12 AUGUST 1882, Page 19


Tun task set Mr. Geese by the editor of the interesting series of monographs on English Men of Letters, was one that de- manded both labour and discrimination in the performer of it. Mr. Gosse has been both laborious and discriminating ; he has given to the world a portrait of Gray more realisable and satis- fying than those drawn even by men who knew him, and neither in the way of biography nor of criticism can it bo said that he has left undone anything that he could fairly have been ex- pected to do. It is right and meet that this should be declared at starting, for the next thing that must be said is that the result of the labour and the discrimination, and of Mr. Goose's many good gifts, both intellectual and literary, is somewhat disappointing. The disappointment is not the fault of the writer, or of his editor, or of his publishers, and it certainly is not the fault of Gray ; it is not, indeed, a fault at all, but a necessary though certainly unfor- tunate consequence of those mechanical laws of literature which include among their favourite disciplinary agencies the Procrustean bed. It is for many obvious reasons convenient that a series such as that to which this, volume belongs should be characterised by a certain uniformity ; but if we regard the matter in the light of pure reason, it does seem absurd that 200 octavo pages, or thereabouts, should be allotted with severe impartiality to writers like Burke and Milton, on the one hand, and Sir Philip Sydney and Gray, on the other. It is needless to say that we are not contending. for a foot-rule-and-balance appraisement of the importance of a literary producer. A man's magnitude in the world of letters depends upon the space which he fills in our minds, not on our bookshelves, and a single poem of Gray will outweigh and outmeasure many a long row of bulky volumes ; but it would be absurd to ignore the effect naturally and properly produced by that large wealth and plenteous fecundity of nature which has its outcome in mass and magnitude as well as in delicacy or splendour of production, and nothing can be plainer than that Gray does not produce this effect upon us, either as a man or as a poet. When we think of what all the world owes, and must always continue to owe, to the man who produced the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, it seems brutal, almost indecent, to speak in a tone which even suggests depreciation ; but there is no real deprecia- tion in an endeavour to assign to a poet his true rank in the hierarchy of art, and we do not degrade a cabinet picture of Meissonier when we say that its place is not beside the cartoons of Raphael. It must, however, be said that Gray disappoints us as we are not disappointed by men who seem to be his fitting comrades in the artistic realm. Perfection of the kind which Gray achieved usually satisfies, and, indeed, Gray himself satis- fies us for the moment, but not permanently. We feel that there were in him unattained possibilities, that the best he gave, good as it was, was not the best he had to give,— that, to quote the expressive phrase of his friend Brown, "he never spoke out." We have listened to many laments over the cutting-short of such a life as that of Keats ; but during his life, short as it was, Keats did speak out. He put the whole of him- Self into the Ode to a Nightingale, as Gray did not put himself even into the exquisite Elegy. Why was this ? How are we to account for this reticence, this want of an utter emancipation of the spirit P We might hazard many answers, but the answer which most insistently suggests itself, and which may not be disdained merely because of its obviousness, is that Gray was a man born out of due time, with a mode of feeling altogether alien to the mode of his day, and with a nature too strong to-be altogether silenced by hostile voices, but not strong enough to " say its say," whether men would hear, or forbear. With a little more of Wordsworth's backbone, Gray might have headed a poetic revolution ; while, on the other hand, a flaccid and valetudinarian Wordsworth, possessed by the fascinating demon of acquiescence, might easily have figured as a North-country Gray. It is not true that if a man have anything to say, he will say it ; on the contrary, it is certain that he will not say it, unless he either knows that there is an audience waiting for him, or has sufficient faith in himself to believe that his words will summon their own audience, which shall be fit, even if few. Now, there is, we think, evidence- ecanty, but quite sufficient—that for the kind of thing which Gray really felt interested in saying there was in his day no both theat all; and there is still more evidence that Gray lacked

e fervour and the buoyancy of those stronger spirits who

Gray. By Edmund W. Goss°. London : Macmillan and Co.

sing because they must, and who, if they cannot compel atten- tion, can at any rate forego it

It has always seemed to us that Gray, rather than Cowper, was the first to sound clearly the note of that revolt which culminated in the poetic revolution headed by Wordsworth. There is a certain homely naturalness of treatment in Cowper which certainly differentiates him from the Pope school, and allies him with the heroes of the onslaught on an artificial "poetic diction ;" but after all, Wordsworth's protest in favour of simplicity and naturalness in the mere poetic vehicle was but a small part of his work ; what was really the most valuable element in the Wordsworthian contribution was the way in which his poems were felt, rather than the way in which they were written. It was an improvement to have the sun spoken of as the sun, instead of being called "bright Phoebus," but it was an infinitely greater improvement to have the sun written of in such wise as to make it evident that the writer had seen the sun and really cared about it ; and in these weightier matters of the law Gray was really more of a Words- worthian than Cowper. The emotional tone and meditative quality of many of the stanzas iu the Elegy remind us more

strongly of Wordsworth than does anything in The Task, and no one could be accused of want of discrimination, if he attributed to the Rydal poet the improvised couplet made by Gray one spring morning in 1763, as he and Nicholls were walk- ing in the fields near Cambridge :— " There pipes the woodlark, and the song-thrush there Scatters his loose notes in the waste of air."

