EVERY boy who leaves Eton creditably is presented with a copy of the works of Gray, for which everything has been done that the art of printers, bookbinders and photographers can devise. This is one of the most curious instances of the triumphs of genius, for there is hardly a single figure in the gallery of Etonians who is so little characteristic of Eton as Gray. His only poetical utterance about his school is one which is hopelessly alien to the spirit of the place, though the feelings expressed in it are an exquisite summary of those sensations of pathetic interest which any rational man feels at the sight of a great school. And yet, though the attitude of the teacher of youth is professedly and rightly rather that of encouragement than of warning, though he points to the brighter hopes of life rather than brandishes the horrors that infest it, yet the last word that Eton says to her sons is spoken in the language of one to whom elegy was a habitual and deliberate tone.
Gray's was in many ways a melancholy life. His vitality was low, and such happiness as he enjoyed was of a languid kind. Physically and emotionally he was unfit to cope with realities, and this though he never felt the touch of some of the most crushing evils that humanity sustains. He was never poor, he was never despised, he had many devoted friends; but on the other hand he had a wretched and diseased constitution, he suffered from all sorts of prostrating complaints, from imaginary insolences, violent antipathies, and want of sympathy. Fame such as is rarely accorded to men came to him: he was accepted as without doubt the first of living English poets; but he took no kind of pleasure in it. He was horrified to find himself a celebrity; he declined to be Poet Laureate; he refused honorary degrees; when at Cambridge the young scholars are said to have left their dinners to see him as he passed in the street, it was a sincere pain to him. Cowper counterbalanced his fits of unutterable melancholy by his hours of tranquil serenity over teacups and muffins and warm coal-fires, with the curtains drawn close. Johnson enlivened his boding depression by tyrannizing over an adoring circle. But Gray's only compensations were his friends. Any one who knows Gray's letters to and about his young friend Bonstetten, knows how close and warm it is possible for friendship to be.
No biography is more simple than Gray's. From Eton he passed to Cambridge, which was practically his home for the rest of his life. He went as a young man on a long foreign tour of nearly three years with Horace Walpole, quarrelled, and came back alone, both afterwards claiming to have been in the wrong; he travelled in England and Scotland a little; he lived a little in London and a good deal at Stoke Poges, where he kept a perfect menagerie of aged aunts, and he died somewhat prematurely at the age of fifty. He spent in all more than twenty years at Cambridge—the only event that interrupted his life there being his move from Peterhouse to Pembroke, across the road, in consequence of an offensive practical joke played on him by some undergraduates, who, working on his morbid dread of fire, induced him by their cries to leave the window of his room by means of a rope-ladder, and descend into a tub of water placed ready for this purpose. The authorities at Peterhouse seem to have made no sort of attempt to punish this wanton outrage, nor to have been anxious to keep him at their college.
So he lived on at Cambridge, hating the "silly dirty place," as he calls it. The atmosphere, physical and mental, weighed on his spirits with leaden dulness. In one of his early letters he speaks of it as the land indicated by the prophet, where the ruined houses were full of owls and doleful creatures. He often could not bring himself to go there, and once there, his spirits sank so low that he could not prevail on himself to move. Almost the only part he took in the public life of the place was to write and circulate squibs and lampoons on people and local politics, most of which have fortunately perished; those that remain are coarse and vindictive. Nevertheless he had some true friends there: Mason, his worshipper and biographer, Dr. Brown, the Master of Pembroke, in whose arms he died, and several others. He held no office there and did no work for the place, till late in his life the Professorship of Modern History, a mere sinecure, for which he had unsuccessfully applied six years previously, came to him unsolicited. It was his aim throughout to be considered a gentleman who read for his own amusement, and with that curious fastidiousness which was so characteristic of him, he considered it beneath him to receive money for his writings, the copyrights of which he bestowed upon his publisher. Forty pounds for a late edition of his poems is said to be the only money of this kind that he ever handled. But he was, as has been said, well off, at least in his later years. He had a country-house at Wanstead which he let, a house in Cornhill, property at Stoke, and, though he sank some money in a large annuity, he died worth several thousand pounds.
