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Thomas Gray to Richard West, [8 April 1742]

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You are the first who ever made a Muse of a Cough; to me it seems a much more easy task to versify in one's sleep, (that indeed you were of old famous for) than for want of it. Not the wakeful nightingale (when she had a cough) ever sung so sweetly. I give you thanks for your warble, and wish you could sing yourself to rest. These wicked remains of your illness will sure give way to warm weather and gentle exercise; which I hope you will not omit as the season advances. Whatever low spirits and indolence, the effect of them, may advise to the contrary, I pray you add five steps to your walk daily for my sake; by the help of which, in a month's time, I propose to set you on horseback.

I talked of the Dunciad as concluding you had seen it; if you have not, do you choose I should get and send it you? I have myself, upon your recommendation, been reading Joseph Andrews. The incidents are ill laid and without invention; but the characters have a great deal of nature, which always pleases even in her lowest shapes. Parson Adams is perfectly well; so is Mrs. Slipslop, and the story of Wilson; and throughout he shews himself well read in Stage-Coaches, Country Squires, Inns, and Inns of Court. His reflections upon high people and low people, and misses and masters, are very good. However the exaltedness of some minds (or rather as I shrewdly suspect their insipidity and want of feeling or observation) may make them insensible to these light things, (I mean such as characterize and paint nature) yet surely they are as weighty and much more useful than your grave discourses upon the mind, the passions, and what not. Now as the paradisaical pleasures of the Mahometans consist in playing upon the flute and lying with Houris, be mine to read eternal new romances of Marivaux and Crebillon.

You are very good in giving yourself the trouble to read and find fault with my long harangues. Your freedom (as you call it) has so little need of apologies, that I should scarce excuse your treating me any otherwise; which, whatever compliment it might be to my vanity, would be making a very ill one to my understanding. As to matter of stile, I have this to say: The language of the age is never the language of poetry; except among the French, whose verse, where the thought or image does not support it, differs in nothing from prose. Our poetry, on the contrary, has a language peculiar to itself; to which almost every one, that has written, has added something by enriching it with foreign idioms and derivatives: Nay sometimes words of their own composition or invention. Shakespear and Milton have been great creators this way; and no one more licentious than Pope or Dryden, who perpetually borrow expressions from the former. Let me give you some instances from Dryden, whom every body reckons a great master of our poetical tongue. — Full of museful mopeings–unlike the trim of love–a pleasant beverage–a roundelay of love–stood silent in his mood–with knots and knares deformed–his ireful mood–in proud array–his boon was granted–and disarray and shameful rout–wayward but wise–furbished for the field–the foiled dodderd oaks–disherited–smouldring flames–retchless of laws–crones old and ugly–the beldam at his side–the grandam-hag–villanize his Father's fame. — But they are infinite: And our language not being a settled thing (like the French) has an undoubted right to words of an hundred years old, provided antiquity have not rendered them unintelligible. In truth, Shakespear's language is one of his principal beauties; and he has no less advantage over your Addisons and Rowes in this, than in those other great excellencies you mention. Every word in him is a picture. Pray put me the following lines into the tongue of our modern Dramatics:

But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass:
I, that am rudely stampt, and want love's majesty
To strut before a wanton ambling nymph:
I, that am curtail'd of this fair proportion,
Cheated of feature by dissembling nature,
Deform'd, unfinish'd, sent before my time
Into this breathing world, scarce half made up–

And what follows. To me they appear untranslatable; and if this be the case, our language is greatly degenerated. However, the affectation of imitating Shakespear may doubtless be carried too far; and is no sort of excuse for sentiments ill-suited, or speeches ill-timed, which I believe is a little the case with me. I guess the most faulty expressions may be these–silken son of dalliancedrowsier pretensions–wrinkled beldams–arched the hearer's brow and riveted his eyes in fearful extasie. These are easily altered or omitted: and indeed if the thoughts be wrong or superfluous, there is nothing easier than to leave out the whole. The first ten or twelve lines are, I believe, the best; and as for the rest, I was betrayed into a good deal of it by Tacitus; only what he has said in five words, I imagine I have said in fifty lines: Such is the misfortune of imitating the inimitable. Now, if you are of my opinion, una litura may do the business better than a dozen; and you need not fear unravelling my web. I am a sort of spider; and have little else to do but spin it over again, or creep to come other place and spin there. Alas! for one who has nothing to do but amuse himself, I believe my amusements are as little amusing as most folks. But no matter; it makes the hours pass, and is better than ἐν ἀμαθίᾳ καὶ ἀμουσίᾳ καταβιῶναι.

Letter ID: letters.0119 (Source: TEI/XML)


Writer: Gray, Thomas, 1716-1771
Writer's age: 25
Addressee: West, Richard, 1716-1742
Addressee's age: 26[?]


Date of composition: [8 April 1742]
Date (on letter): [April, Thursday]
Calendar: Julian


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


Language: English
Incipit: You are the first who ever made a Muse of a Cough;...
Mentioned: Agrippina, a Tragedy
Addison, Joseph
Crébillon fils
Dryden, John
Fielding, Henry
Milton, John
Pope, Alexander
Rowe, Nicholas
Shakespeare, William

Holding Institution

Availability: The original letter is unlocated, a copy, transcription, or published version survives

Print Versions

  • The Poems of Mr. Gray. To which are prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings by W[illiam]. Mason. York: printed by A. Ward; and sold by J. Dodsley, London; and J. Todd, York, 1775, letter iv, section iii, 138-141
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. Ed. by Thomas James Mathias. London: William Bulmer, 1814, section III, letter IV, vol. i, 257-260
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: J. Mawman, 1816, section III, letter IV, vol. ii, 126-129
  • The Letters of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. in one. London: J. Sharpe, 1819, letter LII, vol. i, 116-119
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 5 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: W. Pickering, 1835-1843, section III, letter IV, vol. ii, 150-155
  • Gray and his Friends: Letters and Relics, in great part hitherto unpublished. Ed. by Duncan C. Tovey. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1890, section II, letter fragment, 159-160
  • 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. LII, vol. i, 96-100
  • 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, 132-135
  • 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. 143, vol. ii, 25-29
  • 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. 103, vol. i, 191-194