MR. GOSSE'S EDITION OF GRAY.*
To Mr. Gosse we are indebted for the best critical biography of Gray we possess in the language; and he has now added to the debt by giving to the public the first complete edition of the poet's works. It has been a task of great labour, for Mr. Gosse has had to undo in great measure what Mason had the effrontery to do. "He was," the editor states, "a worthy man, though not a conscientious one,"---a distinction we fail to understand:—
" He did not know what it was to be scrupulous in approaching a patron or in handling a text. With him the end justified the means, and he thought no more of confuting a rascally enemy by introducing a forged paragraph into a letter, than he did of completing an unfinished stanza or of suppressing a clumsy sentence. His version of Gray's" Letters" is crowded with alterations, interpolations, and transpositions, far too numerous and too important,' as Mitford at last perceived, to be merely the effect of a negligent transcription.' I have compared Mason's text again and again with Gray's actual holograph, and have experienced a sort of amazement at the impudence that the collation reveals."
In the present edition, therefore, it has been Mr. Gosse's aim to reject Mason's authority wherever it was practicable, and to
reduce his text in prose and verse almost to a minimum. The poems published in the poet's life-time, with two exceptions, which we need not specify here, are printed verbatim et literatini
from the Dodsley edition, published in July, 1768, "which contained Gray's latest and most deliberate corrections." In printing the posthumous poems, Mr. Gorse has been able to be independent of all previous editors, having discovered among the Stonehewer manuscript at Pembroke College "holograph copies of the majority of Gray's poems, written by him on the backs of leaves in his great commonplace book." Mr. Gosse observes :—
"It will be rememhed that as a prose writer Gray possesses this peculiarity, that he is exclusively posthumous. No portion of his prose works saw the light until after his death. No printed text, therefore, possesses any final authority, and whenever it is possible to refer to the poet's holograph, there is no further appeal. As far then, as regards the largest section of Gray's prose writings—the letters which he addressed to Thomas Wharton—I am relieved from the responsibility of reference to any previous text, for I have scrupulously printed these as though they had never been published before, direct from the originals, which exist in a thick volume, among the Egerton MSS., in the manuscript department of the British Museum. The Wharton letters are so numerous and so important, and have hitherto been so carelessly transcribed, that I regard this portion of my labours, mechanical as it is, with great satisfaction."
When we add that in this edition, which "does not aim at being popular on the one side or educational on the other," the editor follows the peculiar orthography of Gray, and that the work is supplied with an exhaustive index, enough, perhaps, has been said of Mr. Gosse's praiseworthy labours. It is, indeed, a boon to all book-lovers to have the works of a classic like Gray in a form worthy of his genius.
"A great wit," says Cowley, "is no more tied to live in a vast volume, than in a gigantic body ; on the contrary, it is commonly more vigorous the less space it occupies." As a general assertion, the truth of this statement may be doubted ; but it is singularly applicable to Gray. Few great poets have
done so little ; but what he has done is sufficient to secure a poetical immortality. It may be questioned, too, whether his fame would have been enhanced by a larger productiveness.
Gray is not a creative poet. He could not " exhanat worlds," or even an island. He had no strength of wing for prolonged imaginative flights. He worked always in miniature, and is the most delicate and exquisite of workmen. As a dramatist or as an epic poet he must have failed utterly, and as a lyrist he wourcl probably have failed also, had he trusted, as some poets can
perhaps afford to do, to the impulse of the hour. He never did trust solely to his genius, but expended the utmost labour and travail on his "Elegy" and "Odes." The "Elegy," begun in
1742, was not finished until 1750. Nor was the poet even then
1742, was not finished until 1750. Nor was the poet even then
The Works of Thomas Gray in Prose and Verse. Edited by Edmund Gomm 4 vols. London ; Macmillan and Co. 1884.
satisfied with his work, but omitted in the edition of 1753 one of the loveliest and most human stanzas of the poem :—
"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."