It must, however, be admitted, to the critics who have honoured Cowper at the expense of Gray, that the former had more to say for himself than the latter. It is too true that in his poetry Gray never fully " spoke out," deriving, it would seem, a sad consolation for his enforced reticence in the contemplation of the superior advantage enjoyed by Dante, in having "been pro-

duced in a rude age of strong and uncontrolled passions, when the Muse was not checked by refinement and the fear of criti- cism." It is in his letters, where he did not need to be refined un- less he pleased, and in writing which he had no criticism to fear, that Gray makes the fullest declaration of himself ; and in many ways, but most especially in their revelations of the writer's peculiar feeling for nature, do these spontaneous utterances en- able us to discern Gray's real place in the history of the evolu- tion of the poetic spirit in England. We have only space for one quotation, and we choose it not as the most interesting in itself, but because it anticipates so fully and curiously one of Wordsworth's most characteristic and solemnly imaginative passages. The letter was written from the Continent to West in 1739, and is occupied with a description of Gray's impressions of Alpine scenery. He writes :—

" I own I have not, as yet, anywhere met with those grand and simple works of Art that are to amaze one, and hose sight one is to be better for ; but those of Nature have astonished me beyond expres- sion. 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 noon-day. You have Death perpetually before your eyes, only so far removed as to compose the mind without frighting it."

The former part of this passage is noteworthy only from the fact that it was written by an Englishman at the date given ; but it is impossible to read the two sentences and a half which we have put in italics, without recognising in them an anticipation of the memorable lines in which Wordsworth celebrates the yew-trees of Borrowdale :—

" Huge trunks ! and each particular trunk a growth

Of intertwisted fibres serpentine Up-coiling, and inveterately convolved ; Nor uninformed with Phantasy, and looks That threaten the profane--a pillared shade, Upon whose gressless floor of red brown hue, By sheddings from the pining umbrage tinged Perennially, beneath whose sable roof

Of boughs, as if for festal purpose, decked

With unrejoicing berries, ghostly Shapes May meet at noontide ; Fear and trembling Hope, Eilence and Foresight ; Death the Skeleton, And Time the Shadow ; there to celobiate, As in a natural temple scattered o'er With altars undisturbed of mossy stone, United worship."

The verse of Wordsworth is, of course, more movingly imaginative, because more concrete and definite, than the prose of Gray, but the similarity of imaginative feeling is too striking to be missed by even the most careless reader.

Concerning this matter, however, enough has been said. Save as a fact of biographical interest, there is little import in the possession of the faculty of a certain high order of vision, by a man who left his faculty all but unused. If we consider what Gray did—small as is the mere bulk of it—we must think of his life as a success ; if we think of what he might have done, we must regard it as a failure. It is evident that he so regarded it, and just as Hamlet, when dissatisfied with himself, found the whole universe unsatisfying, so Gray, in looking out upon the ways and works of men under the sun, can only exclaim :— " How vain the ardour of the crowd,

How low, how little are the proud,

How indigent the great !"

Still, notwithstanding all this, one cannot but be impressed by the impossibility of entertaining for Gray any feeling but one of sympathetic liking and sad respect. He was, special circum- stances apart, an English Andrea del Sarto ; and what might both men have been, if an inspiring human companionship had touched the one chord which remained for ever silent ? There is reason to believe that in the case of Gray it was once touched, but touched too late. Mr. Gosse writes with due fullness of sympathy of the brief acquaintance of Gray with the young Swiss, Bonstetten ; but we are inclined to think that he some- what underrates its significance. It seems to us that had this acquaintance been earlier made, it might have worked a revolu- tion in the life of Gray. Even as it was, there was evidently something of what Goethe would have called the " demonic" element in the influence of this ebullient youth upon the wearied poet ; but when it came it could not inspire, it could only excite and agitate. Gray had outlived the day of visitation.

In speaking of the poet, we have almost forgotten his latest and best biographer, but this is a fault which Mr. Gosse will easily forgive. His work has been admirably done, and though in a biography everything that is not necessary is superfluous, such superfluity as there is in this volume must not be charged to his account. He has been happy in his selection of facts which, whether essential or not to an account of Gray, have always an interest of their own. As he tells us in his preface, he has had to amplify instead of to condense the work of his predecessors ; and considering this necessity, it is astonishing how successfully ho has avoided the introduction of anything that can fairly be called padding. We might complain that too much space is given to a refutation of Dr. Johnson's singularly ineffectual criticism ; but the Lives of the Pods are so little read now-a-days, save by literary students, that even the elephantine misconceptions of the life of Gray may have for many readers the interest of novelty.