Joseph S. Salemi
Some poets are remembered for one poem only—a poem that has lodged in the public imagination and remained there. “The New Colossus” of Emma Lazarus is an example, and so is Joaquin Miller’s stirring “Columbus.” Whatever other work these two writers have produced has slipped into obscurity, but these poems have guaranteed them a degree of popular immortality.
Thomas Gray is known for two of his poems, which are widely remembered and regularly anthologized. One is “Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard,” and the other is “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat.” The latter piece appeals to the widespread ailurophilia of our society, while the former captures, for all time, the growing eighteenth-century awareness that the lives of ordinary persons might well be just as significant and filled with potential as that of the wealthy and powerful. Gray’s “Elegy” put into limpid verse the emerging populism that would lead to revolutionary changes in the decades following the poem’s first appearance in 1751.
The English have always loved these two poems by Gray, much as they love the bucolic pictures of Constable, or the watercolors and marine paintings of Turner. The poems (like the art works) are accessible, straightforward, enjoyable, and also utterly English, in the sense that they capture a specific English time and place, and the memories associated with them. Since the two poems are available easily, I will not reproduce them here.
Thomas Gray (1716-1771) was the son of a hapless scrivener and a London milliner. The couple had twelve children, of which Gray was the only one to survive infancy. Gray’s father was of a violent and nasty disposition, and this no doubt led his mother to focus all of her love and attention on her sole living child. His unhappy mother (named Dorothy) was the chief support of the family, and her efforts insured that Gray went first to Eton, and then on to Pembroke Hall in Cambridge, where he matriculated at Peterhouse College. Although not particularly comfortable at university, he was an excellent student of the classics, and particularly well versed in Greek. His letters and papers show that he was an avid reader of and astute commentator on Diogenes Laertius, Aeschylus, Pindar, Lysias, Plato, and Aristophanes.
Gray left Cambridge without a degree in 1738, and undertook the Grand Tour, a requisite finishing trip on the Continent that had become standard for young Englishmen following their formal education. Three years of travel in France and Italy ended with his return to Cambridge in 1742, where he completed his degree in 1744. He had already begun circulating his verses privately, and had gained some reputation. As the years passed, and most notably after the great success and popularity of his “Elegy,” Gray became a famous and highly admired poet. The “Elegy” (which was published in many English editions) was translated into Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and almost every modern European language, and made Gray a household name throughout the Western world. There are also a great many surviving contemporary manuscripts of his individual poems, another sure sign of widespread popularity. Gray was even offered the position of Poet Laureate in 1757, which he declined because of his distaste for what we today would call “po-biz” complications.
But what of his poems other than “Elegy” and the ode on the cat? Well, there aren’t many of them. Apart from a few doubtful pieces, John Bradshaw’s excellent Aldine edition of 1894 contains only thirty-five poems, along with five translations and twenty-four Latin poems. Not a great number, to be sure—and in fact Bradshaw’s detailed introduction, biographical essay on Gray, along with copious endnotes and bibliography, take up 195 pages: more space than the poems themselves require.
Let’s consider Gray’s translations. His trip to Italy had brought him into contact with the work of Dante and Tasso, and Bradshaw’s edition prints a long passage from Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata, and another from Canto 33 of Dante’s Inferno (the horrifying story of Count Ugolino). The Tasso section is in heroic couplets, and that from Dante in blank verse. Both show Gray to be a master of smooth, lucid, iambic pentameter in the approved eighteenth-century manner. Consider this passage from Tasso:
Through subteranneous passages they went,
passage from the Ugolino episode, when Dante first confronts Count
his dire food the grisly Felon raised
There are also translations from the Latin of Statius and Propertius, and renderings into Latin from Petrarch and the Anthologia Graeca. There are even some translations from Welsh and Norse. As for Gray’s original Latin compositions, there are over twenty of them, some lengthy. A number of these pieces were no doubt schoolboy compositions done at Eton or Cambridge, but they are very respectable work indeed, and show great ability in the Sapphic stanza. One interesting but unfinished Latin poem is the first book of a very long philosophical disquisition in over two hundred dactylic hexameters on epistemology (De Principiis Cogitandi). The impulse to poeticize abstract philosophical notions that prompted Pope’s Essay on Man was also clearly at work in Thomas Gray. His long English verse essay on “The Alliance of Education and Government” is in the same vein, as well as his Pindaric ode, “The Progress of Poetry.”
