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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VI. Gray

§ 11. The Progress of Poesy; Vicissitude and The Bard

On 26 December, 1754, was completed the ode entitled The Progress of Poesy; it had been nearly finished two years before. It was not published until 1759, when Walpole secured it for the Strawberry hill press, together with The Bard; the motto [char] from Pindar belongs to them both.

Gray did not attach any great value to the rule of strophe and antistrophe, but he strongly objected to the merely irregular stanzas which Cowley introduced. It was probably Congreve who first wrote a real pindaric ode; and, whatever the value of his Ode to the Queen, it did something, as Mason points out, to obviate Gray’s objection to this form. It was written in short stanzas, and the recurrence of the same metre was more recognisable to the ear than when it was separated by a long interval from its counterpart.

In Gray’s time, the muse was always making the grand tour. If the title of Collins’s Ode to Simplicity were not misleading, we should find in it an embryo Progress of Poesy, in which inspiration passes, as with Gray, from Greece to Italy and from Italy to England. The clue to the mystery of the title is found when we discover that, to Collins, “simplicity” is “nature,” as Pope understood the word—nature identified with Homer, and with all her great poetic interpreters, who idealise but do not distort her. These pilgrimages of the muse were started by Thomson, who, in his Liberty, chose her as his travelling companion, and brought her home intolerably dull, and, not long before Gray’s death, by Goldsmith in his Traveller.

The most easy way of criticising The Progress of Poesy and The Bard is to start by criticising their critics, beginning with Francklin, regius professor of Greek at Cambridge, who mistook the “Aeolian lyre” invoked in the first line of The Progress for the instrument invented by Oswald, and objected that “such an instrument as the Aeolian harp, which is altogether uncertain and irregular must be very ill adapted to the dance which is one continued regular movement.” Garrick, who spoke from professional knowledge, grasped the truth better, and said that Gray was the only poet who understood dancing. His original in the place which he has in mind is a line of Homer (Odyss., bk. VIII, l. 265); but he borrows without acknowledgment the word “many-twinkling” from Thomson (Spring, l. 158) who uses it of the leaves of the aspen. The poem begins appropriately with an imitation of Horace’s description of Pindar,

  • In profound, unmeasurable song
  • The deep-mouth’d Pindar, foaming, pours along.
  • This beautiful poem is marred by a personal reference at the end, as in the case, to which we have already referred, of the Elegy.

    Between The Progress of Poesy and The Bard comes the Fragment of an Ode found in the MS at Pembroke. It is without a title: that which it now bears, On the pleasure arising from Vicissitude, is probably due to Mason, who attempted to complete the poem and excelled himself in infelicity, filling up the last stanza as we have it, thus:

  • To these, if Hebe’s self should bring
  • The purest cup from Pleasure’s spring
  • Say, can they taste the flavour high
  • Of sober, simple, genuine Joy?
  • In Vicissitude, some critics have discovered an anticipation of Wordsworth, but we ought to distinguish. When Gray says that “the meanest flouret of the vale” is “opening paradise” to the convalescent, he describes the human being under limited and exceptional circumstances. But when Wordsworth, in robust health, derives from the meanest flower, thoughts that “often lie too deep for tears,” and reproaches his Peter Bell for finding the primrose a yellow primrose and nothing more, he expects from humanity in general more than experience warrants.