Unpranked Lyre

John Mullan

  • Thomas Gray: A Life by Robert Mack
    Yale, 718 pp, £25.00, October 2000, ISBN 0 300 08499 4

It is said that, the night before the capture of Quebec from the French in 1759, General Wolfe read Gray’s Elegy aloud to his officers as they crossed the St Lawrence River. ‘I would rather have been the author of that piece than beat the French tomorrow,’ he is supposed to have said. Presumably his men didn’t suddenly start to worry that they were being led into combat by some absurd literary connoisseur. Perhaps they, too, were gentlemen soldiers and equally admiring of Gray’s meditative, sonorous poem. Some have since doubted the details of the story, but we know that Wolfe did carry to war a copy of the Elegy, given him by the woman to whom he was engaged. For the sensitive yet stoical warrior, Gray’s work was the most admirable of all modern poems and a proper source of consolation on the eve of battle.

Here we glimpse the appeal of the Elegy to its first generation of readers. Nowadays many are struck most by the poem’s Englishness, its melancholy attachment to the village churchyard as a hidden record of community. No doubt this is one reason it seemed right to those who told the story that Wolfe, a patriot hero, should have loved the poem. Yet in the 1750s, when it was first published, it could almost be read as a devotional text. One of the first works that gave poetry a quasi-religious function, it expressed the religiosity of a less than religious age. This made it hugely popular in its own time. There were well over fifty separate editions of the Elegy in the half-century after its first publication, along with countless appearances in newspapers and periodicals. It has also made it a perennial of anthologies. The poem’s phrase-making encapsulates this power, a melancholy withdrawing from faith into literary consolation. The elegist in the graveyard became a guide and friend to many enlightened, doubtful readers. It was because of the Elegy that James Boswell would, at difficult times, enjoin himself in his journal to ‘Be Gray.’

In literary history Gray is more often an object of curiosity than of admiration. He is known for having not just one of his poems but his poetic language held up to the light by Wordsworth, as an example of all that was merely poeticised. In a letter to his friend Richard West, Gray happily declared the very attitudes to poetic diction that Wordsworth was later to detect and condemn. ‘The language of the age is never the language of poetry,’ he observed. By which he meant that it never should be. ‘Our poetry . . . has a language peculiar to itself; to which almost every one, that has written, has added something by enriching it with foreign idioms and derivatives.’ The language of poetry was a special resource, a trove for future writers (requiring study and educated appreciation from the would-be poet). No wonder Wordsworth assailed Gray in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads for being ‘at the head of those who by their reasonings have attempted to widen the space of separation betwixt Prose and Metrical composition’. He picked on Gray’s ‘Sonnet on the Death of Mr Richard West’ as an epitome of poetic misjudgment – of how ‘poetic diction’ suffocates our interest and the writer’s feelings.

Gray’s later experiments with bardic odes and self-conscious ‘fragments’ may have qualified him to be considered a proto-Romantic in some sketches of poetical history, but Wordsworth was right to think of him at ‘the head’ of an alien poetical culture. Gray loved poetic diction, as well as scholarly quotation, poetic inversions of syntax and the personification of abstract ideas (another of Wordsworth’s special hates). Robert Mack, properly enough, sets out to be Gray’s advocate and though not all his vindications of individual poems are persuasive, his biography does add an important consideration to our understanding of Gray’s poetic values, and therefore of his high status as a poet in his own day. For the first half of his book treats Gray as, in effect, one of the last Latin poets of our literature. He wrote a good deal of verse in Latin, most not printed in his lifetime. As a scholar at Peterhouse, Cambridge he had to write verses in Greek and Latin (mostly the latter) for particular feast days and holidays and came to prize his technical adeptness. It often seems that his love of Latin poetry formed his English verse.

