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My studies cannot furnish a recommendation of many new books to you. There is a defence “de l'Esprit des Loix,” by Montesquieu himself; it has some lively things in it, but is very short, and his adversary appears to be so mean a bigot that he deserved no answer. There are three vols. in 4to. of “Histoire du Cabinet du Roy, by Messrs. Buffons and d'Aubenton;” the first is a man of character, but I am told has hurt it by this work. It is all a sort of introduction to natural history; the weak part of it is a love of system which runs through it; the most contrary thing in the world to a science entirely grounded upon experiments, and which has nothing to do with vivacity of imagination.” However, I cannot help commending the general view which he gives of the face of the earth, followed by a particular one of all the known nations, their peculiar figure and manners, which is the best epitome of geography I ever met with, and written with sense and elegance; in short, these books are well worth turning over. The Memoirs of the Abbé de Mongon, in five vols. are highly commended, but I have not seen them. He was engaged in several embassies to Germany, England, &c. during the course of the late war. The President Henault's “Abregé Chronologique de l’Histoire de France,” I believe Ihave before mentioned to you as a very good book of its kind.
About this time Mr. Gray had put his last hand to his celebrated Elegy in the Country Churchyard, and had communicated it to his friend Mr. Walpole, whose good taste was too much charmed with it to suffer him to withhold the sight of it from his acquaintance; accordingly it was shewn about for some time in manuscript, (as Mr. Gray intimates in the subsequent letter to Dr.
* One cannot therefore help lamenting, that Mr. Gray let his imagination lie dormant so frequently, in order to apply himself to this very science.
Wharton) and received with all the applause it so justly merited. Amongst the rest of the fashionable world, for to these only it was at present communicated, Lady Cobham, who now lived at the mansion-house at Stoke Pogis, had read and admired it. She wished to be acquainted with the author; accordingly her relation Miss Speed and Lady Schaub, then at her house, undertook to bring this about by making him the first visit. He happened to be from home, when the ladies arrived at his aunt's solitary mansion; and, when he returned, was surprised to find, written on one of his papers in the parlour where he usually read, the following note: “Lady Schaub's compliments to Mr. Gray; she is sorry not to have found him at home, to tell him that Lady Brown is very well.” This necessarily obliged him to return the visit, and soon after induced him to compose a ludicrous account of this little adventure, for the amusement of the ladies in question. He wrote it in ballad measure, and entitled it a Long Story: when it was handed about in manuscript, nothing could be more various than the opinions concerning it; by some it was thought a master-piece of original humour, by others a wild and fantastic farrago; and when it was published, the sentiments of good judges were equally divided about it. How it came to be printed I shall mention hereafter; and also inform the reader why Mr. Gray rejected it in the collection which he himself made of his poems; in the meanwhile, as I think it ought to have a place in these Memoirs, for reasons too obvious to insist upon, I shall beg leave to preface it with my own idea of the author's peculiar vein of humour; which, with my notes on the piece itself, may perhaps account in some sort for the variety of opinions which people of acknowledged taste have formed concerning it. Mr. Gray had not (in my opinion) either in his conversation or writing much of what is called pure humour; it was always so much blended either with wit, fancy, or his own peculiar character, that it became equivocal, and hence not adapted to please generally: it had more of the manner of Congreve than Addison; and we know where one person relishes my Lady Wishfort, there are thousands that admire Sir Roger de Coverley: it will not, however, from hence follow, that Lady Wishfort is ill drawn; for my own part, I think it one of the most entertaining characters that ever was written. I know, however, that it is commonly thought extravagant and unnatural; and I believe it is true, that no women ever existed who had so much folly and affectation, and at the same time so much wit and fancy; yet every one sees that were this fancy and wit taken away, her character would become insipid, in proportion as it became more natural; so that, in this and other instances, if Congreve's fools were fools indeed, they would, by being true characters, cease to be entertaining ones. It may be further observed on the subject of humour, that it may and ought to be divided into several species: there is one sort, that of Terence's, which simply pleases without forcing a smile ; another, like Mr. Addison's, which not only pleases, but makes us smile into the bargain. Shakspeare's, Swift's, Congreve's, and Prior's, usually goes further, and makes us laugh : I infer not, from hence, that this latter sort is the best: I only assert, that howsoever it may be mixed with other ingredients, it ought also to be called humour. The critic, however, who judges by rule, and who will not be pleased unless legitimately, will be apt to condemn this species of mixed humour; and the common reader will not always have either wit or imagination enough to comprehend or taste it. But I have said Mr. Gray not only mixed wit and fancy with his humour, but also his own particular character; and being naturally delicate, and at times even fastidious, his humour generally took the same cast; and would therefore be only relished by such of his friends, who, concious of the superior excellencies, thought this defect not only pardonable but entertaining, which a character of this sort (being humorous in itself) always is, when it is not carried to any offensive extreme. Yet as this observation relates only to his conversation and familiar letters (for to these only it can be applied), I have no occasion to insist on it further; and shall only add, that whatever the generality of readers may think of Mr. Gray's talent in this way, there will always be some, and those far from the lowest class, to whom it will appear excellent: for humour may be true, when it ceases to be pure or unmixed, if the ingredients which go to its composition be true also. False wit and a wild fancy would debase the best humour in the world, as they frequently do in Rabelais and Sterne (without taking more exceptionable matters into consideration); but when genuine, they serve to heighten and embellish it.
A LONG STORY.
IN Britain's isle, no matter where,
To raise the ceiling's fretted height,
Full oft within the spacious walls, -
a The mansion-house at Stoke-Pogis, then in the possession of Viscountess Cobham. The style of building, which we now call Queen Elizabeth's, is here admirably described, both with regard to its beauties and defects; and the third and fourth stanzas delineate the fantastic manners of her time with equal truth and humour. The house formerly belonged to the Earls of Huntingdon and the family of Hatton.
b Sir Christopher Hatton, promoted by Queen Elizabeth for his graceful person and fine dancing. G.-Brawls were a sort of figure-dance then in vogue, and probably deemed as elegant as our modern cotillions, or still more modern quadrilles.
From whence one fatal morning issues
. His bushy beard, and shoe-strings green, ~ : - - ,
Mov'd the stout heart of England's Queen,
Though Pope and Spaniard could not trouble it. o ' ' "
What, in the very first beginning!...
'Your hist'ry whither are you' spinning 1 * * * * * -
A house there is (and that's enough)
• A brace of warriors, not in buff, . . . . .” -- - - r
Whom meaner beauties eye askance,
And vainly ape her art of killing.
Had arm'd with spirit, wit, and satire : - *
But Cobham had the polish giv'n, -
• The reader is already apprized who these ladies were; the two descriptions are prettily contrasted; and nothing can be more happily turned than the compliment to Lady Cobham in the eighth stanza.
* I have been told that this gentleman, a neighbour and acquaintance of Mr. Gray's in the country, was much displeased at the liberty here taken with his
name; yet, surely, without any great reason.