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He on his part, though he had taken his resolution of declining it, was too delicate to hurt two persons for whom he had so tender an affection, by peremptorily declaring his real intentions; and therefore changed, or pretended to change, the line of that study; and accordingly, the latter end of the subsequent year went to Cambridge to take his bachelor's degree in civil law. But the narrowness of his circumstances was not the only thing that distressed him at this period. He had, as we have seen, lost the friendship of Mr. Walpole abroad. He had also lost much time in his travels; a loss which application could not easily retrieve, when so severe and laborious astudy as that of the common law was to be the object of it; and he well knew that, whatever improvement he might have made in this interval, either in taste or science, such improvement would stand him in little stead with regard to his present situation and exigencies. This was not all; his other friend, Mr. West, he found, on his return, oppressed by sickness, and a load of family misfortunes; which, were I fully acquainted with them, it would not be my inclination Jhere to dwell upon. These the sympathizing heart of Mr. Gray made his own. He did all in his power (for he was now with him in London) to soothe the sorrows of his friend, and to try to alleviate them by every office of the purest and most perfect affection: but his cares were vain. The distresses of Mr. West's mind had already too far affected a body, from the first, weak and delicate. His health declined daily, and, therefore, he left town in March 1742, and, for the benefit of the air, went to David Mitchell's, Esq. at Popes, near Hatfield, Hertfordshire; at whose house he died the 1st of June following. - It is from this place, and from the former date, that this third series of letters commences. *
I write to make you write, for I have not much to tell you. I have recovered no spirits as yet; but, as I am not displeased with my company, I sit purring by the fire-side in my arm-chair with no small satisfaction. I read too sometimes, and have begun Tacitus, but have not yet read enough to judge of him; only his Pannonian sedition in the first book of his annals, which is just as far as I have got, seemed to me a little tedious. I have no more to say, but to desire you will write letters of a handsome length, and always answer me within a reasonable space of time, which I leave to your discretion. Popes, March 28, 1742.
I TRUST to the country, and that easy indolence you say you enjoy there, to restore you your health and spirits; and doubt not but, when the sun grows warm enough to tempt you from your fire-side, you will (like all other things) be the better for his influence. He is my old friend, and an excellent nurse, I assure you. Had it not been for him, life had often been to me intolerable. Pray do not imagine that Tacitus, of all authors in the
world, can be tedious. An annalist, you know, is by no means master of his subject; and I think I may venture to say, that if those Pannonian affairs are tedious in his hands, in another's they would have been insupportable. However, fear not, they will soon be over, and he will make ample amends. A man, who could join the brilliant of wit, and concise sententiousness peculiar to that age, with the truth and gravity of better times, and the deep reflection and good sense of the best moderns, cannot choose but have something to strike you. Yet what I admire in him above all this, is his detestation of tyranny, and the high spirit of liberty that every now and then breaks out, as it were, whether he would or no. I remember a sentence in his Agricola that (concise as it is) I always admired for saying much in a little compass. He speaks of Domitian, who upon seeing the last will of that general, where he had made him coheir with his wife and daughter, “Satis constabat lastatum eum, velut honore, judicioque: tam caeca et corrupta mens assiduis adulationibus erat, ut nesciret a bono patre non scribi haeredem, nisi malum principem.”
* This letter is inserted as introductory only to the answer which follows.
As to the Dunciad, it is greatly admired: the genii of operas and schools, with their attendants, the pleas of the virtuosos and florists, and the yawn of dulness in the end, are as fine as any thing he has written. The metaphysician's part is to me the worst; and here and there a few ill-expressed lines, and some hardly intelligible. I take the liberty of sending you a long speech of Agrippina; much too long, but I could be glad you would retrench it. Aceronia, you may remember, had been giving quiet counsels. I fancy, if it ever be finished, it will be in the nature of Nat. Lee's Bedlam Tragedy, which had twenty-five acts, and some odd scenes.
The speech herewith sent to Mr. West was the concluding one of the first scene of a tragedy, which I believe was begun the preceding winter. The Britannicus of M. Racine, I know, was one of Mr. Gray's most favourite plays; and the admirable manner in which I have heard him say that he saw it represented at Paris,” seems to have led him to choose the death of Agrippina for this his first and only effort in the drama. The execution of it also, as far as it goes, is so very much in Racine's taste, that I suspect, if that great poet had been born an Englishman, he would have written precisely in the same style and manner. However, as there is at present in this nation a general prejudice against declamatory plays, I agree with a learned friend, who perused the manuscript, that this fragment will be little relished by the many; yet the admirable strokes of nature and character with which it abounds, and the majesty of its diction, prevent me from withholding from the few, who I expect will relish it, so great a curiosity (to call it nothing more) as part of a tragedy written by Mr. Gray. These persons well know, that till style and sentiment be a little more regarded, mere action and passion will never secure reputation to the author, whatever they may do to the actor. It is the business of the one “to strut and fret his hour upon the stage;” and if he frets and struts enough, he is sure to find his reward in the plaudit of an upper gallery: but the other ought to have some regard to the cooler judgment of the closet: for I will be bold to say, that if Shakspeare himself had not written a multitude of passages which please there as much as they do on the stage, his reputation would not stand so universally high as it does at present. Many of these passages, to the shame of our theatrical taste, are omitted constantly in the representation: but I say not this from conviction that the mode of writing, which Mr. Gray pursued, is the best for dramatic purposes. I think myself, what I asserted elsewhere,f that a medium between the French and English taste would be preferable to either; and yet this medium, if hit with the greatest
nicety, would fail of success on our theatre, and that for a very obvious reason. Actors (I speak of the troop collectively) must all learn to speak as well as act, in order to do justice to such a drama.
But let me hasten to give the reader what little insight I can into Mr. Gray's plan, as I find, and select it from two detached papers. The title and Dramatis Personae are as follow :—
AGRIPPINA, A TRAGEDY.
AGRIPPINA, the Empress mother.
NeRo, the Emperor.
Pop PAEA, believed to be in love with Otho.
Otho, a young man of quality, in love with Pop PAEA.
SEN eca, the Emperor's preceptor.
AN1cEtus, Captain of the guards.
DeMETRius, the Cynic, friend to SENEcA.
AcERo NIA, Confidant to AGRIPPIN A.
ScENE, the Emperor's villa at BA1A. The argument drawn out by him, in these two papers, under the idea of a plot and under-plot, I shall here unite; as it will tend to shew that the action itself was possest of sufficient unity. The drama opens with the indignation of Agrippina, at receiving her son's orders from Anicetus to remove from Baiae, and to have her guard taken from her. At this time Otho, having conveyed Poppaea from the house of her husband Rufus Crispinus, brings her to Baiae, where he means to conceal her among the crowd; or, if his fraud is discovered, to have recourse to the Emperor's authority; but knowing the lawless temper of Nero, he determines not to have recourse to that expedient, but on the utmost necessity. In the mean time he commits her to the care of Anicetus, whom he takes to be his friend, and in whose age he thinks he may safely confide. Nero is not yet come to Baiae; but Seneca, whom he sends before him, informs Agrippina of the accusation concerning Rubellius Plancus, and desires I