There is an inertness about much of Gray’s poetry that has something to do with his instinct for Latin. The ‘massive calm’ that William Empson found and resented in the Elegy – and that might well have soothed Wolfe and his comrades – surely derives from this. Empson heard in Gray’s famous lines on the unfulfilled potential of the humble villagers the poet’s melancholy acceptance of a whole social order. ‘Chill penury repressed their noble rage,/ And froze the genial current of the soul.’ The lines are abstracted and circumlocutory enough to incur Wordsworthian wrath; their acceptance of a timeless fact contains Gray’s characteristic Latinisms: ‘rage’ is Latin’s admirable furor, while the second line is close to a translation of a line from Virgil’s Georgics. The poem’s ‘solemn stillness’ is found in an ancient literature as much as in a Buckinghamshire graveyard. Even the ploughman plodding wearily home is a personage from classical poetry rather than 18th-century agriculture. Gray’s friend Thomas Wharton noted: ‘In England the ploughman always quits his work at noon. Gray, therefore, with Milton, painted from books and not from life.’ He did not seem to mean this as a point against the poet, even if Wordsworth would have taken it as a condemnation.

‘They are my old friends,’ Gray said of his favourite classical writers, ‘and almost make me long to be with them.’ The second half of the sentence is characteristic of the poet. Everything best was dead. The greatest writing was like some monument, untouchable and serene. One thinks of Samuel Johnson on Skye telling Boswell that an eloquent inscription commemorating a local worthy in a parish church ‘should have been in Latin, as every thing intended to be universal and permanent, should be’. The deathless, lifeless qualities of poetry that Gray learned from his Latin models make his best writing ‘impersonal’ judged by later tastes. When Wordsworth gets hold of the West sonnet, it is with an implicit disapproval that a man’s sense of personal loss could be so abstracted into poetical diction and artificial syntax. Perhaps he feels the more strongly because it was a semi-private piece, copied into Gray’s commonplace book, but never published in his lifetime. When he did publish a response to West’s death, his ‘Ode to Adversity’, it was duly cluttered with pagan personifications.

Mack rightly cites Gerard Manley Hopkins’s defence of the West sonnet on the grounds of its ‘rhythmical beauty and grace’. Wordsworth picked out the good, plain lines from the bad, poetical ones, but Hopkins saw that the poem’s accomplishment was a matter of its overall structure. The contrast between the poetical lines (‘In vain to me the smiling mornings shine,/And reddening Phoebus lifts his golden fire’) and the supposedly plain ones (‘I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,/And weep the more because I weep in vain’) is perfectly managed, delicate even. It is the contrast between burgeoning Nature and the poet’s numbed solitariness. Half-heard half-rhymes between the octave and the sestet hold the whole together, but give its rhythms a dying fall. The Latin origins of some of the phrase-making (‘reddening Phoebus’) and the shards of Milton (‘amorous descant’) are there to fill the wakening world with an unconsoling literary richness. Perhaps it has long been difficult to have a taste for this kind of thing. Gray’s first poetic response to West’s death was in Latin, a Roman rather than Christian lament added to his work in progress, ‘De Principiis Cogitandi’. In contrast, his much assailed English sonnet perfectly balances the resources of learning and the fact of grief.

While, as a critic, Mack is thoughtful and helpful about Gray’s rootedness in Latin, as a biographer he is often frustrated by the avoidance of personality in Gray’s writing. His critical inclinations are to admire a transcendence of time and circumstance; his biographical itch is to ‘translate’ it into psychological narrative. ‘Working through the words of another was already, for Gray, a confirmed habit of mind,’ Mack says of the young Gray’s translations of Tasso and Dante. He cannot resist turning the effect of this into its cause, describing it as ‘a manner of self-expression that conveniently avoided having to direct too much attention to the self’. We are only a step away from the ‘discovery’ in the verse of all the repressed feelings that he never expressed. Some of Mack’s speculations about the impulses behind Gray’s poetry seem simply beyond the duties of a biographer. Contemplating his translation of Ugolino’s story from Canto XXXIII of Dante’s Inferno, Mack discovers Gray’s own ‘passionate outcry of a soul in pain’. He was taking ‘imaginative revenge’ on his father, Philip Gray, a violent man who seems regularly to have beaten Gray’s beloved mother, Dorothy. Ugolino is found in hell gnawing on the skull of his enemy Ruggieri, so Mack wonders whether ‘Gray was inflicting within his mind a suitable vengeance on the emotional cannibalism in which he felt his own father had participated’. Because Ugolino’s starving children offer themselves as food to their father, Gray is punishing his father while ‘consoling himself with a reassuring image of filial selflessness and piety’.

