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What signifies so much knowledge, when it produced so little? Is it worth taking so much pains to leave no memorials but a few poems ? But let it be considered, that Mr. Gray was to others at least innocently employed; to himself certainly beneficially. His time passed agreeably: he was every day making some new acquisition in science ; hiş mind was enlarged, his heart softened, his virtue strengthened; the world and mankind were shown to him without a mask; and he was taught to consider every thing as trifling, and unworthy of the attention of a wise man, except the pursuit of knowledge and practice of virtue, in that state wherein God hath placed us."
To this character Mr. Mason has added a more particular account of Gray's skill in zoology. He has remarked, that Gray's effeminacy was affected most “ before those whom he did not wish to please ;” and that he is unjustly charged with making knowledge his sole reason of preference, as he paid his esteem to none whom he did not likewise believe to be good.
What has occurred to me from the slight inspection of his letters in which my undertaking has engaged me is, that his mind had a large grasp ; that his curiosity was unlimited, and his judgment cultivated ; that he was a man likely to love much where he loved at all; but that he was fastidious and hard to please. His contempt, however, is often employed where I hope it will be approved, upon scepticism and intidelity. His short account of Shaftesbury I will insert.
“ You say you cannot conceive how lord Shaftesbury came to be a philosopher in vogue; I will tell you: first, he was a lord; secondly, he was as vain as any of his readers ; thirdly, men are very prone to believe what they do not understand; fourthly, they will believe any thing at all, provided they are under no obligation to believe it; fifthly, they love to take a new road, even when that road leads no where ; sixthly, he was reckoned a fine writer, and seems always to mean more than he said. Would you
any more reasons? An interval of above forty years has pretty well destroyed the charm. A dead lord ranks with commoners; vanity is no longer interested in the matter; for a new road has become an old one."
Mr. Mason has added, from his own knowledge, that, though Gray was poor, he was not eager of money; and that, out of the little that he had, he was very willing to help the necessitous.
As a writer he had this peculiarity, that he did not write bis pieces first rudely, and then correct them, but laboured every line as it arose in the train of composition ; and he had a notion not very peculiar, that he could not write but at certain times, or at happy moments; a fantastic foppery, to which my kindness for a man of learning and virtue wishes him to have been superior,
GRAY's poetry is now to be considered; and I hope not to be looked on as an enemy to his name, if I confess that I contemplate it with less pleasure than his life.
His ode On Spring has something poetical, both in the language and the thought; but the language is too luxuriant, and the thoughts have nothing new. There has of late arisen a practice of giving to adjectives derived from substantives the termination of participles; such as the cultured plain, the daisied bank; but I was sorry to see, in the lines of a scholar like Gray, the honied Spring. The morality is natural, but too stale; the conclusion is pretty. The
poem On the Cat was doubtless by its author considered as a trifle; but it is not a happy trifle. In the first stanza, “ the azure flowers that blow" show resolutely a
rhyme is sometimes made when it cannot easily be found. Selima, the Cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to language and sense ; but there is no good use made of it when it is done; for of the two lines,
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat 's averse to fish?
the first relates merely to the nymph, and the second only to the cat.' The sixth stanza contains a melancholy truth, that “a favourite has no friend;" but the last ends in a pointed sentence of no relation to the purpose; if what glistered had been gold, the cat would not have gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned.
The Prospect of Eton College suggests nothing to Gray which every beholder does not equally think and feel. His supplication to father Thames, to tell him who drives the hoop or tosses the ball, is useless and puerile. Father Thames has no better means of knowing than himself. His epithet “ buxom health” is not elegant; he seems not to understand the word. Gray thought his language more poetical as it was more remote from common use : finding in Dryden“ honey redolent of Spring," an expression that reaches the utmost limits of our language, Gray drove it a little more beyond common apprehension, by making “ gales” to be “ redolent of joy and youth.”
Of the Ode on Adversity the bint was at first taken from O Diva, gratum quæ regis Antium: but Gray bas excelled his original by the variety of his sentiments, and by their moral application. Of this piece, at once poetical and rational, I will not, by slight objections, violate the dignity.
My process has now brought me to the wonderful“wonder of wonders,” the two sister odes; by which, though either vulgar ignorance or common sense at first universally rejected them, many have been since persuaded to think themselves delighted. I am one of those that are willing to be pleased, and therefore would gladly find the meaniny of the first stanza of The Progress of Poetry.
Gray seems in his rapture to confound the images of " spreading sound and running water.” A “stream of music” may be allowed; but where does “ music,” however
smooth and stroug,” after having visited the “ verdant vales, rowl down the steep amain,” so as that “ rocks and nodding groves rebellow to the roar?" If this be said of music, it is nonsense ; if it be said of water, it is nothing to the purpose.
The second stanza, exhibiting Mars's car and Jove's eagle, is unworthy of further potice. Criticism disdains to chase a school-boy to his common-places.