It might be thought that such a life, meagre and solitary as it was, would furnish few details to a biographer, and this is to a certain extent true; but about Gray there is a peculiar atmosphere of attractiveness. He went his own way, thought his own thoughts, and did not concern himself in the least with the ordinary life of people round about him, except to despise them. This disdainful attitude is always an attractive one. The recluse stimulates curiosity; and when we pass behind the scenes and see the high purity of the life, the wide and deep ideals always floating before such a man, the wonder grows. He lived unconsciously at so high a level that he could not conceive how low and animal lives were possible to men; he owned to no physical impulses; he held that there was no knowledge unworthy of the philosopher, except theology; and over the whole of his existence hung that shadow of doom which lends a pathetic interest to the lives of the meanest of mankind.
When such a man is the author of the most famous poem of pure sentiment in the English language, as well as of smaller pieces by which some readers are fascinated, most impressed, and each of which has enriched the world with one or more eternal phrases, our interest is indefinitely increased, because isolation only ceases to be interesting when it is self-absorbed and self-centred. Gray, on the other hand, suppressed himself so effectually in his writings that he even caused them for some readers to forfeit that personal interest that is so attractive to most. "We are all condemned," he says, "to lonely grief,"—"the tender for another's pain, the unfeeling for his own;" one of the latter could never have written these words.
The deeper that we enter into such a life, the more fascinating it becomes. All Gray's tastes were natural and yet high; whatever he sets his hand to ceases to be dull; he had a transfiguring touch; he was moreover a strangely unconscious precursor of modern tastes and fancies, in such things as his self-created taste for architecture and antiquities, by communicating which to Horace Walpole (for Gray's influence can be surely traced in Horace's artistic development) he succeeded in making fashionable; his dignified preferences in art, his rapturous devotion to music, especially to Pergolesi and the contemporary Roman school, whose airs he would sit crooning to himself, playing his own accompaniment on the harpsichord in the high unvisited rooms at Pembroke; his penchant for heraldry, his educational theories, his minute and accurate investigations of Nature, as close and loving as Gilbert White's, recording as he does the break of dry clear weather into warm wet winds, the first flight of ladybirds, the first push of crocuses, the first time he heard the redstart's note in thebushes and the thrush fluting about the butts of the old college gardens, "scattering," as he said in a lovely impromptu line that he made in a walk near Cambridge, "her loose notes in the waste of air." In 1740 he wrote from Florence to a friend:
"To me there hardly appears any medium between a public life and a private one; he who prefers the first must feel himself in a way of being serviceable to the rest of mankind, if he has a mind to be of any consequence among them. Nay, he must not refuse being in a certain degree dependent upon some men who are so already; if he has the good fortune to light on such as will make no ill use of his humility, there is no shame in this. If not, his ambition ought to give place to a reasonable pride, and he should apply to the cultivation of his own mind those abilities which he has not been permitted to use for others' service; such a private happiness (supposing a small competence of fortune) is almost in every one's power, and is the proper enjoyment of age, as the other is the proper employment of youth."
And this was the programme to which Gray settled down. In what vast schemes of study he indulged we do not know; but we do know that he gave five years to a comprehensive survey of Greek literature, taking prose and verse alternately, like bread and cheese; he contemplated and wrote notes for an edition of Strabo; he translated many Greek epigrams into Latin verse, curiously weighing his words for weeks together; he read history exhaustively, with such tenacious accuracy that he could correct in the margin with the everlasting pencil dates and names in a Chinese dynasty—"a dismal waste of energy and power," sigh his biographers. No, it was no waste, for this was Gray. He wrote no more poetry, except a few "autumnal verses" still unidentified. He could not write any. Mr. Matthew Arnold, in his delicate essay, blames the age for this; he puts Gray's reticence down to a want of literary sympathy and intellectual stimulus. Had Gray been born with Milton or with Burns, he says he would have been a different man. We may thankfully doubt it. Gray's nature, Gray's powers of production, would have been far more liable to be crushed into extinction by the consciousness of the existence of a superior artist, fluent and sublime. He would have read and wondered, and thrown aside his pen. The fact that he could strike out better verse and nobler thoughts than his contemporaries, though it did not urge him to prolific production, made him at least not ashamed of work that gained by comparison with the work of all living artists; but a genius on the scene would have elbowed Gray out altogether. To take the very first instance that comes to hand of his fastidious discontent, consider the two exquisite stanzas which he struck out of the Elegy for no more adequate reason than that "they made too long a parenthesis."
