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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

§ 14. Researches in the British Museum and tour in Yorkshire and Derbyshire; Gray appointed Professor of Modern History

The year 1759 was mainly spent in London, near the British museum, which was opened to the public in January. Gray revelled in MS treasures there, and made copious extracts from them; the most interesting, perhaps, to the general reader are letters from Richard III, and the defence of Sir Thomas Wyatt, the poet; both of which transcripts he made for Walpole, who used them in his Miscellaneous Antiquities and Historic Doubts. At this time, also, he probably composed the treatise called Metrum, and Observations on the poems of Lydgate, probably in view of a design for the history of English poetry which was never executed.

In 1762, Gray made a tour in Yorkshire and Derby, and saw Kirkstall abbey, the Peak, of which he thought but little, and Chatsworth. On his return to Cambridge, he found the professorship of modern history vacant, and caused his claim to be represented to Lord Bute. But the professorship was given to Lawrence Brockett, who had been tutor to Sir James Lowther, son-in-law of the favourite Bute. In 1764, possibly with Wharton as his companion, he made his first visit to Scotland, and, in 1765, he repeated this visit as the guest of Lord Strathmore, formerly a fellow-commoner of Pembroke. On this second visit, he met Robertson and other literati. It is a proof of the remarkable catholicity of Gray’s love of scenery that, in the earlier of these years, possessed though he was with the sublime grandeur of the mountains, he could also enjoy and describe graphically the charms of a gentler landscape, in a part of England (Winchester, Southampton, Netley abbey, etc.) dear to Collins.

In the following year, he once more visited Scotland and became acquainted with Beattie, author of The Minstrel, to the last an unfinished poem, the earliest part of which he helped to correct. His criticism is just but with two notable exceptions. He truly remarks that too much is given to descriptions and reflections; Beattie does not know what to do with his minstrel when he has made him. Yet Gray’s remarks are in two particulars disappointing. In direct contrast to his doctrine as stated to West in April, 1742, he says “I think we should wholly adopt the language of Spenser’s time or wholly renounce it. You say, you have done the latter; but, in effect, you retain fared, forth, mead, wight, ween, gaude, shene, in sooth, aye, eschew, etc.” And he objects to Beattie’s use of alliteration: if he had confined himself to censuring one line in the part of the poem which was sent him

  • The long-robed minstrels wake the warbling lyre
  • it would have been well. As it is, Beattie had an easy retort upon him with
  • Nor cast one longing, lingering look behind
  • in the Elegy.

    In 1768, Gray’s poems were republished by Dodsley, and for A Long Story were substituted the two Norse odes, The Fatal Sisters, and The Descent of Odin. A similar edition came, at the same time, from the press of Foulis (the Glasgow Elzevir). When Gray wrote The Bard, he had already made some study of Scandinavian poetry. He had The Fatal Sisters in mind when he wrote

  • Weave the warp and weave the woof
  • The Winding sheet of Edward’s race.
  • Perhaps, The Descent of Odin, in one passage of which it is impossible not to recognise an anticipation of Scott, is, in this respect, still more suggestive.