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Select Poems of Thomas Gray

Select Poems of Thomas Gray - Thomas Gray, William J. Rolfe,  A.M.

This is a "critical edition" by the American William J. Rolfe from 1876 of a selection of the poems of Thomas Gray (1716-1771), a deliciously artful pre-romantic poet who was loathe to release his few poems to the public, publishing only thirteen poems in his lifetime. His most famous poem is the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, written over a period of 8 years. It begins with a marvelous setting of the scene:


The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.


Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight, 
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:


Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such, as wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.

The poet then reveals that he is standing near a modest country churchyard (graveyard) - believed to be that of Stoke-Poges - in which are buried the ordinary run of folks, quickly lost from memory. Gray hastens to warn the disdainful that


The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike th' inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.


and, if they are banking upon leaving some monument to their lives,


Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour's voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

Moreover, he goes on to suggest that, except for circumstances, these simple folk could have been every bit the marvel the reader may consider himself to be:


Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands, that the rod of empire might have sway'd,
Or wak'd to ecstasy the living lyre.


But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne'er unroll;
Chill Penury repress'd their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.


While speaking up for these people, Gray gave us a number of phrases which have since entered the language, for example:


Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learn'd to stray;
Along the cool sequester'd vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.


He proceeds to consider himself:


For thee, who, mindful of th' unhonour'd dead,
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate,
 If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,


and imagines being buried among the forgotten in that little churchyard.


Haunted by death though he was, not all was lugubrious. Consider this mock elegy to Horace Walpole's cat, wherein yet other famous phrases enter the English language and the sadness of the incident is buried beneath a thick golden cloth brocaded with wry English rhetoric:


                          On The Death of a Favourite Cat,
                         Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes


'Twas on a lofty vase's side,
Where China's gayest art had dyed
The azure flowers that blow;
Demurest of the tabby kind,
The pensive Selima, reclin'd,
Gaz'd on the lake below.


Her conscious tail her joy declar'd:
The fair round face, the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
Her coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purr'd applause.


Still had she gaz'd; but midst the tide
Two angel forms were seen to glide,
The Genii of the stream:
Their scaly armour's Tyrian hue
Through richest purple to the view
Betray'd a golden gleam.


The hapless nymph with wonder saw:
A whisker first, and then a claw,
With many an ardent wish,
She stretch'd in vain to reach the prize.
What female heart can gold despise?
What Cat's averse to fish?


Presumptuous maid! with looks intent
Again she stretch'd, again she bent,
Nor knew the gulf between.
(Malignant Fate sat by, and smil'd.)
The slippery verge her feet beguil'd,
She tumbled headlong in.


Eight times emerging from the flood,
She mew'd to every watery God,
Some speedy aid to send.
No Dolphin came, no Nereid stirr'd:
Nor cruel Tom, nor Susan heard.
A favourite has no friend!


From hence, ye beauties, undeceiv'd,
Know, one false step is ne'er retriev'd,
And be with caution bold.
Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts is lawful prize,
Nor all that glisters gold.

Gray was offered the position of Poet Laureate - he turned it down. He is buried next to his mother in that little churchyard of Stokes-Poges.


This is the sort of poetry which was forced upon unwilling students in high school by teachers who were either completely out of their depth or had been broken down by the years and decades of trying to offer some of the finest poetry in the English language to the sullen and resentful.(*) (Is this going to be on the test?) The only texts I remember from my high school years with any positive overtones were a brief excursion into Sterne's Tristram Shandy and a full step by pedantic step (Can you find the anachronisms?) study of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, where, despite the "instruction" and the obligatory memorization of Mark Anthony's speech, the text still reached me. All the poetry I considered to be rubbish. Callow, foolish youth, indeed...


The full text is available gratis at Gutenberg, complete with 19th century illustrations:



(*) How I now sympathize with the latter teachers!