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and will, I fear, more and more need a consolation that no one can give, except He who had preserved her to you so many years, and at last, when it was His pleasure, has taken her from us to Himself; and perhaps, if we reflect upon what she felt in this life, we may look upon this as an instance of His goodness both to her and to those that loved her. She might have languished many years before our eyes in a continual increase of pain, and totally helpless; she might have long wished to end her misery without being able to attain it; or perhaps even lost all sense and yet continued to breathe; a sad spectacle for such as must have felt more for her than she could have done for herself. However you may deplore your own loss, yet think that she is at last easy and happy: and has now more occasion to pity us than we her. I hope, and beg, you will support yourself with that resignation we owe to Him, who gave us our being for good, and who deprives us of it for the same reason. I would have come to you directly, but you do not say whether you desire I should or not; if you do, I beg I may know it, for there is nothing to binder me, and I am in very good health.
It is impossible to imagine anything more sweetnatured and unaffected than this letter, and it opens to us for a moment the closed and sacred book of Gray's homelife, those quiet autumn days of every year so peacefully spent in loving and being loved by these three placid old ladies at Stoke, in a warm atmosphere of musk and potpourri.
The death of his aunt seems to have brought to his recollection the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, begun seven years before within sight of the ivy-clustered spire under whose shadow she was laid. He seems to have taken it in hand again, at Cambridge, in the winter of 1749, and tradition, which would fain see the poet always writing in the very precincts of a churchyard, has fabled that he wrote some stanzas among the tombs of Gran
chester. He finished it, however, as he began it, at Stoke Pogis, giving the last touches to it on the 12th of June, 1750. “Having put an end to a thing whose beginning you have seen long ago,” he writes on that day to Horace Walpole, “I immediately send it to you. You will, I hope, look upon it in the light of a thing with an end to it: a merit that most of my writings have wanted, and are like to want.” Walpole was only too highly delighted with this latest effusion of his friend, in which he was acute enough to discern the elements of a lasting
It is curious to reflect upon the modest and careless mode in which that poem was first circulated which was destined to enjoy and to retain a higher reputation in literature than any other English poem, perhaps than any other poem of the world, written between Milton and Wordsworth. The fame of the Elegy has spread to all countries, and has exercised an influence on all the poetry of Europe, from Denmark to Italy, from France to Russia. With the exception of certain works of Byron and Shakespeare, no English poem has been so widely admired and imitated abroad; and after more than a century of existence, we find it as fresh as ever, when its copies, even the most popular of all, those of Lamartine, are faded and tarnished. It possesses the charm of incomparable felicity, of a melody that is not too subtle to charm every ear, of a moral persuasiveness that appeals to every generation, and of metrical skill that in each line proclaims the master. The Elegy may almost be looked upon as the typical piece of English verse, our poem of poems; not that it is the most brilliant or original or profound lyric in our language, but because it combines in more balanced perfection than any other all the qualities that go to the production of a fine poetical
effect. The successive criticisms of a swarm of Dryasdusts, each depositing his drop of siccative, the boundless vogue and consequent profanation of stanza upon stanza, the changes of fashion, the familiarity that breeds indifference, all these things have not succeeded in destroying the vitality of this humane and stately poem. The solitary writer of authority who since the death of Johnson has ventured to depreciate Gray's poetry, Mr. Swinburne, who, in his ardour to do justice to Collins, has been deeply and extravagantly unjust to the greater man, even he, coming to curse, has been obliged to bless this "poem of such high perfection and such universal appeal to the tenderest and noblest depths of human feeling," admitting, again, with that frankness which makes Mr. Swinburne the most generous of disputants, that “ as an elegiac poet, Gray holds for all ages to come his unassailable and sovereign station." We may
well leave to its fate a poem with so splendid a history, a poem more thickly studded with phrases that have become a part and parcel of colloquial speech than any other piece, even of Shakespeare's, consisting of so few consecutive lines. A word or two however may not be out of place in regard to its form and the literary history of its composition. The heroic quatrain, in the use of which here and elsewhere, Gray easily excels all other English writers, was not new to our literature. Among the Pembroke MSS. I find copious notes by Gray on the Nosce Teipsum of Sir John Davies, a beautiful philosophical poem first printed in 1599, and composed in this measure. Davenant had chosen the same for his fragmentary epic of Gondibert, and Dryden for his metallic and gorgeous poem of the Annus Mirabilis. All these essays were certainly known to Gray, and he was possibly not uninfluenced by the Love Elegies of James Hammond, a young cousin of Horace Walpole's, who had died in 1742, and had affected to be the Tibullus of the age. Hammond had more taste than genius, yet after reading, with much fatigue, his forgotten elegies, I cannot avoid the impression that Gray was influenced by this poetaster, in the matter of form, more than by any other of his contemporaries. A familiar quatrain of West :
Ah me! what boots us all our boasted power,
Our golden treasure and our purple state!
Nor stay the fearful violence of fate,
was probably the wild-wood stock on which Gray grafted his wonderful rose of roses, borrowing something from all his predecessors, but justifying every act of plagiarism by the brilliance of his new combination. Even the tiresome sing-song of Hammond became in Gray's hands an instrument of infinite variety and beauty, as if a craftsman by the mere touch of his fingers should turn ochre into gold. The measure, itself, from first to last, is an attempt to render in English the solemn alternation of passion and reserve, the interchange of imploring and desponding tones, that is found in the Latin elegiac, and Gray gave his poem, when he first published it, an outward resemblance to the text of Tibullus by printing it without any stanzaic pauses. It is in this form and with the original spelling that the poem appears in an exquisite little volume, privately printed a few years ago at the Cambridge University Press, in which Mr. Munro has placed his own Ovidian translation of the Elegy opposite the original text; as pretty a tribute as was ever paid by one great University scholar to the memory of another.
Walpole's enthusiasm for the Elegy in a Country Churchyard led him to commit the grave indiscretion of handing it about from friend to friend, and even of distributing manuscript copies of it, without Gray's cognizance. At the Manor House at Stoke Lady Cobham, who seems to have known Horace Walpole, read the Elegy in a Country Churchyard in manuscript before it had been many months in existence, and conceived a violent desire to know the author. So quiet was Gray, and so little inclined to assert his own personality, that she was unaware that he and she had lived together in the same country parish for several years, until a Rev. Mr. Robert Purt, a Cambridge fellow settled at Stoke, told her that, “thereabouts there lurked a wicked imp they call a poet." Mr. Purt, however, enjoyed a very slight acquaintance with Gray (he was offended shortly afterwards at the introduction of his name into the Long Story, and very properly died of smallpox immediately), and could not venture to introduce him to her ladyship. Lady Cobham, however, had a guest staying with her, a Lady Schaub, who knew a friend of Gray's, a Lady Brown. On this very meagre introduction, Lady Schaub and Miss Speed, the niece of Lady Cobham, were persuaded by her ladyship, who shot her arrow like Teucer from behind the shield of Ajax, to call boldly upon Gray. They did so in the summer of 1751, but when they had crossed the fields to West End House, they found that the poet had gone out for a walk. They begged the ladies to say nothing of their visit, but they left among the papers in Gray's study this piquant little note : "Lady Schaub's compliments to Mr. Gray; she is sorry not to have found him at home, to tell him that Lady Brown is very well.” This little adventure assumed the hues of mystery and romance in so uneventful life as Gray's, and