Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1683
Thomas Gray 1716–1771
English poet and essayist.
The following entry contains critical essays focusing on Gray's relationship to Preromanticism.
Gray is widely considered the most important English poet of the mid-eighteenth century. Evidencing in his poetry a studied, disciplined aestheticism, he was a major figure in the transition from the...
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- Critical Essays
Thomas Gray 1716–1771
English poet and essayist.
The following entry contains critical essays focusing on Gray's relationship to Preromanticism.
Gray is widely considered the most important English poet of the mid-eighteenth century. Evidencing in his poetry a studied, disciplined aestheticism, he was a major figure in the transition from the Neoclassical to the Romantic style in English letters. Although his poetic canon is small, it reveals a wide-ranging, sensitive, and scholarly mind, and confirms Gray's image as a craftsman obsessed with attaining a perfect blend of content and form. The author of such poems as "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" and "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes," among others, Gray is primarily remembered for his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," one of the best known and most beloved poems in English literature. Perhaps the most famous and widely quoted appraisal of this poem, which is renowned as a sensitive, thoughtful soliloquy on death and the significance of being, was made by Gray's contemporary Samuel Johnson, who wrote, "'The Churchyard' abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." Gray is also esteemed for his prose, particularly his letters, which are said to rival those of his friend Horace Walpole in scope, elegance, and perspicuous observation of human life and the natural world.
Born in London, Gray was the son of a milliner and her husband, a respected scrivener but a man of such abusive and, alternately, neglectful, moods that the couple separated when their son was quite young. Gray's mother raised the boy herself, making enough money at her trade to support the two of them and to send Gray to Eton in 1725. A shy, sensitive boy, Gray enjoyed the close company of only three other students: Thomas Ashton, Richard West, and Walpole, who, with Gray, styled themselves "the Quadruple Alliance" and were given to long walks together and precocious conversation about life and literature. West and Walpole later figured significantly in the development
of Gray's poetic career, which commenced during the four years Gray spent at Cambridge, to which he was admitted in 1734 and where he attracted notice as an accomplished writer of Latin verse. Leaving Cambridge without taking a degree, he joined Walpole shortly thereafter on an extended tour of Europe from 1739 to 1741, when the two quarreled and parted company.
Returning to England, Gray joined his mother at a house she had recently taken in rustic Stoke Poges, Bucking-hamshire, and it was here that he wrote his earliest poems. In 1742, a key year in his life, he composed his first major poem, "Ode on the Spring," sending it to West—unknowingly—on the day of the latter's unexpected death at age twenty-six. Although West's death shocked and saddened Gray, it also apparently spurred him to poetic creativity; he immediately wrote his "Sonnet on the Death of Mr. West," "Ode to Adversity," and "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College." Moved by contemplations of West's death and the peaceful setting of the parish church at Stoke Poges, Gray thereafter began composing the "Elegy," completing two separate versions by 1750. He submitted the revised version for comment to his by-now-reconciled friend, Walpole, who published it in 1751. In the meantime, Gray had recommenced his studies at Cambridge, attaining a law degree in 1743. He lived at Cambridge for the rest of his life, leaving only for periods of study at the newly opened British Museum in London and for journeys to the Lake District and Scotland, travels movingly recorded in his commonplace book and letters. While Gray's early poems created little stir upon their publication in the 1740s, the "Elegy" brought him immediate critical and popular acclaim. The poem was widely reprinted and quoted, attaining during Gray's own lifetime the stature of a minor classic. In recognition of his prominent achievement, Gray was elected Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1768, an office he held until his death, although he never once lectured. A melancholy, private man known for his erudition and wide range of interests, Gray was markedly cheered during the last years of his life through his friendship with a visiting Swiss student, Karl Viktor von Bonstetten, who figures significantly in the poet's correspondence.
"Gray wrote at the very beginning of a certain literary epoch of which we, perhaps, stand at the very end," wrote G. K. Chesterton in 1932. "He represented that softening of the Classic which slowly turned it into the Romantic." From the start of his career, Gray's poetry displayed elements of the intuitive, the emotional, and the naturally metaphysical that departed from the established tenets of adherence to order, reason, and revealed wisdom characteristic of English Neoclassical literature. In addition, Gray introduced a disquieting element that later influenced the poetry of Romantics Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley: the idea of terror as an adjunct of the sublime. While the subjects and themes of Gray's poetry anticipate the concerns of Romanticism, the formality of his language and his use of intricate and precise metrical patterns link him with the Neoclassical tradition. In fact, Gray's own remark to West that "the language of the age is never the language of poetry" helped to fuel a critical debate in the nineteenth century concerning Gray's originality and his sources of inspiration. Today, however, Gray is consistently viewed as an important transitional poet, not only for his innovations in subject matter but also for infusing new life into traditional forms through his exaltation of the imagination as the source of creativity. Aside from his influence on the development of English Romanticism, Gray is primarily remembered for the "Elegy," a work widely considered an exquisite meditation on mortality. As the "Elegy" opens, the poem's speaker reflects in the quiet darkness of the churchyard on the contrast between the lives of the rural poor and the lives of the wealthy and the ruling classes. The narrator goes on to consider his own repressed potential and the limited opportunities of the poor to achieve greatness. "For those who do not know the poem," wrote T. S. Eliot, "I will say briefly that it is, naturally, a meditation on mortality. The poet remarks that the graves are those of humble peasants who were once living and are now dead. In death we are all equal, and it does not matter whether we have an impressive monument or a plain stone. This leads to conjecture that one or two of the obscure people buried here may have had gifts which would have brought them to fame and power had circumstances favoured such success." When Gray made revisions to the "Elegy," he replaced the four concluding stanzas of the original version, which is known as the Eton MS, with fourteen new stanzas, which include Gray's thoughts on the nature and meaning of epitaphs.
The success of the "Elegy" focused critical attention on Gray for the rest of his career, leading to reappraisals of his earlier poetry and close scrutiny of his subsequent works. Of the early poems, the "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," a tribute by Gray to the setting of the happiest years of his life, became popular during Gray's lifetime and has since often been anthologized. Another popular early poem, "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat," humorously describes, in mock-tragic style, the fate of Walpole's cat, Selima, as she attempted one day to catch her master's goldfish. Among the poems Gray published after the "Elegy," "The Bard" and the "The Progress of Poesy" have been the subject of much critical discussion. Published together as Odes in 1757, "The Bard" and "The Progress of Poesy" reflect Gray's studies in Celtic mythology and English literary history.
From the mid-eighteenth century to the present day, Gray's poetry has had many admirers and defenders, and a number of distinguished detractors as well. Scholars continue to puzzle over the antipathy held toward Gray by the first major hostile critic of his work, Samuel Johnson, who considered the "Elegy" Gray's only success. While no convincing answer has been put forward to explain Johnson's attitude, it has been noted that the two men, for some reason, simply disliked each other. Johnson's ascerbic Life (1781) of Gray stirred up a storm of critical debate on the merits of Gray's poetry that continued into the nineteenth century. In 1800 William Wordsworth attacked the poet in his "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads. Focusing on Gray's early "Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West," Wordsworth derided Gray as a poet who "attempted to widen the space of separation betwixt prose and metrical composition, and was more than any other man curiously elaborate in the structure of his own poetic diction." A few years later, Wordsworth added: "Gray failed as a poet, not because he took too much pains, and so extinguished his animation, but because he had very little of that fiery quality to begin with, and his pains were of the wrong sort. He wrote English verses as his brother Eton schoolboys wrote Latin, filching a phrase now from one author and now from another." By the mid-nineteenth century, these issues were the subject of much critical discussion, with Coleridge, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Thomas Carlyle among those who typically described Gray's poetry as frigid, artificial, and overly elaborate. There have been no such major critical controversies during the twentieth century, but interest in Gray's work has continued unabated. The focus of modern critical attention has been the "Elegy," although scholars have recently begun examining Gray's correspondence for evidence of his emotional and physical attraction to other men, arguing that Gray's homosexuality strongly influenced his poetic achievement. Among the most frequently discussed aspects of the "Elegy" are its structure, narrative voice, and themes, including alienation, death, and the contrast between the poor and the great. Scholars have also assessed the relative merits of the two versions of the "Elegy" and examined the poem in relation to Gray's social sympathies and his so-called "private" and "public" voices.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 222
Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (poetry) 1747
"Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes" (poetry) 1748; published in A Collection of Poems, by Several Hands
"Ode [on the Spring]" (poetry) 1748; published in A Collection of Poems, by Several Hands
An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard (poetry) 1751; also published as Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1834
Designs by Mr. R. Bentley for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray (poetry) 1753
*Odes (poetry) 1757
Ode Performed in the Senate-House at Cambridge July 1, 1769, at the Installation of His Grace Augustus Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Grafton, Chancellor of the University (poetry) 1769
On Lord Holland's Seat near Margate, Kent (poetry) 1769
The Poems of Mr. Gray (poetry) 1775
"Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West" (poetry) 1775; published in the journal Universal Magazine
The Candidate (poetry) 1777; published in journal London Evening Post
The Works of Thomas Gray; Containing His Poems, and Correspondence with Several Eminent Literary Characters (poetry and letters) 1807
The Letters of Thomas Gray, Including the Correspondence of Gray and Mason. 3 vols, (letters) 1900-12
Essays and Criticisms (essays) 1911
Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude, Left Unfinished by Mr. Gray, and since Completed. 2 vols. (poetry) 1933
The Selected Letters of Thomas Gray (letters) 1952
*This volume contains what are commonly called Gray's Pindaric odes: "The Bard" and "The Progress of Poesy."
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4863
SOURCE: "The Romantic Movement Exemplified in Gray," in The Beginnings of the Romantic Movement: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Literature, Gordian Press, 1968, pp. 155-70.
[In the following essay, originally published in 1895, Phelps traces the transition in Gray's works from Neoclassicism to Romanticism.]
A chronological study of Gray's poetry and of the imagination and love of nature displayed in his prose remains, is not only deeply interesting in itself, but is highly important to the history of Romanticism. In him, the greatest literary man of the time, we find the best example of the steady growth of the Romantic movement. But before proceeding to the discussion of this, a word on Gray's sterility is necessary. The view given by Matthew Arnold in his famous essay1 is entirely without foundation in fact. The reason why Gray wrote so little was not because he was chilled by the public taste of the age; he would probably have written no more had he lived a hundred years before or since. He was not the man to be depressed by an unfavorable environment; for his mind was ever open to new influences, and he welcomed with the utmost eagerness all genuine signs of promise. His correspondence shows how closely and intelligently he followed the course of contemporary literature; he had something to say about every new important book. The causes of his lack of production are simple enough to those who start with no pre-conceived theory, and who prefer a commonplace explanation built on facts to a fanciful one built on phrases. Gray was a scholar, devoted to solitary research, and severely critical, this kind of temperament is not primarily creative, and does not toss off immortal poems every few weeks. The time that Mason spent in production, Gray spent in acquisition, and when he did produce, the critical fastidiousness of the scholar appeared in every line. All his verses bear evidence of the most painstaking labor and rigorous self-criticism. Again, during his whole life he was handicapped by wretched health, which, although never souring him, made his temperament melancholy, and acted as a constant check on what creative activity he really possessed. And finally, he abhorred publicity and popularity. No one who reads his correspondence can doubt this fact. He hated to be dragged out from his scholarly seclusion, and evidently preferred complete obscurity to any noisy public reputation. This reserve was never affected; it was uniformly sincere, like everything else in Gray's character. His reticence was indeed extraordinary, keeping him not only from writing, but from publishing what he did write.2 His own friends would have had no difficulty in explaining his scantiness of production. Horace Walpole, writing to George Montagu, Sept. 3, 1748, says: "I agree with you most absolutely in your opinion about Gray; he is the worst company in the world. From a melancholy turn, from living reclusely, and from a little too much dignity, he never converses easily; all his words are measured and chosen, and formed into sentences; his writings are admirable; he himself is not agreeable." Again, referring to Gray's slowness in composition, Walpole writes to Montagu, May 5, 1761. He is talking about Gray's proposed history of poetry, and he says: "If he rides Pegasus at his usual foot-pace, (he) will finish the first page two years hence." The adjective that perhaps best expresses Gray is Fastidious. He was as severe on the children of his own brain as he was on those of others; he never let them appear in public until he was sure everything was exactly as it should be. Even his greatest poem pleases more by its exquisite finish than by its depth of feeling. These three reasons, then, his scholarly temperament, his bad health, and his dignified reserve, account satisfactorily for his lack of fertility. If we wish to know why so deep and strong a nature produced so little poetry, we must look at the man, and not at his contemporaries. So much for Gray's sterility.3
Although Gray's biographers and critics have very seldom spoken of it, the most interesting thing in a study of his poetry—and the thing, of course, that exclusively concerns us here—is his steady progress in the direction of Romanticism. Beginning as a classicist and disciple of Dryden, he ended in thorough-going Romanticism.4 His early poems contain nothing Romantic; his "Elegy" has something of the Romantic mood, but shows many conventional touches; in the Pindaric Odes the Romantic feeling asserts itself boldly; and he ends in enthusiastic study of Norse and Celtic poetry and mythology. Such a steady growth in the mind of the greatest poet of the time shows not only what he learned from the age, but what he taught it. Gray is a much more important factor in the Romantic movement than seems to be commonly supposed. This will appear from a brief examination of his poetry.
While at Florence in the summer of 1740, he began to write an epic poem in Latin, "De Principiis Cogitandi". Only two fragments were written,5 but they made a piece of considerable length. This was an attempt to put in poetic form the philosophy of Locke. It shows how little he at that time understood his own future. The Gray of 1760 could no more have done a thing of this sort, than he could have written the Essay on Man. In these early years he was completely a Classicist. In 1748, when he was largely under Dryden's influence, he began a didactic poem in the heroic couplet, "On the Alliance of Education and Government." It is significant that he never finished either of these poems. Mathias said: "When Mr. Nichols once asked Mr. Gray, why he never finished that incomparable Fragment on 'The Alliance between good Government and good Education, in order to produce the happiness of mankind,' he said, he could not; and then explained himself in words of this kind, or to this effect: 'I have been used to write chiefly lyrick poetry, in which, the poems being short, I have accustomed myself to polish every part of them with care; and as this has become a habit, I can scarcely write in any other manner; the labour of this in a long poem would hardly be tolerable.'"6 Gray must have perceived early in this task that the game was not worth the candle.
In 1742 Gray wrote three Odes: "On the Spring," "On a Distant Prospect of Eton College," and "To Adversity." These well-known pieces contain little intimation of Gray's later work. They have nothing of the spirit of Romanticism, and might have been written by any Augustan of sufficient talent. The moralizing is wholly conventional, and the abundance of personified abstractions was in the height of fashion. The poems thus far mentioned represent Gray's first period. He was a disciple of Dryden, and a great admirer of Pope, for writing to Walpole in 1746, he calls Pope "the finest writer, one of them, we ever had."7
Gray's second period is represented by the "Elegy," which he began in 1742 and finished in June, 1750.8 He was in no haste to print it; the manuscript circulated among his friends, and was first printed anonymously, with a preface by Horace Walpole, February 16, 1751. How long Gray meant to keep the "Elegy" from the public is uncertain; circumstances compelled its publication. On February 10, 1751, the editor of the Magazine of Magazines requested permission to print it. This alarmed Gray; he flatly refused the editor's request, and wrote instantly to Walpole, asking him to get Dodsley to print it as soon as possible.9
The "Elegy" is not a Romantic poem; its moralizing is conventional, and pleased eighteenth century readers for that very reason. Scores of poems were written at that time in which the thought was neither above nor below that of the "Elegy," and these poems have nearly all perished. What has kept Gray's contribution to the Church-yard school alive and popular through all changes in taste, is its absolute perfection of language. There are few poems in English literature that express the sentiment of the author with such felicity and beauty. This insures its immortality; and it is this fact that deservedly gives it the first place in Gray's literary productions.
But although the "Elegy" is not strictly Romantic, it is different from Gray's earlier work. It is Romantic in its mood, and stands as a transition between his period of Classicism and his more highly imaginative poetry. It was the culmination of the Il Penseroso school, and as I have shown, that school was in several ways intimately connected with the growth of the Romantic movement. There is one highly significant fact about the composition of the "Elegy," which shows with perfect distinctness that its author was passing through a period of transition. One of its most famous stanzas Gray originally wrote as follows:—
The fact that Gray should originally have put down the Latin names, and afterwards inserted in their place the three names Hampden, Milton, Cromwell—taken from comparatively recent English history—is something certainly worth attention. It marks the transition from Classicism to Nationalism. In this stanza he shook off the shackles of pseudo-classicism; he made up his mind that English historical examples were equal in dignity to those taken from Latin literature. It was a long step forward, and although perhaps a small thing in itself, is an index to a profound change going on in Gray's mind.10
Gray's next work shows him well on the way toward Romanticism. In 1754 he wrote "The Progress of Poesy," and in the same year began "The Bard," which he finished in 1757. Both these Pindaric Odes were first printed in 1757, on Horace Walpole's press at Strawberry Hill—the first and the best things ever published there. These two odes, especially the latter, are the most imaginative poetry Gray ever produced, and were distinctly in advance of the age. They were above the popular conception of poetry, and their obscurity was increased by their allusiveness. The public did not take to them kindly; many people regarded them as we see Browning and Wagner regarded to-day. Their obscurity was ridiculed, and they were freely parodied.11 Gray was a little hurt by all this, but he had foreseen their probable reception. He had written to Walpole, "I don't know but I may send him (Dodsley) very soon … an ode to his own tooth, a high Pindaric upon stilts, which one must be a better scholar than he is to understand a line of, and the very best scholars will understand but a little matter here and there."12 Horace Walpole never forgave the age for its attitude toward Gray's odes. Again and again he refers to it in his correspondence, and it had much to do with his dislike for Dr. Johnson.13 Walpole called the Odes "Shakspearian," "Pindaric," and "Sublime," and said they were "in the first rank of genius and poetry." But Walpole's opinions were largely influenced in this matter by personal pride, for his own taste was not at all reliable. He said Gray's "Eton Ode" was "far superior" to the "Elegy."14
In the Pindaric Odes, Gray ceased to follow the age; he struck out ahead of it, and helped to mould its literary taste. From this time people began to regard him as a Romanticist, and to look for wild and extravagant productions from his pen. When the Castle of Otranto appeared in 1764, Gray was by many believed to be the author. The Odes became much more popular after Gray's death—a sign of growth in public taste. This made Dr. Johnson angry, and had much to do with his satirical treatment of the Odes in his wretched Life of Gray. He did not like to think that Gray had really taught the people anything, and so he declared that the admiration for Gray was all hypocrisy, just as many honest people to-day make fun of those who admire Wagner's music. Johnson said that in Gray's Odes "many were content to be shewn beauties which they could not see." Undoubtedly Gray and Wagner have hypocrites among their admirers; but the fact that each helped to set a fashion is significant of a change in taste.
We now enter upon the last period of Gray's literary production. In 1755 Mallet's Introduction a l' Histoire de Dannemarck appeared. This had a powerful effect on Gray, and aroused his interest in Northern mythology, which he studied with the utmost enthusiasm. In 1761, Gray wrote "The Fatal Sisters. From the Norse Tongue"; also "The Descent of Odin." Evans's book on Welsh poetry, the Specimens (1764), stirred him up again, and he wrote "The Triumphs of Owen." These three poems were published in 1768, in the edition of his writings revised by himself. All this work, of course, is strictly Romantic.15 In 1760, when the Ossianic Fragments appeared, Gray was wonderfully aroused. His friends knew he would be excited, for Walpole, writing to Dalrymple, April 4, 1760, said, "You originally pointed him out as a likely person to be charmed with the old Irish poetry you sent me." On receiving some specimens, Gray immediately wrote to Walpole as follows: "I am so charmed with the two specimens of Erse poetry, that I cannot help giving you the trouble to inquire a little farther about them and should wish to see a few lines of the original, that I may form some slight idea of the language, the measures, and the rhythm."16 He then proceeds to make further comments. His own Romantic tastes come out strikingly in the following letter to Stonehewer, June, 1760. "I have received another Scotch packet with a third specimen, inferior in kind … but yet full of nature and noble wild feeling…. The idea, that struck and surprised me most, is the following. One of them (describing a storm of wind and rain) says:—
Ghosts ride on the tempest to-night;
Sweet is their voice between the gusts of wind;
Their songs are of other worlds!
Did you never observe (while rocking winds are piping loud) that pause, as the gust is recollecting itself, and rising upon the ear in a shrill and plaintive note, like the swell of an Aeolian harp? I do assure you there is nothing in the world so like the voice of a spirit."17 Gray continued to correspond with his friends about Ossian, saying that he had "gone mad" about it.18
The best way to show the growth toward Romanticism in Gray's poetry is to quote successively short passages from poems representative of all his periods of production. They will explain themselves.
From the "Ode on the Spring," written 1742:—
From "The Alliance of Education and Government," written in 1748:—
As sickly Plants betray a niggard earth,
Whose barren bosom starves her gen'rous birth,
Nor genial warmth, nor genial juice retains
Their roots to feed, and fill their verdant veins;
And as in climes, where Winter holds his reign,
The soil, tho' fertile, will not teem in vain,
Forbids her gems to swell, her shades to rise,
Nor trusts her blossoms to the churlish skies;
So draw Mankind in vain the vital airs,
Unform'd, unfriended, by those kindly cares,
That health and vigour to the soul impart,
Spread the young thought, and warm the opening heart;
So fond Instruction
etc. From the "Elegy," 1742-50:—
From "The Progress of Poesy," written 1754:—
From "The Bard," written 1754-7:—
From "The Fatal Sisters," written 1761:—
From "The Descent of Odin," written 1761:—
In the caverns of the west,
By Odin's fierce embrace comprest,
A wond'rous Boy shall Rinda bear,
Who ne'er shall comb his raven-hair,
Nor wash his visage in the stream,
Nor see the sun's departing beam;
Till he on Hoder's corse shall smile
Flaming on the fun'ral pile.
Now my weary lips I close:
Leave me, leave me to repose.
The significance of the above quotations is apparent at a glance. "The Descent of Odin" is about as different from the "Ode on the Spring" as can well be imagined.
As he advanced in life, Gray's ideas of poetry grew free in theory as well as in practise. His "Observations on English Metre," written probably in 1760-61, and published in 1814, contains much interesting matter. Gray had planned to write a History of English poetry, but when he heard that Thomas Warton was engaged in that work, he gave up the idea, and handed over his material and general scheme to Warton. If Gray had completed a history of this kind, it would certainly have been more accurate than Warton's, and would probably have done as much service to Romanticism. A few words may be quoted from the "Observations," to show how far Gray had advanced in his ideas since 1740. Speaking of Milton, he says, "The more we attend to the composition of Milton's harmony, the more we shall be sensible how he loved to vary his pauses, his measures and his feet, which gives that enchanting air of freedom and wildness to his versification, unconfined by any rules but those which his own feeling and the nature of his subject demands."19
Gray's prose remains are deeply interesting to the student of Romanticism. He was one of the first men in Europe who had any real appreciation of wild and Romantic scenery. It has now become so fashionable to be fond of mountains, and lakes, and picturesque landscapes, that it seems difficult to believe that all this is a modern taste. To-day the average summer traveler speaks enthusiastically of precipices, mountain cascades and shaded glens, and even to some extent interprets them by the imagination, but the average eighteenth century sojourner neither could nor would do anything of the sort. This appreciation of the picturesque in external nature has a close kinship with the Romantic movement in literature; for the same emotions are at the foundation of each.
The Classicists had no more love for wild nature than they had for Gothic architecture or Romantic poetry. Let us take Addison as a conspicuous example. "In one of his letters, dated December, 1701, he wrote that he had reached Geneva after 'a very troublesome journey over the Alps. My head is still giddy with mountains and precipices; and you can't imagine how much I am pleased with the sight of a plain!' This little phrase is a good illustration of the contempt for mountains, of the way they were regarded as wild, barbaric, useless excrescences…. The love of mountains is something really of modern, very modern, growth, the first traces of which we shall come across towards the middle of the last century. Before that time we find mountains spoken of in terms of the severest reprobation."20
Mountains and wild scenery were considered as objects not of beauty or grandeur, but of horror. But in Gray's letters we hear the modern tone.
In this respect he was even more in advance of his contemporaries than in his Romantic poetry. From first to last he was always a lover of wild nature; and, as this taste was so unfashionable, we may be sure of his sincerity. Toward the close of his life, this feeling in Gray becomes more and more noticeable. His Lake Journal is a marvel when we consider its date, for it is written in the true spirit of Wordsworth. But his early letters and journals show that he knew how to appreciate Romantic scenery. Take two extracts from his Journal in France (1739).21 These words are interesting simply as showing what attracted Gray's attention: "Beautiful way, commonly on the side of a hill, cover'd with woods, the river Marne winding in the vale below, and Côteaux, cover'd with vines, riseing gently on the other side; fine prospect of the town of Joinville, with the castle on the top of the mountain, overlooking it…. Ruins of an old castle on the brow of a mountain, whose sides are cover'd with woods."22 Again, describing the journey to Geneva: "The road runs over a Mountain, which gives you the first tast of the Alps, in it's magnificent rudeness, and steep precipices; set out from Echelles on horseback, to see the Grande Chartreuse, the way to it up a vast mountain, in many places the road not 2 yards broad; on one side the rock hanging over you, & on the other side a monstrous precipice. In the bottom runs a torrent … that works its way among the rocks with a mighty noise, and frequent Falls. You here meet with all the beauties so savage and horrid23 a place can present you with; Rocks of various and uncouth figures, cascades pouring down from an immense height out of hanging Groves of Pine-Trees, & the solemn Sound of the Stream, that roars below, all concur to form one of the most poetical scenes imaginable."24
All this is remarkable language for the year 1739. Probably very few private journals of the eighteenth century can show anything similar to it; for Gray's feelings were, at that time, almost exclusively his own. One more remark of his on Alpine scenery may be quoted. He wrote to Richard West, November 16, 1739: "I own I have not, as yet, anywhere met with those grand and simple works of Art, that are to amaze one, and whose sight one is to be the better for; but those of Nature have astonished me beyond expression. In our little journey up to the Grande Chartreuse, I do not remember to have gone ten paces without an exclamation, that there was no restraining. Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry. There are certain scenes that would awe an atheist into belief, without the help of other argument. One need not have a very fantastic imagination, to see spirits there at noonday; you have Death perpetually before your eyes, only so far removed, as to compose the mind without frightening it."25
Just thirty years later, Gray wrote another journal, which shows that he had progressed as rapidly in his appreciation of Nature as he had in his love of wild and passionate poetry. This is the Journal in the Lakes, written in 1769, and published in 1775. This document is of great value, as throwing light on the purely imaginative side of Gray's nature. He took this Lake trip alone, and wrote the Journal simply to amuse his friend, Dr. Wharton. Here we have a very different view of nature from that given by Dyer, Thomson and even by the Wartons. This remarkable Journal is written in the true Wordsworthian spirit. Gray not only observes but spiritually interprets nature. Two quotations will suffice to show how far Gray's taste had advanced since 1739: "Behind you are the magnificent heights of Walla-crag; opposite lie the thick hanging woods of Lord Egremont, and Newland valley, with green and smiling fields embosomed in the dark cliffs; to the left the jaws of Borrodale, with that turbulent chaos of mountain behind mountain, rolled in confusion; beneath you, and stretching far away to the right, the shining purity of the Lake, just ruffled by the breeze, enough to show it is alive, reflecting rocks, woods, fields, and inverted tops of mountains."26
The following passage is perhaps the most striking thing Gray ever wrote about nature: "In the evening walked alone down to the Lake by the side of Crow-Park after sun-set and saw the solemn colouring of night draw on, the last gleam of sunshine fading away on the hilltops, 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 daytime. Wished for the Moon, but she was dark to me and silent, hid in her vacant interlunar cave."
Mitford said: "No man was a greater admirer of nature than Mr. Gray, nor admired it with better taste." Perhaps Walpole had partly in mind Gray's superior appreciation of Alpine scenery when he wrote, in 1775: "We rode over the Alps in the same chaise, but Pegasus drew on his side, and a cart-horse on mine."28 There is something noble and truly beautiful in the way in which Walpole always insisted on his own inferiority to Gray. His attitude in this was never cringing; it was a pure tribute of admiration, and that, too, from a sensitive man who had been repeatedly snubbed by the very object of his praise.
It is interesting to notice the strange and strong contrast between the shy, reserved temperament of Gray, and the pronounced radicalism of his literary tastes. Had he been a demonstrative and gushing person like Mason, his utterances about mountains and Ossianic poetry would not seem so singular; but that this secluded scholar, who spent most of his hours over his books in Cambridge and the manuscripts in the British Museum, and who was always slow to speak, should have quietly cultivated tastes so distinctly Romantic—this is a noteworthy fact. It seems to show that the one-man power counts for something in literary developments. Gray influenced the age more than the age influenced him; he led rather than followed. In addition to all the various forces that we have observed as silently working in the Romantic movement, we must add the direct influence of the courage and genius of Gray.
1 Ward's English Poets, Vol. III., p. 302. Both Mr. Perry and Mr. Gosse seem to support Arnold's view, but I am unable to see anything in it.
2 He wrote, in English and Latin, more than 60 poems, but only 12 appeared in print during his lifetime; and his prose is all posthumous.
3 After I had fully reached this conclusion, I read Mr. Tovey's recent book, Gray and His Friends. The Introduction to that book is the most judicious essay on Gray that I have ever seen in print, though Mr. Tovey does not discuss his connection with Romanticism. I was pleased to find that my view of Gray's sterility was very similar to Mr. Tovey's, who completely disposes of Arnold's theory.
4 He never despised Dryden, however, though he went far beyond him. Oct. 2, 1765, he wrote to Beattie, "Remember Dryden, and be blind to all his faults." Gray's Works, Vol. III., p. 221.
5 The second in 1742.
6Mathias's Observations (1815), page 52. This passage in itself goes a long way toward explaining Gray's sterility.
7Gray's Works, Vol. II., page 130.
8 Gray's interesting letter to Walpole about the Elegy, June 12, 1750, may be found in his Works, Vol. II., page 209. He says: "You will, I hope, look upon it in the light of a thing with an end to it; a merit that most of my writings have wanted." He evidently felt the fragmentary nature of his previous work.
9 This letter is in Gray's Works, Vol. II., page 210. It contains minute instructions about the printing of the poem, and says it must be published anonymously.
10 This point is fully and suggestively treated in the Saturday Review for June 19, 1875, in an article called A Lesson from Gray's Elegy.
11 Dr. Johnson said they were "two compositions at which the readers of poetry were at first content to gaze in mute amazement." In 1783, Dr. Johnson was violently attacked for this by the Rev. R. Potter, an enthusiastic admirer of Gray. Potter said that Gray's Bard, with its "wild and romantic scenery," etc., was "the finest ode in the world."
12Works, Vol. II, page 218.
13 For Walpole's remarks on Gray's Odes, see his letters to Horace Mann, August 4, 1757, and to Lyttleton, August 25, 1757. See especially his letter to Mason, January 27, 1781, on Johnson's Life of Gray. Walpole afterward spoke of Johnson as a "babbling old woman." and a "wight on stilts."
14 Letter to Lyttleton, August 25, 1757.
15 Gosse says in his Life of Gray, page 163, that Gray not only takes precedence of English poets in the revival of Norse mythology, but even of the Scandinavian writers. But this is going too far. Mallet, in his Histoire de Dannemarck, Vol. II, page 309, speaks of a book on the "exploits des rois et des héros du Nord" published at Stockholm in 1737.
16Works, Vol. III., page 45.
17Gray's Works, Vol. III., page 47.
18 Mr. Gosse has some interesting remarks on Gray and Ossian in his Life of Gray, page 149.
19Works, Vol. I., page 332.
20Perry's Eighteenth Century Literature, page 145. But much of our modern love for mountains and precipices is doubtless due to the circumstances in which we view them. Carried to the top of the Rigi in a comfortable car, we are in a condition to enjoy to the utmost the glorious view; but if the Rigi represented an obstacle, something that must be passed over with infinite discomfort and even peril, in order to reach a destination on the other side, I am sure we should not appreciate the view so keenly. This was the attitude in which Addison looked at the Alps.
21 This was printed from the first time by Mr. Gosse in Vol. I. of his edition of Gray's Works.
22Works, Vol. I., page 240.
23 The word sounds conventional, more like Augustan style; but what Gray goes on to say shows that it appealed to his own feelings in a very different way.
24Works, Vol. I., page 244.
25Works, Vol. II, page 44.
26Works, Vol. I., page 254.
27Works, Vol. I., page 258.
28 Letter to Cole, December 10, 1775.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3131
SOURCE: "Collins and Gray," in Naturalism in English Poetry, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1920, pp. 42-65.
[In the following excerpt, Brooke compares Gray's poetry with that of William Collins and delineates Gray's chief creative influences, assessing the impact of his works on the transition in English poetry from Neoclassicism to Romanticism.]
… [William Collins and Thomas Gray are] connected with the school of Dryden and Pope by a certain artificial or conventional note in their diction, by a certain want of frank Naturalism; so that, even in their beautiful work, a note of commonplace is heard, a prosaic note. This is less in Collins than in Gray, but, in its occurrence in the poetry of both, they are together. The juxtaposition of their names, at this point, is not unfitting. At another point they are also together. They both went back in search of Nature and Beauty, not to Horace for an impulse to satirical poetry, or indeed to any of the Romans, not even to Vergil, but to the great nobility, simplicity and solid art of the Greek poets of the finer time—Gray more than Collins, but Collins with equal determination and an equal reverence for the Greek mastery and excellence. "Let us return," they said, "to the best masters, in order to know best how to shape our own work into beauty and dignity and exquisiteness." They did not reach the excellence they admired, but their aspiration had a profound effect on the career of the larger number of the English poets of the nineteenth century. Men rejected the artificial Classicism, with its limiting rules, of Pope, and pursued, not only after the noble, simple and passionate excellence of the Greek work, but also after the measured, temperate, selective, careful exquisiteness of the phrasing of a poet like Vergil. Moreover, they endeavoured to combine with this emulation of the classic excellence the love of the beautiful, as best disclosed in a close but ideal representation of Nature; both in the soul of man and in the images of the natural world. It was as yet only an endeavour, but it was begun.
