Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by Matthew Arnold
Thomas Gray (17161771)
[Thomas Gray was born in London on the 26th of December 1716. His father is described as a citizen and money-scrivener; we should say nowadays, he was on the stock-exchange. He appears to have been a selfish, extravagant, and violent man. Mr. Antrobus, Grays uncle on the mothers side, was one of the assistant masters at Eton, and at Eton, under his care, Gray was brought up. At Eton he formed a friendship with Horace Walpole, and with Richard West, whose father was Lord Chancellor of Ireland. At Cambridge Gray did not read mathematics and took no degree. He occupied himself with classical literature, history and modern languages; several of his translations and Latin poems date from this time. He intended to read law; but a few months after his leaving Cambridge, Horace Walpole invited him to be his companion on a tour through France and Italy. The friends visited Paris, Florence and Rome, and remained abroad together more than two years. Gray saw and noted much; on this journey were produced the best of his Latin poems. Walpole, however, the son of the Prime Minister, and rich, gave himself airs; a difference arose which made Gray separate from him and return alone to England. He was reconciled with Walpole a year or two later; but meanwhile his father died, in 1741; his mother went to live at Stoke, near Windsor; and Gray, with a narrow income of his own, gave up the law and settled himself in college at Cambridge. In 1742 he lost his friend West; the Ode to the Spring was written just before Wests death, the Ode on the Prospect of Eton, the Hymn to Adversity, and the Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, were written not long after. The first of Grays poems which appeared in print was the Ode on the Prospect of Eton, published in folio by Dodsley in 1747; little notice, says Warton, was taken of it. The Elegy was handed about in manuscript before its publication in 1750; it was popular instantly, and made Grays reputation. In 1753 Gray lost his mother, to whom he owed everything, and whom he devotedly loved. In 1755 The Progress of Poesy was finished, and The Bard begun. The post of Poet-Laureate was offered to Gray in 1757, and declined by him. He applied to Lord Bute, in 1762, for the professorship of modern history at Cambridge, but in vain. Six years afterwards the professorship again became vacant, and the Duke of Grafton gave it to Gray without his applying for it. The year afterwards the Duke of Grafton was elected Chancellor of the University, and Gray composed for his installation the well-known Ode for Music. It was the last of his works. He talked of giving lectures as professor of history, but his health was bad, and his spirits were low; Gray was the most temperate of men, but he was full of hereditary gout. Travelling amused and revived him; he had made with much enjoyment journeys to Scotland, Wales, and the English Lakes, and in the last year of his life, 1771, he entertained a project of visiting Switzerland. But he was too unwell to make the attempt, and he remained at Cambridge. On the 24th of July, while at dinner in the College hall, he was seized with illness; convulsions came on, and on the 30th of July, 1771, at the age of fifty-four, Gray died. He was never married.]
JAMES BROWN, Master of Pembroke Hall at Cambridge, Grays friend and executor, in a letter written a fortnight after Grays death to another of his friends, Dr. Wharton of Old Park, Durham, has the following passage:
Everything is now dark and melancholy in Mr. Grays room, not a trace of him remains there; it looks as if it had been for some time uninhabited, and the room bespoke for another inhabitant. The thoughts I have of him will last, and will be useful to me the few years I can expect to live. He never spoke out, but I believe from some little expressions I now remember to have dropped from him, that for some time past he thought himself nearer his end than those about him apprehended.
He never spoke out. In these four words is contained the whole history of Gray, both as a man and as a poet. The words fell naturally, and as it were by chance, from their writers pen; but let us dwell upon them, and press into their meaning, for in following it we shall come to understand Gray.
