« AnteriorContinuar »
in ornate eighteenth-century fashion, in the famous stanza
of his Eton Ode:
Say, Father Thames, for thou hast seen
The paths of pleasure trace;
The captive linnet which enthral ?
But we have every reason to believe that he was much more amply occupied in helping "grateful Science" to adore "her Henry's holy shade." Learning was still preferred to athletics at our public schools, and Gray was naturally drawn by temperament to study. It has always been understood that he versified at Eton, but the earliest lines of his which have hitherto been known are as late as 1736, when he had been nearly two years at Cambridge. I was, however, fortunate enough to find among the MSS. in Pembroke College a "play exercise at Eton," in the poet's handwriting, which had never been printed, and which is valuable as showing us the early ripeness of his scholarship. It is a theme, in seventy-three hexameter verses, commencing with the
Pendet Homo incertus gemini ad confinia mundi.
The normal mood of man is described as one of hesitation between the things of Heaven and the things of Earth; he assumes that all nature is made for his enjoyment, but soon experience steps in and proves to him the contrary; he endeavours to fathom the laws of nature,
but their scheme evades him, and he learns that his effort is a futile one. The proper study of mankind is man, and yet how narrow a theme! Man yearns for ever after superhuman power and accomplishment, only to discover the narrow scope of his possibilities, and he has at last to curb his ambition, and be contented with what God and nature have ordained. The thoughts are beyond a boy, though borrowed in the main from Horace and Pope ; while the verse is still more remarkable, being singularly pure and sonorous, though studded, in boyish fashion, with numerous tags from Virgil. What is really noticeable about this early effusion, is the curious way in which it prefigures its author's maturer moral and elegiac manner; we see the writer's bias and the mode in which he will approach ethical questions, and we detect in this little “play-exercise” a shadow of the stately didactic reverie of the (des. As this poem has never been described, I may be permitted to quote a few of the verses :
Plurimus (hic error, demensque libido lacessit)
In the face of such lines as these, and bearing in mind Walpole's assertion that “Gray never was a boy,” we may
form a tolerably exact idea of the shy and studious lad, already a scholar and a moralist, moving somewhat gravely and precociously through the classes of that venerable college which has since adopted him as her typical child, and which now presents to each emerging pupil a handsome selection from the works of the Etonian par excellence, Thomas Gray.
In 1734, the quadruple alliance broke up. Gray, and probably Ashton, proceeded to Cambridge, where the former was for a short time a pensioner of Pembroke Hall, but went over, on the 3rd of July, still as a pensioner, to his uncle Antrobus' College, Peterhouse. Walpole went up to London for the winter, and did not make his appearance at King's College, Cambridge, until March, 1735. West, meanwhile, had been isolated from his friends by being sent to Oxford, where he entered Christ Church much against his will. For a year the young undergraduates are absolutely lost to sight. If they wrote to one another, their letters are missing, and the correspondence of Walpole and of Gray with West begins in November 1735.
But in the early part of that year a very striking incident occurred in the Gray family, an incident that was perfectly unknown until, in 1807, a friend of Haslewood's happened to discover, in a volume of MS. lawcases, a case submitted by Mrs. Dorothy Gray to the eminent civilian John Audley, in February 1735. In
1 The Master of Peterhouse has kindly copied for me, from the register of admissions at that college, this entry, hitherto in. edited :-“Jul: 3tio. 1734. Thomas Gray Middlesexiensis in scholâ publicà Etonensi institutus, annosque natus 18 (petente Tutore suo) cengetur admisus ad Mensam Pensionariorum sob Tutore et Fidejussore Mro. Birkett, sed ea lege ut brevi se sistat in collegio et examinatoribus se probet.”
this extraordinary document the poet's mother states that for nearly thirty years, that is to say for the whole of her married life, she has received no support from her husband, but has depended entirely on the receipts of the shop kept by herself and her sister, moreover“ almost providing everything for her son, whilst at Eton school, and now he is at Peter-House in Cambridge.”
Notwithstanding which, almost ever since he (her husband) hath been married, he hath used her in the most inhuman manner, by beating, kicking, punching, and with the most vile and abusive language, that she hath been in the utmost fear and danger of her life, and hath been obliged this last year to quit her bed, and lie with her sister. This she was resolved, if possible, to bear ; not to leave her shop of trade for the sake of her son, to be able to assist in the maintainance of him at the University, since his father won't.
Mrs. Gray goes on to state that her husband has an insane jealousy of all the world, and even of her brother Thomas Antrobus, and that he constantly threatens “to ruin himself to undo her, and his only son,” having now gone so far as to give Mary Antrobus notice to quit the shop in Cornhill at Midsummer next. If he carries out this threat, Mrs. Gray says that she must go with her sister, to help her " in the said trade, for her own and her son's support.” She asks legal counsel which way will be best “for her to conduct herself in this unhappy circumstance." Mr, Audley writes sympathetically from Doctor's Commons, but civilly and kindly tells her that she can find no protection in the English law.
This strange and tantalising document, the genuineness of which has never been disputed, is surrounded by difficulties to a biographer. The known wealth and occasional extravagances of Philip Gray make it hard to understand why he should be so rapacious of his wife's little earnings, and at the same time so barbarous in his neglect of her and of his son. That there is not one word or hint of family troubles in Gray's copious correspondence is what we might expect from so proud and reticent a nature. But the gossipy Walpole must have known all this, and Mason need not have been so excessively discreet, when all concerned had long been dead. Perhaps Mrs. Gray exaggerated a little, and perhaps also the vileness of her husband's behaviour in 1735 made her forget that in earlier years they had lived on gentler terms. At all events, the money. scrivener is shown to have been miserly, violent, and, as I have before conjectured, probably half-insane. The interesting point in the whole story is Mrs. Gray's selfsacrifice for her son, a devotion which he in his turn repaid with passionate attachment, and remembered with tender effusion to the day of his death. He inherited from his mother his power of endurance, his quiet rectitude, his capacity for suffering in silence, and the singular tenacity of his affections.
Gray, Ashton and Horace Walpole were at Cambridge together as undergraduates from the spring of 1735 until the winter of 1738. They associated very much with one another, and Walpole shone rather less it would appear than at any other part of his life. The following extract of a letter from Walpole to West, dated November 9, 1735, is particularly valuable :
Tydeus rose and set at Eton. He is only known here to be a scholar of King's. Orosmades and Almanzor are just the same; that is, I am almost the only person they are acquainted with, and consequently the only person acquainted with their excel.