There scattered oft, the earliest of the year,
By hands unseen, are showers of violets found;
The redbreast loves to build and warble there,
And little footsteps lightly print the ground.
Him have we seen the greenwood side along,
While o'er the heath we hied, our labours done,
Oft as the woodlark piped her farewell song,
With wistful eyes pursue the setting sun.
Akenside or Mason, Dyer or Armstrong, if they had lit upon any one of these delightful lines, would have made a whole poem in which to set it, and have been well content.
Perhaps his own words best describe the intrinsic characteristics of his writings: "Thoughts that breathe and words that burn." Gray's thoughts, the elegiac poet's thoughts, are common property, after all; every one has felt them, or something like them; the poet has got, so to speak, to make a formula which shall cover all the vague, blind variations of which every one is conscious. When he has thus made thought live, expression comes next, and here Gray surpasses almost every English poet. The words literally eat their way into memory and imagination; the epithets seize upon the nouns and crown them. Take such a stanza as the one to which Dr. Johnson gave a grudging admiration:
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?
Try the effect of substitution or suppression on a stanza like that! Nothing can be spared; the gap if created could not be filled. A good instance of this is in a little posthumous poem of Gray's, written on a sheet of paper from which the lower right-hand corner has been unfortunately torn, thus depriving the last three lines of the last stanza of their last words. Both Mason and Mitford tried their hands at restoring the text. Mason's is the best, but they are both hopelessly far away. The lines run thus, Mitford's emendations being given above Mason's.
Enough to me if to some feeling breast
My lines a secret sympathy impart,
And as the pleasing influence flows confest
A sigh of soft reflection heaves the heart.
The only thing of which we feel certain is that neither is near the truth.
It is not only in Gray's poetry that this sure touch is visible. I do not know any more simple or yet more worthy epitaph than the one that he wrote for his mother. "In the same pious confidence, beside her friend and sister, sleep the remains of Dorothy Gray, widow, the careful tender mother of many children, one of whom alone had the misfortune to survive her." Given the circumstances and, so to speak, the sense, how many people could have produced such an ideal of tender dignity?
It is not within the scope of these essays to make large quotations, but page after page of Gray's letters illustrate this felicitous and apposite handling. In Horace Walpole's quaint diction: "His letters are the best I ever saw, and had more novelty and wit." But besides the perfection of style they have a charming meditative tone, combined with a certain subtle humour running through them. Moreover, Gray exercised to the full the privilege of allusion. Out of his teeming mind, echoes and memories, images and unsuspected likenesses streamed, encircling all that he thought or wrote. The perfection of classical culture, the departure of which we cannot help deploring, even though it may have been succeeded by a wider and freer sentiment, is seen in him; not only are his quotations exquisite, but there is a forgotten music which haunts his sentences and words, even in the very nicknames with which it was his delight to dub his friends.
I venture to quote the exquisite description of Burnham Beeches, which cannot be too well-known.
"I have, at the distance of half a mile through a green lane, a forest (the vulgar call it a common) all my own, at least as good as so, for I spy no human thing in it but myself. It is a little chaos of mountains and precipices, mountains, it is true, that do not ascend much above the clouds, nor are the declivities quite so amazing as Dover Cliff, but just such hills as people who love their necks as well as I do may venture to climb, and crags that give the eye as much pleasure as if they were more dangerous. Both vale and hill are covered with most venerable beeches and other very reverend vegetables, that like most other ancient people are always dreaming out their old stories to the winds. At the foot of one of these squats ME (Il Penseroso), and there I grow to the trunk for a whole morning. The timorous hare and sportive squirrel gambol around me like Adam in Paradise before he had an Eve, but I think he did not use to read Virgil as I commonly do."
In this letter emerges that fact which at least no one disputes, that Gray discovered and introduced the taste for natural scenery. He was nearly the first to love the hills and woods for themselves. He found out Wordsworth's favourite prospects in the lakes when Wordsworth was a dumb baby; he gazed upon Scotland and the Alps with a reverent awe. It was a time when writers about Nature's loveliness were accustomed to describe her with their back to the study-window, and the only Nature that such men as Shenstone and Akenside revelled in was Nature as they had themselves adapted her. Gray was the first to take her as he found her.
