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THE POETRY OF THOMAS GRAY.
(From Essay on Gray's Works, Prose Works I.)
If a judicious reader were to take the trouble of comparing some of the most familiar of Burns's stanzas with the most elaborate lines of the polished Pope, or the fastidious Gray, it would be found that the merit of superior correctness would, in nine cases out of ten, be awarded to Burns. Gray is, indeed, one of the most inaccurate, precisely because one of the most artificial of poets. Of this the melodious opening of his greatest and most careful poem affords an example:
»The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
Now fades the glimmering landscapes, &c. That we may not appear hypercritical for the sake of our own argument, we will borrow, with some abridgment, the shrewd and sound observations that we find in the edition we now review. The curfew tolls Ist. The word toll is not the appropriate verb - the curfew - bell was not a slow bell tolling for the dead; 2ndly. Long before the curfew tolled the ploughman had wended his way homeward; 3rdly. The day was not parting, when the curfew tolled it had long since parted; 4thly. If the world were left to darkness in one line, how happens it, first, that in the very next line – »the glimmering landscape fades«? and, secondly, that we
are almost immediately afterwards told that the moping owl is complaining to the moon? These are not mere verbal criticisms; – they are proofs that the writer is incorrect in his whole picture; because he does not portray what he is seeing, or has seen; he is heaping together incongruous images about evening, collected from books, and compiled in a study. The incorrectness is equally perceptible
in the whole as in the details. In many other lines of this Elegy (the beauties of which are, nevertheless, as indisputable as they are striking), similar inaccuracies abound, more or less venial in proportion as they are faults only in the expression, such as the barbarism
»Busy housewife ply her evening care ; « or the tautology of
»For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn;« as they are faults in the truth of the image and the thought, such as those we have touched upon in the opening stanza. And this, the characteristic fault of the fastidious Gray, had its origin in his seeking The Correct in a wrong source, not drawing it from practical and actual observation, but from verbal rules, and often from graceful imitations of ancient poets. It was but rarely that Gray followed Sir Philip Sidney's advice, to look in his heart and write«.
But in Burns, inferior as was his education, imperfect his knowledge of the square and measure of the architects of verse, the wording is accurate, the picture complete, because, faithful to nature and to truth, he is uttering simply what he has observed, or expressing passionately what he has felt;
and criticism dies without a sign upon his descriptions of nature, or his revelations of sentiment.
Yet Gray was a great poet, though his faults lie precisely in the quarter whence his merits have been vulgarly drawn. He was not an accurate writer, and, in the larger and purer sense of the epithet, he was not a classical one; he was not classical, for he had neither the faith, the simplicity, nor the independent originality which constitute the characteristics of the poets of Greece. Learned he was, but the classical poets were not learned. Pindar's rapture never lived in the lyre of Gray, for Gray never knew what the rapture of poesy is. Painfully and minutely laborious, diffident of his own powers, weighing words in a balance, borrowing a thought here, and a phrase there, Gray wrote English as he wrote Latin. It was a dead language to him, in which he sought to acquire an elegant proficiency by using only the epithets and the phrases rendered orthodox by the best models. But he was no vulgar plagiarist deficiency of invention became productive of a beauty peculiarly his own, and created a kind of poetry of association; so that in reading Gray we are ever haunted with a delightful and vague reminiscence of the objects of a former
admiration or love, as early things and thoughts that are recalled to us by some exquisite air of music, and in some place most congenial to dreamlike recollections of grace and beauty.
But though in things external Gray is not an accurate painter, because, either not a close observer of nature herself, or, what is more likely, not a faithful translator of what he had observed, yet in those veins of sentiment and thought that streak with such beauty the composition of his poems, he is usually original and truthful. The reflections in his celebrated Elegy – the sweet and tender pathos of the sentiment that pervades the Ode to Eton College - are drawn from deep and sincere springs. It is one characteristic indeed of Gray, that he embodies thoughts the most simple in a style the most artificial.
The influence of Gray's poetry has not passed away, though it be not very visibly traced. It is true that Runic Odes and Elegies on Ruins no longer fill our magazines; but the spirit survives the form in which it breathed. Gray was the first to pay elaborate attention to the glitter of epithets and the ornate and overburthened richness of diction. We may detect his influence wherever we now find these characteristics. We look round in vain for inheritors of the simple graces of Goldsmith, but Gray lives again in that wide host of bards who seem to think of the Muse as peasants think of the Queen, that she cannot walk in the garden without a crown and sceptre »with gems on all her fingers and rings on all her toes!«
Perhaps in that reaction of taste reserved for some succeeding generation it will be discovered how much the glare of diction – the profuse pomp of each individual line mar the effect and unity of a poem; how much they tend to break up the whole work into glittering fragments, and how much the strength and simplicity of passion are enfeebled by an excess of vocabular decoration.
