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

XI. Letter-Writers

§ 23. The Spiritual Quixote and Columella

The Spiritual Quixote (1772), his most famous story, and the only one which, in his own time, achieved a second edition, is a tale of a young country squire who was influenced by the methodists and took a long tour of the midlands, suffering a number of mild adventures, as a follower of Whitefield. Graves had been at Pembroke, Oxford, and never quite overcame his disdain of the servitor. He makes great fun of the followers of methodism; but he always respects genuine piety. Descriptions of open air preaching and of the treatment of the preachers are frequent: he could never get rid of the conviction that, in spite of irregularities, methodism was showing the parish clergy how to do their duty. But this is only a small part of the interest of The Spiritual Quixote: its real attraction lies in the accounts of the social life and entertainments of the time, the ways of travellers and the customs of rustics and innkeepers. So, again, Columella, or the Distressed Anchoret (1776), which, like its predecessor, has a detailed (this time faintly disguised) picture of Shenstone, records the travels of a lawyer and a college don and the placid, but not always proper, recreations of a sluggish country gentleman of small fortune and literary interest. There is a placid satisfaction in the outlook on life which represents not only the attitude of Columella’s old friends but that of Graves himself. Thus, he speaks of the journey of Atticus the “solemn Head of a college,” and Hortensius “the sage Counsel learned in the law”:

  • The consciousness of having punctually discharged every duty of their respective stations diffused an ease and chearfulness over their minds, and left them open to enjoyment, and at leisure to receive amusement from every object that presented itself in the way. The freshness of the morning, the serenity of the air, the verdure of the fields, every gentleman’s seat, every farm-house, and every cottage they passed by, or every village they rode through, afforded some kind of pleasing reflections to persons of their happy disposition.… Thus if they overtook or were overtaken by any one on the road, even of the lowest rank, instead of passing by with a supercilious air, as if he were of a different species, they considered him in the same light as a sportsman would a partridge or a woodcock, as one that might afford them either pleasure or instruction; and usually commenced a conversation.
  • This was the way in which Graves lived and wrote. Yet he was not blind, as Columella shows, to the seamy side of things.

    More delicate than Columella are the two charming little volumes entitled Eugenius or Anecdotes of the Golden Vale (1785), which, from a description or two of scenery, suggest that the neighbourhood of the Wye was familiar to the writer and thus account, perhaps, for the reference in The Spiritual Quixote to Pope’s “Man of Ross”—“What, old Kyrle! I knew him well; he was an honest old cock and loved his pipe and a Tankard of cider as well as the best of us.”—They show, too, as do other of Graves’s writings, in a touch here and there, a knowledge of the habits and sufferings of the poor almost as intimate as Crabbe’s. Plexippus or The Aspiring Plebeian, published (anonymously as was Columella) in 1790, is a quiet tale of the love affairs of two young men, eminently sober and respectable, told in the pleasantest vein of Graves’s quiet observation of mankind. Cheltenham, Wales and London are the scenes of the story, which is of the placid type that Graves loved. In his later years, he wrote essays and studies of character, with a few vers de société, all very gentle, unaffected and trivial; and he kept green, to the last, the memory of his friend Shenstone and the literary circle in which he had moved.