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The poet Gray was born in noisy Cornhill on a December day in 1716. His father, a money-scrivener, was a bad man, so violent in temper that Mrs. Gray, separating from him, joined her sister in opening a shop in Cornbill for the sale of Indian goods. To the love of this good mother Thomas Gray owed his superior education. Her brother being a master at Eton, the lad went there to school, and found among his class-fellows young Horace Walpole, with whom he soon struck up a close friendship. Many a time, no doubt, Walpole, Gray, and West, another chum of the scrivener's son, did their Latin verses together, and many a golden summer evening they passed merrily with bat and ball in the meadows by the smoothly flowing Thames.
In 1735 he entered as a pensioner at Peter-house, Cambridge, his uncle's college. And for three years he lingered out his life there, chained to a place whose laws and lectures he felt to be most irksome. Mathematics were his especial disgust; but the classics he loved with no common love, and studied with no common zeal. His school-fellow Walpole was at Cambridge too; and when in 1738 Gray left without a degree, the two friends agreed to set out on a Continental tour. Together they saw France and Italy; the poet wandering with delight amid the ruins of the great past; the connoisseur ransacking the old curiosity shops of Rome and Florence in search of rare pictures and choice medallions, such as in later days he piled up in dainty confusion under the roof of Strawberry (15)
322 A HERMIT AT CAMBRIDGE.
Hill. Their tastes being thus dissimilar, it is no wonder that Walpole and Gray quarrelled and separated after some time. Gray returned to England, and, upon his father's death, he settled down at Cambridge, where most of his after life was spent. It has been already said that he hated the ways of the place, which, in his opinion, never looked so well as when it was empty; but there were books in abundance on the shelves of its noble libraries, and their silent yet speaking charms—he knew no other love— bound the poet for life to the banks of the Cam. Here, like a monk in his cell, he read and wrote untiringly. A glance round his study would, no doubt, have shown his tastes. Between the leaves of a well-used Plato or Aristophanes there might often have been found, drying for his hortus siccus, some rare wild flowers, which he had gathered in the meadows by the Cam. Books on heraldry and architecture shouldered the trim classics on his loaded book-shelves, while such things as sketches of ivied ruins, a lumbering suit of rusty armour, or a collection of curious daggers and pistols hanging on the crowded walls, most probably displayed the antiquarian tastes of the inmate. A quiet life, like that the poet led, has almost no history. Besides such salient points as the appearance of his various works, there are only three events worthy of notice in his later years. These events were—his removal in 1756 to Pembroke Hall from Peter-house, caused by the annoyance of some madcap students; his refusal in 1757 of the laurel, vacant by Cibber's death; and his appointment in 1768 to the professorship of Modern History at Cambridge. His chief trips were to London, where he lodged near the British Museum, and explored its literary treasures with a student's patient love; to Scotland, where he met the poet Beattie; to the English lakes in 1769; and to Wales in the autumn before his death. This sad event took place in 1771. He had been breaking up for many months, when gout, settling in his stomach, cut him off with a sudden attack. Gray is best known by his famous Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard, whose solemn stanzas roll out their muffled music, like the subdued tolling of a great minster bell. Corrected and re
GRAY's odes. 323
torrected line by line, as were all this poet's works, it yet shows no sign of elaboration—its melancholy grace is the perfection of art. There are writers with whom a slovenly style stands for nature, and rude unpruned stanzas for the fairest growths of poetry. Gray was not of these. His classically formed taste was too pure and too fastidious to be content with anything but carefully polished verses: and we therefore have to thank him for giving us, in the “Elegy,” as noble a specimen of grave and scholarly English as our literature affords. This poem was published in 1750.
But the triumph of his genius may be viewed in his two magnificent Odes, The Progress of Poesy, and The Bard. The subject of the latter is the terrific malison of a Welsh bard, escaped from the massacre at Conway, who, standing on an inaccessible crag, prophesies the doom of the Norman line of kings, and the glories of the Tudors. This done, he springs from the rock to perish in the foaming flood below. The chief facts of early English history have never been so finely woven into poetry as in “The Bard.”
Among his other poems we may notice his Ode to Spring; Hymn to Adversity; his much admired Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton; and some light, humorous verses, on Mr. Walpole's Cat. His chief prose writings are Letters, written in a clear, elegant, and usten most picturesque style.
OPENING STANZAS OF THE “ELEGY.”
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
SPECIMEN OF GRAY'S VERSE.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
DAVID HOME, the first of his family to write himself Hume, was a cadet of a distinguished Scottish house, and was born at Edinburgh in April 1711. After passing through the classes in the College of his native city, he nominally began the study of the law; but, as he tells us himself, he was devouring Cicero and Virgil, while his friends fancied he was poring over Voet and Vinnius. Literature ousted law, and commerce had no better fortune. A few months among the sugar-houses of Bristol, far from weaning young Hume from his literary tastes, only deepened his love of study, and his desire to be a man of letters.
From Bristol he crossed to France, where he wrote his first work, A Treatise of Human Nature, published in London in 1738. It was an utter failure, not having achieved even the distinction of being abused. His second work, Moral and Philosophical Essays, composed partly in Scotland, met with tolerable success.
All this time he had been living on the slender means he got from home. But in 1745 an occupation, well paid to make up for its unpleasantness, fell in his way. He became the companion of the young Marquis of Annandale, whose mind was somewhat affected. Having held this charge for about a year, Hume accepted the position of secretary to General St. Clair, in whose suite he visited Vienna and Turin, seeing foreign life under most favourable auspices, and mixing in the first Continental circles.