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GRAY, AT STOKE-POGIS.
The life of Thomas Gray, the author of the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, was passed in London, in Cambridge, and at StokePogis, in Buckinghamshire, except what he spent in travelling, which was considerable. Gray was born in Cornhill, November 26, 1716. His parents were reputable citizens of London. His grandfather was a considerable merchant, but his father, Mr. Philip Gray, Mason says, though he also followed business, was of an indolent and reserved temper; and therefore rather diminished than increased his paternal fortune. He had many children, of whom Thomas was the fifth; all except him died in their infancy. The business of Gray's father was, like that of Milton's, a money-scrivener. But, unlike Milton's father, Philip Gray was, according to Mason, not only reserved and indolent, but of a morose, unsocial, and obstinate temper. His indolence led him to neglect the business of his profession; his obstinacy, to build a country house at Wanstead, without acquainting his wife or son of the design, to which he knew they would be very averse, till it was executed. This turned out a loss of two thousand pounds to the family, and the character of the father, which is supposed to have been stamped by bodily ailments, was the occasion of Gray, though an only child, being left with a very narrow patrimony. His mother, to provide for her family, entered into business independent of her husband, with her sister, Miss Antrobus. The two ladies kept a kind of India warehouse in Cornhill. As clever ladies in business generally do, they succeeded so well, that, on Mr. Gray's death, which happened about the time of the young poet's return from his first trip to the Continent, they retired, and went to join housekeeping with their third sister, Mrs. Rogers, the widow of a gentleman of that name, who had formerly been in the law, and had retired tn Burnham, in Buckinghamshire ; where we find Gray, on one occasion, describing, in a letter to Walpole, the uncle and the place thus. “ The description of a road that your coach wheels have so often honoured, it is needless to give to you ; suffice it that I arrived safe at my uncle's, who is a great hunter in imagination. His dogs take up every chair in the house, so I am forced to stand up at this present writing ; and though the gout forbids him galloping after them in the field,
yet he continues still to regale his ears and nose with their comfortable noise and stink. He holds me mighty cheap, I perceive, for walking when I should ride, and reading when I should hunt. My comfort amid all this is, that I have at the distance of half-a-mile, through a green lane, a forest—the vulgar call it a common-all my own, at least as good as so, for I spy no human thing in it but myself. It is a little chaos of mountains and precipices; mountains, it is true, that do not ascend much above the clouds, nor are the declivities quite so amazing as Dover cliff; but just such hills as people who love their necks as well as I do may venture to climb, and crags that give the eye as much pleasure as if they were more dangerous. Both vale and hill are covered with most venerable beeches, and other very reverend vegetables, that, like most other ancient people, are always dreaming out their old stories to the winds ::
• And as they bow, their hoary top, relate,
Cling to each leaf and swarm on every bough.' At the foot of one of these squats me I, il penseroso, and there grow to the trunk for a whole morning. The timorous hare and sportive squirrel gambol around me like Adam in Paradise, before he had Eve; but I think he did not use to read Virgil, as I commonly do there. In this situation I often converse with my Horace, aloud too, that is, talk to you, but I do not remember that I ever heard you
I beg pardon for taking all the conversation to myself, but it is entirely your own fault. We have old Mr. Southern at a gentleman's house a little way off, who comes often to see us. He is now seventy-seven years old, and has almost wholly lost his memory; but is as agreeable as an old man can be, at least I persuade myself so when I look at him, and think of Isabella and Oronoko." By this
agreeable extract, however, we have outstepped the progress of Gray's life. He was educated at Eton, under the care of Mr. Antrobus, his mother's brother, then assistant to Dr. George ; and, when he left school, in 1734, entered a pensioner at Peterhouse in Cambridge. It was intended that he should follow the profession of the law, for which his uncle's practice and connexions seemed to open a brilliant way. He therefore lived on at college so long as his attendance on the lectures was required, but took no degree. His uncle's death put an end to his prospects of that kind, and he abandoned the idea of the legal profession. When he had been at Cambridge about five years, he agreed to make a tour on the Continent with Horace Walpole ; and they proceeded together through France to Italy, where they quarrelled and parted, taking different ways. On his return, he again went to Cambridge, took the degree of Bachelor of Civil Law, and continued there, without liking the place or its inhabitants, as we are informed by both Johnson and Mason, or professing to like them. His pleasure lay in wading through huge libraries, out of which, on a vast number of subjects, he extracted a vast amount of information. Such were Gray's assiduous study and research, that the following character of him by a contemporary, the
Rev. Mr. Temple, rector of St. Gluvias, in Cornwall, written a few months after his death, can scarcely be termed overdrawn :-“Perhaps he was the most learned man in Europe. He was equally acquainted with the elegant and profound parts of science, and that not superficially, but thoroughly. He knew every branch of history, both natural and civil ; had read all the original histories of England, France, and Italy; and was a great antiquarian. Criticism, metaphysics, morals, politics, made a principal part of his plan of study. Voyages and travels of all sorts were his favourite amusement; and he had a fine taste in painting, prints, architecture, and gardening."
He was, in fact, one of the first to open up the Scandinavian mythology, antiquities, and legendary literature, still so little understood in this country, and on which our best literary historians display so marvellous an ignorance; Hallam, amongst others, describing the “ Niebelungen Lied” as an original German poem, not aware that the magnificent original of that poem exists in the Icelandic. Gray was also one of the very first, if not the very first person, who began to trace out and distinguish the different orders of Anglo-Gothic architecture, by attention to the date of its creation.
