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Thomas Gray to William Mason, 28 September 1757

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Dear Mason

I have (as I desired St:r to tell you) read over Caractacus twice not with pleasure only, but with emotion. you may say what you will, but the contrivance, the manners, the interests, the passions, & the expression, go beyond the dramatic part of your Elfrida many many leagues. I even say (tho' you will think me a bad judge of this) that the World will like it better. I am struck with the Chorus, who are not there merely to sing & dance, but bear throughout a principal part in the action, & have, (beside the Costume, wch is excellent) as much a character of their own, as any other Person. I am charmed with their priestly pride & obstinacy, when after all is lost, they resolve to confront the Roman General, & spit in his face: but now I am going to tell you, what touches me most, from the beginning. the first opening is greatly improved: the curiosity of Didius is now a very natural reason for dwelling on each particular of the scene before him, nor is the description at all too long. I am glad to find the two young Men are Cartismandua's Sons. they interest me far more. I love People of Condition. they were Men before, that no body knew: one could not make them a bow, if one had met them at a publick place.

I always admired that interruption of the Druids to Evelina, Peace, Virgin, peace &c: & chiefly the abstract Idea personified (to use the words of a Critick) at the end of it. that of Caractacus would save my Queen, &c: & still more that, I know it reverend Fathers, 'tis Heav'ns high will &c: to I've done. begin the rites! this latter is exemplary for the expression (always the great point with me) I do not mean by expression the mere choice of words, but the whole dress, fashion, & arrangement of a thought. here in particular, it is the brokenness, the ungrammatical position, the total subversion of the period, that charms me. all that ushers in the Incantation from Try we yet, what holiness can do I am delighted with in quite another way, for this is pure poetry, as it ought to be, forming the proper transition, & leading on the mind to that still purer poetry, that follows it. You have somehow mistaken my meaning about the sober Sisters: the verb nod before only seem'd to be a verb neuter; now you have made it absolutely such, wch was just my objection to it. but it is easily alter'd, for if the accusative case come first, there is no danger of ambiguity. I read

See! their gold & ebon rod
Where the sober Sisters nod,
And greet in whispers sage & slow.
Snowden mark! 'tis Magick's hour;
Now the mutter'd spell hath power,
Power to rift thy ribs of rock,
To burst thy base with thunder's shock,
But &c: &c:
—— than those, that dwell
In Musick's &c:

you will laugh at my toses & thoses, but they strike my ear better. what Mador sings, must be the finest thing, that ever was wrote; & the next Chorus, where they all go to sleep, must be finer still.

In the beginning of the succeeding Act, I admire the Chorus again, Is it not now the hour, the holy hour, &c: & their evasion of a lie, Sayst thou, proud Boy, &c: & sleep with the unsun'd silver, wch is an example of a dramatic Simile. the sudden appearance of Caractacus, the pretended respect & admiration of Vellinus, & the probability of his story, the distrust of the Druids, & their reasoning with Caractacus, & particularly that, 'Tis meet thou should'st, thou art a King, &c: & Mark me, Prince, the time will come, when Destiny, &c: are well, & happily imagined. a-propos of the last striking passage I have mention'd, I am going to make a digression.

When we treat a subject, where the manners are almost lost in antiquity, our stock of Ideas must needs be small, & nothing betrays our poverty more, than the returning to, & harping frequently on one Image. it was therefore I thought you should omitt some lines before, tho' good in themselves, about the scythed Carr, that the passage now before us might appear with greater lustre, when it came; and in this I see, you have complied with me. but there are other Ideas here & there still, that occur too often, particularly about the Oaks, some of wch I would discard to make way for the rest.

But the subjects I speak off to compensate (& more than compensate) that unavoidable poverty, have one great advantage when they fall into good hands. they leave an unbounded liberty to pure imagination, & fiction (our favourite provinces) where no Critick can molest, or Antiquary gainsay us. & yet (to please me) these fictions must have some affinity, some seeming connection with that little we really know of the character & customs of the People. for example I never heard in my days, that Midnight & the Moon were Sisters, that they carried rods of ebony & gold, or met to whisper on the top of a mountain: but now I could lay my life, it is all true; & do not doubt, it will be found so in some Pantheon of the Druids, that is to be discover'd in the Library at Herculaneum. the Car of Destiny & Death is a very noble invention of the same class, & as far as that goes, is so fine, that it makes me more delicate, than perhaps I should be, about the close of it. Andraste sailing on the wings of Fame, that snatches the wreaths from Oblivion to hang them on her loftiest Amaranth, tho' a clear and beautiful piece of unknown Mythology, has too Greek an air to give me perfect satisfaction.