The great " Odes " also either took a long time in production, or were kept for a long time before they were con sidered ripe for publication. "The Progress of Poesy," written in 1754, was not printed until 1767. "The Bard," which appeared with it, was begun in 1754, and worked upon fitfully until the autumn of 1765, when it was laid aside. In May, 1757, Gray took it up again and finished it. The "Installation Ode," which was his latest, and contains less than one hundred lines, occupied between three and four months, ro difficult did Gray find it to utter what was in him. "If I do not write much," he said to Horace Walpole, "it is because I cannot." Mr. Matthew Arnold has attributed this sterility to the century ; to our thinking, it belongs far more intimately to the man, whose nature, as we see it in the letters, was restricted to narrow bounds. Nor are there indications that he wished to escape from them. It is, however, dangerous criticism to endeavour to say how much or how little a poet is influenced by his age. That he was in a measure under bondage to the poetical diction which the poetasters of the time mistook for poetry, will be evident to all readers of his verse. No poet of our century would call a cat a "hapless nymph" and a "presumptuous maid," or translate the trundling of a hoop into "chasing the rolling circle's speed," or write of "cool zephyrs," and "fair 'Venus' train," and "rosy-bosom'd hours." The personifications, too, in which Gray and his small imitator, Mason, delighted, have ceased to charm. To the modern reader, such abstractions as "bright rapture," "pale grief," adversity with her iron scourge and adamantine chain, and horror "tyrant of the throbbing breast," are but empty words, suggestive of no poetical ideas. In his verbal criticisms of Mason's poems, of which the "Correspond ence" contains more than most persons will care to read, Gray seems to have some proper fear of what was then considered poetical diction. He objects to Mason's frequent invocations of the Muse, and takes him to task for other faults of style which, in a milder form, are to be found in his own verses. Mason copied Gray assiduously ; but it is needless to say that his poetical blunders and dissonances of metre are nnborrowed. How perfectly Gray understood the principles of his art may be seen in his criticisms as well as in his poetry :—" Extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous, and musical, is one of the grand beauties of lyric poetry. This I have always aimed at, and never could attain," he writes on one occasion to Mason, when pointing out some rather glating defects of his friend's verses. Perspicacity, it must be allowed, is not one of Gray's prime virtues ; ;but in conciseness and in mastery of metre he ranks, by general consent, with the greatest of lyric poets. Mr. Swinburne says, indeed, that he is unworthy to sit at the feet of Collins, that as a lyric poet he is "not worthy to unloose the latchet of his shoes ;" but Mr. Swinburne's criticisms, when he is in the mood for using superlatives, are sometimes more rhetorical than exact. For our part,—and the author of
Studies in Song will probably regard the opinion as a mark of crass ignorance,—we are content to place Collins and Gray on a level as lyric poets ; while we give the latter, on the whole, remembering his "Elegy," his "Letters," and his gift of humour,
an eminence far higher. As a man, too, he is infinitely more attractive. Poor Collins, it is fair to remember, suffered under the most painful of all maladies, and died before he was forty. We know little about him, and on that account, possibly, care little for him.
Gray's personality is more distinct. A shy, reserved man, living far more among books than in society, a little finical and fussy, and not a little proud, he had a warm heart for the few whom he loved, and an emotional tenderness which, though kept in restraint, betrayed itself at times in pathetic and half. suppressed utterances. Gray's constitutional melancholy was, no doubt, painful to himself; but seeing it as we do in the light of the "Correspondence," it has a pensive charm, not so much evoking compassion as sympathy. He loved Nature as no other poet of his day loved her, and the love was as wise as it was deep. Gray's journal in the Lake Country cannot be compared for interest with Dorothy Wordsworth's in Scotland ; but it shows a sensitiveness to the beauty of natural objects, and a capacity for describing them, that was unknown in his time,
and is indeed rare in ours. He used to say that good writing not only required great parts, but the very beat of those parts ; and this good writing is, in its degree, as visible in Gray's prose as in his poetry. His letters, save when they are occupied with comments on Mason's weak verses, afford delightful reading, and their gentle scholarly humour is infinitely attractive. Beyond comparison are these letters superior to Pope's ; and if they have not the charm of Cowper's, they have, perhaps,. more variety. Cowper himself had a high opinion of them. "I once thought Swift's letters," he said, "the best that coul& be written ; but I like Gray's better. His humour or his wit, whatever it is to be called, is never ill-natured or offensive, and yet, I think, equally poignant with the Deans." Her might have added that there is in them a strain of thoughtfulness exhibiting, oftentimes with pathetic beauty, the innermost thoughts of the writer. The artificial side of Gray's character, and its weakness too, will be readily detected by the reader; but if blessed with eyes to see, he will discover in it also a depth and tenderness of feeling which show how loveable this timid, reticent man was. When Gray died, one of his young friends wrote :—" Afflicted you may be sure I am ! You well know how I considered Mr. Gray as a second parent, that I thought only of him, built all my happiness on him, talked of him for ever, wished him with me whenever I partook of any pleasure, and
flew to him for refuge whenever I felt any uneasiness If all the world had despised and hated me, I should havethought myself perfectly recompensed in his friendship. I feel that I have lost half of myself." To excite a warm feeling like this needs a nature at once tender, sympathetic, and unselfish. Such a nature Gray possessed, and by the help of it he gained friends who clung to him like brothers. Truly does Mr. Gorse say that "not to recognise this magnetic power of attracting good souls around him, would be to lose sight of Gray's peculiar and signal charm."