Collins and Gray began this movement, but they lived in a prosaic age and in an age which imposed on them an artificial, not a natural, expression of their thoughts. And this prevented their work, under this new Greek impulse, from being as excellent as it might have been at another time in the history of literature. Had they been born after Wordsworth had restored the natural language of feeling to poetry, they would have been different poets indeed; and this is a point which, if I rightly remember, Matthew Arnold has made and laboured.
In these two ways—in a conventional diction which links them back to Pope and in a return to the spirit of the Greek classics—Collins and Gray may be considered as one. In other points, indeed, in their main poetic work and genius, they differed greatly from one another. The continual association of their names is a critical mistake. Collins had more natural art than Gray and desired it more. He saw and loved Simplicity, that gracious maid. She was taught by Nature to breathe her genuine thought, he said:
In numbers warmly pure and sweetly strong.
He paints her, in Attic robe arrayed, the meek sister of Truth. It was she, he said, who alone could justly order and arrange the flowers of poetry that Beauty had collected. Even when divine excess filled the poet's soul, it was Simplicity who could give the frenzy the true warmth; for she alone can, by her spirit of soothing, sober, tender music, raise the soul of him who reads the verse into the true temper to enjoy the verse. "The passions in hall and bower own thy power no more," and he is thinking of the dead poetry of his time:
Faint's the cold work till thou inspire the whole,
but give me Nature—simply Nature—the still, quiet, natural passion of the heart. There is my happiness; there my genius breathes with ease and loves its work:
These are the views concerning poetry he expresses in the "Ode to Simplicity." They are not the views of Gray—they are the views of Wordsworth—and Collins first struck this high note of Naturalism. Rising through all the conventional phrasing of the time, through its allegorising and personifying way of representing thought and emotion, is this natural, simple note which Collins, wiser than his age, strove to attain….
Thomas Gray, to whom we now turn, though not so true a poet as Collins, was more remarkable in the history of this poetic transition. He opened more new veins of poetry than Collins did, and he combined within himself a larger number of new tendencies of the time. Moreover, he was a man of greater knowledge than Collins; of wider sympathies; of a more conscious art; with a staid, moral, sententious philosophy of man, partly derived from Pope, of which philosophy Collins was, I imagine, a despiser; and with a pleasant humour of which Collins was incapable; a wider, more various man, but not a greater poet. At another point they also differed. Collins was feeble of character and many circumstances were against him. He fell at last into deep depression, almost bordering on madness, and his poetic vein dried up. Gray was strong and wise of character, his circumstances were happy and, though he suffered also from physical depression, this did not enfeeble his sane and steadfast mind. His powers remained undiminished to the end.
If we wish to know how this character of his bore upon, strengthened or enlarged his poetry, we cannot do better than read Matthew Arnold's essay upon him; which, though prefixed to extracts from his verse, says little or nothing concerning him as a poet, but very much concerning him as a man. Arnold's constant search in his later essays after the character, circumstances and society of the poets he discussed, in order to draw from these elements a critical estimate of their poetry, was useful work, provided it was kept within just limits. But he ran it into its extreme, and the extreme lowered his critical power. Finally it almost ruined it. Of course, the character of a poet has a great deal to do with his poetry, but it does not altogether make it. As far, however, as it does make it—as far as Gray's temper and life told on his poetry—we may let them alone. What Arnold has said of them could not be better said. But we must, in speaking of his poetry, mark especially the place he occupies in the growth of naturalist and romantic poetry, during this transition period.
First, an excellent scholar, he, far more than Collins, sought back to the great Classics, not as Pope did, to transfer them into modern dress, but to drench his soul with their spirit, to emulate their temperance, their high aims, their precision and clearness and, above all, their wide view of human nature. He studied them as models, but he used his study of them on his own subjects. No poet who cared for his art neglected, after him, the classic sources, however romantically he used the results of his study. Gray and Collins learned the high secrets and methods of their art from the Greeks; but the new freedom of their spirit not only prevented them from imitation, but also urged them into individual creation. They strove to assimilate the classic spirit but to use it in their own way.
Secondly, like Collins, and with greater industry, he studied the old poets of England. He felt how close and vital was the connexion between the ancient poets and the new poetry of his own day. He knew his Chaucer well. He wrote an essay on Lydgate. He loved the great Elizabethans—Spenser, Shakespeare and the rest. He read his Milton continuously. He projected a history of English poetry; and one regrets, near as he was to Dryden and Pope, that he did not trace their influence and fix their place in English poetry.
In doing this, he was continually in contact, not with artificial, but with high imaginative and passionate work, and also with a noble Naturalism, as far as Naturalism was concerned with human nature—a Naturalism freer, bolder, more universal, but less temperate than the Greek, a Naturalism which was always passing into Romanticism. And this continual contact with imagination and passion set him largely free from the power of the artificial school, and enabled him to push forward the new life in poetry. When we read his "Ode on the Progress of Poesy"—one of his fine things—we see how truly he tried to drink of these ancient springs, how fully he was conscious of the continuity of English Poetry.
Nevertheless, and this is a third matter, he was held back, by his nearness to the artificial and prosaic poetry of Dryden and Pope, from getting all out of these springs that he might otherwise have got. Neither imagination nor passion had its perfect work in him. His natural description, his criticism of life, his contemplative spirit, his melancholy, were, in his poetry, modified away from the natural expression of them, from imaginative simplicity, by the conventional school in which he had been educated. Again and again the commonplace and meaningless diction of the period spoils, or seems to spoil, the grace of his verse. Its sentiment is sometimes faded; its sententious phrasing too usual, too sententious; its expression too carefully, too academically wrought—and passion, save in his contemplative melancholy, and even in that too obviously elaborated, is altogether wanting. Nevertheless, he almost escaped from these prosaic elements. He made a great step forward. And, so far as his backward motion as a poet is concerned, I impute his nearness to full escape from mere conventions in poetry to the fact that the man he most admired, followed and studied was not Pope, but the more masculine and forceful Dryden. Gray, even though he was a somewhat sentimental moralist, a retired contemplator of man from the shades of a university, had force, when he pleased to use it, in his poetry. Yet his plain connexion with a prosaic, non-natural age, even when he was chiefly connected with the enormous power of Dryden's giant genius, prevented him from using to their full strength the new poetic elements of his time and of his own nature.
Fourthly, he was not only a Naturalist in his study of man and the natural world, he was partly a Romantic, and pushed into a higher life the romantic elements in the transition. The first element of this Romanticism, first in point of time—its sentimental, personal melancholy—was his; and the thought-weighted, scholarly, careful representation of this element gave it, not only a stronger foundation in the spirit of the time than it had as yet possessed, but also a greater finish and art in its expression. It became more distinctly a subject for poetry; and it kept for a long time Gray's moral and philosophic touch. But this was not all he did for Romanticism. He recalled to English poetry the rude, ancient, history-crowded stories, the legends and wonders of the bardic tales of the early Britons of mediœval Wales, and of the Norse mythology. He opened out that new world of Romance, though only in short translations. He welcomed the Percy Reliques, the Celtic bric-à-brac of Macpherson's Ossian; and pitied, though he exposed, the romantic forgeries of Chatterton. Moreover, those rude romantic tales of Wales chimed in with his love of rude and savage scenery, in which he delighted to wander alone in picturesque thought. In all this he initiated a new romantic impulse, or at least gave the impulse a practical poetic form.
Fifthly, his work on Nature was not as unmixed as Thomson's nor as poetically felt as Collins'. Nature, in his poems, is always a background for humanity. It is the "most graceful ornament of poetry, but not its subject"—so he said. The youth who walks through the "Elegy in the Country Churchyard" loves the dewy morning, the rising sun, the beech at whose roots the babbling brook runs by, the glimmering stillness of the evening; but he loves them not wholly for their own sake. He loves them most because they echo the note of his imagination, contemplating the life of man. Nature, when it sympathises with his mood, is taken up into the art of Gray. In the "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," the scenery recalls his youth. The fields and winds of Thames, and the hills that look on the river, bestow on him a momentary bliss and breathe into his tired manhood the gladness of his early spring. But he leaves them at once to mourn over the gloom which slowly gathers round manhood and age. The mourning is faded—so is the verse.
It is commonplace to say.
Since sorrow never comes too late.
And happiness too quickly flies.
And this commonplace note is one too frequently found in Gray.
At other times, he moralises Nature; as in the Ode "On the Spring." He paints the insect-youth at noontide; busy, eager, floating in the liquid light:
Yet he really loved Nature. She brought to him thought, feeling, poetry and religion. And he was one of the first who made her a constant study, who sought her in her wildness, who travelled far and wide to find her solitudes. His letters are full of careful and carefully composed descriptions, not so much of the cultivated and quiet landscape he loved in the "Elegy" and the "Odes," as of the mountains, moors, dells and gorges, torrents and streams of the Lake Country, of the Welsh solitudes, of the Scottish hills. In these, though he did not sing of them, he found an impulse of his song, and thence he took a deep impression into his quiet and sane religion. When he climbed the Gorge of the Grand Chartreuse, he felt the spirit of the place, "pregnant," he said, "with poetry and religion"; and it illustrates how far in front of France this English movement towards the sentiment of wild and solitary Nature was—that a modern French critic declares that the phrase could not have been written by any Frenchman of the time either in prose or verse. Here and there, in his poetry, this natural feeling for Nature (unhumanised, unmoralised) appears, but these instances are few and far between. Nor do they ever continue. They run up at once into some comparison with, some reflection on, human life. Moreover, they want that touch of simplicity, of natural joy, which Collins had. They are overwrought by art into a want of nature. The feeling in them is worn down by academic polishing. The art is more than the imagination; and as to the conception of a life, a spirit in Nature, on the edge of which he sometimes seems to tremble, and which would at once have uplifted his verse into a higher region, it is never really reached. The artificial age still stretched its dead hand over his work on Nature. It held him back from doing all he might have done in this way; from expressing all he felt. Nevertheless he set forward the poetry of Nature. He redeemed it from the mere cataloguing of Thomson. He brought into it careful composition. He harmonised it, up to a certain point, with man. It never could again be quite neglected in poetry. He opened the way to the addition to it of natural passion. That passion was at hand, and when it came, it was like the rising of the sun on the twilight landscape of Gray. He was a forerunner of it, but the true forerunner was Collins and not Gray.
There is one more thing to say of Gray as the poet of this transition time. I have dwelt on the rising tendency towards an interest in man as man, beyond the life of cities, beyond the cultivated cliques of society; interest in nations beyond England, interest in human life in the country, where it was close to Nature—in the farmer, the peasant and the poor. Gray, in spite of his wide knowledge, of his intellectual society, of his academic remoteness from the world, was touched by that growing tendency and expressed it in the poem by which he chiefly lives; which itself will always be dear to England and justly dear; the "Elegy written in a Country Churchyard." Dryden or Pope would have been for ever incapable of writing a line of it, not from want of genius, but from want of the spirit and feeling which inspires it, from want of sympathy with its subject, its view of Nature or of man. We cannot fancy Pope writing of the ploughman driving his weary oxen home, of the rude forefathers of the hamlet, of the labourer's wife and children,—of the harvesters and the woodmen in the joy of their toil, of their homely joys and destiny obscure, of the short and simple annals of the poor. And Gray writes of them, with careful art it is true, but with real sympathy. Even the somewhat exalted strain with which he treats the rustic dead, and fancies that
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire—
some soul like Hampden, Milton or Cromwell, is redeemed from its fancifulness by the innate sincerity and grace of lines like these:
Even the youth who is the personage of the poem, who mediates upon the country and the poor, has nought to do with the citied society of Dryden and Pope. He is one they would have passed by—one to fortune and to fame unknown, of wayward fancies, woeful, wan, forlorn, or crazed with care, or crossed with hopeless love—one of that wide class of solitary, sorrowful folk among the common classes of the earth, of whom the poetry of society took no notice, but whom Wordsworth chose as his friends, and the constant subject of his song.
For this advance in human sympathy—this more universal treatment of humanity—the world was now beginning to be ready. None of Gray's poems received so much acceptance from his contemporaries as this Elegy which praised the country and the poor with a poet's sympathy. And the tendency it recorded grew day by day in the heart of the public, till it built itself into the palace of Wordsworth's song. Gray did this for it. He laid its artistic foundation.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1744
SOURCE: "The Ambivalence of Gray's Elegy," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. VII, No. 3, July, 1957, pp. 257-61.
[In the following essay, Dyson discusses Gray's conflicting attitudes toward rustic life as reflected in the "Elegy. "]
The prevailing impression we have on considering Gray's 'Elegy' in retrospect is of its distinctive 'atmosphere', contemplative and Horatian. There is the stoic reflection on the transcience of earthly glory that we associate with this tradition, the same apparent preference for a Sabine Farm, 'far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife'. The gentle melancholy of the mood, as well as the syntax of stanzas 24 and 25, points to Gray himself as the subject of the Epitaph. It expresses a wish which, in this particular mood, he has for his whole future: to be 'marked out' by melancholy for her own, to live and die in peaceful rustic security.
But this is by no means all that the 'Elegy' says, and it ignores some powerful emotional undercurrents. For Gray is seeing the 'rude Forefathers' of the hamlet in two rôles simultaneously, both as the happiest of men, and as victims. The plowman in stanza 1 is 'weary', the slumbering dead are rude and unlettered. The tombs 'with uncouth rhimes and shapeless sculptures deck'd' implore the passing tribute of a sigh as much for their uncouthness as for the death of their inmates. The obscurity of country life has restrained and killed the innate potentialities of the rustics, for good as well as for evil. Not only is the possible Cromwell comparatively guiltless, but the possible Milton is mute and inglorious, both forbidden by their lot any spectacular fulfilment. The obscurity, therefore, in which their happiness is supposed to consist is felt in terms of waste. The words 'mute' and 'inglorious' acquire an ambiguity from their context. They are words of deprivation and defeat, but they are here levelled up by juxtaposition with the 'guiltless' Cromwells almost to the status of happiness.
This basic ambivalence reveals conflicting emotional responses to the situation of the rustics, and these responses develop side by side as the poem progresses. From the Horatian viewpoint, the rude forefathers are more to be envied than pitied. Pomfret in his Choice asked little more from life (except, perhaps, the 'philosophic mind'), and Lady Chudworth in her Resolve wanted only
A soul, which cannot be depressed by grief,
Nor too much rais'd by the sublimest joy.
The Augustan quest for the golden mean excluded extremes of either emotion or achievement, and looked for happiness in detachment from the busy world of men. Pomfret and Lady Chudworth express an attitude to life which is typical of their age, and which survived sufficiently far into the eighteenth century to influence Gray. From this point of view, the lot of the 'forefathers' in the 'Elegy' is little short of ideal.
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray:
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
In this and other stanzas Gray expresses a rational approval of the rustic life, and in the Epitaph he identifies himself, in wish-fulfilment, with it. The youth 'to fortune and to fame unknown' is not unlike Tennyson's Lady of Shalott before her choice—a legend to all men, but known to none. He represents, like Arnold's Scholar Gipsy after him, the ideal of a serene and untroubled existence—but an existence which is essentially an escape from life as we know it into a state less vulnerable to the 'thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to'. The peace which he enjoys is nearer to death than to life, more like defeat than victory.
The contradiction inherent in this becomes clear as we notice that the rude forefathers, even while they are being offered to us as an ideal, are also being represented as victims, both of society and of the nature of things. The primary meanings of 'mute' and 'inglorious' suggest this, and there is a sense in which the extremism of the Miltons and Cromwells, whether good or bad ethically, is seen as good in so far as it is fulfilment, expression, achievement, 'life abundant'. The 'applause of listening Senates', the despising of dangers, the 'scattering of plenty o'er a smiling land' are positive and vital touchstones, beside which the rustic life is felt as a tragic waste. The rude forefathers were victims of a political system which forbade them their proper fulfilment. The 'genial current of their soul' was frozen by 'Chill Penury'. The hearts once 'pregnant with celestial fire' are now laid, unhonoured and unremembered, 'in some neglected spot'. The creative spirit was there, but it found no opportunity for expression. There is, in this reflection, a profound awareness of waste. Death is so cold and irrevocable (stanza 11), beauty so fleeting and futile (stanza 14). The rustic moralist may have been taught by his simple religion how to die, but ought he not rather to have been given a chance to live?
For who to dumb forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing, lingering look behind?
It is to be noted that the enemy to man's fulfilment is not only society, but Nature herself. The adjectives and verbs of the opening stanzas are narcotic and hostile: 'tolls', 'parting', 'lowing', 'plods', 'weary', 'fades', 'glimmering', 'droning', 'drowsy', 'lull', 'moping', 'complain', 'secret', 'molest', 'ancient', 'solitary', 'heaves', 'mouldering', 'narrow cell', 'rude'. In stanza 7, the harvesters are at war with Nature. In stanza 14, beauty is the victim of a vast and mysterious universe; the gem lost in ocean's 'dark unfathomed caves', the flower wasted upon the 'desert air' which will destroy it. Finally, as the 'hoary-headed swain' indicates the grave of Gray (if it is Gray—the syntax is not clear, but the thought indicates that it is), the nearby wood smiles 'as in scorn'. (The phrase 'as in scorn' applies, in the first version of the poem, to the dead man, but in the final version it applies equally, by ambiguity, to the wood.) Nature, therefore, is a more primitive and dubious goddess here than in orthodox Augustan circles, and we might even discern that sense of the ruthless profusion and wastefulness of her works which has become a preoccupation with some post-Darwinian thinkers.
How far Gray was conscious of ambivalence in his 'Elegy' we can probably not hope to decide. The 'graveyard mood' would have seemed to him, perhaps, as unified as the style in which he expresses it. He is unlikely to have shared our present-day awareness of complexity or a tension of opposites in such a mood. Even so, the two attitudes we have been considering exist quite explicitly, side by side, in the poem, and we can legitimately speculate on the subconscious responses to life which they reveal. These would seem to have included a shrinking from life, with its menaces and responsibilities (something very like the Freudian deathwish, in fact), and also a desire for life (the almost inevitable complementary pull). In a very personal way, the 'slumbering dead' must have seemed a reproach to Gray. He is aware, in the poem, of his social superiority to them. They were unlettered, he is a scholar; they had no opportunity of notable achievement, he, in his own academic sphere at least, has had it. But he has failed to take his own considerable opportunities; his vast learning was notoriously unproductive. He is very far from having the spirit of a Milton or a Cromwell. His letters often show him in a Hamlet-like strain of frustration and melancholia. He is like the Hamlet of Act V, assured of the impossibility of what he most desired, stoically resigned to life on these terms ('There's providence in the fall of a sparrow), yet haunted by the futility of it all ('Alas, poor Yorrick'), and still balancing in his mind the great alternative propositions ('To be or not to be'). All of these attitudes are present in the 'Elegy,' though with less imaginative intensity, of course, than in Hamlet: and so the stanzas which approve the lot of the forefathers spring not only from a reasoned Augustan belief in the rural life ('Let not ambition mock their useful toil'…), but also from a vicarious realisation of the death-wish. And Gray's frustration is apparent not only when he is pitying the rustics, but also when he is envying them; for it is their death, not their life, that he envies.
Gray often seems to be seeing his relationship to the 'great' as analogous to the rustics' relationship to himself. In the final stanzas he identifies himself with the rustics and dies to ambition and self-fulfilment with them, but here the ambivalence of emotional response is especially to be felt. 'A youth to fortune and to fame unknown' invites our pity; his simple contentment,
So the emotional charge of the 'Elegy' is far from simple, and that which is ostensibly offered as a good is felt in terms of waste. The reflections on the rustics' death in stanzas 4-7 become, by implication, a reflection on their life. The 'lowly bed' from which they will not again be roused is the bed on which their life has been passed. The long silence and obscurity of the tomb is the same in kind as the condition in which life has drifted away. Their obscurity in death and their obscurity in life are equally symbolised by the buried gem and the wasted flower. And death, in its dual aspect as a longed-for rest and a dreaded waste, is present in a single image.
Gray chooses sleep before action, like the lotus-eaters, and like Keats he is half in love with easeful death. But he also feels, with Milton's Belial, that any form of consciousness is to be preferred to oblivion, and, like Keats again, responds in some degree to a pull back to life—the 'incense-breathing morn' and the clarion cock-crow.
This complexity is by no means as rich as that in the Ode To a Nightingale, and the desire for life receives no expression comparable in power to Keats's nightingale-symbol of ideal and eternal beauty. But it is a complexity similar in kind, if not in poetic intensity, to that realised by Keats in the Ode, and this may well be one of the reasons why the 'Elegy' has always found a 'mirror in every mind'.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2636
SOURCE: "Gray's Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes," in Augustan Studies, The Athlone Press, 1961, pp. 216-23.
[In the following essay, Tillotson explains some of the literary allusions in Gray's "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat," at the same time remarking on Samuel Johnson's criticism of the poem.]
Gray's ["Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes"] is one of those poems that make allusions to other poems, and that expect the reader to catch them. We all know how the Rape of the Lock depends for the tone of its narrative and meaning on contrasts with the great epics, and the same is true in smaller compass of Gray's poem.
Nowadays, if a poet announced such a subject as the death of a cat, we should expect him to treat it seriously. But in 1742 the title allowed of comic treatment as an alternative, and Gray's choice was declared at once by the relationship of the title with the first line of the text:
'Twas on a lofty vase's side.
We now know that the receptacle in which the Strawberry Hill goldfish swam was a china bowl or vase.1 Knowing this, we see that the word tub is Gray's deliberate alteration of the fact. There is a big difference between the two things, and was in 1742: Johnson's Dictionary, thirteen years later, defined the one as 'a large open vessel of wood', and the other as 'a vessel; generally a vessel rather for show than use'. Gray's tub is a deliberate lowering because he wants vase to be a heightening. When the poem was published in 1748 the reader, who knew nothing of the incident behind the poem except as the poem itself presented it—it was of course all he needed to know—noted the discrepancy and inferred the mockheroic. That small stroke was an earnest of more of the same sort:
For the modern reader the clues are not perhaps obvious. Tub for vase, armour for scales—perhaps these are the only straws visible in the wind. But for the reader Gray had in mind, the cultivated reader of 1742, the wind was strong, and some of the straws, as we shall see, the size of forest-trees.
Almost as famous as Gray's poem is Johnson's comment on it in his Life of Gray, and the odd thing is that it shows him to have mistaken Gray's intentions—or at least to have ignored their point. And if so, with the wilfulness prompted by an imperfect sympathy. Johnson had little liking for Gray and for much of his work, the dislike of the writings being prompted in part at least by the dislike of the man.
The prickly relation of Gray and Johnson was much discussed during the half century following the inclusion of the Life of Gray in the Lives of the Poets, and all the more earnestly because at this time Gray was having so marked an effect on English poetry. For us, Johnson's Life of Gray is all the more unfortunate because it separates two men who by rights stand side by side. Johnson and Gray are men and writers remarkably alike, for, to put it sharply, if any other writer of 1751 could have written Gray's 'Elegy' that writer was Johnson. They had both attained to the same estimate of human life, and had minds deeply learned, powerful, genial with ripe understanding, and impatient of cheapness. On the surface there were of course striking differences, and between any two actual living acquaintances surface is likely to count for more than inner worth. What they saw and heard of each other's externals gave them prickly grounds for dislike: Gray called Johnson 'ursa major, the great bear', and Johnson thought Gray a finicky exquisite. Left alive to write Gray's life, Johnson was too fair-minded not to salute Gray's solid greatness. Accordingly he praised the 'Elegy' more highly than any other English poem: 'Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him';5 and, having Mason's memoir of Gray before him with its ample quotations from the letters, he saw that Gray's 'mind had a large grasp'. But in the rest of his life his homage exists indirectly in the spiritedness of his writing—the Life of Gray is Johnson at his gayest. He is, however, spiritedly unfair. Even where we admit the justice in some of his strictures, we see them to cover too much. Gray's poetry, brief in quantity, is more various line by line than that of any other English poet, and to write, in Quintilian phrase, of his being 'tall by walking on tiptoe', or to discover 'glittering accumulations of ungraceful ornaments' is to ignore magnitude and jewels that are authentic, and to miss so much that is uniquely great.
His criticism of the ode on the cat has, one suspects, the brilliance of the wit who dazzles in order to get by. Johnson either does not recognize, or does not choose to, what is at the basis of the poem—what its kind is, in other words. To see its kind is to see its sense.
Johnson begins his account of the poem in this way:
The poem on the Cat was doubtless by its author considered as a trifle, but it is not a happy trifle. In the first stanza 'the azure flowers that blow' shew resolutely a rhyme is sometimes made when it cannot easily be found.6
It almost seems that the look of the poem on the page, with its four- and three-foot lines, was enough to put him off, for he disliked ballads on principle, and so was disqualified for meeting any particular ballad, or balladlike poem. If Gray's ode had, like the Rape of the Lock, been in heroic couplets, Johnson might have been fairer to it. He might then have read it closely enough to catch those references to epic that are the main-spring of the mock-epic method. It is because he disliked ballads that he did not see the point of the third line of the poem. What he disliked in that line cannot have been the actual word that rimed, for blow was then the ordinary prose word for a plant's act of flowering: it occurs in Gray's letters and in Johnson's Dictionary, and that the whole phrase has nothing would-be 'poetical' about it is shown by Wordsworth's having borrowed it for the quiet ending of one of his greatest poems:
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.
What Johnson objected to was the redundancy of 'that blow', forgetting that redundancies of this cheerful jingling sort are part of the method of a true ballad, and so a grace in a mock-ballad. Looking for faults, he missed virtues. Blind to the pointed veering from tub to vase, he missed later on a more particular example of the mock-heroic method, an omission that explains the rest of what he objects to:
Selima, the Cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to language and sense; but there is good use made of it when it is done; for of the two lines,
the first relates merely to the nymph, and the second only to the cat. The sixth stanza contains a melancholy truth, that 'a favourite has no friend,' but the last ends in a pointed sentence of no relation to the purpose; if what glistered had been 'gold' the cat would not have gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned.7
'Selima, the Cat', writes Johnson, and had he been attentive he would have seen that that collocation is the key to the poem. The grand name that Walpole chose for his Persian was that of the heroine of Rowe's Tamerlane, a much acted play in the eigh teenth century: she was the captive daughter of the Turk Bajazeth. (In a few years' time, as it happened, Walpole was to write an epilogue for the play.) Naming a cat after a princess, Walpole was himself inaugurating the mock-heroic. Gray crowned the proceeding first in little—by the heightening of tub to vase—and then grandly by referring the cat to the heroine of a famous play, and then to the heroine of the Iliad itself.
In the 'Argument' before the third Book in Pope's translation we read:
The Armies being ready to engage, a single Combate is agreed upon between Menelaus and Paris (by the Intervention of Hector) for the Determination of the War. Iris is sent to call Helena to behold the Fight. She leads her to the Walls of Troy, where Priam sate with his Counsellors observing the Grœcian Leaders on the Plain below, to whom Helen gives an Account of the chief of them.
And in the text itself:
Within the Lines they8 drew their Steeds around,
And from their Chariots issu'd on the Ground:
Next all unbuckling the rich Mail they wore,
Lay'd their bright Arms along the sable Shore.
Helen is summoned by Iris to
Approach, and view the wondrous Scene below.
In the description that follows she is accorded a 'fair Face',9 over which she throws a 'snowy' veil, and in the conversation she holds with Priam about the Greek heroes, occur other words of Gray: she speaks of her 'conscious' shame, and he of the Sangaris that ran 'purple' with blood. We then hear of heralds who bring 'rich' wine and 'golden' goblets, and later on of 'Azure Armour' and 'purple' cuishes. More pointedly still we come on this:
Meantime the brightest of the Female Kind,
The matchless Helen o'er the Walls reclin'd.
The cat in her setting is so like Helen in hers that the poem at this point may be said to have a double subject. Of course the subject cannot be double throughout: Helen does not fall off the walls of Troy to be left to die. Nevertheless, having been given a strong sense of the woman in the cat, we take the cat story, mutatis mutandis, as also a story about woman, in posse if not in esse, and by analogy if not in fact. Nor as the poem proceeds does Gray let us forget the woman:
The cat is called a 'Nymph', and when she stretches after the fish we get not only a rhetorical question about cats but one about cupidinous woman, which comes in with special neatness because, as it happens, the fish are 'Gold Fishes' (goldfish had only lately been brought to England,10 and this added piquancy to the poem in 1748, justifying its long description of the fishes on the score of informativeness as well as art). Furthermore the cat is apostrophized in womanly terms as 'Presumptuous Maid!' and when the disaster is completing itself, the absence of help and the comment it prompts are applicable both to cats and human beings: 'No Dolphin came', as one did come to help Arion, 'no Nereid stirr'd', as they had stirred when Hylas fell into the stream, 'Nor cruel Tom', the footman, 'nor Susan', the maidservant, heard, for it is a universal truth that ¢ fav'rite has no friend!'
Johnson's objection that no good use is made of the doubling of cat and woman (for his 'good use' is of course ironic) shows that he had missed the thoroughness with which the doubling proceeds. And his final thrust—'if what glistered had been "gold", the cat would not have gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned', shows that he failed to see how the poem ends. Here is the last stanza that follows on the line just quoted:
At the end of his cat-poem Gray comes to his moral in accordance with the practice of all fablers.11 'From hence' detaches what is now on the way from what went before, and 'ye Beauties' tells us that what is on the way is addressed to women. Johnson, missing this transition, criticizes the moral in vain: for the gold in the last line is as distinct from the golden colour of the fishes as 'ye Beauties' is from cats. The fable, in which a cat snatched fatally at some beautiful fish, is now over, and we are left with the human counsel it has suggested, and suggested all the more vividly because behind it lurked, and at times almost obtruded, the feminine in its human form. The moral is the better for the literary form, the mock-heroic, of what precedes it. We can detach the last stanza from the cat and attach it more readily to 'ye Beauties' just because Helen has stood behind the cat throughout the poem, Helen who did not control her wandering eyes, who did take a false step, and who did have too much boldness—a moral quality that Gray is not for disallowing to women completely!12 Homer, we recall, did not condemn Helen.
Johnson's treatment of Gray's poem has often been thought an act of elephantine ineptitude, but not always an unsuccessful one. I have heard it credited with having broken a butterfly upon a wheel. To liken Gray's ode to a butterfly is to insult its strength and pungency; to liken Johnson's method of criticism to a wheel is more felicitous, but the wheel, on the present occasion, rolls round without grazing the integrity of Gray's little masterpiece.
1 It is now in the possession of Lord Derby, and appears as plate 71 of Mr Randolph Churchill's Fifteen Famous Houses, 1954.
2 By Gray's time demure had become a sort of Homeric epithet for a cat, whether male or female but more usually the latter. Bacon's essay 'Of Nature in Men' had referred to one of the Æsopian fables in the following terms: 'Like as it was with Æsopes Damosell, turned from a Catt to a Woman; who sate very demurely, at the Boards End, till a Mouse ranne before her.' L'Estrange retained the term when translating another of the cat fables (Fables, of Æsop, 1669, third ed., p. 287): 'they spy'd a Cat upon a Shelf; that lay and look'd … Demurely.' Dryden used the epithet in his reference to one of these fables (I quote from Johnson's Dictionary, s.v. demure):
So cat, transform'd, sat gravely and demure,
'Till mouse appear'd, and thought himself secure.
(Greatly strengthened by Gray's use of it, the epithet recurs in nineteenth-century descriptions of cats: see Blackwood's Magazine, Nov. 1846, and the opening of Through the Looking Glass).
3 See above, p. 54.
4 See above, p. 77.
5Lives of the Poets, iii. 442.
6 id., iii. 434.
7 id., iii. 434.
8 The Greeks and Trojans.
9 The brilliant description of the cat's face comes from Pope: 'fair round Face' occurs in his version of 'The Wife of Bath, her Prologue' (and has no source in Chaucer). The description amusingly overlaps with the description of Helen's face. A contribution to the definition of 'fair' in these contexts comes from James's Portrait of a Lady, ch. I, where we read that Mr Touchet has a face 'with evenly-distributed features'.
10 See A. R. Humphreys, 'Lords of Tartary', Cambridge Journal, III (1949), i.
11 It is worth noting that one of Æsop's fables (no. 61 in L'Estrange's translation) recounts how Venus changed a beloved cat into a woman for the greater pleasure of a young man who admired her.
12 One of the phrases of the 'moral' may be intended to refer pointedly to a couplet in the English translation of Ovid's Ars Amandi, where the common phrase 'lawful prize' is given an amorous sense: 'But that a Mistress may be lawful Prize, / None, but her Keeper, I am sure, denies.' (Ovid's Art of Love … By Several Eminent Hands, 1709, p. 223.)
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7334
SOURCE: "Classical or Romantic?," in >Thomas Gray, Grosset & Dunlap, 1964, pp. 127-46.
[In the following essay, which forms the concluding chapter of Golden's full-length study of Gray, Golden briefly outlines some of the characteristics of Neoclassical and Romantic literature and then discusses Gray's poetry and his place in English literary history in relation to both traditions.]
This study has been primarily concerned with Gray and with the nature and quality of his poems rather than with his and their place in English literature. Among many other things, poetry is a response to intellectual, particularly to literary, climates in effect at a given time and place. Furthermore, if it is significant poetry, as T. S. Eliot has pointed out, it changes the way one looks at what preceded it—as an outgrowth of tendencies one might not have been aware of—and it evidently affects what follows by becoming a part of literary tradition.
