« ForrigeFortsett »
of emotion which it excites, and the mode in which it affects us, are altogether different. The finer expedients of art, which are adapted to touch the springs of feeling in the closet, are far from being the same as those by which, under other circum. stances, a much stronger impression could with greater certainty be calculated upon. The emotions which the early poet sought to awaken, were but the ebullition of the simple feelings of our nature in uncultivated minds; but the pleasures derivable from literary composition in a cultivated age, those to which the poet especially seeks to minister, result from the complicated emotions of taste. These sel. dom rise to the height of enthusiasm, the most poignant being those which partake of pity and tenderness; a very high degree of pleasure, however, attends the feeling of admiration, as awakened by beauty of style, or by elevation of sentiment. Sentimental poetry, to which class the Ode may be referred, depends for its pleasurable effect, almost entirely upon those qualities which address the perceptions of taste; and it is in the exhibition of these qualities that Gray's, great excellence as a poet consists. His Odes are the rich and rare production of a mind of native elegance in the highest state of literary culture. Music itself could scarcely add to the harmony of his numbers, while the splendour of bis imagery fills the mind, and like the romantic and picturesque in nature, at once stirs and solemnizes the fancy.
“The Bard,” and “The Progress of Poetry," are, of course, the poems to which the preceding remarks have chiefly alluded. It may be admitted that neither of these is a faultless composition. The petulance of criticism may discover in both some minute verbal inaccuracies; but they are indisputably two of the most perfect, as well as of the most impressive, pieces of poetry in the language. Gray entitled them Pindaric Odes, because, priding himself more upon his learning than upon his powers of composition, it was his aim to rescue the Odes of Pindar from the misapprehension which Cowley and his imitators had been the means of rendering general on the subject of their style and versification. Odes written for music, as the Odes of Pindar were, might be expected to exhibit a regularity, or a methodical recurrence of stanza, very different from the lawless eccentricity of modern Pindaric verse. The Strophe, Antistrophe, and Epode of the ancient lyric, whatever was their precise object, were certainly not arbitrary or useless divisions. These names, indeed, convey no meaning to an English ear, and perhaps their introduction rather savours of pedantry; but the reduction of the ode to some uniformity of construction, was a service rendered to taste.
It was not in the lawlessness of his versification only, that Cowley abused the epithet by which he chose to distinguish his eccentric but often beautiful
productions : nothing can present a more direct opposite to the style of thought and diction characteristic of Pindar, than the quaint metaphysical wit of the school of Donne. Gray, however, was not the first to reform upon this school. He had rather to contend with one of a much later date, though not of very opposite kind, that of which Pope claimed to be the master in chief, and the reign of which over public taste was so absolute, that no poet could hope to gain popularity whose verses were not modeled in uniformity to its laws. It was this prejudice which occasioned the exquisite compositions of Collins *, as well as the Odes of Gray, to be received with indifference, and treated with neglect. Goldsmith is said to have spoken of Gray's poetry with contempt, and he alludes to it in a similar spirit in the preface to his edition of Parnell. Dr. Johnson's superficial and splenetic criticisms probably originated in the same prejudice. There is such a thing as bigotry in taste: persons are angry at being disturbed in their habits of opinion. Hence, those whose notions of good poetry had been almost exclusively formed upon the neat, and sparkling, and epigrammatic versification of the Translator of Homer, were indisposed to tolerate the bold novelties of writers who challenged admiration for a species of composition so different, that it might seem
The Odes of Collins appeared in 1746.
to imply almost a new theory on the subject of poetry; and perhaps the additional demand which the boldly figurative and sometimes metaphysical style of Collins, more especially, made upon the attention, not to say the intellectual faculties of his readers, contributed not a little to provoke the critic's spleen. On no occasion do persons discover more impatience at being made to think against their will, or at having any trouble to surmount in gaining possession of an author's meaning, than when they promise themselves the idle amusement of what is termed light reading. Poetry, it is generally taken for granted, must be uniformly of this description, and, therefore, in the poet, least of all, is any apparent obscurity tolerated. It deserves, however, remark, that Gray is wholly free from that obscurity of style which arises from affected involutions, or harsh ellipses, or antiquated phraseology. His diction is the purest English, and his expressions are always perspicuous, although the allusions which they contain, sometimes presuppose in the reader a larger share of erudition than is the average endowment of the generality. In his Odes, it is evident he did not intend to write for the vulgar: the style he aimed at, was, as he himself tells us, “ extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous, and musical,” considering this as one of the chief beauties of lyric poetry. In his Elegy, his style is more on a level with general readers.
It only remains to notice his lighter productions. The “Long Story” is an exquisite jeu d'esprit : its elegant playfulness reminds us of the best productions in the same style of Cowper; and lets us more than almost any other of his poems, into the secret of Gray's native character. Lord Orford is said to have asserted, tbat Gray never wrote any thing easily but“ things of humour,”—that“ humour was his natural and original turn.” Without subscribing exactly to the perfect correctness of this opinion, we may gather from his Letters, that he had that natural vivacity of temper, which, added to a keen perception of the ridiculous, and a näive manner of expression, would incline him, in his familiar moments, to this unbending of the faculties. In his conversation, too, we are told, Gray was apt to be satirical. With what zest he luxuriated in the utmost poignancy of sarcasm and ridicule when he chose to give license to his open, is, indeed, sufficiently evinced by the three lampoons which are now incorporated with his Odes and his Elegy. These would by no means bear out the assertion that satire was his forte, but they concur to shew that it was a species of writing in which his taste did not forbid him to indulge, and in wbich his talents would doubtless have enabled him to excel. In his correspondence, however, he is only playful; and if his humour does not often sparkle into wit, it still more rarely degenerates into the malignity of