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24. To his Mother. Road to Naples. Beautiful Situation of
32. To his Father. Total want of Amusement at Florence, oc-
ESSAY ON THE POETRY OF GRAY.
I. On the Manner of Composition attributed to Gray by Mason. II. On the Harmony of his Verse, with some Remarks on Verbal Imitation in Poetry. III. On his Language or Poetical Diction. IV. On the Moral and Pathetic Character of his Writings. V. On the prophetic Character of the Bard; and on the construction of the Pindaric Ode. VI. On the Notes to this Edition. VII. On the Criticisms by Dr. Johnson on the Poetry of Gray.
I. To ascertain the method of composition adopted by a writer of established excellence, and to discover the principles upon which he constructed his poetry, is not only a subject of reasonable curiosity; but may prove of no small advantage in enabling us to unfold some of the causes both of his beauties and defects. Mr. Mason observes,* "that Gray's conceptions, as well as his manner of disposing them, were so singularly exact, that he had seldom occasion to make many, except verbal emendations, after he had first committed his lines to paper. It was never his method to
See Mason's Memoirs of Gray, vol. iii. p. 157.
sketch his general design in careless verse; he always finished as he proceeded: this, though it made his execution slow, made his compositions more perfect." And in a note to that passage he adds: "I have many of his critical letters by me on my own compositions: letters, which, though they would not amuse the public in general, contain excellent lessons for young poets; from one of these I extract the following passage, which seems to explain this matter more fully: Extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous, and musical, is one of the grand beauties of lyric poetry this I have always aimed at, and never could attain. The necessity of rhyming is one great obstacle to it another, and perhaps a stronger, is that way you have chosen, of casting down your first thoughts carelessly and at large, and then clipping them here and there at leisure. This method, after all possible pains, will leave behind it a laxity, a diffuseness. The frame of a thought (otherwise well-invented, well-turned, and well-placed) is often weakened by it. Do I talk nonsense? Or do you understand me? I am persuaded what I say is true in my head, whatever it may be in prose; for I do not pretend to write prose."" It cannot, however, be intended, that this account should be received without considerable limitations; as there exist sufficient proofs in the fragments of Gray's poetry to shew that, like other writers, when warmed by his subject,
he left one part of his poem unfinished, to arrest the images that spontaneously arose for another; and to preserve the chain of associations in his mind, unbroken and unimpaired. When any difficulty occurred in the conformation of one stanza, it is not probable that he permitted the fire of his imagination to grow cool, and the strength of his conceptions to be weakened; but passed on to that which presented itself in a happier and more perfect form. How far indeed the order and connexion in which our first thoughts present themselves, can be restored, if once broken, and the train of ideas recovered, which has been lost by minute exactness, and attention to other parts of the composition, is at least a questionable point; and deserving the consideration of those, who, without possessing that exactness of conception attributed to Gray by his biographer, may endeavour to imitate the example of so successful a writer. But perhaps this method of composition, if taken in its proper sense, cannot be called the peculiar practice of the poet, but rather common to all much accustomed to arrange their thoughts in writing, and whom use has made skilful and exact. In such a case, the thoughts and language seem to be selected by the mind by an instantaneous effort; when, in fact, they arise according to the artificial arrangement and combination which have been formed by the mental habits of the poet; and when they not seldom pre