Abbildungen der Seite
PDF
EPUB

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, that Gray never wrote anything easily but

things of humor,"—that “humor 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 naive 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 pen, 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 show that it was a species of writing in which his taste did not forbid him to indulge, and in which his talents would doubtless have enabled him to excel. In his correspondence, however, he is only playful; and if his humor does not often sparkle into wit, it still more rarely degenerates into the malignity of satire. But we are anticipating our sketch of his character.

He re

THOMAS GRAY was born in London, Dec. 26, 1716. ceived his education at Eton, under Mr. Antrobus, his maternal uncle, then one of his assistant masters: it was here that he contracted a friendship with Horace Walpole and the son of West, Lord Chancellor of Ireland. From Eton he went to Cambridge, and was entered a pensioner at Peter-house in 1734; but having no taste for mathematical studies, he did not become a candidate for academical honors. Both while at Eton, and during his res

idence at Cambridge, he was indebted for his entire support to the affection and firmness of his mother, who, out of her share of the proceeds of a trade in which her little capital was vested previously to her marriage, in partnership with her sister, in what was then called an India warehouse, (the profits of which were fortunately secured to her sole benefit by articles of agreement,) discharged all her own personal expenses, as well as those entailed by her children. Gray's father, a man of the most violent passions, and, judging from his brutal treatment of his wife, of unprincipled character, not only refused all as ace, but even endeavored to force her to give up the shop, on which she depended for the means of procuring a liberal education for her son, in order, as was supposed, to gain possession of her money. To the exemplary presence of mind of his admirable mother, Gray had already owed the preservation of his life. All the rest of her children died in their infancy from suffocation, produced, we are told, by fulness of blood. Thomas was attacked with a paroxysm of a similar kind, which was removed by his mother's promptly opening a vein with her own hand.* She lived to see her affectionate exertions and solicitudes well repaid, to witness the rising fame, and to receive the grateful attentions of that only surviving son. She died at the age of sixty-seven ; and, after her decease, which took place in 1753, Gray, says Mr. Mason, “seldom mentioned his mother without a sigh."

Gray left Cambridge in 1738, with the intention of applying himself to the study of the law; but he was easily induced to relinquish this design on receiving an invitation to accompany his friend Mr. Walpole to the continent. They proceeded together

* These facts are stated by the Rev. Mr. Mitford, in his Life of Gray, prefixed to the quarto edition of his works, London, 1816.

through France to Italy, and passed the winter of 1739-40 at Florence: they afterwards visited Rome and Naples, and were proceeding to explore other parts of that classical region; but at Reggio, an unfortunate difference took place between the two friends, occasioned, according to Walpole's own statement, by Gray's being “too serious a companion” for a dissipated young man, just let loose from the restraints of college. It is probable that Walpole's irregularities drew from his graver friend remonstrances in too indignantly severe, perhaps too authoritative a tone to be brooked with temper; and they were resented in terms which Gray could never quite forgive. A separation took place, and Gray pursued his travels alone to Venice, where he spent some weeks, and returned to England in September, 1741.

Two months after his arrival, his father died, and his widow, left with a scanty income, retired to the house of one of her sisters, Mrs. Rogers, at Stoke, near Windsor. Gray now returned to Cambridge, the conveniences of a college life being better suited than an independent establishment, to the narrowed state of his finances. Here, in 1742, he was admitted to the degree of bachelor in the civil law. Cambridge had as a residence no attractions for him beyond its literary advantages. About this period, he first sedulously applied himself to poetical composition. He had no serious pursuit to call forth the ardor of his mind; and, "alas !" he says in a letter to his friend West, “alas for one who has nothing to do but to amuse himself!" His Ode to Spring was written early in June, during a visit to his mother at Stoke. He addressed it to that same accomplished correspondent; but it never reached him. West was at the time numbered with the dead, his tender frame having sunk beneath the pressure of sickness and domestic sorrows. The Ode on the prospect of Eton, the Hymn to Adversity, and the Elegy in a Country Churchyard,

" The

were written soon after, evidently under the influence of the melancholy feelings inspired by the loss of his early friend. The Ode first appeared in 1747, published by Dodsley. The Elegy was not published till 1750, when, having found its way into the magazines, the author requested Mr. Walpole, with whom he now again corresponded on familiar terms, to put it into the hands of Dodsley.

The Ode on the Progress of Poesy, and the Bard, were written in 1755. The latter, however, remained for some time in an unfinished state, till his accidentally seeing a blind harper performing on a Welsh harp, "again,” as he tells us, “put his ode in motion, and brought it to a conclusion.” In 1757, Gray had the honor of declining the office of poet laureate on the death of Cibber. office,” he says in a letter to Mason, “ has always humbled the possessor hitherto :—if he were a poor writer, by making him more conspicuous; and if he were a good one, by setting him at war with the little fry of his own profession; for there are poets little enough even to envy a poet laureate.” The office was accepted by Whitehead.

In January, 1759, the British Museum was opened to the public, and Gray, during three subsequent years, continued to reside in London for the purpose of daily repairing to its library, employing the greater part of his time in reading and transcribing. He visited Scotland in the summer of 1765, where he became acquainted with Dr. Beattie, in whom he found, to use his own expression, "a poet, a philosopher, and a good man." In 1768, Gray received, without solicitation, through the favor of the Duke of Grafton, the appointment of Professor of Modern Languages and History at the University of Cambridge ; a place of some emolument, for which, six years before, he had been “spirited up” to apply to Lord Bute, on the death of Mr. Turner, but without

success.

On the Duke's installation into the chancellorship of the University in the following year, Gray composed the Ode for Music, which was performed in the senate-house on the occasion.

It was his intention, on obtaining the professorship, to read lectures ; but the declining state of luis health, and his excessive fastidiousness with regard to his own compositions, concurred to prevent his ever realizing this design. His rigid abstemiousness could not avert the attacks of hereditary gout, to which he now became increasingly subject, and which left behind a painful degree of debility, and an habitual depression of spirits. The uneasiness he felt at holding the professorship without discharging its duties, had at one time made him resolve upon resigning the office. But he did not hold it long. On the 24th of July, 1771, while at dinner in the college hall, he was seized with a sudden nausea and faintness, symptomatic of an attack of gout in the stomach. A few days after, he suffered a repetition of the attack with aggravated violence, followed by frequent convulsion fits, and on the 30th of July, he expired in his fifty-fifth year.

The account of Gray, given by one of his contemporaries, to the general accuracy of which all his biographers have subscribed, represents him as “perhaps the most learned man in Europe.” He was equally acquainted with the elegant and the profound parts of science, and that not superficially, but thoroughly. He knew every branch of history, both natural and civil; had read all the original historians of England, France, and Italy; and was a great antiquary. He was deeply read in Dugdale, Hearne, and Spelman, and was a complete inaster of heraldry. His skill in zoology and entomology was extremely accurate; and during the latter part of his life, he found time to resume the botanical studies of his early years. His taste in music, we

« ZurückWeiter »