The immediate interest which the proceedings of the Legislature have attached to the existent Law of Arrest, and its probable reform, induce me to relate the following story.
Once upon a time there lived at Hamburgh a certain merchant of the name of Meyer
man; charitable to the poor, hospitable to his friends, and so rich that he was extremely respected, in spite of his good nature. Among that part of his property which was vested in other people's hands, and called » debts«, was the sum of five hundred pounds owed to him by the Captain of an English vessel. This debt had been so long contracted, that the worthy Meyer began to wish for a new investment of his capital. He accordingly resolved to take a trip to Portsmouth, in which town Captain Jones was then residing; and take that liberty which in my opinion should in a free country never be permitted, viz. the liberty of applying for his money.
Our worthy merchant one bright morning found himself at Portsmouth; he was a stranger to that town, but not altogether unacquainted with the English language. He lost no time in calling on Captain Jones.
» And vat?« said he to a man whom he asked to conduct him to the Captain's house, »vat is dat fine veshell yondare?
» She be the Royal Sally«, replied the man, »bound for Calcutta -- sails to-morrow; but here's Captain Jones's house, Sir, and he'll tell you all about it«.
The merchant bowed, and knocked at the door of a redbrick house - door green brass knocker. Captain Gregory Jones was a tall man; he wore a blue jacket without skirts; he had high cheek bones, small eyes, and his whole appearance was eloquent of what is generally termed the bluff honesty of the seaman.
Captain Gregory Jones seemed somewhat disconcerted at seeing his friend – he begged for a little further time. The merchant looked grave -- three years had already elapsed. . The Captain demurred – the merchant pressed; – the Captain blustered and the merchant, growing angry, began to threaten. All of a sudden Captain Jones's manner changed - he seemed to recollect himself, begged pardon, said he could easily .procure the money, desired the merchant to go back to his inn, and promised to call on him in the course of the day. Mynheer Meyer went home, and ordered an excellent dinner. Time passed his friend came not. Meyer grew impatient. He had just put on his hat and was walking out, when the waiter threw open the door, and announced two gentlemen.
> Ah, dere comes de monish«, thought Mynheer Meyer. The gentlemen approached the taller one whipped out what seemed to Meyer a receipt. „Ah, ver vell, I will sign, ver vell!c
> Signing, Sir, is useless; you will be kind enough to accompany us. This is a warrant for debt, Sir; my house is extremely comfortable – gentlemen of the first fashion go there quite moderate, too, only a guinea a-day find your own wine, « »I do
understand, Sare«, said the merchant, smiling amiably, >I am ver vell off here – thank you —«
> Come, come«, said the other gentleman, speaking for the first time, »no parlavoo, Monseer, you are our prisoner
this is a warrant for the sum of 10,000 l. due to Captain Gregory Jones «.
The merchant stared -- the merchant frowned but so it was. Captain Gregory Jones, who owed Mynheer Meyer 500 l., had arrested Mynheer Meyer for 10,000 l.; for, as every one knows, any man may arrest us who has conscience enough to swear that we owe him money. Where was Mynheer Meyer in a strange town to get bail? Mynheer Meyer went to prison.
» Dis be a strange vay of paying a man his monish!« said Mynheer Meyer.
In order to wile away time, our merchant, who was wonderfully social, scraped acquaintance with some of his fellow-prisoners. » Vat be you in prishon for?« said he to a stout respectable-looking man who seemed in a violent passion »for vat crime?«
»I, Sir, crime!« quoth the prisoner; » Sir, I was going to Liverpool to vote at the election, when a friend of the opposite candidate's had me suddenly arrested for 2,000 l. Before I get bail the election will be over!«
» Vat's that you tell me? arrest you to prevent you giving an honesht vote? is that justice?«
> Justice, no!« cried our friend, it's the Law of Arrest«.
> And vat be you in prishon fort« said the merchant, pityingly, to a thin cadaverous-looking object, who ever and anon applied a handkerchief to eyes that were worn with weeping.
»An attorney offered a friend of mine to discount a bill, if he could obtain a few names to indorse it - I, Sir, indorsed it. The bill became due, the next day the attorney arrested all whose names were on the bill; there were eight of us, the law allows him to charge two guineas for each; there are sixteen guineas, Sir, for the lawyer — but I, Sir — alas! my family will starve before I shall be released. Sir, there are a set of men called discounting attornies, who live upon the profits of entrapping and arresting us poor folk«,