The most famous attempt to relate Gray to his period—that of the English poet and critic Matthew Arnold—is also the most foolish. Arnold's argument, in effect, is that Gray might have been a very great poet but was thwarted by his time: "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 men's powers of understanding, wit and cleverness, rather than their deepest powers of mind and soul. … 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."1
One wonders what this means and one is perplexed how to apply it to the author of "The Bard" and the "Elegy," to say nothing of the earlier odes and the Norse translations. It is easier, perhaps, to see in it the sadness of a very similar poet justifying to himself his lack of absolute greatness. The point may be valid for some artists of the eighteenth century: in a period when probing into the poet's own most complex responses was not expected of him, tendencies in that direction would be stunted and much energy might be wasted in attempting a social approach. Perhaps Oliver Goldsmith might have poured himself out more freely if he had not felt obligated to discuss agrarian economics in his best poem; certainly Johnson's "Vanity of Human Wishes" would have been a different poem at another time, though it seems sufficiently to call forth men's deepest powers of mind and soul.
But what objective students are likely to miss in Gray is the very passion that Arnold assumes him to have started with, and they miss it in his life as well as his poetry. If the contemporary intellectual climate affected him so strongly as Arnold says, the influence was wholly beneficial: taking Arnold's criteria, one might say that it allowed Gray to develop most fully a poetic impetus which was mild to begin with and that his tools were often "intellectual, argumentative, ingenious." In any event, Arnold's might-have-been argument, while superficially attractive, cannot be settled. If looked at long enough, it has no meaning—it proposes essentially that Gray would have been another poet if he had been another poet, an enigmatic truth in which one can only rest uneasily.
Gray is often called a transitional poet, the transition being from "Neoclassicism" to "Romanticism." George Sherburn, for example, writes that "He typifies the transitional poet who loved tradition yet courted novelty. He excelled his contemporaries in meticulous workmanship and in ability to use new material—medieval Welsh or Scandinavian—with dramatic imaginative power. He sought sublime moods, sensations fortes, and elevated even primitive materials to noble Roman or heroic levels." H. J. C. Grierson implies a similar condition of tentativeness: "Gray's taste was not satisfied with the poetry of his own day … his poetic instinct led him to cast both behind and before, while yet he had not the strength of inspiration or courage of temperament to be a rebel in more than a very tentative fashion; and so Gray's poetry is at once the perfect flower of our Augustan age and carries within it the seeds of the romantic revival."
Oliver Elton sees Gray as a stylistic innovator who took "all that appealed to him in the manner of Milton, and all that appealed to him in the manner of Dryden and Dryden's followers, and … blend [ed] it into something of his own. …"; again, Elton speaks of Gray's classical "passion for structure and finish; for proportion, economy, and unity." To these connections with tradition Bertrand Bronson adds that Gray loved "traditions'": "In whatever direction [Pindaric, Milton ic, Scandinavian, Celtic], he probed for the quintessential, delighting to report—to bring home—the special virtues of each kind."2
Since classical and romantic seem to be inescapable in discussions of eighteenth-century literature, one should see what useful meanings can be attached to these words for the purpose of placing Gray both within the niche that he deserves in poetry at large and within the context of the changing temper of his time. The literature of the late seventeenth century and of the first half of the eighteenth in England is known as Neoclassical ("new" Classical); that beginning with the publication of the Lyrical Ballads (1798), the joint venture of Wordsworth and Coleridge, is usually called Romantic. The former is given its name because the most conspicuous writers consciously admired and imitated what they conceived to be the virtues of the Greek and Roman periods; the latter, for a variety of reasons, perhaps the most immediate of which was that some of the writers chose subjects remote in time or place from the normal concerns of Englishmen, subjects reminiscent of knightly romances. Mid-eighteenth-century critics like Johnson and novelists like Henry Fielding and Samuel Richardson used the word "Romantic" to designate fanciful escapist fiction of no moral use; Coleridge, in his "Kubla Khan," gives "Romantic" the most attractive connotations.
Many forests have been despoiled to provide paper for defining the differences between the terms, and almost as many in hazarding definitions of the period from the middle to the end of the eighteenth century, that in which Gray wrote. "Preromantic," long in fashion, has now been abandoned on logical grounds, for, as the writers were not anticipating a new mode, they evidently did not think of themselves as "pre" anything. "Post-Augustan" (the early eighteenth century is often called the Augustan Age, after the high point of classical Roman literature) is now, with more reason, more in vogue.
What must first be agreed upon is in which of two main senses we are to use the terms "classical" and "romantic." Shall we have them refer to distinct movements in literature, so that we may label as Romantics the early nineteenth-century writers? They do seem to have some characteristics in common, dissimilar as they are in ideas, techniques, and intentions. Or shall we use the terms as referring to recurring casts of temperament, of which the movements may be special manifestations? To arrive at the orientation of Gray, it seems most useful to examine the general distinctions in orientation through their manifestation in the writers of the two contrasting periods. We shall need to enter a great many exceptions, but we shall at least have something specific to deal with.
Before we proceed to this examination, it must be understood that neither of these contrasting attitudes is ever found in its pure form in any great writer or indeed, without risk of madness, in any human being. They are always complementary as well as contrasting parts of the human mind, in the unending contrast and equilibrium produced by the search for freedom and the search for order.
The basic distinction between the terms "classical" and "romantic" as applied to temperament, it seems to me, is that between the two most clearcut views of man's underlying nature—of what Freud and his followers call the id. In course of history, one attitude has been more emphasized at one time and the other at another: from the standpoint of English literary history, the division has been most clearly apparent in the literatures of the early eighteenth century and the early nineteenth century, very possibly as a consequence of the social conditions of the times. This seat of the passions and the imagination, by whatever terms it has been called, has always been recognized as the source of both creativity and mortal danger. And the chief issue separating the two temperaments is the relative emphasis on the creativity or the danger: the Classical attitude tends to fear the free imagination as a sign of madness and as the parent of anarchy; but the Romantic slights the risks for the sake of the riches. At no time are all the writers dominated by the current emphasis, and very rarely does any one writer (Blake is one of the few examples) carry either view to its logical conclusion. But there undoubtedly may be, as there was at each of the times specified, a general climate of attitudes collected around the approach to man's underlying nature.
For reasons stretching back at least to the Renaissance and the Reformation, and achieving great prominence in the ferment of scientific, religious, and political changes in the seventeenth century, a complex of ideas surrounding the need for restraint, order, and limitation became dominant late in that century. Such a Classical complex shows itself in literature through increasing suspicion of "fancy" and of the "passions." This fear of madness, of chaos, if the imagination is allowed complete freedom, is connected, both explicitly and implicitly, with a traditional Christian suspicion of the evils of passion and its source in original sin: the Yahoos in Swift's Gulliver's Travels and the dangerously lunatic narrator of his Tale of a Tub are the embodiment of this view. The greatest writers, being then—as ever—sensitive to the complexity of life, did not exclude one side of this basic nature of man: Swift, in the same Gulliver's Travels, suggests that the exclusive worship of reason (in the land of the horses) is itself a form of mad excess. Pope, in the Essay on Man, tries to make a synthesis of reason and passion, has a sad respect for the power of what he calls the "ruling passion," and insists that reason without passion is sterile.
In contrast to the Classical insistence on restraint, Romanticism emanates from a complex of ideas involving freedom of the imagination and the passions; and it is perhaps most completely advocated in the tradition that includes Jean Jacques Rousseau, William Blake, Walt Whitman, and D. H. Lawrence. Though with many exceptions, Romanticism basically assumes that man's nature is good at bottom but has been corrupted by society and thwarted in its development by sterile reason. Again, most Romantics imply that this freedom is to be limited by a "natural" goodness and reason which will prevent, say, the shocking expression of the side of man's nature shown most recently in the Congo, in Algeria, and in Mississippi.
The Classical temper tends to be highly conservative and suspicious of innovations, which it regards as expressing a perverse self-importance that refuses to make the best of the world as it exists. For example, one may cite Swift's Tale of a Tub and, in a mass of writings tending toward the same end, his attacks on science and progress in Book III of Gulliver's Travels. Hence Neoclassicism in literature advocates a conservative adherence to traditional forms, styles, and subjects. But one may note, as the inevitable counterpoint in the works of individual writers on different subjects, Dryden's great interest in and respect for scientific progress; Pope's reverence for Newton; and Thomson's delight in both science and the spread of com-merce, a delight shared by the super-classical Addison. And Johnson, the last and in some ways the most doctrinaire of the great Neoclassicists, was fascinated by scientific experimentation, as was his similarly Neoclassical contemporary Benjamin Franklin. For most of these, however, the pleasure in science lies in its utility and not in its discovery of abstract knowledge.
The Romantic attitude, by contrast, delights in innovation since experimentation with new forms is necessary to suit new individual feelings. Blake, Wordsworth, Whitman, and Lawrence are most aware of themselves as explorers, though at times they may argue that they are merely rediscovering the past which their immediate predecessors have hidden. However, the social applications are again diverse and unpredictable: Shelley devoted himself to social and scientific experiment and innovation; Byron urged drastic social change; and Blake was an extreme revolutionary who sang democratic self-fulfillment. But Wordsworth and Coleridge, who began as social changers, ended as traditionalists; Keats, though a humanitarian and a democrat in his letters, offers no political or social doctrine in his poetry; and Carlyle and his host of followers into the present day seek the most determined sort of social regression.
The Neoclassicists of the eighteenth century almost unanimously insisted that literature must be morally instructive, an attitude which had for them the corollary that it must deal with the typical, the general, from which the most can be learned by the mass of mankind. Yet Johnson, who advised poets in his Rasselas not to count the stripes of the tulip but to deal with the general significance of tulipness—the condensed essence of this view—wanted Boswell to fill a biography with details, no matter how minor, since there is nothing too little for so little a being as man.
The Romantic attitude, as expressed by the writers of the nineteenth century, is likely to insist on the specific, the individual. This argument was also based on an ethical view, for the Romantics were convinced that truth lay in details; a generalization about all mankind is true of no one man, but an exact analysis of the state of one soul will tell us things that must be true of others. William Blake, reading the Discourses on art of the Classical Joshua Reynolds, wrote in the margin of a passage on the need for generalizing: "To Generalize is to be an Idiot. To Particularize is the Alone Distinction of Merit. General Knowledges are those Knowledges that Idiots possess."3 In this statement, by the way, is the core of the difference in technique—localized in discussions of diction but also related to subject matter—which has caused most critics since Wordsworth to complain of the inferiority of eighteenth-century poetry. For example, it contributes to Arnold's analysis of the prosaic nature of the period. This basically Romantic theory is that, while prose is suitable for general statements, poetry must be specific to be true.
As a consequence of the concern for the typical and the general, the Neoclassical view leads to a legalistic humanitarianism, manifested most emphatically in the American Declaration of Independence. The bases for this view go back as far as the sources of all the major Western religions, from the paganism of Greece and Rome through Judaism through Christianity, all of which insist that all men begin as equals before God. This tradition is reinforced in the eighteenth century by the dominance of the epistemology of John Locke, which is predicated on the equality at birth of all people who are born with their bodily organs and minds intact. It is further reinforced by a variety of ideas derived from the classics and was most effectively propagandized by the third Earl of Shaftesbury as a system of harmonies in which that person is best acclimated to the universe who is best attuned to the feelings of others. In this view, the fortunate, to be in harmony with the world's order, should reach out of themselves to see that the unfortunate have souls similar to their own and suffer as much as the fortunate would in the same circumstances. Perhaps the Man in Black in Goldsmith's Citizen of the World and Squire Allworthy in Fielding's Tom Jones most conspicuously embody this view of virtue. Since the necessary fellow-feeling must cause men to be pained by the pain of others, the theory goes, if they have their own interests at heart they will try to cure the pain of others.
As a result, England in the eighteenth century is notable for a widespread concern for charity of all sorts (including, for example, subscriptions to aid captured enemy soldiers in the Seven Years' War with France) and for improved treatment of beggars, "fallen women," prisoners, the very poor—in general, for all those who might have been the victims of society. At the same time, some of the most conspicuous Neoclassicists (such as Dryden, Pope, Swift, and Johnson) insisted on political subordination on the ground that only if everyone has his place can order be maintained—always a powerful rational response to the equally rational argument that all men were created equal.
The Romantic view, again to the contrary, tends to be that every man is unique and must be sensed and judged as an individual. Such a view inevitably leads to powerful emotional assertions both for and against liberty, equality, and fraternity. Blake is intuitively certain that every man—indeed, every bird—is a whole limitless world, and hence every man is sacred. Carlyle feels equally sure that greatness is an essence which bestows special privileges on its possessor, while no one need concern himself about inferior people.
Eighteenth-century Neoclassicism often relies for its theorizing on material existence, on "reality." As Ricardo Quintana has most concisely shown, both Swift's Tale of a Tub and his Gulliver's Travels aim to prove to the average deluded person that he continually invents something different from what is before him and calls his invention the world; the consequence is that he corrupts and ruins whatever he deals with.4 Johnson, told that one cannot refute Bishop Berkeley's argument that the world we seem to sense does not exist, kicks a stone so hard that he rebounds and says, "I refute it thus." At the same time, the Neoclassicists assume the existence of an ideal world, usually Christian. To the Romantic temperament—aware though it may be of the dirty socks of Swift's poem about college students—true reality is available in exalted states, transcendental experiences, which are summed up variously in the visions of Blake, or in the sensuous dream world of Keats, or in the ecstasies of love and revolution and damnation of Byron, or in Pater's insistence on burning through life with a hard, gemlike flame, or in Coleridge's parable about sin and redemption in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, or in the exultation and destruction of Moby Dick's pursuer, Captain Ahab.
Neoclassical subject matter is likely to be social—man in relation to man—and to be concerned with practical ethics: Pope's Essay on Man, or Johnson's Rambler papers, or Addison and Steele's Spectator, or Defoe's Moll Flanders, or Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. The novel, which as Lionel Trilling has so brilliantly shown is the most inevitably social of all literary forms, reaches its first great peak in the eighteenth century. Such literature can be called "objective," in the sense that the writer is primarily concerned with standing off and examining the relations among men. While there may be an "I" in the novel or poem, this self is likely to be the public personality of the writer, usually revealing aspects of himself that are either neutral or creditable: Pope in his "Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot," Gay in his Town Eclogues, Fielding in his novels. Though the finest works of the period, like Gulliver's Travels or "The Rape of the Lock" or Tom Jones or Clarissa, reveal a plentiful awareness by their authors that tendencies toward perversity exist everywhere, even in themselves, this revelation is usually by implication rather than direct statement. Romanticism, on the other hand, has frequently been called subjective. To Blake the world is how he imagines it; Wordsworth, in The Prelude particularly, painstakingly analyzes his own growth, omitting only what might be privately shameful; Rousseau, in his Confessions, tells all, perhaps even inventing shameful data. Romanticism is then often subjective in a double sense; it tends to use the author's experience as material and to see the world primarily in relation to the author's sensations.
Neoclassical subject matter is also likely to be adapted to a relatively stylized use of older literary patterns: nature poetry, for example, is often based on Virgil's Georgics or on a pastoral tradition stretching back to the Greek poet Theocritus. Appropriate subjects are developed in meters and forms that follow ancient elegies, epics, and odes. Satires are justified by and patterned on ancient examples; some of the most famous of the period are direct imitations—or allusions, since the author assumes the reader's familiarity with the originals and challenges comparison with them—as for example Pope's direct use of Horace and Johnson's use of Juvenal. Satire is a particularly congenial form for the cast of temper most dominant in this period, since its rational approach most clearly and instructively shows the difference between what is and what should be. As a consequence, no greater satire exists in English than the works of Dryden, Swift, Pope, Johnson, and Fielding. On the whole, there is a strong feeling about what does and does not belong in certain kinds of poetry: the view prevails that there are genres which it is appropriate to use for the expression of the different emotions or for dealing with different subjects.
The Romantics respond, generally, that the subject matter of poetry is unlimited, that anything can legitimately be treated in any form. Of course, being practicing artists, the Romantics did not carry this view to extremes—anyone who deals with words is aware that he must fuse form and content, and that he therefore must vary form with content. However, the Romantic felt himself much freer to invent the form for the individual statement, or to let it evolve from the artistic conception. Coleridge, the greatest of English Romantic critics, most effectively developed this conception of organic form:
No work of true genius dares want its appropriate form, neither indeed is there any danger of this. As it must not, so genius can not, be lawless; for it is even this that constitutes its genius—the power of acting creatively under laws of its own origination…. The form is mechanic, when on any given material we impress a predetermined form, not necessarily arising out of the properties of the material;—as when to a mass of wet clay we give whatever shape we wish it to retain when hardened. The organic form, on the other hand, is innate; it shapes, as it develops, itself from within, and the fullness of its development is one and the same with the perfection of its outward form. Such as the life is, such is the form.5
In developing this theory of literary form, Coleridge was responding to the philosophical view—recently seen as the very source of nineteenth-century Romanticism6—that the world itself was in a state of organic becoming; it was not the static machine that previous ages had thought it.
Among the interests usually said to distinguish the Romantics from their predecessors was the concentration by some poets on the special qualities of peasants, of commoners generally, and by others on imagined and distant places and things. The two authors of the Lyrical Ballads neatly divided these subjects between themselves: Wordsworth was to treat ordinary lives so as to show their extraordinary aspects and Coleridge was to bring extraordinary events into contact with our ordinary lives. A new interest in nature is also commonly ascribed to the Romantics. But while the increased emphases are beyond question, the reader should be cautious in assuming that there was a sharp cleavage in subject matter. Swift, Gay, and Thomson, in the heart of Neoclassicism, dealt perhaps too exactly with the lives of ordinary men in poetry, and the novelists did so in prose, as did the playwrights. The eighteenth century also provides a good many examples of attempts to exploit the exotic: in the Celtic revival lurking through the century and appearing prominently from "The Bard" onward; in the cult of the Chinese and Oriental in general which derived from the mercantile contact with the East and from the translation of the Arabian Nights; and in the aesthetic of the sublime. The "Oriental Tale," for example, became a recognized genre, or rather a whole group of recognized genres. And there are quite a few fine nature poems, beginning with Denham's famous "Cooper's Hill" in the late seventeenth century and featuring Pope's "Windsor Forest" and his eclogues—to say nothing of the Seasons of Thomson (written in the 1720's, the height of the Neoclassical period, though often cited as "pre-Romantic" in its minute examination of nature).
Finally, Neoclassical writing, as a consequence of its insistence on the general and the morally useful, is likely to be more discursive than that of the Romantics and to use elaborate personifications rather than consciously developed and structurally dominant symbols. Again, this distinction cannot be absolute, since all art involves significance; and significance inevitably entails symbolism. One may cite, for example, Swift's "Modest Proposal," in which the inhuman exploitation of the Irish is symbolized in a plan for their rulers to eat Irish babies; or Pope's "Rape of the Lock," in which the lock itself becomes the symbol of a way of life. Such basically symbolic undercurrents as the subject—the childhood idyll as against adult evil—of the "Deserted Village"; or such conscious symbols as the pyramids of Rasselas or the girdle in William Collins's "Ode on the Poetical Character" are other examples.
The Romantics, on the whole, have a stronger—and poetically more appealing—tendency to represent a perception in a fresh symbol rather than to personify or discuss it, to avoid the prose linkages (to borrow T. S. Eliot's idea), and to concentrate on the poetic stuff of metaphor. They tend to a greater exploitation of both the conscious and unconscious symbols which reach into the human psyche and expand there, as in Blake's tiger or Shelley's west wind or the terrain of Coleridge's Xanadu. Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," for example, is a poem about the creative power of the imagination; but instead of using the word "imagination," he pictures its action as follows:
Goldsmith, in "The Deserted Village," also sees the poetic imagination as a girl. But he is far more explicit and therefore, despite the tenderness and clarity of the diction, far more limited in the responses which he evokes:
And thou, sweet Poetry, thou loveliest maid,
Still first to fly where sensual joys invade;
Unfit, in these degenerate times of shame,
To catch the heart, or strike for honest fame;
Dear, charming nymph, neglected and decried,
My shame in crowds, my solitary pride;
Thou source of all my bliss, and all my woe,
That found'st me poor at first, and keep'st me so;
Thou guide by which the nobler arts excel,
Thou nurse of every virtue, fare thee well!
On the basis of these various criteria, we may try to see where Gray belongs by temperament and historical classification. Like everyone, he had tendencies in both directions; and, like the Victorian Matthew Arnold, he lived in a time that lay socially and intellectually between two worlds, one dying, the other struggling to be born. His advantage is often that he can set himself firmly in the traditions of the past and yet attempt to explore avenues for the future.
In respect to the first and basic division between complexes of ideas, for example, Gray seems to live in the best of both worlds. He is wedded to the ideas of order and regularity, as is evidenced by his extraordinary care as a craftsman, his elaborate and successful reliance on the most confining meters and metrical devices. At the same time he constantly strives, particularly in the two Pindaric Odes, to stretch the substance and appeal of his work beyond reason: he insists that the highest poetry, lyric poetry, demands a kind of demonic possession of the poet which communicates its transports to the reader, and he steadily exalts "fancy" or imagination at the expense of bare reason. He sees as a real misfortune his lack of the basic gusto—the deep involvement in human life—of those writers, like Shakespeare and Milton, whom he most admires. He yearns for the intensity and freedom with which to pour himself completely into living.
But this misfortune, which is also the underlying subject of much that he wrote, has its advantages. Arnold's pity for Gray as one whose poetic nature is limited and thwarted by the dullness of his time is completely misplaced (it might much better be said of Thomson, if it can be said at all). Gray, on the contrary, is immensely aided by his era's reliance on order; he better than anyone else was able to make use of it in stretching his relatively thin and sporadic inspiration to its utmost.
In the earlier works, through the "Elegy," his achievement lay in infusing life into a number of traditional forms through an exquisite delicacy of ear, superb metrical craftsmanship, command over diction and picture, and an ability to feel in each conception something with a shape adaptable to his own deepest predilections. Each of his completed and published poems is in a form at least slightly different from every other one, for he persists in experimentation. In every attempt, he uses a form sanctioned by tradition—though his Scandinavian and Celtic experiments follow a tradition foreign and shocking to some of his Neoclassical readers; he sees what it can yield him; and then he tries another innovation.
Gray's genius is not in inventing the completely new (though one wonders which of the great poets, aside from Blake in his artistically monstrous prophetic books, invented where there was nothing in the past to work with). Rather, Gray brings some traditions to a perfection of concentration and purity, as in the Eton College ode and in the "Elegy." To other traditions, as in the Pindaric Odes, he restores a wholeness of life of which purely formal imitators had lost sight. By fusing wilder strains from the Gothic into the orderly Greek patterns, he brings a sense of the complementary elements of life to forms that had become petrified in mere rhetorical exercises. He is, therefore, at the summit of a development from the past in "The Bard," not an innovator in form or subject. But, by his inclusion of material which had not previously been seen as appropriate to this development, he opened paths for further exploration.
On the question of the distinction between the general and the particular, Gray is solidly Classical in theory and practice. He is purely Classical in his belief that art should be concerned with what Plato called the ideal world of being and not with the material and shifting world of becoming. All of his work—including the change in the ending of the "Elegy"—aims to remove himself as a special case from the poem and to substitute a generalized personality, partaking of idealized qualities of his own, who can speak for one side of mankind. This intention is most apparent in the difference between his Latin passage on the death of West in his "De Principiis Cogitandi" and his English sonnet on the same subject, but it also appears in everything else that he wrote, notably in the "Elegy" and in the Pindaric Odes. In "The Progress of Poesy," for example, Shakespeare, Milton, Dryden, and Gray are themselves and, more importantly, also types of imaginative poets. Anything which seems idiosyncratic is made a symptom of the general: Milton's blindness is not a personal misfortune but an illustration of the brilliance with which the light of truth and beauty, of God, strikes a mortal observer's eye. In "The Bard" the historical events prophesied are to be seen as the variegated horrors that attend the consequences of tyranny, not as the specific destinies of Edward I's posterity; and the symbolic suicide at the end is the disdain of the bard for the materialistic tyrant.
Gray's language, as has been pointed out, is designed to achieve the maximum of generalization combined with a maximum of musical and spectacular evocation—an aim which leads to a compression and novelty objectionable to such Neoclassical critics as Johnson and at the same time to a difference from ordinary speech objectionable to a Romantic critic like Wordsworth. The diction changes, as Gosse and others have observed, from the relatively standardized though precise and haunting personifications of Gray's youth—best shown in the Eton College ode and in the "Elegy"—to the more specific, fresh, and realistic phrasing of the Scandinavian translations. The Pindaric Odes, at a stage in between, offer the splendor of the earlier work with a minimum of its abstractness. In this respect, as in others, one can see a turning point in Gray's career separating the "Elegy," which can fairly be called the highest expression of Gray as the traditionalist working only with elements sanctioned by the past, from the Pindaric Odes, in which he introduces added substance to the tradition.
Gray uses the ideal for moral reasons, or at least can justify it that way on the ground that it makes little useful difference to the world whether one young man is unsure how to spend his life (as for example in the "Ode on the Spring") while the state of unsure, sensitive youthfulness is very much worth portraying. However, he is far less interested in the moral uses of poetry than are the theorists of his time. He once wrote to West that the phrase "didactic poetry" might well be a logical contradiction; and, though his writings are full of reflections on man's nature, they do not have didactic aims. The "Ode on the Spring" does not pretend to teach how man is to spend his life; rather it presents the dilemma of youth faced by life's apparent meaninglessness. The Eton ode offers no solution but that of the "Hymn to Adversity"—sympathy for others—again with the emphasis on picturing the state rather than on solving its problem with a moral imperative. The "Elegy" lays down no rules for facing death but instead reveals the narrator's response to modes of living and dying; and it ends with an epitaph to one who was overcome by contemplating the theme.
Paradoxically, the more "Romantic" Pindaric Odes seem to offer didactic statements. The first and more didactic has been condemned by the very advocates of didacticism; the second has been far more successful precisely because it presents the argument dramatically and spectacularly instead of asserting it directly. When one compares "The Bard" with Johnson's "Vanity of Human Wishes"—surely the best traditionally Neoclassical poem since Pope—one notes Johnson's vigorous insistence on the title theme at every point and on his detailed program at the end for achieving peace. Gray's concern is always for the picture, the visual symbol—as is the case with the Romantics. He is likely, however, particularly in the earlier poems, to reflect discursively in the older manner; or perhaps he can be said to conceive of poetry (before "The Bard") as a representation of states of the soul through a mixture of image and thought.
Politically and socially, Gray shares the humanitarianism of his day, but it is complicated for him by two conflicting tendencies. On the one hand, his fastidiousness makes him feel set off from the world: he is either above it, as he says at times; or he is below it, as Roger Martin persuasively argues. More likely this fastidiousness is a result of an ambiguous compound of the two: he condemns the self that he cherishes for fearfulness and praises if for sensitivity. On the other hand, he is subject to a yearning for fellow-feeling which he manages to infuse into his best earlier work, notably in the Eton ode and in the "Elegy." The Pindaric Odes again exhibit a kind of Romantic apartness of the Bard as leader and savior of mankind that is anticipatory of Burns, Coleridge, and Shelley. In these later poems also, as well as in his translations, Gray shares the Romantic view (derived at least partly from the idea of the sublime, which is comprised in the Neoclassical aesthetic) that reality—that suitable for poetry—is to be seen in the highest transports of the imagination. Characteristically, Gray finds his justification in a poet of the past, Pindar, whom he strives in vain to emulate in this respect.
As has been suggested, Gray is fully settled in the poetic traditions; in fact, he outdoes his contemporaries in his concern for maintaining the proper genres. Along with the odes of William Collins, Gray's are the only important "regular" Pindarics, as against the laxer form popular before him. His satires and fragment of a didactic poem are in the obligatory heroic couplet; his fragment of a tragedy, in dutiful blank verse; his shorter odes, in forms clearly reminiscent of Horace and other ancients; and his "Elegy," in the stanza agreed on as appropriate for melancholy reflections and in a meter sanctioned by the practice of Tibullus. At the same time that genres seem only reasonable to him (and to a certain extent, as has been said, they have seemed that way even to most Romantic poets—Shelley's elegy on Keats is not written in the ballad stanza, nor is Wordsworth's Prelude,) Gray objects to rigidity in adherence to them, or indeed to any rules of criticism. While Gray does not go so far afield as the great Romantics in seeking variations in verse forms, his incorporation of Scandinavian and Welsh rhythms into the English tradition is as experimental as Byron's borrowing of Italian forms or as Coleridge's using the ballad stanza for serious purposes.
Gray's subject matter is largely limited in the earlier poems to literary sources, and the scenery is often borrowed from the classics rather than from his countryside. Even in "The Bard" the pictures are influenced by Italian Renaissance painting. At least in those works written and completed for the few whom he considered competent judges, he relies heavily on topics deriving from traditional practice. His imagination is tied to elevated, distinctively "poetic" pictures; though in the "Elegy" he achieves a distillation of ordinary life with sure touches, most of them have literary antecedents. He is not enough interested in other people generally to care about the details of their lives, as Wordsworth cares self-consciously and Byron naturally.
But Gray is fascinated by other modes of living, the more exotic the better. As W. Powell Jones has shown, Gray's reading interests were about evenly divided between history and travel books. When he finds a mode that means something in his search for a way out of the bounds of reason and gentility, a way to perceive and express the powerful and irrational urges that he shares with mankind, he seizes on it and incorporates it, no matter how violent: hence the gory primitive chants and tales that he translated so effectively. The test of poetic subject matter for Gray is always its degree of relevance to the pictures and music with which he wants to communicate the ideal.
Finally, though Gray does not explore the details of himself for poetic material, in the way that a Shelley, Rousseau, or Whitman can do, and though he insists that a screen between his unique self and the reader is necessary both for propriety and for the essential poetic idealization, in his work a recognizable human voice calls out to its brothers. If this decorous objectivity is the sign of the Classicist—and I am not at all sure that it is—then Gray combines with it an insistent assertion of his underlying emotional state. Such an assertion, in its combination of diffidence and pride, fear of life and bravery in seeking beyond the limits of the known, concern for the self stretching out to concern for the identical aspects of mankind, would seem, by contrast, Romantic.
Rather than say, with Arnold, that Gray was essentially a poet who was doomed to prose by a prosaic age, it seems evident that Gray is the perfect spokesman for a poetic age which is unclear in its position on the great and recurrent human problems—and notably about those dealing with the relations between the rational and the non-rational. Aware of this deficiency both in his time and in himself, Gray is better able than any one of his English contemporaries to work from a firm basis in the rational into an exploration of the irrational. From a peak of the Classical, he opens vistas for Romanticism.
Such a position inevitably entails an effect on his successors. Aside from his immense contemporary vogue, which filled magazines in the British Isles and America with elegies and Pindaric odes, his lasting influence on English literature and on our cultural heritage as readers of English has been pervasive. He inaugurated the Celtic revival, which in turn strongly reinforced the bardic ideal—the ideal of the poet as prophet and patriot—which is so important to Shelley, Byron, Keats, Whitman, and Yeats. His is an eloquent voice speaking for the freeing of the imagination; and though the Romantics decried his diction, they paid him the compliment, sometimes unconscious, of imitation. Wordsworth professedly wrote his "Ode to Duty" in the form of Gray's "Hymn to Adversity." Shelley's "To a Skylark" echoes Gray's unfinished (but posthumously printed) ode to vicissitude in its central image. One catches other indications of influence in casual lines and passages. Shelley's Prometheus is told, in a line borrowed from "The Bard," that "Past ages crowd on thee" (Prometheus Unbound, I, 561); Byron's famous description of the gaiety in Brussels on the eve of Waterloo seems to expand the feeling of the passage on Richard II's reign in "The Bard"; in Purple Dust (1940) Sean O'Casey names a couple of tradition-bound Englishmen Stoke and Poges, alluding to the famous setting of the "Elegy." But the citation of specific examples of influence means little with a poet like Gray; his poetry has become part of all of us, readers and writers alike.
Gray's achievement was great, despite his obvious deficiencies—the lack of deeply passional involvement, of the emotional variety and intensity characteristic of the greatest masters. As compensation, he offers the most responsible sense of craftsmanship in English poetry—a sense which requires of him both perfection of finish and persistent experimentation. Though he wrote relatively little, that little included some of the most finished classical odes in the language; one of the finest reflective poems that we have, and surely the most beloved; Pindaric Odes of a unique splendor; and the first exploration, in beautifully polished work, of a rich vein of poetry which has yielded treasures to others as well. If this is all that can be said for masterly craftsmanship, it is a great deal.
1 Matthew Arnold, Essays in Criticism, Second Series (London, 1889), pp. 91-92.
2 George Sherburn, "The Restoration and Eighteenth Century," in Albert C. Baugh, A Literary History of England (New York, 1948), p. 1013; Grierson, Background of English Literature, p. 203; Elton, Survey, II, 74; Bertrand H. Bronson, "The Pre-Romantic or Post-Augustan Mode," ELH, XX (1953), 22.
3 Quoted in W. K. Wimsatt, Jr., The Verbal Icon (New York, 1958), p. 73.
4 Ricardo Quintana, The Mind and Art of Jonathan Swift (London, 1936), passim, esp. p. 65.
5 Quoted in F. O. Matthiesen, American Renaissance (New York, 1946), pp. 133-34.
6 For an excellent discussion of this viewpoint and its proponents see Morse Peckham, "Toward a Theory of Romanticism," Publications of the Modern Language Association, LXVI (1951), 5-23.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5510
SOURCE: "Statement and Artifice in Thomas Gray," in Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900, Vol. V, No. 3, Summer, 1965, pp. 519-32.
[In the following essay, Spacks analyzes the language of "Ode on the Spring," "Sonnet on the Death of Mr. West," and "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,"focusing on Gray's use of alternating rhetorical patterns.]
The man of whom Adam Smith wrote, "[he] 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," has been dismissed by Dr. Leavis, relegated by Donald Davie to the limbo reserved for those whose diction is impure, and attacked by A. R. Humphreys for embodying the worst poetic evils of his day. Time has not on the whole been kind to Thomas Gray.
