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Concubine (1767), but in later editions, Syr Martyn; it goes
" But who the melodies of morn can tell?
And the full choir that wakes the universal grove”.
Peace and Hope, full of personified abstractions, Retirement in short-lined stanzas, The Triumph of Melancholy, The Judgment of Paris an Elegy, all in the verse and style of Gray's Elegy, another Elegy in the heroic couplet, and an invective against Churchill in the same, one or two fables in Gay's octosyllabic verse, and a translation of Virgil's Eclogues in the verse and style of Pope.
I. It was out of the Gothic revival that he
he often speaks of his “Gothic lyre”. So too did Gray, in spite of his perpetual appeal to classical precedent, affiliate to the new renaissance. He addressed an academic audience, as so many poets of this period did, in place of the audience of London coffee-house critics that Dryden and Pope had appealed to. He lived all his literary life in Cambridge, the only breaks being a long Continental journey with Horace Walpole early in youth (1739-1741), a trip into Scotland in 1765, and one to the English lakes in 1769. And this life he spent in reading, at first classics, but afterwards history, travel, science, philosophy, and modern literature, and in writing the few poems that he has left. It was the academic standard that was in his mind whenever he put pen to paper, and that is ever conservative; if it reaches beyond the studies of the universities, it is only as far as the literature of the vanishing age. Dryden and Pope were thus bound to fetter the imagination of Gray.
2. But he was also conscious of the new audience; his mother and aunts, whom he deeply loved, and whom he kept visiting at Stoke near Windsor till their death, belonged to it in all their sympathies; and from this source welled in upon his spirit the natural influences of the new sentiment, the love of national literature, and even the sympathy with the lowly and obscure that was one of the main elements of the nascent revolutionism. His Elegy in a Country Churchyard was the unobstructed expression of this phase of his life ; we can almost feel each stanza being moulded amid the graves of Stoke church for the loving maternal ear that listens for his return in the evening ; there is in it none
of the learning that usually choked his' utterance; and in the revision of the poem, he substituted Hampden, Milton, Cromwell, in one famous stanza for Cato, Tully, and Caesar, and thus threw out the only classicism ; there is little of the pseudo-classicism of the Queen Anne poetry. It is full of the sentiments and emotions, the reflections and maxims, that had become the commonplaces of middle class households. And his fine ear and imagination, and his long training enabled him to give these the simplest and most melodious, nay, the final expression. Hence its complete absorption into the consciousness of the new audience, its adoption as almost the secular hymn of the middle class. How nobly it expresses their sense of the beauty of nature and especially of "parting day", the time sacred to happy yet sad reflection amongst all who have their recurrent labour ! Then comes that poetry of reminiscence which was so to commend Goldsmith to the hearts of the new audience, the sense of the far past linked to the present by graves, of the long slumber of death, of the everlasting farewell that the mourner too must soon bid to the open-air sounds and employments and to the loved hearth. He anticipates the poetry of Crabbe, and rebukes the condescension that would smile at “the short and simple annals of the poor". He has learned the democracy of death that heeds no flattery or courtiership. Nay, it is only occasion that has drawn the seeming gulf between world-striking genius and the "celestial fire" hidden in village bosoms. The necessity of substituting an English name for Caesar's drove him into the traditional injustice to Cromwell's memory, which Carlyle disposed of. His own love of solitude makes him yearn for the rustic way of life. He has only “the passing tribute of a sigh” for the unlettered epitaphs on rustic tombs. They tell him of the
. sadness of last farewells. And the personal note enters in with the emotion; he thinks of the mother from whom he must for ever part before long. The thought of himself laid to sleep“ beneath some mouldering heap”,
», unconscious of his loved ones, overcomes him, and he closes with the ideal story of his death and burial told by some hoaryheaded swain ”, and his own epitaph. Much as he depreciated this as compared with his other efforts, it is his only masterpiece, his only poem that appeals to the undying heart of humanity. His sympathy with the new time and the new audience led him to the perennial sources of human emotion, and made him reject all the suggestions of obtrusive learning and wit, all that would mar the simplicity. Whilst his training in the great literatures of culture, and especially in the school of Pope, enabled him to polish the verse into its most melodious, and yet epigrammatic, form. With all the critics of the third quarter of the eighteenth century it placed him in the front rank of English poets. The complete victory of the Lake school and their amalgamation of poetry and philosophy overshadowed his fame. But in Shelley, Keats, and Byron we see his influence again Whilst in The Scholar Gipsy and the Thyrsis of Matthew Arnold we hear the melody and even the phrases of the Elegy echo.
3. It had not been his first attempt. During his tour with Walpole he wrote most of his Latin poems. His literary outset in English was a tragedy in the style of Addison's Cato, called Agrippina; he proposed to make it a sequel to Racine's Britannicus; he never got farther than a scene and a fragment of the first act. His instinct and his friend West were against its continuance. It is pseudoclassical, stiff, and formal blank verse. His first true revolt against the monotony of the Queen Anne verse was in his Ode to Spring in 1742, when, after his Continental tour, he had returned to Stoke. Yet it has many of the conventional touches of Pope. Two other odes that he wrote in this year, that On a Distant Prospect of Eton College, and that On Adversity, have more promise of his own peculiarly dignified music. Neither of them is marked by any depth of thought or nobility of language ; they are memorable only for their poetry of reminiscence and sadness, and for a few felicitous expressions ; “his silyer-winding way referring to the Thames, “slow-consuming Age”, and the two now hackneyed quotations “And snatch a fearful joy" and
“ where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to be wise". Though Wordsworth somewhat discounted Gray's fame, his famous Ode to Duty, beginning "stern daughter of the
voice of God”, has evidently drawn its inspiration from Gray's second ode. The chief fault in both these early poems is the use of personified abstractions, Anger, Fear, Folly, Justice, against which the Lake poets made their chief protest.
The same fault mars the odes that Collins wrote some three years after, and published in 1746, all unconscious of Gray's efforts in the same direction, which did not appear till 1747. There was in all the poetry of the second quarter of the century a strong bent towards metaphysics, a love of abstractions and abstract subjects. It was the result on the one side of the generalising epigramatic movement in Queen Anne poetry, and on the other of the controversial fervour of the time. Poetry had to resort to the picturesque statement of generalities and first principles in order to be original. Pope, Akenside, Young, Thomson, Armstrong were all engaged at this time on would-be poetic philosophy in blank verse or the heroic couplet. The monotony of this drove these two forerunners of the new poetry into revolt; they developed the Pindaric ode, that had been a petrified form of poetry since Cowley's attempts, into a striking but irregular melody ; but the metaphysical abstractions of their own time clung to them. The Elegy, which was begun in 1742, but not finished till 1750, is also marred by these personifications, Honour, Contemplation, Science, Melancholy. His Hymn to Ignorance (1742) and Alliance of Education and Government (1750) were posthumous fragments, that, by their use of the heroic couplet, the one for mock-heroic, and the other for didactic purpose, show how closely he was bound to the Queen Anne age, as also does his unfinished Latin poem De Principiis Cogitandi (1741). Dodsley published his Eton Odè in 1747, and again in 1748 included it and the Ode to Spring and the mock-heroic On Mr. Walpole's Cat in his Collection of Poems. In 1751 his Elegy appeared ; it became at once popular and went through a dozen editions in 1752. In March of that year all the poems mentioned were published along with another society poem A Long Story in one volume with illustrations. His Ode on the Pleasure arising from Vicissitude in the same style as that on Adversity and containing one or two felicities was written in 1753, but not printed till after his death.