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described the evils of bigotry with great force and animation of language, and a poignant acuteness of discrimination.
Warton in his account of Sackville's Gorboduc remarks that such has been the undistinguishing or ill-placed fondness for the hard of Avon, that some of his worst and most tinsel passages, and surely a more unequal poet never wrote, have been admired the most.
The diversities of mental excellence are endless; and never did Providence, in its most favoured productions, unite all the varied powers, of which the progress of time is continually developing new hues. To bind ourselves fearfully to models is the mark of a secondary genius.
When I perceive a man incapable of deriving pleasure from more than one style of composition, and dogmatising on its exclusive merit, I pity his weakness, and despise his presumption. When he narrows his curiosity either to what is old or what is new, when he confines his praise to the dead, or to the living, though in both cases he is ridiculous, perhaps his folly is more venial in the last.
Why should one man of genius be envious or jealous of another? There is room enough for all. Another thousand years may roll over us without encumbering the stores of intellectual delight, or exhausting the topics of intellectual attention! Even in a selfish point of view, such envy or jealousy is absurd. Can any individual, could even the richness of Shakspeare's vein, find food enough to satisfy the public mind? That mind grows voracious with indulgence; and the more it is exercised, the
more quantity, and the greater variety, it requires. By the collision of intellects, new lights are struck out, and mutual assistance is derived for the new combinations of each. The most happy faculties require the infusion of new materials, which give new colours to the fancy, and resuscitate its creations.
We talk of Shakspeare's originality. He is original in the proper and best sense. But it is evident that all the literature and all the topics of his day contributed to his materials. There had been no Shakspeare, such as he now is, but for his predecessors and cotemporaries.
If we speak of a more modern author, who, however beautiful, cannot be put in the same class with Shakspeare, we shall be able to trace almost all the ingredients of his pathetic and sublimé compositions home to their sources: yet without detracting much in my opinion from their merit, or even their invention. The poet I mean is GRAY. The particles of thought, and even expressions in numerous instances, belong to others: the combination is his own. His exquisite productions could not have existed, such as they are, without the previous operation of other minds. Yet who but Gray could have formed them into so new and perfect a whole? Let it not be supposed that he sought these artificial aids at the hour of composition; they had already been gradually amalgamated in his mind; and when the moment of inspiration came, they involuntarily sprung up into their present shape. The Elegy, the Ode to Spring, the Ode on Eton College, and the Hymn to Adversity, seem to have been all
written under one impression of feelings. The same affecting and sublime melancholy pervades the whole.
Unhappy indeed is the author in whom there is no good; from whom there is no pleasure or information to be gleaned. Even a slight ray of genius will add some value to a composition. We daily meet with readers who confine themselves to a few authors, by whom they consider all excellence to be engrossed. They pride themselves on the choiceness of their judgment; and hang over the same strains till almost superhuman merit would tire. When all the numerous, and varying colours of the rainbow are displayed to our sight, shall we content ourselves with preferring one or two simple tints, however beautiful?
March 18, 1808.
N°. XXIX. Traits in the character of Gray the Poet.
"We poets are, upon a poet's word,
Of all mankind the creatures most absurd."
CAN we judge of a man's actions by the hues of his mind? I am afraid that we cannot with any reasonable certainty. They who are bold in intellect are often timid in conduct; and imbecility, or, at least, a morbid delicacy, marks the personal character of many, whose abstract sentiments are constantly distinguished by vigour and energy. Instead of withdrawing on this account our admiration from
individuals, we must only lament the inconsistencies of our weak and imperfect nature!
These remarks have immediately resulted from contemplating the mental and moral traits of Gray, the poet. His faculties were endowed with uncommon strength; he thought with a manly nervousness; and he penetrated forcibly to the bottom of every subject, which engaged his attention. But his petty manners were disagreeably effeminate and fastidious; his habits wanted courage and hardiness; and his temper and spirits were a prey to feebleness, indolence, and trivial derangements. His heart was pure; and his conduct, I firmly believe, stained with no crime. He loved virtue for its own sake, and felt a just, and never slackened indignation at vice. But the little irritations of his daily temper were too much affected by trifles; he loved to assume the character of the fine gentleman; a mean and odious ambition in any one; but scarcely to be forgiven in a man of genius. He would shrug his shoulders, and distort his voice into fastidious tones; and take upon him the airs of what folly is pleased to call high company.
By whom is the
High company! What is it? name so impudently engrossed? Perhaps in any country it is a distinction of little value; at least it is beneath a man of genius; but in this country, in the sense, which it is meant to convey, it does not exist! Mere wealth, however got, has been so long allowed to obtain admission, and to form a large portion among the upper orders of society, that it does not even imply a prevalence of well
educated, and early polished manners! From the changes produced by commerce, the revenues of the old and permanent families are inadequate to the purposes of luxuries; and adventurers and placemen enjoy, for the most part, the preeminence derived from the splendour of money.
Gray in early life had lived much, and travelled, with his intimate friend and school-fellow, Horace Walpole; and I am afraid that there was some little tinge of adulation in his manners towards him; notwithstanding Gray's love of independence triumphed, and separated them abroad. It was Walpole's misfortune to be a coxcomb; and though brought up under a father, who, whatever were his merits and importance, had certainly no pretensions to refined and polished manners, he much affected, as new nobility are apt to do, what is vulgarly called the haut ton: his love of literature and his talents (for his talents were of no mean order) were constantly teaching him a better lesson; the whispers of authorship at times soothed him with the hopes of a more honourable distinction; but his struggles are apparent, and often ridiculous; and he could never separate the claims of the man of fashion from those of the writer; nor of the writer from those of the man of fashion.
But Gray,, as Mason well observes, had no pretensions to the paltry superiority either of birth or fortune; in him therefore it was a still more lamentable foible to indulge any vanity of this kind. Or rather to assume the first appearance of such a weakness; for his friends who knew him intimately,