He was in his fifty-fifth year when he died, and he lived in ease and leisure, yet a few pages hold all his poetry; he never spoke out in poetry. Still, the reputation which he has achieved by his few pages is extremely high. True, Johnson speaks of him with coldness and disparagement. Gray disliked Johnson, and refused to make his acquaintance; one might fancy that Johnson wrote with some irritation from this cause. But Johnson was not by nature fitted to do justice to Gray and to his poetry; this by itself is a sufficient explanation of the deficiencies of his criticism of Gray. We may add a further explanation of them which is supplied by Mr. Coles papers. When Johnson was publishing his Life of Gray, says Mr. Cole, I gave him several anecdotes, but he was very anxious as soon as possible to get to the end of his labours. Johnson was not naturally in sympathy with Gray, whose life he had to write, and when he wrote it he was in a hurry besides. He did Gray injustice, but even Johnsons authority failed to make injustice, in this case, prevail. Lord Macaulay calls the Life of Gray the worst of Johnsons Lives, and it had found many censurers before Macaulay. Grays poetical reputation grew and flourished in spite of it. The poet Mason, his first biographer, in his epitaph equalled him with Pindar. Britain has known, says Mason,
a Homers fire in Miltons strains,
A Pindars rapture in the lyre of Gray.
The immense vogue of Pope and of his style of versification had at first prevented the frank reception of Gray by the readers of poetry. The Elegy pleased; it could not but please: but Grays poetry, on the whole, astonished his contemporaries at first more than it pleased them; it was so unfamiliar, so unlike the sort of poetry in vogue. It made its way, however, after his death, with the public as well as with the few; and Grays second biographer, Mitford, remarks that the works which were either neglected or ridiculed by their contemporaries have now raised Gray and Collins to the rank of our two greatest lyric poets. Their reputation was established, at any rate, and stood extremely high, even if they were not popularly read. Johnsons disparagement of Gray was called petulant, and severely blamed. Beattie, at the end of the eighteenth century, writing to Sir William Forbes, says: Of all the English poets of this age Mr. Gray is most admired, and I think with justice. Cowper writes: I have been reading Grays works, and think him the only poet since Shakespeare entitled to the character of sublime. Perhaps you will remember that I once had a different opinion of him. I was prejudiced. Adam Smith says: Gray joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope; and nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more. And, to come nearer to our own times, Sir James Mackintosh speaks of Gray thus: Of all English poets he was the most finished artist. He attained the highest degree of splendour of which poetical style seemed to be capable.
In a poet of such magnitude, how shall we explain his scantiness of production? Shall we explain it by saying that to make of Gray a poet of this magnitude is absurd; that his genius and resources were small and that his production, therefore, was small also, but that the popularity of a single piece, the Elegy,a popularity due in great measure to the subject,created for Gray a reputation to which he has really no right? He himself was not deceived by the favour shown to the Elegy. Gray told me with a good deal of acrimony, writes Dr. Gregory, that the Elegy owed its popularity entirely to the subject, and that the public would have received it as well if it had been written in prose. This is too much to say; the Elegy is a beautiful poem, and in admiring it the public showed a true feeling for poetry. But it is true that the Elegy owed much of its success to its subject, and that it has received a too unmeasured and unbounded praise.
Gray himself, however, maintained that the Elegy was not his best work in poetry, and he was right. High as is the praise due to the Elegy, it is yet true that in other productions of Gray he exhibits poetical qualities even higher than those exhibited in the Elegy. He deserves, therefore, his extremely high reputation as a poet, although his critics and the public may not always have praised him with perfect judgment. We are brought back, then, to the question: How, in a poet so really considerable, are we to explain his scantiness of production?
Scanty Grays production, indeed, is; so scanty that to supplement our knowledge of it by a knowledge of the man is in this case of peculiar interest and service. Grays letters and the records of him by his friends have happily made it possible for us thus to know him, and to appreciate his high qualities of mind and soul. Let us see these in the man first, and then observe how they appear in his poetry; and why they cannot enter into it more freely and inspire it with more strength, render it more abundant.
