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Five Letters of Gray.
Gray appears to us to be the best letter-writer in the language. Others equal him in particular qualities, and surpass him in amount of entertainment; but none are so nearly faultless. Chesterfield wants heart, and even his boasted "delicacy;" Bolingbroke and Pope want simplicity ; Cowper is more lively than strong; Shenstone reminds you of too many rainy days, Swift of too many things which he affected to despise, Gibbon too much of the formalist and the littérateur. The most amusing of all our letter-writers are Walpole and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu ; but though they had abundance of wit, sense, and animal spirits, you are not always sure of their veracity. Now, “the first quality in a companion,” as Sir William Temple observes, “is truth ;" and Gray's truth is as manifest as his other good qualities. He has sincerity, modesty, manliness (in spite of a somewhat effeminate body), learning, good-nature, playfulness, a perfect style; and if an air of pensiveness breathes over all, it is only of that resigned and contemplative sort which completes our sympathy with the writer.
Mark what he says in these letters about his sitting in the forest; about Southern; about lords and their school-days; about Shaftesbury; about having a “garding” of one's own; about Akenside compared with himself; about the Southampton Abbot, the Grand Duchess of Tuscany, &c. &c.; and about sunrise-wondering " whether anybody ever saw it before,” he is so astonished at their not having said more on the subject.
Gray is the melancholy Jaques” of English literature, without the sullenness or causticity. His melancholy is of the diviner sort of Milton and Beaumont, and is always ready to assume a kindly cheerfulness.
TO HORACE WALPOLE.*
[A FOX-HUNTER—A POET'S SOLITUDE-SOUTHERN THE
SEPTEMBER, 1737. WAS hindered in my last, and so could not give you all
the trouble I would have done. The description of road which your coach-wheels have so often honored, it would be needless to give you. Suffice it, that I arrived safe at my uncle's, who is a great hunter in imagination. His dogs take up every chair in the house, so I am forced to stand at this present writing ; and though the gout forbids him galloping after them in the field, yet he continues to regale his ears and nose with their comfortable noise and stink.t He holds me mighty cheap, I perceive, for walking when I should ride, and reading when I should hunt. My comfort amidst all this is, that I have, at the distance of half a mile, through a green lane, a forest (the vulgar call it a common), all my own; at least as good as so, for I spy no human thing in it but myself. It is a little chaos of mountains and precipices -mountains, it is true, that do not ascend much above the clouds; nor are the declivities quite so amazing as Dover cliff; but just such hills as people who love their necks as well as I do may venture to climb; and crags that give the eye as much pleasure as if they were dangerous. Both vale and hill are covered with most venerable beeches, and other very reverend vegetables, * that, like most other ancient people, are always dreaming out their old stories to the winds :
* Walpole and Gray had been school-fellows at Eton; and, though differing greatly in some respects, had tastes alike in others, particularly a love for romantic fiction and Gothic architecture. Their differences were found to render them unsuitable as fellow-travellers, when they visited Italy; but they renewed their intercourse at home, and continued correspondents as long as Gray lived.
At the date of the letter before us, Walpole was a youth of twenty, residing with his father, Sir Robert, at Haughton; Gray, twenty-one, on a visit to an uncle, at Burnham, in Buckinghamshire. The reader will observe the mature manliness of his style.
† Some readers of the present day might suppose that coarse habits are here but coarsely described by the delicate young poet. But such language was not considered coarse in the time of Gray.
“ And as they bow their hoary tops, relate
At the foot of one of these squats me I (il penseroso), and there I grow to the trunk for a whole morning. The timorous hare and sportive squirrel gambol around me, like Adam in paradise, before he had an Eve; but I think he did not use to read Virgil, as I commonly do there. In this situation I often converse with my Horace, aloud too; that is, talk to you ; but I do not remember that I ever heard you
I beg pardon for taking all the conversation to myself; but it is entirely your own fault. We have old Mr. Southernt at a gentleman's house, a little way off, who often comes to see us; he is now seventy-seven years old, and has almost wholly lost his memory, but is as agreeable as an old man can be; at least I persuade myself so when I look at him, and think of Isabella and Oroonoko. I shall be in town in about three weeks. Adieu.”
* "Reverend vegetable" is a phrase of Steele's for a common-place old man.
+ Southern lived nine years longer. When he was a young man, he knew Dryden ; and here is Gray, a youth, in company with Dryden's acquaintance. It is always pleasant to observe these links of celebrity
TO RICHARD WEST.*
[BAD SPIRITS_RECOLLECTIONS OF HUSBANDS AND STATESMEN
LONDON, May 27th, 1742. INE, you are to know, is a white melancholy, or rather
leucocholy,t 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, and ça ne laisse que de s'amuser. The only fault of it is insipidity; which is apt now and then to give a sort of ennui, which makes one form certain little wishes that signify nothing. But there is another sort, black indeed, which I have now and then felt, that has somewhat in it like Tertullian's rule of faith, “ credo quia impossibile est,"s 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. In hopes of enjoying this kind of weather, I am going into the country for a few weeks, but shall be never the nearer any society, so if you
any * Son of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, by a daughter of Bishop Burnet. His tastes were very like Gray's, and he promised to attain celebrity, but died of a consumption the year following the date of this letter, at the age of twenty-six.
† Melancholy signifying black choler, leucocholy would be white choler. Gray pleasantly coins the word for the occasion.
# Does nothing but trifle.
V I believe because it is impossible. Gray might have added (and perhaps he meant to do so by what follows) that Tertullian, who was a cruel bigot, held another rule of faith, equally reasonable, namely, I believe because it is horrible.
charity you will contrive to write. My life is like Harry the Fourth's supper of hens : " poulets à la broche, poulets en ragôut, poulets en hâchis, poulets en fricasées ; * reading here, reading there; nothing but books with different sauces. Do not let me lose my dessert then ; for though that be reading too, yet it has a very different flavor. The May seems to be come since your invitation ;t and I promise to bask in her beams, and dress me in her roses :
“Et caput in vernâ semper habere rosâ.”
There are my
I shall see Mr. and his wife, nay, and his child too, for he has got a boy. Is it not odd to consider one's contemporaries in the grave light of husband and father! Lords and they are statesmen ;
do not you remember them dirty boys playing at cricket? As for me,
I am never a bit the older, nor the bigger, nor the wiser than I was then; no, not for having been beyond sea. Pray, how are you?
TO THE REVEREND NORTON NICHOLLS.
[BANTER OF FORMAL EXCUSES AND FINE EXORDIUMS-SOUTHAMPTON--AN ABBOT—SUNRISE.]
Nov. 19, 1764. RECEIVED your
your letter at Southampton ; and as I would wish to treat everybody according to their own rule and measure of good breeding, have, against my inclination, waited till now before I answered it, purely out of fear and
* Roast chicken, ragooed chicken, hashed chicken, fricaseed chicken. t West had written an ode to May, addressed to his friend. “ And have my head forever in spring roses."
A line in “ Propertius,” lib. iii, v. 22.