To any one who is familiar with it, the quiet Buckinghamshire country where Gray lived comes to have a peculiar charm. Lower down, nearer the Thames, the land is oppressively flat, but Burnham and Stoke are on higher ground, broken into innumerable little undulations, with copses in the hollows, and little lanes, meandering about for no apparent purpose except their own pleasure. It is a gravel soil, and immemorial excavations which indent the surfaces of all the hills and fields give a pleasant character to the whole. The wayfarer is for ever looking down into pits full nearly to the brim of ferns and brambles, elder plants and young ash-suckers; the great bare sweeps of the fields, with the rounded gravel lying thick among the thin vegetation, are broken by little hollows full of ragwort and the brisk hardy bugloss and a dozen other light-soil plants. Of Burnham Beeches itself it is unnecessary to speak. The old wreathed trunks full of gaping mouths and eyes, standing in the green twilight knee-deep in ferns, have a character that no other trees wear, and the breaks of moorland scenery, heathery sweeps dotted with tall fir spinnies, out of which the owls call on summer nights—all this is true forest, and needs no praise; but the roads and lanes themselves, with the venerable hump-backed Buckinghamshire cottages, with houseleek and stonecrop on the roof, the moated farms, the parks set with noble cedars, the high-shouldered barns, all these are full of delight. The pedestrian may climb the long slope to Burnham and gaze up its straggling red-brick street; the quaint cupola of the church, familiar to Gray, has lately, alas! fallen before a whirlwind of restoration, and given place to a neat spire; he may pass on to Britwell, a house, half-grange, half-mansion, with a modern tower, where Gray used to live with his gouty uncle, a Nimrodemeritus, who, too broken to ride out, used to regale himself upon the "comfortable sound and stink" of his hounds. The elm-girt paddocks and the tall plane-trees must be much as they were then. By Nut Hall, with its close of ancient walnuts, he may pass through East Burnham village, and finally descend upon Stoke itself by West-end House, still nestling in trees, where Gray was petted and coddled by his old aunts till he was too lazy even to go down to Eton, which lay full in view from the brow that spread half a mile below him. The tall chimneys of the manor, the hideous white dome of the park, the church ivy-girt and irregular, the churchyard surrounded by old brick walls on three sides, over which tower the foliage of yews and cedars—all these he may see. The only memorial of Gray, save a tablet, is the one thing which he himself would have loathed. On a rising ground stands a huge cube of stone with marble panels, crowned with a sarcophagus of the kind that suggests a hopeless prisoner for ever trying to force up the lid. This was the best that they could do for Gray!
It is only quite lately that the aid of Mr. Thornycroft, a sculptor of a genius akin to Gray's, has been invoked to decorate her hall with a worthy monument of the poet.
Shelley's letters are said by some to be the best ever written, but I cannot think that they come near to Gray's. With that independence so characteristic of him, Gray and Horace Walpole are perhaps the only writers of the time who entirely escape the Johnsonian contagion. Johnson's style, as written by Johnson himself, has indeed most of the elements of magnificence; unfortunately it is also very useful for concealing the absence of ideas. Gray's English, on the other hand, is pure and stately, and never diffuse; he said what he had to say and was done with it; he never appears to be endeavouring to "get in diction," as so many of the imitators of the Doctor undeniably did. In this respect it resembles Johnson's conversation, and for the art of statement it is hardly possible to say more.
Some slight affectation is traceable in the earliest letters. They are mostly written to his young and brilliant friend, West, by whose premature death literature, we may believe, was a loser. "Take my word and experience upon it," he writes for example, "doing nothing is a most amusing business, and yet neither something nor nothing give me any pleasure. For this little while past I have been playing at Statius. We yesterday had a game of quoits together. You will easily forgive me for having broke his head, as you have a little pique with him." He means to say that he has been translating him. West replies in the same strain. "I agree with you that you have broke Statius' head, but it is in like manner as Apollo broke Hyacinth's—you have foiled him infinitely at his own weapons."
