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constitution began to be imminent. Meanwhile small things worried him. The great Mr. Fox did not wonder Edward I. could not understand what the Bard was saying, and chuckled at his own wit; young Lord Nuneham, for all his jonquils and his jessamine-powder, did not trouble himself to acknowledge his presentation copy; people said Gray's style was “impenetrable and inexplicable," and altogether the sweets were fewer than the bitters in the cup of notoriety.
Gray had placed himself, however, at one leap at the head of the living English poets. Thomson and Blair were now dead, Dyer was about to pass away, and Collins, hopelessly insane, was making the cloisters of Chichester resound with his terrible shrieks. Young, now very aged, had almost abandoned verse. Johnson had retired from all competition with the poets. Smart, whose frivolous verses had been collected in 1754, had shown himself, in his few serious efforts, a direct disciple and imitator of Gray's early style. Goldsmith, Churchill, and Cowper were still unheard of; and the only men with whom Gray could for a moment be supposed to contend were Shenstone and Akenside. Practically both of these men, also, had retired from poetry, the latter indeed having been silent for twelve years. The Odes could hardly fail to attract attention in a year which produced no other even noticeable publication in verse, except Dyer's tiresome descriptive poem of The Fleece. Gray seems to have felt that his genius, his “ verve" as he called it, was trying to breathe in a vacuum ; and from this time forward he made even less and less effort to concentrate his powers. In the winter of 1757, it is true, he began to plan an epic or didactic poem on the Revival of Learning, but we hear no more of it. His few remaining poems
were to be lyrics, pure and simple, swallow-flights of song.
On the 12th of December, 1757, Colley Cibber died, having held the office of poet-laureate for twenty-seven years. Lord John Cavendish immediately suggested to his brother, the Duke of Devonshire, who was then Lord Chamberlain, that as Gray was the greatest living poet, the post should be offered to him. This was immediately done, in very handsome terms, the duke even offering to waive entirely the perfunctory writing of odes, which had hitherto been deemed an annual duty of all poets laureate. Gray directed Mason, through whom the offer had been made, to decline it very civilly S
Though I well know the bland emollient saponaceous qualities both of sack and silver, yet if any great man would say to me “I make
Rat-catcher to his Majesty, with a salary of 3001. a-year and two butts of the best Malaga; and though it has been usual to catch a mouse or two, for form's sake, in public once a year, yet to you, sir, we shall not stand upon these things," I cannot say I should jump at it; nay if they would drop the very name of the office, and call me Sinecure to the King's Majesty, I should still feel a little awkward, and think everybody I saw smelt a rat about me; but I do not pretend to blame any one else that has not the same sensations ; for my part I would rather be serjeant-trumpeter or pin-maker to the palace. Nevertheless, I interest myself a little in the history of it, and rather wish somebody may accept it that will retrieve the credit of the thing, if it be retrievable, or ever had any credit. Rowe was, I think, the last man of character that had it. As to Settle, whom you mention, he belonged to my lord mayor, not to the king. Eusden was a person of great hopes in his youth, though at last he turned out a drunken parson. Dryden was as disgraceful to the office, from his character, as the poorest scribbler could have been from his verses. The office itself has
always bumbled the professor hitherto (even in an age when kings were somebody), 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 to envy even a poet laureate.
The duke acted promptly, for within a week of Cibber's death the laureateship had been offered to Gray, who refused, and to Whitehead, who accepted it. This amiable versifier was perhaps more worthy of the compliment than Mason, who wished for it, and who raged with disappointment.
In January, 1758, Gray seems to have recovered sufficiently to be so busy buying South Sea annuities, and amassing old china jars and three-legged stools with grassgreen bottoms, that he could not supply Mason with that endless flood of comment on Mason's odes, tragedies, and epics which the vivacious poetaster demanded. Hurd, in the gentlemanly manner to which Mr. Leslie Stephen has dedicated one stringent page, was calling upon Gray to sympathize with him about the wickedness of “ that wretch” Akenside. In all this Gray had but slight interest. His father's fortune, which had reached 10,0001. in his mother's careful hands, had been much damaged by the fire in Cornbill, and Gray now sank a large portion of his property in an annuity, that he might enjoy a larger income. During the spring of 1758 he amused himself by writing in the blank leaves of Kitchen's English Atlas A Catalogue of the Antiquities, Houses, &c., in England and Wales. This was considerable enough to form a little volume, and in 1774, after Gray's death, Mason printed a few copies of it privately, and sent them round to Gray's friends; and in 1787 issued a second edition for sale.
In April of the same year, 1758, Dr. Wharton lost his eldest and at that time his only son. Gray not only wrote him a very touching letter of condolence, but some verses on the death of the child, which I first printed in 1885 from a MS. in the handwriting of Dyce. In May, Gray started on that architectural tour in the Fens, of which I have already spoken, and in June was summoned to Stoke by the illness of his aunt Mrs. Oliffe, who had a sort of paralytic stroke while walking in the garden. She recovered, however, and Gray returned to London, made a short stay at Hampton with Lord and Lady Cobham, and spent July at Strawberry Hill. In August the Garricks again visited him at Stoke, but he had hardly enough physical strength to endure their vivacity. “They are now gone, and I am not sorry for it, for I grow so old, that, I own, people in high spirits and gaiety overpower me, and entirely take away mine. I can yet be diverted by their sallies, but if they appear to take notice of my dullness, it sinks me to nothing. I continue better than has been usual with me, in the summer, though I neither walk nor take anything : 'tis in mind only that I am weary and disagreeable." His position at Stoke, with Mrs. Oliffe laid up, and poor bed-ridden Mrs. Rogers growing daily weaker and weaker, was not an exhilarating
Towards the end of September, Mrs. Rogers recovered her speech, which had for several years been almost unintelligible, flickered up for two or three days, and then died. She left Mrs. Oliffe joint executrix of her small property with Gray, who describes himself in November 1758 as “agreeably employed in dividing nothing with an old Harridan, who is the Spawn of Cerberus and the Dragon of Wantley.” In January 1759 Mrs. Oliffe having taken herself off to her native country of Norfolk,
Gray closed the house at Stoke Pogis, and from this time forth only visited that village, which had been his home for nearly twenty years, when he was invited to stay at Stoke House. At the same time, to the distress of Dr. Brown, he ceased to reside at Pembroke, and spent the next three years in London.