Gray, Collins, and Beattie

IT is not a purely arbitrary selection that puts together the names that stand at the head of this article, for it may be said of them that they were the three poets, outside of those belonging to the great literary revival at the end of the last century, who were most clearly possessed by what we feel to be the true

poetic spirit. They groped toward, but never reached, a position of independence ; they never fairly headed a reaction against the rigid rules of literary propriety which Pope illustrated and enforced, yet the forms of composition that they chose show their dissatisfaction with the influence that had prevailed so long. They have, too, another claim upon our sympathy from the incompleteness of their life and work. Gray’s poetic flame soon died out in an uncongenial air, and he devoted himself almost wholly to study ; Collins went mad, and died young; while Beattie’s one fine poem was left a fragment. Yet the work of all three has survived ; that of Gray and Collins has taken a place in the classics of English literature ; and two of them, Gray and Beattie, were at once greeted with enthusiasm by their contemporaries. Collins attained fame only at a later day.

Each of them chose a form of expression very different from that which Pope managed with so great skill, and it is interesting to observe the way in which English writers broke loose from the rigid fetters of heroic verse. The first great step was taken by Thomson in his Seasons (1726-30). In 1742, two years before Pope’s death, Shenstone’s Schoolmistress and Young’s Night Thoughts appeared ; the first written in the Spenserian stanza, and the other in more or less Miltonic blank verse. In 1744 appeared Akenside’s Pleasures of the Imagination, but this, like Young’s poem, was novel only in form. The latter, like Blair’s Grave (1743), was but a collection of oldfashioned saws concerning the mortality of man, and Akenside’s Imagination was but the cool and chastened imagination which Addison had written about in the Spectator ; yet this poem was received with incomparably more applause than were Collins’s Odes that appeared in 1747.

It was doubtless Addison’s papers in the Spectator that gave this prominence to Milton’s influence; and, more than this, temperate and remote from interest as these papers seem to us, they may be fairly said to have been of the greatest service in destroying the value of French models in the eyes of the Germans. The blank song, as Dr. Johnson called it, became one of the most admired forms of expression in the last century. The inversions of the Paradise Lost were easily imitated, but the transposition of the words in a sentence is not enough to make a writer’s style Miltonic. The exquisite rhythm was never caught by the men who poured forth blank verse even in their comic poems: they could copy the form, but they could not render the charm of his lines; for, just as every great organ has a vox humana stop, that bears more or less resemblance to the human voice, Milton alone had in his majestic lines something that sounded like a great organ.

We see more successful imitations of Milton’s musical lines and wonderful choice of language in the numerous odes of the last century. They were a sufficiently familiar species of composition. Dryden and Pope had each written these somewhat formal invocations, and it was as natural for Gray and Collins to adopt this method as it is for a young bard nowadays to write a handful of sonnets. But Gray’s best work was his famous Elegy, and it may be safe to say that we read his odes more to satisfy a certain curiosity about the poet who wrote one piece of such beauty than from any warm feeling of admiration for his comparatively artificial verses. The Elegy is one of those immortal poems that is not seriously injured by constant repetition. It contains the material of as many poems as there are stanzas, and its simplicity and polished expression keep it a favorite with young and old alike. Its melancholy is of a sort that was not uncommon in the literature of the time when it was composed. Many of Gray’s contemporaries resorted to grave-yards for the indulgence of their fancies. What with Blair’s Grave and Young’s Night Thoughts, there was but little joyousness in much of the current reading of the time. That this is a favorable condition for literature may well be doubted. An age that is full of life and energy does not waste time in gazing into graves, or in writing poems about the certainty of death, and a general disposition to seek these mortuary subjects is a peculiarity of what may be called a dull season in literature. In Pope’s day there had been sufficient satisfaction with life, and if there was a time that was free from morbidness it was when that writer was polishing his epigrams ; but as the eighteenth century grew older people became more serious, and in this literature of the tombstone we may perhaps see how the public mind was preparing itself for the later outbreak of romanticism. Abundance of imagination we do not feel to have been one of the distinguishing marks of the last century, and in its absence the fact of the omnipresence of death assumed undue importance.