One reason for modern dissatisfaction with the poet is the insistent artifice of his diction, its extremity suggested by his own famous pronouncement that "the language of the age is never the language of poetry." Wordsworth and Coleridge were among the first to disapprove. Although they disagreed about which details were farthest removed from true poetry, both used Gray's sonnet to exemplify all those eighteenth-century poems which consist merely of "translations of prose thoughts into poetic language."1 Gray believed that "sense is nothing in poetry, but according to the dress she wears, & the scene she appears in."2 Most modern commentators, following Wordsworth and Coleridge, have thought his muse rather overdressed, seeing in his poetry all the vices of eighteenth-century poetic diction without perceiving that he exemplifies the possibilities of that diction equally well. In 1963, however, F. Doherty provided a new approach. Examining Gray's language in some detail, he concluded that the poet's productions are of two kinds: those dominated by his "public," highly rhetorical "voice," and those in which his "real voice" is discernible.3 The latter category includes most of the poems which seem relatively acceptable (in comparison with, for instance, Gray's long "Pindaric" odes) to the modern reader.
Mr. Doherty's analyses of individual passages are highly perceptive, but his examination of Gray raises further questions when one realizes how often the poems which he describes as manifesting the poet's "real voice" make use of a diction as contrived as that of the more formal pieces. Some of the poems written in 1742, usually taken as fairly direct expressions of personal emotion, demonstrate not only the artifice in technique in even Gray's most "sincere" poetic statement, but the way in which various sorts of artifice may be deliberately played off against one another. In the "Ode on the Spring," "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," and "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West," the poet has exploited structural patterns of alternation, passages of direct statement paired with those of highly artificial and indirect suggestion. The combination of a diction which deliberately conceals with a more personal mode of expression is largely responsible for the impact of these poems.
The "Ode on the Spring" is the most clearly "Augustan" of the 1742 group. Twenty-five years ago A. R. Humphreys summed up economically the objections that can be made to it: "It is impossible to accept, say, the 'Ode on the Spring' seriously. It has a baroque charm; its warmth of colour, decorative personification, and playful solemnity give it individuality, though hardly perhaps of a different sort than if it were a scene painted on an opulent ceiling."4 Its weaknesses, as defined by Professor Humphreys, are that it is imitative, pedantic, full of "classical pretence" and "anthropomorphic banality." It is clumsy, with "disconcerting hesitations of tone"; and it is totally lacking in personal observation.
Most of these objections are valid enough; yet the poem creates its highly individual effect through its exploitation of "classical pretence," its deliberate avoidance of personal observation, in conjunction with its ironic self-revelation. The poem's diction and its "pedantry" are alike most elaborate in the opening stanza, where conventional classical references jostle one another. We are offered Venus and the "rosy-bosom'd Hours," the "Attic warbler," "Cool Zephyrs": the classical paraphernalia of a sort of "nature poetry" which has little to do with nature. The effect of the stanza is to lead the reader's eye away from the object: "long-expecting flowers" insists on the flowers' role in the pattern of nature, removing stress from their appearance; "purple spring," as Geoffrey Tillotson has pointed out, refers not at all to the actual look of an English spring; even the lovely line, "The untaught harmony of spring," about the birds' songs, generalizes rather than describes. One may possibly extract from all this such a scene as is painted on ceilings, but only with effort. The stanza is not really pictorial. It evokes an atmosphere rather than a picture, a delicate, unrealistic, faintly mythological atmosphere, quite remote from actuality.
At the beginning of the second stanza, however, there is a shift in language: this sounds more convincingly like the poet's "real voice." The description now is visual as well as "atmospheric"; it sketches a scene with more specificity, more solidity, than that suggested by the poem's opening lines. The scene is, however, hardly less literary in its origins than the panorama which preceded it. The one specific allusion Gray's note here points out is to a native rather than a Latin source: Shakespeare now instead of Virgil. The specific allusion is to A Midsummer Night's Dream, but the scene of poet in rural landscape, as well as the reflections the setting immediately inspires, remind us readily too of Jacques in As You Like It, The description seems also to foretell that of the rural poet in the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard":
There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.
Both portraits derive indirectly and generally from a more ancient tradition: that of the poet as a figure in pastoral, the swain as poetic orderer of his own experience, in harmony with the world of nature he inhabits.
The language of the second stanza is more concrete and direct than that of the first, its images more specific (the "broader, browner shade" of the oak versus "long-expecting flowers"; water with a "rushy brink" as opposed to the vague and evanescent "Cool Zephyrs"), its literary references less exclusively classical. Its tone also demonstrates a radical shift. Metaphorically as well as literally, the first stanza deals with "the clear blue sky." Its tone is elevated; the presentation implies by its concentration on aesthetic pleasure an optimistic view of the natural universe and of man's relation to it. The environment of the second stanza, on the other hand, is a "broader, browner shade." If the first stanza floats away into the heavens, the second remains very much tied to earth; the reflections of the poet who inhabits this landscape are accordingly melancholy:
How vain the ardour of the Crowd,
How low, how little are the Proud,
How indigent the Great!
This is, however, a very easy sort of melancholy, as automatic a response as the optimism which the introductory mythologizing might produce. The reason for its automatic quality is immediately apparent in its source: Gray seems at pains to point out that these ideas about the world are the immediate product of poetic artifice.
Beside some water's rushy brink
With me the Muse shall sit, and think
(At ease reclin'd in rustic state),
How vain …
To stress the presence of the Muse in this setting is to emphasize the deliberate artificiality of the presentation as a whole; the description insists on the actual physical existence of the Muse as well as the poet in the landscape by dwelling on her posture ("At ease reclin'd") and hinting, through the oxymoron of "rustic state," the faintly humorous overtones implicit in the literal presence of this mythological figure in the concrete English setting. She reminds us that these particular lines about the futility of worldly endeavor have little to do with the nature of worldly endeavor. Their source is poetic convention; they represent an attitude rather than a perception.
The succeeding two stanzas continue the pattern of alternation between different modes of poetic artifice and the attitudes associated with them. In the third stanza the images, less emphatically classical (although there is a specific echo of Virgil here), remain conventionally "poetic" and once more stress physical elevation ("The insect youth are on the wing") and the emotional elevation associated with it. The fourth stanza, more closely connected with the preceding one than the second is with the first, shifts, like the second, to a melancholy perspective and an emphasis on earth rather than air ("their airy dance / They leave, in dust to rest"). Its subject matter and point of view, however, are clearly as contrived and as arbitrary as the earlier concern with the way "The busy murmur glows!"
The importance of the insistent artifice with which the poet presents his reflections, artifice emphasized by the alternations of mood, theme, reference, emerges fully only in the concluding stanza, where the speaker for the first time considers himself not as poet but as man. Until now, the ode has both presented and implied an image of its speaker as poetic contriver, and reminded us, by the nature of the language itself and by Gray's footnotes, how much the poem consists of contrivance. But at the end the artificial, decorative metaphor of insects which has been manipulated through two stanzas turns on itself and its creator, becoming suddenly strangely real. Artifice has controlled the poem, kept us from taking its insights very seriously; now that artifice reveals something extremely serious about the poet as human being. The conventional "poetic" assertion that insects are like people leads to the forcible realization that people may be like insects—and judging himself as an insect, the poet discovers his limitations as a man ("Poor moralist! and what art thou? / A solitary fly!"). He looks at the reality of his isolated life in terms of his own contrivance; the contrivance now produces fuller awareness of reality. The poignance of the speaker's self-discovery, however, is modified and enriched by the method which produces it. The poem's final effect is of a wry irony which both tempers and reveals the genuine pathos of Gray's sense of himself. If the poet's "voice" is less conspicuously "public" here than in his grander poems, it is still far from intimate: self-revelation emerges specifically through Gray's awareness of himself as poetic contriver. The poem may, as Lord David Cecil suggests, be one of the utterances of a sensitive spirit in a tragic world,5 but it is more: in a sense its subject is the relation between artifice and reality. Artifice, perceived first as a device for shaping one's perception of reality in arbitrary ways (toward optimism or toward pessimism), ultimately helps to provide new insight into reality. The full logical and emotional movement of the poem is in a sense the direct opposite of that in the churchyard elegy, in which the problems of finding a personal role in the world are finally resolved in the figure of the poet. In the "Ode on the Spring," on the other hand, the position of poet does not help the man to solve his private dilemma: it only reveals that dilemma to him.
In the "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West" the chief tension in the expression is not between two forms of artifice but between artifice and personal statement. Its importance has been recognized by Mr. Doherty ("we are being given an opposition between the 'poetic' presentation of morning and the personal, felt grief,") and by Geoffrey Tillotson. At the poem's opening, Professor Tillotson points out, Gray "means us to take the 'poetic diction' as dramatic—for though it is himself who is speaking, he speaks by means of quotations from others…. These things are stock-in-trade, and that is the point of Gray's rejection of them."6 The sonnet's most conventional rhetoric, however, like that in the "Ode on the Spring," serves a double purpose: it exists not simply to be rejected, but also to convey a complex structure of ideas.
Five years before his death, West included in a letter to Gray a long poem entitled "Ad Amicos." One section of it sheds light on Gray's later sonnet:
I care not tho' this face be seen no more,
The world will pass as chearful as before;
Bright as before the Day-Star will appear
The fields as verdant, and the skies as clear:
Unknown and silent will depart my breath,
Nor Nature e'er take notice of my death.
Yet some there are (ere sunk in endless night)
Within whose breasts my monument I'd write:
Loved in my life, lamented in my end,
Their praise would crown me, as their precepts mend.7
The conjunction between the attitude of "Nature" and that of the friend toward death is here crucial, as it was to be in Gray's sonnet, which supplies an ironic commentary on his friend's poem: for West's assurance that there is value in the lamentations of friendship, Gray substitutes the bitter conviction that his own isolation emblemizes the futility of mourning
I fruitless mourn to him, that cannot hear,
And weep the more because I weep in vain.
Like the "Spring" ode, the sonnet on West proceeds by alternations of technique and approach. Its opening quatrain is richest in conventional diction, which functions here, as so often in eighteenth-century poetry, to insist upon the essential tie between man and nature. Mornings, in the universe here invoked, are "smileing," the sun is animated as Phoebus, birds sing an "amorous Descant," fields, "chearful," "resume their green Attire." So emphatic is the insistence that even the inanimate universe partakes of the nature and values of man that it becomes almost painful—which is, of course, precisely the point.
In the second quatrain, one's attention is forced to the "lonely Anguish" of the poet. All is red, golden, green, in the opening lines; in the quatrain which follows them, all is bare and comparatively abstract. The hardly perceptible metaphors are embodied entirely in verbs: the poet's ears "repine" for other notes than those of the birds; his heart "melts"; joys "expire" in his breast. Nouns and adjectives have carried the weight of the figures in the opening picture of joyous nature; in the description of solitary grief, there is no picture at all.
The significance of the contrast is fully revealed in the third quatrain, which explains the vital fact—not explicitly recognized in West's poem—that all parts of nature function together, in a union which includes "happier Men," and all has a purpose. Appropriately, Gray here returns to that "poetic diction" so well-adapted to the presentation of optimistic views of the natural world. The lines are less colorful than the opening ones, but as highly figured; they convey also a new poignance (partly the result of the contrast that has been established), which is exemplified in the beautiful line, "To warm their little Loves the Birds complain."8 Here is a fine emblem of the terrible difference Gray perceives between himself and the rest of the world: the "complaint" of the birds has a function and a value, it participates in the demonstration of love; his own quite different complaint reaches no hearer and produces no positive effect. West maintains that nature and friendship both provide compensations, of different sorts, for death; his point of view is that of the man conscious of his mortality, contemplating the prospect of his own dissolution. Gray, considering death from an equivalent viewpoint in the "Elegy," was to manifest a similar attitude:
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
Left the warm precincts of the chearful day,
Nor cast one longing ling'ring look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires.
The prospective victim needs to believe in the existence of "some fond breasts," needs to feel that he will not be entirely prey to "dumb Forgetfulness." The "voice of Nature" cries from the tomb to the survivors who may preserve the "wonted Fires" of their departed friends perhaps by the power of their memory; more specifically, Gray's footnote reference to Petrarch and the context of the entire elegy suggest, by the power of poetry to preserve life. But the ultimate faith in the human significance of the poet which dominates the elegy is not so strong in the earlier sonnet, where the artifice of poetry, as in the "Ode on the Spring," reveals its inadequacy to compensate for the ravages of feeling. Gray's viewpoint, in the West sonnet, is that of the survivor; he writes from direct knowledge rather than from observation. And, as the poet-survivor, he contradicts the more speculative conclusion of the passage from West's poem, insisting that nature, through its denial of grief, only intensifies one's solitude in sorrow (solitude more intensely poignant than that perceived by the speaker in the end of the "Ode on the Spring"), and that the monument which West imagines within the breasts of his friends must be shaky indeed, when the natural universe refuses it any real foundation.
Wordsworth obviously perceived the deliberate alternation of rhetorical patterns in this sonnet. The five lines that he italicizes as "the only part of this Sonnet which is of any value" include all but one of the lines where Gray deals, in deliberately bare language, with his own isolation in suffering. (The sixth presumably fails to receive Wordsworth's accolade because it includes an "alas!".) Modern readers, however, may more readily see the extent to which Gray here—as often elsewhere—employs contrasting modes of poetry as a technique of cross-commentary. Certainly he does not reject the elaborate diction of his opening lines: he recognizes and exposes its value in conveying the beauty and unity of the natural world. But he recognizes also its limitations, as a mode of insight and of expression. It is not, after all, adequate to express the misery of solitary grief; the poet as artificer cannot merely through convention communicate the sorrow of the poet as man.
In the long "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," rhetorical variations are more complex in technique and in function. Here too Gray's shifts of rhetoric deepen and complicate the meaning of his poem; the ode's form directly illuminates its content.
That content, simply stated, seems to be the glorification of boyhood at the expense of adulthood. Wordsworth praised the child for his supernal widom; Gray envies him his ignorance: "where ignorance is bliss, / 'Tis folly to be wise." But the ironies of this aphorism are so inclusive that they virtually transform the entire poem.
Sir Leslie Stephen complained about this ode that it "comes into conflict with one's common-sense. We know too well that an Eton boy is not always the happy and immaculate creature of Gray's fancy."9 Certainly a more unrealistic picture of boyhood can seldom have been offered. The poem opens with a stanza so highly rhetorical that it might have been designed to provide examples of various figures and tropes. In ten lines we find repeated instances of apostrophe, metaphor, personification, alliteration, inversion, repetition, parallelism. The invocation to the towers of Eton has little reference to real experience, and the elaborate description it introduces of the joys of Eton's inhabitants is hardly more convincing. "Gray thought his language more poetical as it was more remote from common use," objected Dr. Johnson,10 with particular reference to the phrase, "redolent of joy and youth," which Gray here uses to evoke the "gales" that blow from Eton; we may be tempted to agree. Perhaps even more "remote from common use" is the description of youthful sport:
What idle progeny succeed
To chase the rolling circle's speed,
Or urge the flying ball?
The rhetorical tone is maintained, although the language is more immediately evocative, in the succeeding description of boyish enterprise:
Some bold adventurers disdain
The limits of their little reign,
And unknown regions dare descry:
Still as they run they look behind,
They hear a voice in every wind,
And snatch a fearful joy.
Finally, Gray presents a list of the students' attributes, including
In the three-stanza treatment of the denizens of Eton, the movement has been from particularity to generalization, from the concrete to the abstract. It may be hard to feel "particularity" in such a phrase as "the rolling circle's speed," but, elevated though it is, it, like all periphrases, refers to something specific (in this case, a hoop). The final stanza of the triad, on the other hand, deals solely with abstractions: "hope," "health," "wit," "fancy," "invention," "chear," "vigour." The poet's language now is less pretentious than that which he expends on swimming, bird-catching, and hoop-rolling; his nostalgic tone is more marked. But vague nostalgia and pretentious periphrasis have the same general effect: to make the reader acutely aware of the element of distance in this "distant prospect" of Eton. The past is perceived only through a haze; a light that never was on sea or land glows about the blissful young scholars. The persuasive artifice of the presentation, the unrelieved insistence of the rhetorical distancing, force the reader to be always conscious of the poet as manipulator of reality.
From the joys of youth the poem proceeds, after a transitional stanza, to the evils of maturity. The transition, intensely emotional, concludes, "Ah, tell them, they are men!" In its highly charged bareness, this line foretells the technique of the poem's final stanza; yet immediately after it Gray returns to his more elaborate style. He relies now almost entirely on heavy use of personification, a new form of artifice in this ode, and one which provides its own kind of "distancing" for the image of adulthood's horrors.
The personifications are very good of their kind. Like most such figures in their period, they are strongly traditional in conception, yet Gray individualizes them. The passions are, here as in so many other eighteenth-century poems, "the fury Passions." They are also, however, "The vulturs of the mind": an addition which removes their dignity, makes them more concretely destructive, may recall the tortures of Prometheus, sordid and endless. Despair is "grim-visag'd" and "comfortless": obvious epithets, but sharply evocative of despair's special qualities: its almost deliberate grimness, its inability either to offer comfort to its victim (like gentler forms of sorrow) or to receive comfort from any source. Infamy is "grinning," Madness, "moody"; Poverty "numbs the soul with icy hand." In each case, the relevant detail insists both upon the horror which these qualities have in common and on the special dreadfulness of each specific state.
Indeed, the descriptions of maturity—despite the fact that they are allegorical—are on the whole a good deal more concrete than those of youth. This parade of personifications comprises a metaphorical vision of adulthood to parallel the glamorized vision of youth that has preceded it. Gray seems to feel far more vividly (as is, of course, appropriate enough) the realities of manhood than those of youth, although certainly his nostalgia for childhood is as acute as his horror of the universal fate of the adult.
The allegorical presentation of phenomena, however vivid, is not "realistic"; the lack of realism in the description of man's fate is as striking as that in the evocation of childhood. The high rhetorical tone in both cases points to the fact that Gray's rhetoric is often associated with imaginative vision: his elaborations, decorations, heavy use of rhetorical tricks indicate his concern with something other than literal truth. In the sonnet on West, a vision of natural unity is placed in conjunction with the harsh reality of individual pain; in the "Ode on the Spring," two "literary" visions ultimately reveal the actuality of the solitary poet. In the Eton ode, too, there are two visions: of childhood and of adulthood, both deliberately removed from actuality, both containing elements of truth.
The truth of the vision of manhood is immediately and forcibly apparent; the imaginative and emotional power of the personifications attest the conviction of the author, and one has no doubt of Gray's sincerity. The remoteness of personifications from actual experience, the "distancing" involved in the use of this device, are a way of emphasizing the horror of maturity in reality: one suspects that it is too dreadful to be discussed more directly; the poet must find metaphors to make his perceptions tolerable. This suspicion sheds light back on the earlier vision of childhood, and the way in which artifice makes this poem's intensely personal quality possible. If a man's perceptions about maturity are essentially insights into its horrors, it follows that he may find it necessary to glamorize his perceptions about childhood; if beauty cannot be located in the present, it must be asserted of the past or the future. Gray's clearly artificial presentation of childhood as "paradise" emphasizes the agony of his experience of adulthood. Mr. Doherty comments that in Gray's "more plangent poems" he reveals himself as "a man whose historical sensibility demands of him that the present be always seen as part of a movement of time." A sense of that movement is clearly present in this ode, but it is a movement relentlessly downward. Both visions emphasize this fact.
The final stanza of the Eton ode represents a return to the barer style which Gray used so effectively in the sonnet on West. In it there is only one strong metaphor, no striking inversions; the diction, with the exception of one rhetorical "ah!", is such as Wordsworth might approve. But the simpler style in no way denies the validity of the affirmations which the rhetorical sections have made; here emotion derives from vision without conflicting with it. Resignation is achieved as a result of perceptions which provide a more than "realistic" insight into the nature of reality.
That resignation, faintly bitter, is summed up in the final assertion of the folly of wisdom "where ignorance is bliss." Although the aphorism has the form of a general statement (and is frequently taken, out of context, to be one), its reference in the poem is particular, to the nature of youth and of manhood. Its fundamental ironies are twofold. First, the entire poem has demonstrated that the bliss of ignorance and the folly of wisdom are alike inevitable in human life. The concluding statement (like the earlier rhetorical question, "why should they know their fate?") appears to offer the possibility of choice, but in neither case does an alternative really exist. The nature of childhood, the nature of maturity, are foreordained: one may perhaps hope to be aware of them, but can do nothing to change them. It is the fate of mankind to move from blissful ignorance to foolish wisdom; it is perhaps the nature of men to coin aphorisms which justify both states.
Second, the poem as a whole has defined both "ignorance" and "wisdom" in ways involving built-in ironic overtones. "Ignorance" here is specifically ignorance of the horrors that lie in store for all human beings; "wisdom" consists in awareness of those horrors. A few years after Gray wrote his Eton ode, Dr. Johnson, in "The Vanity of Human Wishes," suggested his scorn of the suppliant for long life who
Hides from himself his state, and shuns to know,
That life protracted is protracted woe.
Scorn was possible for Johnson because he saw his characters in a religious context: it is shortsighted and ridiculous to pray for length of life on earth if one is convinced that a better existence may be the aftermath of human suffering. In Gray's ode, on the other hand, the language of religious hope is reserved for references to departed childhood. That is the state of "bliss," that the "paradise" which thought can only destroy. The wisdom of adulthood is damning; failure to know that life protracted is protracted woe is the best that human existence can offer.
The sudden shift to relatively undecorated language in the final stanza emphasizes the despair which awareness of these ironies can produce. The stanza's first line echoes the earlier line which most clearly prepared for the ending. "Ah, tell them, they are men!" the poet cried before, of the schoolboys; now he reminds us, "To each his suff'rings: all are men." Children and adults alike participate inevitably in the miseries of being human. The straightforward language throws into sharp relief the earlier elaboration and reveals the intimate relation of form and content in the ode. For the artifice and formality which controlled the presentation of childhood's joy and maturity's misery reflect a further meaning of "wisdom." To this extent alone does the wisdom derived from experience have power: it can formulate its record of experience so as to make it artistically viable. The suffering of mankind is communicated no less intensely for being embodied in personifications, but the use of such figures suggests a kind of order and meaning in that suffering. The joys of boyhood are purged of imperfection by being rhetorically described; the conjunction of the two visions, of suffering and of joy, provides a perception of pattern in human life. But this function of wisdom, too, is merely folly. When rhetoric is virtually abandoned, as in the concluding stanza, and the poet speaks directly of his sense of the ultimate disorder of experience (suggested by the reversal of values in the final lines: the notion that wisdom is a high good is essential to most concepts of an ordered universe), his revelation is the more forceful for its contrast with what has gone before. Once more Gray has demonstrated his extraordinary skill at playing off highly controlled rhetoric against simple, direct statement.
The rhetorical oppositions manifested in these poems are, however, by no means characteristic of Gray's later work. They dramatize a sense of tension which was to remain important in his poetry, but in different forms. The poems I have selected for attention here are perhaps experimental in their playing with technique; their manipulation of artifice seems largely responsible for the conspicuous success of the experiments. In the relatively direct verse of the "Elegy" and the highly formalized patternings of the 1757 odes, however, Gray does not employ any clear alternations of technique, nor does he point to his own reliance on artifice. Instead, the conflicts of values which both interested and perplexed him as a poet are directly expressed as part of the subject. These later poems pose problems of a very complicated sort, problems best dealt with in terms of other formulations than those which provide perspective on the function of artifice in the poems of 1742.
1 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Biographia Literaria, 2 vols. (London, 1817), I, 20.
2 Gray to Mason, 9 November 1758, Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1936), II, 593.
3 The Two Voices of Gray," Essays in Criticism, XIII (1963), 222-230. 230.
4 "A Classical Education and Eighteenth-Century Poetry," Scrutiny, VIII (1939), 204.
5 "The Poetry of Thomas Gray," Proceedings of the British Academy, XXXI (1945), 51.
6 "More About Poetic Diction," Augustan Studies (London, 1961), p. 88.
7 Duncan C. Tovey, ed., Gray and His Friends (Cambridge, 1890), pp. 97-98. Another version of the text, with different, and less accurate, punctuation, is printed in William Mason's edition of The Poems of Mr. Gray (York, 1775). Both texts are taken from Gray's Commonplace Books.
8 Mr. Doherty has an interesting discussion of the language of this line in "The Two Voices of Gray," p. 229.
9 "Gray and His School," Hours in a Library (London, 1892), III, 118-119.
10Lives of the English Poets, ed. G. B. Hill, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1905), III, 435.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6943
SOURCE: "Contexts of Significance: Thomas Gray," in "The Stranger within Thee": Concepts of the Self in Late-Eighteenth-Century Literature, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980, pp. 82-98.
[In the following chronological study of Gray's poetry, Cox considers the progression of Gray's ideas concerning humankind's limitations and the significance of the individual self.]
The "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" expresses what Thomas Gray wished to believe—that the individual self is significant even when it lacks any visible signs of significance, such as power, wealth, or social recognition. Yet it was very difficult for Gray to find grounds for affirming the self. In some of his poems, he reduces human life to merely a lively consciousness of pain. In others, he finds reasons for portraying the self as significant, but his reasons are not always consistent with one another. In the "Ode to Adversity," he bases man's significance on his capacity for sympathy and love, but in "The Bard" and "The Triumphs of Owen," on his potential for a stern heroism; in the original version of the "Elegy," Gray describes the self as acquiring dignity through resignation to fate, but in the final version he derives its significance from the tenacity of its desires. Although Gray wrote only a small number of poems, they display a remarkable variety—a variety that resulted not just from wandering interests and a kind of aimless versatility, but also from a lifelong hesitation about how to evaluate the significance of the self.
To understand Gray's particular difficulties, it is perhaps as useful to consider what his works do not, as what they actually do, express. Compare the "Elegy," for instance, with some other eighteenth-century poems that take up the issue of man's significance: Pope's Essay on Man, Young's Night Thoughts, Johnson's Vanity of Human Wishes, Cowper's Task. Like the "Elegy," all of these poems recognize the self's limitations, its inability to achieve fulfillment. But unlike the "Elegy," all of them compensate for the weakness of the self by placing it in what could be called a larger context of significance—an order of reality that is greater than the individual experience, an order that incorporates the self and ensures its value. Some of these contexts originate in religious faith. Johnson describes the self as ultimately dependent on its relationship with God for a consciousness of its own dignity, for an assurance that it is not simply "helpless" and fated. Young, by celebrating the individual self as the most important object of God's creative and redemptive power, converts the immensity of the Newtonian universe, which might easily be seen as a threat to man's significance, into the best evidence of his dignity. Cowper suffered agonies of doubt concerning his own personal value, yet his evangelical religion enabled him to suggest a context in which the weak and obscure appear to possess the greatest importance: the humble, solitary Christian has a hidden significance in the divine plan, even though "the self-approving haughty world /… Deems him a cypher in the works of God."1 But it is not necessary to propose an essentially Christian context in order to portray the self as significant: in the Essay on Man, Pope's consolation for the obscure sufferings of men is the argument that even human limitation is indispensable to the universe, because it enables man to fill a necessary place in the chain of being.
A context of significance provides a way, not merely of justifying the ways of God to man, but also of justifying the nature of man to himself. In addition, it furnishes a basis for discovering the moral identity of individual selves: a person can be considered good to the extent that he knows his place in the order of things. Also, and not least important, the belief that the individual's petty experience has a significant place in a greater and more rational existence is an invaluable aid to poetic rhetoric. The structure of the universe inspires the structure of poetry; no matter at what length a poet discourses on the frustrations of mundane existence, a hopeful climax, the revelation of an all-embracing order, is always available to him. For resolution he need not rely on private symbolism or purely personal emotions; he can employ the unequivocal logic of universal truth.
Gray, however, was unable to employ this positive rhetoric, because he could not affirm an external context of significance that could adequately compensate the self for its limitations. And this, I believe, could be one source of the "originality" that Samuel Johnson, writing his Life of Gray, discovered in the "Elegy": "The four stanzas beginning Yet even these bones, are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here, persuades himself that he has always felt them."2 The passage from the "Elegy," which describes the awkward eloquence of rustic tombstones, presents the poem's most universal statement about the nature of human life and aspiration. Having contrasted the wasted potential of the villagers with the marred achievement of the "Proud," Gray's speaker finds all people united in a common desire for their individual significance to be recognized:
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires.3
The four stanzas may be regarded as the climax of Gray's rhetoric, yet they are in no way consoling, at least in any conventional sense:
Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhimes and shapeless sculpture deck'd,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
The last cry sounding from the gravestones does not compensate for the evanescence of life. As Gray reminds us, the memorials are as "frail" as the lives they commemorate. They are intended to elicit sympathy for the dead, but the most that Gray expects is "the passing tribute of a sigh." Instead of making an unequivocal declaration of the significance of human life, Gray derives comfort only from the irrepressible demand for significance. Yet by reducing his positive rhetoric to a minimum, by refusing to rely on any context of significance exterior to the self, Gray succeeds in expressing the dignity of the self's most fundamental desires in the energy with which "the voice of Nature cries" from the imprisoning tomb.
As a professed Christian, Gray might be expected to refer to the self's relationship with God as the major source of its significance. But his belief was never strong enough to become a vital impulse in his poetry. Although one of his personal enemies, John Whalley, accused him of atheism,4 Gray opposed "free-thinking" and considered Hume "refuted & vanquished" by his friend James Beattie's petulant attack in the Essay on Truth.5 Yet in Gray's letters one looks in vain—among the weather reports, antiquarian speculations, and descriptions of landscapes—for an extended discussion of religion. It seems likely that Gray, who was himself a man of rather sceptical character, found little in what he regarded as the increasingly sceptical thought of his time that was capable of stimulating his interest in religion.6 He sometimes used religion to console bereaved friends,7 but any idea we may receive of his essential piety is not supported by the blank hopelessness of the epitaph he wrote for a child: "Few were the days allotted to his breath; / Here let him sleep in peace his night of death."8
Gray did, however, write a short essay, refuting the extreme scepticism of Lord Bolingbroke, that offers insight into his own views both of religion and of the self.9 Bolingbroke's basic premise is well expressed in the familiar lines of his friend Pope: "Of God above, or Man below, / What can we reason, but from what we know?"10 Bolingbroke's answer is that we have experiential evidence of God's "physical attributes" of power and wisdom, but no evidence sufficient to prove that his "moral attributes" are the same as what humans may call justice or benevolence. Gray finds Bolingbroke's philosophy offensive for two major reasons. First, by denying that there is any proof of an afterlife provided by a benevolent God, it deprives man of a comforting feeling of significance:
He will tell you, that we, that is, the animals, vegetables, stones, and other clods of earth, are all connected in one immense design, that we are all Dramatis Personae, in different characters, and that we were not made for ourselves, but for the action…. Such is the consolation his philosophy gives us, and such the hope on which his tranquillity was founded.
Gray is shocked by Bolingbroke's ridicule of a passage in The Religion of Nature Delineated in which William Wollaston, in a "longing, lingering look behind," voices the fear of extinction at death; Gray believes that everyone who deserves to be called human would sympathize with Wollaston: "No thinking head, no heart, that has the least sensibility, but must have made the same reflection."11 According to his friend Norton Nicholls, Gray took a similarly dim view of Hume's "irreligion," "because he said it was taking away the best consolation of man without substituting any thing of equal value in its place."12
Gray's other objection to Bolingbroke is again that of a man of sensibility whose feelings are the final arbiter of his beliefs. It is the idea that Bolingbroke's philosophy deprives religious emotions of their value. We could not worship God if we did not imagine that he is benevolent, and that he exercises his benevolence toward us individually: "If we are made only to bear our part in a system, without any regard to our own particular happiness, we can no longer worship him as our all-bounteous parent: There is no meaning in the term."
Now, it is interesting that although Gray disputes Bolingbroke's conclusions, he accepts his basic premise that experience is the only source of our knowledge of God. Gray therefore argues that none of God's attributes can be understood except by their resemblance to our own: "How can we form any notion of his unity, but from that unity of which we ourselves are conscious? How of his existence, but from our own consciousness of existing?" On this basis, Gray simply asserts his belief that God's moral attributes bear a general resemblance to what we perceive as human virtues. We may recall that Gray is the poet who, in "De Principiis Cogitandi," wished to play Lucretius to Locke's Epicurus; he is clearly enough impressed by empirical philosophy to be convinced that all questions regarding the nature of God must ultimately be referred to immediate, individual experience.13 But the "experience" on which Gray's religious hopes are primarily grounded is really a fear of the psychic alienation that may result from a lack of faith in God's benevolence: "The idea of his malevolence (an impiety I tremble to write) must succeed. We have nothing left but our fears, and those too vain; for whither can they lead but to despair and the sad desire of annihilation."
What evidence we have of Gray's somewhat desperate religious beliefs indicates that he was not disposed to reason very assiduously on this subject. He could find no basis for defending belief in God as anything but a projection of the self, an assertion of the self's desire for happiness and its fear of isolation. When he attempts, in his essay on Bolingbroke, to discover what may "connect" God "with us his creatures," he actually finds the "connection" only in human feelings. Perhaps he would have agreed with Emily Dickinson—another isolated self—that
The abdication of Belief
Makes the Behavior small—
Better an ignis fatuus
Than no illume at all.14
But it is not surprising that in his poetry Gray shows considerable reserve about presenting a religion centered in the self as the ground of the self's significance.
But religion does not provide the only context in which human life can be regarded as significant. The self can also derive its dignity from its social feelings and relations, from the sympathy it gives to others and receives from them in turn. The eighteenth century found the web of social sympathies such a useful context of significance that in many works of literature, self and sympathy became almost inseparable concepts. In Sterne's Sentimental Journey, Yorick's sympathy for the deranged Maria convinces him that he himself does, indeed, possess a soul. In Tristram Shandy, Uncle Toby and his friends are outwardly incompetent and insignificant figures; it is mainly their ability to sympathize with others that seems to give them personal dignity. As I have shown, even Richardson's Clarissa, who values herself so highly on her independence, still derives much of her self-esteem from other people's sympathy.
In the completed portion of his ambitious poem "The Alliance of Education and Government," Gray defines man's basic characteristics as attraction to pleasure, aversion to pain, desire of self-protection—and sympathetic sensibility, the "social Smile & sympathetic Tear" (ll. 30-37). In this he shows his affinity to the empirical philosophers and aestheticians whom I have previously discussed. Yet he was seldom able to rely on sympathy as a context of significance.