I’d like to consider some of Gray’s barely known shorter English poems, since they show a side of him that is satirical and mordant, rather than conventionally pleasant or philosophically ruminant. A poem called “The Candidate, or the Cambridge Courtship” is particularly illustrative. It was written on the occasion of the Earl of Sandwich’s candidacy for a high post at Cambridge University. The Earl (John Montagu) had been at Eton with Gray, but that did not prevent the poet from writing the following attack, which refers to Lord Sandwich by his disgraceful nickname of “Jemmy Twitcher”:
sly Jemmy Twitcher had smugged up his face,
Let me add some gloss and commentary here. The verb to smug up means to put on some sort of cosmetic, while to guttle means to eat or drink noisily. These ten lines describe how the Earl of Sandwich (who lived a rather profligate life) attempted to make himself presentable for the desired position at Cambridge University by the analogy of a less than attractive man going to woo some sisters (PHYSIC and LAW, representing the teaching faculties of those two disciplines). Neither of them is impressed by his appearance. The poem continues with the other sister (standing for the faculty of LAW) adding her views:
don’t know,” says LAW, but methinks for his look,
reference to “Rochester’s book” is to the notorious Earl of Rochester, a
seventeenth-century poet well known for being a libertine and a
scapegrace. “Phyzzy” is simply a nickname used when addressing PHYSIC. A
“Newgate-bird” is a thief or a con-man, named after Newgate Prison in
London. As for a “coronet,” this is a small crown indicative of an
aristocratic title, and “chariot and six” is an elegant coach drawn by a
team of six horses. LAW is telling PHYSIC that she would not marry Jemmy
Twitcher, even if the union brought her a title and great wealth.
DIVINITY heard, between waking and dozing,
The joke here is that the faculty of Divinity is perfectly prepared to have the Earl of Sandwich in a position of authority at Cambridge, despite all his wicked ways. The sister DIVINITY defends this view by alluding to crimes committed by Biblical heroes: Solomon’s multiple concubines, the Israelite theft of Egyptian property, the prophet of Bethel lying, Noah’s drunkenness. She is willing to marry Jemmy Twitcher, probably because of his money and influence. A faculty of Divinity that should be pious is in fact mercenary and unconcerned with moral issues.
Gray’s less than ideal relationship with Cambridge may have prompted the following brief dimeter verses on the various masters of the different colleges in the university:
the Master of Jesus
This is what a command of rhetorical copia can do. You can slate fifteen different colleges in thirty-six lines, by coming up with different ways of rephrasing the judgment “I hate them all.” Despite his connection to Cambridge, Gray never seems to have liked the place very much. But when you don’t like something or somebody you can slam them mercilessly in poetry, and no one can do a thing about it.
Like all good eighteenth-century poets, Gray could produce excellent love poetry when required. The following piece (“Amatory Lines”) is an example—but to my mind, the poem is more of a satiric squib than a genuine expression of a lover’s torment:
beauty, with pleasure surrounded, to languish—
are essentially dactylic lines: a measure not usually employed for
amatory verse. Catalexis compels the lines to end with a feminine rhyme,
and a series of feminine-rhymed couplets inevitably pulls a poem into
comedy or satire. Here, I believe, Gray is simply toying with the
conventional tropes of the heartbroken lover, and the use of a
stereotypical female pseudonym from the sonnet tradition (“Delia”) at
the poem’s conclusion pretty much confirms
Gray had a strong sense of life’s tragedy, and how pain and distress were inevitable concomitants to human existence. In his 100-line poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” which he prefaces with a gloomy epigraph from Menander about human misfortune, Gray gives his reaction upon watching young children at play:
regardless of their doom,
shall the fury Passions tear,
Ambition this shall tempt to rise,
In the vale of years beneath
each his sufferings; all are men,
This poem was written in 1742, and was one of the first of Gray’s compositions to be put in print. The rhyme scheme is unusual, as is the tetrameter-trimeter measure. The piece reveals a foreboding moodiness in Gray, perhaps the result of his own unhappy childhood. Just as his “Elegy” meditates on the forgotten graves of the poor who died in obscurity and oblivion, so does this poem predict the fated sorrows that are decreed for the young, despite their unconsciousness of what is to come. This ingrained melancholy is characteristic of the man, whom several of his contemporaries described as distant, self-sequestered, and pensive.
