respect to the rare visitant,-becomes, before we have ended our studies, intimately known to us; his frailties' and his merits' all open, his characteristics known to us, his habits and mode of life familiar. And a very remarkable exception to his class we find him, and yet as true a poet as any, the greatest amongst them; for in his lamp burned the sacred fire, though he cherished it after a fashion of his own. In the abundance of his learning he had studied deepest and with most love what he himself calls the favourite and celestial