Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 5. Gray’s return and Correspondence with West; The Agrippina Fragment

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

VI. Gray

§ 5. Gray’s return and Correspondence with West; The Agrippina Fragment

On 7 September, 1741, we find Gray in London, causing a sensation among the street boys “by the depth of his Ruffles, the immensity of his Bagg, and the length of his sword.” He was still in town in April, 1742, maintaining a correspondence with West, then ruralising in quest of health at Pope’s house near Hatfield in Hertfordshire, on Tacitus and on the fourth Dunciad, which had just appeared. The yawn of Dulness at the end Gray describes as among the finest things Pope has written; and this young unknown critic here sounds the first note of discriminating praise, which has since been repeated by all good judges, from Johnson to Thackeray. In the same letter, he enclosed the first example of English verse which we certainly know to be his, a fragment of Agrippina, a tragedy never completed, of which Mason discovered the general design among Gray’s papers. As has been already seen, it is manifest that, in Agrippina, Racine’s Britannicus was to have been copied with almost Chinese exactness, just as Gray’s details, like Racine’s are often Tacitus versified. The dignity of style to be discovered in these disjecta membra still impresses us. But, more important than any question of their merits, is the friendly criticism which they occasioned. Few known passages in critical literature furnish more instructive details as to English poetic diction than these unpretending sentences in a letter to West of April, 1742:

  • As to matter of stile, I have this to say: The language of the age is never the language of poetry except among the French, whose verse, where the thought or image does not support it, differs in nothing from prose. Our poetry, on the contrary, has a language peculiar to itself; to which almost every one, that has written, has added something by enriching it with foreign idioms and derivatives: nay sometimes words of their own composition or invention. Shakespear and Milton have been great creators in this way: and no one more licentious than Pope or Dryden, who perpetually borrow expressions from the former. Let me give you some instances from Dryden, whom every body reckons a great master of our poetic tongue.—Full of museful mopeings—unlike the trim of love—a pleasant beverage—a roundelay of love—stood silent in his mood—with knots and knares deformed—his ireful mood—in proud array—his boon was granted—and disarray and shameful rout—wayward but wise—furbished for the field—the foiled doddered oaks—disheritedsmouldering flames—retchless of laws—crones old and ugly—the beldam at his side—the grandam-hagvillanize his Father’s fame.
  • Gray goes on to admit that expressions in his play—“silken son of dalliance,” “drowsier pretensions,” wrinkled beldam,” “arched the hearer’s brow and riveted his eyes in fearful extasie”—may be faulty; though why they should be thought so, in view of his own theory, must remain a mystery. To take but two examples, he has compounded “silken son of dalliance” from that “New Dunciad” which he has just been reading, and from Shakespeare’s Henry V: and he gets his “arched brow” from Pope. More generally, it is a testimony to the great transformation of literary tastes which Gray ultimately helped to bring about, that words so familiar even in our everyday speech as “mood,” “smouldering,” “beverage,” “array,” “boon” and “wayward” were, in 1742, thought by some to be too fantastic even for poetry. While this correspondence, sometimes little more than a pretty dilettantism and strenuous idleness, was passing between them, Gray was lulled into a false security about his friend West. In April, he writes: “I trust to the country, and that easy indolence you say you enjoy there, to restore your health and spirits.” On the 8th, he has received a poem on the tardy spring and “rejoices to see you (West) putting up your prayers to the May: she cannot choose but come at such a call.” Pretty verses enough; but chiefly interesting because they are the last poetic effort of the young and sorrow-stricken spirit to whom Gray sent the Ode on the Spring, which he first called “Noon-tide, an Ode,” and has left transcribed in his commonplace-book with the note “at Stoke, the beginning of June, 1742, sent to Fav[-onius, West]: not knowing he was then Dead.” In fact, West died on the first of June. It was strange that the same theme of the opening year should have been respectively the first and the last efforts of the devoted friends, and that the month which silenced one young voice for ever should have wakened the survivor into an unwonted luxuriance of song.