ePub 版



I HAVE thought it appropriate to select one example of the poetic temperament, not from the "bards sublime," but from those more quiet sons of the Muse whom we call minor poets; for, though their works be in low relief, yet, if the theory is sound, they should show in their degree the traits of the grand style, as we find the same supreme Greek art even on broken vases and utensils of daily life. Certainly no one would dream of describing Gray as "mad"; the word "passion" is grotesquely inapplicable to him; and even such a phrase as "the power of life" seems dubiously to be used of his lethargic nature. He was a mild and gentle scholar, who lived in the lazy air of a university, slow in all his physique, intellectually self-indulgent, procrastinating, an invalid with invalid habits of conduct, a dilettante, a letter-writer. His entire routine of life afflicts us with a sense of dulness and heaviness, an English atmosphere of dampness and ennui, which inclines us at once to commiseration. He wrote very little-so marvelously little that he is, in literary history, the typical instance of unproductiveness, of sterility. The Dionysiac fire was very somnolent, to say the least, in his case. Vesuvius, however, is not always in violent eruption, and those who look on it for the most part see the mighty mountain with only a thin wisp of smoke lazily drifting

upon the pale, high air; sometimes there is not even that.

In comparison with such poets as we have considered, Gray's verse is such a wisp of smoke. Yet it is fair to remember what is oftenest forgotten that great literature is not a constant product of this planet, that many nations have none of it to speak of, and that in favored nations it is the rarest of all their products. On the whole, poetic energy, if it has the violence and splendor of volcanic fire, has also its general reposefulness. In the intervals of activity men are content with the phenomena which show the continued, though torpid, existence of the great life-principle; and the wisp of smoke is, after all, curling placidly up from the old forges within. It behooves us, especially, to be modest, for our magnificent America has never yet produced a poet even of the rank of Gray. Moreover, there is a singular circumstance in Gray's case: slight as his product was, it has had an immense fame and vogue among men. His work resembles one of those single anonymous poems of the world which have achieved fame all by themselves, unaided and alone. Little poetry has been so widely read, so familiarized in households, as the "Elegy." It has also been highly appreciated. No poem has had a finer compliment paid it than was contained in the old story of Wolfe's reciting it to his officers in the darkness of the river as he drifted down to his heroic death, and declaring that to write it was more glorious than a victory. The "Elegy," it is true, is somewhat exceptional; but the best of Gray's work has had equal immortality, and still goes wherever the English language makes its way. No one reads Marlowe now except students in libraries and poets by profession;

- his

and the voice of Byron grows rare and distant vogue evaporates; but Gray's verse still has the shining of the adamant of time upon its lines, and seems as untouched with two centuries as Mimnermus and Theognis with twenty. Gray is among the poets who die only with the language that they breathed.

Gray did not greatly strive for fame. Perhaps there was some obstruction in his nature or his circumstances; perhaps he did not greatly care. There was, at least, no struggle in him, no restless necessity for expression, no stress of thought or of feeling. He was, as a mortal, very ordinary; and as a man of culture, very humane. He led the stillest of bachelor lives in college chambers. If he had deliberately excluded emotion from his life, he could hardly have better succeeded. Of course he was often bored, and often lazy—that is, not unemployed, but with a scholar's laziness. He took but little interest in contemporary politics or war, and found rather amusement than any cause for excitement in the spectacle of what men do. The passage in which he describes Pitt's speech, on proposing a monument for Wolfe, is typical and a melancholy comment on the admiration of Wolfe for the writer. "Pitt's second speech," he says, "was a studied and puerile declamation on funeral honors. In the course of it he wiped his eyes with one handkerchief, and Beckford, who seconded him, cried, too, and wiped with two handkerchiefs at once, which was very moving." That is typical of the way in which he looked on human affairs. They were no great matter Gray was a gentleman. He moved freely in the world of high life, and liked to talk of men of rank over the sweet wine he drank after his mutton. The passions of nations, the swing of ideas, the fortunes

of battle, were no more to him than club topics would be to-day, news and conversation, but not exciting. He read Rousseau, he says, but "heavily, heavily"; that is, he was bored. He had his well-bred circle of friends, very polite, and his well-bred private tastes, very cultivated; but he was unmoved, habitually otiose, lethargic, oppressed with the dulness of things very often, yet not, I think, unhappy; indeed, a certain intellectual gaiety, even in describing his own dulness, is a part of the charm of his private correspondence. There was much nonchalant good breeding in him, especially as he grew up and came into the routine of manhood; he was a man of the world, not in the sense of being merely a man of society, but in the sense of being disengaged, disinterested, the impartial spectator with a light touch, a just judgment, and a tone of elegance.

In his youth he appears more amiable, though there was in him then all the promise of the type he became. He made, you remember, with three other friends at college a league of friendship known as the quadruple alliance. Walpole was one member of the set; and his friendship with Walpole characterizes the eighteenthcentury tone of the social half of his nature. A second member was West, who died young and with griefs of the mind as well as with ills of the body, and who left a charming memory of himself, both in his verses and in his affection for Gray, with whom he is associated as the true youthful comrade; and this friendship with West, in which there is an unusual high-bred demeanor considering the youth of the two, characterizes the other half of Gray's nature, the more kindly and natural half, not more intimate, but intimate with more equality; with Walpole one thinks of Gray's social history, with West one thinks of his personal charm.

« 上一頁繼續 »