This is sad posturing, and only excusable in very young and clever men. These letters are, however, fortunately relieved by a short note, in which he is very humanly rude to his tutor.
As a specimen of the early style at its best, I may quote the following, written from Rome in imitation of a classical epistle:
"I am to-day just returned from Alba, a good deal fatigued, for you know the Appian is somewhat tiresome. We dined at Pompey's; he indeed was gone for a few days to his Tusculan, but by the care of his villicus we made an admirable meal. We had the dugs of a pregnant sow, a peacock, a dish of thrushes, a noble scarus just fresh from the Tyrrhene, and some conchylia of the lake with garum sauce. For my part I never eat better at Lucullus' table. We drank half a dozen cyathi apiece of ancient Alban to Pholoe's health, and after bathing and playing an hour at ball, we mounted our essedum again, and proceeded up the mount to the temple. The priests there entertained us with an account of a wonderful shower of birds' eggs that had fallen two days before, which had no sooner touched the ground but they were converted into gudgeons; as also that the night past a dreadful voice had been heard out of the Adytum, which spoke Greek during a full half hour, but nobody understood it."
That is nothing short of admirable; it catches the subtle classical flavour, and intermingles it with the later humour of which the Roman mind seemed so singularly destitute.
Among these earlier letters, however, there are charming passages in his natural manner. What could be better than this humorous description of Peterhouse and his life there?
"My motions at present (which you are pleased to ask after) are much like those of a pendulum or oscillatory. I swing from Chapel or Hall home, and from home to Chapel or Hall. All the strange incidents that happen in my journeys and returns I shall be sure to acquaint you with. The most wonderful is that it now rains exceedingly; this has refreshed the prospect, as the way for the most part lies between green fields on either hand terminated with buildings at some distance—castles I presume, and of great antiquity. The roads are very good, being as I presume the work of Julius Cæsar's army, for they still preserve in many places the appearance of a pavement in pretty good repair, and if they were not so near home, might perhaps be as much admired as the Via Appia. There are at present several rivulets to be crossed, and which serve to enliven the view all around; the country is exceeding fruitful in ravens and such black cattle; but not to trouble you with my travels I abruptly conclude."
But perhaps the most striking characteristic throughout the whole series are the extraordinarily felicitous criticisms, and the soundness of the taste which he brought to bear on an author. It is true he made mistakes; he spoke of Collins as a writer that deserved to live, but that would not; and he, like many other clever men, was carried off his feet by the rage for Ossian. Like other critics he was misled by the accounts of interviews with Macpherson, who appeared to be a dull, unintelligent person, incapable of originating or of putting together even such a composition as Fingal; besides, the difficulty of getting solid testimony on the subject seems to have been extreme. Gray's last word on the subject is: "For me, I admire nothing but Fingal, yet I remain still in doubt about the authenticity of these poems, though inclining to believe them genuine in spite of the world. Whether they are the inventions of antiquity, or of a modern Scotchman, either case is to me alike unaccountable. Je m'y perds." We, nowadays, with all the barbarous treasures of Indian and Scandinavian literatures about us, find it hard to understand how fascinating the opening of such a mine must have been, even when the ore extracted was such thin stuff as Ossian; the old rude primitive world, as simple as Homer, fighting and singing in desolate Northern forests, seems to have been altogether too much even for the discrimination of Gray; his imagination was taken captive; he dreamed of little else; we have several disappointing attempts of his own to imitate the ancient Icelandic staves, and of Ossian, or rather Macpherson, he writes: "This man in short is the very Dæmon of poetry, or he has lighted on a treasure hid for ages." We may forgive him for having floundered here. Dr. Johnson, whose imagination was not so strong as his common-sense, was the only man not misled.
But Gray on Aristotle, Gray on Froissart is admirable; his pungent criticism on Shaftesbury, too long to quote, is a perfect masterpiece; even his verbal criticisms on the poor stuff with which Mason inundated him, are wonderfully patient and acute. It may be worth while to hear Gray on other people's elegies. He writes to Mason: "All I can say is, that your elegy must not end with the worst line in it; it is flat, it is prose, whereas that above all ought to sparkle, or at least to shine. If the sentiment must stand, twist it a little into an apophthegm, stick a flower into it, gild it with a costly expression, let it strike the fancy, the ear or the heart, and I am satisfied." Again he writes, on the nature of elegiac writing: "Nature and sorrow and tenderness are the true genius of such things; poetical ornaments are foreign to the purpose—for they only show that a man is not sorry—and devotion worse, for that teaches him that he ought not to be sorry, which is all the pleasure of the thing."
