Thomas Gray.

The letters of Thomas Gray, including the correspondence of Gray and Mason (Volume 2) online

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Dryden, and could not patiently hear him criticised.
Absalom and Achitophel, and Theodore and Honoria, stood
in the first rank of poems in his estimation ; and Dryden's
plays, not as dramatic comjjositions, but as poetry.

^ Bryant himself says, in a letter which Mitford has printed in
the Life of Gray in Moultrie's edition of the Poems, that Gray
was four or five boys below, and Walpole as many .above him.
Perhaps Bryant's correspondent, whom Mitford coulH not fix, was
Norton NiclioUs. The letter contains the answer to the question
which Nicholls asked, and the verses on the thaw. NichoUs may
be writing from memory. Bryant does not say that the theme was
from the " Spectator." It is in fact from the 254th " Tatler," which
number was the joint production of Addison and Steele — and a
charming paper.

280 gray's letters.

He placed Shakespeare high above all poets of all
countries and all ages ; and said that the justest idea of
the historical characters he treated might be taken from
his plays. He shewed me a manuscript which he had copied
from the Museum, containing the Eeport of the Com-
missioners appointed and sent by king Henry VIII. to
endeavour to prevail with Queen Catherine to lay aside the
title of Queen, and to assume that of Princess Dowager of
Wales, which agrees not only with the sentiments, but
sometimes with the words used by the same persons in
Shakespeare's play of Henry VIII. He thought the comedies
of Gibber excellent ; and commended his Apology, giving it
as an instance of an author writing well on a subject he
perfectly understood. I asked him why he had not con-
tinued that beautiful fragment beginning

"As sickly plants betray a niggard earth ;"

he said, because he could not : when I expressed surprise at
this, he explained himself as follows, that he had been
used to write only lyric poetry, in which, the poems being
short, he had accustomed himself, and was able to polish
every part ; that this having become habit, he could not
write otherwise ; and that the labour of this method in a
long poem would be intolerable : besides which, the poem
would lose its effect for want of chiaro-oscuro ; for that to
l^roduce effect it was absolutely necessary to have weak
parts. He instanced in Homer, and particularly in Milton,
who, he said, in parts of his j^oem, rolls on in sounding
words that have but little meaning. He thought Goldsmith
a genuine poet. I was with him at Malvern when he re-
ceived the Deserted Village, which he desired me to read
to him ; he listened with fixed attention, and soon ex-
claimed, " This man is a poet." He alloAved merit to
Churchill. He disliked Akenside, and in general all poetry
in blank verse, except Milton. He thought Thomson had
one talent beyond all other poets, that of describing the
various appearances of nature ; but that he failed when he
ventured to step out of this path, and particularly when
he attempted to be moral, in which attempt he always be-
came verbose. He was much pleased with Gawen Douglas,


Bishop of Dunkeld, the old Scotch translator of the ^neid,
particularly with his jjoetical prefaces to each book, in
which he has given liberty to his muse, but has fettered
himself in the translation, by the obligation he has imposed
on himself of translating the whole poem in the same
number of verses contained in the original. The Spleen, a
poem in Dodsley's Collection, by Mr. Green, of the Custom-
house, was a great favourite with him for its wit and origin-
ality. Shenstone's Schoolmistress likewise. The fault of
Young in his Night Thoughts, he said, was redundancy of
thought. Pope's translation of the Iliad stood very high
in his estimation ; and when he heard it criticised as want-
ing the simplicity of the original, or being rather a para-
phrase than a translation, and not giving a just idea of
the poet's style and manner, he always said, " There would
never be a translation of the same poem equal to it." He
liked the poetry of Pope in general, and approved an observa-
tion of Shenstone, that " Pope had the art of condensing a
thought." He said of his letters, that they were not good
letters, but better things. He thought that Pope had a
good heart, in spite of his peevish temper.

Talking of Dr. Middleton's style, the elegance of which
he admired, he mentioned it as an object of consideration,
whether style in one language can be acquired by being
conversant with authors of a polished style in another ;
whether, for example, Dr. Middleton could have acquired
his flowing diction from great attention to and study of
the writings of Cicero.