Gray’s playful side is revealed in “The Characters of the Christ-Cross Row,” a poem that some consider of doubtful attribution to him. But Gray’s close friend Horace Walpole insisted that the piece “has too much merit, and the humor and versification are so much in his style, that I cannot believe it to be written by any other hand.”
The poem’s title refers to the characters of the Roman alphabet as they appear on a “horn-book,” which was a small device used by schoolchildren just learning to read. The horn-book was a thin wooden panel that had on it the entire alphabet (in both capital and lower-case form), and which was covered by a clear sheet of flattened horn to protect it. The letters in the horn-book were called “the Christ-Cross row” because above them a cross was inscribed. Our modern adjective criss-cross (referring to a pattern of intersecting or checkerboard lines) is a derivative of this earlier term. Gray’s “Christ-Cross Row” would today simply be called “the alphabet.”
In his poem Gray takes letters of the alphabet, and in heroic couplets expatiates on each one, using mostly words that begin with that particular letter. By doing so he is able to conjure up a veritable feast of alliteration. Let’s look at what he does with the letter F:
follows fast the fair—and in his rear,
A clew is a ball of yarn or thread, while a furbelow is a ruffle or a flounce. The letter F receives only these four lines, but this is nothing compared with the tour de force Gray whips up for the letter P:
pokes his head out, yet has not a pain;
Note here something that far too many persons presuming to practice poetry have pathetically failed to perceive (I just couldn’t resist). You can write poems about anything or nothing at all! You can simply allow the rhyme scheme and the meter to carry you along. You don’t need a “subject,” or even—God help us—a “message.” I can’t stand it when people talk to me about what they are trying to “get across” to the reader, or what “point” they are trying to make. That isn’t what real poetry is about, dammit! If you think you need to send a message, call Western Union. Don’t write a poem.
What Gray has done here in this poem, is simply taken something not especially important (a letter from the alphabet) and used it as a means of generating verbal beauty, witty structures, and rhythmically perfect idiom. The only connection here is the random letter P. Nothing else. If you think that the poem is silly or useless or not worth your time, well, you’re a jackass Puritan. It’s something perfectly constructed, out of perfect English. That’s all a poem is required to be.
Gray is a poet of many parts. He can handle satire, comedy, love, sympathetic description, bitter attack, and sheer verbal playfulness. His knowledge of foreign tongues, and his ability to translate fluently, are in themselves testimony to his poetic capacity. It would be a shame if he were remembered solely for a graveyard and a drowned cat.
Joseph S. Salemi has published poems, translations, and scholarly articles in over one hundred journals throughout the United States, Canada, and Great Britain. His four collections of poetry are Formal Complaints and Nonsense Couplets, issued by Somers Rocks Press, Masquerade from Pivot Press, and The Lilacs on Good Friday from The New Formalist Press. He has translated poems from a wide range of Greek and Roman authors, including Catullus, Martial, Juvenal, Horace, Propertius, Ausonius, Theognis, and Philodemus. In addition, he has published extensive translations, with scholarly commentary and annotations, from Renaissance texts such as the Faunus poems of Pietro Bembo, The Facetiae of Poggio Bracciolini, and the Latin verse of Castiglione. He is a recipient of a Herbert Musurillo Scholarship, a Lane Cooper Fellowship, an N.E.H. Fellowship, and the 1993 Classical and Modern Literature Award. He is also a four-time finalist for the Howard Nemerov Prize. His upcoming book, Gallery of Ethopaths, is forthcoming in 2019 from Pivot Press.