Слике страница



Ir is more difficult to characterize the English Poetry of the Eighteenth century than that of any other. For it was an age not only of spontaneous transition, but of bold experiment: it includes not only such absolute contrasts as distinguish the Rape of the Lock from the Parish Register, but such vast contemporaneous differences as lie between Pope and Collins, Burns and Cowper. Yet we may clearly trace three leading moods or tendencies: the aspects of courtly or educated life represented by Pope and carried to exhaustion by his followers: the poetry of Nature and of Man, viewed through a cultivated, and at the same time an impassioned frame of mind by Collins and Gray lastly, the study of vivid and simple narrative, including natural description, begun by Gray and Thomson, pursued by Burns and others in the north, and established in England by Goldsmith, Percy, Crabbe, and Cowper. Great varieties in style accompanied these diversities in aim: poets could not always distinguish the manner suitable for subjects so far apart and the union of conventional and of common language, exhibited most conspicuously by Burns, has given a tone to the poetry of that century which is better explained by reference to its historical origin than by naming it artificial. There is, again, a nobleness of thought, a courageous aim at high and, in a strict sense manly, excellence in many of the writers: nor can that period be justly termed tame and wanting in originality, which produced poems such as Pope's Satires, Gray's Odes and Elegy, the ballads of Gay and Carey, the songs of Burns and Cowper. In truth Poetry at this, as at all times, was a more or less unconscious mirror of the genius of the age: and the many complex causes which made the Eighteenth century the turning-time in modern European civilization are also more or less reflected in its verse. An intelligent reader will find the influence of Newton as markedly in the poems of


Pope as of Elizabeth in the plays of Shakespeare. On this great subject, however, these indications must here be sufficient.


A.S. = Anglo-Saxon, A.V. = Authorised Version of Bible, adj. =adjective, cp.=compare, Fr. French, Ger. German, Lat. Latin, 1.=line, N.E.D. = New English Dictionary (Oxford), O.E.=Old English, O.F.=Old French, S. Scottish, trans. = translated by. Notes borrowed from Mr. F. T. Palgrave are enclosed in inverted commas and followed by his initials (F. T. P.). Gray's notes to his own poems are given within inverted commas and followed by his initial (G.). Poems in Book III. are referred to by their number in this volume, thus-No. 26; poems in other Books of the Golden Treasury are referred to by their number in the complete edition of 1891 and subsequent reprints, preceded by the letters G. T.

[blocks in formation]

AN unfinished Ode, published after Gray's death by his friend Mason, to whom the title is probably due. It seems to have been written in 1754. Besides the complete stanzas given here Gray left the first quatrain of two other stanzas, and a few other lines or fragments of lines. The additional stanzas given in some printed versions of the poem are these fragments of Gray's work presumptuously completed by Mason.

To appreciate fully this ode we must bear in mind the aim of eighteenth century poetry-perfection of form. "A poem was no longer to be a story told with picturesque imagery, but was to be a composition in symmetry and keeping. A thought or a feeling was not to be blurted out in the first words that came, but was to be matured by reflection, and reduced to its simplest expression. Condensation, terseness, neatness, finish, had to be studied " (Pattison on Pope). It is Gray's merit that while he seeks and attains perfection of form, he seldom sacrifices truth and naturalness. And, though he is full of reminiscences of other poets, he does not take his ideas of external Nature from books. He has a keen and unaffected delight in open-air sights and sounds; and these sights and sounds are all the dearer to him because other poets have written of them before. Books perform their right function for him: instead of interposing a barrier between him and Nature, they help him to see Nature and rejoice in her beauty.

Metre. A simple and beautiful variation of the octosyllabic iambic couplet. The last four lines of each stanza consist of two regular couplets. But in the first four lines of each stanza the rhymes alternate-a b a b. Further, in the first two lines a single long syllable is substituted for the first foot: the effect is to give a trochaic rhythm instead of an iambic to these lines. The third line is of full length-four iambic feet-but the

fourth line is shortened to three feet: the effect of this is to

check the somewhat rapid movement of the verse, and give a momentary pause for reflection.

1. golden, 'glancing like gold,' 'brilliant.' This is probably the meaning in Shakespeare's Cymbeline, IV. ii. 262, "Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust. The word is often used by the poets in the sense of precious,' delightful': cp. Keats (G. T., CCIX.), "Tales and golden histories Of heaven and its mysteries."

2. dew-bespangled. Milton has 'dew-besprent,' Comus, 542. 3. vermeil, vermilion, bright red. Vermeil is a French word used by Spenser and Milton. It is derived ultimately from Lat. vermis, a worm, the cochineal insect from which scarlet dye was obtained. Cp. Milton, Comus, 752, " What needs a vermeiltinctured lip for that?"

8. Gray writes to Wharton, August 26, 1766, describing the road to Canterbury, "It was indeed owing to the bad weather that the whole scene was dress'd in the tender emerald-green which one usually sees only for a fortnight in the opening of spring" (Tovey).

10. Cp. Lucretius, 1. 260, Nova proles Artubus infirmis teneras lasciva per herbas Ludit, "A new brood with feeble limbs frisks and gambols over the tender grass.'

13-16. Cp. the beautiful poems of Wordsworth and Shelley, G. T., CCLXXXVI. ("Ethereal minstrel ") and CCLXXXVII. ("Hail to thee, blithe Spirit ").

