Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1021

Although the poem now titled “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is justly the most famous of Thomas Gray’s poems, anyone reading through the whole of his work will decide that he is not a poet of only one tone or one mode of sensibility. True, Gray could strike and maintain admirably a specific mood, such as that of gentle melancholy and regret that informs the “Elegy.” This, however, was only one of his effects. The poetry of his great contemporary, Samuel Johnson, is sustained in one mode from beginning to end—abstract, moralistic, improving—but not so Gray’s.

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Although Gray’s poetry was expressive of his time and displayed often enough the neo-classic qualities admired by eighteenth-century critics and readers, its small body displays a wide variety of interest that must be recorded in any report of a poet who withdrew as a boy from the playing fields of Eton (he was not one of the “idle progeny” who knew how to “chase the rolling circle’s speed,/Or urge the flying ball”) and spent a quiet adult life as a fellow-commoner at Cambridge. He did, in his twenties, take an extended Grand Tour with his friend Horace Walpole, and to the end of his life he varied the quietude of his life at Cambridge with frequent journeys. But Gray, in his travels, showed the qualities of the observer, the tourist. Capable of wide ranges of curiosity and considerable imaginative response to what he saw, he was willing to be entertained and diverted by sights and experiences that Samuel Johnson would simply have dismissed as foreign and barbarous. Gray also resembled other men of his time, even his friend Walpole of Strawberry Hill fame; he was willing to be amused, but the one price he would not pay for his amusement was his self-possession.

This reserve is what gives Gray’s poetry the kind of unity it has. He attempts many things, and the variety of his poetry gives him minor importance as a forerunner of the Romantic Movement, both in the subjects he sometimes chose and in the simple language he sometimes employed. But those who want to claim Gray for the eighteenth century and neoclassicism have no trouble in doing so. Even Gray’s best work, poems like “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” “Hymn to Adversity,” and the “Elegy” abound in the elevated, figurative diction and the excessive personification popular in his time. In some of his verse fish hardly swim, and the poet himself is overshadowed by a thick penumbra of such literary abstractions as Adversity, Melancholy, and others. Often there cluster in the same poem so many of these that the effect becomes clotted and obscure. Consider these lines from “Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude”:

Smiles on past Misfortune’s browSoft Reflection’s hand can trace;And o’er the cheek of Sorrow throwA melancholy grace;While Hope prolongs our happierhour. . . .

Succeeding verses present “rosy Pleasure,” “a kindred Grief,” “Misery,” “Bliss,” and a line which announces: “Humble Quiet builds her cell.”

These tendencies are the marks of some of Gray’s greatest poems, lines which have gained the immortality of proverb. The lines of the “Eton” ode ring with many a remembered, self-possessed phrase, such as “. . . where ignorance is bliss,/’Tis folly to be wise.” Similarly, a moving and notable sadness, admirably kept within bounds, throws out phrase after phrase in the “Elegy” and enriches our common speech: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave”; “Full many a flower is born to blush un-unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air”; “Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest. . . .” Truly noble is Gray’s contemplation of the burial mounds, the rude inscriptions on the stones, the truncated careers, and the unanswerable silence of the modest graveyard at Stoke Poges. For the inglorious Miltons a tear is shed. This shedding of tears may, it is true, anticipate future Romantic glorification of the emotions; but the measured shedding keeps Gray the child of his century. Significantly, most of Gray’s poems were written for sympathetic friends and were published only when pirated versions, as with the “Elegy,” were about to appear.

The fact of Gray’s self-control—the fact that he possessed a considerable range of feeling and powers of taste but was not possessed by them—is testified to by several items. He was a master of the going eighteenth-century style and could, for example, compose restrained and sincere epitaphs (“Epitaph on Mrs. Clerke,” “Epitaph on Sir William Williams”). At the same time, with brilliant if trivial results, he could compose his “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat.” He could be really dull, as in his “Alliance of Education and Government”; yet this sober earnestness did not inhibit his “Satire on the Heads of Houses,” in which he ridicules the university masters to whom he was speaking soberly in his “Alliance.”

Similarly, Gray had enough taste and curiosity to initiate the use of “Barbarian” materials in “The Fatal Sisters,” “The Bard”—called a “Pindaric ode”—and “The Triumphs of Owen.” True to the tone of his sources, he speaks in accents quite different from those of neo-classic convention; screams, mantic possession, and direct language sustain many passages in these pastiches from the Norse and other languages. But the Cambridge resident was no more possessed by savagery than he was by the refined sensibility expressed in the “Elegy” or the “Eton” ode. He moved from sincere epitaphs to a lament for a cat; he moved, at least once, from his recreation of bardic song to “A Long Story,” in which much of the general machinery of Romantic narrative is burlesqued in advance.

As Gray indicated in “The Progress of Poesy,” he believed that he lived in an age of twilight; the great luminaries of Greek, Roman, and English poetry had long since set (“Oh! Lyre divine, what daring Spirit/Wakes thee now?”). He shows us, however, that a conscientious connoisseur can find his way through twilight—perhaps toward a new dawn—and throughout follow a memorable course.

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