« PreviousContinue »
it into his general design as best he could, - he could not afford to omit it. His imagination was at once vivid and sterile. He possesses isolated passages of remarkable force and beauty, and never sinks below a certain level; but among the most remarkable characteristics of his mind was an almost utter absence of creative or reproductive power, and an overpowering occupation with minutiæ. Nothing came from him spontaneously. “If I do not write much, it is because I cannot.”
His poetry was wrung out drop by drop. It is this overbalanced interest in details, acting under the influence of a highly-refined apprehension of beauty and fitness, that constitutes the peculiarity of Gray's poetry. He is the master of polished diction. Each separate particle of his poems has often force and exquisite beauty, but always finished propriety and perfect fitness of parts; the choice of words is at once remote from sameness and from singularity; and the rhythm steers a delicate medium at once remote from a dead level of smoothness, and from any approach to ruggedness.
WILLIAM C. Roscoe, Poems and Essays.
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 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.” ... 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.” 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 splendor of which poetical style seemed to be capable."
-- MATTHEW ARNOLD, Essays in Criticism.
BIOGRAPHY AND CRITICISM
BIOGRAPHY. - Thomas Gray, by Edmund W. Gosse, in English Men of Letters Series; Thomas Gray, by Samuel Johnson, in Lives of Eminent English Poets; Thomas Gray, by William M. Rossetti, in Lives of Famous Poets; Thomas Gray, by John Mitford, in Gray's Poetical Works; Thomas Gray, by John Bradshaw, in “New Aldine" Edition of Gray's poems; Thomas Gray, by William L. Phelps, in The Athenæum Press Series. CRITICISM. - Thomas Gray, by Matthew Arnold,
, in Essays in Criticism; Thomas Gray, by Arthur C. Benson, in Essays; The Theory of Poetic Expression: Gray, by William C. Roscoe, in Poems and Essays; Gray and his School, by Leslie Stephen, in Hours in a Library; Gray, by James Russell
Lowell in Latest Literary Essays and Addresses; Gray and his Friends, by Duncan C. Tovey.
A BRIEF LIFE OF WILLIAM COWPER
WILLIAM COWPER was born at Great Berkhampstead, Hertfordshire, England, on November 15, 1731. His father, the Reverend John Cowper, chaplain to George the Second and rector of Great Berkhampstead, was a descendant of one of the oldest and best-known families in Englard, numbering among its members such men as Spencer Cowper, Chief Justice of the Common Pleas, and William Cowper, Lord High Chancellor. His mother, formerly Anne Donne, of the family of Dr. John Donne, the celebrated Dean of St. Paul's, was of even higher birth, tracing her descent from Henry the Third.
When Cowper was six years old, his mother died, and he was soon afterward enrolled in a private school at Market Street, a village a few miles from his home. He remained there for two years, when an infection of the eyes compelled him to give up his studies for a time. In 1741 he reëntered school, this time at Westminster Academy, where Vincent Bourne was a master, and Warren Hastings, Robert Lloyd, and Charles Churchill were among the boys. While here, he took an active part in the life of the institution, both in the class room and on the playground, read widely, and first experimented with
He left the academy in 1749. After spending a few months with his father at Great Berkhampstead, Cowper went to London,
where he entered the home of Mr. Chapman, a solicitor, to study law. He made but little progress, however, for the work was not congenial, and he spent most of his time in the company of friends. Long afterward, in speaking of this period in his life, he said, "I was bred to the law, a profession to which I was never much inclined and in which I engaged, rather because I was desirous to gratify a most indulgent father, than because I had any hope in it myself.”
In 1752 Cowper took chambers in the Inner Temple. By this step he presumably became a regular student of law, although his advancement was no more rapid now than before. While he no longer passed his time in idleness, instead of giving his attention to jurisprudence, he became deeply interested in literature. He associated himself with several of the writers of the period, became a member of a literary club, wrote and published several ballads and prose compositions, made a careful study of Pope's translation of Homer, and translated two books of Voltaire's Henriade. In short, as one critic has expressed it, “The twelve years which he spent in the Temple were, if not entirely devoted to classical pursuits, yet so much engrossed by them as to add little or nothing to the slender stock of legal knowledge which he had previously acquired in the house of the solicitor."
In 1763, through the assistance of relatives and friends, Cowper was offered the nomination to the offices of Reading Clerk and Clerk of the Private Committees in the House of Lords. But his sensitive nature shrank from publicity, and he sought the more private position of Clerk of the Journals. To his dismay he learned that to secure this office he would have to appear for examination at the bar of the House. As the time approached, he was overcome with morbidity, which presently developed into insanity. He attempted several times to kill himself and was removed to an asylum at St. Albans for safe keeping. There, after fifteen months, he was restored to health, mainly through the efforts of Dr. Nathaniel Cotton, himself a writer of some repute. Convinced that it was best for him to stay away from London, he now went to the quiet little town of Huntingdon, where he had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of the Reverend William Unwin and wife, whose influence was to prove of such importance in his life and literary career. In 1767 Mr. Unwin died, and Cowper removed with Mrs. Unwin to Olney in Buckinghamshire, where John Newton was curate. The change proved a beneficial one, for although the poet was again attacked by insanity in 1773, he was in the midst of sympathetic friends whose kind treatment soon restored him. He and Newton became close associates, and together they wrote the celebrated Olney Hymns, which were published in 1779.
But it was not until 1780 that Cowper seriously turned his attention to the writing of verse. From time to time he had written short poems, but hardly with the view of becoming a literary character. He now worked earnestly, and in 1782 published his first volume. After the fashion of the day it consisted almost wholly of didactic poems on conversation, retirement, and kindred subjects, several of which were suggested by Mrs. Unwin, to whose encouragement the whole work in a sense was due.