We will begin with his acquirements. Mr. Gray was, writes his friend Temple, perhaps the most learned man in Europe. He knew every branch of history both natural and civil; had read all the original historians of England, France, and Italy; and was a great antiquarian. Criticism, metaphysics, morals, politics, made a principal part of his study. Voyages and travels of all sorts were his favourite amusements; and he had a fine taste in painting, prints, architecture and gardening. The notes in his interleaved copy of Linnæus remained to show the extent and accuracy of his knowledge in the natural sciences, particularly in botany, zoology, and entomology. Entomologists testified that his account of English insects was more perfect than any that had then appeared. His notes and papers, of which some have been published, others remain still in manuscript, give evidence, besides, of his knowledge of literature ancient and modern, geography and topography, painting, architecture and antiquities, and of his curious researches in heraldry. He was an excellent musician. Sir James Mackintosh reminds us, moreover, that to all the other accomplishments and merits of Gray we are to add this: that he was the first discoverer of the beauties of nature in England, and has marked out the course of every picturesque journey that can be made in it.
Acquirements take all their value and character from the power of the individual storing them. Let us take, from amongst Grays observations on what he read, enough to show us his power. Here are criticisms on three very different authors, criticisms without any study or pretension, but just thrown out in chance letters to his friends. First, on Aristotle:
In the first place he is the hardest author by far I ever meddled with. Then he has a dry conciseness that makes one imagine one is perusing a table of contents rather than a book; it tastes for all the world like chopped hay, or rather like chopped logic; for he has a violent affection to that art, being in some sort his own invention; so that he often loses himself in little trifling distinctions and verbal niceties, and what is worse, leaves you to extricate yourself as you can. Thirdly, he has suffered vastly by his transcribers, as all authors of great brevity necessarily must. Fourthly and lastly, he has abundance of fine, uncommon things, which make him well worth the pains he gives one. You see what you have to expect.
It would be strange if I should find fault with you for reading Isocrates; I did so myself twenty years ago, and in an edition at least as bad as yours. The Panegyric, the De Pace, Areopagitic, and Advice to Philip, are by far the noblest remains we have of this writer, and equal to most things extant in the Greek tongue; but it depends on your judgment to distinguish between his real and occasional opinion of things, as he directly contradicts in one place what he has advanced in another; for example, in the Panathenaic and the De Pace, on the naval power of Athens; the latter of the two is undoubtedly his own undisguised sentiment.
After hearing Gray on Isocrates and Aristotle, let us hear him on Froissart:
I rejoice you have met with Froissart, he is the Herodotus of a barbarous age; had he but had the luck of writing in as good a language, he might have been immortal. His locomotive disposition (for then there was no other way of learning things), his simple curiosity, his religious credulity, were much like those of the old Grecian. When you have tant chevauché as to get to the end of him, there is Monstrelet waits to take you up, and will set you down at Philip de Commines; but previous to all these, you should have read Villehardouin and Joinville.
Those judgments, with their true and clear ring, evince the high quality of Grays mind, his power to command and use his learning. But Gray was a poet; let us hear him on a poet, on Shakespeare. We must place ourselves in the full midst of the eighteenth century and of its criticism; Grays friend, West, had praised Racine for using in his dramas the language of the times and that of the purest sort; and he had added: I will not decide what style is fit for our English stage, but I should rather choose one that bordered upon Cato, than upon Shakespeare. Gray replies:
As to matter of style, 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 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. In truth, Shakespeares language is one of his principal beauties; and he has no less advantage over your Addisons and Rowes in this, than in those other great excellences you mention. Every word in him is a picture. Pray put me the following lines into the tongue of our modern dramatics:
But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass
and what follows. To me they appear untranslateable; and if this be the case, our language is greatly degenerated.
It is impossible for a poet to lay down the rules of his own art with more insight, soundness, and certainty. Yet at that moment in England there was perhaps not one other man, besides Gray, capable of writing the passage just quoted.
