Neoclassic poetry contemplated hardly anything but the world of print. It saw Homer and Horace, Addison and Pope, more vividly than the men and women who passed in the streets, or the weather and landscapes that entered daily into human moods. But now literature again discovered what philosophers had so long argued, that man is a general and abstract notion; that only men exist, fondly individual and jealously real. Poets deepened themselves by touching the earth, by feeling and responding to fields, hills, sea, and sky, and by reaching down beneath ideas to the secret sentiments that speech less manifested than concealed. They shrugged off discourse, and resolved to sing; the lyric returned, the epic died away. The longing for supernatural comfort, for some mystic wonder enlarging life, survived the deistic attack on miracles, and sought increasingly, in medieval myths, Oriental romances, and Gothic forms, some escape from the harsh realities of this nether world.
Of course there had always been voices of feeling. Had not Steele’s Christian Hero (1701) lauded old faith and kindly sentiment? Had not Shaftesbury’s Characteristics (1711) centered human life on “passion” and “affection”? Would not the skeptic Hume and the economist Smith derive all morality from fellow feeling, sympathy? Nevertheless it was James Thomson who struck the first clear blow for “sensibility.”
He was the son of a poor parson in the hills of Scotland. He went down to Edinburgh to study for the ministry, but was deterred by professorial condemnation of his diction as profanely poetical. He migrated to London, was robbed en route, approached starvation, and sold his poem Winter (1726) to buy a pair of shoes. 55 However, its dedication to Sir Spencer Compton brought him twenty guineas for his compliments; the English nobles were not as deaf or tight as Johnson thought. Thomson recalled the crunch of boots in the crust of snow, and how he had
Heard the winds roar and the deep torrent burst,
Or seen the deep-fermenting tempest brewed
In the grim evening sky;
how he had watched from the shore the winds plow up the sea, turning “from its bottom the discolored deep,” tearing ships from their anchorage, lifting them precariously upon one wave, pressing them down ominously beneath the next, flinging them upon “sharp rock or shoal insidious,” and scattering them “in loose fragments … floating round.” He pictured the peasant caught in a blizzard of blinding snow, sinking icy feet into deeper drifts as he struggles on, until he can lift his boots no more, and falls exhausted into a frozen death.
Ah, little think the gay, licentious proud …
How many feel, this very moment, death
And all the sad variety of pain; …
How many pine in want, and dungeon glooms,
Shut from the common air and common use
Of their own limbs; how many drink the cup
Of baleful grief, or eat the bitter bread
Of misery, sore pierced by wintry winds;
How many shrink into the sordid hut
Of cheerless poverty. …
Here was a new note of pity to shame Pall Mall and Downing Street, and a refreshing return to Milton’s blank verse after what Thomson called the “little glittering prettiness” of Pope’s rhymes.
Another year and patron saw Thomson’s Summer through the press (1727), and in that year he joined, with a famous poem, in the cry for war with Spain:
When Britain first at Heaven’s command
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of her land,
And guardian angels sung this strain:
Rule, Britannia, rule the waves;
Britons never will be slaves.
From London he wandered for days and weeks into the countryside, absorbing with a poet’s doubled senses “each rural sight, each rural sound”; loving the “smell of dairy” coming from the farms, thrilled by the sun triumphing after rain, or anticipating Keats’s autumnal melancholy mood. So he published Spring in 1728, and, adding Autumn (“the envenomed leaf begins to curl”), united all four poems in The Seasons (1730). He was rewarded with a tour of the Continent as companion to Charles Talbot, son of the current Chancellor. Returning, he lived in ease and wrote poor poetry till the Chancellor died (1737). After another stay with poverty he was introduced to the Prince of Wales, who asked him about the state of his affairs; Thomson replied “that they were in a more poetical posture than formerly,” and received a pension of a hundred pounds for his quip. Suddenly a cold caught on the Thames ended his life at the age of forty-eight.
The Seasons set a style in the minor verse of England, and found followers in France; there Jean François de Saint-Lambert, who stole Émilie from Voltaire, composed Les Saisons (1769). While heroic couplets strutted across the century, Edward Young, William Collins, William Shenstone, Mark Akenside, and Thomas Gray widened the Romantic road to Wordsworth and Chatterton. Young, after writing gay nothings till sixty, feathered his celestial nest with Night Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742–44). Voltaire dismissed this nocturnal emission as “a confused mixture of bombast and obscure trivialities”; but perhaps that was because Young had pricked him with an epigram:
You are so witty, profligate, and thin,
At once we think you Milton, Death, and sin. 56
William Collins lived half as long as Young, and wrote twice as little and as well. Evading a call to the ministry, he spent his last pennies polishing to perfection the fifteen hundred lines he composed before he went mad and died (1759), aged thirty-eight. Finer than his lauded “Ode to Evening” is his epitaph for the British soldiers who had fallen in battle in 1745:
How sleep the brave who sink to rest
By all their country’s wishes blest!
When Spring, with dewy fingers cold,
Returns to deck their hallow’d mold,
She there shall dress a sweeter sod
Than Fancy’s feet have ever trod.
