The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 10. Characteristics of the Elegy
The quatrain of ten syllables in which the Elegy was written had been used before, but never, perhaps, with conspicuous success, except in Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis. In Gray’s hands, it acquired a new beauty, and a music of its own. It does not appear that either the form or the diction of the poem struck the general reader as novel. The prevalent taste was for a sort of gentle melancholy and the mild and tranquil surroundings which minister to the reflective spirit. There is a little truth under the gross exaggeration with which the poet declared that he would have been just as successful if he had written in the prose of Hervey’s Meditations among the tombs. Certain it is that Young’s Night Thoughts, completed five years before the Elegy, was, for the time being, almost as popular. In Young’s work, the sentiment is everything; hence, perhaps, its vogue on the continent, where discriminating judgments on our literature were few and far between.
The Elegy seems to us simple in expression, and by no means abstruse, and we have said that there was in it nothing that struck even Gray’s contemporaries as revolutionary. Perhaps it was Johnson who first scented the battle from afar. He parodied, in a version of a chorus of Medea, the style, as he conceived it, of the Elegy, in which adjectives follow their substantives, old words are revived, epithets are doubled and hyphenated, while subject and object are inverted. Contrasted with this was Johnson’s own serious rendering of the same passage, in which the language was the current language of the day, with scarcely a word in it that was distinctly poetical. The eccentricities which he noted still remain pitfalls. In the line “And all the air a solemn stillness holds,” stillness, in spite of commentators, is the nominative, and we almost invariably quote, with so careful a reader as Conington,
The Elegy may be looked upon as the climax of a whole series of poems, dating from 1745, which had evening for their theme. In his 17th year, Thomas Warton, in his Pleasures of Melancholy, had all the accessories of the scene which Gray describes; there is a “sacred silence,” as in a rejected but very beautiful stanza of the Elegy there was a “sacred calm”; there is the “owl,” and the “ivy” that “with mantle green Invests some wasted tower.” But the young poet, in his character of devotee of melancholy, takes us too far, when, with that gruesome enjoyment of horrors which is the prerogative of youth, he leads us at midnight to the “hollow charnel” to “watch the flame of taper dim shedding a livid glare.” We are at once conscious of the artificial and ambitious character of the effort, precocious as an essay in literature, but without genuine feeling, without the correspondence between man and nature, which alone can create a mood. And it was the power to create a mood which was the distinctive merit of the best poems of this class and at this date.
Joseph Warton, with the same environment, and, still more, Collins, in his magical Ode to Evening, achieved this success. Contrast these with the conventional beings of The Seasons, and we become aware that we are nearing an epoch where description is subordinated to the real emotions of humanity, and the country bumpkin no longer chases the rainbow, or “unfolds,” with Akenside, “the form of beauty smiling at his heart.”
The Elegy in its MS forms brings another noteworthy fact into prominence. These show how pitilessly the poet excised every stanza which did not minister to the congruity of his masterpiece. We feel for instance that Wordsworth, apt to believe that his most trivial fancies were inspirations, would never have parted, for any considerations of structure, with such lines as
The Elegy had a curious sequel in A Long Story. After her husband’s death, in 1749, Lady Cobham must have left the famous Stowe for the mansion house at Stoke Pogis; she had seen the Elegy when Walpole was circulating it in MS, and learnt that the author was in her neighbourhood. Accordingly, she caused her niece, Miss Speed, and Lady Schaub, the wife of Sir Luke Schaub, to visit him, at the house of Mrs. Rogers, ostensibly to tell him that a Lady Brown, one of his friends, who kept open house in town for travellers young and old, was quite well. Gray was not at home, and this visit of fine ladies may have caused, as Gray pretends, some perturbation to his quiet aunt and mother. A graceful intimacy (nothing more) grew up between the poet and Miss Speed, though gossip declared they were to be married.
A Long Story, written with facile pen, goes far to bear out Walpole’s statement that Gray never wrote anything easily except things of humour. His serious efforts are always the fruit of long delay and much labour. Next followed (1752) what remains a fragment, only because Mason found a corner of the sole MS copy torn, supplying, more suo, words of his own to complete it. It was entitled Stanzas to Richard Bentley, who made Designs for six Poems by Mr. T. Gray. We cannot feel sure that Mason has given us the unmutilated part of the poem correctly. Gray knew Pope and Dryden too well to write.
One other line in this brief poem lives in the memory—that in which he attributes to Shakespeare and Milton in contrast to “this benighted age,” a diviner inspiration,
He is, later, in February, 1753, in a great fret about the title of the six poems, and, in his desire to seem unaffected, displays a great deal of affectation. It was quite absurd to imagine that the poems, including the Elegy, could be regarded as secondary to the designs. It was his foible to pose; but he indulged it with scanty success. In March, 1753 died Gray’s “careful tender mother,” as he calls her in the inscription for the vault in which she was laid by the side of her sister Mary Antrobus. In July of the same year, he went to see his friend Wharton, who was living in Durham. Here, the author of the Elegy was made much of; but the visit was important in another way. It coincides with a change in Gray’s poetic tendencies, and helped to encourage them. He now reverted to that love of the bold and majestic which appears in the alcaics on the Grande Chartreuse. In the neighbourhood of Durham, he found a faint image of those more august scenes.