Thomas Gray to Horace Walpole, [15 January 1738]
The Honble Horace Walpole Esq,
at the Treasury, St James's
The moving piece of ancient poetry you favour'd me with the sight of, would be sufficient, I must confess to deterr me, if I had any ambition of appearing among the Consolatores,= from all pretence to writing at this time; so long as the sad Catastrophe of the beautiful & never-to be enough-lamented Gillian dwells upon my memory: those Genius's, my friend, those mighty spirits of antiquity! alas, what are we to 'em? mere tinsel! mere flash! and indeed (not to dwell upon the moral, so feelingly inculcated in this little elegiacal narration, which 'tis impossible should escape the acuteness of your penetration) what can be beyond the elegant simplicity of the language? in the exordium the poet lays down the groundwork, & foundation, as it were, of that beautiful fabrick he intends to erect; he does not injudiciously draw his inferences, after he has recounted the story; at least he does not expatiate much in the end; no! he leaves the mind then to ruminate at its own leisure, & make its own applications, when it shall have recover'd itself from that sorrow, which every virtuous mind must feel after so woful a tale: he recommends to the ladies of his time a strict observance of honour & chastity, who, I doubt not, received his advice with reverence (our modern Females would perhaps [have laug]'d at his gravity) he also solemnly affirms the truth of it, as well knowing the prevalence of truth over the mind; from whence his deep insight into Nature is sufficiently evidenced: at the beginning of his narration, he fixes the place of his Heroine's habitation in Surry; he had undoubtedly observed in Homer, & the imitators of that poet; how much we are ingaged in the interest of any person, who has the misfortune of falling in battle, by being told the place of his birth & abode, as
Υιὸν δὲ Στροφίοιο, Σκαμάνδριον, αἴμονα θήρης, &c
Τˠ ῥα πατὴρ μὲν ἔναιεν ἐϋκτιμένη ἐνὶ Φηρῇ,
'tis true, he has not carried it quite so far as Homer in telling us, whether Gillian loved hunting or not, nor whether her father's house was well, or ill built; he has showed, as he proceeds, his generous aversion, & contempt for your cockneys & fluttering beaux of the town, so agreeable to the simplicity of the age he lived in, & its uncorrupted innocence; by making this ill-grounded passion of Gillian's the cause of all her misfortunes,
–Hinc prima mali labes–
I don't wonder at her innocence not being proof against so strong allurements as are contain'd in those two unaffected lines,
He said as how he would her carry
To London, & her there would marry.
then how feelingly, yet concisely is the main part of the story express'd –
He did perswade her to his bed,
And there he got her maidenhead:
– fulsere ignes, & conscius æther
Connubiis, summoqb ulularunt Teastere Nymphæ.
what woman would not consent, when a man swears upon his life? then for the master-stroke,
She sat down at his door, & cried,
And broke her heart, & so she died.
I suspect here some small imitation of the celebrated dragon of Wantley (provided that were really elder than this)
So groan'd, kicked, shit, & died.
[On]ly indeed the indecent circumstances are suppressed, tho' the elegancy is still preserved: pray, excuse these little remarks, which a[re], however ill executed, design'd to make more conspicuous the [ex]cellencies of this amiable author, & believe me
GBR/1058/GRA/3/4/34, College Library, Pembroke College, Cambridge , Cambridge, UK <http://www.pem.cam.ac.uk/>
- The Correspondence of Gray, Walpole, West and Ashton (1734-1771), 2 vols. Chronologically arranged and edited with introduction, notes, and index by Paget Toynbee. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1915, letter no. 73, vol. i, 172-175
- The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence. Ed. by W. S. Lewis. New Haven, Conn.: Yale UP; London: Oxford UP, 1937-83, vols. 13/14: Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Thomas Gray, Richard West and Thomas Ashton i, 1734-42, Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Thomas Gray ii, 1745-71, ed. by W. S. Lewis, George L. Lam and Charles H. Bennett, 1948, vol. i, 148-150
- Correspondence of Thomas Gray, 3 vols. Ed. by the late Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, with corrections and additions by H. W. Starr. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971 [1st ed. 1935], letter no. 46, vol. i, 74-77