Yet he could condescend to a little good-natured puffing of his friend's writings. He sends Mason's tragedy, Caractacus, a tiresome work, to a friend. "You will receive to-morrowCaractacus, piping hot, I hope before any one else has it. Observe it is I that send it, for Mason makes no presents to any one whatever; and moreover you are desired to lend it to nobody, that we may sell the more of them,—for money, not fame, is the declared purpose of all we do. He has had infinite fits of affectation as the hour approached, and is now gone into the country for a week, like a new-married couple."
He mistrusts his powers as a critic: "You know I do not love, much less pique myself on criticism, and think even a bad verse as good a thing or better than the best observation that was ever made upon it." Indeed his diffidence with regard to his own work was profound. This is the first announcement of the completion of the Elegy: "I have been here at Stoke a few days, and having put an end to a thing, whose beginning you have seen long ago, I immediately send it to you. 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 and are like to want."
The following contains a pathetic touch; the diffident man's silent hankering after recognition: "I cannot brag of my spirits, my situation, my employments, or my fertility; the days and the nights pass, and I am never the nearer to anything but that one to which we are all tending. Yet I love people that leave some traces of their journey behind them, and have strength enough to advise you to do so while you can; winter is the season of harvest to an author."
This is his own account of his powers of composition: "I by no means pretend to inspiration, but yet I affirm that the faculty in question [of composition] is by no means voluntary. It is the result (I suppose) of a certain disposition of mind, which does not depend on one's self, and which I have not felt this long time. You that are a witness how seldom this spirit has moved me in my life, may easily give credit to what I say." The great Doctor, whose favourite maxim it was that any one can write at any time who sets himself "doggedly" to it, was profoundly irritated by this. He speaks of Gray's "fantastic" notion that he could not write except at happy moments; a "foppery," he adds, "to which my kindness for a man of learning makes me wish that he had been superior."
Gray was a master of the art of delicate moralising. I cannot help wondering that more literary apophthegms have not been extracted from his writings. Here is one for example: "I am persuaded that the whole matter is to have always something going forward." And again: "You mistake me, I was always a friend to employment and no foe to money; but they are no friends to each other. Promise me to be always busy, and I will allow you to be rich." Or more solemnly still:
"A life spent out of the world has its hours of despondence, its inconveniences, its sufferings as numerous and real (though not quite of the same sort) as a life spent in the midst of it. The power we have, when we will exert it, over our own minds, joined to a little strength and consolation, nay, a little pride we catch from those that seem to love us, is our only support in either of these conditions. I am sensible I cannot return to you so much of this assistance as I have received from you. I can only tell you that one who has far more reason than you I hope will ever have, to look on life with something worse than indifference, is yet no enemy to it, and can look back on many bitter moments, partly with satisfaction, and partly with patience, and forward too, on a scene not very promising, with some hope and some expectations of a better day."
The last extract is particularly characteristic, and strikes a note which sounds again and again throughout the letters. Gray was deeply serious. Seriousness unrelieved by humour is tiresome; but Gray, however melancholy he felt, could always retire a few paces and view himself as a spectator, with a smile. It is the truth that we do not really love a man unless we are sure that he is serious; he may amuse us and fascinate us, but he does nothing more. And Gray was never cynical; below his humour and contempt lay a deep regard for the holiness of life, for friendship and loyalty and old-fashioned virtues. Shelley attracts us, but we do not feel sure of him: our respect for Gray grows with every page we turn.
