Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by John W. Hales
Thomas Gray (17161771)
[Gray was born in Cornhill, London, 20th December 1716, the son of a money scrivener (a kind of solicitor). Thanks to his mother and her brothershis father was not a very satisfactory personhe was educated at Eton and then at Cambridge. He left the University, with whose then prevailing study of mathematics he had little or no sympathy, without taking a degree, in September 1738. In the following year he accepted his friend Horace Walpoles invitation to travel abroad with him; and for over two years cultivated and matured himself by visiting places and people of interest in France and in Italy. In the winter of 1742 he drifted back to Cambridge, the study of the law, which had been proposed for his profession, not attracting him, and nothing else recommending itself. His private means seem to have been sufficient for his wants; and Cambridge, though he was but little in harmony with the society and tone there, was his home for all his remaining years, though he enjoyed frequent and long absences, spent in visiting his mother so long as she lived (she died 1753), and in tours about the more picturesque parts of England and Scotland, which indeed were the great events and delights of his singularly quiet life. His removal from Peterhouse to Pembroke in 1765 may be looked upon as a sort of era in a life so barren of events as mine. He studied much and very various subjects,the classics, notably those of Greece, Italian literature, old English poetry, architecture, zoology, botany, history, music,and became a highly accomplished man. But for various reasons he wrote very little poetry, and not much formal prose except his Letters, though he left behind large collections of notes. To use his own phrase, he was but a shrimp of an author. In 1768 he was appointed professor of modern history; but, though he drew up a plan for an inaugural address, and also some rules concerning a course in modern history, he never in fact lectured. He was taken ill in his College Hall on the 24th of July, and died on the 30th, 1771.]
IN Grays Commonplace Books at Pembroke College there is much interesting matter, says Dr. Bradshaw (Aldine Edition of Grays Poetical Works, ed. 1891), and many notes and essays that have never been printed, though Mr. Gosse has drawn from them in his Works of Gray in Prose and Verse. But the prose writings by which Gray is best known, and deserves to be best known, the contents of his MSS. being for the most part of the nature of notes and fragments, are certainly his Letters.
Letter-writing was an art carefully and assiduously cultivated in the last century, as never before, and never comparably since. In many instances beyond doubt a correspondent fully entertained the idea of future publication. He wrote consciously for the press, and not only for the private perusal of his friend. In any case he would be assured that generally what he wrote would be read, not only by his friend, but by his friends circle. Hence special pains were taken with this kind of composition, and it became a branch of literature. Thus a habit of epistolary care and finish was formed; and a certain ease and charm marks even the most ordinary communications. Now, if such attention to style was common, as it was, we may be sure it is to be found in a high degree in Grays correspondence. A man so critical and fastidious as Gray could indeed do nothing carelessly and like a sloven. The idea of perfection was ever before his eyes. Even his handwriting was significant in this respect. I have seen and transcribed many and many a page of it, says Mr. Torry, in his interesting volume entitled Gray and his Friends; but I do not recollect to have noticed a single carelessly written word, or even a letter. The mere sight of it suggests refinement, order, and infinite pains. Lady Jane Grey, in a well-known anecdote of her given by Ascham, complains that whatever she had to do before her father or motherwhether to speak or keep silence, sit, stand, or go, eat, drink, be merry or sad, be sewing, playing, dancing, or doing anything elseshe was expected to do it as it were, in such weight, measure, and number, even so perfectly, as God made the world, or else she had a very bad time, being sharply taunted and cruelly threatened and pinched and nipped and otherwise tortured. Gray was scarcely less exacting and stern towards himself than those austere parents in the old house in Bradgate Park towards their child. He was one of the severest of self-critics. Was ever any other poet so remorseless with himself? Those stanzas omitted from the Elegy written in a Country Churchyard we believe Grays taste was sound and true in excising; still they are in themselves such as perhaps no other author would have had the heart to excise. And yet both in his poetry and, what now more closely concerns us, in his prose, he exhibits the art of concealing his art. We feel ourselves in the presence of a most finished artist, but we do not see him mixing his colours, or fingering his brushes. We enjoy the effect without having thrust upon our notice the process or processes by which it has been produced. In his Letters the habit of a refined and polished manner has become second nature. He writes like a scholar, but without stiffness or effort. He is classical, but never pedantic.
In addition to all the culture that so eminently distinguished Gray, he possessed natural gifts without which all his culture would have done little to endear him to the general reader. He had a genuine vein of humour, which not only prevents his being dull, but makes him at times highly entertaining. He had a keen sense of the beauty of landscape, and one of his greatest pleasures was to gaze upon it and to describe it. He was Wordsworthian before Wordsworth was born. Lastly, though reserved and seemingly dry and cynical, he was a man of the tenderest affections. He does not wear his heart upon his sleeve; but it would be a gross mistake to conclude because he does not so wear it, that he had none to wear. Sunt lacrimæ rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt was a saying he felt deeply. His intimate friend West died in 1742; but we are told that all the rest of his life he never heard his name mentioned without a change of countenancewithout a thrill of pain. In the Elegy, begun when the sorrow of that bereavement was still fresh, he writes of himself
He gained from Heaventwas all he wisheda friend;
and this gain of all he wished was in one sense never lost; it was a blessed experience that was never forgotten, but to the end saved him from the dangers of self-absorption and misanthropy.
And so he happily remained capable of forming fresh friendships. Not only, to use his own exquisite words, is it the parting soul that on some fond breast relies, but the soul throughout its period of embodiment. And Gray must needs have his confidants, to whom he could unbosom himself in prose at least, and speak of the high enjoyments he derived both from nature and art. His mother and father, West, Horace Walpole, Ashton, Wharton, Mason, Norton, Nichollsall these and others, in a greater or less degree of frankness and fulness, this Cambridge recluse admits to a share of his thoughts and observations.
And of thoughts and observations there was not any lack, however quiet and retired his life, however far from the madding crowd. At Cambridge his books were his world, and a world he keenly explored. In the summer he surrendered himself to the beauties of natural scenery. He was the earliest annual tourist, in this respect as in many others anticipating the taste of a coming age. These wanderings in the more picturesque parts of the country, often companionless, became a passion with him; and it was a real relief to detail them to an appreciative friend with a faithful and loving pen that was also exquisitely skilful and graphic.