16. liquid light. Milton had used this phrase, Paradise Lost, VII. 362; Lucretius has liquidi fons luminis, v. 28.

17. sullen year, gloomy season.

23. Shelley, in his Skylark Ode draws a similar contrast between man and the lower animals (G. T., CCLXXXVII.):

"We look before and after,

And pine for what is not.'

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Cp. also Shakespeare, Hamlet, IV. 4, 37, 'He that made us of such large discourse, Looking before and after."

[ocr errors]

25. This stanza illustrates a defect that has often been censured by Gray's critics his tendency to half-personify abstractions. Whether we are to think of Misfortune,' 'Reflection,' and the rest as personages or qualities seems to depend almost entirely on the use or omission of capital letters. In the Middle Ages abstract qualities were frequently thought of as living characters, being so_represented, for example, in Morality Plays. In Spenser's Faery Queen the personification is still real. The 'ghostly Shapes' whom Wordsworth imagines

to meet under the Borrowdale yew-trees-"Fear and trembling Hope, Silence and Foresight, Death the Skeleton and Time the Shadow"-are also real creatures, like the group of figures in the entrance to Virgil's Inferno (Aeneid, vi. 273-281). But in Gray the personification is only an unreal survival of an old poetic


30. lour, frown. Cp. 'lowering,' A.V. of Matthew, xvi. 3. 32. Gilds. Hope' is the subject, 'shades' the object of this verb.

33. Still, always.

38. Chastised, i.e. because they are chastised (or, in modern English, chastened). Sabler, darker-a favourite word with Milton in this sense: cp. Il Penseroso, l. 35; Nativity Ode, 1. 220; Paradise Lost, ii. 962.

39. blended, i.e. when they are blended. With artful strife, skilfully vying with each other.

41. Mason writes, "I have heard Mr. Gray say that M. Gresset's Epitre à ma Sœur gave him the first idea of this Ode." Gresset's poem was on his recovery from sickness (Sur ma convalescence), and the resemblance is chiefly in this stanza. Compare with Gray's lines

"Les plus simples objets, le chant d'une fauvette,
Le matin d'un beau jour, la verdure des bois,
La fraicheur d'une violette,
Mille spectacles, qu'autrefois
On voyait avec nonchalance,
Transportent aujourd'hui .

45. This line inevitably recalls to us Wordsworth's
"To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears"
(G.T., CCCXXXVIII. ad fin.).

But though Wordsworth's phrase may unconsciously have been suggested by Gray's, the thought is not the same. Gray is speaking of the new delight in Nature and the open air that any man may feel after a long illness; Wordsworth writes of that intimate sympathy with Nature which is the privilege of a few choice spirits. Gray doubtless enjoyed this communion to some extent, but not with the same intensity, or the same consciousness, as Wordsworth.

2. O Thou, by Nature taught

WILLIAM COLLINS was born at Chichester, 1721, and educated at Winchester and Queen's College, Oxford. He afterwards lived

in great poverty in London, where he found a good friend in Dr. Johnson, who subsequently included a short life of Collins in his Lives of the Poets. From London Collins retired to Richmond, and then to Chichester. His later years were clouded by brain disease, and he died in 1759. Like Gray, he produced very little. All the best work of both poets is contained in this book of the Golden Treasury-unless the first strophe of Collins' Ode to Liberty, so warmly admired by Mr. Swinburne, should be added.

"We have no poet more marked by rapture, by the ecstasy which Plato held the note of genuine inspiration, than Collins. Yet but twice or thrice do his lyrics reach that simplicity, that sinceram sermonis Attici gratiam to which this ode testifies his enthusiastic devotion. His style, as his friend Dr. Johnson truly remarks, was obscure; his diction often harsh and unskilfully laboured; he struggled nobly against the narrow, artificial manner of his age, but his too scanty years did not allow him to reach perfect mastery" (F. T. P.).

This Ode to Simplicity is addressed to Simplicity only in relation to Poetry. By Simplicity Collins does not mean simplicity of diction. His practice in this ode and elsewhere is sufficient proof that he would not have assented to Wordsworth's doctrine, that "there neither is nor can be any essential difference between the language of prose and metrical composition." Collins means what we should perhaps rather call sincerity: "the voice of Nature and genuine emotion expressed in verse. Milton used the word 'simple' in this sense when he said that poetry ought to be 'simple, sensuous, passionate.' The poem should be compared with Gray's Ode on the Progress of Poesy (No. 26). Both poets describe the flight of genuine poetry from Greece to Rome, and afterwards from Rome, with the fall of freedom; both end with their personal aspirations in poetry. Collins' thesis that true poetry flies from despotism, and is only compatible with free institutions, is not entirely borne out by history. But we may say of the doctrine what Dr. Johnson said of the similar doctrine in Gray: "That Poetry and Virtue go always together is an opinion so pleasing that I can forgive him who resolves to think it true."

Metre. It is interesting to compare this with the stanza used by Milton in his Hymn on the Nativity (G.T., LXXXV.). In Milton's stanza there are two additional lines, of four and six feet respectively, rhyming with each other.

3. numbers, applied to the counting of the succession of feet in a verse, and so often used for 'poetry.'

warmly pure, passionate and yet pure.

« ПретходнаНастави »