Extreme elegance and careful composition are more conspicuous in the Elegy than in most other English poems of equal length. The art is not forced upon the reader’s attention, but it has doubtless preserved a poem in which it is commonly said that there is no other quality of exceptional greatness. Yet there is a sort of ungraciousness in that remark, inasmuch as it resembles the well-known criticism of the man who, when he first saw Hamlet acted, commented on the large number of familiar quotations that it contained; for the Elegy is so well known that it seems thereby somewhat trite and valueless. It seems so, that is to say, until we read it over again, when we cannot fail to enjoy its beauty. It was at once successful, and the imitations that it called forth were numberless. As a general thing, however, they bear as faint a likeness to the original as it does itself to Gay’s Elegiac Epistle to a Friend, “ written,” as we are told, and can readily believe, “ under a dejection of spirits.” Gay’s poem has been saved from total obscurity only by the assertion that it inspired Gray to write his Elegy.

A few stanzas will show the likelihood of this supposition : —

“Full well I know in life’s uncertain road
The thorns of misery are profusely sown ;
Full well I know in this low, vile abode
Beneath the chastening rod what numbers groan.
ܜ Born to a happier state, how many pine
Beneath th’ oppressor’s power, or feel the smart
Of bitter want, or foreign evils join
To the sad symptoms of a broken heart.”

The imitations of the Elegy are more like this poem of Gay’s. Some of the more important are Falconer’s lines, written as a conclusion to his Shipwreck. James Græme tried his hand at similar elegies, and William Whitehead followed the beaten path, and wrote in his Elegy on the Mausoleum of Augustus, —

“ What though no cypress shades In funeral rows,
No sculptured urns, the last records of fate,
O’er the shrunk terrace wave their baleful boughs,
Or breathe in storied emblems of the great;
“ Yet not with heedless eye will we survey
The scene, though, changed nor negligently
These variegated walks, however gay,
Were once the silent mansions of the dead.
“In every shrub, in every floweret’s bloom
That paints with different hues yon smiling
Some hero’s ashes issue from the tomb,
And live a vegetative life again.
“For matter dies not, as the sages say,” etc.

John Scott wrote five elegies after the same model : —

“The grassy lane, the wood-surrounded field,
The rude stone fence with fragrant wall-flowers
The clay-built cot, to me more pleasure yield
Than all the pomp imperial domes display.”

And the list could easily be lengthened.

In fact, the popularity of Gray’s poem is one of the things that make it so hard, when, were it not for these distracting circumstances, it would be so easy, to define exactly any past generation. One might be disposed to say that the last century did not care for the qualities we see in his Elegy, whereas the popularity of this poem proves the contrary. A great deal of nonsense of this kind has been talked, and perhaps as much about the eighteenth century as about any other. There is current, for instance, a good deal of jealousy about the admiration that was felt for Shakespeare at that time. It is generally said that it is only within the last hundred years that Shakespeare has been at all properly appreciated, yet this seems to be a statement that needs to be examined before it is repeated. Examination tends to disprove it. Besides what Steele said in the Tatler and Addison iu the Spectator, we have Pope’s lines in the Imitations of Horace, Lib. II., Ep. I.: —

“ Not that I’d...
. . . damn all Shakspeare, like th’ affected fool
At court, who hates whate’er he read at school.
On Avon’s hank, where flowers eternal blow,
If I but ask if any weed can grow,
One tragic sentence if I dare deride,
How will our fathers rise up in a rage,
And swear all shame is lost in George’s age! ”

There are continual references to Shakespeare in later writers, and almost without exception these are full of praise. Voltaire sneered at him, but Voltaire was not an Englishman, and it was not long before Ducis was adapting him for the French stage. To be sure, there is very little of Shakespeare in his plays except the names of the characters, but he sincerely admired the English poet. Dr. Johnson’s Preface to his edition of Shakespeare is full of intelligent remarks. His severest blame is for Shakespeare’s “ quibbling.” “ A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapors are to a traveler ; he follows it at all adventures. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. ... A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it by the sacrifice of reason, propriety, and truth. A quibble was to him the Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.”

