Page images
PDF
EPUB

peared at that time: and other reasons, which I have elsewhere stated, probably concurred in inducing him to leave unfinished, a very fine specimen of a philosophical poem. Some time after, says Mr. Mason, he had thoughts of resuming his plan, and of dedicating his poem by an introductory Ode to M. de Montesquieu ; but that great man’s death, which happened in 1755, made him drop his design finally.

Gray was now forming for his own instruction a Table of Greek Chronology, which extended from the 30th to the 113th Olympiad, a period of 332

years ; and which, while it did not exclude public events, was chiefly designed to compare the time of all great men, their writings and transactions. Mr. Mason, who saw this work, says, " that every page was in nine columns: one for the Olympiad, the next for the Archons, the third for the Public Affairs of Greece, the three next for the Philosophers, and the three last for Poets, Historians, and Orators."

Greek literature about this time seems to have been his constant study. He says in a letter: "I have read Pausanias and Athenæus all through ; and Æschylus again. I am now in Pindar, and Lysias; for I take verse and prose together, like bread and cheese."

* See Gibbon's Rome, vol. iii. p. 248. A plan similar to this has been executed by Edv. Corsinus, in his . Fasti Attici,' four volumes 4to. Florenc 1764.

[ocr errors]

In the year 1749, on the death of Mrs. Antrobus, his mother was deprived of a sister and affectionate companion; which loss, if we may judge by a letter of Gray, was a most severe affliction. It is not improbable that this circumstance may have turned his thoughts towards finishing his ‘Elegy,'* which was commenced some time before. Whether that were the case or not, it now however received his last corrections, was communicated to Walpole, and handed about in manuscript with great applause, among the higher circles of society. It was so popular, that when it was printed, Gray expressed his surprise at the rapidity of the sale ; which Mr. Mason attributed, and, I think, justly, to the affecting and pensive cast of the subject. “ It spread,” he said, “ at first, on account of the affecting and pensive cast of the subject, just like Hervey's Meditations on the Tombs. Soon after its publication, I remember sitting with Mr. Gray in his College apartment, he expressed to me his

* The thought of that fine stanza in the Elegy, especially of the latter lines

« Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood ” — is expressed more briefly in the following passage of Plautus:

“ Ut sæpe summa ingenia in occulto latent.
Hic qualis imperator, nunc privatus est.”

Captiv. act. iv. sc. 2.

surprise at the rapidity of its sale. I replied:

Sunt lacrymæ rerum, et mentem mortalia tangunt.'

6

He paused awhile, and taking his pen, wrote the line on a printed copy of it lying on his table. "This,' said he, 'shall be its future motto.' Pity,' cried I, that Dr. Young's Night Thoughts have preoccupied it.' So,' replied he, 'indeed it is. He had more reason to think I had hinted at the true cause of its popularity, when he found how different a reception his two odes at first met with.”*

Pathetic composition, which is employed in describing to us our own griefs, or the sufferings of others, makes its way to the heart at once; it always finds some disposition of the mind favourable to receive it, some passion which cannot resist its power, some feelings which participate in its sorrows.

Much time elapses, before works of elaborate structure, of lofty flight, and of learned allusion, gain possession of the public mind, and are placed in their proper rank in literature. While the ‘Bard' and the ‘Progress of Poetry' were but little read on their first appearance, Gray received at once the full measure of praise from the 'Elegy:' and perhaps even at this time, the Elegy t is the most popular of all his poems. Dr.

* Mason's Life of Whitehead, p. 84.

† This Elegy was translated into Latin verse by Messrs. An. stey and Roberts, and not so successfully by Mr. Lloyd. It has been translated also into Greek by Dr. Cooke, of King's College,

Gregory, in a letter to Beattie, says: “It is a sentiment that very universally prevails, that Poetry is a light kind of reading, which one takes up only for a little amusement; and that therefore it should be so perspicuous as not to require a second reading. This sentiment would bear hard on some of your best things, and on all Gray's except his Church-yard Elegy,' which, he told me, with a good deal of acrimony, owed its popularity entirely to the subject, and that the public would have received it as well if it had been written in prose.” And Dr. Beattie, writing to Sir William Forbes, says: “Of all the English poets of this age,

Mr. Gray is most admired, and I think with justice; yet there are comparatively speaking, but

a few who know any thing of his, but his . ChurchI yard Elegy,' which is by no means the best of his

works.” This production was the occasion of the author's acquaintance with Lady Cobham, who lived in the manor-house at Stoke; and the way in which it commenced, was described by him in a poem called the 'Long Story. The Elegy hav

and published at the end of his edition of Aristotle's Poetics. Since that time, it has been translated into the same language by Dr. Norbury, and Mr. Tew of Eton, Mr. Stephen Weston, and Dr. Coote. Its imitators also have been very numerous. The Bard was translated into Latin verse, in 1775. It is said that within the precincts of the church of Granchester, about two miles from Cambridge, Gray wrote his Elegy. The curfew mentioned by the poet was of course the great bell of St. Mary's. V. Gent. Mag. May, 1814, p. 453.

ing now appeared in some of the periodical publications and magazines, and having been published with great inaccuracies, Gray requested Walpole to have it printed in a more respectable and accurate manner, by Dodsley, but without the apparent knowledge or approbation of the author. It is to be observed, that in the early editions, the Elegy is not printed in stanzas of four lines, but continuously. It is also written in the same manner by Gray in the Pembroke and Wharton manuscripts. By this connected system of metre, the harmony of the poem acquires a fuller compass. Mason adopted it in his four Elegies; and it has been lately used by Mr. Roscoe in his translation of the Greek poem of Musurus, which Aldus prefixed to his edition of Plato.*

His thoughts, however, were for a short time called off from poetry, by the illness of his mother; and he hastened from Cambridge to attend upon her. Finding her better than he expected, he employed himself, during his stay, in superintending an edition of his poems, which was soon after published, with designs by Mr. Bentley, † the

* Some remarks on this Elegy, which was originally printed by me in the Gent. Mag. for April, 1836, will be found in the Appendix to this Life. Ed.

| Bentley's original drawings are in the library of Strawberry-Hill. See Walpole's Works, vol. ii. p. 447; and Lett. to G. Montagu, p. 97. Mr. Cumberland, in the Memoirs of his Life, vol. i. p. 33, thinks tha sees “a satire copper

« PreviousContinue »