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"The poem 'On the Cat' was doubtless by its author considered as a trifle; but it is not a happy trifle. In the first stanza, 'the
azure flowers that blow' show resolutely a rhyme is sometimes made when it cannot easily be found. Selima, the cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to language and sense; but there is no good use made of it when it is done; for of the two lines What female heart can gold despise,
What cat's averse to fish?
the first relates merely to the nymph, and the second only to the cat. The sixth stanza contains a melancholy truth, that 'a favourite has no friend'; but the last ends in a pointed sentence of no relation to the purpose; if what glistered had been gold, the cat would not have gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned."
Modern criticism has not confirmed Dr. Johnson's verdict on this 'trifle.' It is a question whether that blow' is redundant, whether it does not rather help us to see the painted flowers 'in blow; but even if it is redundant, such redundancy is in keeping with the mock-heroic style. To that style belongs the description of the cat as 'nymph,' and of the water as 'lake' and 'tide.' The sudden bathos of 'What cat's averse to fish?', far from being a blemish, is a literary triumph. It is essential to the success of a mock-heroic poem that the reader should realise that the poet is laughing, not seriously giving to the catastrophe a dignity it does not deserve. Yet even mock-heroics cannot be good unless they half-deceive us into accepting them for real. Gray is just on the point of so deceiving us, and merrily enlightens us by what the Greeks called a rapà πроσSoxíav, an unexpected turn of phrase. Dr. Johnson's censure of the last stanza is conceived in a spirit that would be fatal to most poetry. In the poetic, if not in the literal sense, the cat had found that "All that glisters is not gold."
3. azure, i.e. the vase was a China one with the flowers painted in blue. Cp. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu's Town Eclogues.
"Where the tall jar erects its stately pride
4. tabby kind, of the tabby species of cats. "A tabby cat is one whose coat is brindled, black and grey, like the waves of watered silk. Tabby is from Fr. tabis, watered silk, from Arabic attabi, a part of Bagdad, where it was made ” (Bradshaw). 5. reclined, participle.
7. conscious tail, i.e. the tail shows by its movements that it shares the feelings of the cat.
10. tortoise. "A cat whose coat is of a dark ground striped with yellow is called a tortoise-shell cat” (Bradshaw).
14. angel, of angelic beauty.
15. Genii, guardian deities, Latin plural of Genius. Italian peoples regarded the Genius as a higher power which creates and maintains life, assists at the begetting and birth of every individual man, determines his character, tries to influence his destiny for good, accompanies him through life as his tutelary spirit, and lives on after his death" (Seyffert, Dict. of Classical Antiquities). Places had their Genius as well as persons. Cp. Milton, Lycidas (G.T., LXXXIX. 183), "Henceforth thou art the Genius of the shore."
16. Tyrian, so-called because the best purple known to the ancients was prepared at Tyre from the secretions of the murex, a shellfish.
18. betrayed, showed underneath. 274:
Cp. Virgil, Georgics, iv.
Aureus ipse, sed in foliis quae plurima circum
"Golden is the flower, but on the petals that cluster thick round it purple gleams under dark violet."
31. Eight times. "A cat has nine lives, as everybody knows" (Phelps).
34. Dolphin. A dolphin in the classical legend had saved Arion from drowning. Nereid, sea-nymph, daughter of Nereus, the old man of the sea.
35. The commentators have not ascertained whether Walpole actually had two servants called 'Tom' and 'Susan' or whether Gray merely used the two names as typical.
39. with caution bold. Cp. the Latin proverb, Festina lente.
42. Cp. Chaucer, Yeman's Tale, "But all which shineth as the gold Ne is no gold, as I have been told"; Shakespeare, Merchant of Venice, II. vii. 65, "All that glisters is not gold."
AMBROSE PHILIPS (1671-1749) wrote several poems to children, some Pastorals, and an Epistle to the Earl of Dorset which Goldsmith declared to be incomparably fine.' Like Cibber, he had a quarrel with Pope, and was satirised by that irascible poet. Charlotte Pulteney, the subject of this ode, was one of the daughters of Daniel Pulteney, a politician of some distinction in the first quarter of the eighteenth century. She and her sister Margaret, to whom also Philips addressed an ode, died in childhood. Philips was ridiculed by his contemporaries for apostro
phising children; Henry Carey (see introductory note to No. 16) nicknamed him 'Namby-Pamby"; but the charming simplicity of these poems has kept alive his memory, whilst his more pretentious work has been forgotten.
Metre.-A simple trochaic line of four accents, often used by Shakespeare and Milton. In a long poem it becomes monotonous: hence Milton in L'Allegro and Il Penseroso varies it continually. So, too, Keats and Shelley varied it in such poems as the Ode on the Poets (G. T., CCIX.) and To a Lady, with a Guitar (G. T., ccc.). In Philips' poem the only variation is in the last couplet, where the slower iambic movement is appropriate to the reflective tone of the conclusion.
1. Timely, seasonable, early. The force of the epithet is not very clear. Does it mean that the parents are in the prime of
4. solicitous, involving anxious care (as precious and fragile). 5. still, always.
