Thomas Gray to William Mason, [c. December 1751]
Very bad! I am YOURS – equally bad! it is impossible to conciliate these passages to nature and Aristotle.
'Allowed to modern caprice.' – It is not caprice, but good sense that made these alterations in the modern Drama. A greater liberty in the choice of the fable, and the conduct of it, was the necessary consequence of retrenching the Chorus. Love, and tenderness delight in privacy. The soft effusions of the soul, Mr. Mason, will not bear the presence of a gaping, singing, dancing, moralizing, uninteresting crowd. And not love alone, but every passion is checked and cooled by this fiddling crew. How could Macbeth and his wife have laid the design for Duncan's murder? What could they have said to each other in the Hall at midnight, not only if a chorus, but if a single mouse had been stirring there? Could Hamlet have met the Ghost, or taken his mother to task in their company? If Othello had said a harsh word to his wife before them, would they not have danced to the window, and called the watch?
The ancients were perpetually confined and hampered by the necessity of using the Chorus, and, if they have done wonders notwithstanding this clog, sure I am they would have performed still greater wonders without it. For the same reason we may be allowed to admit of more intrigue in our drama, to bring about a great action; it is often an essential requisite: and it is not fair to argue against this liberty, from that misuse of it, which is common to us, and was formerly so with the French, namely, the giving into a silly intricacy of plot, in imitation of the Spanish Dramas. We have also since Charles the Second's time, imitated the French (though but awkwardly) in framing scenes of mere insipid gallantry. But these were the faults of the writers, and not of the art, which enables us with the help of a little contrivance, to have as much love as we please, without playing the petits maîtres, or building labyrinths.
I forgot to mention that Comedy contrived to be an odd sort of Farce, very like those of the Italian theatre, till the Chorus was dismissed. When Nature and Menander brought it into that beautiful form which we find in Terence. Tragedy was not so happy till modern times.
I do not admit that the excellencies of the French writers are measured by the verisimilitude, or the regularities of their Dramas only. Nothing in them, or in our own, even Shakespeare himself, ever touches us, unless rendered verisimile, which by good management may be accomplished even in such absurd stories as the Tempest, the Witches in Macbeth, or the Fairies in the Midsummer Night's Dream: and I know not of any writer that has pleased chiefly in proportion to his regularity. Other beauties may indeed be heightened and set off by its means, but of itself it hardly pleases at all. Venice Preserved, or Jane Shore, are not so regular as the Orphan, or Tamerlane, or Lady Jane Grey.
Modern Melpomene. – Here are we got into our tantarums! It is certain that pure poetry may be introduced without any Chorus. I refer you to a thousand passages of mere description in the Iambic parts of Greek tragedies, and to ten thousand in Shakespeare, who is moreover particularly admirable in his introduction of pure poetry, so as to join it with pure passion, and yet keep close to nature. This he could accomplish with passions the most violent, and transporting, and this any good writer may do with passions less impetuous, for it is nonsense to imagine that Tragedy must throughout be agitated with the furious passions, or attached by the tender ones. The greater part of it must often be spent in a preparation of these passions, in a gradual working them up to their height, and must thus pass through a great many cooler scenes and a variety of nuances, each of which will admit of a proper degree of poetry, and some the purest poetry. Nay, the boldest metaphors, and even description in its strongest colouring, are the natural expression of some passions, even in their greatest agitation. As to moral reflections, there is sufficient room for them in those cooler scenes that I have mentioned, and they make the greatest ornaments of such parts, that is to say, if they are well joined with the character. If not, they had better be left to the audience, than put into the mouths of a set of professed moralists, who keep a shop of sentences, and reflections, (I mean the chorus) whether they be sages, as you call them, or young girls that learnt them by heart, out of their samples and primers.
There is nothing ungracious or improper in Jane Shore's reflections on the fate of women, but just the contrary, only that they are in rhyme, and in like manner it is far from a beautiful variety when the Chorus makes a transition in the — from plain Iambics to high flown lyric thoughts, expressions and numbers, and when their vagaries are over, relapse again into common sense and conversation. A confidante in skilful hands, might be a character, and have both sense and dignity. That in Maffei's Merope has as much as any Chorus.
The Greeks might sing better than the French, but I'll be burnt if they danced with more grace, expression, or even pathos, yet who ever thought of shedding tears at a French Opera?
If modern music cannot, as you say, express poetry, it is not a perfection, but a deterioration; you might as well say that the perfectionment of poetry would be the rendering it incapable of expressing the passions.
Mason, William, 1724-1797
- The Works of Thomas Gray, 5 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: W. Pickering, 1835-1843, section IV, letter CXVI, vol. iv, 1-5
- 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, Appendix letter I, 467-470
- 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, appendix, vol. ii, 293-298
- 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, 165-170
- 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. 165*, vol. i, 357-360