He placed Lord Clarendon at the head of our historians,
and indeed of almost all modern historians ; thoi;gh I have
heard him say that Macchiavelli's History of Florence is
written with the simplicity of a Greek historian. He dis-
liked Hume, as I have said before, and his poHtical princi-
ples ; but besides this, he looked on his History of England
as meagre in facts, as well as full of misrepresentations ;
in short, not a proper source of information. Rapin's he
looked on as the only general history of England; and he said
that by consulting the copious and excellent marginal refer-
ences, and referring to the original and contemporary
authors, to the memoirs, state papers, and various authentic
and curious documents, they indicate a still better history

282 gray's letters.

miglit be formed with the advantage of a more agree-
able and brilliant style. That of Algernon Sydney he ad-
mired, particularly in the delightful letters he wrote from

I think Warburton was not a great favourite ; he said
his learning was a late acquisition, and did not sit easily
on him ; that he had a vaTepofxadia.

He thought Mr. Harris a very dull man ; and on my
saying that I had just read his Hermes, Mr. Gray replied,
" Yes, that is what I call the shallow profound." He dis-
suaded me from reading Butler's Analogy, and said he had
given the same advice to Mason. I believe he liked Wollas-
ton's Religion of Nature. He was surprised that Bishop
Sherlock, who has given some specimens of pulpit eloquence
which are unparalleled in their kind, should have given no
more ^ ; and he was more surprised that Dryden should
attribute the style of his prose writings to the study of
that of Tillotson. He thought the prose of Dryden almost
equal to his poetry. Speaking of and criticising the archi-
tecture of Sir John Vanbrugh, he said his plays were much
better than his architecture.

He thought there was good writing and good sense in
the Sermons of Sterne, whose principal merit, in his opinion,
consisted in his pathetic power, in which he never failed ;
this he often did in his attempts at humour. Wit, he said,
had gone entirely out of fashion since the reign of Charles II.
Of the poetry of Mason, Caractacus was his great favourite,
in comparison with which he said Elfrida was the work of
a child. On my saying that much of Mason's poetry ap-
jjeared to me to be without force, and languid, he said.
No wonder, for Mason never gave himself time to think,
but imagined that he should do best by writing hastily, in
the first fervour of his imagination, and therefore never
waited for epithets if they did not occur readily, but left
spaces for them, and put them in afterwards. This Mr. Gray
said enervated his poetry, " for nothing is done so well as
at the first concoction." He said, "We think in words." He
thought Mason a bad prose writer, and disliked the letters

^ Surely sixty-three discourses are enough. This is the number
I find in an edition of 1774.


published with Elfrida/ He mentioned the poem of the
Garden to me with disapprobation, and said it should not
be published if he could prevent it. He said Mason had
read too little and written too much. The last four lines
of Mason's epitaph on his wife were written by Gray ; I
saw them in his handwriting, interlined in the MS. ivhich he
shewed me, and the words of Mrs. Mason, when she had
given up all hope of life :

" Tell them, tho' tis an awful thing to die,
'Twas e'en to thee; yet the dread path once trod,
Heaven lifts its everlasting portals high,
And bids the pure in heart behold their God."

I do not now remember the lines of Mason which were effaced
and replaced by these, which have the genuine sound of
the lyre of Gray. I remember that they were weak, with
a languid repetition of some preceding exj^ressions. Mr.
Gray said, "That will never do for an ending, I have
altered them thus."

There is no doubt, however, of Mason being the author
of the Heroic Epistle to Sir W. Chambers. Palgrave, who
probably derived his information from the som-ce, affirmed
it. Dr. Bui'gh, Mason's great friend, told me " he knew
the author ; " and Mason himself, many years ago, when
he was supposed to have taken particular offence at the

K reflecting on him with severity on some occasion, I

said, " That is a trifle for you to say, who are the author of
the Heroic Epistle." Mason replied instantly, in a siu-ly,
nasal tone, which was not unusual to him, " I am told the
K thinks so, and he is welcome." In spite of this ad-
mirable work, and Caractacus, his mind certainly had not
been strengthened and armed for 23oetry in the temple of
Apollo. He had not, like Gray, turned over and ruminated
upon the " exemplaria Graeca," nor made his own

" What the lofty grave tragedians taxight
In chorus or Iambic, teachers best
Of moral prudence. "

It it is not pedantry but truth to say that the minds of
those are best cultivated who have cultivated them by

^ From the manner in which NichoUs speaks of these, I think it
may be concluded that they were not addressed to Gray.

