In this field, at least, the first half of the century was in general an era of orthodoxy. It is not to be supposed, of course, that these schools were always sharply distinguished. All critics looked with reverence upon the critical work of Dryden, whom Johnson calls "the father of English criticism"; 1 and he may be ranged now on the one side, now on the other, though the general temper of his criticism is Romantic. Hill, i. Ass'n, xiii. The tragic drama, properly unified with reference to time, place, and action, and the heroic poem, duly accredited with fable, epic unity, and machines for the intervention of gods, angels, and the like, became the supreme types or kinds of literature.
But Shakespeare and Milton, it was thought, frequently violated the fundamental laws of art. According to Dennis, Shakespeare showed a want of art, and failed to mete out poetical justice. The Spectator, Nos. Pope counseled the writer to follow "Nature," but it was a Nature perfectly correct and proper according to the standards of the London critics.
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Just as Pope is the last great poet of the Neo-Classic school, so his criticism dominated the first decades of the eighteenth century, and summed up the leading ideas of the Neo-Classic creed. The watchword of this creed was correctness; its text-book, one might say, was Edward Bysshe's Art of English Poetry , with its rigorous and business-like rules, ignoring for example or condemning dactylic movements altogether, and providing collections of "beauties" for imitation.
Originality, inspiration, genius counted for little. But even before the eighteenth century began, the note of a revolt can be clearly heard. Non-classical works, such as the Bible and the early ballads, begin to be discussed and are discovered to have elements of beauty. In landscape, too, Nature, it is found, does not have to be much "helped and regulated," to give pleasure. Addison admires Versailles, but prefers Fontainebleau, "situated among rocks and woods, that give you a fine variety of savage prospects. Should imitation be confined to the ancients? What was the value of poetic justice?
Was "the fairy way of writing" justifiable? Should tragedy and comedy be separated? Was the use of blank verse immoral?
Could the lyric and epic styles be mixed? Such questions continued to be discussed throughout Gray's lifetime. In estimating Gray as a critic it must be borne in mind that he made no pretense to critical acumen. But these "savage prospects" differ widely from those Addison saw in the Alps and the Apennines. Professor Phelps, in his Selections from Gray, p. But his critical utterances at any time show little inclination toward the classical school. From the first we are aware of an independence of thought and tone and a freedom from conventional cant, which point toward the coming and early disappearance of the old standards of taste.
From the first, his criticism was of the independent, Romantic order. He was only twenty-three when he wrote to West the celebrated passage referring to the Alps, "Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry. This is only another way of saying that the vocabulary of the Neo-Classic poets was worn out and could no longer stimulate the imagination or give pleasure.
Gray, then, can xxxiii scarcely be said to have been, on principle, a classicist. Although some of his earlier verses conform to the conventional form, 1 his sympathies were with the independents, who knew that poetic diction must grow and that poetic structure can no more be held in by rules than can a spring freshet. Gray is not one of those who have left a large body of criticism.
He set down no elaborate theory of poetry or prose; he did not attempt to bring Aristotle or Horace "up to date. Probably his general cautiousness would have sufficed to prevent him from making many generalizations about our early literature; but it must also be remembered that much of this literature was not easily accessible, indeed, had not yet been printed, and that to obtain any wide acquaintance with it from manuscripts would at that time have been impossible.
Now it happens that Gray was especially interested in this literature — in Lydgate, Gawin Douglas, Chaucer — and gave much time to these authors; with his own hand he copied The Palice of Honour entire. We must not, then, look upon Gray as a protagonist in the conflicts of criticism. Yet his chance remarks have a permanent value as coming from an ardent scholar and a sympathetic reader.
His whole attitude toward letters served to emphasize the importance to criticism of a sound basis in scholarship and of openness of mind and heart. In general, Arnold's definition of criticism would have suited him; would that he had had more of Arnold's militant ardor in making known what he considered the best that had been thought and written! Gray holds a high place among the critics of his time partly because of his scholarship. Coming midway between Bentley and Porson he was twenty-five when Bentley died and forty-three when Porson was born , he bridges the gap between these great lights of Trinity College; and what is more important, his deep interest in Greek studies may be said to herald the dawn of the modern study of Greek literature; with language studies for their own sake Gray was not especially concerned.
