صور الصفحة
النشر الإلكتروني
[graphic][subsumed][subsumed][subsumed][merged small]

Published by John Williams 44. Paternoster Row, July. 1827



UNDERNEATH the monument of Milton, in the Poet's Corner of Westminster Abbey, is placed a large marble tablet, executed in honour of Gray, by Bacon, R. A.

It represents the Lyric Muse, in high relief, holding a medallion

The allocation is low and unfavourable, and seems to have been meanly chosen to illustrate the epitaph ; while neither the design nor the performance is in any degree as happy as some others by the same hand. The lines inscribed are these

of the poet.

No more the Grecian Muse unrivall’d reigns:

To Britain let the nations homage pay;
She felt a Homer's fire in Milton's strains,

A Pindar's rapture in the lyre of Gray.

Thomas Gray was the son of a money-scrivener on Cornhill, where he was born on the 26th day of November, 1716. His mother's brother, named Antrobus, was an assistant to the headmaster at Eton,-a circumstance which facilitated the young poet's entrance to that school at a proper age. In 1734 he became a pensioner at Peterhouse College, Cambridge, and there gave early proofs of a superior taste and proficiency in letters. With the mode of life and system of study, however, at this university, he always declared himself dissatisfied. His fellow-students, on account of the delicacy of his complexion and manners, used to call him Miss Gray. He took no degree, but came back to London in 1738, and inscribed his name as a student-at-law of the

Inner Temple.

The friendship of Horace Walpole, afterwards Earl of Orford, which he had originally cultivated at Eton, diverted him from persevering in this view, by proposing a tour on the Continent. It was gladly accepted, and they accordingly wandered together over France and Italy. At Florence, however, some disagreement arose, and they suddenly parted in displeasure. Of this quarrel the cause has never been assigned, and nothing more is known than that Walpole afterwards confessed the fault of it lay on his side. Gray remained abroad for some time longer, travelling with such privacy as became his little fortune, while bis late companion extended his route with all the facility and pomp of ample fortune.

There is perhaps no life to be mentioned which affords so decided a proof of the barrenness of literary biography as does the life of Gray. One sentence would be almost comprehensive enough to contain the few changes and events which occurred during the rest of his life :-he dwelt in London, in Cambridge, and made two excursions to the North of England ; and one epithet would suffice to characterise it-it was studious; while another sentence would be long enough for the enumeration of his writings -eleven odes, one elegy, and a hundred or two miscellaneous couplets ;-and another epithet would answer to describe them --they are beautiful.

But such brevity would make the biographer appear fastidious and his subject inconsiderable: to be just we must be more particular. Upon his return from the Continent in 1741, he buried his father, and found the independence left him much smaller than he expected it would have been. Disappointed in one respect, he resolved not to expose himself to similar chagrin in the uncertainties of a professional life, and therefore, abandoning the law, retired to Cambridge. There he took the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law, and devoted himself, with the exception of a long visit to London, to mental improvement and mental enjoyment for the remainder of his days.

In the year 1742, he seems to have turned his thoughts most seriously to poetry, for during the course of it he wrote his ode to Spring, which was followed by those on the Prospect of Eton, and To Adversity. He went through an extensive course


of classical reading, was fruitful in plans, but utterly deficient in the perseverance or energy required to fulfil them.

The next occurrence amidst the placid flow of his time which awakened any particular interest in the bosom of Gray, or led to any excitement, was the arrival of Mason the poet at Cambridge. From acquaintances they soon became intimates, and this friendship procured us the first good edition of our author's works, and the most interesting account of his mind and studies that we possess. Mason admired Gray, with an earnestness such as one man of talents has seldom felt for another; and loved him with a fidelity, such as a rival has but rarely proved. In this retirement Gray continued studying most deeply, for no other end than his own satisfaction; and enlarging his views, for no other object than the pleasure he derived from the expansion. In 1747 he meditated a poem on Government and Education,' began it, but had not the ambition to finish it-a fact which has been often deservedly regretted, as, from the many excellent lines in the fragments we have of it, there can be little doubt but that it would have been as valuable as the subject is important. In 1750 he completed his far-famed Elegy in a Country Church-yard, which, after being surreptitiously printed in a Magazine, was formally published by Dodsley, and immediately was the author courted as a poet of the very finest feeling and capacity. There was no voice raised against his popularity; for then, as ever since, the elegy found a mirror for every image it presented, and an echo for every sentiment it revealed in the heart of each reader. This is the admission of, to him, the inveterate Dr. Johnson, from whom we also gather, that it presents a succession of thoughts so natural, and expressions so congenial, that, though strictly original in themselves, we fancy they have been familiar to us from infancy. Now this is the highest attainment of art and genius, and there remains nothing more for the critic than to amplify praises, where it were vanity to blame.

In 1753, Dodsley, the bookseller, collected his fugitive pieces together, and published them with plates, by Bentley ; but so scanty were the contents, that, in order to swell out a book, he was obliged to print only on one side of every page.

every page. Nevertheless, the public appears not to have been discontented either with

the poetry or the engraving, for the impression was bought up with great avidity. In 1757, he again came forward with a frugal offering to his admirers by editing his odes, entitled, “The * Progress of Poetry’and. The Bard. They were read with great surprize, but not with such undivided feelings of pleasure as characterised the reception of the elegy. Some who pretended not to understand the loftiness with which they were imagined, were vain enough to think their success could be marred by ridicule, and two burlesque imitations by Lloyd and Colman were published under the heads of Odes on Oblivion' and 'Obscurity.' But the opposition, though clamorous for a while, was vain in the end; and the mock heroics were soon neglected in the obscurity, and forgotten in the oblivion, which they aspired to celebrate.

Gray was now on the heights of celebrity. Taking up his residence for three years near the British Museum, he employed himself in reading and transcribing the rich lore of that most valuable establishment. While thus engaged, Cibber, the Poet Laureate, died, and he had the honour of refusing to fill up the vacancy. He returned to Cambridge and settled himself at Pembroke Hall; but his constitution, naturally weak, was so shattered by confinement, that a change of place and variety of exercise were strongly recommended : he therefore undertook a journey into Scotland during the summer of 1765. There he met with Dr. Beattie, one modest like himself, as well as a poet, and a correct scholar : men so similar, naturally became friends. The University of Aberdeen offered him the degree of Doctor of Laws, but as he had formerly declined that honour at Cambridge, so he thought himself obliged to refuse it here.

Returning once more to Cambridge, he was appointed Professor of History, by the Duke of Grafton. As this was a situation which he had formerly solicited in vain from the Earl of Bute, he was of course much gratified to receive it now unasked. He proceeded to lay-down many plans for a course of lectures; but, with his usual difficulty of execution, neither composed nor delivered any. The badness of his health made another journey necessary in 1769, and he visited the Lakes of Cumberland and Westmorland. This was his last excursion, for it was rio sooner concluded than his strength rapidly fell away. The gout, to

« السابقةمتابعة »