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Thomas Gray to William Mason, [18 January 1759]

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Dear Mason

You will think me either dead, or in that happy state (wch is that of most People alive) of forgetting every thing they ought to remember: yet I am neither one, nor the other. I am now in Town, having taken leave of Stoke, & hoping to take leave of my other incumbrances in a few months time. I send you in short my opinion of Caractacus, so far (I mean) as I have seen of it. I shall only tell you farther, that I am charmed with the Idea you give me of your 4th Ode. it is excellently introduced, & the specimen, you send me, even sublime. I am wrap'd in it; but the last line of the Stanza falls off, & must be changed, Courage was in his van, &c: for it is ordinary, when compared with the rest. to be sure the immortality of ye Soul, & the happiness of dieing in battle are Druid doctrines: you may dress them at pleasure, so they do but look wild & British.

I have little to say from hence but that Cleone has succeeded very well at Covent-Garden, & that People, who despised it in Manuscript, went to see it & confess, they cried. so for fear of crying too I did not go. poor Smart is not dead, as was said, & Merope is acted for his benefit this week with a new Farce, the Guardian. here is a very agreeable Opera of Cocchi's, the Cyrus, wch gave me some pleasure. do you know, I like both Whithed's Odes in great measure, but no body else does.

I hear matters will be made up with the Dutch, & there will be no war. the K: of Portugal has slily introduced troops into Lisbon under pretence of clearing away the rubbish, & seized the unsuspecting Conspirators in their own houses. they are Men of principal note, in particular the family of Tavora, who have some pretentions to ye Crown; & it is thought the Jesuits have made use of their ambition to execute their own revenge. the story of ye King's gallantries, & the jealousy of some Man of Quality, who contrived the assassination, is said to be all false. Adieu! I rejoice to hear you use your eyes again. write to me at Dr Wharton's, for perhaps I may go to Cambridge for some weeks, & he will take care I shall have your letter.

P: 2. I liked the opening, as it was originally, better than I do now. tho' I never throughly understood how blank he frowns. & as to black stream, it gives me the Idea of a river of mud: I should read, dark stream, imagining it takes its hue only from the rocks & trees, that overhang it. these cliffs, these yawning &c: comes in very well, where it stood at first, & you have only reserved it to another place, where by being somewhat more diffused, it appears weaker. you have introduced no new image in your new beginning, but one, utters deep wailings, which is very well; but as to a trickling runlet I never heard of such a thing, unless it were a runlet of brandy.

Yet I have no objection at all to the reflection Didius makes on the power objects of ye sight have over ye soul: it is in its place, & might be even longer, but then it should be more choicely & more feelingly express'd. he must not talk of dells & streams only, but of something more striking & more corresponding to the scene before him. intellect is a word of Science, & therefore inferior to any more common word.

P: 3. For the same reason I reject Philosophy, & read

Studious they measure: save when Contemplation &c:

& here you omitt two lines, relating to Astronomy, for no cause that I discern.

P: 4. What is your quarrel to Shallops? I like go bid thine Eagles soar, perhaps from obstinacy, for I know you have met with some wise Gentleman, who says it is a false thought, & informs you that these were not real Eagles, but made of metal or wood painted.

The word Seers comes over too often, & here besides it sounds ill. Elidurus need not be so fierce. dost thou insult us, Roman, was better before.

Sure-plan'd is a nasty stiff word.

P: 6. It must be Cæsar & Fate. the name of Claudius carries contempt with it.

P: 7. Brother, I spurn it. better, than I scorn it.

Misjudging Boy is weakly. he calls him Coward, because such a reproach was the most likely to sting him. I'll do the deed myself is bolder, more resolute, more hasty, than the alteration.

Lead forth the saintly &c: better, shorter, & more lively at first. what have I to do with purple robes & arraignments, like a tryal at York-Assizes?

P: 8. Try, if 'twill bring her deluging &c: better so: only I do not like strait Justice. modest mounds is far worse.

