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Richard West to Thomas Gray, [c. 12 April 1742]

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To begin with the conclusion of your letter, which is Greek, I desire that you will quarrel no more with your manner of passing your time. In my opinion it is irreproachable, especially as it produces such excellent fruit; and if I, like a saucy bird, must be pecking at it, you ought to consider that it is because I like it. No una litura I beg you, no unravelling of your web, dear Sir! only pursue it a little further, and then one shall be able to judge of it a little better. You know the crisis of a play is in the first act; its damnation or salvation wholly rests there. But till that first act is over, every body suspends his vote; so how do you think I can form, as yet, any just idea of the speeches in regard to their length or shortness? The connexion and symmetry of such little parts with one another must naturally escape me, as not having the plan of the whole in my head; neither can I decide about the thoughts whether they are wrong or superfluous; they may have some future tendency which I perceive not. The style only was free to me, and there I find we are pretty much of the same sentiment: For you say the affectation of imitating Shakespear may doubtless be carried too far; I say as much and no more. For old words we know are old gold, provided they are well chosen. Whatever Ennius was, I do not consider Shakespear as a dunghill in the least: On the contrary, he is a mine of antient ore, where all our great modern poets have found their advantage. I do not know how it is, but his old expressions have more energy in them than ours, and are even more adapted to poetry; certainly, where they are judiciously and sparingly inserted, they add a certain grace to the composition; in the same manner as Poussin gave a beauty to his pictures by his knowledge in the antient proportions: But should he, or any other painter, carry the imitation too far, and neglect that best of models Nature, I am afraid it would prove a very flat performance. To finish this long criticism: I have this further notion about old words revived, (is not this a pretty way of finishing?) I think them of excellent use in tales; they add a certain drollery to the comic, and a romantic gravity to the serious, which are both charming in their kind; and this way of charming Dryden understood very well. One need only read Milton to acknowledge the dignity they give the Epic. But now comes my opinion that they ought to be used in Tragedy more sparingly, than in most kinds of poetry. Tragedy is designed for public representation, and what is designed for that should certainly be most intelligible. I believe half the audience that come to Shakespear's plays do not understand the half of what they hear.–But finissons enfin.–Yet one word more.–You think the ten or twelve first lines the best, now I am for the fourteen last; add, that they contain not one word of antientry.

I rejoice you found amusement in Joseph Andrews. But then I think your conceptions of Paradise a little upon the Bergerac. Les Lettres du Seraphim R. a Madame la Cherubinesse de Q. What a piece of extravagance would there be!

And now you must know that my body continues weak and enervate. And for my animal spirits, they are in perpetual fluctuation: Some whole days I have no relish, no attention for any thing; at other times I revive, and am capable of writing a long letter, as you see; and though I do not write speeches, yet I translate them. When you understand what speech, you will own that it is a bold and perhaps a dull attempt. In three words, it is prose, it is from Tacitus, it is of Germanicus. Peruse, perpend, pronounce.

Letter ID: letters.0120 (Source: TEI/XML)


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


Date of composition: [c. 12 April 1742]
Date (on letter): [April]
Calendar: Julian


Place of composition: [Pope's, United Kingdom]


Language: English
Incipit: To begin with the conclusion of your letter, which is Greek...
Mentioned: Agrippina, a Tragedy
Bergerac, Cyrano de
Dryden, John
Fielding, Henry
Milton, John
Shakespeare, William

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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 v, section iii, 142-144
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. Ed. by Thomas James Mathias. London: William Bulmer, 1814, section III, letter V, vol. i, 261-263
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: J. Mawman, 1816, section III, letter V, vol. ii, 130-132
  • The Letters of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. in one. London: J. Sharpe, 1819, letter LIII, vol. i, 119-122
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 5 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: W. Pickering, 1835-1843, section III, letter V, vol. ii, 155-158
  • Gray and his Friends: Letters and Relics, in great part hitherto unpublished. Ed. by Duncan C. Tovey. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1890, section II, letter no. 37, 160-163
  • 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. 145, vol. ii, 30-33
  • 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. 104, vol. i, 194-195