There is a good deal of such psychologising in this book, often undermining Mack’s attempts to respect Gray’s sometimes distant theory of poetry and his exact, tactful practice. Mack’s Gray stands up well to Wordsworth: he does less well in his encounter with another famous posthumous antagonist, Samuel Johnson. The two men never met, Gray nervously declining an opportunity to make Johnson’s acquaintance. Ten years after Gray’s death, Johnson produced his short ‘Life of Gray’, which pictured the sequestered academic labouring his verse into obscurity, yet suffering from the self-regarding delusion that he should wait for inspiration before putting pen to paper: ‘he had a notion not very peculiar, that he could not write but at certain times, or at happy moments; a fantastick foppery, to which my kindness for a man of learning and virtue wishes him to have been superior.’ It is no surprise that Johnson, the hack made great, scorned Gray’s unwillingness to look on poetry as a task. We can be more sympathetic, but it is striking that Gray wrote so little and left much incomplete. The surprising thing about the Elegy is that Gray actually finished it. Even he was surprised. When he sent a copy to Horace Walpole he told his friend to ‘look upon it in the light of a thing with an end to it; a merit that most of my writings have wanted and are like to want’. Johnson would probably have detected the complacency of a writer who liked to think of himself as stimulated to begin, but not plodding enough to end a composition.

There is some historical interest in Mack’s description of Gray’s life as a writer. Living as he did in an age when poems expanded to survey all the topics that an enlightened man should comprehend, Gray kept setting out on a long poem. He had before him models like Pope’s Essay on Man and Thomson’s Seasons. But he never got very far. He admitted that he only liked writing ‘Lyric poetry’, where he was ‘able to polish every part’, but still embarked on ‘philosophic’ verse. He tried composing an ‘essay’ in Popean couplets on ‘The Alliance of Education and Government’, rhyming on the universal characteristics of human nature. ‘De Principiis Cogitandi’, a ‘metaphysic’ didactic poem, was supposed to be rooted in Locke’s Essay concerning Human Understanding. ‘It is Latin too to increase the absurdity,’ Gray told West, with a candour either disarming or exasperating. Rarely can a poet have won such admiration in his lifetime while writing so little. This biography is full of contemporary references to him as ‘the great Mr Gray’, or some equivalent. By one account, when, near the end of his life, Gray visited St John’s College to meet the son of an acquaintance, ‘every College man took off his cap as he passed, a considerable number having assembled in the quadrangle to see Mr Gray, who was seldom seen.’

Gray managed the difficult feat of becoming admired, even revered, for his poetic abilities, while appearing to avoid publicity and even to want to keep his poems out of print. Mack is good on the way Gray used, and occasionally lost control of, the manuscript circulation of his compositions. The means of making poetry known to select readers, who would transcribe and proliferate copies of a given poem, were as important to Gray as they were to coterie poets of a century earlier. Walpole was the conduit through which his poetry most often came into the world. The Elegy began its public life like this. On completing it in June 1750, Gray immediately sent Walpole a copy. He wanted his friend’s approval; he also knew that this ensured the poem’s circulation among Walpole’s cultured acquaintances. A few months later he also sent Thomas Wharton a copy and seemed to regret that Walpole had made his verses ‘publick, for which they certainly were never meant’. Yet Gray almost admitted that his regret was merely conventional, adding: ‘but it is too late to complain. They have been so applauded, it is quite a Shame to repeat it.’ Soon he was having to print an edition of the poem to forestall unauthorised and ‘inaccurate’ piracies. So the most popular poem of the 18th century slipped into print.

