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Thomas Gray to Charles Victor de Bonstetten, [12 April 1770]

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Never did I feel, my dear Bonstetten, to what a tedious length the few short moments of our life may be extended by impatience and expectation, till you had left me: nor ever knew before with so strong a conviction how much this frail body sympathizes with the inquietude of the mind. I am grown old in the compass of less than three weeks, like the Sultan in the Turkish Tales, that did but plunge his head into a vessel of water and take it out again (as the standers-by affirm'd) at the command of a Dervish, and found he had pass'd many years in captivity and begot a large family of children. The strength and spirits that now enable me to write to you, are only owing to your last letter, a temporary gleam of sunshine. Heaven knows, when it may shine again! I did not conceive till now (I own) what it was to lose you, nor felt the solitude and insipidity of my own condition, before I possess'd the happiness of your friendship.

I must cite another Greek writer to you, because it is very much to my purpose. He is describing the character of a Genius truly inclined to Philosophy. It includes (he says) qualifications rarely united in one single mind, quickness of apprehension and a retentive memory; vivacity and application, gentleness and magnanimity: to these he adds an invincible love of truth, and consequently of probity and justice. Such a soul (continues he) will be little inclined to sensual pleasures, and consequently temperate; a stranger to illiberality and avarice being accustom'd to the most extensive views of things and sublimest contemplations, it will contract an habitual greatness, will look down with a kind of disregard on human life and on death, consequently will possess the truest fortitude. Such (says he) is the Mind born to govern the rest of Mankind. But these very endowments so necessary to a soul form'd for philosophy are often the ruin of it (especially when join'd to the external advantages of wealth, nobility, strength and beauty) that is, if it light on a bad soil; and want its proper nurture, which nothing but an excellent education can bestow. In this case he is depraved by the publick example, the assemblies of the people, the courts of justice, the theatres, that inspire it with false opinions, terrify it with false infamy, or elevate it with false applause: and remember, that extraordinary vices and extraordinary virtues are alike the produce of a vigorous Mind: little souls are alike incapable of the one or the other.

If you have ever met with the portrait sketch'd out by Plato, you will know it again: for my part (to my sorrow) I have had that happiness: I see the principal features, and I foresee the dangers with a trembling anxiety. But enough of this, I return to your letter: it proves at least, that in the midst of your new gaieties, I still hold some place in your memory, and (what pleases me above all) it has an air of undissembled sincerity. Go on, my best and amiable Friend, to shew me your heart simply and without the shadow of disguise, and leave me to weep over it (as I now do) no matter whether from joy or sorrow.

Letter ID: letters.0593 (Source: TEI/XML)


Writer: Gray, Thomas, 1716-1771
Writer's age: 53
Addressee: Bonstetten, Charles Victor de, 1745-1832
Addressee's age: 24


Date of composition: [12 April 1770]
Date (on letter): [April 12, 1770]
Calendar: Gregorian


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


Language: English
Incipit: Never did I feel, my dear Bonstetten, to what a tedious length the few...
Mentioned: Turkish Tales

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  • Letters written from various parts of the Continent, between the years 1785 and 1794: containing a variety of anecdotes relative to the present state of literature in Germany, ... With an appendix. In which are included, three letters of Gray's, ... By Frederick Matthisson, translated from the German ..., by Anne Plumptre. London: printed for T. N. Longman and O. Rees, 1799, 533-535
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: J. Mawman, 1816, section V, letter X, vol. ii, 549-551
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 5 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: W. Pickering, 1835-1843, section V, letter X, vol. iv, 178-181
  • 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. CCCLIX, vol. iii, 271-272
  • 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, 296-299
  • 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. 515, vol. iii, 1117-1119