Of his humour it is difficult to give specimens. Isolated from the connection in which they occur they lose half their charm; there is a habitual tone, a point of view, of which extracts can give no idea. But it may perhaps be worth while to give a sentence or two to illustrate his habit of viewing himself. On settling in London he writes: "I am just settled in my new habitation in Southampton Row; and though a solitary and dispirited creature, not ungenial nor wholly unpleasant to myself. I live in the Museum and write volumes of antiquity." That was the sort of life that suited him. Nothing tires him, he declares, more than being entertained. "I am come to my resting-place, and find it very necessary, after living for a month in a house with three women, that laughed from morning to night, and would allow nothing to the sulkiness of my disposition. Company and cards at home, parties by land and water abroad, and (what they call)doing something, that is, racketing about from morning to night, are occupations I find that wear out my spirits, especially in a situation where one might sit still and be alone with pleasure; for the place was a hill like Clifden, opening to a very extensive and diversified landscape, with the Thames, which is navigable, running at its foot."
He does not indulge much in anecdote, nor indeed in witticisms of a direct kind, but when he met with a story that pleased him, he sent it on. The following seems to have taken his fancy, as it occurs more than once; and it may be noted in passing that Gray was never averse to reproducing a letter almost verbally for the benefit of two or three friends: there are several instances of these duplicate letters. "An old Alderman I knew, who after living forty years on the fat of the land (not milk and honey, but arrack-punch and venison) and losing his great toe with a mortification, said to the last that he owed it to two grapes which he ate one day after dinner. He felt them lie cold at his stomach the minute they were down." Again, when he was told that a certain Dr. Plumptre, a plethoric pluralist, had had his picture painted by Wilson with his family motto below, Non magna loquimur sed vivimus—Gray humorously suggests a rendering: "We don't say much, but we hold good livings."
Apart from actual letters, his diaries are delightfully suggestive reading; and there is a peculiar freshness about them, because the taste for natural scenery was not then universal. It was impossible that there should be any cant about it then; any one who delighted in it was peculiar in his tastes; and Gray, who practically visited all the English districts where Nature shows herself on a more striking scale, met with little sympathy from his friends who were writing about her with their back to the window. It is impossible to illustrate this by quotation; but I may perhaps be excused for giving a well-known sentence, into which is concentrated a wealth of sympathetic observation; it suggests lonely evenings, when the winds were blustering round the little college-court or moaning in the tall chimneys of Stoke; for after all it is an indoors-criticism. "Did you never observe (while rocking winds are piping loud) that pause, as the gust is re-collecting itself, and rising upon the ear in a shrill and plaintive note, like the swell of an Æolian harp? I do assure you there is nothing in the world so like the voice of a spirit."
It was not, of course, likely that Gray's letters would ever attain a very wide popularity; to appreciate them, they require a rather minute study of a very peculiar character, and a certain familiarity with the leisurely movements of a very uneventful life. And they are moreover touched throughout with a stately refinement, a certain delicacy and remoteness which need almost an initiation to comprehend. In days when vulgar romances run in a few weeks into a circulation of thousands, it is only to be wondered at that such things as these letters get readers at all; for they are high literature, not spiced for a jaded taste, but somewhat austere and solemn—the intimate thoughts of a high-minded man.
Much has been said that is wide of the mark about Gray's religious belief. The fact was that he was a pagan of the grand type. He was not really a Christian, but he had no wish to tilt against orthodoxies and accepted dogmas. The most that can be traced in his writings is a solemn Theism. He recognised the huge inscrutable fate that lay behind the inexplicable fabric of human life and human history, but of the God with men, of the Divine hope, the consecration of life, the self-abnegation of the Christian, he had no real cognizance. This, I think, cannot be doubted. His contemptuous hatred of theology and of creeds is marked; he had no patience with them; of worship he knew nothing. It has been said that he would have found a medicine for his unhappiness in wedded love; he would have found more than a medicine in religion.
The stately pathos of such a life is indisputable. The pale little poet, with greatness written so largely on all his works, with keen, deep eyes, the long aquiline nose, the heavy chin, the thin compressed lips, the halting affected gait, is a figure to be contemplated with serious and loving interest, spoiled for life, as he said, by retirement. How he panted for strength and serenity! How far he was from reaching either! Yet the bitter dignity of his thought, the diffident and fastidious will, are of a finer type than we often meet with. We cannot spare the men of action, it is true; yet the contemplative soul, with the body so pitifully unequal to sustain its agonizing struggle, is an earnest of higher things. In the valley of shadows he walked, and entered the gate without repining. All are equal there; and the memory that he left, and the characters that he graved on the rock, while they move our pity, stir our wonder too.