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BRITISH MUSEUM-NORTON NICHOLLS.
When the Sloane Collection became national property at the death of its founder in 1753, and was incorporated under an act which styled it the British Museum, scholars and antiquaries expected to enter at once upon their inheritance. But a site and a building had to be secured, and when these were discovered, it took a long while to fit up the commodious galleries of Montagu House. On the 15th of January, 1759, the Museum was thrown open to the public, and among the throng of visitors was Gray, who had settled himself and his household gods close by, in Southampton Row, and who for some weeks had been awaiting the official Sesame. He had been seeing something of London society meanwhile, — entertained by Lady Carlisle, invited to meet Rousseau, and attending concerts and plays. He gives some account of the performance of Metastasio's Ciro Riconosciuto, with Cocchi's agreeable music.
The British Museum he found “indeed a treasure." It was at first so crowded that “the corner room in the basement, furnished with a wainscot table and twenty chairs," was totally inadequate to supply the demand, and in order to be comfortable it was necessary to book a place a fortnight beforehand This pressure, however, only lasted
for a very short time; curiosity was excited by the novelty, but quickly languished, and this little room was found quite ample enough to contain the scholars who frequented it. To reach it, the intrepid reader had to pass in darkness, like Jonah, through the belly of a whale, from which he emerged into the room of the Keeper of Printed Books, Dr. Peter Templeman, a physician who had received this responsible post for having translated Norden's Travels, and who resigned it, wearily, in 1761, for a more congenial appointment at the Society of Arts. By July 1759 the rush on the reading-room had entirely subsided, and on the 23rd of that month Gray mentions to Mason that there are only five readers that day. These were Gray himself, Dr. Stukeley the antiquary, and three hack-writers who were copying MSS. for hire.
A little later on, Gray became an amused witness of those factions which immediately broke out among the staff of the British Museum, and which practically lasted until a very few years ago. People who were the diverted or regretful witnesses of dissensions between a late Principal Librarian and the scholars whom he governed may be consoled to learn that things were just as bad in 1759. Dr. Gawin Knight, the first Principal Librarian, a pompous martinet with no pretence to scholarship, made life so impossible to the keepers and assistants that the Museum was completely broken into a servile and a rebellious faction. Gray, moving noiselessly to and fro, noted all this and smiled; "the whole society, trustees and all, are up in arms, like the fellows of a college.” Dr. Knight made no concessions; the keepers presently refused to salute him when they passed his window, and Gray and his fellow-readers were at last obliged to make a détour every day, because Dr. Knight
had walled up a passage in order to annoy the keepers. Meanwhile the trustees were spending 500l. a year more than their income, and Gray confidently predicts that before long all the books and the crocodiles and Jonah's whale will be put up to public auction.
At Mr Jermyn's, in Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, Gray was very comfortably settled. It was a cleaner Bloomsbury than we know now, and a brighter. Gray from his bedroom-window looked out on a south-west garden-wall covered with flowering jessamine through June and July. There had been roses, too, in this London garden. Gray must always have flowers about him, and he trudged down to Covent Garden every day, for his sweet peas and pinks, scarlet martagon-lilies, double stocks, and flowering marjoram. His drawing-room looked over Bedford Gardens, and a fine stretch of upland fields, crowned at last, against the sky, by the villages of Highgate and Hampstead. St. Giles's was at his back, with many a dirty court and alley, but in front of him against the morning light, there was little but sunshine and greenery and fresh air. He seems to notice nature here on the outskirts of London far more narrowly than at Cambridge; there are little parenthetical notes, asides to himself, about "fair white flying clouds at 9 in the morning" of a July day, or wheelbarrows heaped up with small black cherries on an August afternoon. He bought twenty walnuts for a penny on the 8th of September, and enjoyed a fine perdrigon-plum upon the 4th.
Meanwhile he is working every day at the Museum, feasting upon literary plums and walnuts, searching the original Ledger-Book of the Signet, copying Sir Thomas Wyatt's Defence and his poems, discovering "several odd things unknown to our historians," and
nursing his old favourite project of a History of English Poetry. He spent as a rule four hours a day in the reading-room, this being as much as his very delicate health could bear, for repeated attacks of the gout had made even this amount of motion and cramped repose sometimes very difficult.
On the 23rd of September, 1759, poor Lady Cobham, justly believing herself to be dying, summoned Gray down to Stoke House. She was suffering from dropsy, and being in a very depressed condition of mind, desired him not to leave her. He accordingly remained with her three weeks, and then accompained her and Miss Speed to town, whither Lady Cobham was recommended to come for advice. She still did not wish to part from him, and he stayed until late in November in her house in Hanover Square. He has some picturesque notes of the beautiful old garden at Stoke that autumn, rich with carnations, marygolds and asters, and with great clusters of white grapes on warm south walls. After watching beside Lady Cobham for some weeks, and finding no reason to anticipate a sudden change in her condition, he returned to his own lodging in Southampton Row, and plunged again into MSS. of Lydgate and Hoccleve.
It was while Gray was quietly vegetating in Bloomsbury that an event occurred of which he was quite unconscious, which yet has singularly endeared him to the memory of Englishmen. On the evening of the 12th of September, 1759,-while Gray, sauntering back from the British Museum to his lodgings, noted that the weather was cloudy, with a S.S. W. wind,-on the other side of the Atlantic the English forces lay along the river Montmorency, and looked anxiously across at Quebec and at the fateful heights of Abraham. When night-fall came.
and before the gallant four thousand obeyed the word of command to steal across the river, General Wolfe, the young officer of thirty-three, who was next day to win death and immortality in victory, crept along in a boat from post to post to see that all was ready for the expedition. It was a fine, silent evening, and as they pulled along, with muffled oars, the General recited to one of his officers who sat with him in the stern of the boat nearly the whole of Gray's Elegy in a Country Churchyard, adding, as he concluded, “I would prefer being the author of that Poem to the glory of beating the French to-morrow.” Perhaps no finer compliment was ever paid by the man of action to the man of imagination, and, sanctified, as it were, by the dying lips of the great English hero, the poem seems to be raised far above its intrinsic rank in literature, and to demand our respect as one of the acknowledged glories of our race and language. This beautiful anecdote of Wolfe rests on the authority of Professor Robison, the mathematician, who was a recruit in the engineers during the attack upon Quebec, and happened to be present in the boat when the General recited Gray's poem.
Poor Gray, ever pursued by the terrors of arson, had a great fright in the last days of November in this year. A fire broke out in the house of an organist on the opposite side of Southampton Row, and the poor householder was burned to death; the fire spread to the house of Gray's lawyer, who fortunately saved his papers. A few nights later, the poet was roused by a conflagration close at hand in Lincoln's Inn Fields. “ 'Tis strange,” he a spirit of desperation, “ that we all of us here in town lay ourselves down every night on our funercal pile, ready made, and compose ourselves to rest, while every drunken footman and drowsy old woman has a candle