Grays quality of mind, then, we see; his quality of soul will no less bear inspection. His reserve, his delicacy, his distaste for many of the persons and things surrounding him in the Cambridge of that day,this silly, dirty place, as he calls it,have produced an impression of Gray as being a man falsely fastidious, finical, effeminate. But we have already had that grave testimony to him from the Master of Pembroke Hall: The thoughts I have of him will last, and will be useful to me the few years I can expect to live. And here is another to the same effect from a younger man, from Grays friend Nicholls:
You know, he writes to his mother, from abroad, when he heard of Grays death, that I considered Mr. Gray as a second parent, that I thought only of him, built all my happiness on him, talked of him for ever, wished him with me whenever I partook of any pleasure, and flew to him for refuge whenever I felt any uneasiness. To whom now shall I talk of all I have seen here? Who will teach me to read, to think, to feel? I protest to you, that whatever I did or thought had a reference to him. If I met with any chagrins, I comforted myself that I had a treasure at home; if all the world had despised and hated me, I should have thought myself perfectly recompensed in his friendship. There remains only one loss more; if I lose you, I am left alone in the world. At present I feel that I have lost half of myself.
Testimonies such as these are not called forth by a fastidious effeminate weakling; they are not called forth, even, by mere qualities of mind; they are called forth by qualities of soul. And of Grays high qualities of soul, of his [Greek], his excellent seriousness, we may gather abundant proof from his letters. Writing to Mason who had just lost his father, he says:
I have seen the scene you describe, and know how dreadful it is; I know too I am the better for it. We are all idle and thoughtless things, and have no sense, no use in the world any longer than that sad impression lasts; the deeper it is engraved the better.
He who best knows our nature (for he made us what we are) by such afflictions recalls us from our wandering thoughts and idle merriment, from the insolence of youth and prosperity, to serious reflexion, to our duty, and to himself; nor need we hasten to get rid of these impressions. Time (by appointment of the same Power) will cure the smart and in some hearts soon blot out all the traces of sorrow; but such as preserve them longest (for it is partly left in our own power) do perhaps best acquiesce in the will of the chastiser.
And once more to Mason, in the very hour of his wifes death; Gray was not sure whether or not his letter would reach Mason before the end:
If the worst be not yet past, you will neglect and pardon me; but if the last struggle be over, if the poor object of your long anxieties be no longer sensible to your kindness or to her own sufferings, allow me, at least in idea, (for what could I do, were I present, more than this?) to sit by you in silence and pity from my heart not her, who is at rest, but you, who lose her. May He, who made us, the Master of our pleasures and of our pains, support you! Adieu.
Seriousness, character, was the foundation of things with him; where this was lacking he was always severe, whatever might be offered to him in its stead. Voltaires literary genius charmed him, but the faults of Voltaires nature he felt so strongly that when his young friend Nicholls was going abroad in 1771, just before Grays death, he said to him: I have one thing to beg of you which you must not refuse. Nicholls answered: You know you have only to command; what is it? Do not go to see Voltaire, said Gray; and then added: No one knows the mischief that man will do. Nicholls promised compliance with Grays injunction, but what, he asked, could a visit from me signify? Every tribute to such a man signifies, Gray answered. He admired Dryden, admired him, even, too much; had too much felt his influence as a poet. He told Beattie that if there was any excellence in his own numbers, he had learned it wholly from that great poet; and writing to Beattie afterwards he recurs to Dryden, whom Beattie, he thought, did not honour enough as a poet: Remember Dryden, he writes, and be blind to all his faults. Yes, his faults as a poet; but on the man Dryden, nevertheless, his sentence is stern. Speaking of the Poet-Laureateship, Dryden, he writes to Mason, was as disgraceful to the office from his character, as the poorest scribbler could have been from his verses. Even where crying blemishes were absent, the want of weight and depth of character in a man deprived him, in Grays judgment, of serious significance. He says of Hume: Is not that naïveté and good-humour, which his admirers celebrate in him, owing to this, that he has continued all his days an infant, but one that has unhappily been taught to read and write?
And with all this strenuous seriousness, a pathetic sentiment, and an element, likewise, of sportive and charming humour. At Keswick, by the lakeside on an autumn evening, he has the accent of the Rêveries, or of Obermann, or Wordsworth:
In the evening walked down alone to the lake by the side of Crow Park after sunset and saw the solemn colouring of light draw on, the last gleam of sunshine fading away on the hill-tops, the deep serene of the waters, and the long shadows of the mountains thrown across them, till they nearly touched the hithermost shore. At distance heard the murmur of many water-falls, not audible in the day-time. Wished for the Moon, but she was dark to me and silent, hid in her vacant interlunar cave.