This was partly because Gray's personal problems made him perpetually unsure of his own ability to gain sympathy from others. His frustrated and repressed homosexuality distanced him permanently from full intimacy with other people.15 As if to confirm the assertions of contemporary philosophers that the self's better qualities are formed through sympathy with others, Gray—threatened by the outside world, lacking sympathy for its affairs, and suspecting, in turn, its lack of sympathy for him—looked within himself and discovered nothing.16 Beneath his self-deprecating wit, Gray was in grim earnest when he told Horace Walpole, the idol of his youth, that philosophy had taught him that he only imagined he existed, but that "one lesson of thine, my dear Philosopher, will restore me to the use of my Senses, & make me think myself something."17 Walpole's kindness had been "the only Idea of any social happiness that I have ever received almost"; Gray's self was "tiny" and "tiresome," but Walpole's was "large enough to serve for both of us."18 But Walpole's kindness could never be sufficient to fulfill Gray's need for social happiness; Gray came to a full realization of that fact during their Continental tour. Years later, after the departure of Charles-Victor Bonstetten, the young Swiss student with whom he was infatuated, Gray wrote to him: "I did not conceive till now (I own) what it was to lose you, nor felt the solitude and insipidity of my own condition, before I possess'd the happiness of your friendship."19
But Gray had philosophical as well as personal difficulties in coming to terms with the concept of sympathy. In "The Alliance of Education and Government," he is concerned, as one might expect from his admiration for Locke, with the issue of the self's dependence upon the outside world, but he shows that he wishes to believe that the self can attain significance regardless of the environment in which it is placed. The opposite opinion he denounces as an "Unmanly Thought!": "what Seasons can controul, / What fancied Zone can circumscribe the Soul?" (ll. 72-73). So much for the influence of literal climate, which so fascinated eighteenth-century thinkers; the poem's thesis, however, is that the self does indeed require at least an accommodating social environment in order to accomplish its full potential. And in notes that Gray apparently made for the poem's continuation, he emphasizes the necessity to the self of gaining social significance and recognition:
One principal characteristic of vice in the present age is the contempt of fame.
Many are the uses of good fame to a generous mind: it extends our existence and example into future ages … and prevents the prevalence of vice in a generation more corrupt even than our own. It is impossible to conquer that natural desire we have of being remembered.20
"Education and Government" was begun in 1748, about the same time that Gray was probably completing the "Elegy"; and he seems to have intended both works to express the self's desire for sympathy, even posthumous sympathy. However, in a letter also written about the time of the "Elegy"'s composition, he told Thomas Wharton exactly how consoling he thought "the passing tribute of a sigh" might be:
I am not altogether of your Opinion, as to your Historical Consolation in time of Trouble, a calm Melancholy it may produce, a stiller Sort of Despair (& that only in some Circumstances & on some Constitutions) but I doubt no real Content or Comfort can ever arise in the human Mind, but from Hope. Old Balmerino [one of the Scotch Lords executed after the 1745 rebellion] when he had read his Paper to the People, pull'd off his Spectacles, spit upon his Handkerchief, & wiped them clean for the Use of his Posterity; & that is the last Page of his History.21
Gray's poems of 1742 reveal his inability to believe in the power of sympathy—or anything else—as an adequate compensation for the self's limitations. In the "Ode to Adversity," written in August of that year, he attempts to use sympathy as a context of significance that can give purpose and dignity to individual suffering. He welcomes pain as a soul-maker; adversity alone can teach sympathy with others and, through it, self-knowledge:
The gen'rous spark extinct revive,
Teach me to love and to forgive,
Exact my own defects to scan,
What others are, to feel, and know myself a Man.
But the "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West," written in the same month, views adversity—and, indeed, the soul's sensibility to its feelings—as something that isolates the self, making it incapable of sharing sympathetically in the outside world. Gray's speaker cannot share the happiness of the world around him, and he regrets that the world does not share his grief: "My lonely Anguish melts no Heart, but mine."
Gray's other poems of 1742 also admit that the self is "circumscribed," and they examine the significance of human life from that standpoint. In the "Ode on the Spring," the speaker, who contrasts his own reclusive life with the spontaneous hedonism of the "insect youth," establishes the ultimate significance of neither: the speaker's melancholy denies him immediate fulfillment, but age will soon destroy the pleasures of the "youth." In the inverted carpe diem of the "Eton College" ode, the aspect of the self that recognizes its own limitations once again delivers a somber—and this time a crushing—judgment on the faith of youthful spontaneity in its own ability to achieve happiness. As Ben Jones has said, Gray has a habit of making the self's limitations almost the definition of human life.22 In the "Eton" ode, it is the consciousness of pain that is to inform the careless youths that "they are men." This is reminiscent of the "Adversity" ode, yet here sympathy fails to provide a context of significance. The final stanza suggests praise of those who can feel sympathy, but it does not imply that they can thereby escape the full burden of human wretchedness:
It could certainly be said of Gray, as he himself said of Pope, that "no body ever took him for a Philosopher."23 The speaker of the "Eton" ode is an image of everything that the eighteenth-century philosophers of sympathy feared—the isolated self, reflecting bitterly on its inability to accomplish anything of significance in either thought or action, incapacitated by its own consciousness from sharing the joys of others, yet regarding even its own wisdom as unprofitable "folly." In the "Adversity" ode, Gray's reliance on sympathy allows him to consider the self's interaction with its environment as something positive even when it produces pain; in the "Eton" ode, the self regards the outer world merely as something that will never respond to its own demands: "Ah happy hills, ah pleasing shade, / Ah fields belov'd in vain" (ll. 11-12).24
Gray's early poems, then, usually portray the self as isolated from any context in which it can achieve significance. While writing and revising the "Elegy" however, Gray struggled to find some way of expressing a less bitter view of the human situation. In his first attempt at concluding the poem, he suggested that a kind of moral significance can be attained by resigning oneself to fate:
Hark how the sacred Calm, that broods around
Bids ev'ry fierce tumultuous Passion cease
In still small Accents whisp'ring from the Ground
A grateful Earnest of eternal Peace[.]
No more with Reason & thyself at strife;
Give anxious Cares & endless Wishes room
But thro' the cool sequester'd Vale of Life
Pursue the silent Tenour of thy Doom.
Gray's critics have usually regarded these lines as a perfectly natural conclusion, one that is highly consistent with the rest of the poem.25
In fact, however, nothing in the "Elegy"'s earlier stanzas, except a general melancholy feeling, adequately prepares for this conclusion. Previously, Gray has discovered bitter images in the calm that he now chooses to call consoling: the landscape abandoned to darkness, the owl complaining of intruding footsteps, the ground heaving almost grotesquely above men imprisoned forever in their "narrow cells."26 Nevertheless, the churchyard's "grateful Earnest of eternal Peace" is supposed to resolve the speaker's conflict with both "Reason" and himself; it convinces him not to try to fulfill himself by means of either magnificent virtues or illustrious crimes. Recognizing the grateful necessity of death, he will lead a life as idly silent as the grave. Other courses are possible, but they are too morally dangerous or emotionally troubling. Yet this sort of delicate pragmatism, despite the graceful language in which it is couched, transforms a poem that seemed to be working toward some vindication of the significance of human life into a safe and rather superficial homily.
Gray was not content with his original conclusion; and in revising it, as Ian Jack has aptly observed, he transformed "a poem of Christian Stoicism" into "a poem of Sensibility."27 Of course, even in the original ending it is only the speaker's sensibility, his feeling of a "sacred Calm" in the village churchyard, that enables him to suggest that "eternal Peace" lies beyond the grave. As in his essay on Bolingbroke, Gray resorts to feeling as a basis for the idea that man may have significance in a religious context. But in the revised conclusion he relies far more heavily on pure emotion as the basis of the self's significance. Religion is no longer associated with resignation to one's "Doom," but with a fatherly God who responds to the speaker's emotional needs by giving him "('twas all he wish'd) a friend" (1. 124). And this God, in keeping with Gray's shaky religious convictions, is kept as vague and distant as he is undemanding. The focus remains firmly on what the speaker feels, rather than on what he ought to feel; it has shifted from the duty to repress one's desires to the dignity of indulging them, even if they are melancholy or frankly egoistic. Writing to Walpole in 1747, Gray said: "Nature and sorrow, and tenderness, are the true genius of [elegies] … poetical ornaments are foreign to the purpose; for they only show a man is not sorry;—and devotion worse; for it teaches him, that he ought not to be sorry, which is all the pleasure of the thing."28 In his revision of the "Elegy," therefore, Gray does not suggest that it is dishonorable in the speaker (who is obviously the subject of the poem's final section) that Melancholy should have "mark'd him for her own," that he should have behaved like one who was "craz'd with care, or cross'd in hopeless love" (11. 120, 108). Just as the passionate cry from the tomb gives dignity to the dead villagers, so the speaker's passions are intended to give him significance as well.
In the "Eton" and "Adversity" odes, Gray had offered contradictory views of social sympathy's ability to provide a context of significance and a release from psychic isolation. Now, in the "Elegy," he hesitates. Certainly his speaker is recommended as a sympathetic person—"He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear" (1. 123). He warmly sympathizes with the dead, and he wishes that other people—the Kindred Spirit and the Swain—may sympathize with him when he is dead. Yet except for one friend, who is referred to but does not appear, he has apparently isolated himself from other men. One of Gray's minor revisions occurred in the line, "Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires" (1. 92), which he originally wrote, "And buried Ashes glow with social Fires." The fiery need to have one's significance recognized is surely "social," since it produces appeals to other men for sympathy. By omitting the word, however, Gray was, perhaps, not merely repressing a bit of eighteenth-century poetic jargon; he was also emphasizing the individual nature of the need and the considerable possibility that it might never be fulfilled.
The Swain's description of the speaker contains conventional allusions to the melancholy Jaques of As You Like It, but it is still a portrait of Gray himself. My purpose is not to psychoanalyze the poet, but I think that a letter he wrote to Thomas Wharton in 1755 expresses his characteristic attitude toward other people: "as to Humanity you know my aversion to it; wch is barbarous & inhuman, but I can not help it. God forgive me."29 His emotions varied from haughty contempt for other people to prostrate but unfulfilled need for them, and this is well expressed by the Swain's description of a man "now smiling as in scorn, / … Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn, / Or craz'd with care, or cross'd in hopeless love" (ll. 105-08).30 Throughout the "Elegy"'s conclusion, Gray emphasizes the self's isolation. Originally, he wrote that the Kindred Spirit who inquires the speaker's fate was delayed in the churchyard "by sympathetic Musings"; in the final version, he is led "by lonely contemplation" (l. 95). And, more important, Gray establishes the elaborate device of distancing the speaker into the second and then the third person and presenting fragmentary views of his character in a conversation between two other people and in the epitaph on his tomb. The visitor, though a "kindred Spirit," must be imagined as having little direct knowledge of the speaker, since he is forced to inquire of the Swain about him; and the Swain's own view of the speaker is purely external. Neither of them can be expected to have any particularly intimate sympathy for him. His virtues and frailties are best known to God—and, of course, to himself.31 The epitaph, the Swain, and the Kindred Spirit are all projections of his own imagination, offering his own evaluation of his own significance.
In the "Elegy," personal significance does not depend fundamentally on external relationships—with God, or with other people—or on external accomplishments, even the accomplishment of reciprocal sympathy. Gray's insecurities about the world, and about himself, did not allow him to trust such solutions. Significance depends instead—somewhat paradoxically, it is true—on "this pleasing anxious being," the individual self and the emotions it feels in facing its ultimately hopeless situation. Gray no longer views human limitations, as he did in the "Eton" ode, merely as threats to the self, but as a background against which the self can display its dignity of feeling.
This change in sentiment, or at least in rhetorical strategy, affords some insight into the reason why Gray, during the 1750s and 1760s, almost abandoned the poetry of reflection for the poetry of "sublimity" and gothic terrors represented in "The Progress of Poesy," "The Bard," and the versions of Welsh and Norse poetry. Of course, one of Gray's purposes in some of these later poems was to dignify his own character as poet. This idea is supported by his conscious identification with the Bard,32 his placement of himself in the great poetic tradition in "The Progress of Poesy," and his choice, in "The Death of Hoel," to translate a Welsh poem in which the narrator refers specifically to his own role as elegist of his people. Also, as Donald Greene has written, Gray's interest in the gothic past provided him with "a means of escape from the real and present into a fantasy world."33 Gray's threatened personality could be expected to enjoy compensatory wish-fulfillment, ego-involvement in glamorous situations impossible in his own unheroic life. Samuel Johnson might have been speaking of Gray's frustrated life when he wrote: "He who has nothing external that can divert him, must find pleasure in his own thoughts, and must conceive himself what he is not; for who is pleased with what he is?"34
But another motivation for Gray's later poetry can be discovered in his desire to represent the self as significant despite his almost morbid preoccupation with its limitations. It is important to recognize that his fantasies were usually of heroic virtue but not of heroic achievement. The world of Gray's "gothic" poems is ruled by a fate indifferent to illustrious personal qualities. In "The Fatal Sisters," the Valkyries, pursuing their "weyward work," decide to kill or preserve without regard to personal value; they slay even men they admire:
In the Latin text from which Gray translated "The Descent of Odin," the mother of giants prophesies that "to the Twilight of the Gods / The Destroyers shall come."36 In his version of these lines, Gray emphasizes and universalizes the prophecy: no inquirer will meet the prophetess again until
In Gray's Latin text, the prophetess foretells the death of Balder in a simple statement of fact: "Surely the divine offspring / Will be affected by pain." Gray's translation is far more resonant: "Pain can reach the Sons of heav'n!" (l. 48). The prophecy becomes the shocking declaration of a universal truth: no one, not the gods themselves, is invulnerable to fate.
In translating "The Triumphs of Owen," Gray describes a hero who is himself the agent of an indifferent fate that condemns men to "Despair, & honourable Death" (l. 36): a reflection of Gray's habitual attitude that personal virtue—"honour"—has no effect on man's destiny. "The Death of Hoel" is a more direct lesson in futility; it is in the greatest strength of their confidence and desire that Hoel and his friends are slaughtered:
Flush'd with mirth & hope they burn:
But none from Cattraeth's vale return,
Save Aeron brave, & Conan strong,
(Bursting thro' the bloody throng)
And I, the meanest of them all,
That live to weep, & sing their fall.
In some of his later poems, Gray apparently wished to suggest that poetry itself might in some way provide the self with a context of significance. Thus, in "Conan" he proclaims that memorial verse is "the Hero's sole reward"—a statement that has no precedent in the Latin text on which he based this poem.37 And thus, in "The Progress of Poesy," he asserts that poetry can compensate "Man's feeble race" for its limitations and thereby "justify the laws of Jove" (ll. 42-53). He apparently had a similar purpose in mind when he began "The Bard." An entry in his Commonplace Book shows that he originally intended the Bard to prophesy "that men shall never be wanting to celebrate true virtue and valour in immortal strains, to expose vice and infamous pleasure, and boldly censure tyranny and oppression." But as William Mason noted, "unhappily for his purpose, instances of English Poets were wanting"; they had not been immortal advocates of freedom, and Gray finally completed the poem without insisting on poetry's ability to dignify mankind.38
Irvin Ehrenpreis has suggested that "for all its splendor "The Bard" is an assertion of its author's impotence"; its hero's suicide reflects Gray's awareness that poetry, at least in his own time, could not be an active force in human life.39 This may be true, but it was apparently not the effects of the Bard's actions that primarily interested Gray; his major purpose was to portray a man who maintains integrity in a hopeless situation in which any action would be ineffectual. The Bard tells Edward: "Be thine Despair, and scept'red Care, / To triumph, and to die, are mine" (ll. 141-42). His victory is one of character and emotion, not of action. The doom woven in his prophecy is to deprive Edward of his queen—"to sudden fate / … Half of thy heart we consecrate" (ll. 97-99)—but the Bard triumphs in the sympathy of the spirit comrades whom he sees before him. As in the "Elegy," the isolated self relies on its imagination—its vision, in this case—to provide the sympathy it cannot otherwise attain. But even after his vision has passed, the Bard's solitary strength of character continues to distinguish him. His suicide is part of his triumph—a sign of practical impotence, surely, but also a sign of moral autonomy. Gray is careful to deny the Bard any external context of significance: "Deep in the roaring tide he plung'd to endless night" (l. 144). His dignity is measured not by any hope of effect or reward, but by strength of passion alone.
Most of the other protagonists of Gray's exotic poems are also placed in situations that emphasize their independent strength of character: Odin is fearless enough to descend to "Hela's drear abode" to learn the decisions of fate, Hoel's defeat in battle provides an occasion for a friend's praise of his exceptional magnanimity, and Owen's fortitude distinguishes him in the confusion of war:
The static, pictorial quality of Gray's descriptions, especially in "The Bard," has often been noticed,40 and this is a source of both strength and weakness in his later poems. The gothic poems are galleries of the ideal states in which Gray imagined that the self could attain its greatest significance. But the idealization is so complete, the selves represented so autonomous, so isolated from any but a purely fabulous environment, that the characters largely lack interest as personalities; they become merely heroic gestures. In order to create characters for whom one could feel an immediate emotional response, Gray chose to imitate poetry in which the self is placed in stark and desperate situations; as a result, most of his later poems lack intellectual and psychological complexity. Ironically, his characters depend for their interest largely on the extreme situations in which they are placed. He is perilously close to the practice of lesser poets of his century who relied on "sublime" stage settings to provide otherwise negligible characters with a context of significance, one that often, unfortunately, turned out to be merely rhetorical.
Anyone who attempts to analyze Gray's poetry must feel the ultimate inadequacy of any generalizations the critic may make about it. This is not only because Gray wrote a variety of different types of poetry with a corresponding variety of rhetorical strategies, or because his works are of uneven quality, or even because his finest poems can make criticism seem impertinence. It is also because his poetry lacks a central vision. His ideas are shifting, evanescent, his controlling attitude a vague Angst. He could seldom discern a vital relationship between the self and the outer world, yet he could not always find an effective way of portraying the self as the ground of its own significance. As a result, his view of life is narrow and fragmentary—at best, grandly pathetic; at worst, remote and sterile.
1The Task, VI, 940-43, in Poetical Works, ed. H. S. Milford, 4th ed., corrected by Norma Russell (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), pp. 239-40.
2The Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets (London, 1781), IV, 485.
3 Lines 89-92. All quotations from Gray's poetry are from The Complete Poems of Thomas Gray, ed. H. W. Starr and J. R. Hendrickson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966).
4 Gray to Horace Walpole, Jan. or Feb. 1748, Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, corrections and additions by H. W. Starr (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971), I, 302.
5 Norton Nicholls, "Reminiscences of Gray," in Correspondence, III, 1289. See also Gray to Beattie, July 2, 1770, ibid., p. 1141.
6 On the decline of faith see Gray to Richard Stonhewer, Aug. 18, 1758, ibid., II, 583. The best survey of Gray's intellectual interests is William Powell Jones, Thomas Gray, Scholar (1937; rpt., New York: Russell and Russell, 1965).
7 See, for example, Gray to Nicholls, Sept. 23, 1766, Correspondence, HI, 935-36; Gray's lines for an epitaph on Mrs. William Mason, Complete Poems, p. 105.
8 The epitaph seems to have been written for Robin Wharton; it appears in Complete Poems, p. 104.
9 The essay is contained in William Mason's Memoirs of Gray, pp. 265-68, in The Poems of Mr. Gray. To Which Are Prefixed Memoirs of His Life and Writings (York, 1775).
10 Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Twickenham Ed., ed. Maynard Mack (London: Methuen, 1950), I.17-18 (p. 14).
11 See "Fragments or Minutes of Essays," in The Works of the Late Right Honorable Henry St. John, Lord Viscount Bolingbroke (London, 1754), V, 372-92, on Wollaston, The Religion of Nature Delineated, 4th ed. (London, 1726), p. 209. Bolingbroke's religious ideas are stated at large in the essays composing vol. V of his Works.
12 "Reminiscences," in Correspondence, III, 1289.
13 On the eighteenth-century Lockean approach to this issue, see Kenneth MacLean, John Locke and English Literature of the Eighteenth Century (1936; rpt., New York: Russell and Russell, 1962), pp. 146ff.
14 "Those—Dying Then," in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1955), III, 1069.
15 Two interesting discussions of this issue are: G. S. Rousseau, "Gray's Elegy Reconsidered," The Spectator, Oct. 2, 1971, p. 490; and Jean H. Hagstrum, "Gray's Sensibility," in Fearful Joy: Papers from the Thomas Gray Bicentenary Conference at Carleton University, ed. James Downey and Ben Jones (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1974), pp. 6-19.
16 Roger Martin, Gray's perceptive biographer, examines his "impression de néant" and provides additional examples of it in his Essai sur Thomas Gray (Paris: Presses Universitaries de France, 1934), pp. 22-23.
17 Jan. 14, 1735, Correspondence, I, 18.
18 Mar. 28, 1738, and Dec., 1734, ibid., pp. 83-84, 12.
19 April 12, 1770, ibid., III, 1118.
20 Quoted in Mason, Memoirs, pp. 202-03.
21 Sept. 11, 1746, Correspondence, I, 240.
22 "Blake on Gray: Outlines of Recognition," in Fearful Joy, p. 129.
23 To Walpole, Feb. 3, 1746, Correspondence, I, 230.
24 I am in general agreement with Roger Lonsdale's conclusions, in his insightful discussion of the poems of 1742, about the sterility of isolated self-consciousness: see "The Poetry of Thomas Gray: Versions of the Self," Proceedings of the British Academy, 59 (1973), 114-18.
25 Among the critics who have applauded Gray's original conclusion are: R. W. Ketton-Cremer, Thomas Gray: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955), pp. 98-100; F. W. Bateson, English Poetry: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed., rev. (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1966), pp. 128-31; and Clarence Tracy, "'Melancholy Mark'd Him for Her Own': Thomas Gray Two Hundred Years Afterwards," Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, 4th ser., 9 (1971), 318.
26 Lonsdale, "Poetry of Thomas Gray," pp. 107-08, furnishes additional reasons for regarding "the attempted calm of this conclusion to the poem" as "precarious." George T. Wright, in "Stillness and the Argument of Gray's Elegy," Modern Philology, 74 (1977), 381-89, emphasizes the negative implications of the churchyard's stillness and accordingly finds the resignation of Gray's first conclusion inconsistent with the poem's argument. But although Wright may be correct in suggesting that "stillness and resistance to it compose [Gray's] argument," I cannot agree with his statement that the Elegy's real "point" is "that we all need epitaphs" (p. 387); nor can I agree that, in the context of the poem, epitaphs and a reliance on God provide a real fulfillment of man's desire to resist death.
27 Jack, "Gray's Elegy Reconsidered," in From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, ed. Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 146.
28 Nov. 1747, Correspondence, I, 289.
29 Mar. 9, 1755, ibid., p. 420.
30 Most of the critics who have engaged in the long debate about whether the Elegy's description of the speaker refers personally to Gray or is purely impersonal or conventional would agree with Ketton-Cremer's judgment that the Swain offers a "strangely dramatised description of a poet in aspect and behaviour the complete antithesis of Gray" (Thomas Gray, p. 101). Such assertions seem rather surprising in view of what we know of Gray's character; they are well refuted by Hagstrum in "Gray's Sensibility," pp. 16-17.
31 Frank Brady, "Structure and Meaning in Gray's Elegy," in From Sensibility to Romanticism, pp. 185-87, gives more emphasis than I would to the speaker's partial fulfillment of himself through his one friendship, but he correctly emphasizes the speaker's isolation and the fact that the Epitaph shows that "only the individual can know to what extent he has fulfilled himself."
32 Norton Nicholls wrote, "I asked him how he felt when he composed the 'Bard'. 'Why I felt myself the bard.'" See "Reminiscences," Correspondence, III, 1290.
33 "The Proper Language of Poetry: Gray, Johnson, and Others," in Fearful Joy, pp. 92-93.
34The History of Rasselas Prince of Abissinia, ed. Geoffrey Tillotson and Brian Jenkins (London: Oxford University Press, 1971), chap. XLIV (p. 114).
35 Morris Golden, Thomas Gray (New York: Twayne, 1964), pp. 111, 113, comments on the way in which Gray "catches and amplifies … the sense of elemental amorality of the divinities" in The Fatal Sisters.
36 Gray's text is translated in Complete Poems, pp. 216-18.
37 As quoted in Complete Poems, p. 234.
38 Mason quotes and discusses the Commonplace Book entry in Poems of Mr. Gray, pp. 91-92.
39 "The Cistern and the Fountain: Art and Reality in Pope and Gray," in Studies in Criticism and Aesthetics, ed. Howard Anderson and John S. Shea (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1967), pp. 174-75.
40 See Jean Hagstrum, The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1958), pp. 301-14; and Patricia Meyer Spacks, The Poetry of Vision: Five Eighteenth-Century Poets (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967), pp. 110-18.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8779
SOURCE: "Thomas Gray and the Dedicatory Muse," in ELH, Vol. 54, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 277-98.
[In the following essay, Jackson provides a detailed examination of Gray's treatment of the themes of desire and authority in his poetry.]
I will be occupied here with one abiding question: what kingdom of the imagination does Thomas Gray wish to build? I do not think I can quite explain why he is the most disappointing poet of the English eighteenth century—disappointing, that is, in terms of what was expected of him—but I do hope to explore the nature of a failed enterprise that of its kind is unrivaled within the century. I attribute this failure to no cultural malaise, for it seems to me utterly and completely personal, nor do I propose that had Gray been born in the year he died (1771) he would have become another sort of poet, flourishing in and helping to create the poetic climate inhabited by Blake or Wordsworth or Coleridge. Rather, it appears, Gray could not fully serve the muse of his own dedication, the figure he deliberately wills into existence and to whom he devotes his powers.
Though I draw no analytical or interpretive conclusions bearing upon Gray's poetry from the facts of his life, I think them conspicuous and in need of restating at the beginning of this inquiry. Thomas Gray was the fifth of twelve children born to Dorothy and Philip Gray and the only one to survive infancy. His father, given to occasional and brutal fits of insanity, abused his wife physically during the several decades of their marriage. Though she separated from him, Philip threatened to "pursue her with all the vengeance possible," willing to "ruin himself to undo her, and his only son."1 She returned to him. Thomas attended Eton and then Cambridge, where he was to live most of his quiet bachelor existence in Peterhouse and Pembroke Colleges. At Eton he met Richard West and Horace Walpole. With the exception of his mother, West was the most beloved person in Gray's life, and the early death of this promising young man was a distinct and grievous loss to Gray. He died in 1742, the year of Gray's greatest productivity, though some of the work of that year was inspired neither by West's death nor Gray's anticipation of it. After 1742 he wrote poetry sporadically and passed the larger part of his life in various historical, literary, and scientific activities. Toward the end he solicited and was given the Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge, though he never lectured nor published on the subject. The most impressive personal event of his last years was a brief and intense friendship with the young Swiss student, Charles-Victor de Bonstetten. Gray's attention to him was apparently complicated by physical desire, though no sexual relation is known or believed to have occurred between them. In his Souvenirs of 1831, Bonstetten reflected on his knowledge of the poet who had died more than half a century earlier: "Je crois que Gray n'avait jamais aimé, c'était le mot de l'énigme, il en était résulté une misère de coeur qui faisait contraste avec son imagination ardente et profond qui, au lieu de faire le bonheur de sa vie, n'en était que le tourment."2 These are the very barest of surviving bones, yet they may lend some biographical anatomy to my argument, which, however, is in no way dependent upon a behavioral thesis.
West's death in the late spring of 1742 inspired the well-known elegiac sonnet, yet this is the shortest and least significant work of the year. The "Ode on the Spring" owes something to West's own ode sent to Gray on May 5, and the "Eton College Ode" may owe something also to West's recollective lines on Eton in his "Ode to Mary Magdelene." The "Ode to Adversity" and the "Hymn to Ignorance" (unfinished) complete the work of the year, which, together with 1741, may comprise the most emotionally critical period in Gray's life. He quarreled with Walpole during their European tour and travelled back to England alone in the summer. In November his father died; the extensive collection of extant letters is silent on this event. West's subsequent death did not interrupt the flow of poetry during the year, nor, most importantly, did it alter the essential character of what had been written previously.
The typical plot of the longer poems of 1742 takes the form of engagement with a figure of desire, sometimes repudiating it by way of ironic denigration, as in the "Ode on the Spring," or by suggesting its futility, as in the "Eton College Ode," or, more complexly, by transposing one figure into an opposite and alternative form, as in the "Ode to Adversity." In the "Hymn to Ignorance," the mock-serious evocation of a quasiDunciadic goddess Ignorance is used to rebuke the "I" who longs for the maternal and daemonic presence. In various ways these four poems enact the imagination's quest for its tutelary spirit, its self-shaping identity, and the nature of that quest is played out within poems that have little ostensible relation to each other, but which in fact organize the imagination's desire for its own special muse. The "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," which derives from these poems, is an outgrowth of the poet's search for the elegiac muse, and creates a peculiarly imaginative vision that leads into both "The Progress of Poesy" and Bard," the latter an effort by Gray to control the darkness that the "Elegy" summoned and to find in the night of his own muse the power of prophetic speaking. The largescale issue in these poems is, then, the creation of the self's presiding muse and the poet's effort to explore the meaning of his dedication for his poetry.
The "Ode on the Spring" was written while West was yet alive and is to some extent a response to the ode he sent Gray on May 5, 1742. West's poem invokes spring ("the tardy May") within the familiar myth of reawakening and seasonal deity. As "fairest nymph" May is asked to resume her reign, to "Bring all the Graces in [her] train" (7-8), and be the beneficent goddess presiding over a reviving world.3 She is in this context the obvious and unperplexed figure of desire. Gray's answer, his "Ode to the Spring," was sent to West at just about the time of his death and returned unopened ("Sent to Fav: not knowing he was then Dead").4 It takes the implicit form of elegy, a medita tive displacement of spring from the context of renewal to that of death, and is not inconsistent with an earlier letter to West in which he explains himself as the frequent victim of "a white Melancholy, or rather Leucocholy," but also the occasional host to "another sort, black indeed, which I have now and then felt, that has somewhat in it like Tertullian's rule of faith, Credo quia impossible est; for it believes, nay, is sure of every thing that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and, on the other hand, excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes."5
The "Ode on the Spring" introduces "fair Venus" attended by "the rosy-bosomed Hours" (1-2) in order to repudiate her. The initial sexualized appeal is later transposed into the ironic diminishment of human desire likened to that of the "insect youth … / Eager to taste the honeyed spring" (25-26), and mediated through the "sober eye" of Contemplation. Already characteristic of Gray is the distant view advocated by a tutelary figure who endorses the terms of repudiation and isolation:
Beside some water's rushy brink
With me the Muse shall sit, and think
(At ease reclined in rustic state)
How vain the ardour of the crowd,
How low, how little are the proud,
How indigent the great!
The lines preview Gray's later and better known appreciation of rustic simplicity against the claims of the proud and great, but the more immediate issue turns on the inception of a poetic persona to be variously adapted and modified during the coming years. The companionable relation between poet and muse establishes a tutelary presence. Muse converts into the more formidable Contemplation, both figures of authority to be posed against the more directly sensual appeal of Love or Venus. (Contemplation will reappear in the "Elegy" as "lonely Contemplation" (95), where it will lead some kindred spirit to inquire into the poet's fate.)
The pleasure to which West's ode speaks so directly ("Come then, with Pleasure at they side" ) is figured in Gray's ode as "rosy-bosomed Hours," later transposed into the frivolous forms of insect youth in "gaily-gilded trim" (29), "dressed" in "Fortune's varying colours" (37), and finally subject to the indifferently directed indignities of "rough Mischance" (38). If indeed the effort is to chastise desire by debasing its appeal through various stages, from "rosy-bosomed" to "painted plumage" (47), the intention is equally to authorize repudiation through the controlling figures of "fortune" and "Mischance." West's injunction to "Create … / Peace, Plenty, Love, and Harmony" (27-28) is repositioned within the ambiguously asserted theme of carpe diem concluding Gray's ode, the reproof offered the speaker by the sportive kind: "We frolic, while 'tis May" (50), whereas the speaker is nothing other than a "solitary fly" (44).
If the poem admits rebuke of the speaker it does so by diminishing him within the reductive context he has himself fashioned for the "sportive kind." The strategy that reinvents the figure of love as "glittering female," passions as "hoarded sweets" and beauty as "painted plumage" (45-47) displaces the human onto an antithetical though analogous form of life. It is, in brief, designed to empty desire of its appeal, transmuting it by ironically extending and exploring the analogy between the ardent crowd ("the ardour of the crowd" ) and insect youth. The return of the figure of love as "glittering female" splits the object into two incompatible parts, and further defines the muse as a power endorsing withdrawal and repudiation. Contemplation is the figure created by thought ("With me the Muse shall sit, and think" ), the combined activity of poet and muse or the effect of the muse upon the poet. Contemplation as an instrument or agency of repression defeats the figure of desire. As an answer to West's frankly sensual image of an awakening May, a creative power, Gray depresses the figure of desire into proximity, or perhaps identification, with insect life, the implied relation between awakenings in spring common to each thereby carrying Gray's point. What awakens in the "Ode on the Spring" is a figure that cannot awaken desire and is also a subliminal image of desire as forbidden female ("glittering," "painted"). At the moment of closure, despite the ironic concession (and even because of it) the defeat of Venus is complete. Clearly, the ode specifies sexual withdrawal, announcing the uses to which the muse may be put and defining the very ground of vision that is the measure of the muse's authority. The poem may therefore offer a model for reading Gray's early poetry, which may continue to dramatize the various rejections of desire as the major adventure of the resident ego within the poems. If so, we are given a poetry that is beginning to announce itself in the special sense of a clarified and dramatized relation between poet and muse, a drawing out of a particular imaginative province, a space within which, like Coleridge's honey-dew drunken visionary, the poet enacts his own magic. The visionary space is declared:
Where'er the oak's thick branches stretch
A broader browner shade;
Where'er the rude and moss-grown beech
O'er canopies the glade.