These were the studies, enough to occupy a life, which kept him close at Cambridge in his rooms for years, and once induced him to take lodgings for about three years near the British Museum, where he diligently copied from the Harleian and other manuscripts. The death of his most intimate friend, Mr. West, the son of the Chancellor of Ireland, soon after his return from the Continent, tended only the more to fix this habit of retirement and study. He lived on at Peterhouse till 1756, when a curious incident drove him forth. Two or three young men of fortune, who lived in the same staircase, had for some time intentionally disturbed him with their riots, and carried their illbehaviour so far as frequently to awaken him at midnight. After having borne their insults longer than might reasonably have been expected, even from a man of less warmth of temper, Mr. Gray complained to the governing part of the society; and not thinking his remonstrance sufficiently attended to, quitted the college. He took up his residence at Pembroke-hall
, where he continued to reside till the day of his death, which occurred here in the fifty-fifth year of his age, July 30, 1771, being seized with gout in the stomach while at dinner in the college-hall.
He had for the last three years been appointed Professor of History in this college ; but such was his indolence, fastidiousness, or aversion to so public a duty, that, to use the words of Johnson, “ he was always designing lectures, but never reading them ; uneasy at his neglect of duty, and appeasing his uneasiness with designs of reformation, and with a resolution which he believed himself to have made, of resigning the office if he found himself unable to discharge it.” He continued thus to vacillate, and held on till his death. A circumstance which attached him more to Pembroke college was, that Mason was elected a Fellow of it in 1747; they grew warm friends, and Mason afterwards became his biographer,
Such was the general outline of Gray's life. In reading it we find the most interesting features those which he describes so well in his letters, his travels, and his occasional retreats at Stoke-Pogis. He made a tour into the north of England, to the lakes, and into Scotland ; at another time through Worcester, Hereford, Monmouth, and parts of the neighbouring counties; and all his details of such rambles, as they are given with an evident zest, are full of life and interest. In his prose, Gray gets out of the stiff and stilted formality of much of his poetry. He forgets his learning and his classical notions, and is at once easy, amiable, witty, and jocose. There was a degree of effeminacy about him, which you see in his portraits, and which you do not the less detect in his poetry; but his prose gives you a far more attractive idea of him, such as he must have been in the familiar circle of his friends. On turning to Gray's account of those places which I have visited in various parts of the kingdom, I have always found him seizing on their real features, and impressed with their true spirit.
It is at Stoke-Pogis that we seek the most attractive vestiges of Gray. Here he used to spend his vacations, not only when a youth at Eton, but during the whole of his future life, while his mother and his aunts lived. Here it was that his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, his celebrated Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, and his Long Story, were not only written, but were mingled with the circumstances and all the tenderest feelings of his own life.
His mother and aunts lived at an old-fashioned house in a very retired spot at Stoke, called West End. This house stood in a hollow, much screened by trees. A small stream ran through the garden, and it is said that Gray, when here, used to employ himself much in this garden, and that many of the trees still remaining are of his planting On one side of the house extended an upland field, which was planted round so as to give a charming, retired walk; and at the summit of the field was raised an artificial mound, upon which was
It a sort of arcade or summer-house, which gave full prospect of Windsor and Eton. Here Gray delighted to sit. Here he was accustomed to read and write much; and it is just the place to inspire the Ode on Eton College, which lay in the midst of its fine landscape, beautifully in view. The old house inhabited by Gray and his mother, at the time of my visit, had just been pulled down, and replaced by an Elizabethan mansion by the present proprietor, Mr. Penn, of Stoke Park, just by. The garden, of course, had shared in the change, and now stood gay with its fountain and its modern greenhouse, and, excepting for some fine trees, no longer reminded you of Gray. The woodland walk still remained round the adjoining field, and the summer-house on its summit, though much cracked by time, and only held together by iron cramps. The trees were so lofty as completely to obstruct the view, and shut out both Eton and Windsor.
It was at this house, now destroyed, that the two ladies from the Park made their memorable visit, which gave occasion to the Long Story. The facts were these. Gray had finished his Elegy, and had
sent it in manu
nuscript to Horace Walpole, by whom it was shown about with great applause. Amongst the rest of the fashionable world to whom it was thus communicated, Lady Cobham, who lived at the Mansion-house at Stoke-Pogis, had read and admired it Wishing to make the acquaintance of the author, and hearing that he was so near her, her relatives, Miss Speed and Lady Schaub, then at her house, undertook to bring this about by making him the first visit. He happened to be from home when the ladies arrived at his aunts' solitary mansion; and when he returned, was surprised to find, written on one of his papers in the parlour where he usually read, the following 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 necessarily obliged him to return the visit, and soon after induced him to compose a ludicrous account of this little adventure for the amusement of the ladies in question This was a mere jeu d'esprit, and, extravagant as some parts of it are, is certainly clever. Gray regarded it but as a thing for the occasion, and never included it in his published poems. But Mason tells us that when it appeared, though only in manuscript, it was handed about, and the most various opinions pronounced on it. By some it was thought a masterpiece of original humour, by others a wild and fantastic farrago. It in truth much more resembles his prose, and proves that, if he had not always had the fear of the critics before his eyes, he would have written with far more freedom and life than he often did. We may take a few stanzas, as connected with our further subject.
“ In Britain's isle, no matter where,
An ancient pile of building stands :
Employed the power of fairy hands
Each panel in achievements clothing,
And passages that lead to nothing.
When he had fifty winters o'er him,
The seal and maces danced before hiin.
His high-crowned hat, and satin doublet,
Though Pope and Spaniard could not trouble it.
From whence one fatal morning issues
But rustling in their silks and tissues.
Her conquering destiny fulfilling,
And vainly ape her art of killing.
Had armed with spirit, wit, and satire ;
And tipped her arrows with good-nature.
Coarse panegyrics would but tease her;
Alas! who would not wish to please her!