Of his humour and sportiveness his delightful letters are full; his humour appears in his poetry too, and is by no means to be passed over there. Horace Walpole said that Gray never wrote anything easily but things of humour; humour was his natural and original turn.
Knowledge, penetration, seriousness, sentiment, humour, Gray had them all; he had the equipment and endowment for the office of poet. But very soon in his life appear traces of something obstructing, something disabling; of spirits failing, and health not sound; and the evil increases with years. He writes to West in 1737:
Low spirits are my true and faithful companions; they get up with me, go to bed with me, make journeys and returns as I do; nay and pay visits and will even affect to be jocose and force a feeble laugh with me; but most commonly we sit alone together, and are the prettiest insipid company in the world.
The tone is playful, Gray was not yet twenty-one. Mine, he tells West four or five years later, mine, you are to know, is a white Melancholy, or rather Leucocholy, for the most part; which, though it seldom laughs or dances, nor ever amounts to what one calls joy or pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of a state. But, he adds in this same letter:
But there is another sort, black indeed, which I have now and then felt, that has something in it like Tertullians rule of faith, Credo quia impossibile est; for it believes, nay, is sure of everything that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and on the other hand excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and everything that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us! for none but he and sunshiny weather can do it.
Six or seven years pass, and we find him writing to Wharton from Cambridge thus:
The spirit of laziness (the spirit of this place) begins to possess even me, that have so long declaimed against it. Yet has it not so prevailed, but that I feel that discontent with myself, that ennui, that ever accompanies it in its beginnings. Time will settle my conscience, time will reconcile my languid companion to me; we shall smoke, we shall tipple, we shall doze together, we shall have our little jokes, like other people, and our long stories. Brandy will finish what port began; and, a month after the time, you will see in some corner of a London Evening Post, Yesterday died the Rev. Mr. John Gray, Senior-Fellow of Clare Hall, a facetious companion, and well-respected by all who knew him.
The humorous advertisement ends, in the original letter, with a Hogarthian touch which I must not quote. Is it Leucocholy or is it Melancholy which predominates here? at any rate, this entry in his diary, six years later, is black enough:
Insomnia crebra, atque expergiscenti surdus quidam doloris sensus; frequens etiam in regione sterni oppressio, et cardialgia gravis, fere sempiterna.
To be employed is to be happy. This principle of mine (and I am convinced of its truth) has, as usual, no influence on my practice. I am alone, and ennuyé to the last degree, yet do nothing. Indeed I have one excuse; my health (which you have so kindly enquired after) is not extraordinary. It is no great malady, but several little ones, that seem brewing no good to me.
From thence to the end his languor and depression, though still often relieved by occupation and travel, keep fatally gaining on him. At last the depression became constant, became mechanical. Travel I must, he writes to Dr. Wharton, or cease to exist. Till this year I hardly knew what mechanical low spirits were; but now I even tremble at an east wind. Two months afterwards, he died.
What wonder, that with this troublous cloud, throughout the whole term of his manhood, brooding over him and weighing him down, Gray, finely endowed though he was, richly stored with knowledge though he was, yet produced so little, found no full and sufficient utterance, never, as the Master of Pembroke Hall said, spoke out. He knew well enough, himself, how it was with him.
My verve is at best, you know (he writes to Mason), of so delicate a constitution, and has such weak nerves, as not to stir out of its chamber above three days in a year. And to Horace Walpole he says: As to what you say to me civilly, that I ought to write more, I will be candid, and avow to you, that till fourscore and upward, whenever the humour takes me, I will write; because I like it, and because I like myself better when I do so. If I do not write much, it is because I cannot. How simply said, and how truly also! Fain would a man like Gray speak out if he could, he likes himself better when he speaks out; if he does not speak out, it is because I cannot.
