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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

§ 12. Studies from the Norse

Though this fragment probably comes chronologically between The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, we are not justified in interposing it between them. They are dissociable from it, not only on account of their being printed and published in juxtaposition, as Ode I and Ode II, and of the motto which clearly applies to both, but because together they herald a generic change. Vicissilude, with every promise of a beautiful poem, carries on the meditative spirit in which all Gray’s serious work had been executed hitherto. But the two odes are conceived in an atmosphere rather intellectual than sentimental. They are a literary experiment. They idealise great facts, historic or legendary, out of which reflection may be generated—but mediately, not directly from the poet’s mind. While they have this in common, there remains a point of contrast between them. The Bard, more clearly than the other ode, bears traces of those studies from the Norse which Gray had already made and which found expression in The Fatal Sisters and The Descent of Odin.

It inaugurates the last stage of the poet’s literary history. The design has been marred by many editors through heedlessness in printing. They have not observed that the bard sings his song at first as a solo, until, in the distance, he sees the ghosts of his slain brethren, and invites them to join the chant, while together they weave the winding sheet of Edward’s race. That done, they vanish from the bard’s sight, and he finishes his prophecy alone. The fault, perhaps inevitable, of the poem, lies in the conclusion, which smells too much of the lamp. The salient characteristics of the great poets of the Elizabethan era are described with much skill, though with a certain vagueness proper to prophecy; and yet we cannot help asking, how he can know so much about these his very late successors, while he shows himself rather a discerning critic, than a mighty prophet who has just been foretelling tragic horrors and retribution. They ill suit the majestic form graphically described before his prophecy begins.

A curious evidence of the influence of Gray’s Bard upon the [char] is to be found in the history of the Ossianic imposture. In Cath-Loda Duan I of this so-called collection of reliques, we have the expression “Thou kindlest thy hair into meteors,” and in the “Songs of Selma” Ossian sings:

  • I behold my departed friends. Their gathering is on Iona, as in the days of other years. Fingall comes like a watery column of mist! his heroes are around: and see the bards of song grey-haired Ullin; stately Ryno! Alpin with the tuneful voice! the soft complaint of Minona! How are ye changed, my friends, etc.
  • Gray, who had at first welcomed the frauds of Macpherson, because he discerned in them the romantic spirit, became more reticent as time went on, and as his common sense, against which he feebly struggled, gained the mastery. He either did not or would not observe that in them he was imitated or parodied. On the other hand, he repudiated for himself the suggestion that the opening of The Bard was modelled upon the prophecy of Nereus in Horace (Carm. I. 15). We cannot accept the repudiation, for the resemblance is unmistakable, although it makes but little against the real originality of his poem, and is on the same plane with his acknowledgment that the image of the bard was modelled on the picture by Raphael of the Supreme Being in the vision of Ezekiel, or that of Moses breaking the tables of the law by Parmegiano. The Bard still remains the best evidence we possess that Gray, imitative as he is, was, also, an inventive genius.

    It might, after all, have come down to us as a colossal fragment, lacking the third antistrophe and epode, but for a stimulus of which Gray gives an account. He heard at Cambridge Parry, the blind Welsh harper, and his sensitive ear was so fascinated that “Odikle” was put in motion again. So completely did he associate his verse with music, that he gave elaborate directions for its setting, and it is a very high compliment to Gray’s taste that Villiers Stanford, though he knew nothing of these instructions, carried them out to the letter.