284 gray's letters.

Greek literature ; more vigorous writers have written in
that language than in any^ other and the language itself is
the best vehicle that has yet existed for the highest and
noblest ideas of which the mind of man is capable. Mr.
Gray thought so ; and had read and studied every Greek
author, I believe, of note or importance : — Plato perhaps
more than any other j^erson. He lost all patience when he
talked of the neglect of his favourite author at the Univer-
sity. — He was astonished that its members should in general
read and admire Cicero, and yet not think it worth while
to pay any attention to him whom Cicero called " Divinus
ille Plato." What he admired in Plato was not his mystic
doctrines, which he did not pretend to understand, nor his
sophistry, but his excellent sense, sublime morality, elegant
style, and the perfect dramatic propriety of his dialogues.
— I was reading Plato to him one evening, and stopped at
a passage which I did not understand, he said, " Go on,
for if you stop as often as you do not understand Plato,
you will stop very often." He then added, that, finding
what he did understand so admirable, he was inclined to
think that there might be a meaning in the rest which at
this distance of time, and for want of proper data, we
might not be able to reach. He was a great lover and
studier of geography, as the ample collections in his MS.
common-place books prove. He placed Strabo with reason
at the head of all geographers ; and when, with a kindness
and condescension to which I owe all that is not bad in
every jDart of my character, he undertook to be my guide
Siud friend, long before I had arrived " al mezzo del cammin
di nostra vita " he plunged me into Greek, which I had not
before entirely neglected ; and said, " When you have got
through thevolumesof Strabo, then Pll talk to you further."
He advised me to miss the two first books and begin with
the description of Spain ; Strabo led the way, — Herodotus,
Thucydides, Xenophon, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, &c,
followed. When I expi'essed my astonishment at the extent
of his reading, he said, " Why should you be surprised, for
I do nothing else." He said he knew from experience how
much might be done by a person who did not fling away
his time on middling or inferior authors, and read with
method. He congratulated himself on not having a good


verbal memory ; for without it he had imitated too much ;
and if he had possessed such a memory, all that he wi'ote
would have been imitation, from his having read so much.
He had a memory, however, which served him accurately
as to facts, and guided him infallibly to the source from
which the information he wanted was to be drawn. From
the deficiency of verbal memory he seldom quoted ; but
the spirit of classic authors was always present to him, and
breathed in every thought and word of his compositions.
He was a great admirer of Tacitus, the result of whose
deep thought strikes the minds of such readers as under-
stand in pointed expressions which miist be felt. Besides
this, he possesses in equal pei'fection a power of a very dif-
ferent kind, that of painting a scene, by judicious detail,
as if it were on canvas. Mr. Gray thought the narrative of
Thucydides the model of history. He valued Herodotus as
its father ; as an author of great veracity, as far as he had
the means of information himself, and never fabulous except
when he gave the relations of others, which he carefully
distinguishes from that he relates on his own authority.

For Socrates he had an almost religious veneration ; and
esteemed the Memorabilia of Xenophon as one of the most
valuable books of morality. La Bruyere likewise stood
high in his estimation, and the Essays of Bacon. And I
remember part of a line among some juvenile MS. verses
in his common-place book of advice to West, in which he
recommends to him to rise early and

" — read Plato, read Bruyere."^

My first acquaintance mth Mr. Gray was one afternoon
drinking tea at the rooms of Mr. Lobb, a fellow of Peter
House. The conversation turned on the use of bold meta-
phors in poetry, and that of Milton was quoted, " The sun
to me is dark, and silent as the moon," &c. when I ventured
to ask if it might not possibly be imitated from Dante,
" Mi ripingeva la dove il sol tace," Mr. Gray turned quickly
round to me and said, " Sir, do you read Dante ? " and
entered into conversation with me.

^ The verses are really West's — "Ad Aniicos " — transcribed by
Gray into his Comnionplace-Book. See "Gray and his Friends,"
p. 171.

286 grat's letters.

He had a perfect knowledge of the Italian language and
of the poets of Italy of the first class, to whom he certainly
looked up to as his great progenitors, and to Dante as the
father of all: to whose genius, if I remember right, he
thought it an advantage to have been produced in a rude
age of strong and uncontrolled passions, when the muse
was not checked by refinement and the fear of criticism.
He preferred the Gierusalemme Liherata of Tasso, as a
poem, to Ariosto.