Bonstetten, that mercurial Swiss who died in 1832 at the age of eighty-seven, having been younger and livelier from his sixtieth year to his eightieth than at any other time in his life, paid a visit in his early days to Cambridge, and saw much of Gray, to whom he attached himself with devotion. Gray, on his part, was charmed with his young friend; I never saw such a boy, he writes; our breed is not made on this model. Long afterwards, Bonstetten published his reminiscences of Gray. I used to tell Gray, he says, about my life and my native country, but his life was a sealed book to me; he never would talk of himself, never would allow me to speak to him of his poetry. If I quoted lines of his to him, he kept silence like an obstinate child. I said to him sometimes: Will you have the goodness to give me an answer? But not a word issued from his lips. He never spoke out. Bonstetten thinks that Grays life was poisoned by an unsatisfied sensibility, was withered by his having never loved; by his days being passed in the dismal cloisters of Cambridge, in the company of a set of monastic bookworms, whose existence no honest woman ever came to cheer. Sainte-Beuve, who was much attracted and interested by Gray, doubts whether Bonstettens explanation of him is admissible; the secret of Grays melancholy he finds rather in the sterility of his poetic talent, so distinguished, so rare, but so stinted; in the poets despair at his own unproductiveness.
But to explain Gray, we must do more than allege his sterility, as we must look further than to his reclusion at Cambridge. What caused his sterility? Was it his ill-health, his hereditary gout? Certainly we will pay all respect to the powers of hereditary gout for afflicting us poor mortals. But Goethe, after pointing out that Schiller, who was so productive, was almost constantly ill, adds the true remark that it is incredible how much the spirit can do, in these cases, to keep up the body. Popes animation and activity through all the course of what he pathetically calls that long disease, my life, is an example presenting itself signally, in Grays own country and time, to confirm what Goethe here says. What gave the power to Grays reclusion and ill-health to induce his sterility?
The reason, the indubitable reason as I cannot but think it, I have already given elsewhere. Gray, a born poet, fell upon an age of prose. He fell upon an age whose task was such as to call forth in general mens powers of understanding, wit and cleverness, rather than their deepest powers of mind and soul. As regards literary production, the task of the eighteenth century in England was not the poetic interpretation of the world, its task was to create a plain, clear, straightforward, efficient prose. Poetry obeyed the bent of mind requisite for the due fulfilment of this task of the century. It was intellectual, argumentative, ingenious; not seeing things in their truth and beauty, not interpretative. Gray, with the qualities of mind and soul of a genuine poet, was isolated in his century. Maintaining and fortifying them by lofty studies, he yet could not fully educe and enjoy them; the want of a genial atmosphere, the failure of sympathy in his contemporaries, were too great. Born in the same year with Milton, Gray would have been another man; born in the same year with Burns, he would have been another man. A man born in 1608 could profit by the larger and more poetic scope of the English spirit in the Elizabethan age; a man born in 1759 could profit by that European renewing of mens minds of which the great historical manifestation is the French Revolution. Grays alert and brilliant young friend, Bonstetten, who would explain the void in the life of Gray by his having never loved, Bonstetten himself loved, married, and had children. Yet at the age of fifty he was bidding fair to grow old, dismal and torpid like the rest of us, when he was roused and made young again for some thirty years, says M. Sainte-Beuve, by the events of 1789. If Gray, like Burns, had been just thirty years old when the French Revolution broke out, he would have shown, probably, productiveness and animation in plenty. Coming when he did and endowed as he was, he was a man born out of date, a man whose full spiritual flowering was impossible. The same thing is to be said of his great contemporary, Butler, the author of the Analogy. In the sphere of religion, which touches that of poetry, Butler was impelled by the endowment of his nature to strive for a profound and adequate conception of religious things, which was not pursued by his contemporaries, and which at that time, and in that atmosphere of mind, was not fully attainable. Hence, in Butler too, a dissatisfaction, a weariness, as in Gray; great labour and weariness, great disappointment, pain and even vexation of mind. A sort of spiritual east wind was at that time blowing; neither Butler nor Gray could flower. They never spoke out.