Although Dr. Johnson illustrated in this last sentence the very fault he was condemning, many who read Shakespeare feel that he had grounds for what he says. And if we refuse to see any fault in Shakespeare it is hard to see how we are better off in our willful blindness than those who exercised their judgment and praised or blamed him according to their greater or less intelligence.

When Gray spoke of Shakespeare in his ode, he uttered no novel opinion ; he but expressed what all agreed in thinking. One of the arguments against this view is the small number sold of Pope’s edition, but. the price, £6 12s., which is certainly equal to £13 nowadays, sufficiently explains this. It is to be remembered, on the other hand, that there were twenty-five editions in the last century. As well might some future writer sneer at the admiration now felt for Shakespeare, because the first Shakespeare society died of inanition, and the present one lives but from hand to mouth, with only a few subscribers.

Again, it is unjust to overlook the amount of attention that was given to Spenser in the last century. In No. 540 of the Spectator, Steele spoke of him most warmly, mentioning especially his freedom from “forced antitheses, or any of that low tribe,” and many of the poets, Thomson in his Castle of Indolence, Shenstone in his Schoolmistress, Gilbert West, Lloyd, Mickle, and others, paid him the tribute of imitation, while Gray never wrote verse without preparing himself by first reading Spenser. Johnson, in No. 121 of the Rambler, bearing the date of May 14, 1751, denounced this disposition to admire and imitate Spenser, “which, by the influence of some men of learning and genius, seems likely to gain upon the age.” He sums up by saying that “ life is surely given us for higher purposes than to gather what our ancestors have wisely thrown away, and to learn what is of no value but because It has been forgotten.”

Thus we catch a glimpse of Milton behind the bad blank verse of the time, and of Spenser behind some of the rhymed lines. Pope’s influence in great part died with him. Under these circumstances, to sneer at our grandfathers for their indifference to what was best in English poetry savors of inaccuracy. To be sure, the imitations were in the main lifeless, but does the heaviness of Tennyson’s historical plays prove that we do not enjoy the English dramatic literature ?

The time was, taken broadly, an unpoetical one, and there was but little verse produced that had the magic fire ; yet that real poetry was enjoyed cannot be doubted, and Gray’s success simply shows that there were people ready to applaud the singers if they had only sung. The absence of poets proves nothing; the lack of later Homers and Shakespeares does not show that the world has been indifferent to those great men. The explanation of these sterile periods is hard to find. We can only record that at one time or another they exist, without understanding the cause. Any reason that we may assign is pretty sure to be disproved by some awkward facts. Indeed, who can distinguish effects from causes in these matters ? The most inspiring thing seems to be a new form of expression, but it would be rash to affirm positively that this inspires writers, and to deny that it is the writers who make the new form. That this sterility can exist together with the enjoyment of what is good is sufficiently plain. Spenser and Milton were admired at a time when there was little poetry produced that has lived a hundred years, and Akenside, Thomson, Young, Blair, Cowper, and even Wordsworth wrote more or less Miltonic lines. Gray, small as was his offering, had a loftier flight than any other earlier poets. This is of course to be said only of his odes, which have a grandeur that is to be found elsewhere in Collins alone among his contemporaries, and in some few lines of the Seasons.

Gray’s friends were pained that his odes were less liked than his Elegy, but time has only confirmed the first choice of the public. The odes naturally have not the elements of popularity, on account of their formal construction. Then, too, they are made somewhat obscure by compression ; the matter is packed close ; yet they are sufficiently clear to any one who reads them with attention, and it is strange that they were spoken of in the last century as nearly unintelligible. What we especially notice in Gray’s odes is the frequent use of personification, yet this is required by the very construction of the ode. Thus Gray speaks of

“Melancholy, silent maid,
With leaden eye, that loves the ground.”

Collins writes : —

“ With eyes upraised, as one inspired,
Pale Melancholy sat retired; ”

and Keats, who even in this most formal of all methods of composition, avoids coldness : —

“She dwells with Beauty, — Beauty that must die ;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips ;
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veiled Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous
Can burst Joy’s grape against his palate fine.”

