« PreviousContinue »
productions : nothing can present a more direct opposite to the style of thought and diction characteristic of Pindar, than the quaint metaphysical wit of the school of Donne. Gray, however, was not the first to reform upon this school. He had rather to contend with one of a much later date, though not of very opposite kind, that of which Pope claimed to be the master in chief, and the reign of which over public taste was so absolute, that no poet could hope to gain popularity whose verses were not modeled in uniformity to its laws. It was this prejudice which occasioned the exquisite compositions of Collins *, as well as the Odes of Gray, to be received with indifference, and treated with neglect. Goldsmith is said to have spoken of Gray's poetry with contempt, and he alludes to it in a similar spirit in the preface to his edition of Parnell. Dr. Johnson's superficial and splenetic criticisms probably originated in the same prejudice. There is such a thing as bigotry in taste: persons are angry at being disturbed in their habits of opinion. Hence, those whose notions of good poetry had been almost exclusively formed upon the neat, and sparkling, and epigrammatic versification of the Translator of Homer, were indisposed to tolerate the bold novelties of writers who challenged admiration for a species of composition so different, that it might seem
The Odes of Collins appeared in 1746,
to imply almost a new theory on the subject of poetry; and perhaps the additional demand which the boldly figurative and sometimes metaphysical style, of Collins, more especially, made upon the attention, not to say the intellectual faculties of his readers, contributed not a little to provoke the critic's spleen. On no occasion do persons discover more impatience at being made to think against their will, or at having any trouble to surmount in gaining possession of an author's meaning, than when they promise themselves the idle amusement of what is termed light reading. Poetry, it is generally taken for granted, must be uniformly of this description, and, therefore, in the poet, least of all, is any apparent obscurity tolerated. It deserves, however, remark, that Gray is wholly free from that obscurity of style which arises from affected involutions, or harsh ellipses, or antiquated phraseology. His diction is the purest English, and his expressions are always perspicuous, although the allusions which they contain, sometimes presuppose in the reader a larger share of erudition than is the average endowment of the generality. In his Odes, it is evident he did not intend to write for the vulgar: the style he aimed at, was, as he himself tells us, “extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous, and musical,” considering this as one of the chief beauties of lyric poetry. In his Elegy, his style is more on a level with general readers.
It only remains to notice his lighter productions. The “Long Story” is an exquisite jeu d'esprit: its elegant playfulness reminds us of the best productions in the same style of Cowper; and lets us more than almost any other of his poems, into the secret of Gray's native character. Lord Orford is said to have asserted, that Gray never wrote any thing easily but" things of humour,”—that “ humour was his natural and original turn.” Without subscribing exactly to the perfect correctness of this opinion, we may gather from his Letters, that he had that natural vivacity of temper, which, added to a keen perception of the ridiculous, and a näive manner of expression, would incline him, in his familiar moments, to this unbending of the faculties. In his conversation, too, we are told, Gray was apt to be satirical. With-what zest he luxuriated in the utmost poignancy of sarcasm and ridicule when he chose to give license to his pen, is, indeed, sufficiently evinced by the three lampoons which are now incorporated with his Odes and his Elegy. These would by no means bear out the assertion that satire was his forte, but they concur to shew that it was a species of writing in which his taste did not forbid him to indulge, and in which his talents would doubtless have enabled bim to excel. In his correspondence, however, he is only playful; and if his humour does not often sparkle into wit, it still more rarely degenerates into the malignity of satire. But we are anticipating our sketch of his character.
Thomas GRAY was born in London, Dec. 26, 1716. He received his education at Eton, under Mr. Antrobus, his maternal uncle, then one of the assistant masters: it was here that he contracted a friendship with Horace Walpole and the son of West, Lord Chancellor of Ireland. From Eton he went to Cambridge, and was entered a pensioner at Peterhouse in 1734; but having no taste for inathematical studies, he did not become a candidate for academical honours. Both while at Eton, and during his residence at Cambridge, he was indebted for his entire support to the affection and firmness of his mother, who, out of her share of the proceeds of a trade in which her little capital was vested previously to her marriage, in partnership with her sister, in what was then called an India warehouse, (the profits of which were fortunately secured to her sole benefit by articles of agreement,) discharged all her own personal expenses, as well as those entailed by her children. Gray's father, a man of the most violent passions, and, judging from his brutal treatment of his wife, of unprincipled character, not only refused all assistance, but even endeavoured to force her to give up the shop, on which she depended for the means of procuring a liberal education for her son, in order, as was supposed, to gain possession of her money. To the exemplary presence of mind of his admirable mother, Gray had already owed the preservation of his life. All the rest of her children died in their infancy from suffocation, produced, we are told, by fulness of blood. Thomas was attacked with a paroxysm of a similar kind, which was removed by his mother's promptly opening a vein with her own hand *. She lived to see her affectionate exertions and solicitudes well repaid, to witness the rising fame, and to receive the grateful attentions of that only surviving son. She died at the age of sixty-seven; and, after her decease, which took place in 1753, Gray, says Mr. Mason, “seldom mentioned his mother without a sigh.”
Gray left Cambridge in 1738, with the intention of applying himself to the study of the law; but he was easily induced to relinquish this design on receiving an invitation to accompany his friend Mr. Walpole to the continent. They proceeded together through France to Italy, and passed the winter of 1739-40 at Florence: they afterwards visited Rome and Naples, and were proceeding to explore other parts of that classical region; but at Reggio, an unfortunate difference took place between the two friends, occasioned, according to Walpole's
These facts are stated by the Rev. Mr. Mitford, in his Life of Gray, prefixed to the quarto edition of his works, London, 1816.