Even when he was thinking of possible readers, Gray was a man for small circles of intimates. In Mack’s account he is not quite the hapless recluse of some previous studies, but he is certainly as selective and ‘fastidious’ about the company he kept. Inevitably, thinking about his choice of company means thinking about his sexuality. This is not new. It is there in what, for almost fifty years, has been the nearest thing to a standard Life, Wyndham Ketton-Cremer’s Thomas Gray: A Biography (1955). Ketton-Cremer had a comically roundabout way of broaching the subject, but he did broach it. Gray, he believed, ‘knew the existence of temptations which could not for one moment be contemplated, by one who had been, all his life long, a strict observer of the laws of God and the laws of men’. He was in the closet. Mack manages, for the most part, to be both more straightforward and more subtle in his treatment of Gray’s likely homosexuality (though he shows needless respect for those ingenious critics who have recently managed to find the poet’s homoerotic desires in every nook of his verse). Just occasionally there is some actual evidence for the homosexuality of some of those whom Gray knew. His friend Henry Tuthill, like him a fellow of Pembroke, was driven out of the college for having been, as another fellow put it, ‘guilty of great enormities’. From the keenness of everyone involved to hush up the whole business, it seems likely that Tuthill was accused by members of the college of ‘homosexual offences’. Gray certainly did not join them in spurning his disgraced friend, and made considerable efforts to find financial support for him. Any of Gray’s letters on the affair were, however, destroyed. Tuthill was later said to have drowned himself.

In his fifties Gray fell for a Swiss aristocrat in his early twenties, Charles Victor de Bonstetten. Bonstetten stayed in rooms in Pembroke College for three months, was introduced to Gray’s academic friends and spent the days reading Milton, Shakespeare and selections of natural history with the poet. In some way Gray was clearly besotted. ‘I have never met with so extraordinary a Person,’ he wrote when Bonstetten had to return to Switzerland. Yet, of course, we cannot know anything of Gray’s sexual feelings – only that he kept a certain kind of male company. In the 18th century it was clearly possible to mark out a man like Gray as ‘effeminate’ – an adjective sometimes used of Horace Walpole and his circle by contemporaries – without implying anything about sexual preference. Walpole’s friend William Cole called Gray ‘nice’, ‘even to a Degree of Finicalness & Effeminacy’. His Cambridge rooms were full of fresh flowers, he laboriously manufactured his own potpourri. He was attentive to all matters of decorum. He had his style. Read some of Gray’s letters and you find that they are full of a cultivated delicacy that can be either sensitivity (to a landscape, to a correspondent’s feelings) or sheer fussiness.

Yet if Mack is wisely reticent about Gray’s sexuality, he cannot resist other temptations to get inside Gray’s head. Here, for instance, he takes a letter in which Gray graciously and affectionately apologises to Richard West for not having written earlier, and his imagination takes over:

He perhaps thought shamefacedly of the weekly correspondence he had carried on with Walpole . . . while poor West sat friendless and alone in Oxford . . . Gray must have folded his letter rather guiltily, sealed it, and placed it to one side to be sent off the following morning. In any event, he may very well have thought, leaning back in his chair and staring into the fire, things will be different in future . . . With Ashton on the scene as well, Gray may finally have reasoned as he shrugged off the gloom into which the writing of the letter would have thrust him, the Quadruple Alliance [the Eton grouping of Gray, West, Ashton and Walpole] itself could even, for some weeks at least, be entirely restored.

The tokens of uncertainty (‘perhaps’, ‘may’ and so on) are all that stop this being a passage from a historical novel. In his novelistic mood, Mack can place Gray in a coffee house gazing out on the London rain, or get carried away imagining the ‘heavy heat’ of a Buckinghamshire summer, all activity ‘thrown into a genial and pleasantly fecund mode of slow motion’. All these pieces of ‘fine writing’ should have been struck out, for by his fiction Mack undermines himself. The evidence of much of his book is that, as he completed it, he knew more about Gray than anyone else alive. We should be able to trust him for, say, judgments about Gray’s temperament or speculations about missing links in his private history. But, when we can sometimes hear him spinning psychological fictions, the biographer himself has eroded this trust.

He tells us, for instance, that Gray’s fear of fire derived from his sense that fire symbolised ‘disorder, impermanence, obliteration, frantic and chaotic action, and an ultimate lack of emotional – perhaps even sexual and erotic – control’. There is no evidence for any of this. ‘Fire stood in his own mind for worldly engagement of the worst possible kind.’ The more guesswork like this we get, the further Gray’s character recedes. Perhaps Mack needs it to pep up his descriptions of Gray’s social life first at Eton, then at Cambridge, for, through no fault of his own, these have their longueurs. The relationship with West comes to life, but not the relationships with those other bosom friends who remained. Much time and much speculation is given to tracing the allegiances with Walpole, Ashton et al, and their various fallings out. All this is conscientiously done, but one’s main impression is of the preciousness and vanity of these schoolfriends-for-life.

