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GRAY's Poetry is now to be considered ; and I hope not to be looked on as an enemy to his name, if I confess that I contemplate it with less pleasure than his life.
His. ode “On Spring' has something poetical, both in the language and the thought; but the language is too luxuriant, and the thoughts have nothing new. There has of late arisen a practice of giving to adjectives derived from substantives the termination of participles; such as the cultured plain, the daisied bank; but I was sorry to see, in the lines of a scholar like Gray, the honied Spring. The morality is natural, but too stale; the conclusion is pretty.
The poem “On the Cat” was doubtless by its author considered as a trifle; but it is not a happy trifle. In the first stanza, “ the azure flowers that « blow” shew resolutely a rhyme is sometimes made when it cannot easily be found. Selima, the Cat, is called a nymph, with some violence both to language and sense ; but there is no good use made of it when it is done; for of the two lines,
What female heart can gold despise?
What cat’s averse to fish?
the first relates merely to the nymph, and the second only to the cat. The sixth stanza contains a melancholy truth, that “a favourite has no friend;" but the last ends in a pointed sentence of no relation to the purpose; if what glistered had been gold, the cat would not have gone into the water; and, if she had, would not less have been drowned.
The “ Prospect of Eton College" suggests nothing to Gray which every beholder does not equally think and feel. His supplication to father Thames, to tell him who drives the hoop or tosses the ball, is useless and puerile. Father Thames has no better means of knowing than himself. His epithet “ buxom health” is not elegant; he seems not to understand the word. Gray thought his language more poetical as. it was more remote from common use; finding in Dryden “ honey, “ redolent of Spring,” an expression that reaches the utmost limits of our language, Gray drove it a little more beyond common apprehension, by making“ gales” to be “ redolent of joy and · " youth."
Of the “Ode on Adversity," the hint was at first taken from “O Diva, gratum quæ regis Antium;". but Gray has excelled his original by the variety of his sentiments, and by their moral application. Of this piece, at once poetical and rational, I will not, by slight objections, violate the dignity... · My process has now brought me to the wonderful “ Wonder of Wonders,” the two Sister. Odes; by. which, though either vulgar ignorance or common sense at first universally rejected them, many have been since persuaded to think themselves delighted. I am one of those that are willing to be pleased; and therefore would gladly find the meaning of the first stanza of the “ Progress of Poetry.” :
Gray seems in his rapture to confound the images of " spreading sound and running water." A stream of music' may be allowed; but where does' “ music,” however “ smooth and strong,'
after having visited the "verdant vales, roll down “ the steep amain," so as that “rocks and nodding 6 groves rebellow to the roar ?" If this be said of Music, it is nonsense; if it be said of Water, it is nothing to the purpose.
The second stanza, exhibiting Mars's car and Jove's eagle, is unworthy of further notice. Criticism disdains to chase a school-boy to his commonplaces.
To the third it may likewise be objected, that it is drawn from mythology, though such may be more easily assimilated to real life. Idalia's " vel“ vet green” has something of cant. An epithet or metaphor drawn from Nature ennobles Art: an epithet or metaphor drawn from Art degrades Nature. Gray is too fond of words arbitrarily compounded. “ Many-twinkling” was formerly censured as not analogical; we may say “manyspotted,” but scarcely “ many-spotting:” This stanza, however, has something pleasing. is
Of the second ternary of stanzas, the first endeavours to tell something, and would have told it, had it not been crossed by Hyperion : the second describes well enough the universal prevalence of Poetry; but I am afraid that the conclusion will not arise from the premises. The caverns of the North and the plains of Chili are not the residences of “Glory and generous Shame.” But that Poetry and Virtue go, always together is an opinion''so pleasing, that I can forgive him who resolves to think it true..
The third stanza sounds big with “ Delphi," and “ Egean,” and “ Ilissus," and: “ Meander,” and
“ hallowed fountains,” and “ solemn sound;" but • in all Gray's odes there is a kind of cumbrous
splendour which we wish away. His position is at last false: in the time of Dante and Petrarch, from whom we derive our first school of Poetry, Italy was over-run by “ tyrant power” and “coward “ vice :" nor was our state much better when we first borrowed the Italian arts.
Of the third ternary, the first gives a mythological birth of Shakspeare. What is said of that mighty genius is true; but it is not said happily: the real effects of this poetical power are put out of sight by the pomp of machinery. Where truth is sufficient to fill the mind, fiction is worse than useless; the counterfeit debases the genuine.
His account of Milton's blindness, if we suppose it caused by study in the formation of his poem, a supposition surely allowable, is poetically true, and happily imagined. But the car of Dryden, with his two coursers, has nothing in it peculiar; it is a car in which any other rider may be placed.
“ The Bard" appears, at the first view, to be, as Algarotti and others have remarked, an imitation of the prophecy of Nereus. Algarotti thinks it superior to its original; and if preference depends only on the imagery and animation of the two poems, his judgment is right. There is in “ The Bard" more force, more thought, and more variety. But to copy is less than to invent, and the copy has been unhappily produced at a wrong time. The fiction of Horace was to the Romans credible; but its revival disgusts us with apparent and unconquerable falsehood. Incredulus odi.
To select a singular event, and swell it to a giant's bulk by fabulous appendages of spectres and predictions, has little difficulty; for he that forsakes the probable may always find the marvellous. And it has little use; we are affected only as we believe; we are improved only as we find something to be imitated or declined. I do not see that “The “ Bard” promotes any truth, moral or political.
His stanzas are too long, especially his epodes; · the ode is finished before the ear has learned its measures, and consequently before it can receive pleasures from their consonance and recurrence. .
Of the first stanza the abrupt beginning has been celebrated; but technical beauties can give praise only to the inventor. It is in the power of any man to rush abruptly upon his subject, that has read the ballad of Johnny Armstrong,. . .
Is there ever a man in all Scotland
The initial resemblances, or alliterations, “ ruin, ruthless, helm or hauberk,” are below the grandeur of a poem that endeavours at sublimity.
In the second stanza the Bard is well described ; but in the third we have the puerilities of obsolete mythology. When we are told that “Cadwallo “ hush'd the stormy main," and that “Modred “'made huge Plinlimmon bow his cloud-topp'd “ head," attention recoils from the repetition of a tale that, even when it was first heard, was heard with scorn.
The weaving of the winding-sheet he borrowed, as he owns, from the Northern Bards ; but their texture, however, was very properly the work of