The beech is the first of its sheltering kind; the "hoaryheaded swain" will later locate the poet of the "Elegy" at "the foot of yonder nodding beech" (101).
In the "Eton College Ode" the iconography of desire is figured in the spectral presences of "grateful Science [who] still adores / Her Henry's holy shade" (3-4). The ode's opening implies the persistence of desire within the trope of loss and mourning, the landscape informed with elegiac sentiment. It is almost impossible to arbitrate the tonality implicit in "Henry's holy shade" in juxtaposition to the "expanse below" of "turf and "shade, whose flowers among / Wanders the hoary Thames along," and those "happy hills" and "pleasing shade" of Eton's landscape (6-11; all my italics). The correspondence of spectral to natural facts (shade to shade) insists upon the interrelations of shade and shadow (skot: dark; shade, shadow). "Pleasing shade" anticipates the darkness of the "Elegy" ("And leaves the world to darkness and to me" ). Shade is thus both the unseen presence (Henry) and place darkly containing "hoary Thames" (9), the figure of authority invoked to "Say," to "show," and to "tell" the Etonians "they are men" (60). Shade is equally the place below ("And ye that from the stately brow / Of Windsor's heights the expanse below / Of grove, of lawn, of mead survey, / Whose turf, whose shade. …" [5-8]). As such it is the place from which phantoms arise: "Lo, in the vale of years beneath / A grisly troop are seen" (80-81).
Science and Henry are threshold figures, icons of desire and loss signifying the import of the speaker's return: the apprehension of yearning and loss. If "shade" is the determining ground of the real in the poem, what arises from the Etonian landscape are more shades, presences of future and further loss, "ministers of human fate" (56), the personifications Anger, Fear, Shame, et al., images of desire baffled and defeated: "Or pining Love shall waste their youth, / Or Jealousy with rankling tooth" (65-66). Such figures have the same imaginative status as Science and Henry, and the same strategy pertains as in the "Ode on the Spring." Desire and loss are unified within the elegiac consciousness; they exist as a single perception, the very ground of recognition inhabited by the speaker himself, the determining awareness of his return.
The antique presence of Father Thames tends to authorize the speaker's vision, acting as a silent confirmatory figure, another version of the tutelary Muse or Contemplation. The shade Henry is equivalent to various other dim figures in Gray's verse, those who have vanished and need to be recalled and recreated: the "busy housewife" and "village Hampden" of the "Elegy." Absence is elegiac presence, figures recovered from the vale of years beneath. An imagination disposed to engage with the world in this way is also likely to envision characters who have not yet existed, as in the Bard's evocation of an historical future: "'But oh! what solemn scenes on Snowden's height / 'Descending slow their glittering skirts unroll?'" (105-6).
Muse or Contemplation or Thames are agents of authority evoked precisely for the prophetic wisdom they possess, the judgments they render. One function of prophecy is thus to daemonize desire, transforming it into "pining Love" (as in Science's for Henry) or the "fury Passions" (61). The imagination's habit of prosopopoeia exposes the debased forms desire assumes ("Envy wan, and faded Care" ), even as the "race of man" in the "Ode on the Spring" is revealed as insect life to "Contemplation's sober eye" (31-32). Vision is always in the service of the revealed form, and in Gray the revelation takes the shape of a diminished, repudiated, or forbidden thing. The strategy of reductive acknowledgment in the "Ode on the Spring" coexists with the making of giant spectral forms in the "Eton College Ode." One strategy dismisses the dream of desire, the other encourages bad dreams, translating desire into the daemonic. Frye defines something very similar to this action in his discussion of quest-romance: "Translated into dream terms, the quest-romance is the search of the libido or desiring self for a fulfillment that will deliver it from the anxieties of reality but still contain that reality."6 Fulfillment may require, as with Gray, that a protective maternal figure displace a threatening judicial figure of the same sex, and guilt is thereby dissipated in the approbation bestowed upon the obedient actor who has rejected desire. This summary describes another of the poems of 1742, the "Ode to Adversity."
The relation between Adversity and Virtue, both daughters of Jove, though the former is older and tutor to the latter, implies a correspondence within dissimilitude. Adversity, equipped with the icons of affliction ("iron scourge and torturing hour" ) has also an alternative "form benign," "a milder influence" (41,42). Virtue requires adversity to "form her infant mind" (12); the function of the tutelary spirit being to engender pity ("she learned to melt at others' woe" ), the instruction absorbed by Virtue, the "rigid lore / With patience many a year she bore" (13-14). This may be a procedure that leaves Gray poised at the edge of the "Elegy," even as it positions him securely within the mournful boundaries of elegiac sensibility. Virtue subdued by Adversity is tempered to the recognition of grief ("What sorrow was, thou bad'st her know" ) and preserved from the temptations of desire ("Scared at thy frown terrific, fly / Self-pleasing Folly's idle brood, / Wild Laughter, Noise, and thoughtless Joy, / And leave us leisure to be good" [17-20]). Adversity implored to "lay [her] chastening hand" on her "suppliant's head" and to appear "Not in thy Gorgon terrors clad, / Nor circled with the vengeful band / (As by the impious thou art seen)" (33-37) suggests an acute awareness of the sexualized daemonic, the threatening form of Adversity seen by those who are not "good." Desire converted into the antithetical form of horror is part of the paradoxical tutelage of Adversity, the latent power she is petitioned not to assume and which she exists to repudiate. The Medusan image clearly acts to dispel a sensuality happily diverted into the practice of virtue, but not before the ode has created within one identity both the figure of authority and the gothic figure of desire it exists to exorcise.
The chastened speaker who experiences Adversity's "milder influence," her "philosophic train" (42, 43) undergoes an orientation whereby feelings of guilt are translated into the generous emotions, "to love and to forgive" (46). Part of the purpose of the three poems is obviously to find a subject for Gray's muse, but also to make of the burden of anxiety the grounds of the humanistic imagination. Adversity takes place here with Muse, Contemplation, Thames, all figures authorizing the repudiation and rejection of desire. It is worth noting also that the relation between Virtue and Adversity previews the later relations between Shakespeare and his "mighty Mother," between Gray as infant and his muse, in "The Progress of Poesy." At the end of the "Eton College Ode" we are reminded that the suffering "all are men" (91). At the close of the "Ode to Adversity" the speaker, taught "to love and to forgive" is led to "know myself a man" (46-48).
No one would doubt, I think, that Gray's poems signal a radical sexual distress. In a literature that deals frequently with infants and infantile states it is hard to credit on the face of it Gray's "know myself a man." If the self assumes (a) virtue, it does so because Virtue is clearly the emergent figure of desire in the poem. She completes a circuit that begins with Venus in the "Ode to the Spring" and closes temporarily upon Virtue. Peter Sacks remarks that for the elegiac poet the "movement from loss to consolation … requires a deflection of desire," but in Gray the deflection precedes elegy or the elegiac occasion.7 It is in fact the deflection of desire that creates the elegiac poet who will be neither the poet of romance (witness the fate of Venus) nor the bard of the sublime (notice the Gorgonian terrors of Adversity). The only sublime to be admitted is the prophetic vision, an early version of which is the "Eton College Ode," the greater form that of "The Bard." The deflection of desire will lead inevitably but not immediately to thanatos, but before it arrives it has other stops to make. At the moment, however, we have arrived at the first clear castrative sacrifice in the progress of Gray's imagination (though I would want to suggest that the reduction to insect life in the earlier ode is a significant investment in sexual loss), the replacement of Virtue (both infant and female) by the poet. The substitution has had to pass through the horror of the Medusan figure. The more complex association in the poem is between the serpents and "Horror's funeral cry," (39), a relation that specifically indicates the immediate meaning of elegy for Gray. Because of the presence of Virtue that meaning is emptied of its horror, and the threat of castration is transposed into an acceptance of it. Gray therefore assumes the role of the figure of desire under the aegis of Adversity. This is what Freud calls an apotropaic act, one designed to ward off evil.
But I am arguing a more radical proposition: the warding off of evil can only be accomplished by the acceptance of an evil: castration and elegy are significantly related elements within the same imagination. At the same time, as Sacks makes clear, the "elegist's reward … often involve[s] inherited legacies and consoling identifications with symbolic, even immortal, figures of power."8 These figures have been taking shape in Gray's poems. In the "Ode on the Spring," Contemplation is so employed. The far more powerful and threatening figure of Adversity is pacified in a far more complex way but also requires a greater surrender of sexual identity. To some extent we may account on this basis for the curious representations of presence in Gray's later works, especially in the "Elegy," wherein the scene of life is wholly imagined and where the "hoary-headed swain" and "kindred spirit" are figures in a future as yet unarrived. Absence then becomes the imaginative form of desire; what is desired is absence and absent, and the elimination of the "I" in favor of a "thee" is only another strategy of removal. Deflection is the desired mode of encounter, and evasion or incapacity is the satisfactory figure of fulfillment ("Some village Hampden," "Some Cromwell guiltless" [57, 60]).
Have we arrived at the moment when the elegiac poet has been created? The "Hymn to Ignorance" is a companion piece to the Eton ode because return is again the ostensible subject. Gray returns to Cambridge, invoking its "gothic fanes and antiquated towers" (2) much as he had Eton's "distant spires" and "antique towers" (1). However mockingly desire is proposed by the speaker of the poem, obviously written with the Dunciad in mind, Ignorance is that figure, the conflated Cibberian goddess and mighty mother. The Eton ode's recognition that "ignorance [small i] is bliss" (99) is reimagined so that Ignorance [large I] is a "soft salutary power" (9). The effort is to write Ignorance into Gray's ongoing history of abnegation, his return to Peterhouse as a Fellow-Commoner to read for a law degree on October 15, 1742. How should we understand this playful "Hymn" that is the only fragment of the 1742 po ems? Ignorance is a maternal presence ("Prostrate with filial reverence I adore"), possessed of a "peaceful shade," whose "influence … / Augments the native darkness of the sky" (6-10). Ignorance is thus an early power of darkness ambivalently represented as undesirable within the terms of desire ("Thrice hath Hyperion rolled his annual race, / Since weeping I forsook thy fond embrace" [11-12]). Clearly, the oedipal actors include mother/muse (Ignorance), Hyperionic father, and the returning son/poet, Gray himself.
The departure from Cambridge—really from Ignorance—conceals and mocks an earlier and more radical separation. The return cannot be admitted by Gray within the oedipal formula, but it can be proposed both as symbolic substitute and as the negation of desire within the mock-epic manner. The figures of desire and authority are viewed within the perspective that comic repudiation permits. Though Gray means that his return is to night, and to an undeterminable extent a betrayal of the self, the complex of related elements further defines the goal of the journey—the recognition and creation of muse/mother. If, as Sacks indicates, the "primary desire" of the child is "for the extinction of desire itself," what better investment to make than in a power nominally grotesque?9 The "I" of the "Hymn" is mocked effectively within the oedipal fantasy, though the fantasy contains the true form of desire.
Gray desires and desires not to desire, and ambivalence is sustained in somewhat the same way as in the "Ode to Adversity." The difference in the "Hymn," however, is that the goddess is ostensibly repudiated, though of course she is not. The danger for the poet is possession, yet the contrary danger is not being able to write at all. Gray will work out these dramas of poetic identity within the later Pindaric odes. For the moment, however, of the four poems so far reviewed none is formally elegiac, though each in its way acknowledges death. The "Hymn" does so more than any of the others because it is directed to the recovery of what has suffered closure. Ignorance's function is to renew or recover (as was, in its way, that of the speaker of the Eton ode), to "bring the buried ages back to view" (35). This is almost identical to the task assumed by the poet in the "Elegy," whose act is restorative in the sense that he makes present those who are in truth buried, and is inversely related to the bardic seer of the Pindaric poem, who makes present for Edward the as yet unborn.
Henceforth the generative ground of vision will be death itself. The repeated rejection and transformation of the figures of desire in the early poems now tends to turn into a coherence formed of desire and authority, as in the "Ode to Adversity," or ironically approbated, as in the "Hymn to Ignorance." Some effort to heal a split between the two previously antithetical figures seems in progress in Gray's imagination, though the "Hymn" proposes a fusion of desire and authority too devastating to be countenanced except on its own terms. The Dunciad provided a model; the substitution of "I" for Cibberian fool is the necessary change for the selfsatiric mode, the "I" intentionally and evasively self and not-self. As magna mater, Ignorance is now the complex entity made up of mother, muse, and death ("And all was Ignorance, and all was Night" ). The anti-sublime masks what Thomas Weiskel would call "transcendent self-justification," the daemonic identity that possession imposes.10
When Gray returns to writing poetry several years later, he composes two different poems that differently rebuke desire. Walpole's cat is not the Miltonic transgressor of "The Progress of Poesy," "blasted with excess of light" for presuming to spy into the "secrets of the abyss" (101, 97). Yet she is another occasion of desire tempted beyond "lawful prize" into a watery grave. The "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat" (1747) is thus a cautionary tale, its purpose to deaden desire by revealing its effect upon the "Presumptuous maid!" Selima's investment in desire, her effort to apprehend "two angel forms," the "genii of the stream" (14, 15), is another investment in death, whether or not it is exactly as Blake's illustration would have it, an example of "a mutual love that she lacks and desires to experience."11 Her fall, in any event, is another occasion of transgression, another drama of intended misappropriation. Implicit in the scene of desire is the unattainability of the object, and the abandonment of the supplicating figure to her fate: "Eight times emerging from the flood / She mewed to every watery god" (31-32). The fear of what lies beyond the self seems to govern Gray's perception of her ("Still had she gazed"  and no harm come to her). Selima's fate appears as if to Contemplation's sober eye in the concluding stanza, and elegy is now the mode for deriding desire. Selima's plunge is perhaps desire's dream to discover in its own depths the essential object, but the object is inseparable from death. The figure of desire is death.
In "A Long Story" (1750) the parodic form of the poet of the "Elegy" is created in the poem's weak trembling thing, also an outsider. The peeress whose judgment the poet fears, but who instead of rebuking him invites him to dinner, is the benign if not comic enactment of commanding females in the line of magna mater, and brought before her authority the poet disavows himself:
He once or twice had penned a sonnet;
Yet hoped that he might save his bacon:
Numbers would give their oaths upon it,
He ne'er was for a conjurer taken.
The dramatization of "A Long Story" involves a flight from the figures of desire, the "heroines" who attempt to lure the poet into polite country pleasures, leaving a note ("a spell') upon the table; a dread of judgment, summed up in the imposing form of the Viscountess; and the representation and deflection of guilt within the formula of mock criminality: "When he the solemn hall had seen; / A sudden fit of ague shook him, / He stood as mute as poor Macleane" (118-20).
The self-presentation turns back upon the "Elegy": the poet heard there by the swain, '"Muttering his wayward fancies'" (105), is here "something … heard to mutter, / 'How in the park beneath an old-tree / '(Without design to hurt the butter, / 'Or any malice to the poultry,) …'" (121-24). The old-tree is apparently the transplanted "nodding beech" of the "Elegy," under which the poet '"His listless length at noontide would he stretch'" (103). What is concealed in "A Long Story" is the reality of an elegiac identity that cannot be communicated or received on its own terms within an alien context. Public recognition is evaded by parodic rebuke, and identity is imaged only as it would be perceived and understood by those outside the domain of elegiac vision. If "The Favourite Cat" images the fate of desire, "A Long Story" reflects the self-alienation imposed upon the poet by the necessities of his own vision; that is, the discrepancy between propria persona and poetic persona. The discontinuity of address, which everyone has noticed in the "Elegy"'s shift from "I" to "thee," is oddly present in the abrupt intrusiveness of another voice in "A Long Story," whereby the speaker is rebuked for his tedium: "Your history whither you are spinning? / Can you do nothing but describe?" (19-20) Voice is both critical and unidentified—a function of what split within an identity that keeps eluding itself?—or is simply lost: "(Here 500 stanzas are lost)" (141). "A Long Story" is in fact a short one (145 lines) of identity mocked, or function abused ("whither are you spinning?"), and of voice lost. Yet the poem is also an occasion to contextualize and avow the yet to be announced "distant way" of "The Progress of Poesy," as well as a pause on the path leading to that vigorous affirmation of elegiac identity, "The Bard."
For the moment what dominates Gray's imagination is an anxiety of office, of prophecy reduced to a lame absurdity, the dissolution of a calling into random mischief, in which the seer becomes merely a bothersome miscreant:
Who prowled the country far and near,
Bewitched the children of the peasants,
Dried up the cows and lamed the deer,
And sucked the eggs and killed the pheasants.
Village superstition is the debased version of poetic prophecy, and the poem itself is a concealed commentary on an identity that cannot cross boundaries.
The inception of "The Progress of Poesy" (1751) follows directly upon the publication of the "Elegy." Its motive is grounded in a further, yet concealed, rendering of the self-image present especially at the close of the "Elegy." In one sense, the poet of the "Elegy" remains unjustified; that is, without reference to the generative occasion that has made him what he is (though that occasion is frequently evident within the canon itself). "The Progress" addresses the issue by specifically associating the solitary poet with mother-muse, the female goddess to whom he owes the dedication of his powers. What he owes is the capacity to perceive "forms" illuminated by the "Muse's ray" (119), a substitute light that diminishes the Hyperionic presence in the ode and is "unborrowed of the sun" (120). Much of the ode, then, is directly leveled against any rising impulse to celebrate the poet of apocalyptic vision and to evoke instead the lonely bard of elegiac sentiment.
Ceres ("Ceres' golden reign" ) is originally an Italian deity embodying the generative power of nature. "Helicon's harmonious springs" (3) are obviously associated with generation ("The laughing flowers … / Drink life and fragrance as they flow" [5-6]). The lyre is the "Parent of sweet and solemn-breathing airs" (14). The three elements are brought into procreative proximity and dominate the opening of the poem. The first ternary closes upon Aphrodite ("Cytherea's day" ). The sea-born goddess is another figuring of generative force mingling in her progress the union of water and music ("brisk notes in cadence beating"; "arms sublime, that float upon the air" [34, 38]). She is the reemergent Venus of the "Ode on the Spring" attended, as was Venus, by a train of celebrants ("the Graces homage pay" ). Here: "O'er her warm cheek and rising bosom move / The bloom of young desire and purple light of love" (40-41). There, in the "Ode on the Spring," the "rosy-bosomed Hours, / … Disclose the long-expecting flowers, / And wake the purple year" (1-4).
However attractive the conflated figures of desire (Ceres, Lyre, Venus), there may yet be the faintest intimation that the demi-pastoral mode conceals its vipers ("In gliding state she [Venus] wins her easy way" ). I do not push the point beyond noticing that it is consistent with the various doubts the sexualized figure of desire has occasioned in the past. The more immediate challenge is the more conventional one, the familiar Etonian daemons: "Man's feeble race what ills await, / Labour, and penury, the racks of pain" (42-43). Such ills raise doubts about omnipotence, requiring that Gray's song "disprove" the "fond complaint," and "justify the laws of Jove" (46, 47). The Miltonic query waits upon the necessity: "Say, has he given in vain the heavenly Muse?" (48) Clearly, the recognition of loss rises in the second ternary against the figures of desire, disputing their power, and directly opposing them with their own negation, the elegiac presence of "Night and all her sickly dews" (49). Sickly dews are the alternative to Helicon's "thousand rills" (4), a reminder of the shrunken power of regenerative music within the context controlled by Night, a "mighty Mother" of sorts, who is licensed "Till down the eastern cliffs afar / Hyperion's march they spy and glittering shafts of war" (52-53). Hyperion is an idealized poetic figure, an emissary associated through eastern cliffs with Milton's Raphael, and more vaguely recollective of Christ's armory as he disposes half his might against Satan's legions. Yet the ode relegates his progress to an indefinite future, to an apocalyptic dawn that may be said to "justify the laws of Jove." The suspended presence of Hyperion (actually his departure from the poem) occurs almost at mid-point in its progress, at the close of the first strophe of the second ternary. By this means the defeat of the elegiac Night, the graveyard goddess whose "spectres wan and birds of boding cry" (50) are the antithesis to the "rosycrowned Loves" (28) attendant upon Aphrodite, is deferred.
The "Muse" who now appears is a variation on the pastoral-maternal female, one who "designs to hear the savage youth repeat / In loose numbers wildly sweet / Their feather-cinctured chiefs and dusky loves" (60-62). She is thus a "soft salutary power" ("Hymn to Ignorance"), another "form benign" ("Ode to Adversity"). The muse (recall here the lyre as "Parent of sweet and solemn-breathing airs") pastoralizes the progress and the residual traces of generation are again imaged in
Woods that wave o'er Delphi's steep,
Isles that crown the Aegean deep,
Fields that cool Illissus laves,
Or where Maeander's amber waves
In lingering lab'rinths creep.
"Helicon's harmonious springs" redivivus.
Against Night the ode accumulates a formidable array of females and the oedipal fantasy is played out in pastoral embowerings: "In thy green lap was Nature's darling laid, / What time, where lucid Avon strayed, / To him the mighty Mother did unveil / Her awful face" (84-87). The anticipation of unveiling is what led the Miltonic voyeur to ride "sublime / Upon the seraphwings of Ecstasy, / The secrets of the abyss to spy" (95-97). Yet, the laws of Jove are at least preserved in the regressive fantasy: the primal scene is never viewed. If anything, the promised Hyperionic march endowed with "glittering shafts of war" (53) is rendered irrelevant by "Such forms as glitter in the Muse's ray" (119), forms that tease Gray's own "infant eyes" (118) bringing him thereby into proximity to the Shakespearean "immortal boy" (91). Those "orient hues" that dazzled the child Gray were "unborrowed of the sun" (120); the ode begins to close upon the exclusion of the redemptive Hyperionic poet-emissary-god-father. An elaborate scene has been played out under the aegis of many mothers, one in which Gray, affiliated with the Shakespearean boy, is justified in his "distant way" (121). "Distant" echoes the context shared by Shakespeare and his mother: "Far from the sun and summer-gale" (83). The "dauntless child" (87), the "mighty Mother" and the benedictive waters all locate a pastoral paradise, another isolated place, another rejection of the male (Hyperionic) principle. Between the oedipal desire and the reflective passion of the elegiac poet there is no adequate ground. The "distant way" is necessitated by the inevitability with which desire is frustrated or proscribed, by the very nature of the unattainable figure, muse as mother, mother as muse. Given what we have learned of the scene of desire in the poem it is quite clear why Gray images himself as solitary voyager through the space of his own alienation and why desire must be absent at the moment of closure.
The Shakespearean child to whom the "golden keys" (91) are given is permissively granted oedipal play ("This can unlock the gates of joy" ) and access to elegiac sentiment ("horror … and thrilling fear, / … sympathetic tears" [93-94]). (The tears may have less to do with Shakespeare than with the poet of the "Elegy": "He gave to misery all he had, a tear." ) If the poem's ostensible myth is a progress, it covertly licenses a regress and offers the needed apologia for the poet's own solitude. The laws of Jove cannot be justified by Thomas Gray (though they will not be violated by him) because they require a knowledge enormous, an Apollonian or Hyperionic arising, obviously precluded by oedipal desire. The derivation of the self at the end of the ode is predicated on the meaning of Poesy to Gray. That meaning has an obvious political and cultural dimension, but it has far more importantly the task of justifying an idealized (and suspect) self-image. The justifying forebear is Shakespeare (another poet of feeling), so that if Gray "inherit / Nor the pride nor ample pinion, / That the Theban eagle bear / … Yet oft before his infant eyes would run" (113-18).
The ideal self is situated somewhat like the melancholic outcast and village oddity, the "youth … unknown" ("Elegy," 18). He is constellated in a poetic heaven, positioned "Beyond," "Beneath … but far above" (122-23), in any event, alone. Gray will not herald nor will he document the progress of the poet of "glittering shafts" who will dispel "Disease and sorrow's weeping train, / And death, sad refuge from the storms of fate" (44-45). However wintry the elegiac climate, its waters ("storms") flow from the "sacred source of sympathetic tears" (94) and are ultimately traceable to the fountain of all song. "Helicon's harmonious springs."
"The Bard" has always been recognized as something of a companion-piece to "The Progress." It authorizes another elegiac identity, a solitary figure of prophetic power who, as elegiac seer eliciting the justice of redemptive history, more readily justifies the laws of Jove than any agent in the "The Progress" can. At the ode's opening he is "Robed in the sable garb of woe" (17), the very insignia of office. At its close he "plunge[s] to endless night" (144), another entrance into another darkness. The plunge into the abyss seems yet one more occasion of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. The poet in whom the authority of night is so invested ("Robed") returns to the authorizing ground of perception; the mighty mother is thus darkness itself, the unshaped figure of desire.
The poets of the "Elegy" and "The Bard" are antithetical voices. The former bespeaks a justice predicated on natural law ("Full many a flower is bom to blush unseen") that requires the full engagement of the sympathetic imagination; the latter commands a justice that expunges the evil that has entered time and redeems the bardic visionaries. Such conceptions elicit two different if not wholly opposed responses to death and mourning. The "kindred spirit" is the self's similitude; the '"orb of day … [who] / 'Tomorrow … repairs the golden flood'" (136-37), has nothing to do with replications of the self, but everything to do with the Hyperionic renewal evaded in "The Progress," or, more familiarly, with the rising soul and Christic redemption (a future nevertheless exclusive of the elegiac bard).
The poet who "Struck the deep sorrows of his lyre" (22) produces from that instrument not the "sweet and solemn-breathing airs" (14) of "The Progress," but the harmonies of loss and consolation, the prophetic song that transforms elegy from its commemorative status to the designation of futurity (the temporality in which the law is justified). The ode thus locates "a target for a wrath that must be turned outward, the shifting of the burden of pain, the reversal from the passive suffering of hurt to the active causing of it, and above all, the assumption of the power to hurt."12 Aggressively disposed, the elegiac ode is thereby conceivably motivated by the self-denying energies enlisted in the service of a poesy that cannot save its practitioners from Edward's brutality. The "Elegy," on the other hand, repudiates power, the potency of act and voice; every approbated semblance of power is brought forth within diminished structures: village Hampdens, mute Miltons. "The Bard" grounds its authority differently, as the prophetic vision spins history out of itself, both seeing and creating: '"Weave the warp and weave the woof'" (49). '"(Weave we the woof. The thread is spun)'" (98).
Blake's sixth illustration to "The Bard" shows three poets who cling to the side of a cliff that "proves to be a mass of thick bloody ropes that are the clustered strings of a gigantic harp."13 The harp strings are consistent with the threads of the prophetic loom, and the bloody ropes define the texture of which futurity is to be composed. The loom is the poetic instrument; object and function are identical. The rising soul, the "form divine" (115), is Renaissance Elizabeth, the figure of justice (a mighty mother?) concealed in time. Renewal in the "Elegy" via the kindred spirit is sublimed in the greater historical pageant of "The Bard," in the energy that makes of succession something both more and other than the duplication of a previous sensibility. Time itself holds the emergent mystery of its regeneration, and elegy is the medium in which it is mirrored. For Gray to have come this far almost mandates the work of his last years, the translations and adaptations of Norse and Welsh poetry. But his arrival there also marks the place beyond which his vision does not go. I will come to these poems in a moment, but something first need be said about his last long fragment, the "Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude" (1754-55).
The "Eton College Ode" identifies the progress of human life in terms of disjunction, absolute separation between youth and age. The "Ode on Vicissitude" recreates through the language of kindredness the law of succession and cycle: "Still, where rosy Pleasure leads, / See a kindred grief pursue" (33-34). "Rosy Pleasure" is conjoined here to an opposite that does not dispel it but follows it in an inevitable cyclical progress (yet another progress), a rationalized vision of endless alternation. The "blended form" (39) composed by the two figures arbitrates the previous displacements of the figure of desire by that of authority, and unifies the one with the other in what is apparently Gray's version of the marriage of heaven and hell. "Kindred" brings into focus the pattern of mourning and consolation, completing the elegiac design by filling-in the sequence of grief and recovery: "Behind the steps that Misery treads, / Approaching Comfort view" (35-36). The reversal following the succession of Pleasure by Grief (Comfort after Misery) presents time as a medium invulnerable to the lamentations of the returning Etonian visitor. The earlier calamity is averted by opposing continuity to discontinuity, by finding the principle of authority (and desire) in the figure of Vicissitude itself, a figure who imposes an Adversity-like "chastening":
The hues of bliss more brightly glow,
Chastised by sabler tints of woe.
Once more the ode negates its initial figure of desire, "the golden Morn aloft" who
Morn and April are two figures of commencement, each gradually replaced in the poem by the superior vision that sees with "foreward and reverted eyes" (24). The companionable pastoral presences give way to tableaux in which the kindred activities of mourning and consolation are enacted, "Soft Reflection" tracing with her hand "Smiles on past Misfortune's brow," or "o'er the cheek of Sorrow throw[ing] / A melancholy grace" (25-28). The initial act of wooing becomes, then, another sort of engagement, Grief pursuing rosy Pleasure, Comfort approaching Misery. In this context the "blended form" is a substitutional form, a sublimation of the frankly sexual ardor governing the relation between Morn and April, now transformed into a depersonalized aesthetic, in which "artful strife" and "strength and harmony" (39, 40), displace the seductive Morn who "With vermeil cheek and whispers soft / … wooes the tardy spring" (3-4). The ode is dominated by the metamorphosis of courtship into consolation, and the elegiac presence of Vicissitude is another figure companionable to Contemplation or Adversity, those personifications under whose earlier aegis desire was eliminated from the field of vision.
The force of the poem is to celebrate April ("The birds his presence greet; / But chief the sky-lark warbles high / His trembling thrilling ecstasy" [12-14]) and then to drive him into the category of things succeeded by other things, while gradually replacing him and Morn with the graveyard statuary that derives from the "Elegy." The figures of consolation, acting as they do to displace and dominate, urge fulfillment of the elegiac consciousness, tend to pictorialize the law of Vicissitude, and offer their own enactments of desexualized love. Vicissitude distantly responds to the mockery visited upon the alienated moralist of the "Ode on the Spring"; it corrects the isolation of the "solitary fly" within the structure of loss and gain, absence and presence, and in this way further explores the domain of elegy and the remedies for death and denial elegy provides. Vicissitude is itself (unlike Adversity) the neutralized figure of no gender, representing thereby no threatening image of the sexual horrific, but a power of the law realized in and through "blended form" and "artful strife."
The specific elegiac context is recalled and localized in those "deepest shades, that dimly lower / And blacken round our weary way" (30-31). The ode merely revisits another place, much like the revisiting of Eton by the disillusioned speaker or the return of Gray to Cambridge in the "Hymn to Ignorance." Here the return is to the opening of the "Elegy," to "darkness" (again) and to the landscape over which the "ploughman … plods his weary way." The movement from weary way to weary way defines the condition of progress, the pilgrimage that is daily farther from the figures of desire and closer to the uncertain fruition implicit sometimes in forms of kinship, and sometimes, as in "The Progress of Poesy," in a "distant way." The way is thus a progress ultimately joined; it is the dim measure of hope tacitly evident in Gray's vision ("Hope … / Gilds with a gleam of distant day" [29-32]), but way is also the path leading to that to which all paths lead. For Gray elegy is invested with the meaning of way, so that all of Gray's poems are poems of progress, journeys in which the peculiarity of imaginative challenge resides in discovering on the way something other than the circularity of ends that are constituted of beginnings ("And they that creep, and they that fly, / Shall end where they began" ["Ode on the Spring," 33-34]). Like all fragments "Vicissitude" is bemused in its own progress, but it bespeaks a law that is one of the few principles of elegiac consolation. A symbolic order seems predicated on the trope of kindred, on the relation that incorporates muse-mother and poet-child or embraces the inquiring successor, that extends to include "some fond breast" on which "the parting soul relies" ("Elegy," 89), or reaches into the community of bards.
What, finally, is the appeal of the Norse and Welsh poetry to Gray's imagination in the last decade of his life? "The Fatal Sisters" and The Descent of Odin" are poems of prophecy, the first dominated by "twelve gigantic figures resembling women" ("Preface") whose purpose is to weave the web of futurity, and whose way leads to and through another field of the dead ("As the paths of fate we tread, / Wading through the ensanguined field" [29-30]). "The Fatal Sisters" is an effort to mythologize the elegiac muse within the dim Scandinavian twilight, and presumably a counter vision to Macpherson's Celtic ghosts, about which Gray was "extasié."14 The translations, however, are not sponsored by a rivalry of picturesque lore, but coexist with the determining impulses of Gray's imagination from the beginning of his career, which now culminate in the urge to find in myth and legend the authorization that has so far evaded him. These poems resume where "The Bard" leaves off; they are attempts to make a poetry of prophetic speaking and arise from the intimate association between prophecy and death.
The easily identifiable figure of desire evident in the early verse is now banished, her place taken by terrifying images of vast forms, by "Mista black, terrific maid, / Sangria and Hilda" (17-18), by "Gondula and Geira" (31). Such women Gray has seen over and again; they appear first as Contemplation or Adversity, now as mythic presences. They possess a primitive size and durability, representing in themselves the combined identities of muse-mother-death, the final unified form of desire and authority toward which his own imagination has been traveling. As they move through the fields of war, the "Clouds of carnage" (50) finally and effectively "blot the sun," the last vestige of Hyperionic presence in Gray's poetry.
"The Descent of Odin" concerns Odin's visit to the underworld, prior to Balder's death, to discover his son's fate; he learns from the prophetess that Hoder will murder Balder and that Vali, the son of Odin and Rinda, will avenge the crime. The journey to the kingdom of Hela, Goddess of Death, is based on the traditional quest-drama, here involving a journey to the place of death to waken the source of voice, the "prophetic maid" (20) who not only discloses the future to Odin but is revealed by him as the "mother of the giant-brood" (86). Odin wakes her with "runic rhyme; / Thrice pronounced in accents dread" (22-23). Though self-described as "a Warrior's son," and the chief of the gods in Norse mythology, Odin is also a speaker of the mysteries to which the maid-mother responds. Quest ends in Hela's underworld with the maid denying prophetic knowledge to any future "enquirer … / … till substantial Night / Has reassumed her ancient right" (88-92). The world left to darkness and to Gray is now, in the maid's last oracular utterance, a vision of ultimate closure, when "wrapped in flames, in ruin hurled, / Sinks the fabric of the world" (93-94). The rest—for Gray—was almost silence. "Substantial Night" is the final invocation, the figure beyond which there are no further figures.
