Reference > Cambridge History > The Age of Johnson > Gray > An Elegy in a Country Churchyard
  Reconciliation with Walpole Characteristics of the Elegy  


The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VI. Gray.

§ 9. An Elegy in a Country Churchyard.

During the whole of the next four years, Gray seems to have relapsed into his normal state of facile and amusing gossip and criticism. He is “a chiel taking notes,” but with no intention of printing them: yet we also discover that he is a real power in the society that he pretends to despise, using his influence to get fellowships for his friends, including Mason; interesting himself in the wild and reckless Christopher Smart, then a fellow of Pembroke, and deploring the loss of the veteran Middleton, with whose views he was in sympathy, and whose house was the only one in which he felt at his ease. At the same time, his studies were remarkably various, and his curiosity about foreign, and especially French, literature, intense, as is particularly illustrated by his welcome of Montesquieu’s Esprit des Lois, which forestalled some of the best thoughts in the fragmentary Alliance of Education and Government (1748). At length, 12 June, 1750, he sends from Stoke to Walpole “a thing with an end to it”—a merit that most of his writings have wanted—and one whose beginning Walpole has seen long ago. 12    14
  This is the famous Elegy, and Walpole appears to have circulated it somewhat freely in manuscript, with the result that the magazines got hold of it; and Gray, to protect himself, makes Walpole send it to Dodsley for immediate printing. Between The Magazine of Magazines and Dodsley, the Elegy, on its first publication, fared but badly: “Nurse Dodsley,” Gray says, “has given it a pinch or two in its cradle that I doubt it will bear the marks of as long as it lives”; and, together, these publishers, licensed and unlicensed, achieved some curious readings. The moping owl complained of those who wandered near her “sacred bow’r”: the young man went “frowning,” not “smiling” as in scorn: the rustic’s “harrow” oft the stubborn glebe had broke; and his frail memorial was decked with uncouth rhymes and shapeless “culture.” And the mangled poet writes, “I humbly propose for the benefit of Mr. Dodsley and his matrons, that take awake for a verb, that they should read asleep, and all will be right.” 13    15
  In contrast with this incuria, so far as the public is concerned, was the pains which he took, as evidenced by the MS preserved at the lodge at Pembroke college, to set down what he did write beyond the possibility of mistake.   16

Note 12. Probably in 1745 or 1746. See Gray’s Poems (Cambridge, 1898), p. 130. Mason’s statement that the Elegy was begun in 1742 is possibly true of the epitaph at the end. [ back ]
Note 13
“the voice of Nature cries
Awake, and faithful to her wonted fires.”
(As if “awake” were an imperative.)
[ back ]

  Reconciliation with Walpole Characteristics of the Elegy  

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