7. gossip, in its modern sense of 'tattler.' Gossip was originally god-sib, a kinsman with respect to God, a sponsor at baptism, godfather or godmother.
13. Yet, as yet. "In our present English, when yet, in the sense it has here, is placed before the verb of its sentence, we qualify it by prefixing as. We could say either 'While there was not yet any fear of Jove' or 'While as yet there was no fear of Jove'" (Hales, note on Il Penseroso, 1. 30).
18. Moduling, a variation for 'modulating'-i.e. forming sound to a certain key or to certain notes.
22. bloomy, full of blooms or blossoms, flowery. Used by Milton, Sonnet I., "O Nightingale, that on yon bloomy spray Warblest at eve.'
7. When Britain first at Heaven's command
JAMES THOMSON (1700-1748) is best known as the author of The Seasons, a blank verse poem of very considerable merit, full of genuine feeling for Nature, though the language is the artificial diction of the eighteenth century. Rule Britannia probably owes its inclusion in the Golden Treasury to its fame and popularity as a national song rather than to its possession of any of the higher qualities of lyric poetry.
2. main. The full phrase is 'the main sea.' King Lear, III. i. 6, main-main-land.
3. charter, "a writing bestowing privileges or rights" (Dr. Johnson).
11. Compare the language about Rome put into the mouth of Hannibal by Horace, Odes, IV. iv.
"Duris ut ilex tonsa bipennibus
("So the broad oak that spreads its dusky shade
And Roman dames for aye blazon their husbands' worth.”
17. generous flame, fire of high-spirited indignation. Generous is properly of noble race' (Lat. generosus), then applied to the qualities that are supposed to accompany noble birth. Cp. Pope: "Such was Roscommon, not more learn'd than good, With manners generous as his noble blood."
19. the rural reign. It is not easy to fix the sense in which Thomson uses this phrase. 'Reign' in the eighteenth century often meant 'realm'-cp. No. 36. 12, No. 48. 36-so that the words need only mean, "To thee belongs the country.' probably more than this is implied: "Thine are the triumphs of agriculture." Cp. Virgil's praise of Italy: Salve, magna parens frugum, Saturnia tellus (Georgics, II. 173).
23. still, always.
8. Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!
The Bard was first printed in 1757 with the Progress of Poesy (No. 26) at Horace Walpole's private press, Strawberry Hill. Gray had written it at various times during the two previous years. "In 1757, when this splendid ode was completed, so very little had been printed, whether in Wales or in England, in regard to Welsh poetry, that it is hard to discover whence Gray drew his Cynric allusions. The fabled massacre of the Bards (shown to be wholly groundless in Stephens' Literature of the Kymry) appears first in the family history of Sir John Wynn of Gwydir (cir. 1600), not published till 1773; but the story
seems to have passed in MS. to Carte's History, whence it may have been taken by Gray. The references to high-born Hoel and soft Llewellyn, to Cadwallo and Urien, may similarly have been derived from the 'Specimens' of early Welsh poetry by the Rev. E. Evans: as, although not published till 1764, the MS., we learn from a letter to Dr. Wharton, was in Gray's hands by July, 1760, and may have reached him by 1757. It is, however, doubtful whether Gray (of whose acquaintance with Welsh we have no evidence) must not have been also aided by some Welsh scholar. He is one of the poets least likely to scatter epithets at random: 'soft' or gentle is the epithet emphatically and specially given to Llewellyn in contemporary Welsh poetry, and is hence here used with particular propriety. Yet, without such assistance as we have suggested, Gray could hardly have selected the epithet, although applied to the King (pp. 141-3), among a crowd of others, in Llygad Gwr's Ode, printed by Evans" (F. T. P.). To be appreciated and enjoyed, this Ode, like the Odes of the Greek poet whom Gray so much admired, must be read more than once. Among its excellencies we may note: (1) the grandeur of the language, which is at once stately and impassioned. Gray understood, as few have done, what Tennysor once called "the glory of words "-the resonant music, the splendour of colour, of which our English language is capable in the hands of a master. He contrasts elsewhere the poetical poverty of his own age with 'the pomp and prodigality of Heaven," which he finds in Milton and Shakespeare. There is much of Milton's " pomp," and even something of Shakespeare's "prodigality" of fine effects in this Ode. Gray is a successor of Milton in "the grand style." (2) The wealth of literary associations, some of which will be recalled in the notes that follow. deepens the charm for the instructed reader. Almost every line is reminiscent for him of some favourite passage in an older author. This was the charm sought by Virgil also. Neither the one nor the other is a plagiarist, for both knew the secret of adorning what they touch, and deepening our love for the original by adapting it to some new and worthy use. (3) The wonderful succession of historical pictures, each painted in a few terse lines. (4) The rapid movement of the verse, so aptly expressive of the bard's impassioned fury. It is obtained by alliteration, by occasional trochaic effects, and by the mid-line rhymes in the epode or third stanza of each group.
The Bard and The Progress of Poesy were severely criticised at the time of their first appearance on account of their alleged obscurity. In the edition of 1768 Gray added notes, which are given below, and distinguished from the rest by being placed in inverted commas, and followed by the initial (G.).
Metre.-Gray called this Ode and The Progress of Poesy