P: 9. Do this & prosper. but pray thee &c: oh! how much superior to the cold lines, for wch you would omitt them. it is not You, but somebody else, that has been busy both here & elsewhere.

Come from their caves. I read

Are issuing from their Caves. hear'st thou yon signal?

& put aweful, where it was before.

I'll wait the closing &c: leave it, as it was. Do thou, as likes thee best. betray, or aid me. it is shorter & more sulky. Elidurus too must not go off in silence, & what can he say better?

P: 10. I do not dislike the Idea of this Ceremony, but the execution of it is careless & hasty. the reply of the Semichorus is stolen from Dryden's Oedipus, wch perhaps you never saw nor I, since I was a Boy, at wch time it left an impression on my fancy. pray look at it. this dread ground breaks my teeth. Be it Worm or Aske or Toad. these are things for Fairies to make war upon, but not Druids: at least they must not name them. an Aske is somewhat I never heard of.

Full five Fathom under ground. consider five fathom is but 30 feet. many a Cellar lies deeper.

I read Gender'd by the autumnal moon. by its light I mean. conjoin is a bad word. supernal art profound is negligent. indeed I do not understand the image; how the snakes in copulation should heave their egg to ye sky: you will say, it is an old British fancy. I know it of old; but then it must be made picturesque, & look almost as if it were true.

P: 13. Befit such station: the verse wants a syllable.

Ev'n in the breast of Mona. read the heart of Mona.

Catches fresh grace. the Simile is good, but not this expression. the Tower is more majestic, more venerable, not more graceful. I read –

He looks, as doth the Tower
After the conflict of Heav'n's angry bolts:
Its nodding walls, its shatter'd battlements
Frown with a dignity unmark'd before
Ev'n in its prime of strength—

P: 13. I do not desire, he should return the Druid's salute so politely. let him enter with that reflection, This holy place &c: & not stand upon ceremony. it required no alteration, only I hate the word vegetate, & would read

—tell me, Druid,
Is it not better to be such, as these,
Than be the thing I am?

I read too Nor shew a Prætor's edict &c: & pestilent glare, as they were before. add too

See to the altar's base the Victims led &c:

and then, whether they were Bulls or Men, it is all one. I must repeat again, that the word Seers is repeated for ever.

P: 17. I know it, rev'rend Fathers, &c: this speech is sacred with me, & an example of dramatic poetry: touch not a hair of its head, as you love your honour.

P: 18. I had rather some of these Personages, Resignation, Peace, Revenge, Slaughter, Ambition, were strip'd of their allegoric Garb: a little simplicity here in the expression would better prepare the high & fantastic strain, & all the unimaginable harpings, that follow. I admire all from eager to snatch thee &c: down to the first Epode of ye Chorus.

you give these miltonic stanza's up so easily, that I begin to waver about Mador's song. if you have wrote it, & it turn out the finest thing in the world, I rejoice & say no more: let it come, tho' it were in the middle of a Sermon. but if not, I do confess at last, that the Chorus may break off, & do very well without a word more. don't be angry at the trouble I have given you. and now I have found the reason, why I could not be pleased with Mador's philosophic song. the true Lyric style with all its flights of fancy, ornaments & heightening of expression, & harmony of sound, is in its nature superior to every other style. wch is just the cause, why it could not be born in a work of great length, no more than the eye could bear to see all this scene, that we constantly gaze upon, the verdure of the fields & woods, the azure of the sea & skies, turn'd into one dazzling expanse of gems. the Epic therefore assumed a style of graver colours, & only stuck on a diamond (borrow'd from her Sister) here & there, where it best became her. when we pass from the diction, that suits this kind of writing, to that wch belongs to the former: it appears natural, & delights us. but to pass on a sudden from the lyric glare to the epic solemnity (if I may be allow'd to talk nonsense) has a very different effect: we seem to drop from verse into mere prose, from light into darkness. another thing is, the pauses proper to one, & the other, are not at all the same; the ear therefore loses by the change. do you think, if Mingotti stop'd in the middle of her best air, & only repeated the remaining verses, (tho' the best Metastasio ever wrote,) that they would not appear very cold to you, & very heavy?

