Imágenes de páginas
[ocr errors]

north of England, on the ground that "the good people here [at Stoke] would think me the most careless and ruinous of mortals, if I should think of a journey at this time.”

In the letter from which a quotation has just been given, Gray mentions for the first time a man whose name was to be inseparably associated with his own, without whose pious care for his memory, indeed, the task of writing Gray's life in any detail would be impossible. In the year 1747 Gray's attention was directed by a friend to a modest publication of verses in imitation of Milton; the death of Pope was sung in an elegy called Muscus, to resemble Lycidas, and Milton's odes found counterparts in Il Bellicoso and Il Pacifico. These pieces, which were not entirely without a meritorious ease of metre, were the production of William Mason, a young man of twenty-two, the son of a Yorkshire clergyman, and a scholar of St. John's College, Cambridge. His intelligence first attracted the notice of a fellow of his own college, Dr. William Heberden, the distinguished Professor of Medicine, who was a friend of Gray, and who was very possibly the person who showed Mason's poems to the latter. In the course of the same year, 1747, through the exertions of Heberden and Gray, Mason was nominated a fellow of Pembroke, and proposed to himself to enter that remarkable bear-garden. But Dr. Roger Long refused his consent, and it was not until February 1749, and after much litigation, that Mason was finally elected.

There was something about Mason which Gray liked, a hearty simplicity and honest ardour that covered a good deal of push which Gray thought vulgar and did not hesitate to chastise. Mason, on his side, was a faithful and affectionate henchman, full of undisguised admira


tion of Gray and fear of his sarcasm, not unlike Boswell in his persistence, and in his patience in enduring the reproofs of the great man. Gray constantly crushed Mason, but the latter was never offended, and after a few tears, returned manfully to the charge. Gray's description of him in the second year of their acquaintance, when Mason was only twenty-three, was this :-" Mason has much fancy, little judgment, and a good deal of modesty. I take him for a good and well-meaning creature ; but then he is really in simplicity a child, and loves every body he meets with; he reads little or nothing, writes abundance, and that with a desire to make his fortune by it." This literary fluency was a matter of wonder to Gray, whose own attar of roses was distilled slowly and painfully, drop by drop, and all through life he was apt to overrate Mason's verses. It was very difficult, of course, for him to feel unfavourably towards a friend so enthusiastic and so anxious to please, and we cannot take Gray's earnest approval of Mason's odes and tragedies too critically. Moreover, he was Gray's earliest and most slavish disciple; before he left St. John's come within the greater poet's more habitual influence, he had begun to imitate poems which he can only have seen in manuscript.

Henceforward, in spite of his somewhat coarse and superficial nature, in spite of his want of depth in imagination and soundness in scholarship, in spite of a general want of the highest qualities of character, Mason became a great support and comfort to Gray. His physical vigour and versatility, his eagerness in the pursuit of literature, his unselfish ardour and loyalty, were refreshing to the more fastidious and retiring man, who enjoyed, moreover, the chance of having at last found a person with whom he could discourse freely about literature, in that constant easy interchange of impressions which is the luxury of a purely literary life. Moreover, we must do Mason the justice to say that he supplied to Gray's fancy whatever stimulus such a mind as his was calculated to offer, receiving his smallest and most fragmentary effusions with interest, encouraging him to the completion of his poems, and receiving each fresh ode as if a new planet had risen above the horizon. With Walpole to be playful with, and Mason to be serious with, Gray was no longer for the rest of his life exposed to that east wind of solitary wretchedness which had parched him for the first three years of his life at Cambridge. At the same time, grateful as we must be to Mason for his affection and goodheartedness, we cannot refrain from wishing that his poems had been fastened to a millstone and cast into the river Cam. They are not only barren and pompous to the very last degree, but to the lovers of Gray they have this disadvantage that they constantly resolve that poet's true sublime into the ridiculous, and leave on the ear an uncomfortable echo, as of a too successful burlesque or parody. Of this Gray himself was not unconscious, though he put the thought behind him, as one inconsistent with friendship

A disreputable personage who crossed Gray's orbit about this time, and was the object of his cordial dislike and contempt, has left on the mind of posterity a sense of higher natural gifts than any possessed by the respectable Mason. Christopher Smart, long afterwards author of the Song to David, was an idle young man who had been admitted to Pembroke in October 1739, under the protection of the Earl of Darlington, and who in 1745 was elected a fellow of his college. As early as 1740 he began to be celebrated for the wit and originality of his Latin tripos verses, of which a series are still in existence. One of these, a droll celebration of the Nativity of Yawning, is not unlike Gray's own Hymn to Ignorance in its contempt for the genius of Cambridge. But Smart lost credit by his pranks and levities no less quickly than he gained it by his skill. Gray writes in March 1747 that Smart's debts are increasing daily, and that he drinks hartshorn from morning till night. A month later he had scandalized the university by performing in the Zodiac Room, a club which had been founded in 1725, a play of his own called a A Trip to Cambridge, or the Grateful Fair, a piece which was never printed and now no longer is in existence. Already, at this time, Gray thought Smart mad. “He can't hear his own Prologue without being ready to die with laughter. He acts five parts himself, and is only sorry he can't do all the rest. . . As for his vanity and faculty of lying, they have come to their full maturity. All this, you see, must come to a jail, or Bedlam.” It did come to Bedlam, in 1763, but not until Smart had exhausted every eccentricity and painful folly possible to man. But the minor catastrophe was much nearer, namely the jail. In November 1747 he was arrested at the suit of a London tailor, was got out of prison by means of a subscription made in the college, and received a sound warning to behave better in future, a warning which Gray, who watched him narrowly and noted his moral symptoms with cold severity, justly predicted would be entirely frustrated by his drunkenness.

The frequent disturbances caused in the university by such people as Smart had by this time led to much public

[ocr errors]


scandal. Gray says "the fellow commoners-the bucks -are run mad, they set women upon their heads in the streets at noon-day, break open shops, game in the coffeehouses on Sundays, and in short," he adds in angry irony, "act after my own heart." The Tuns Tavern at Cambridge was the scene of nightly orgies, in which professors and fellows set an example of roistering to the youth of the University. Heavy bills were run up at inns and coffeehouses, which were afterwards repudiated with effrontery. The breaking of windows and riots in public parts of the town were indulged in to such an extent as to make Cambridge almost intolerable, and the work of James Brown, Gray's intimate friend, who held the post of Senior Proctor, was far from being a sinecure. In 1748, the Duke of Somerset, who had absolutely neglected his responsibilities, was succeeded in the Chancellorship by the Duke of Newcastle, whose installation promised little hope of reform. Gray described the scene to Wharton :"Every one while it lasted was very gay and very busy in the morning, and very owlish and very tipsy at night: I make no exception from the Chancellor to blue-coat," who was the vice-chancellor's servant. However, it presently appeared that the Duke of Newcastle was not inclined to sacrifice discipline. The Bishops united with him in concocting a plan by which the licence of the resident members of the university should be checked, and in May 1750 the famous code of Orders and Regulations was brought before the Senate. It was not, however, easy to restore order to a community which had so long been devoted to the Lord of Misrule, and it was not until more than twenty persons of good family had been "expelled or rusticated for very heinous violations of our laws and discipline" that anything like decent behaviour was restored, the fury of the undergraduates displaying

« AnteriorContinuar »