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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

§ 19. His Letters, their value and their charm

A survey of Gray’s work would include MSS. of incredibly larger volume than the few poems published in his lifetime. Yet no small part of his reputation rests, for us, upon copious MSS., carefully preserved by him, but never intended to be seen, except by an esoteric circle. To begin with, his invaluable letters are an index to his whole character, and to the humorous spirit that is often, as in the case of Hood, twin sister to melan choly. In his letters, his life lies spread out before us; they are the only absolutely trustworthy records for his biographers. Their interest lies in their infinite variety. Walpole was a better historian of social life; but his claims to erudition were slight, his obligations to Gray, acknowledged and unacknowledged, were great, and his scientific knowledge was nil; while, whatever the interest of his letters for political and social history, they contain nothing comparable to the depth and pathos of Gray’s more limited memories and friendships. On the other hand, Gray’s letters are an excellent guide as a survey of continental literature; the best French writers he literally devoured; his liking for inferior fiction he shared with the fashionable world, partly because it was fashionable, but such writers as Montesquieu, Buffon and the encyclopaedists he read with enthusiasm. With Rousseau, except his Émile, and with Voltaire, he is utterly out of sympathy. He plunges deep into the pages of Froissart, “the Herodotus of a barbarous age,” of Sully’s Mémoires, of Madame de Maintenon’s letters, and the memoirs of that French Fanny Burney, Madame de Staal Delaunay. He knows, beside Froissart, all the old French chroniclers, and gives advice as to the order and method of their study. While, at times, like a market-gardener, he exchanges with Wharton notes as to the dates of the returns of the seasons and the state of the crops, he is also a man of science. He is in touch with Linnaeus, through his disciple at Upsala, and with the English naturalist Stillingfleet. Classical literature has, for him, no dry bones. He rises to enthusiasm on such subjects and expects Wharton to share his delight in the description of the retreat from Syracuse, which his friend has just reached in the seventh book of Thucydides.

In December, 1757, he was offered the laureateship, but contemptuously declined it; the offer, nevertheless, was a tribute to him, as the first poet of his generation. And, indeed, in 1748, before he had written very much, he sat in scornful judgment upon his contemporaries. In Dodsley’s collection of that year, the only living poets whom he can praise unreservedly are Shenstone for The Schoolmistress, Johnson for London and Verses on the opening of Garrick’s theatre, Dyer for Grongar Hill, and, of course, Walpole. But, he adds

  • What shall I say to Mr. Lowth, Mr. Ridley, Mr. Rolle, the Rev. Mr. Brown (“Estimate Brown”), Seward, etc. etc. If I say Messieurs! this is not the thing; write prose, write sermons, write nothing at all: they will disdain me and my advice.