In the Hymn to Adversity, in less than fifty lines, we find “ Virtue, Jove’s darling child;” “self-pleasing Folly’s idle brood ; ” “ wild Laughter, Noise, and thoughtless Joy;” “vain Prosperity ; ” “ Wisdom ; ” “ Melancholy, silent maid ; ” “ warm Charity, the general friend;” “Justice, to herself severe, and Pity, dropping soft the sadly-pleasing tear ;” “ screaming Horror;” “ Despair, and fell Disease, and ghastly Poverty,” while Adversity is addressed as “ Daughter of Jove.” These frigid bits of classicism, which depended for all their vitality on the adjective that should be applied to them, were but shadowy creations at the best. Too often they were but platitudes personified by a trick which any dabbler at poetry could learn without difficulty, and many did learn. Odes were then a conventional form of poetry, and Gray’s wide reading and careful use of language fitted him well for their composition. He helped himself freely from the work of others, and many people have amused themselves by tracing his numerous adaptations to their original dwelling-place.

Without making odious comparisons, it may be fair to say that Collins’s odes are more liked than Gray’s. They have less the air of artificiality, and they have less the form of a mosaic, which is naturally suggested to us by Gray’s borrowing from his predecessors. Where there are traces of labored elegance in Gray, we have often in Collins the apparently swift choice of the right epithet, for he certainly conceals his art. Gray has many good lines in his formal writings, but, with the exception of the ode on the distant prospect of Eton College, and of course that on the Death of a Favorite Cat, there is a chilly academic stateliness about them as a whole. What has to be read with one eye on the text and another on the notes is not likely to fascinate us, and it is only a fine-sounding line that will carry the reader over knotty passages. One reads Lycidas, for instance, with but little attention to its difficulties. Who pauses to consider what is meant by

“ the great two-handed engine at the door
Stands ready to smite once, and smite no more ? ”

Is it not a morbid conscientiousness that compels one to turn down the leaf, to take the heavy dictionary from the shelf, to look up engine in order to see exactly what it is that stands ready to smite ? The imagination refuses to puzzle over every obscurity, just as one reads a delightful book without pausing to correct every slip in the grammar. In Gray’s odes, we admire the ingenuity of the separate bits, rather than the impressiveness of the whole. They appear overwrought. Gray seems mastered by his learning, while Collins has a long breath and majestic language that faintly remind us at times of Keats’s richness.

Collins’s Ode to Evening is one of the few examples in English of unrhymed melody, and it would be remarkable as a tour de force even if its poetical merit did not make us forget the cleverness of its mechanical construction : —

“ If aught of oaten stop or pastoral song
May hope, chaste Eve, to soothe thy modest ear,
Like thy own solemn springs, —
Thy springs and dying gales.”

It would be hard to find in the magnificent abundance of English literature lines with just the charm that he has put into the whole poem. For once, a poet of the last century attained that classic severity and refinement which many sought for in vain. The number of Pindaric odes produced at that time is something wonderful; strophe and antistrophe were worked over with as much pains as the most advanced poets nowadays bestow on their rondelets, and with very much the same results upon the reader. Collins, however, mastered his instrument, and his odes survive to show that, even in a dreary period of literary history, the man may arise who proves that the poetical tradition, though obscured, is not wholly lost. Yet his fate shows that a poet who lives in an uncongenial time has a sad lot. His contemporaries were, for the most part, insensible to the beauty of his poems, which have since found so many admirers. His “ How sleep the brave that sink to rest ” is familiar to every one , his Ode to the Passions is torn to tatters by school-children; but Goldsmith, in speaking of him, calls him the author of the Persian Eclogues, which are most wooden productions, and says nothing of his odes. Dr. Johnson, who went out of his way to be severe with Gray, had known Collins personally, and spoke of him with chastened disgust. “ His diction,” he said, “ was often harsh, unskillfully labored, and injudiciously selected. He affected the obsolete when it was not worthy of revival, seeming to think, with some later candidates for fame, that not to write prose is certainly to write poetry. His lines commonly are of slow motion, clogged and impeded with clusters of consonants. As men are often esteemed who cannot be loved, so the poetry of Collins may sometimes extort praise when it gives little pleasure.” But certain of Dr. Johnson’s criticisms of poetry make the reader regret that he and some of our contemporary bards could not be locked up together in a padded room for twenty-four hours.