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Saintsbury, A History of Criticism, iii. His interest, too, in kindred studies — history and archeology, the Celtic and Scandinavian literatures — is significant of the growing desire to understand the past more fully, to sit at its feet and learn. His Qualifications as a Critic. Let us now see what were the qualities of Gray which fitted or unfitted him for the tasks of criticism. We have long heard that the fundamental quality of the true critic is that he is wholly disinterested, has no ax to grind.
Surely this was true of Gray. We never find him wedded to a theory; he is never blinded by the brilliance of a particular meteor or comet; he scans the heavens steadily; and the differing magnitudes of the stars are evident to him. He knows all the stars of the first magnitude — Homer, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton — though Homer and Milton, he thinks, have some high-sounding words that mean little.
Lydgate is ranked far below his master Chaucer, but is not denied some important merits. If Gray gave the reins to his admiration of any one, it was Dryden, whose sanity and clearness of judgment appealed to Gray's kindred temperament; yet he writes to Mason December 19, that Dryden's character disgraced the laureateship. Nicholls' Reminiscences, Gray's Letters, ed. Yet in spite of this dislike 1 of "Ursa Major," Gray respected Johnson's understanding, "and still more his goodness of heart.
Aversion to Voltaire's moral character, Nicholls says, did not prevent Gray "from paying the full tribute of admiration due to his genius. He was delighted with his pleasantry; approved his historical compositions, particularly his Essai sur l'histoire universelle ; and placed his tragedies next in rank to those of Shakespeare. If not the most learned man of his day, he was easily in the front rank of eighteenth century savants.
His reading included virtually the whole range of Greek and Roman authors and all that was best in French, Italian, and English literature.
Horace Walpole's dislike of Johnson, frequently asserted, and with much greater violence. See also 5 and the note. Nor was his reading limited to literature alone. He read works on history, architecture, archeology, painting, 2 theology, 3 philology, botany, 4 medicine, 5 and travel. As his numerous annotations indicate, he was a careful and observant reader. Moreover, it may be said that Gray possessed a well developed sense of humor.
A person thus gifted is likely to see life in its true proportions. Gray's own humor is usually, though not always, of the genial, kindly sort which leaves no sting. Cambridge was for him at twenty, and we may suppose continued to be, the place, formerly known by the name of Babylon, of which "the prophet spoke when he said, 'The wild beasts of the desert shall dwell there and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures,' " etc. Toynbee, ix. Plumptre's picture, by the words, "we don't say much, but we hold good livings.
For Mason, the voluminous writer of fourth-rate poems and dramas, he has the expressive nickname of "Scroddles.
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Finally, among the qualities that made Gray a critic was his sympathy. He saw another man's point of view and gave due weight to the inherited tendencies and prejudices which determined it. This is evident not so much from specific utterances as from the general tone of his writing and conversation.
It was sympathy which led him to devote so much attention to the productions of Mason. It was this same quality which, in spite of his reserve of manner, brought him the devoted friendship of his little circle of intimates — Wharton, Chute, Stonehewer, Brown, and others. His Critical Works Phaedo. As we have seen, for several years after taking his degree in civil law, Gray read deeply and systematically in Greek literature.
The notes which he made on Aristophanes and Plato were printed by Mathias in from manuscripts formerly in the possession of Richard Stonehewer, and by Gosse in Gray's Works, iv. Gosse says they had never been reprinted; he was unaware of the fact that a large selection of the notes on Plato was reprinted, with Mathias' introduction, in George Burges' translation of Plato, vi. It is no disparagement of these notes to say that they contain little or no criticism of the two Greek authors. Criticism was not Gray's purpose.
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What he sought to do was to furnish such analyses of plots and stories, and such explanatory notes and comments, as would enable a student to read the original text with understanding. In the state of Greek scholarship in Gray's time, such work was vastly more useful than criticism would have been; for criticism read before the student has some independent knowledge of the original is, for the purpose of sound scholarship, of little worth. As a specimen of Gray's remarks on Plato I have reprinted the section dealing with the Phaedo, since this, perhaps more than any other section of Gray's notes, combines anaylsis of some important matters with a measure of criticism.
It is interesting to note that the list of ancient authors sent by Gray to Wharton on September 11, 1 does not apparently include any edition of Plato. No doubt the omission was accidental. In his letter to Wharton on the same date, Gray remarks: "The best Editions of ancient authors should be the first things, I reckon, in a library.