Imágenes de páginas

Pogis. For the present, however, all we hear is that he is too lazy to go over to Eton, which the enthusiastic Walpole and West consider to be perfectly unpardonable. year later he is again with his uncle at Burnham; and it is on this occasion that he discovers the since-famous He is writing to Horace Walpole, and he




My Uncle is a great hunter in imagination; his dogs take up every chair in the house, so I am forced to stand at the present writing; and though the gout forbids him galloping after them in the field, yet he continues still to regale his ears and nose with their comfortable noise and stink. He holds me mighty cheap, I perceive, for walking when I should ride, and reading when I should hunt. My comfort amidst all this is, that I have at the distance of half a mile, through a green lane, a forest (the vulgar call it a common), all my own, at least, as good as so, for I spy no human thing in it but myself. It is a little chaos of mountains and precipices, mountains, it is true, that do not ascend much above the clouds, nor are the declivities quite so amazing as Dover Cliff; but just such bills as people who love their necks as well as I do may venture to climb, and crags that give the eye as much pleasure as if they were more dangerous. Both vale and hill are covered with most venerable beeches, and other very reverend vegetables, that, like most other ancient people, are always dreaming out their old stories to the winds. At the foot of one of these squats ME (il penseroso) and there I grow to the trunk for a whole morning. The timorous hare and sportive squirrel gambol around me like Adam in Paradise before he had an Eve; but I think he did not use to read Virgil, as I commonly do.

This is the first expression, as far as I am aware, of the modern feeling of the picturesque. We shall see that it became more and more a characteristic impulse with Gray as years went by. In this letter, too, we see that at the

age of twenty-one he had already not a little of that sprightly wit and variety of manner which make him one of the most delightful letter-writers in any literature.

At Burnham, in 1737, he made the acquaintance of a very interesting waif of the preceding century. Thomas Southerne, the once famous author of Oroonoko and The Fatal Marriage, the last survivor of the age of Dryden, was visiting a gentleman in the neighbourhood of Burnham, and was so much pleased with young Gray, that though he was seventy-seven years of age he often came over to the house of Mr. Antrobus to see him. Still oftener, without doubt, the young poet went to see the veteran, whose successes on the stage of the Restoration took him back fifty years to a society very different from that in which he now vegetated on the ample fortune which his tragedies still brought him in. Unhappily his memory was almost entirely gone, though he lived nine years more, and died of sheer old age on the borders of ninety; so that Gray's curiosity about Dryden and the other poets his friends was more provoked than gratified. However, Gray found him as agreeable an old man as could be, and liked "to look at him and think of Isabella and Oroonoko," those personages then still being typical of romantic disappointment and picturesque sensibility. About this time, moreover, we may just note in passing, died Matthew Green, whose posthumous poem of the The Spleen was to exercise a considerable influence over Gray, and to be one of the few contemporary poems which he was able fervidly to admire.

Lest, however, the boy should seem too serious and precocious, if we know him only by the scholarly letters to West, let us print here, for the first time, a note to his tutor, the Rev. George Birkett, Fellow of Peterhouse, a


note which throws an interesting light on his manners. The postmark of this letter, which has lately been discovered at Pembroke College, is October 8, the year, I think, 1736


S',-As I shall stay only a fortnight longer in town, I'll beg you to give yourself the trouble of writing out my Bills, and sending 'em, that I may put myself out of your Debt, as soon as 1 come down if Piazza should come to you, you'll be so good as to satisfie him: I protest, I forget what I owe him, but he is honest enough to tell you right. My Father and Mother desire me to send their compliments, and I beg you'd believe me Sr, your most obed humble Serv


The amusing point is that the tutor seems to have flown into a rage at the pert tone of this epistle, and we have the rough draft of two replies on the fly-sheet. The first addresses him as 66 pretty Mr. Gray," and is a moral box on the ear; but this has been cancelled, as wrath gave way to discretion, and the final answer is very friendly, and states that the writer would do anything "for your father and your uncle, Mr. Antrobus (Thos.)." Signor Piazza was the Italian master to the University, and six months later we find Gray, and apparently Horace Walpole also, learning Italian "like any dragon." The course of study habitual at the University was entirely out of sympathy with Gray's instinctive movements after knowledge. He complains bitterly of having to endure lectures daily and hourly, and of having to waste his time over mathematics, where his teacher was the celebrated Professor Nicholas Saunderson, whose masterly Elements of Algebra, afterwards the text-books of the University, were still known only by oral tradition. For such learning Gray had neither taste nor patience. "It is very pos

sible," he writes to West, "that two and two make four, but I would not give four farthings to demonstrate this ever so clearly; and if these be the profits of life, give me the amusements of it." His account of the low condition of classic learning at Cambridge we must take with a grain of salt. As an undergraduate he would of course see nothing of the great lights of the University, now sinking beneath the horizon; such a shy lad as he would not be asked to share the conversation of Bentley, or Snape, or the venerable Master of Jesus. What does seem clear from his repeated denunciations of "that pretty collection of desolate animals" called Cambridge, is that classical taste was at a very low ebb among the junior fellows and the elder undergraduates. The age of the great Latinists had passed away; the Greek revival, which Gray did much to start, had not begun, and 1737 was certainly a dull year at the University. It seems that there were no Greek text-books for the use of schools until 1741, and the method of pronouncing that language was as depraved as possible. A few hackneyed extracts from Homer and Hesiod were all that a youth was required to have read in order to pass his examination. Plato and Aristotle were almost unknown, and Gray himself seems to have been the only person at Cambridge who attempted seriously to write Greek verse. It is not difficult to understand that when, with the third term of his second year, his small opportunities of classical reading were taken from him, and he saw himself descend into the Cimmerian darkness of undiluted mathematics, the heart of the young poet sank within him. In December 1736 there was an attempt at rebellion; he declined to take degrees, and announced his intention of quitting college, but as we hear no more of this, and as he stayed two

years longer at Cambridge, we may believe that this was overruled.

Meanwhile the leaden rod seemed to rule the fate of the quadruple alliance. West grew worse and worse, hopelessly entangled in consumptive symptoms. Walpole lost his mother in August of 1737, and after this was a kind of waif and stray until he finally left England in 1739. Gray, whether in Cambridge or London, reverts more and more constantly to his melancholy. "Low spirits are my true and faithful companions; they get up with me, go to bed with me, make journeys and returns as I do; nay, and pay visits, and will even affect to be jocose, and force a feeble laugh with me; but most commonly we sit together, and are the prettiest insipid company in the world. However, when you come," he writes to West, "I believe they must undergo the fate of all humble companions, and be discarded. Would I could turn them to the same use that you have done, and make an Apollo of them. If they could write such verses with me, not hartshorn, nor spirit of amber, nor all that furnishes the closet of the apothecary's wisdom, should persuade me to part with them." For West had been writing a touching eulogy ad amicos, in the manner of Tibullus, inspired by real feeling and a sad presentiment of the death that lay five years ahead. In reading these lines of Gray's, we hardly know whether most to admire the marvellous lightness and charm of the style, or to be concerned at such confession of want of spirits in a lad of twenty-one. His letters, however, when they could be wrung out of his apathy, were precious to poor West at Oxford; "I find no physic comparable to your letters: prescribe to me, dear Gray, as often and as much as you think proper," and the amiable young pedants proceed, as before, to the

« AnteriorContinuar »