Page images

But soon his rhetoric forsook him,
When he the solemn hall had seen;
A sudden fit of ague shook him,

He stood as mute as poor Macleane*.
Yet something he was heard to mutter,
"How in the park beneath an old tree
(Without design to hurt the butter,
Or any malice to the poultry),

"He once or twice had penn'd a sonnet;

Yet hoped, that he might save his bacon:
Numbers would give their oaths upon it,
He ne'er was for a conjuror taken."
The ghostly prudes with hagged face

Already had condemn'd the sinner.
My lady rose, and with a grace-

She smiled, and bid him come to dinner.

"Jesu-Maria! Madam Bridget,

Why, what can the viscountess mean? (Cried the square-hoods in woful fidget) The times are alter'd quite and clean! "Decorum's turn'd to mere civility;

Her air and all her manners show it. Commend me to her affability!

Speak to a commoner and poet!"

[Here five hundred stanzas are lost.]

Gray mistook the name of the one for the office of the other.

A famous highwayman hanged the week before.

And so God save our noble King,
And guard us from long-winded lubbers,
That to eternity would sing,

And keep my lady from her rubbers*.

* See a Sequel to the Long Story, in Hakewill's History of Windsor, by John Penn, Esq., and a further sequel to that, by the late laureate, H. J. Pye, Esq.

Anecdotes of the personages commemorated in the Long Story, while they continued to live in the same society, furnish a natural appendix to that lively narrative. Of these, it would have appeared preferable to select such as related to the short period which immediately succeeded it; and which preceded the death of the Poet's mother in 1753, so much deplored by him. None, however, can be at present known. We have indeed some account of one of the principal personages in the year 1752, in another society; and it appears from the following passage, in a letter of Mrs. Montagu, of that date, that the lady had then admitted the attention and homage of her future husband. "I wish the fair shepherdess (Miss Speed) a happy meeting with her Pastor Fido, at the next masquerade, for I think it more probable she will meet him there than under the shady' oak or spreading beech.'" But, whether it be owing to the charms of this new and favoured lover on her leisure hours, or to any disposition of reserve, of which the letter of Gray in answer to Mr. Walpole (vide Orford's Works, vol. v. p. 392.) seems to convey a proof, or to other causes, the little information that can now be gleaned relative to the society of Stoke in those times, is due to the recollec

tions and friendly communication of Admiral Sir John T. Duckworth, K. B.; whose respected father became vicar of this place in the year 1756. This distinguished officer says, that he and his elder brother at that time, when they were about eight or ten years of age, were regularly and frequently invited, with their father and mother, to dine at "the Great House," the presence of youthful company being nowise unwelcome in the cheerful circle. He likewise remembers, that he was then used to accompany his father in his visits to Mr. Gray and his aunt Mrs. Rogers, at West End: that he has often been at home when those visits were returned; and that on these occasions, the author of the Ode to Eton College would frequently take pleasure in gratifying the young Etonian by the gift of a shilling, or half a crown; "which (adds the gallant admiral) was at that time no inconsiderable present." But a circumstance, which, from its singularity, made a stronger impression upon his mind than even this claim upon his gratitude, affords a substantial proof that the social ease, from which the ghostly female champions of false decorum, a few years before, had inferred a lamentable decay of manners, had undergone no change that could give them cause for triumph. He relates that he has "more than once" been an eyewitness of the potent effect wrought by the exuberant spirits of the "witty amazon" in prevailing upon the poet, instead of being conducted by a muse, or mounted on his Pegasus, to trust himself to her guidance, along the parish lanes in a butcher's cart; which unusual spectacle could hardly have failed to stir the surprise and surmises of "the ploughman," yet delaying "homeward to plod his weary way." We may

conclude from this frolic, that the policy which determined "the first marching of the troops," proceeded from no cause more probable than from her hostility to the stern character of" the drawing-room of fierce Queen Mary." On the other hand, it must be confessed that the poet thus gave ample proof of the sincerity of his ejaculation, "Alas! who would not wish to please her!" But that his gallantry had no deeper root than the complaisance of friendship he seems to proclaim, not only in his letter to Mr. Walpole, but in another to Dr. Wharton, written shortly after the incident of the Long Story. "My heart," says he, "is no less yours than it has long been; and the last thing in the world that will throw it into tumult is a fine lady." Another erroneous surmise of the same nature might be formed on hearing (what nevertheless is true) that the beautiful rondeau, which appears in the latter editions of his works, was inspired by "the wish to please" this lady. The fact is, however, that it was produced (and probably about this time) on a request she made to the poet one day, when he was in company with Mr. Walpole, that she might possess something from his pen written on the subject of love. We collect from the Memoirs by Mason, that the society of neighbourhood between the lady and the poet must have closed about the year 1758, at which time the death of his aunt, Mrs. Rogers, determined the final departure of the latter from Stoke. A circumstance connected with that occasion contributes some evidence of the general activity of his mind. The Rev. Mr. Duckworth, who held the living of Stoke until his death in the year 1794, remarked that the difficulty experienced by Gray in relinquishing the tenure of the premises to

which he had succeeded, and from the concern of which he was anxious to relieve himself, was finally surmounted by means of his own knowledge of law.

The local poem by which Gray has impressed a classical stamp upon Stoke are, The Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, The Long Story, both written in 1750, and his Ode to Eton College, written before, in the year 1742; in which year were also written the Ode to Spring, the Hymn to Adversity, and the Sonnet on the death of Mr. West, (the first certainly, and the two last probably,) at Stoke.

It in the year 1780 that (Miss Speed, now) Countess de Viry enabled the lover of poetry to see in print the Rondeau, and another small amatory poem of Gray, called Thyrsis, by presenting them to the Rev. Mr. Leman, of Suffolk, while on a visit at her castle in Savoy. She died there in 1783.

« PreviousContinue »