Page images
PDF
EPUB

No biography is more simple than Gray's. From Eton he passed to Cambridge, which was practically his home for the rest of his life. He went as a young man on a long foreign tour of nearly three years with Horace Walpole, quarrelled, and came back alone, both afterwards claiming to have been in the wrong ; he travelled in England and Scotland a little ; he lived a little in London and a good deal at Stoke Poges, where he kept a perfect menagerie of aged aunts, and he died somewhat prematurely at the age of fifty. He spent in all more than twenty years at Cambridge --the only event that interrupted his life there being his move from Peterhouse to Pembroke, across the road, in consequence of an offensive practical joke played on him by some undergraduates, who, working on his morbid dread of fire, induced him by their cries to leave the window of his room by means of a rope-ladder, and descend into a tub of water placed ready for this purpose. The authorities at Peterhouse seem to have made no sort of attempt to punish this wanton outrage, nor to have been anxious to keep him at their college.

So he lived on at Cambridge, hating the “silly dirty place," as he calls it. The atmosphere, physical and mental, weighed on his spirits with leaden dulness, In one of his early letters he speaks of it as the land indicated by the prophet, where the ruined houses were full of owls and

doleful creatures, He often could not bring himself to go there, and once there, his spirits sank so low that he could not prevail on himself to move. Almost the only part he took in the public life of the place was to write and circulate squibs and lampoons on people and local politics, most of which have fortunately perished; those that remain are coarse and vindictive. Nevertheless he had some true friends there : Mason, his worshipper and biographer, Dr. Brown, the Master of Pembroke, in whose arms he died, and several others. He held no office there and did no work for the place, till late in his life the Professorship of Modern History, a mere sinecure, for which he had unsuccessfully applied six years previously, came to him unsolicited. It was his aim throughout to be considered a gentleman who read for his own amusement, and with that curious fastidiousness which was so characteristic of him, he considered it beneath him to receive money for his writings, the copyrights of which he bestowed upon his publisher. Forty pounds for a late edition of his poems is said to be the only money of this kind that he ever handled. But he was, as has been said, well off, at least in his later years. He had a country-house at Wanstead which he let, a house in Cornhill, property at Stoke, and, though he sank some money in a large annuity, he died worth several thousand pounds.

1

It might be thought that such a life, meagre and solitary as it was, would furnish few details to a biographer, and this is to a certain extent true ; but about Gray there is a peculiar atmosphere of attractiveness.

He went his own way, thought his own thoughts, and did not concern himself in the least with the ordinary life of people round about him, except to despise them. This disdainful attitude is always an attractive one. The recluse stimulates curiosity; and when we pass behind the scenes and see the high purity of the life, the wide and deep ideals always floating before such a man, the wonder grows. He lived unconsciously at so high a level that he could not conceive how low and animal lives were possible to men; he owned to no physical impulses; he held that there was no knowledge unworthy of the philosopher, except theology; and over the whole of his existence hung that shadow of doom which lends a pathetic interest to the lives of the meanest of mankind.

When such a man is the author of the most famous poem of pure sentiment in the English language, as well as of smaller pieces by which some readers are fascinated, most impressed, and each of which has enriched the world with one or more eternal phrases, our interest is indefinitely increased, because isolation only ceases to be interesting when it is self-absorbed and self-centred. Gray, on the other hand, suppressed himself so

1. We are

his own ;

effectually in his writings that he even caused them for some readers to forfeit that personal interest that is so attractive to most. all condemned,” he says, “to lonely grief,”— " the tender for another's pain, the unfeeling for

one of the latter could never have written these words.

The deeper that we enter into such a life, the more fascinating it becomes. All Gray's tastes were natural and yet high ; whatever he sets his hand to ceases to be dull; he had a transfiguring touch; he was moreover a strangely unconscious precursor of modern tastes and fancies, in such things as his self-created taste for architecture and antiquities, by communicating which to Horace Walpole (for Gray's influence can be surely traced in Horace's artistic development) he succeeded in making fashionable ; his dignified preferences in art, his rapturous devotion to music, especially to Pergolesi and the contemporary Roman school, whose airs he would sit crooning to himself, playing his own accompaniment on the harpsichord in the high unvisited rooms at Pembroke ; his penchant for heraldry, his educational theories, his minute and accurate investigations of Nature, as close and loving as Gilbert White's, recording as he does the break of dry clear weather into warm wet winds, the first flight of ladybirds, the first push of crocuses, the first time he heard the redstart's note in the

bushes and the thrush fluting about the butts of the old college gardens, "scattering," as he said in a lovely impromptu line that he made in a walk near Cambridge," her loose notes in the waste of air." In 1740 he wrote from Florence to a friend :

“To me there hardly appears any medium between a public life and a private one; he who prefers the first must feel himself in a way of being serviceable to the rest of mankind, if he has a mind to be of any consequence among them. Nay, he must not refuse being in a certain degree dependent upon some men who are so already; if he has the good fortune to light on such as will make no ill use of his humility, there is no shame in this. If not, his ambition ought to give place to a reasonable pride, and he should apply to the cultivation of his own mind those abilities which he has not been permitted to use for others' service; such a private happiness (supposing a small competence of fortune) is almost in every one's power, and is the proper enjoyment of age, as the other is the proper employment of youth.”

And this was the programme to which Gray settled down. In what vast schemes of study he indulged we do not know; but we do know that he gave five years to a comprehensive survey of Greek literature, taking prose and verse alternately, like bread and cheese; he contemplated

« ՆախորդըՇարունակել »