1 Cited by R. W. Ketton-Cremer, Thomas Gray: A Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1955), 17.
2 Ketton-Cremer, 253.
3The Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. Toynbee, Paget, and Leonard Whibley (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935), 1:201 (West to Gray, May 5, 1742).
4The Poems of Gray, Collins, and Goldsmith, ed. Roger Lonsdale (London: Longmans, 1969), 47. All quotations from Gray's poetry follow this edition; line numbers are cited parenthetically in the text.
5Correspondence, 1:209 (Gray to West, May 27, 1742).
6 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1957), 193.
7 Peter Sacks, The English Elegy: Studies in the Genre from Spenser to Yeats (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1985), 7.
8 Sacks, 8.
9 Sacks, 16.
10 See Thomas Weiskel, "The Ethos of Alienation: Two Versions of Transcendence," in The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1976), 34-62.
11 Irene Tayler, Blake's Illustrations to the Poems of Gray (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1971), 66.
12 Sacks, 110.
13 Tayler, 99.
14Correspondence, 2:680 (Gray to Wharton, c. June 20, 1760).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5195
SOURCE: "Gray's Elegy and the Dissolution of the Pastoral," in The Poet without a Name: Gray's "Elegy" and the Problem of History, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, pp. 150-63.
[In the following essay on the "Elegy," Weinfeld defines Gray's place within the history of the pastoral genre.]
Like all poems that are central to their time, and hence to the historical matrix, the "Elegy" is embedded in a tradition (or series of traditions) that it simultaneously subverts. In chapter 3 we saw this to be the case with respect to the heroic, elegiac, and pastoral traditions (although these overlapping categories should not be construed as being more than heuristic devices for the organization of diverse historical particulars). In the case of the pastoral, however, because of its intimate connection to the "problem of history," we are confronted with a series of issues that require fuller theoretical elaboration than could be offered in the context of the sequential reading of chapter 3. For if the problem of history (in the sense of task or telos) is to overcome the problem of history (in the sense of deprivation), then the pastoral is that form which, at a certain stage of historical development, is entrusted with this crucial theme.
In the Introduction to this study, I suggested that the pastoral is primarily constituted by the problem of history and only secondarily, or contingently, by the figure of the shepherd. Even if we concede that there was something "natural" in the choice of the shepherd, if Theocritus had made some other figure the focal point of his Idylls and if his imitators had followed suit, then, although the genre would have adopted a different name, nothing essential would have been changed. And even if we choose to adopt Pope's minimal definition of the pastoral, as a form involving the "imitation of the action of a shepherd, or one considered under that character,"1 still, this leaves us with the problem of penetrating beneath the surface of the form to understand the nature of the representation involved, since clearly the lives of shepherds in and of themselves are not what is really at issue but only a pretext for getting at something else.2
What is salient to the pastoral, in any event, is not merely the figure of the shepherd per se but the figure of the poet-as-shepherd, a figure that involves a synthesis, under the aegis of poetry itself (since it is in and through poetry that this synthesis is effected), of the upper and lower classes (the aristocracy and the peasantry). The figure of the poet-as-shepherd is informed, in the first place, by the myth of the Golden Age, according to which the original condition of mankind was characterized by harmony and natural sufficiency, without the necessity of either labor or law. Here, for instance, is Ovid's account of the Golden Age myth in the Metamorphoses (in Arthur Golding's Elizabethan translation):
At the heart of the pastoral, then, is nostalgia—nostalgia not so much for the past as for a mode of life that never existed but that the poet locates in the dim confines of the past.4 For this reason, however, as W. W. Greg pointed out in his landmark study of the pastoral early in the century, there has often been a good deal of confusion as to the origins of the form:
We are often, for instance, told that it is the earliest of all forms of poetry, that it characterizes primitive people and permeates ancient literature. Song is, indeed, as old as human language, and in a sense no doubt the poetry of the pastoral age may be said to have been pastoral. It does not, however, follow that it bears any essential resemblance to that which subsequent ages have designated by the name.5
The distinction between the pastoral and the poetry of the "pastoral age" is crucial because, as Greg observes, "a constant element in the pastoral is the recognition of a contrast, implicit or expressed, between pastoral life and some more complex type of civilization."6 Other writers have emphasized the same point. Frank Kermode, for example, notes that "the first condition of pastoral is that it is an urban product,"7 and Renato Poggioli, that the pastoral originated not in Hellenic but in Hellenistic times, "with the decline of the ancient polis and … the appearance of a quasi-modern metropolis."8 To this one must add, however, that as an urban product, the pastoral is obliged to camouflage its origins, and that this is intrinsic to the transcendental or Utopian basis of the form. Here we arrive at the essence of the pastoral: by superimposing the values of a civilized upper class onto a fictional agrarian landscape, the pastoral projects the vision of a reconciliation between Nature and History, such that civilization appears as an unmediated extension of Nature itself.
As Greg remarks, the importance of the pastoral as a form lies in the fact that it is "the expression of instincts and impulses deep-rooted in the nature of humanity."9 But from a Marxist perspective, it might be observed that these instincts and impulses are conditioned by the division of labor and the attendant alienation resulting from the formation of social classes—in short, by the problem of history, which is at once a product and the origin of cultural development. From this point of view, the pastoral is a Utopian form insofar as it projects a vision in which the highest attainments of civilization—including poetry itself—are possessed without the necessity of history.10 The Utopian synthesis implicit in the pastoral involves a kind of telescoping of the problem of history, with the result that the actual process of history is submerged and circumscribed, as it were. Yet at the same time, the pastoral points to the final mastery of man over Nature—to the end of history, both in the sense of its practical conclusion and also of its telos.
The pastoral is thus insulated from history and hence from the problem of history in its negative aspect. As Poggioli beautifully remarks, the desire on the part of the pastoral to forget history, which is what links it to the Golden Age myth (whether or not the latter is explicitly foregrounded), is, in a sense, true of poetry as a whole—and this is perhaps why there are so many different "versions" of pastoral:
In a certain sense, and in its purest form, the pastoral represents ideally the Golden Age of poetry. Poetry, however, is not only the child of fancy, but also the daughter of memory; and this makes her the sister of history. It is when she tries to forget her sister, and yearns after a dreamland outside of time, that poetry becomes idyllic, if not in form at least in content.11
This yearning for a dreamland outside of time must, however, be concretized in temporal terms; thus, since the future is a mere abstraction and since the poverty of the present is what has occasioned the yearning in the first place, the pastoral turns for its images to the past—or rather to a past of its own devising.
The attempt on the part of the pastoral to "forget history" has often been regarded as mere escapism, especially by the Marxist tradition, but this is inaccurate or at least insufficiently nuanced. Under certain circumstances, the pastoral can become mere escapism; but in itself, and insofar as it is capable of producing great works of art, the pastoral impulse is a Utopian response to the same problem of history that will later emerge explicitly in the "Elegy." In the pastoral, however, the problem of history is represented only from the standpoint of a kind of abstract idealism, as if the problem posed by history had been factored out from the outset and the Earthly Paradise already attained. In the world of historical relationships, the art of poetry, requiring leisure and knowledge in the highest degree, is the product of a social surplus and thus the province not of shepherds but of a privileged upper class; yet what the poet-as-shepherd motif concretizes is precisely a situation in which the aristocrat and the shepherd are not isolated by social differences but, under the transcendental aegis of poetry, can exist as one.
The pastoral thus involves a negation of social differences, but there are two perspectives from which this can be interpreted. On the one hand, following the tendency of at least one strain of Marxism, we can reduce the pastoral to a mere ideological formation: we can say that the "organic" society posited by the pastoral is nothing more than an attempt on the part of a ruling elite (whether aristocratic or bourgeois) to deny the existence of social inequality and to present the illusion of social harmony.12 On the other hand, accepting the idealism of the pastoral as sincere, we can maintain that its Utopian dream is a "necessary fiction" that, in presenting us with the vision of unalienated man, serves to create the conditions in which that vision can eventually be realized. From this point of view, the very idealism of the pastoral (as of art in general) is itself a kind of social praxis and not merely the distorted reflection of prevailing social norms.
The two perspectives taken together represent opposing sides of an aesthetic debate that has its roots in the argument between Plato and Plotinus.13 But both are overly schematic in that they fail to take account of how the aesthetic possibilities afforded by the pastoral are mediated by actual historical circumstances. Whatever our attitude to the pastoral may be in theory, it is clear, in any event, that the pastoral vision of an Earthly Paradise, from its reemergence in the Renaissance to its demise in the eighteenth century, is absolutely central to European art. That is why the form undergoes so many permutations during the period and why its generic possibilities seem virtually endless. In Shakespeare's romantic comedies, for example, not only the stage but the entire theater becomes a vehicle for the creation of an enchanted space in which the upper and lower classes can, if not merge, at least mingle on equal terms. The pastoral ethos of noblesse oblige, binding up all classes into an organic whole, is intended to have a humanizing impact particularly on those in the uppermost ranks of society—so that when Duke Senior and his retinue leave the Forest of Arden, or when Prospero bids farewell to his island and returns to Milan, it is not, presumably, to be guided solely by the Machiavellian pursuit of power.
Such, at any rate, is the social myth perpetuated by the pastoral. But how, then, explain the demise of the transcendental pastoral, a demise which, most commentators would agree, occurred in the eighteenth century? Perhaps we can say that if the negation of social differences inherent in the pastoral is a "necessary fiction" because it presents the vision of unalienated man, it ceases to be so at the point at which man becomes capable of eliminating the forms of alienation in practice. When this point is reached—or at least, when it is glimpsed as a real possibility by the intellectual center (as it seems to have been during the Enlightenment)—then the transcendental pastoral forfeits its Utopian function and takes on instead the reactionary lineaments of an ideological weapon that is wielded in the narrow interests of those in power rather than in the universal interests of humanity as a whole. At this point, the pastoral becomes a mere husk of itself, denuded of its authentic Utopian content, and the Utopian impulse passes to a tendency which, having emerged from the pastoral, is realistic and antipastoral in its orientation. Amid the "puerile conceits of the Petit Trianon," in Greg's phrase,14 where we find Marie Antoinette playing at being a milkmaid, the final image cast by the pastoral is shadowed by the Revolution.
"The modern world," writes Poggioli, "destroyed the conventional and traditional pastoral through four cultural trends that arose together and partly coincided. These were the humanitarian outlook, the idea of material progress, the scientific spirit, and artistic realism."15 Ironically, it is precisely the point at which the belief in material progress takes hold that we see the demise of the transcendental pastoral, for at that point the old dream of an Earthly Paradise comes to seem an actual obstacle to the task at hand. "Till we have built Jerusalem, / In Englands green & pleasant Land," writes Blake at the close of the eighteenth century,16 but here the emphasis is no longer on dreaming but on building and transforming. In The Communist Manifesto, that document in which the spirit of "scientific" socialism emerges from its Utopian variant, Marx offers the bourgeoisie what is in effect a backhanded compliment for having "put an end to all patriarchal, idyllic relations." "For exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions," he remarks, "it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."17 From a certain point of view, "there is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism," as Walter Benjamin observes in one of his "Theses on the Philosophy of History."18 However that may be, by the middle of the eighteenth century, the long period in which the old pastoral conventions had furnished the artist with an enabling fiction, through which he could represent his deepest hopes and ideals, has come to an end. To make use of the poet-as-shepherd motif and the other props of the genre in the old, naive way now comes to seem an insincere denial of the actual impoverishment of the rural working class.
If the "Elegy" represents the symbolic dissolution of the pastoral, this is because it is in the "Elegy" that the problem of history—which, in its sublimated form, had given rise to the pastoral in the first place—is fully comprehended for the first time. However, the demise of the old pastoral in English poetry can be traced to an earlier point in the eighteenth century, when the transcendental synthesis implicit in the form has begun to break down but before the meaning of this crisis has been fully grasped.
In Pope's "Discourse on Pastoral Poetry" (1717), for example, we can already sense a certain amount of repressed disquietude resulting from the cleavage between the pastoral idealization and actual social conditions. "We must," writes Pope, "use some illusion to render a Pastoral delightful; and this consists in exposing the best only of a shepherd's life, and in concealing its miseries."19 The point, once again, is not that poets were previously naive in regard to the illusion underlying pastoral but rather that they had felt no need to justify it. The fact that Pope now begins to speak in terms of the pastoral illusion indicates that he is already treading on rather shaky ground.
In light of Pope's "Discourse," it is interesting that the first frontal attack on the transcendental pastoral was mounted three years earlier, in 1714, by his friend John Gay, in a series of six eclogues entitled The Shepherd's Week. Gay's attitude in this work warrants close attention, not only because it reflects the collapse of the transcendental pastoral but also because it indicates the degree to which the "antipastoral" tendency that emerges in the wake of the collapse can allow for the venting of a social snobbism that may always have been latent in the older form but that was generally repressed. The negation of social differences that we have seen to be intrinsic to the pastoral is a fundamentally ambiguous phenomenon: it can either express the desire for an Earthly Paradise or it can reflect the camouflaging of social inequities. There are, however, possibly as many versions of antipastoral as there are of pastoral.
Written as a burlesque imitation of Spenser's Shepherd's Calendar, Gay's poem remains a pastoral in the minimal sense of Pope's definition; but, as the "Proem" to the work makes clear, The Shepherd's Week undermines the metaphysical basis of the pastoral by denuding it of its Golden Age myth:
Other Poet travailing in this plain High-way of Pastoral know I none. Yet, certes, such it behoveth a Pastoral to be, as Nature in the Country affordeth; and the Manners also meetly copied from the rustical Folk therein. In this also my Love to my native Country Britain much pricketh me forward, to describe aright the Manners of our own honest and laborious Plough-men, in no wise sure more unworthy a British Poet's imitation, than those of Sicily or Arcadie; albeit, not ignorant I am, what a Rout and Rabblement of Critical Gallimawfy hath been made of late Days by certain young Men of insipid Delicacy, concerning, I wist not what, Golden Age, and other outrageous Conceits, to which they would confine Pastoral. Whereof, I avow, I account not at all, knowing no Age so justly to be stiled Golden, as this of our Soveraign Lady Queen ANNE.
This idle trumpery (only fit for Schools and Schoolboys) unto that ancient Dorick Shepherd Theocritus, or his Mates, was never known; he rightly, throughout his fifth Idyll, maketh his Louts give foul Language and behold their Goats at Rut in all Simplicity.20
The Shepherd's Week is superficially an attempt to demystify the pastoral, but the argument could be made that in actuality it is more mystified than the transcendental pastoral itself because it has simply lost touch with the historical problematic that is submerged in the older form. Gay's shepherds are mere country bumpkins, and thus the idealistic vision of the transcendental pastoral is reduced to farce in his work. Gay's attitude betrays a fundamental ambivalence: on the one hand, by attacking the Golden Age myth he places himself on the side of the Moderns (in the still raging Battle of the Ancient and Moderns), and this, of course, allows him to engage in patriotic flattery of a rather fulsome kind; but on the other hand, affecting an antique "pastoral" style, he claims that he is returning to "the true ancient guise of Theocritus." The Utopian pastoral had made use of archaism as a way of distancing itself from the present, but in Gay's contradictory gestures we can see that the old tropes and conventions have been reduced to the status of a mere entertainment.
In the eclogues themselves, Gay's archaism is the vehicle of bathos and serves to heighten the discrepancy between the eclogue form and the coarseness of rural manners. Dr. Johnson, we know, hated pastoral; but it is difficult to credit his comment, that "the effect of reality and truth became conspicuous, even when the intention was to shew [Gay's shepherds] groveling and degraded. These Pastorals became popular and were read with delight, as just representations of rural manners and occupations."21 On the contrary, the net effect of Gay's satire is not realism but, as the following passage indicates (in which the voice of Ambition and Grandeur is heard behind that of the Maid), one long, drawn-out Augustan sneer (carefully modulated, it is true) at the old-fashioned literary form it espouses and at the "quainteness" of country life in general:
The demise of the old pastoral coincides with a number of new forms or tendencies that are all in their own ways dominated by the spirit of realism (or pseudo-realism) that emerges in the eighteenth century. The relationship of these newly emergent forms, both to actual social conditions, on the one hand, and to the vision of communitas stemming from the Golden Age myth, on the other, is quite different from that of the old pastoral. Although they are sometimes grouped together under the "antipastoral" rubric, if the latter is seen in monolithic terms it can be as distorting as the "pastoral" label itself. For instance, The Shepherd's Week is clearly antipastoral in the sense that Gay is attacking the transcendental vision embodied in the old pastoral; but on the other hand, Gay maintains the props of the old pastoral, which thus becomes the husk of itself in his hands. From a social standpoint, there is no difference essentially between the Tory spirit motivating Gay's and Pope's pastorals, even though Pope remains formally within the context of the old pastoral while Gay does not. Although the breakdown of the old pastoral occurs under the aegis of the new realism, Gay's rustics have no more intrinsic reality than Spenser's (but Spenser, we must remember, was not striving for realism), and it is clear that they are merely grist for his satiric, but not very serious, mill.
The case is very different with George Crabbe's poem The Village (1783), a poem of the utmost seriousness, which comes in the wake both of the Industrial Revolution and, we immediately feel, of Gray's "Elegy". The Village opens with a series of chastened and chastening "Remarks upon Pastoral Poetry" (as the poet himself refers to them), in which the conventions of the old pastoral are explicitly viewed as an ideological subterfuge:
Oddly enough, although Crabbe polemicizes against the pastoral fiction, he does not wholly dispense with it, as his suggestion that in former times "the rustic poet praised his native plains" indicates. To us it goes without saying that shepherds have always been poor and that those privileged enough to become poets have never been shepherds; apparently, however, the pastoral myth could still be maintained even after the pastoral conventions had been abandoned. Crabbe writes as one who regards those conventions as being now in bad taste because they contrast so markedly with existing social conditions; at the same time, he implicitly invokes a past in which the pastoral mirrored reality.
In The Village, which was published in 1783, the anti-pastoral tendency is fully manifest, but in The Deserted Village, which appeared thirteen years earlier, what is lamented is precisely the loss of the "pastoral" way of life. The social changes lamented by Goldsmith are clearly connected to the demise of the transcendental pastoral (and for the reasons that Crabbe enunciates); but, interestingly, as the two poems taken together indicate, the demise of the transcendental pastoral is synonymous with the advent of a new form, one that might be termed the demotic pastoral. Where the transcendental or Utopian pastoral superimposed the values of the aristocracy upon an imaginary rural landscape, synthesizing the nobleman and the shepherd in the poet-as-shepherd motif (because it was under the aegis of poetry that this transcendental synthesis was effected), the demotic pastoral involves at least the attempt (though one that is sometimes distorted and insincere) at realism in its depiction of the peasantry. Similarly, where the transcendental pastoral had insulated itself from history, the demotic pastoral involves an engagement with precisely those historical factors that led to the loss of the "pastoral" way of life and the loss of the transcendental pastoral itself—though often this engagement with history is so fraught with bourgeois sentimentalism as to be entirely unhistorical in its net effect.
Both tendencies are very much in evidence in The Deserted Village. On the one hand, Goldsmith is as realistic as Marx himself in his understanding of how the Enclosure Acts and the incursions of capitalism have changed the face of the countryside:
On the other hand, where Marx is unsparing in his analysis of how the bourgeoisie has "rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life,"25 Goldsmith depicts the life of the vanished peasantry essentially as an idyll in which "health and plenty cheered the labouring swain" (2).
Gray's hypothetical description of the lives of the Forefathers, in stanzas 5-7 of the "Elegy," is similarly idyllic; moreover, as we noted in chapter 3, the sense of loss evoked by these stanzas is not merely in relation to individuals who are "no more" but, as in The Deserted Village, to a way of life and an entire class. However, where in Goldsmith's poem this is the sole perspective that is adumbrated, in the "Elegy" it is countered by the development of a thematic strain that is at odds both with the transcendental pastoral and with the as yet unarticulated demotic pastoral: the theme of unfulfilled potential (or "death-in-life")—which is to say, the "problem of history."
In relation to the pastoral, then, Gray can be seen as coming both at the end of a long tradition and at the beginning of a new one—and here we should remember that the poem was published almost at the exact midpoint of the century, at the point historians have traditionally marked as the onset of the Industrial Revolution and, with it, the Modern era. Gray's reinterpretation of the idealistic pastoral tendency from the standpoint of the realistic georgic tendency allows for a balancing of thematic and generic possibilities that gives the poem an extraordinary resonance and richness of scope. The "Elegy" thus stands at the center of a confluence of forces that will lead to the emergence of several new forms, including the antipastoral tendency of Crabbe and the demotic pastoral tendency that will later culminate in Wordsworth.26 The emergence of the problem of history in the "Elegy," together with the contrast between the rich and the poor that is a consequence of this thematic development, is thus connected to the dissolution of the transcendental pastoral; but it is also connected to a new vision that, though only implicit, makes itself felt in the poem as a kind of "trembling hope" for the future. As we saw in chapter 3, the principle of universality is latent from the very outset in the figure of the passing bell, which, in resonating throughout the poem, connects us to Donne's "No man is an island" meditation. In the "Elegy," however, the principle of universality cannot explicitly emerge until the socioeconomic aspect of Gray's dialectic has been fully developed—lest the poem succumb to what for its own time would have been mere devotional cliché. And yet, the suspension of the principle of universality is ultimately what allows the evocation of the universal to be felt with so much force when it finally does emerge. Similarly, although the explicit emergence of the "problem of history" in the "Elegy" is tantamount to the dissolution of the transcendental pastoral, the Utopian impulse that had been dominant in the old pastoral is burdened by a deepening melancholia but is not lost.
1 See Introduction, n. 1.
2 The conclusion arrived at by Paul Alpers, in a recent attempt to define pastoral, replicates Pope's minimal definition. Alpers sees the lives of shepherds as what he calls the "representative anecdote" of pastoral: "To say that shepherds' lives is the representative anecdote of pastoral means that pastoral works are representations of shepherds who are felt to be representative of some other or of all other men" ("What Is Pastoral?" Critical Inquiry, 8:3 [Spring 1982], 456). However, Alpers makes no effort to explain the nature of the representation involved, or even why a central literary genre should have focused on the figure of the shepherd in the first place; consequently, since the generic marker itself means "pertaining to shepherds," his attempt at definition is merely tautological.
3 Ovid, Metamorphoses, trans. Arthur Golding (1567; New York: Macmillan, 1965), 1:103-16.
4 My discussion of the relationship between pastoral poetry and nostalgia overlaps at a number of points with Laurence Lerner's discussion in The Uses of Nostalgia: Studies in Pastoral Poetry (New York: Schocken, 1972).
5 W. W. Greg, Pastoral Poetry and Pastoral Drama (1906; New York: Russell and Russell, 1959), 4.
7 Frank Kermode, English Pastoral Poetry (London: George G. Harrap, 1952), 14.
8 Renato Poggioli, The Oaten Flute: Essays on Pastoral Poetry and the Pastoral Ideal (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975), 3.
9 Greg, 2.
10 It will be noted that I am using the term "utopian" in a very general sense, as pertaining to the notion of an Earthly Paradise. To the extent that the term connotes an explicit recognition of and struggle against prevailing conditions, it cannot, of course, be applied to the pastoral.
11 Poggioli, 41.
12 The concept of ideology and its relationship to art is an extremely vexed issue in Marxist thought and has resulted in a great deal of confusion. When Marx uses the term "ideology" (as in his references to "bourgeois ideology"), he almost always uses it to mean a species of systemic falsehood whose ultimate purpose is to uphold the prevailing social system. Marx's use of the term is thus, emphatically, nonrelativistic: he writes from a "privileged" standpoint as one in possession of truth. Furthermore, on those occasions in which Marx writes about art or literature, he generally refrains even from broaching the concept of ideology, and certainly the tendency of so-called vulgar Marxism to reduce art to ideology is foreign to his own impulse to privilege the work of art. Later Marxists, however, particularly those of the Althusserian school, tend to see all thought as bound by ideological constructs. From this point of view, however (which is certainly foreign to Marx's explicit voluntarism, although perhaps implicit in certain structuralist aspects of his system), the concept of ideology becomes a distinction without a difference.
13 Plato, it will be recalled, sees art essentially as a representation (mimesis) of physical appearances that stands as a representation of the true forms—and thus as one step further removed from Truth than the phenomena themselves. Plotinus, however, while accepting Plato's Doctrine of Ideas, argues (against Plato) that the work of art transcends the phenomenal world by establishing a direct relationship to the forms.
14 Greg, 2.
15 Poggioli, 31.
16 "Preface to Milton," The Poetry and Prose of William Blake, ed. David V. Erdman (New York: Doubleday, 1970), 15-16.
17 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "Manifesto of the Communist Party," trans. Samuel Moore, in Marx and Engels: Basic Writings on Politics and Philosophy, ed. Lewis S. Feuer (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 9.
18 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken, 1969), 256.
19 Pope, Pastoral Poetry and An Essay on Criticism, 27.
20Poetry and Prose of John Gay, ed. Vinton A. Dearing and Charles E. Beckwith. 2 vols. (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1974), 1:90.
21Lives of the English Poets, 2:269; cited by Stuart Curran, Poetic Form and British Romanticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 92.
22Poetry and Prose of John Gay, 1:107.
23 George Crabbe, Poems, ed. Adolphus William Ward (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1905), 1:1-28.
24 "The Deserted Village," Collected Works of Oliver Goldsmith, ed. Arthur Friedman (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), 4:265-86. Further references to the poem will be given by line number in the text.
25 Marx, "The Communist Manifesto," 11.
26 This is the reason that two such eminent theorists of the pastoral as Poggioli and Erwin Panofsky can speak of the Elegy in terms that are precisely antithetical. In his analysis of the Et in Arcadia ego motif, Panofsky observes that Virgil was the first poet to align the pastoral with elegiac nostalgia, "opening up the dimension of the past and thus inaugurating the long line of poetry that was to culminate in Thomas Gray" (Meaning in the Visual Arts [Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955], 301). Conversely, in a discussion of The Village Poggioli associates the antipastoral tendency of Crabbe with Gray: "Instead of describing fictitious beings and an imaginary way of life, Crabbe chooses to depict 'the poor laborious natives of the place,' and to sing, like Gray in his "Elegy, " the short and simple annals of the poor'" (p. 31).
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3819
SOURCE: "Gray's Churchyard Space," in Preromanticism, Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 42-8.
[In the following excerpt, Brown illustrates how Gray generalizes from the particular in the "Elegy" to create a sense of universal experience.]
… Space has always been recognized as a problem in Gray's "Elegy." The speculation concerning the location of Gray's churchyard is as idle as that concerning Goldsmith's Aurora, yet also as natural. For it reflects the tension that runs through the poem between particular place and universal space. In the early stanzas the repeated possessives drive toward local dominions, and so indeed do the definite articles.6 At twilight the private consciousness faces dormancy unless it is rescued by positioned singularities ("Save where," "Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r"). Dominion is ubiquitous: in the owl's "solitary reign," the children's envied sire, the war to subdue nature to cultivation. It is not by chance that the three model figures named in the fifteenth stanza were all politically involved in bloody tyranny, nor that the body politic provides the standard for judging the village's emulation or privation. In the "precincts of the … day" presence always commands, however limited its terrain, and funeral monuments compete to prolong the paternal domination of the forefathers. If they cannot demand homage, they can at least implore "the passing tribute of a sigh." If nothing else survives, the heaving turf of line 14 remains a literally posthumous assertion of territoriality. In country and city alike, action stratifies mankind into levels of domination, and, discomfortingly, identity remains conceived as place in the scale of being. Hence the promptings from the poem itself toward finding the churchyard. It has no power if it has no location, and no reality or truth if it has no power.
On so imperious a mentality Gray casts a light too cool to be called irony. Its ideal is a repose that the noises of the place disturb. Thus, the erotically charged gem and flower retain their purity only so long as their unnatural locations protect them. ("Ray serene" is properly a sky phrase—"serene" means "of evening"—doubly displaced, in a cave and under water.) Though Ambition errs in mocking "useful toil," Gray's own tone becomes condescending when he reaches "homely joys, and destiny obscure"; though Grandeur shouldn't smile at annals so "short and simple" that they are heard rather than read, Gray himself seems to discredit the poor when he calls them "noiseless," not audible at all. This is, one notes, a poem of the day, not of the year: properly speaking, these poor can have no annals, but only an "artless tale."7 Gray hovers constantly, as in this phrase, on the brink of oxymoron (fires living in ashes, "mindful of th' unhonour'd"), which it is easy to interpret as rejection, as if for Gray "any mode of 'life' is finally unacceptable."8 No doubt about it, the poem expresses reservations about rich Cromwells and poor, mute Miltons alike.
Still, reserve is to be carefully distinguished from criticism.9 Gray had previously appeared in public representing three versions of minimalism: the insects of the "Ode on the Spring," the children's games of the Eton College ode, and the bath-os of the "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat." The "Elegy" keeps a more even tenor than any of these, striving for a sublimity of the subliminal variety that Gianni Scalia has called "the sublime of depth."10 It wants to take a stand without asserting any pride of place. Its fundamental principle is a return to the ground: a combination of regression and leveling most clearly seen in the seventh stanza, which retreats from harvest through plowing to setting out, and then concludes, in less conflictual language, with the hewing of wood. Negations are as plentiful as possessives, yet they are typically oblique or postponed so as not to cancel out the strong diction and heroic images. The poem works as hard to compare rich and poor as to contrast them. They share life as well as illusions. Death destroys the illusions: "The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow'r, / And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave." But it does not put out the flame of life, which survives, perhaps only in epitaphs and in "trembling hope," but which is assuredly there: "Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, / Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires."
The animals, the muttering poet, the lisping children, and the "still small Accents whisp'ring from the Ground" (Eton College manuscript, line 83) are all forms of the voice of nature that is forever speaking. For as heartlessly as the poem criticizes social existence—all forms of social existence—even as firmly is it attached to natural life. It is not a poem written in blackness like the "Ode on the Spring" ("Thy sun is set," line 49) or confirming blackness like the Eton College ode, where the speaker faces "shade" (the rhyme word in line 4 and again in line 11), only imagines the children whom Father Thames is supposed actually to "ha[ve] seen," and eventually views "black Misfortune's baleful train" and "The painful family of Death." Rather the "Elegy" is situated at twilight and with its eye on "the warm precincts of the chearful day." Death is mute and deaf (lines 43-44); the Epitaph is the text of life.
But it is life in its most general form, reinterpreted so as to speak to mankind generally. Where all men are comparable, consciousness seeks a universal voice. The poem's one "me" (line 4) adjoins its one "now" (line 5), but immediately gives way under the impulse of Gray's conception to "all" (line 6, changed from "now" in the Eton College manuscript). As there is no place, no individual who is the subject of the Epitaph, and no year, so there is also no day in the poem, but rather an eternal, timeless moment. Gray's resignation purges the dross of anxiousness out of our pleasing being, leaving the intimacy of a heavenly "friend" and the passivity of a "trembling hope." It is a successful quietism that transmutes the restless, heaving turf of the beginning into the concluding "lap of Earth." At eve-ning, as contours dissolve, the universal eye looks beyond individual destinies—why should we know their fate?—toward the enveloping space of earth and heaven. Man leaves the turbulence of (urban) society and (rural) family in order to reenter his general home in the friendship of spirits and the protection of Mother Nature and Father God. In itself death is privation, but for Gray relationship persists and enlarges at the end of life.11
In diction, imagery, and argument, then, Gray presses in this poem toward a universal consciousness.12 Beginning in a compound of obscurity and contradiction, the poem veers stanza by stanza from silence to noise, high to low, dark evening to bright morn, field to home, peace to conflict, poor to rich. These are gestures toward comprehensiveness in a world whose totality is composed of parts. The poetical youth is an outsider to this entire psychosocial economy. "His wayward fancies" (line 106) are constitutionally placeless, and the antique language that describes him belongs nowhere. A youth in a world of hoary-headed swains and aged thorns, a figure of morning (and noon) in a poem for which morning exists "No more" (line 20), a being born, it seems, only to die,13 he negates all the earlier contradictions and classifications: "nor yet beside the rill [nature], / Nor up the lawn [gentry], nor at the wood [laboring peasantry]." In pointing out the lines summarizing the youth's "fate," the "hoary-headed Swain" takes a step beyond the silent, "hoary Thames" at Windsor, yet without achieving prophetic authority, since he is illiterate, enjoys a merely conjectured existence, and discerns only part of the youth's fate. Perplexity better describes the tone of the swain's speech, with its grave puns ("pore," "lay"); in it the youth escapes capture, a figure alien yet ubiquitous. The Epitaph shifts abruptly yet again; after the vivid personifications in the body of the elegy and the exotic Spenserianism of the swain's speech, the poem ends in grayly looming abstractions. It has the pallor of a language for which differences no longer exist.