P: 24. Boldly dare, is tautology.

P: 27. Brigantum. there was no such place.

P: 28. The sacred Hares. you might as well say, the sacred Hogs.

P: 29. There is an affectation in so often using the old phrase of Or e'er for before.

P: 30. Rack is the course of ye clouds. wreck is ruin & destruction. wch do you mean?

I am not yet entirely satisfied with the conclusion of this fine Allegory. that blest prize redeem'd is flatly express'd, & her sticking the pages over the arch of her bower is an Idea a little burlesque. besides are we sure the whole is not rather too long for the place it is in, where all the interests of the scene stand still for it? & this is still drawn out farther by the lines you have here put into the mouth of Caractacus. do not mistake me, I admire part of it, & approve almost all, but consider the time & place.

P: 31. Pensive Pilgrim. why not? there is an impropriety in wakeful Wanderer.

I have told you my thoughts of this Chorus already. the whole scheme is excellent, the 2d Strophe & Antistrophe divine. money (I know) is your motive, & of that I wash my hands. fame is your second consideration; of that I am not the dispenser. but if your own approbation (for every one is a little conscious of his own talents) & mine, have any weight with you, you will write an Ode or two every year, till you are turn'd of fifty, not for the World, but for us two only. we will now & then give a little glimpse of them, but no copies.

P: 37. I do not like Maidenhood.

38. Why not smoke in vain, as before? the word meek is too often repeated.

P: 42. The only reason why you have alter'd my favourite speech is, that surging & plunging, main & domain come too near each other. but could not you correct these without spoiling all? I read

Cast his broad eye upon the wild of Ocean,
And calm'd it with a glance: then plunging deep
His mighty arm, pluck'd from its dark domain &c:

pray, have done with your piled stores & coral floors.

43. the Dies of Fate, that is, the Dice of Fate. find out another word.

44. I can not say I think this scene improved. I had no objection before, but to, harm a poor wretch, like me; & what you have inserted is (to me) inferior to what it was meant to replace, except p: 47. And why this silence, wch is very well. the end of ye scene is one of my favourite passages.

49. Why scratch out, Thou, gallant Boy?

I do not know to what other scene you have transfer'd these rites of lustration, but methinks they did very well here. Arviragus's account of himself I always was highly pleased with.

51. Fervid is a bad word.

Letter ID: letters.0331 (Source: TEI/XML)

Correspondents

Writer: Gray, Thomas, 1716-1771
Writer's age: 42
Addressee: Mason, William, 1724-1797
Addressee's age: 34

Dates

Date of composition: [18 January 1759]
Date (on letter): Jan: 18. 1758
Calendar: Gregorian

Places

Place of composition: London, United Kingdom
Address (on letter): London

Content

Language: English
Incipit: You will think me either dead, or in that happy state (wch is...
Mentioned: Dodsley, Robert
Dryden, John
Hill, Aaron
Lisbon
Mason, William
Metastasio
Portugal
Smart, Christopher
Voltaire
Whitehead, William

Holding Institution

Location:
(confirmed)
Henry W. And Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, Humanities and Social Sciences Library, New York Public Library , New York, NY, USA <https://www.nypl.org/about/divisions/berg-collection-english-and-american-literature>
Availability: The original letter is extant and usually available for academic research purposes

Print Versions

  • The Correspondence of Thomas Gray and William Mason, with Letters to the Rev. James Brown, D.D. Ed. by the Rev. John Mitford. London: Richard Bentley, 1853, letter XLI, first part 167-171, second part 66-75
  • The Letters of Thomas Gray, including the correspondence of Gray and Mason, 3 vols. Ed. by Duncan C. Tovey. London: George Bell and Sons, 1900-12, letter no. CLXXXII, vol. ii, 69-72
  • Essays and Criticisms by Thomas Gray. Ed. with Introduction and Notes by Clark Sutherland Northup. Boston and London: D. C. Heath & Co., 1911, letter excerpt, 215-224
  • 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. 286, vol. ii, 603-610