Grays poetry was not only stinted in quantity by reason of the age wherein he lived, it suffered somewhat in quality also. We have seen under what obligation to Dryden Gray professed himself to be; if there was any excellence in his numbers, he had learned it wholly from that great poet. It was not for nothing that he came when Dryden had lately embellished, as Johnson says, English poetry; had found it brick and left it marble. It was not for nothing that he came just when the English ear, to quote Johnson again, had been accustomed to the mellifluence of Popes numbers, and the diction of poetry had grown more splendid. Of the intellectualities, ingenuities, personifications, of the movement and diction of Dryden and Pope, Gray caught something, caught too much. We have little of Grays poetry, and that little is not free from the faults of his age. Therefore it was important to go for aid, as we did, to Grays life and letters, to see his mind and soul there, and to corroborate from thence that high estimate of his quality which his poetry, indeed, calls forth, but does not establish so amply and irresistibly as one could desire.
For a just criticism it does, however, clearly establish it. The difference between genuine poetry and the poetry of Dryden, Pope, and all their school, is briefly this; their poetry is conceived and composed in their wits, genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul. The difference between the two kinds of poetry is immense. They differ profoundly in their modes of language, they differ profoundly in their modes of evolution. The poetic language of our eighteenth century in general is the language of men composing without their eye on the object, as Wordsworth excellently said of Dryden; language merely recalling the object, as the common language of prose does, and then dressing it out with a certain smartness and brilliancy for the fancy and understanding. This is called splendid diction. The evolution of the poetry of our eighteenth century is likewise intellectual; it proceeds by ratiocination, antithesis, ingenious turns and conceits. This poetry is often eloquent, and always, in the hands of such masters as Dryden and Pope, clever; but it does not take us much below the surface of things, it does not give us the emotion of seeing things in their truth and beauty. The language of genuine poetry, on the other hand, is the language of one composing with his eye on the object; its evolution is that of a thing which has been plunged in the poets soul until it comes forth naturally and necessarily. This sort of evolution is infinitely simpler than the other, and infinitely more satisfying; the same thing is true of the genuine poetic language likewise. But they are both of them, also, infinitely harder of attainment; they come only from those who, as Emerson says, live from a great depth of being.
Goldsmith disparaged Gray who had praised his Traveller, and indeed in the poem on the Alliance of Education and Government had given him hints which he used for it. In retaliation let us take from Goldsmith himself a specimen of the poetic language of the eighteenth century.
No cheerful murmurs fluctuate in the gale
there is exactly the poetic diction of our prose century! rhetorical, ornate,and, poetically, quite false. Place beside it a line of genuine poetry, such as the
In cradle of the rude, imperious surge
of Shakespeare; and all its falseness instantly becomes apparent.
Drydens poem on the death of Mrs. Killigrew is, says Johnson, undoubtedly the noblest ode that our language ever has produced. In this vigorous performance Dryden has to say, what is interesting enough, that not only in poetry did Mrs. Killigrew excel, but she excelled in painting also. And thus he says it:
To the next realm she stretchd her sway,
For Painture near adjoining lay
A plenteous province and alluring prey.
A Chamber of Dependencies was framed
(As conquerors will never want pretence
When armd, to justify the offence),
And the whole fief, in right of Poetry, she claimd.
The intellectual, ingenious, superficial evolution of poetry of this school could not be better illustrated. Place beside it Pindars
A secure time fell to the lot neither of Peleus the son of Æacus, nor of the godlike Cadmus; howbeit these are said to have had, of all mortals, the supreme of happiness, who heard the golden-snooded Muses sing,on the mountain the one heard them, the other in seven-gated Thebes.
There is the evolution of genuine poetry, and such poetry kills Drydens the moment it is put near it.
Grays production was scanty, and scanty, as we have seen, it could not but be. Even what he produced is not always pure in diction, true in evolution. Still, with whatever drawbacks, he is alone or almost alone (for Collins has something of the like merit) in his age. Gray said himself that the style he aimed at was extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous, and musical. Compared, not with the work of the great masters of the golden ages of poetry, but with the poetry of his own contemporaries in general, Grays may be said to have reached, in style, the excellence at which he aimed; while the evolution, also, of such a piece as his Progress of Poesy, must be accounted not less noble and sound than its style.