Thomas Gray to Francesco Algarotti, 9 September 1763
I received some time since the unexpected honour of a Letter from you, & the promise of a pleasure, wch till of late I had not the opportunity of enjoying. Forgive me if I make my acknowledgements in my native tongue, as I see it is perfectly familiar to you, & I (tho not unacquainted with the writings of Italy) should from disuse speak its Language with an ill grace, & with still more constraint to one, who possesses it in all its strength & purity.
I see with great satisfaction your efforts to reunite the congenial arts of Poetry, Musick, & the Dance, wch with the assistance of Painting & Architecture, regulated by Taste, & supported by magnificence & power, might form the noblest scene, and bestow the sublimest pleasure, that the imagination can conceive. but who shall realize these delightful visions? there is, I own, one Prince in Europe, that wants neither the will, the spirit, nor the ability: but can he call up Milton from his grave, can he reanimate Marcello, or bid the Barberina or the Sallé move again? can he (as much a King as he is) govern an Italian Virtuosa, destroy her caprice & impertinence without hurting her talents, or command those unmeaning graces & tricks of voice to be silent, that have gain'd her the adoration of her own country?
One cause that so long has hindered, & (I fear) will hinder that happy union, wch you propose, seems to me to be this: that Poetry (wch, as you allow, must lead the way, & direct the operations of the subordinate Arts) implies at least a liberal education, a degree of literature, & various knowledge, whereas the others (with a few exceptions) are in the hands of Slaves & Mercenaries, I mean, of People without education, who, tho neither destitute of Genius, nor insensible to fame, must yet make gain their principal end, & subject themselves to the prevailing taste of those, whose fortune only distinguishes them from the Multitude.
I cannot help telling you, that 8 or 10 years ago, I was a witness of the power of your comic musick. there was a little troop of Buffi, that exhibited a Burletta in London, not in the Opera-House, where the audience is chiefly of the better sort, but in one of the common theatres full of all kinds of people & (I believe) the fuller from that natural aversion we bear to Foreigners: their looks & their noise made it evident, they did not come thither to hear; & on similar occasions I have known candles lighted, broken bottles, & penknives flung on the stage, the benches torn up, the scenes hurried into the street & set on fire. the curtain drew up, the musick was of Cocchi with a few airs of Pergolesi interspersed. the Singers were (as usual) deplorable, but there was one Girl (she call'd herself the Niccolina) with little voice & less beauty; but with the utmost justness of ear, the strongest expression of countenance, the most speaking eyes, the greatest vivacity & variety of gesture. her first appearance instantly fix'd their attention; the tumult sunk at once, or if any murmur rose, it was soon hush'd by a general cry for silence. her first air ravish'd every body; they forgot their prejudices, they forgot, that they did not understand a word of the language; they enter'd into all the humour of the part, made her repeat all her songs, & continued their transports, their laughter, & applause to the end of the piece. within these three last years the Paganina & Amici have met with almost the same applause once a week from a politer audience on the Opera-stage. the truth is, the Opera itself, tho supported here at a great expence for so many years, has rather maintain'd itself by the admiration bestow'd on a few particular voices, or the borrow'd taste of a few Men of condition, that have learn'd in Italy how to admire, than by any genuine love we bear to the best Italian musick: nor have we yet got any style of our own, & this I attribute in great measure to the language, wch in spite of its energy, plenty, & the crowd of excellent Writers this nation has produced, does yet (I am sorry to say it) retain too much of its barbarous original to adapt itself to musical composition. I by no means wish to have been born any thing but an Englishman; yet I should rejoice to exchange tongues with Italy.
Why this Nation has made no advances hitherto in painting & sculpture is hard to say. the fact is undeniable, & we have the vanity to apologize for ourselves, as Virgil did for the Romans, Excudent alii, &c: it is sure that Architecture had introduced itself in the reign of the unfortunate Charles the first, & Inigo Jones has left us some few monuments of his skill, that shew him capable of greater things. Charles had not only a love for the beautiful arts, but some taste in them. the confusion, that soon follow'd, swept away his magnificent collection, the artists were dispersed or ruin'd, & the arts disregarded till very lately. the young Monarch now on the throne is said to esteem & understand them: I wish he may have the leisure to cultivate, & the skill to encourage them with due regard to merit, otherwise it is better to neglect them. You, Sr, have pointed out the true Sources & the best examples to your Countrymen. they have nothing to do, but to be what they once were; and yet perhaps it is more difficult to restore Goodtaste to a nation, that has degenerated, than to introduce it in one, where as yet it has never flourish'd. you are generous enough to wish, & sanguine enough to foresee, that it shall one day flourish in England. I too must wish, but can hardly extend my hopes so far. it is well for us that you do not see our publick exhibitions – but our Artists are yet in their infancy, & therefore I will not absolutely despair.
I owe to Mr Howe the honour I have of conversing with Count Algarotti, & it seems as if I meant to indulge myself in the opportunity: but I have done, Sr: I will only add, that I am proud of your approbation having no relish for any other fame than what is confer'd by the few real Judges, that are so thinly scatter'd over the face of the earth.
Your most obliged humble servant
- Gentleman's Magazine, Jan. 1805, vol. lxxv, pt. i, 9 ff.
- The Works of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: J. Mawman, 1816, section IV, letter CIX, vol. ii, 417-421
- The Works of Thomas Gray, 5 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: W. Pickering, 1835-1843, section IV, letter CXX, vol. iv, 14-20
- 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. CCLIV, vol. iii, 21-25
- 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, 259-264
- 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. 374, vol. ii, 809-813