After so many appeals to voice and so many failures of merely metaphorical reading (Knowledge's "ample page" ne'er unrolled, history not "read … in a nation's eyes," the babbling brook listlessly pored over), after the bookish language of the swain's speech and his curious designation of the Epitaph itself as a "lay," this arrival at a plain-style written text functions as a release. The reader's muted voice neither can nor needs to say much, but his brevity is accompanied by a settled clarity, completion (a large bounty as largely recompensed), and universality ("all") that subsume all the foregoing partitions and contradictions. For once the eighteenth century gives us the image of something known fully and in itself, rather than partially and relationally. The knowledge is purchased with the loss of power and position: the contents are impoverished, the knower undefined. One could hardly say, finally, who the youth is, since neither his merits nor his frailty are disclosed. Only metaphysicals remain definite here ("the lap of Earth," "the Bosom of his Father and his God"), and the four indefinite articles stand in striking contrast to all the abstract definite articles of the main text. Thus, it is not that someone comes in the end to know someone or something. Yet the poem still evokes the possibility of a language and a consciousness beyond station, beyond definition, and beyond identity.14
It is far from obvious to take the "Elegy" as a poem about the mind.15 One's primary impression is, perhaps, that it is a remarkably physical poem. Movement is everywhere, in the plowman's way, the paths of glory, the genial current of the soul, the noiseless tenor of the villagers' way, the passing tribute of a sigh, the parting soul, the roving youth. For so traditional a society, it is a remarkably restless existence. The villagers' ardor is more than tinged with sexuality—"Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire"—and so is that of city dwellers:
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
This stanza, which praises the city indirectly by describing how impoverished rural life is, proves on reflection to be obliquely sarcastic about urban culture as well. For it is followed immediately by the famous gem and flower stanza. With its "spoils of time," we may infer in retrospect, the city ravages the sweetness of desert flowers, and its warm "current," while "genial," may not protect the serene purity of pearls so well as the "unfathom'd caves of ocean." Passions lurk in both environments, and they are distinctly not those of the mind alone.
Yet they act on the mind. What George Wright calls the poem's Berkeleyanism lies in the fact that passions seek less an object than a receptor, whether it be the owl's moon, the politician's listening senates, or the sigh that responds to the frail memorial. The poem may recognize a sexual dynamism to knowledge—despoiling time, unrolling her ample page—but its vector is antiphysical. Owl and moon preside over the churchyard in an alliance of wisdom and chastity aiming to protect a bower from molestation. While the verbs are active, inversions and syntactic ambiguities damp their noble rage. Of the three exemplary villagers, it is the mute, inglorious Milton who is specifically said to "rest" (as Hutchings points out, "Syntax of Death" [in Studies in Philology 81 (1984): 505]), allying him with another poet, the youth of the artless lines. At the end, death mysteriously consumes passion: one day the youth is lovelorn, the next he has vanished. Gray clear-sightedly concedes the omnipresence of bodily impulses, yet his message is that the only fruition and repose are of the mind.
Critics have written of the instability of Gray's poetry, its constant self-criticism and inability to ground the self.16 This is true to a point, but it is to condemn Gray to the "narrow cell" of the forefathers and to deny him the "large … bounty" of the poetic youth. In the main body of the "Elegy," to be sure, the quasi-sexual violence of fathers and forefathers is omnipresent—molesting owls, felling trees, ogling the spoils of Knowledge, secreting "The struggling pangs of conscious truth," and quenching "the blushes of ingenuous shame"—yet the Epitaph imagines as a surrogate a family romance of purest ray serene. Merits and frailties rest hand in hand in the androgynous lap-bosom of Nature-God, in a utopia purged of sexual desire (since the youth wished only "a friend") and of the turbulence of "fame and fortune." "Fair Science" retains the merest tinge of a purified eroticism, as does the single tear, while the youth as unknown knower becomes a figure of objectless, apathic cognition. The "Elegy" gives a voice that can be perceived without being uttered and an abode that needs neither a local habitation nor a name. "Common place" is the perfect term for the churchyard in whose grave lines all may rest.17
For a poem often thought to be a paean to rural laborers, the "Elegy" has a startlingly impoverished notion of work. Rather than conceiving it as a cooperative and constructive process—of which Adam Smith was to give so powerful an account in The Wealth of Nations—Gray's partitive consciousness divides work into periods ("evening care," line 22), repetitious events ("Oft," line 25), impersonal encounters ("Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke," line 26), and synecdochic reductions ("How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!" line 28). None of the associated adjectives—"busy," "jocund," "sturdy"—implies comprehension, and "toil" (line 29) is, precisely, thoughtless, primitive effort. Gray eliminated in revision a stanza containing the phrase "our Labours done," for rural labor knows no finality. Urban life, by contrast, is imaged as finality without effort: "the pomp of pow'r" without the struggle, "The paths of glory" without the conquest, "the rod of empire" that sways without earning the right, "the spoils of time" without the battle, "Th' applause of list'ning senates" without the victory, distribution ("To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land") without production. The widely separated smiles of disdainful grandeur (line 31) and of the people (line 63) suggest the city's detachment from the producing substratum, while the competition among the farmer's children for "the envied kiss" (line 24) signals that the rural struggle has no end. Such partitioning of the spheres of life both ironizes and idealizes: ironizes because all spheres are incomplete segments of a whole present only in the mind of the poet, idealizes because each element is absolutized as a changeless essence. What is systematically excluded is the order of appropriation—work that, by making something, makes it one's own.18
That is how Gray manages to convey a spatial imagination—with a full complement of divisions, locations, and affinities—that nevertheless remains universal. It is a world of possession without property. Possessives designate actions ("plods his weary way," "wheels his droning flight," "ply her evening care," "their sturdy stroke"), commonalities ("Their furrow," "their team"), parts of living beings ("their eyes," "Their name," "its old fantastic roots"), usurpation ("her secret bow'r," "The little Tyrant of his fields"), death's domain ("his narrow cell," "their lowly bed"). Only once—before the Epitaph, where all the conditions are changed—does the poem single out an object of possession, and then only in an affective relationship: "his fav'rite tree" (line 110). Nothing is owned, and hence nothing concrete can be imparted: "And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave," "He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear." Everything and nothing is shared with all and none in a world that is everywhere and nowhere. Life is emptied of its contents in order to make of the universe one vast container.
Critics often write as if the "Elegy" stays put and meditates on a particular, though unidentifiable, place. We do it more justice if we assume that the poem—like every work of art, I believe—acts to transform its initial conditions. The indefinite articles of the Epitaph should teach us at last how precise is the indefinite article of the title. We must learn not to seek knowledge of a particular place, as if to possess it mentally, but instead to accept a settled consciousness without a founding gesture or explicit starting "point." Rather than defining a social ideal, the poem turns away from social aspirations in order to evoke the transcendental basis of all experience….
…6 The definite article implies, first, belonging to an already known world (the curfew, vs. a which would anticipate subsequent clarification) yet, second, general rather than particular (the vs. this). On the kinetics of the definite article see Weinrich, Sprache in Texten 163-76 and 186-98, and Guillaume, Langage 143-66.
7 Cleanth Brooks points out the impropriety of the word "annals" in The Well Wrought Urn III. The proper, altogether unpretentious term is "journals." Cf. Spectator, no. 317 (3: 156): "One may become wiser and better by several Methods of Employing ones self in Secrecy and Silence, and do what is laudable without Noise or Ostentation. I would, however, recommend to every one of my Readers, the keeping a Journal of their Lives for one Week." The poem gives us, of course, only one, unwritten and truncated journal, in the swain's account of the youth.
8 Edwards, Imagination and Power 128-29. I follow, rather, Hutchings, "Syntax of Death."
9 In his Criticism on the Elegy 40, John Young nicely holds Gray's "whiggish prejudices" responsible for the "fairy land" aura of poetic vagueness in the political stanzas.
10 Scalia developed the notion of the "sublime in basso" in unpublished remarks at the conference "II Sublime: "Creazione e catastrofe," Univ. of Bologna, May, 1984. See the related discussion by Franci in the published proceedings ("Sulla soglia").
11 Cf. the interesting Freudian account of Gray in Jackson, "Thomas Gray and the Dedicatory Muse." Jackson argues persuasively that "the generative ground of vision [is] death" (287), but he imposes too dialectically negative a sense of death on Gray, for whom "death is a shaper" that "provides a dynamic impetus," with no "suggestion of a misanthropic or 'misbiotic' attitude" (Nemoianu, A Theory of the Secondary 121). There has to be a self—in the full romantic sense—before there can be, as Jackson says in his essay, a "betrayal of the self" (286). Cf. also Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot 34, apropos of Rousseau's Confessions: "To imagine one's self-composed obituary read at the Judgment Day constitutes the farthest reach in the anticipation of retrospective narrative understanding. It is one that all narratives no doubt would wish to make." With the greater generality of the lyric, the "Elegy" satisfies this yearning, but in the form of a narrative of no one in particular in an unbounded space that is liberated from "the geometrical sense of plotting" (Brooks 24). Gray's spatializing can be highlighted by contrasting the "Elegy" to the time-saturated imitation by J. Cunningham, "An Elegy on a Pile of Ruins," in Chalmers, English Poets 14: 443-45, esp. lines 133-36: "Vain then are pyramids, and motto'd stones, / And monumental trophies rais'd on high! / For Time confounds them with the crumbling bones, / That mix'd in hasty graves unnotic'd lie."
12 See Wright's Berkeleyan reading ("Stillness and the Argument of Gray's Elegy"), which finds an ironic reversal in death, weakly overruled by the Epitaph—another suggestive account that goes astray by treating (eighteenth-century) continuity and flux as (romantic) dialectical contradiction.
13 I owe to Steve Dillon the observation that "born[e]" in the funeral procession, line 114, is an ironic echo that undermines the positive associations of birth in the gem and flower stanza, lines 54-55.
14 Cleanth Brooks's reading, "Gray's Storied Urn," in The Well Wrought Urn 105-23, attempts to salvage his notion of a poem as a self-contained organism by using the first 116 lines to contextualize the Epitaph. He is perceptive enough to concede that "I am not altogether convinced" (121), for, indeed, the Epitaph breaks free of all such bounds. He is answered by Bateson ("Gray's 'Elegy' Reconsidered," in English Poetry 127-35). Bateson gives the best compact account of the poem's inconsistencies in structure and ideology, concluding that the familiar, revised ending betrays Gray's genuine position "in the central social tradition of his time" (56). My analysis of flux in the poem is intended to show how it can seem both organic and inorganic, romantic and Augustan, strong and weak: its conclusion transforms the conditions of thought, but not yet the contents of thought. In a thought-provoking though sketchy essay ("Gray's 'Elegy'"), Bygrave calls this "a kind of repressed dialectic of self and society" (173) whose "displaced name … is not death but 'Romanticism'" (174).
15 Rzepka, however, takes the "Elegy" as the founding text of his study, The Self as Mind 2-9, in a section called "The Body Vanishes: Solipsism and Vision in Gray's 'Elegy.'" Rzepka discusses well the persons in the poem as personifications of the speaker's psychic state. But though he sees the poem's task as "to reunite inner and outer" (8), he sees inwardness and "visionary solipsism" (9) as its sole subject. He overlooks the tradition—from Berkeley to both Kant and Coleridge—for which outness is as much a mental construct as inwardness.
16 On Gray's instability see Cox, Stranger 82-98, and (in passing, about Gray as a typical figure of the period) Blom, "Eighteenth-Century Reflexive Process Poetry."
17 Observing the poem's prevailingly negative rhetoric, the disappearance of the "I," and the persistent sense of passing, Anne Williams (Prophetic Strain 93-110) reads its mood as resignation to "passing on," i.e., to mortality. Yet she sees a movement at the start through fadings and endings toward "a kind of resurrection" in stanza 4 (100). I take that movement of release to be general and fundamental in the poem. Sacks, in his brief and reluctant treatment of the "Elegy" (The English Elegy 133-37), berates it as a "poem about the dying of a voice" (136) that leaves the poet "enshrined in a highly literary, even divine obscurity" (137). My discussion may help to clarify why Gray's masterpiece is refractory to the experiential, individual psychology that forms the basis of Sacks's book. Sacks begins, it may be further noted, by questioning Gray's relevance to his topic, since the title "Elegy" (rather than the original "Stanzas") was due to Gray's friend William Mason. Why mention this, since "elegy" appears in the title of no other poem that Sacks interprets? Perhaps Gray's impersonality, so forcefully acknowledged by Sacks's resistance, should be understood in terms of generic self-reference—an elegy on the elegy, and specifically on indulgence in grief and mourning, whose travails are one of the labors that Gray's ease ("haply," "one morn I missed him") conspicuously spares us.
18 This exclusion is the unrecognized reason why, as Empson says in his commentary on the poem, "one could not estimate the amount of bourgeois ideology 'really in' the verse of Gray" (Some Versions of Pastoral 5)….
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SOURCE: "Depression and Release," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 128-34.
[In the following essay on the "Elegy," Dillon comments on Gray's identification with the deceased farmers of the poem.]
The "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" can be read as a journey of recognition conceived in dusk and worked out—not in a miasma of depression—but in the light of a symbolic self-destruction. The poem contains a drama of identification with the buried farmers of the village of Stoke Poges; however, this identification yields the poet a brief delivery from his rather narrow life. Moreover, the development of the poem has a quasi-heroic quality, for it grows out of a shorter early version that is a more emotionally distanced study of man's final destiny. When Thomas Gray returned to the Eton manuscript of the "Elegy," he filled the new ending with far more intimate feelings.
The poem opens with the speaker's evocation of the world immediately around the graveyard; it then focuses on a plowman, who "homeward plods his weary way" (3). As if at home in the oncoming darkness, Gray clearly includes himself in the poem in stanzas that are full of a mournful music; suddenly, the verbs take on an almost independent energy: the turf "heaves" as the poet observes the graves as "many a mould'ring heap" (14). As will be later developed, this heaving of the earth suggests a kind of life within.
A series of vital images follows as if the quiet, celibate scholar perceived the farmers' lives in moments of dreamy wistfulness. In spite of the need to point out that the cheerful aspects of the laborers' mornings exist for them no more, the speaker describes elements of dawn: "breezy," "twitt'ring" (17, 18)—"the cock's shrill clarion" (19). There follows a series of pictures of a very different end of day than Thomas Gray could know: the "blazing hearth," the "busy houswife," children, and their climbing of the farmer's knees (21-24). Finally, stanza seven depicts the farmer's daily life:
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
These verbs evidence virile strength; they portray a celebration of physical power in that stroke that bows the woods. This may have been merely an idealization of everyday life, but it does touch on what could have been a psychological problem for Gray; it evokes the pride that rises from earning one's own way.
Gray's fellowship at Cambridge gave him a life-long tenure for a somewhat elegant—if narrow—scholarly existence. He was never required to teach and never delivered a lecture. Clarence Tracy asserts that Gray "lived for years on public patronage" and goes on to say that "his friend, Mason, made it a virtue in him that he never dirtied his mind with any intention of earning his living" ["Melancholy Marked Him for Her Own," in Fearful Joy: Papers from the Thomas Gray Bicentenary Conference at Carlton University]. Tracy also quotes Mason as saying his "life was spent in that kind of learned leisure, which has only self-improvement and self-gratification for its object" (38).1
Gray's biographer, Ketton-Cremer, suggests, "the man of reading and reflection often feels an envious admiration for the man of physical skill" [Thomas Gray: A Biography]. However, Gray modulates any such response into an identification—as well as a defense of the farmers against the putative disdain of the upper classes. When he honors the simple graves of the poor, he points out that the "storied urn" and "animated bust" (41) of the aristocrat cannot bring back the dead, as if in an urgent exhortation of the prosperous—or that side of Thomas Gray that has enjoyed a life of leisure.
Gray goes on to suggest the possibility that here may lie "some heart once pregnant with celestial fire" (46), but "chill Penury repress'd their noble rage" (51) because they lacked the good fortune of having an education (49-50).2 The farmers, then, were left in pastoral innocence like the famous flower "born to blush unseen" (55). The poem is now near its first ending, which is preserved only in the Eton manuscript of Gray's "Elegy." Here, perhaps somewhat self-con sciously, Gray implies that learning, worldly power, and leisure could do little but corrupt:
The thoughtless World to Majesty may bow
Exalt the brave, & idolize Success
But more to Innocence their Safety owe
Than Power & Genius e'er conspired to bless
And thou, who mindful of the unhonour'd Dead
Dost in these Notes their artless Tale relate
By Night & lonely Contemplation led
To linger in the gloomy Walks of Fate
Hark how the sacred Calm, that broods around
Bids ev'ry fierce tumultuous Passion cease
In still small Accents whisp'ring from the Ground
A grateful Earnest of eternal Peace
No more with Reason & thyself at Strife;
Give anxious Cares & endless Wishes room
But thro' the cool sequester'd Vale of Life
Pursue the silent Tenour of thy Doom.
A close look at Starr and Hendrickson's rendition of the sixth line of the Eton manuscript excerpt [in their edition of The Complete Poems of Thomas Gray] shows an alteration to the word "their" from the original "thy." Of course, this "thy" might have been meant only to refer to the narrator of the poem as he possessed the poem—but it may very well have indicated a deeper involvement as if Gray were briefly identifying with the dead in a melancholic assessment of what his life had become.
The moment of ambiguity between whether "thy" referred only to the tale or to the life of the narrator is resolved when Gray struck out "thy" and rewrote "their," for the line now seems to concern no one except the dead farmers. However, the brief scratchings remain to suggest that the "Elegy" was for his own existence and that he had briefly included himself among the dead.
When he was much younger, Gray had written a fourline Latin fragment, "O lachrymarum Fons—O fountain of tears" (140). Starr and Hendrickson's translation is: "O fountain of tears which have their sacred sources in the sensitive soul! Four times blessed he who has felt thee, holy Nymph, bubbling up from depths of his heart" (141). This is a moving evocation of the ability to feel as if reaching out to the selfs own source of tears; moreover, it suggests an earlier psychological breakthrough in response to depression. While Ian Jack asserts that Gray dropped the original four-stanza ending of his "Elegy" because "it preached a Stoic attitude to life that he could not accept" ["Gray's Elegy Reconsidered" in From Sensibility to Romanticism, edited by Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom] it is as likely a conjecture that the new ending was yet another breakthrough in understanding for Gray, since it formed an escape from the depressing aspects of merely pursuing what he called "the silent Tenour of thy Doom" (Eton ms. 88).
R. W. Ketton-Cremer has demonstrated Gray's depression; it seems likely to infer an etiology of that condition in "his father's brutality to his mother" and in Gray's subsequent dependence on his mother. David Cecil points out "by the easy-going University regulations of those days he could go on residing in the college free, for as long as he wanted" [Two Quiet Lives]. Cecil also quotes one early letter to a friend saying, "When you have seen one of my days, you have seen a whole year of my life. They go round and round like a blind horse in the mill, only he has the satisfaction of fancying he makes progress, and gets some ground: my eyes are open enough to see the same dull prospect, and having made four and twenty steps more, I shall now be just where I was."
When Gray took up the Eton manuscript to write the ending with which readers are familiar, the farmers are the ones who keep to the "sequester'd vale of life"—and keep "the noiseless tenor of their way" (75-76). This last word, "way," is, of course, a significant change from Gray's term for himself in the earlier version: "of thy doom" (Eton ms. 88). Moreover, his new understanding is accompanied by a second major surge of energy:
Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Later, Gray united himself with the farmers and all mankind in tremendously original lines:
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
Left the warm precincts of the chearful day,
Nor cast one longing ling'ring look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries,
Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires.
Dr. Johnson said of the two stanzas that contain the ashes line, "I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here, persuades himself that he has always felt them" (Ketton-Cremer). The poet means to suggest that life is still speaking from the buried ashes—yet whose ashes are these? They are those of the safe dead, yet they also form a melancholic, personal estimation of the poet—alive but in the ashes of an entombed self.
When Gray asserts, "Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries" (91), he must feel the strength of a tremendous moment of human projection; his living soul is speaking for the abstraction, Nature. Then, the idea is reinforced with, "Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires" (92). In the "our" of this line, Gray achieves a kind of emotional closure and becomes more nearly one with the ironically vital dead.3
Perhaps it is at this exact moment of desperate recognition that he becomes "the central figure of the poem and occupies that place until the end" (Ketton-Cremer). At any rate, in the next line, Gray speaks of "thee," who relates these lines (93). Of course, the "me" of the beginning of the poem (4) and the "thee" here are the same being, for Gray suddenly distances his spirit from his everyday self. Moreover, this objectification of the soul is Gray's chance to take the whole journey of imagination—and the poem becomes his elegy, "his storied urn" as Cleanth Brooks suggests [in The Well Wrought Urn].
Gray then invokes a "hoary-headed Swain" (97) who would by chance ("haply") describe the poem's speaker, now depicted as a rather romantic youth, who is seen as pale and wandering, possibly "craz'd with care, or cross'd in hopeless love" (108). Frank Brady suggests [in "Structure and meaning in Gray's Elegy," in From Sensibility to Romanticism, edited by Hilles and Bloom] that "the swain's description of the narrator" shows that the narrator's "life is apparently unproductive and unfulfilled" (184). Then, the Swain is to tell the reader, who is suddenly referred to as a "kindred Spirit" (96), that the narrator is dead! He then invites the reader to read the narrator's epitaph, where an offering of the soul to God is recorded. We must understand that Gray—as narrator—has imaginatively entered the local society and has been long known to the swain, who is the second living farmer in the poem. In fact, he is the older parallel of the earlier rustic who "homeward plods his weary way" (3). That previous figure may have given Gray the first intimation of the farmer's warm reception at home as this imaginary swain yields Gray his escape from mere static contemplation.
The poet has now managed to stage a symbolic death so that his epitaph can be read in the churchyard. It is an unusual conception that allows Gray to break through the natural terror of dying in order to forge a relationship between a fear of death and an acceptance of that death. As the swain describes it, Gray's Romantic crisis becomes a self-immolation, a brief escape from his life, for he has moved on to a fearful insight: it is as if Gray and the deceased farmers share a complex species of mortality where the vital dead are more alive than the living speaker feels he is. Their very ashes contain a fire of life that the speaker senses he is missing, and, thus, they are the object of his sympathetic projection.
Perhaps Gray's personal sense of a buried life can be best approached from the end of the epitaph in which we are earlier told that "Melancholy mark'd him for her own" (120):
No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose)
The bosom of his Father and his God.
His frailties are undefined, but they are seen as existing along with his merits in a trembling condition lodged in "the bosom of his Father and his God." It is a strange view of eternal love that reposes the deceased one's attributes only in trembling hope—forever. Indeed, it is depressing, for it pictures God as a stern, judgmental father who holds this split youth (merits and frailties) in eternal abeyance like a bird in winter.
Gray's "Elegy," then, is as much about depression as it is about other species of entombments. Moreover, three years before his death in 1771, in the "Ode for Music," Gray once again referred to melancholy:
Oft at the blush of dawn
I trod your level lawn,
Oft woo'd the gleam of Cynthia silver-bright
In cloisters dim, far from the haunts of Folly,
With Freedom by my Side, and soft-ey'd Melancholy.
Ketton-Cremer suggests that the lines reflect Gray's life at Cambridge "remotely but unmistakably" (237).
However, the "Elegy" works because of the exquisite beauty of its language and the psychic complicity of the minds of readers with that of Thomas Gray. Our guide has disappeared; however, that is not an idiosyncratic moment of desertion but a great release of the imagination. Nevertheless, the vitality we project to the farmers and the buried speaker, is, of course, our own. Moreover, the poem serves as Gray's self-wrought myth, where life's verve is celebrated, a descent into the earth is recorded, yet a resurrection is shown. In fact, the "Elegy" presents the reader with the "moment of awareness, the essential substance of myth" [P. J. Aldus, Mousetrap: Structure and Meaning in "Hamlet"]. Therefore, readers return to the poem to take a journey underground while still in "this pleasing anxious being" (86). However, the "Elegy"'s exchange for our energy is a delight which turns us back to the world as we depart the poem's mimetic twilight with our own "wonted fires."
1 David Cecil points out that Gray was appointed Regius Professor of History in 1768—three years before his death. A wave of academic reform was in the air that same year, and "Gray was asked, in his new official capacity, to give his opinion" on what the Professor of History should actually do. He decided to prepare a lecture, but that never got "further than the first sketch." Cecil goes on to say that Gray suffered great guilt about this situation (231-34).
2 In 1768, Gray wrote a letter to Horace Walpole in which he suggested that he might understand in more than one way how a "heart once pregnant with celestial fire" could be stymied. He said, "However, I will be candid (for you seem to be so with me) and avow to you, that till fourscore-and-ten, 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" (Ketton-Cremer 226). As to education, which was Gray's good fortune, the poet does seem to express a concern about that fortune at least four times in the "Elegy." He speaks of the unlettered farmers, that is, "rude forefathers" (16), and he again emphasizes their lack of knowledge (49-50). Later, the "hoary-headed Swain" (97) seems to be unable to read and suggests that the reader of the "Elegy"—the "kindred Spirit" (96)—approach and read the narrator's own gravestone. Finally, "Fair Science"—that is, knowledge—is said to have been favorable to the narrator. Thus, we may assume Gray was keenly aware of his privileged position and that he may have suffered some guilt about it.
3 Furthermore, a study of the ashes line's compositional history shows the version in the Eton ms.—"And buried Ashes glow with social Fires." Starr and Hendrickson also give the version (in the same footnote) of the first edition (1751): "Awake, and faithful to her wonted Fires" (41). The line's last change arrives only in 1753 in the eighth edition (Ketton-Cremer 289). Here Gray fashions that useful ambiguity that includes the rustics, Gray, and all humankind: "Ev'n in our Ashes live their wonted Fires." It was his final touch to the "Elegy."
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Ketton-Cremer, R. W. Thomas Gray: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955, 310 p.
A detailed and insightful biography, replete with apt quotations from Gray's correspondence and several portraits of Gray and his contemporaries.
Mason, W[illiam]. "Memoirs & c." In The Works of Thomas Gray, 3d ed., by Thomas Gray, pp. 127ff. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807.
Highly favorable impressions of Gray's life and work by the poet's editor and longtime friend.
Mitford, John. "The Life of Thomas Gray." In The Poetical Works of Thomas Gray, by Thomas Gray, pp. i-cxxiv. London: William Pickering, 1836.
An eloquent and predominantly accurate biography that corrects several faulty assumptions propounded by William Mason in his memoirs of Gray.
Bentman, Raymond. "Thomas Gray and the Poetry of 'Hopeless Love'." Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, No. 2 (October 1992): 203-22.
Discusses Gray's emotional and sexual attraction to other men as evidenced in his letters and poems and comments on attitudes toward sodomy in early-eighteenth-century England.
Brady, Frank. "Structure and Meaning in Gray's 'Elegy'." In From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, edited by Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom, pp. 177-89. New York: Oxford University Pres, 1965.
Details the structural transformation of the "Elegy" effected by Gray's revision of the poem.
Bygrave, Stephen. "Gray's 'Elegy': Inscribing the Twilight." In Post-Structuralist Readings of English Poetry, edited by Richard Machin and Christopher Norris, pp. 162-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.
Explores the relationship between the "'private' syntax" and "'public' diction" of the "Elegy." Bygrave uses a number of other critical interpretations of the poem to buttress his argument.
Carper, Thomas R. "Gray's Personal Elegy." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 XVII, No. 3 (Summer 1977): 451-62.
Questions the critical theory that the later version of the "Elegy" is impersonal and objective in comparison with the earlier version. Carper maintains that both versions are intimately personal, noting that the primary themes of the "Elegy"—family, nature, and social rank—had been important concerns of Gray's since his college days.
Downey, James, and Ben Jones, eds. Fearful Joy: Papers from the Thomas Gray Bicentenary Conference at Carleton University. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1974, 266 p.
A collection of sixteen essays on Gray that, according to the editors, address "almost every important feature of his life and work." Among the subjects discussed are Gray's writings, including his correspondence; his scholarship; and his relationship to a number of other poets, including William Blake, Samuel Taylor Cole-ridge, William Wordsworth, and John Keats.
Edgecombe, R. S. "Diction and Allusion in Two Early Odes by Gray." The Durham University Journal n.s. XLVIII, No. 1 (December 1986): 31-6.
Examines the language of "Ode on the Spring" and "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," arguing that "the diction of these odes … is far from being the insensitively pompous and over-massive thing it is sometimes made out to be."
Edwards, Thomas R. "From Satire to Solitude." In Imagination and Power: A Study of Poetry on Public Themes, pp. 83-139. London: Chatto & Windus, 1971.
Comments on the themes of isolation and identity in the "Elegy" and examines Gray's attitudes toward rural and city life.
Ellis, R. J. "Plodding Plowmen: Issues of Labour and Literacy in Gray's 'Elegy'." In The Independent Spirit: John Clare and the Self-Taught Tradition, pp. 27-43. Helpston, England: The John Clare Society and The Margaret Grainger Memorial Trust, 1994.
An essay on the "Elegy" in which Ellis discusses the "stonecutter debate"—the question of the identity of "thee" in line ninety-three of the poem—in terms of the disparity between conventional pastoral discourse and actual rural conditions in mid-eighteenth-century England.
Foerster, Donald M. "Thomas Gray." In The Age of Johnson: Essays Presented to Chauncey Brewster Tinker, edited by Frederick W. Hilles, pp. 217-26. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949.
Examines Gray's reasons for writing and his attitude toward poetry, focusing on "The Bard."
Fry, Paul H. "The Tented Sky in the Odes of Collins." In The Poet's Calling in the English Ode, pp. 97-132. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
Analyzes Gray's odes as self-conscious experiments in the art of writing poetry, focusing on Gray's "human" and "public" poetic voices, his sense of alienation, and his theme of "distance as absence."
Gleckner, Robert F. Gray Agonistes: Thomas Gray and Masculine Friendship. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997, 231 p.
Studies Gray's "borrowings" from the poet John Milton and charts Gray's relationship with Richard West through an examination of both Gray's poetry and letters.
Golden, Morris. Thomas Gray. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988, 156 p.
A revised version of Golden's 1964 study of Gray. While Golden is "primarily concerned with Gray and with the nature and quality of his poems rather than with his and their place in English literature," he includes chapters entitled "Gray, the Man" and "Classical or Romantic?"
Hagstrum, Jean H. "Thomas Gray." In The Sister Arts: The Tradition of Literary Pictorialism and English Poetry from Dryden to Gray, pp. 287-314. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958.
Studies the pictorial elements in Gray's verse, focusing on the "Elegy," "The Progress of Poesy," and "The Bard."
Hutchings, W. "Conversations with a Shadow: Thomas Gray's Latin Poems to Richard West." Studies in Philology XCII, No. 1 (Winter 1995): 118-39.
Examines the Latin poems Gray wrote for Richard West, noting that, for Gray, the Latin language afforded the most intimate form of communication with his most intimate friend.
Hutchings, W. B., and William Ruddick, eds. Thomas Gray: Contemporary Essays. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1993, 279 p.
Twelve recent essays on Gray covering a range of topics, including the critical history of Gray's works, Gray's relationship to Lord Byron and William Wordsworth, Gray's poetic style, and Gray's travel writings.
Jack, Ian. "Gray's 'Elegy' Reconsidered." In From Sensibility to Romanticism: Essays Presented to Frederick A. Pottle, edited by Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom, pp. 139-69. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965.
A close study of the "Elegy" focusing on the technical aspects of Gray's diction and on the various poetic influences evident in the work.
Kaul, Suvir. Thomas Gray and Literary Authority: A Study in Ideology and Poetics. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1992, 269 p.
A reading of Gray's poems in terms of eighteenth-century cultural politics. Kaul studies the formal features, representational methods, thematic concerns, and ideological priorites of Gray's verse within the context of the literary and social practices of his day.
Lonsdale, Roger. "The Poetry of Thomas Gray: Versions of the Self." In Proceedings of the British Academy, Vol. LIX, pp. 105-23. London: Oxford University Press, 1975.
Uses the differences between the two versions of the "Elegy" as a starting point for a discussion of Gray's exploration of his poetic self.
Maclean, Kenneth. "The Distant Way: Imagination and Image in Gray's Poetry." In Fearful Joy: Papers from the Thomas Gray Bicentenary Conference at Carlton University, edited by James Downey and Ben Jones, pp. 136-45. McGill-Queen's University Press, 1974.
Identifies the major themes and images in Gray's poetry, and concludes that "nature and art move evenly across his page, as do feeling and learning."
Pettersson, Torsten. Literary Interpretation: Current Models and a New Departure. Abo: Abo Akademis Forlag Abo Academy Press, 1988, 132 p.
Defines the nature and characteristics of literary criticism in the twentieth century using four different critical interpretations of the "Elegy" as a point of departure.
Redford, Bruce. "The Allusiveness of Thomas Gray." In The Converse of the Pen: Acts of Intimacy in the Eighteenth-Century Letter, pp. 95-132. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986.
Examines Gray's use of "elusion, allusion, and illusion" in his letters to friends, linking the obliquity of Gray's correspondence to his need for privacy.
Sha, Richard C. "Gray's Political 'Elegy': Poetry as the Burial of History." Philological Quarterly 69, No. 3 (Summer 1990): 337-57.
Seeks to understand the "Elegy" in terms of the historical particulars surrounding the poem, focusing on Gray's treatment of the rural poor.
Starr, Herbert W., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of Gray's Elegy: A Collection of Critical Essays. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968, 120 p.
A collection of twelve important modern essays on the "Elegy." Critics represented include Ian Jack, A. E. Dyson, and Cleanth Brooks.
Summers, Claude J., ed. Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Reresentations in Historical Context. New York: Haworth Press, 1992, 222 p.
Argues that the features of the "Elegy" commonly attributed to Gray's melancholy were actually shaped by Gray's own awareness of his homosexuality.
Watson, George. "The Voice of Gray." Critical Quarterly 19, No. 4 (Winter 1977): 51-7.
Explores the nature and purpose of Gray's use of grammatical indeterminacies in the "Elegy."
Weinbrot, Howard D. "Gray's 'Elegy': A Poem of Moral Choice and Resolution." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 XVIII, No. 3 (Summer 1978): 537-51.
Argues that the "Elegy" is about eternal life, rather than death, because the speaker of the poem surrenders himself to God's will by learning to accept his humble station in life.
Wright, George T. "Stillness and the Argument of Gray's 'Elegy'." Modem Philology 74, No. 4 (May 1977): 381-89.
Contends that the principal subject of the "Elegy" is the nature and meaning of epitaphs.
Zionkowski, Linda. "Bridging the Gulf between: The Poet and the Audience in the Work of Gray." ELH 58, No. 2 (Summer 1991): 331-50.
Discusses Gray's views on his role as an author, his relationship with his audience, and his attitude toward the contemporary system of literature.
Additional coverage of Gray's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Literature Criticism from 1400 to 1800, Vol. 4 and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 2.