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CHAPTER III.

STOKE-POGIS-DEATH OF WEST- FIRST ENGLISH POEMS.

On his return from Italy Gray found his father lying very ill, exhausted by successive attacks of gout, and unable to rally from them. Two months later, on the 6th of November, 1741, he died in a paroxysm of the disease. His last act had been to squander his fortune, which seems to have remained until that time almost unimpaired, on building a country-house at Wanstead.

Not only had he not written to tell his son of this adventure, but he had actually contrived to conceal it from his wife. Mason is not correct in saying that it became necessary to sell this house immediately after Philip Gray's death, or that it fetched 20001. less than it had cost; it remained in the possession of Mrs. Gray. With the ruins of a fortune Mrs. Gray and her sister, Mary Antrobus, seem to have kept house for a year in Cornhill, till, at the death of their brother-in-law, Mr. Jonathan Rogers, on the 21st of October, 1742, they joined their widowed sister Anna in her house at Stoke-Pogis, in Buckinghamshire. During these months they wound up their private business in Cornhill, and disposed of their shop on tolerably advantageous terms; and apparently Gray first imagined that the family property would be enough to provide amply for him also. Accordingly he began the study of the law,

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that being the profession for which he had been originally intended. For six months or more he seems to have stayed in London, applying himself rather languidly to common law, and giving his real thoughts and sympathies to those who demanded them most, his mother and his unfortunate friend Richard West. The latter, indeed, he found in a miserable condition ; in June 1740 that young

1 man, having lived at the Temple till he was sick of it, left chambers, finding that neither the prestige of his grandfather, nor the reputation of his uncle, Sir Thomas Burnet, advanced him at all in their profession. He was without heart in his work, his talents were not drawn out in the legal direction, and his affectionate and somewhat feminine nature suffered from loneliness and want of congenial society. He had hoped that Walpole would be able to find him a post in the diplomatic service, or in the army, but this was not possible. Gray strongly disapproved of the step West took in leaving the Temple, and wrote him from Florence a letter full of kindly and cordial good sense ; but when he arrived in London he found West in a far more broken condition of mind and body than he had anticipated. In extreme agitation West confided to his friend a terrible secret which he had discovered, and which Gray preserved in silence until the close of his life, when he told it to Norton Nicholls. · It is a painful story which need not be repeated here, but which involved the reputation of West's mother with the name of his late father's secretary, a Mr. Williams, whom she finally married when her son was dead. West had not the power to rally from this shock, and the comfort of Gray's society only slightly delayed the end. In March 1742 he was obliged to leave town, and went to stay with a friend at Popes,

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near Hatfield, Herts, where he lingered three months, and died.

The winter which Gray and West spent together in London was remarkable in the career of the former as the beginning of his most prolific year of poetical composition, a vocal year to be followed by six of obstinate silence. The first original production in English verse was the fragment of a tragedy of Agrippina, of which one complete scene, and a few odd lines, have been preserved in his works. In this attempt at the drama he was inspired by Racine, and neither Addison, nor Aaron Hill, nor James Thomson, had contrived to be more cold or academic a playwright. The subject, which had been treated in tragedy more than a century earlier by May, was well adapted for stately stage-effect, and the scheme of Gray's play, so far as we know it, was not without interest. But he was totally unfitted to write for the boards, and even the beauty of versification in Agrippina cannot conceal from us for a moment its ineptitude. All that exists of the play is little else than a soliloquy in which the Empress defies the rage of Nero, and shows that she possesses

A heart that glows with the pure Julian fire,

by daring her son to the contest :

Around thee call
The gilded swarm that wantons in the sunshine
Of thy full favour; Seneca be there
In gorgeous phrase of laboured eloquence
To dress thy plea, and Burrhus strengthen it
With his plain soldier's oath, and honest seeming.
Against thee - liberty and Agrippina !
The world the prize! and fair befall the victors !

As a study in blank verse Agrippina shows the result of long apprenticeship to the ancients, and marches with a sharp and dignified step that reminds the reader more of Landor than of any other dramatist. In all other essentials, however, the tragedy must be considered, like the didactic epic, a false start; but Gray was now very soon to learn his real vocation.

The opening scene of the tragedy was sent down into Hertfordshire to amuse West, who seemed at first to have recovered his spirits, and who sat “purring by the fireside, in his arm-chair, with no small satisfaction.” He was able to busy himself with literature, delighting in the new book of the Dunciad, and reading Tacitus for the first time. His cool reception of the latter roused Gray to defend his favourite historian with great vigour. “Pray do not imagine,” he says, “that Tacitus, of all authors in the world, can be tedious .... Yet what I admire in him above all is his detestation of tyranny, and the high spirit of liberty that every now and then breaks out, as it were, whether he would or no." Poor West on the 4th of April, racked by an “importunissima tussis,” declines to do battle against Tacitus, but attacks Agrippina with a frankness and a critical sagacity which slew that ill-starred tragedy on the spot. It is evident that Gray had no idea of West's serious condition, for he rallies him on being the first who ever made a muse of a cough, and is confident that “those wicked remains of your illness will soon give way to warm weather and gentle exercise." It is in the same letter that Gray speaks with some coldness of Joseph Andrews, and reverts with the warmth on which we have already commented to the much more congenial romances of Marivaux and Crébillon. We may here confess that Gray certainly misses, in com

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mon with most men of his time, the one great charm of the literary character at its best, namely enthusiasm for excellence in contemporaries. It is a sign of a dry age when the principal authors of a country look askance on one another. Some silly critics in our own days have discovered with indignant horror the existence of “mutual admiration societies.” A little more acquaintance with the history of literature might have shown them how strong the sentiment of comradeship has been in every age of real intellectual vitality. It is much to be deplored that the chilly air of the eighteenth century prevented the "mutual admiration" of such men as Gray and Fielding.

This is perhaps an appropriate point at which to pause and consider the condition of English poetry at the moment at which we have now arrived. When Gray began seriously to write, in 1742, the considerable poets then alive in England might have been counted on the fingers of two hands. Pope and Swift were nearing the close of their careers of glory and suffering, the former still vocal to the last, and now quite unrivalled by any predecessor in personal prestige. As a matter of fact, however, he was not destined to publish anything more of any consequence.

Three other names, Goldsmith, Churchill, and Cowper, were those of children not to appear in literature for many years to come. Gray's actual competitors, therefore, were only four in number. Of these the eldest, Young, was just beginning to publish, at the age of fifty-eight, the only work by which he is now much remembered, or which can still be read with pleasure. The Night Thoughts was destined to make his the most prominent poetical figure for the next ten years. Thomson, on the other hand, a younger and far

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