Petrarca, he said, appeared in his poetry to be two distinct
pet-sons of contrary characters ; the one simple, natural, and
tender ; the other full of conceits and false thoughts ; after
this, though it can scarcely be necessary, it may not be im-
proper, in order to obviate the possibility of any miscon-
struction or undue extension of the preceding criticism, to
add that Mr. Gray was a decided and zealous admirer of
Petrarca. He permitted me to copy from his edition the
marks which he had used to distinguish the different
degrees of merit which he assigned to the poems and even
single verses of this poet.

When I found in the Purgatorio of Dante the verses
from which the beginning of the Elegy is imitated,

"s'odi squilla di lontano
Che paia 'I giorno pianger che si muore ; "

he acknowledged the imitation, and said he had at first
written " tolls the knell of dying day," but changed it to
parting, to avoid the concetto. He thought that Milton had
improved on Tasso' s devil by giving him neither hoi'ns nor
a tail. He admired Racine, particularly the Britannicus.
He disliked French poetry in general; but was much
pleased with Gresset, and extremely with his poem of the
Yert-vert. The sly, delicate, and exquisitely elegant plea-
santry of La Fontaine he thought inimitable, whose muse,
however licentious, is never gross ; not perhaps, on that
account, the less dangerous. He thought that Prior, in
the same kind, would not bear the comparison with La

He liked the Art de Peindre of Watelet : Hudibras, I
think, he did not like. He was much struck with the glow-
ing eloquence, acute observation, and deep refl.ection of


Rousseau ; and thought the Emile, a work of great genius ;
though mixed with much absurdity, and that it might be
productive of good, if read with judgment ; but considered
it as ridiculous and impracticable as a system of Education;
to adopt it as such he said " you must begin a new world."

His contempt for the Nouvelle Heloise is suflBciently
known. He thought the story ill composed ; its incidents
improbable, the characters unnatural and vicious, and the
tendency immoral and mischievous : and such faults as
these could never in his judgment be redeemed, atoned
for, or even palliated by any, the most eminent, and brilliant
beauties of sentiment and diction, or interest of circum-
stances and situation. Very different indeed was his judg-
ment of the Clarissa of Richardson. He said "he knew
no instance of a story so well told," and spoke with the
highest commendation of the strictly dramatic propriety,
and consistency of the characters perfectly preserved, and
supported from the beginning to the end, in all situations
and circumstances ; in every word, action, and look. In
the delineation of the character of Lovelace alone he thought
the author had failed, not having lived among persons of
that rank, it was impossible for him to give the portrait
from the life of a profligate man of fashion. On the sub-
ject of Richardson, I remember Mr. Gray was pleased with
an opinion of Dr. Johnson, related to me by Davies the
player, to whom Johnson had given it, on being asked by
him, what he thought of the different and comparative
merits of Richardson and Fielding ; Johnson answered,
" Why, Sir, Fielding could tell you what o'clock it w^s,
but as for Richardson, he could make a clock, or a watch."
One could follow, and describe the motions of the human
passions, but the other could trace their springs and origin.
He allowed great, but inferior merit to (SrV Charles Gh-andison.

When Boswell published his account of Corsica, I found
Mr. Gray reading it, " With this " (he said) I am much
pleased, because I see that the author is too foolish to
have invented it."

He expressed regret at his want of mathematical know-
ledge, and declared to me that he had still serious inten-
tions of applying himself to the study of it. At the same
time he lamented that in the University it was usually

288 gray's letters.

studied to serve the purpose of taking a degree hoQorably,
and generally laid aside afterwards, instead of being applied
to the attainment of those useful and sublime sciences to
which it is the only guide and conductor.

