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The Age of Johnson
> Grays return and Correspondence with West; The
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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 5. Grays return and Correspondence with West; The
On 7 September, 1741, we find Gray in London, causing a sensation among the street boys by the depth of his Ruffles, the immensity of his Bagg, and the length of his sword. He was still in town in April, 1742, maintaining a correspondence with West, then ruralising in quest of health at Popes house near Hatfield in Hertfordshire, on Tacitus and on the fourth
which had just appeared. The yawn of Dulness at the end Gray describes as among the finest things Pope has written; and this young unknown critic here sounds the first note of discriminating praise, which has since been repeated by all good judges, from Johnson to Thackeray. In the same letter, he enclosed the first example of English verse which we certainly know to be his, a fragment of
a tragedy never completed, of which Mason discovered the general design among Grays papers. As has been already seen, it is manifest that, in
was to have been copied with almost Chinese exactness, just as Grays details, like Racines are often Tacitus versified. The dignity of style to be discovered in these
still impresses us. But, more important than any question of their merits, is the friendly criticism which they occasioned. Few known passages in critical literature furnish more instructive details as to English poetic diction than these unpretending sentences in a letter to West of April, 1742:
As to matter of stile, I have this to say:
The language of the age is never the language of poetry
except among the French, whose verse, where the thought or image does not support it, differs in nothing from prose. Our poetry, on the contrary, has a language peculiar to itself; to which almost every one, that has written, has added something by enriching it with foreign idioms and derivatives: nay sometimes words of their own composition or invention. Shakespear and Milton have been great creators in this way: and
no one more licentious than Pope or Dryden,
who perpetually borrow expressions from the former. Let me give you some instances from Dryden, whom every body reckons a great master of our poetic tongue.Full of
of lovea pleasant
of lovestood silent in his
with knots and
and shameful rout
for the fieldthe
old and uglythe
at his sidethe
his Fathers fame.
Gray goes on to admit that expressions in his play
the hearers brow and
his eyes in
may be faulty; though why they should be thought so, in view of his own theory, must remain a mystery. To take but two examples, he has compounded
from that New Dunciad which he has just been reading, and from Shakespeares
and he gets his arched brow from Pope.
More generally, it is a testimony to the great transformation of literary tastes which Gray ultimately helped to bring about, that words so familiar even in our everyday speech as mood, smouldering, beverage, array, boon and wayward were, in 1742, thought by some to be too fantastic even for poetry. While this correspondence, sometimes little more than a pretty dilettantism and strenuous idleness, was passing between them, Gray was lulled into a false security about his friend West. In April, he writes: I trust to the country, and that easy indolence you say you enjoy there, to restore your health and spirits. On the 8th, he has received a poem on the tardy spring and rejoices to see you (West) putting up your prayers to the May: she cannot choose but come at such a call. Pretty verses enough;
but chiefly interesting because they are the last poetic effort of the young and sorrow-stricken spirit to whom Gray sent the
Ode on the Spring,
which he first called Noon-tide, an Ode, and has left transcribed in his commonplace-book with the note at Stoke, the beginning of June, 1742, sent to Fav[-onius, West]: not knowing he was then Dead. In fact, West died on the first of June. It was strange that the same theme of the opening year should have been respectively the first and the last efforts of the devoted friends, and that the month which silenced one young voice for ever should have wakened the survivor into an unwonted luxuriance of song.
Palamon and Arcite.
The form traces back to
And silken dalliance in the wardrobe lies.
chor. 1, 2.
To where the Seine, obsequious as she runs
Pours at great Bourbons feet her silken sons.
Whom have I hurt? has poet yet, or peer
Lost the archd eyebrow, or Parnassian sneer?
Ep. to Arbuthnot,
. They may be read in the volume
Gray and his Friends
(Cambridge, 1890), in which all Wests remains are collected.
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