Now I proceed. the preparation to the Chorus, tho' so much akin to that in the former act, is excellent. the remarks of Evelina & her suspicions of the Brothers, mix'd with a secret inclination to ye younger of them (tho', I think, her part throughout wants retouching) yet please me much. and the contrivance of the following scene much more. Masters of Wisdom, no, &c: I always admired; as I do the rocking stone, & the distress of Elidurus. Evelina's examination of him is a well-invented scene, & will be with a little pains a very touching one: but the introduction of Arviragus is superlative. I am not sure, whether those few lines of his short narrative, My strength repair'd, it boots not, that I tell, &c: do not please me as much, as any thing in the whole Drama. the sullen bravery of Elidurus, the menaces of the Chorus, that Think not, Religion &c: the Trumpet of the Druids; that I'll follow him, tho' in my chains &c:; Hast thou a Brother, no &c: the placability of the Chorus, when they see the motives of Elidurus' obstinacy, give me great contentment. so do the reflections of the Druid on the necessity of lustration, & the reasons for Vellinus' easy escape. but I would not have him seize on a spear, nor issue hasty thro' the Cavern's mouth. why should he not steal away, unmark'd & unmiss'd, till the hurry of passions in those, that should have guarded him, was a little abated? but I chiefly admire the two speeches of Elidurus, Ah Vellinus, is this then &c: and, Ye do gaze on me, Fathers! &c: the manner, in wch the Chorus reply to him, is very fine, but the image at the end wants a little mending. the next scene is highly moving! it is so very good, that I must have it made yet better.

Now for the last Act. I do not know, what you would have, but to me the design & contrivance of it is at least equal to any part of the Whole. the short-lived triumph of the Britons, the address of Caractacus to the Roman Victims, Evelina's discovery of the ambush, the mistake of the Roman fires for the rising Sun, the death of Arviragus, the interview between Didius, & Caractacus, his mourning over his dead Son, his parting speech (in wch you have made all the use of Tacitus, that your Plan would admitt) every thing in short, but that little dispute between Didius & him. 'Tis well. & therefore to encrease that reverence &c: down to, Give me a moment (wch must be omitted, or put in the mouth of the Druids) I approve in the highest degree. if I should find any fault with the last act, it could only be with trifles & little expressions. if you make any alteration, I fear, it will never improve it, I mean, as to the Plan. I send you back the two last sheets, because you bid me. I reserve my nibblings and minutiæ for another day.

Adieu, I am most truly

I have had a printed Ode sent me, call'd Melpomene. pray, who wrote it? I suspect Mr Bedingf:d, Montagu young Pitt, or Delap. do, say, I like it.

Letter ID: letters.0285 (Source: TEI/XML)


Writer: Gray, Thomas, 1716-1771
Writer's age: 40
Addressee: Mason, William, 1724-1797
Addressee's age: 33


Date of composition: 28 September 1757
Date (on letter): Sept: 28. 1757
Calendar: Gregorian


Place of composition: Stoke Poges, United Kingdom
Address (on letter): Stoke


Language: English
Incipit: I have (as I desired St:r to tell you) read over Caractacus twice...
Mentioned: Delap, John
Dodsley, Robert, 1703-1764
Mason, William, 1724-1797

Holding Institution

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 <>
Availability: The original letter is extant and usually available for academic research purposes

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 xxvii, section iv, 251-256
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. Ed. by Thomas James Mathias. London: William Bulmer, 1814, section IV, letter XXVII, vol. i, 359-363
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: J. Mawman, 1816, section IV, letter LXV, vol. ii, 291-296
  • The Letters of Thomas Gray, 2 vols. in one. London: J. Sharpe, 1819, letter XCVIII, vol. ii, 21-26
  • The Works of Thomas Gray, 5 vols. Ed. by John Mitford. London: W. Pickering, 1835-1843, section IV, letter LXXIII, vol. iii, 171-176
  • 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 XXV, 101-109
  • 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. CL, vol. i, 354-365
  • 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, 190-196
  • 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. 250, vol. ii, 527-530