For us, Gray and Collins have a special value as men who sought to replace exactness of form by beauty of form ; and in a way they were successful. The very moderate quantity of their work diminished their influence, and mediocrity was too firmly established to be overwhelmed by such feeble antagonists ; for, with the exception of the many pallid copies of the Elegy, they inspired but little work in others. When the great change came, readers went back to Collins, who had been long neglected. Dr. Johnson’s condemnation of both him and Gray doubtless aroused opposition to them, and how great that critic’s influence was may be seen by the discredit he succeeded in casting upon Milton. Collins described nature with real feeling, and no one can fail to look upon him as one who, if he had been born half a century later, would have accomplished more under the favorable circumstances of that time. As it is, his work is hardly more than a beautiful fragment. Neither he nor Gray was one of the greatest English poets, though the Elegy is one of the most popular of English poems; but both hold an honorable place.

Beattie also wrote odes, but any interference with the dust that has settled upon them would be officious and unnecessary ; it is by his Minstrel that he lives, so far as he can be said to live at all, for there is no great delight to be got from his other poems. The Minstrel, however, has real merit. It was due in good part to the influence of Spenser, whom he greatly admired, but even in beautiful passages we find such conventional phrases as “ glittering waves and skies in gold arrayed.” Yet in the first book we find very genuine love of nature expressed with real poetical skill. It is easy to guess, what his biography confirms, that in Edwin he described himself, and that the pleasure the young minstrel found in wandering through the valleys and gazing at the sea and the mountains was only what he had himself felt. More than this, — and it should be carefully borne in mind, for the description of landscapes is but one of the secondary accomplishments of a poet, — the romantic character of Edwin, in the first book at least, is something that no other writer of the last century undertook to draw. Without some such element, the most beautiful landscape that poet could describe is but cold and lifeless, like the drop-curtain of a theatre in the daytime. It is the human interest that endears the aspect of nature to us, and will ever make the arid hills about Athens more eloquent than the most beautiful scenery in any untrodden country. But Edwin, who “roamed at large the lonely mountain’s head,” and “ traced the uplands, to survey,

When o'er the sky advanced the kindling dawn,
The crimson cloud, blue main, and mountain gray,
And lake dim gleaming on the smoky lawn ; ”

and who

“ would dream of graves, and corses pale,
And ghosts that to the charnel-dungeon throng,”

and hie “ to haunted stream, remote from man,” — this same Edwin, in the second book, began to discuss the perfidy of “ a courtly life ” with a “ hoary sage,” and to take an interest in “ the Muse of history,” and in Philosophy, for, when she appears,

“ The gloomy race
By Indolence and moping Fancy bred,
Fear, Discontent, Solicitude, give place,
And Hope and Courage brighten in their stead,
While on the vital soul her kindling beams are

In short, the brief poetic vision is over, and we are back in the eighteenth century, listening to a description of the advantages of a good education and to a confutation of Hume’s insidious theories, all told in the incongruous Spenserian stanza.

In respect of the incompleteness of their work, the three men are alike. Each one was well fitted to render good service to literature in a more poetic period, but no one of them had the force necessary for the overthrow of current forms.

Gray, who was one of the first of Englishmen to express a real love of scenery, and who almost began the Gothic revival, which had so great influence upon Scott, and, through him, on the whole of this century, became a really learned dilettante; Collins’s life was shortened by his errors ; and Beattie, who began so well, soon succumbed to what we may call the prosaic general intelligence of his time. A man who was a friend of Dr. Johnson must have found it hard to continue writing poetry ; and, moreover, his domestic life was darkened by grief. But all three were forerunners of what has since been so brilliant as almost to throw thorn into the general darkness of those days, or, at least, what seems darkness to those who look only at the poetry. Yet, even then, Blake was composing his lyrics, and soon Burns’s songs, Percy’s Rel iques, Cowper’s simple lines, and more than anything else the turmoil preceding the French Revolution prepared the world for a new order of things. In our enjoyment of what later poets have done, we should not overlook the honorable names of their less fortunate predecessors.

T. S. Perry.

  1. The Poetical Works of Thomas Gray. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. The Poetical Works of William Collins. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co.
  2. The Poetical Works of James Beattie. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co.