Gray’s life in Cambridge is also a challenge to the biographer. The academic squabbles are plentiful and petty, but only occasionally entertaining. There is at least the fracas that led to Gray leaving Peterhouse for Pembroke, just across the road (and which involved that fear of fire). Gray had fixed up a rudimentary fire escape from the window of his rooms and a group of students had entertained themselves early one morning with shouts of ‘fire’. By one account, Gray duly descended by rope-ladder to land in a tub of water. Whether or not this is exactly true, Gray was ‘numb with indignation’ at the episode and swiftly departed. His change of colleges was ‘a sort of Aera in a life so barren of events as mine’. Mostly his time was filled with un-urgent study. The long days of classical reading sometimes produced projects that absorbed Gray in a way that reminds one a little of Casaubon. His researches in Greek literature and history were put to the compilation of a huge chronology – an elaborate table of the dates of writings and public events. It was, of course, never completed.

Even Mack sometimes seems dispirited at the months his subject seems to have spent in ‘the stasis of a hopeless melancholy’, reading gardening dictionaries or a reference guide to English peerages. In 1759 he moved to London, but this did not speed the pulse of things. He stayed in Bloomsbury and spent much of each day in the newly opened British Museum. ‘I live in the Museum,’ he told Thomas Wharton. He described to another friend how the hours seeped agreeably away ‘in the stillness & solitude of the reading room’, where he was ‘uninterrupted by anything but Dr Stukeley the Antiquary, who comes there to talk nonsense, & Coffee-house news’. Even in the metropolis, he found seclusion.

His classical studies were to give way to an interest in the development of English verse. Egged on by his protégé and stooge William Mason, he sporadically worked on a projected history of English poetry. He burrowed into Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Welsh, convinced that he was unearthing the roots of English rhyme and metre. His researches were behind the Pindaric odes that he published in 1757, scholarly poems to which Gray would later (à la T.S. Eliot) attach explanatory notes. The first of them, ‘The Progress of Poesy’, is a poem about poetry. It celebrates poetry’s universality (somewhere in ‘Chile’s boundless forests’ a ‘savage youth’ will be enrapturing his fellow tribesmen with ‘loose numbers wildly sweet’) and the concentration of achievement in England (the muses have left Greece and Rome in turn). It ends with Gray wondering who will inherit the ‘lyre divine’ from the three great English writers he mentions: Shakespeare, Milton and Dryden. He asks, with some evident self-consciousness: ‘what daring spirit/Wakes thee now?’ Yet it is a poem wondering about being daring rather than a daring poem. Mack makes a brave attempt to find it ‘exuberant and exhilarating’, but succeeds only in showing how scholarly and metrically exact it is.

Mack writes of ‘The Bard’ in grand terms: it is part of ‘a larger cultural project that argued for the vital importance of passionate, lyrical endeavour – a return to origins and to the explosive and miraculous energy inherent in the very act of creation itself’. The big abstractions rather give the game away. The ode is indeed a document in the poetic search after origins that included Macpherson’s Ossian and Percy’s Reliques, but Gray’s ranting druid has become but an item of literary history, engaging for academic reasons only. Still, contemporaries were often impressed (if uncomprehending). Lord Lyttelton, self-styled literary patron, wrote to Walpole celebrating Gray’s ‘bright and glorious flame of poetical fire’. Richard Hurd, another Cambridge fellow, told Gray that ‘every body here, that knows any thing of such things, applauds the Odes.’

No surprise then that when Gray encountered fragments of Macpherson’s ‘translations’ of ancient Erse poetry he found himself, as he told Wharton, ‘extasié with their infinite beauty’. When he wrote to Macpherson in enthusiastic curiosity, the reply he received was so shifty and inconsistent that he became suspicious. Yet he continued to think that the ‘internal evidence’ – the supposedly sublime qualities of what he had read – proclaimed the stuff to be genuine. Gray himself was undertaking ‘translations’ from Norse and Welsh poetry, works designed to form part of his history of English poetry. Walpole spread the news in terms that suggested that Gray’s very admirers now laughed at him a little. ‘Gray has translated two noble incantations from the Lord knows who, a Danish Gray, who lived the Lord knows when.’ Though there has been some argument on the subject, it is usually believed that Gray in fact relied almost entirely on Latin translations of the Norse poems he seized on, and Mack does not contest this. ‘The Fatal Sisters: An Ode’ and ‘The Descent of Odin: An Ode’ are not quite fakes like Macpherson’s, though both were subtitled ‘From the Norse-Tongue’ when eventually published in Gray’s collected Poems. However, they require of their reader the sense, on which Macpherson also relied, that what the Ossianist Hugh Blair called ‘the high spirit of poetry’ was essentially primitive: that inspiration was to be discovered in reaching back to a distant time and tongue.

