Thomas Gray to William Mason, 13 January 1758
Why you make no more of writing an Ode, & throwing it into the fire, than of buckling and unbuckling your shoe. I have never read Keysler's book, nor you neither I believe: if you had taken that pains, I am persuaded you would have seen that his Celtic & his Septentrional antiquities are two things entirely distinct. there are indeed some learned Persons, who have taken pains to confound, what Cæsar & Tacitus have taken pains to separate, the old druidical or Celtic belief, & that of the old Germans. but nobody has been so learned as to mix the Celtic religion with that of the Goths. why, Woden himself is supposed not to have been older than Julius Cæsar; but let him have lived, when he pleases, it is certain that neither he, nor his Valhalla, were heard of, till many ages after. this is the doctrine of the Scalds, not of the Bards. these are the songs of Hengist & Horsa, a modern new-fangled belief in comparison of that, wch you ought to profess. after all I shall be sorry to have so many good verses & good chimæras thrown away. might we not be permitted (in that scarcity of Celtic Ideas we labour under) to adopt some of these foreign whimsies, dropping however all mention of Woden, & his Valkhyrian Virgins, &c: to settle this scruple of conscience I must refer you to Dr Warburton. if this should be his opinion, (wch I doubt) then I go on to tell you, (first premising that a dirge is always a funeral service sung over persons already dead) that I would have something striking & uncommon in the measures, the rhythm, & the expression of this chorus. the two former are not remarkable here, & the third is so little antiquated, that murky & dank look like two oldmaids of honour got into a circle of fleering girls & boys. now for particulars; I like the first Stanza, the Image of Death in arms is very fine, & gallant, but I banish fre-born train, & glory & luxury here (not the ideas, but the words) & Liberty, & Freedom's cause, & several small epithets throughout. I do not see how one Person can lift the voice of another Person. the imagery of the second Stanza too is excellent. a Dragon pecks, why a Cock-Sparrow might do as much! in short I am pleased with the Gothic Elysium; don't think I am ignorant about either that or the Hell before, or the twilight. I have been there & have seen it all in Mallet's Introduction to the history of Denmark (it is in French) & many other places. Now they charge &c: looks, as if the Coursers rode upon the Men. a Ghost does not fall. these are all my little objections, but I have a greater. extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous, & musical, is one of the grand beauties of lyric poetry. this I have always aim'd at, & never could attain. the necessity of rhyming is one great obstacle to it: another & perhaps a stronger is that way you have chosen of casting down your first Ideas carelessly & at large, and then clipping them here & there and forming them at leisure. this method after all possible pains will leave behind it in some places a laxity, a diffuseness. the frame of a thought (otherwise well invented, well-turned, & well-placed) is often weaken'd by it. do I talk nonsense? or do you understand me? I am persuaded, what I say, is true in my head, whatever it may be in prose, for I do not pretend to write prose.
I am extremely pleased with your fashionable Ode, & have nothing to find fault with there (only you must say portray' st in the first Stanza; & It looks at best but skin, in the 4th, is not right) I have observed your orders, but I want to shew it every body. pray, tell me, when I may have the credit of doing so. I have never seen a prettier modernism: let it be seen, while it is warm. you are in the road to fame, but don't tell your name at first, whatever you may venture to do afterwards.
Fobus is a treat: desire Ld —sse to kiss him on both ears for me. I forgive Ld B. for taking the Tudors for the Restauration. Adieu, dear M:n & remember me. remember too, that I have neither company, nor pleasure, nor spirits here, & that a letter from you stands in the place of all these.
So you have christen'd Mr. Dayrolle's Child, & my Lady Y:, they say. oh brave Dupp: how comes he to be the Ch: of the Ex:r? what is going to be now?
Henry W. And Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, Humanities and Social Sciences Library, New York Public Library , New York, NY, USA <https://www.nypl.org/about/divisions/berg-collection-english-and-american-literature>
- 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, letter XXX, 125-130
- 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. CLX, vol. ii, 12-15
- 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, 197-200
- 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. 262, vol. ii, 550-552