The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 21. Concluding summary
If the project of a joint work with Mason on the history of English poetry had not fallen through, Gray must have found his associate a terrible incubus. No greater contrast existed at that date than Mason’s slipshod, as compared with Gray’s scholarly accuracy. Even the work of Warton was an inadequate substitute for that which Gray might have given us; the probability is that its only fault would have been too much, even as Warton has too little, method.
There was one of Gray’s preferences that contributed greatly to the appreciation which, as the historian of our poetry, he would have shown of its earlier stages. In strong contrast to the elaborate and stately diction of his own verse, he loved best the poets who were almost models of simplicity: Matthew Green, and the French Gresset, and Dyer of Grongar Hill, and whatever Shenstone and even Tickell had written in the same vein. His mind was early ripe for the ballads of Percy’s Reliques. He finds, accordingly, in Gil Morrice, all the rules of Aristotle observed by some unknown ballad-writer who had never read Aristotle. He derives from Macpherson’s fragments and his Fingall evidence that “without any respect of climates poetry reigns in all nascent societies of men.” The theory itself is intrinsically better than the support on which he chose to rest it. He was struggling in that portentous Ossianic mist which spread from Britain to the continent, a mist through which people of genius, the greatest as well as the least, wandered for a time, bewildered by their own shadows. The last efforts of his muse, dating from The Bard, are, in the history of our literature, incomparably the most important. From his Latin verse, which, if we except his jocular or satiric efforts, was alone fluent and spontaneous, and is still significant as marking the first stage in his poetic development, we pass to a meditative mood sufficiently conventional in form except in its extreme classicism, and transcendent only because impressed by genuine feeling, and thence to the scanty product by virtue of which we regard him as a pioneer, who seems, like Hesperus, to lead a starry host, but really moves with the rest in obedience to the same mysterious impulse. His fame, in this character, has obscured without effort that of many lesser bards whose course was in the same direction, until the magic was transmitted to Coleridge, and then to Scott, who used it with more persistent energy and more conspicuous effect.