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Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear ;
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
The little tyrant of his fields withstood,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
And read their history in a nation's eyes,
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind.
The place of fame and elegy supply ;
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd,
Nor cast one longing ling’ring look behind ?
Some pious drops the closing eye requires ;
E'en in our ashes live their wonted fires. 9
But in truth evidence is superfluous. An exquisite simplicity exhales from every line. The miracle is the invisible art, which is as ubiquitous. Admirable as the piece is from every point of view, from that it is incomparable. To say that there is art in the Elegy will seem to many like accusing a rainbow, an afterglow, a daffodil, of being machine-made. Yet no student can doubt but
that, as it is, the whole is as much an artificial product as
Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn. If the art works unseen, it is that the poet understood how to unseal sources of sympathetic emotion in his readers. The waters gush out in a flood, deafening, blinding us to the artist in the singer. It has consecrated anew every village churchyard. Who can say that an English summer or autumn evening would be the same, were it not that, as the twilight descends, for him still —
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o’er the lea,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.10 We take the Elegy to our hearts. But let us not, therefore, from where we stand, farther off, fail to recognize the grandeur of the Odes, and honour the author of them all. Out of one spirit the whole alike emanated ; and an amazing furnace it must have been. The strength, the grace, the refusal to be content with anything short of perfection ! A laborious life, and one tiny casket of jewels to show for it! I may be thought by readers remembering other poets to have exaggerated. Each, however, has a right to be viewed as within the circle of his own light; and the circle in which Gray stands dazzles !
The Poetical Works of Thomas Gray. One vol. William Pickering, 1853. 1 The Progress of Poetry: a Pindaric Ode, vv. 112–23. 2 Ibid., vv. 33–41.
3 Ibid., vv. 63-5. • Ibid., vv. 95–111.
5 The Bard, vv. 17–22. 6 Ibid., vv. 49–62.
? Hymn to Adversity, vv. 9-16. * Ode on the Pleasure Arising from Vicissitude (Posthumous Poems), vv. 53-6.
9 Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, stanzas 2, 4, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 21, 22, 23.
10 Ibid., st. 1.
HAPLESS Collins ! Never was poet visited by misfortunes more continuous, various, undeserved, pitiless, and, at the long end, incurably tragic. Family calamities threw him, an orphan, on the charity of a relative for his education. By an accident he lost the reward of his proficiency at school. He was as unlucky at Oxford. London, on which he had cast himself for support by literature, recognized his wit at coffee-houses, but would not give him bread. So few copies of his Odes found purchasers that he had to burn a large remainder. Think of the Passions expiring in smoke up a Grub Street garret chimney! Then, at scarce thirty, when fortune was beginning to smile, a pall drawn over all by madness! Wordsworth has sung of
mighty poets in their misery dead. If Collins cannot be called a mighty poet, at all events he produced mighty poetry. As the echo of it passes over the mind, the blood courses faster through the veins. After a century and a half have done their utmost to wear the freshness out of the chorus of the Passions, with what imperishable grace the forms move still across the stagehow exquisitely graduated the strains they utter ! A little volume includes his entire life's work, and it contains almost as many masterpieces as there are pages.
He is picturesque and dignified when, in the Ode on Highland Superstitions, he tells of wizard seers and frolicsome
or malicious elves. His sympathy invests the memory of the poet of the Seasons with a tenderness we do not commonly find in the dead bard's own verse :
Remembrance oft shall haunt the shore
When Thames in summer wreaths is drest,
To bid his gentle spirit rest !1 What a delicately fragrant wreath, if, in its sentiment, an anachronism perhaps for Cymbeline, he lays as a tribute at Shakespeare's feet in the Dirge for Fidele!
The redbreast oft, at evening hours,
Shall kindly lend his little aid,
To deck the ground where thou art laid.
In tempests shake the sylvan cell ;
The tender thought on thee shall dwell ;
For thee the tear be duly shed ;
And mourn’d till Pity's self be dead.2 When least inspired he does not miss, even in the Oriental Eclogues of his boyhood, being refined and interesting. In his loftier, his more habitual, mood, he becomes impetuous, august, sublime. A grand image is that picturing Fear as unable to shake off the companionship of Danger ;
Who stalks his round, an hideous form,
Of some loose hanging rock to sleep.3 Amidst the wild visions haunting him of civil strife threaten ing our isle, how gracefully he pours out blessings on Pity, with eyes of dewy light, for intervening :
the friend of man, assign'd
With balmy hands his wounds to bind ; and on Mercy, who, when the enemy of peace was on his way :
from out thy sweet abode, O’ertook him on his blasted road,
And stopp'd his wheels, and look'd his rage away ! 5 Abstractions, such as these, on Peace, the Manners, Simplicity, Liberty—the manacles of Grecian epode, strophe, and antistrophe notwithstanding—at his appeal assume statuesque form and substance, till finally they are gathered by all the powers of a poet-soul into the gorgeous pageant of the Passions! Wonderful throughout, the great Ode touches ecstasy in the musical rivalry of Fear, Anger, Despair, Hope, Revenge, Pity, and Jealousy :
First Fear his hand, its skill to try,
Amid the chords bewilder'd laid,
E'en at the sound himself had made.
In lightnings own’d his secret stings ;
And swept with hurried hand the strings.
Low, sullen sounds, his grief beguiled;
'Twas sad by fits, by starts ’twas wild.
And bade the lovely scenes at distance hail !
And from the rocks, the woods, the vale,
And where her sweetest theme she chose,
A soft responsive voice was heard at every close,