If you do not believe this, there is going to be bathos. In ‘The Fatal Sisters’, set in 11th-century Scotland, a dozen supernatural females prophesy forthcoming carnage as they weave on a horrid loom.

See the grisly texture grow,
(‘Tis of human entrails made,)
And the weights that play below,
Each a gasping warrior’s head.

In ‘The Descent of Odin’ we get a rhymed slice of Norse mythology which, like the Welsh imitations that he was writing at the same time, might once have seemed hauntingly strange but now looks like a beached literary curiosity. Gray here is a poet looking for a subject for poetry. When he travelled to the Highlands in 1765 he was Ossianically taken. At the Pass of Killiecrankie, he wrote to Thomas Wharton, the hills rear ‘like the sullen countenances of Fingal & all his family frowning on the little mortals of modern days’. As he gazed on the ‘awful height’ of Ben More, he recalled that its peak was supposed to look over the grave of Fingal at the end of Loch Tay.

The excerpts from Gray’s letters remind you of their special qualities. Again, we may not often hear the heart, but we do find a wealth of odd observations and learned curiosity. Mathematics apart, Mason claimed, ‘there was hardly any part of human-learning, in which he had not acquired a competent skill.’ Yet this is hard for a biographer in search of the inner man. Hence Mack’s weakness for psychological speculation, and all his philosophising. Contemplating what might have stimulated Gray to compose his Elegy, which was begun shortly after the unexpected death of an aunt of whom he was fond, Mack wanders off through Philip Larkin, Hamlet, Marguerite Yourcenar and Robert Frost. Yet the best he can come up with is the thought that Gray wrote his poem ‘to bring some sense of meaning to recent events’. Much of Mack’s book is similarly padded with the inessential. A particularly bizarre and self-indulgent introduction even narrates the author’s car journey to Stoke Poges. He really does want to be in that churchyard musing with his poet.

Often, Gray is as exasperating as his biographer. Rarely can as talented a poet have bothered less to produce poetry. He lived until the fairly ripe age of 55, a life of some comfort and considerable leisure. He inherited enough money to make money no longer a worry. He had as much time as a writer could ever need. Yet his oeuvre is so much a collection of traces, experiments, doodles. The most substantial poem of his middle age is his ‘Ode for Music’, written to celebrate the appointment of the Duke of Grafton as Chancellor of Cambridge University. Less than a year before, Grafton had fixed Gray’s appointment as Regius Professor of History. He accepted the job with some distaste, but duly produced ten eloquent, ridiculous stanzas, set to music by the Cambridge Professor of Music. Meanwhile his fragments and sketches tell us of a poet with a wonderful ear and a rare technical ability. Read The Candidate, his attack on the licentious and hypocritical Earl of Sandwich who was campaigning to become High Steward of Cambridge University, and you can hear him as a fluent lampooner. Meanwhile his satire on the villa-building of Lord Holland is a fine example of Gothic scorn. His early ‘Ode on Spring’ is radiant, his ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’ is delightfully feline. You find yourself thinking that he could ‘do’ whatever he put himself to, poetically speaking.

But he did not put himself to much, and the Elegy now remains his claim to fame. Some who knew him, knowing also his talents, regretted this. Walpole, in other places an advocate of dilettante attitudes, complained, after Gray’s death, that his friend would spend hours annotating his copy of Linnaeus’ Systema Natura rather than composing English verse. ‘Mr Gray often vexed me by finding him heaping notes on an interleaved Linnaeus, instead of pranking on his lyre.’ Typically, Gray wrote some of his notes on the orders of insects in Latin hexameters. It was as if he were happiest dedicating all his skills as a poet to an end that would attract no attention.