By fairy hands their knell is rung,
By forms unseen their dirge is sung;
There Honor comes, a pilgrim gray,
To bless the turf that wraps their clay;
And Freedom shall awhile repair
To dwell a weeping hermit there.
Most memorable among these poets of sensibility was the strange spirit who gave our youthful melancholy many a tender phrase. Thomas Gray was one of twelve children born to a London scrivener; eleven of them died in infancy; Thomas survived that dangerous age only because his mother, seeing him in convulsions, used her scissors to open his vein. At eleven he went to Eton, where he began fateful friendships with Horace Walpole and Richard West. Then to Cambridge, which he found “full of doleful creatures” and dreary dons. He proposed to study law, but slipped into entomology and poetry; eventually he became so learned in languages, sciences, and history that his verse was stifled with scholarship.
In 1739 he toured the Continent with Horace Walpole. Crossing the Alps in winter, he reported that “not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff but is pregnant with religion and poetry”; in 1740, writing from Rome, he introduced the word picturesque into the English language; even in 1755 Johnson’s Dictionary knew it not. In Reggio Emilia he and Walpole quarreled; Horace had been too conscious of his pedigree, Thomas too proud of his poverty; a “mutual friend” betrayed to each of them the other’s private opinion; they parted, and Gray went on alone to Venice, Grenoble, and London.
The death of his friend West (1742) at the age of twenty-six made him resent life. He retired to the home of an uncle at Stoke Poges; there, amid his continued studies, he wrote (1742) his “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” Looking from a safe remove upon those scholastic scenes, he thought of his friend so prematurely dead; and beyond the sports and gaiety of those youths he saw with morose vision their troubled destinies:
These shall the fury Passions tear,
The vultures of the mind,
Disdainful Anger, pallid Fear,
And Shame that skulks behind;
Or pining Love shall waste their youth,
Or Jealousy with rankling tooth
That inly gnaws the secret heart,
And Envy wan, and faded Care,
Grim-visaged comfortless Despair,
And Sorrow’s piercing dart. …
Lo! in the vale of years beneath,
A grisly troop are seen,
The painful family of Death,
More hideous than their Queen.
This racks the joints, this fires the veins,
That every laboring sinew strains,
Those in the deeper vitals rage;
Lo, Poverty, to fill the band,
That numbs the soul with icy hand,
And slow-consuming Age.
To each his sufferings; all are men,
Condemned alike to groan,
The tender for another’s pain,
The unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate,
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies?
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss
’Tis folly to be wise.
Late in 1742 Gray returned to Cambridge to resume his studies. To Walpole, reconciled, he sent (1750) his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” Walpole gave it some private circulation; a pirate publisher printed and garbled it; to protect his verse Gray let Dodsley issue a better, though still imperfect, version (1751). In this, one of the finest poems of the century, Gray clothed a romantic melancholy in chiseled classical form, replacing Pope’s “clanging couplets” with quiet quatrains moving in melodious dignity to their somber end.
In 1753 his mother died; he wrote a tender epitaph, and buried himself in poetry. In an ode on “The Progress of Poesy” he hailed the passage of the Muses from Greece and Rome to “Albion”; he confessed his boyhood aspiration to rival Pindar, and begged of Poetry the gift of an “unconquerable mind.” A still loftier ode, “The Bard,” saw in the poets a redeeming feature of British life, exposing vice and tyranny. These two Pindaric Odes, published by Walpole’s press at Strawberry Hill, were so artificial in form, so recondite in classical and medieval allusions, that only scholars could understand them. Gray wrapped his solitude in pride. “I would not have put another [explanatory] note to save the souls of all the owls in London. It is extremely well as it is—nobody understands me, and I am perfectly satisfied.” 57 The owls were familiar with such whistling in the dark.
Morose in his room at Peterhouse, Cambridge, too poor and timid to marry, too sensitive for the scuffle of life, Gray became a melancholy introvert. Some undergraduates, resenting his distance and dignity, and knowing his fear of fire, startled him one night by shouting, under his window, that the hall was aflame. In his nightshirt, says a disputed story, he let himself out of the window and slid down a rope—into a tub of water placed by the pranksters to receive him. 58 In 1769 he toured the English lakes; in theJournalthat he wrote (in a remarkably beautiful hand) he first made England realize the loveliness of that region. On another tour, at Malvern, he received a copy of The Deserted Village; “this man,” he exclaimed, “is a poet.” Then gout ended his travels, and soon afterward his life (1771).
For a time his reputation was extreme. By common consent, in 1757, he stood at the head of English poets; he was offered the laureateship, but declined. Cowper, passing over Milton, called Gray “the only poet since Shakespeare entitled to the character of sublime.” Adam Smith, passing over Shakespeare, added: “Gray joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope; and nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more.” 59Johnson admired the “Elegy,” but was learned enough to find a score of flaws in the odes; “Gray has a kind of strutting dignity, and is tall by walking on tiptoe.… I confess that I contemplate his poetry with less satisfaction than his life.” 60
We might justly invert that oracle. Gray’s was an unhappy, unprepossessing life, from the quarrel with Walpole to the tale of a tub. Its noblest events were three or four poems that will remain for yet many generations among the most convincing arguments for the “progress of poesy” from Greece to Rome to Albion.