To the third it may likewise be objected, that it is drawn from mythology, though such as inay be more easily assimilated to real life. Idalia's “ velvet green” has something of cant. An epithet or metaphor drawn from Nature ennobles Art: an epithet or metaphor drawn from Art degrades Nature. Gray is too fond of words arbitrarily compounded. “Many-twinkling" was formerly censured as not analogical ; we may say“ many-spotted,” but scarcely “ many-spotting.” This stanza, however, has some. thing pleasing
Of the second ternary of stanzas, the first endearours to tell something, and would have told it, had it not been crossed by Hyperion : the second describes well enough the universal prevalence of Poetry; but I am afraid that the conclusion will not arise from the premises. The caverns of the North and the plains of Chili are not the resi
dences of “ Glory and generous Shame.” But that Poetry and Virtue go always together is an opinion so pleasing, that I can forgive him who resolves to think it true.
The third stanza sounds big with “ Delphi,” and “ Egean," and “ Ilissus," and “ Meander,” and “ hallowed fountains," and “ solenın sound;" but in all Gray's odes there is a kind of cumbrous splendour which we wish away. His position is at last false : in the time of Dante and Petrarch, from whom we derive our first school of poetry, Italy was over-run by “ tyrant power” and “coward vice ;” nor was our state much better when we first borrowed the Italian arts.
Of the third ternary, the first gives a mythological birth of Shakspeare. What is said of that mighty genius is true; but it is not said happily: the real effects of this poetical power are put out of sight by the pomp of machinery. Where truth is sufficient to fill the mind, fiction is worse than useless ; the counterfeit debases the genuine.
His account of Miltou's blindness, if we supposed it caused by study in the formation of his poem, a supposition surely allowable, is poetically true, and happily imagined. But the car of Dryden, with his two coursers, has nothing in it peculiar; it is a car in which any other rider may be placed.
The Bard appears, at the first view, to be, as Algarotti and others have remarked, an imitation of the prophecy of Nereus. Algarotti thinks it superior to its original: and, if preference depends only on the imagery and animation of the two poems, his judgment is right. There is in The Bard more force, more thought, and more variety. But to copy is less than to invent, and the copy has been unhappily produced at a wrong time. The fiction of Horace was to the Romans credible; but its revival disgusts us with apparent and unconquerable falsehood. Incredulus odi.
To select a singular event, and swell it to a giant's bulk by fabulous appendages of spectres and predictions, has little difficulty; for he that forsakes the probable may always find the marvellous. And it has little use; we are affected only as we believe ; we are improved only as we find something to be imitated or declined. I do not see that The Bard promotes any truth, moral or political.
His stanzas are too long, especially his epodes; the ode is finished before the ear has learned its measures, and consequently before it can receive pleasure from their consonance and recurrence.
Of the first stanza the abrupt beginning has been celebrated; but technical beauties can give praise only to the inventor. It is in the power of any man to rush abruptly upon his subject, that has read the ballad of Johnny Armstrong,
Is there ever a man in all Scotland
The initial resemblances, or alliterations, “ ruin, ruthless, helm or hauberk," are below the grandeur of a poem that endeavours at sublimity.
In the second stanza the bard is well described ; but in the third we have the puerilities of obsolete mythology. When we are told that “ Cadwallo hush'd the storiny main," and that “Modred made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topp'd head,” attention recoils from the repetition of a tale that, even when it was first heard, was heard with scorn.
The weaving of the winding sheet he borrowed, as he owns, from the northern bards ; but their texture, however, was very properly the work of female powers, as the act of spinning the thread of life is another mythology. Theft is always dangerous ;
Gray has made weavers of slaughtered bards by a fiction outrageous and incongruous. They are then called upon to “ Weave the warp, and weave the woof,” perhaps with no great propriety; for it is by crossing the woof with the warp that men weave the web or piece ; and the first line was dearly bought by the admission of its wretched correspondent, “ Give ample room and verge enough'.” He has, however, no other line
The third stanza of the second ternary is commended, I think, beyond its merit. The personification is indistinct. Thirst and Hunger are not alike; and their features, to make the imagery perfect, should have been discriminated. We are told, in the same stanza, how “ towers are fed.” But I will no longer look for particular faults; yet let it be observed, that the ode might have been concluded with an action of better example; but suicide is always to be had, without expense of thought.
These odes are marked by glittering accumulations of ungraceful ornaments; they strike, rather than please; the images are magnified by affectation; the language is laboured into harshness. The mind of the writer seems to work with unnatural violence. "Double, double, toil and trouble." He has a kind of strutting dignity, and is tall by walking on tiptoe.' His art and his struggle are too visible, and there is too little appearance of ease and nature ?.
To say that he has no beauties, would be unjust : a man like him, of great learning and great industry, could not but produce something valuable. When he please least, it can only be said that a good design was ill directed.
His translations of Northern and Welsh poetry deserve praise; the imagery is preserved, perhaps often improved; but the language is unlike the language of other poets.
In the character of bis Elegy I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers, uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas, beginning “ Yet even these bones,” are to me original : I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus, it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.
"I have a soul, that like an ample shield
Dryden's Sebastian, Lord Orford used to assert, that Gray “never wrote any thing easily, but things of humour;" anul added, that humour was his natural and original turn. C.