'I had few opportunities of seeing Mr. Gray in large
mixed companies ; but in the year 1770, when I travelled
with him through a part of England and South Wales, we
went to Malvern, with the situation of which place, and
the extensive command of the two counties of Gloucester-
shire and Herefordshire, from the summit of the hill,
(particularly the latter,) he was delighted ; but certainly
not so with the numerous society assembled at the long
table, where we dined every day ; though he stayed there
a week, most obligingly on my account, as I found some
acquaintances whom I was glad to meet. He had neither
inclination to mix much in conversation on such occasions,
nor I think much facility even if he had been willing.
This arose, perhaps, j^artly from natural reserve, and wTiat
is called shyness, and partly from having lived retired in
the University during so great a part of his life, where he
had lost, as he told me himself, "the versatility of his
mind." In fact, except during his travels he had never lived
much (as the phrase is) iri the world, and even at that time
the total want of congeniality and similarity of disposition
and 2:)ursuits between him and his companion, and the
vanity, conceit, and airs of superiority in the latter, never
forgetting that he was son of the first minister, could
not inspire with much gaiety a mind not naturally jDrone
to it, and probably contributed to depress his spirits.
When I once endeavoured to learn from him the cause of
his difference with aiid separation from Walj^ole, he said,
" Walpole was son of the first minister, and you may easily
conceive that, on this account, he might assume an air of
superiority," (I will not answer for the exact expression,
but it was to this effect,) "or do or say something which
perhaps I did not bear as well as I ought." This was all I
ever heard from him on the subject, but it is instead of a
volume to those who know the independent and lofty spirit
of Gray. Without considering the particular cause of dif-
ference mentioned above, I agree with Mr. Mason, who
once said to me, that it was more surprising that two per-


sons of characters so opposite to each other should ever
have agreed, than that they should finally have sepai-ated,
A letter to West, dated Florence, April 21, 1741, cor-
roborates what I have said with respect to the effect which
Mr. Gray's travels had produced on his spirits, " You must
add, then, to your former ideas, two years of age, a reason-
able quantity of dulness, a great deal of silence, and some-
thing that rather resembles than is thinking ; a confused
notion of many strange and fine things that have swam
before my eyes for some time ; a want of love for general
society, indeed an inability to it."

In London, when I knew him there, he certainly lived
very little in society ; he dined generally alone, and was
served from an eating-house near his lodging in Jermyn

In one of the visits he made me at Blundeston, he was
extremely embarrassed because I had at that time with me
an old relation and his wife, who were so entirely different
from anything that could give him pleasure, that I thought
it impossible he should reconcile himself to their conversa-
tion, or endure to stay with me. I think he perceived this,
and determined to show me that I had mistaken him, for
he made himself so agreeable to them that they both talked
with pleasure of the time they passed with him as long as
they lived. Whenever I mentioned Mr. West he looked
serious, and seemed to feel the afiliction of a recent loss.
He said, the cause of the disorder, a consumption, which
brought him to an early grave, was the fatal discovery
which he made of the treachery of a supposed friend and
the viciousness of a mother whom he tenderly loved ; this
man, under the mask of friendship to him and his family,
intrigued with his mother, and robbed him of his peace of
mind, his health, and his life.

After I had quitted the University, I always paid Mr.
Gray an annual visit ; during one of these visits it was he
determined, as he said, to offer with a good grace what he
could not have refused if it had been asked of him, viz.
to write the Installation Ode for the Duke of Grafton.
This, however, he considered as a sort of task, to which
he submitted with great reluctance ; and it was long
after he first mentioned it to me before he could prevail


290 gray's letters.

witli himself to begin the composition. One morning, when
I went to him as usual after breakfast, I knocked at
his door, which he threw open, and exclaimed with a loud

" Hence, avaunt ! 'tis holy ground."

I was so astonished, that I almost feared he was out of
his senses ; but this was the beginning of the Ode which
he had just composed.

When one sees and considers the persons who are in
fashion in the world, caressed, courted, invited to dinners
and suppers, as wits, authors, and men of letters, and then
reflects on the neglect in which Mr. Gray lived, " facit in-
dignatio versum." Nature requires no effort, it is spon-
taneous, involuntary.

Mr. Bryant, talking to me of Mr. Gray, seemed to think
that he had taken something ill of him, and founded this
opinion on some circumstance which apj^eared to me
frivolous, and which I have forgotten. I never heard Mr.
Gray mention him but with respect, regretting only that
he had turned his great learning into a wrong channel.
What would Mr. Gray have said if he had lived to see him

Online LibraryThomas GrayThe letters of Thomas Gray, including the correspondence of Gray and Mason (Volume 2) → online text (page 31 of 33)