« PreviousContinue »
the rather to insert it, as it will, on that account, be less suspected of partiality.
Perhaps he was the most learned man in Europe. He was equally acquainted with the elegant and profound parts of science, and that not superficially but thoroughly. He knew every branch of history, both natural* and civil; had read all the original historians of England, France, and Italy; and was a great antiquarian. Criticism, metaphysics, morals, politics, made a principal part of his plan of study; voyages and travels of all sorts were his favourite amusement : and he had a fine taste in painting, prints, architecture, and gardeningst With such a fund of knowledge, his conversation must have been equally instructing and entertaining; but he was also a good man, a well-bred man, a man of virtue and humanity.
* I have given, in the beginning of this Section, an account of the great pains which Mr. Gray bestowed on Natural History. I have since been favoured with a letter from a gentleman, well skilled in that science, who after carefully perusing his interleaved Systema Naturæ of Linnæus, gives me this character of it: “ In the class of animals (the Mammalia) he has concentrated (if I may use the expression) what the old writers and the diffuse Buffon have said upon the subject; he has aniversally adapted the concise language of Linnæus, and has given it an elegance which the Swede had no idea of; but there is little of his own in this class, and it served him only as a common-place; but it is such a common-place that few men but Mr. Gray could form. In the birds and fishes he has most accurately described all that he had an opportunity of examining: bat the volume of insects is the most perfects on the English insects there is certainly nothing so perfect. In regard to the plants, there is little else than the English names and their pative soils extracted from the Species Plantarum of Linnæus. I suppose no man was so complete a master of his system; he has selected the distinguishing marks of each animal, &c. with the greatest judg ment, and, what no man else probably could have done, he has made the German Latin of Linnæus purely classical.”
+ He has disclaimed any skill in this art in the thirty-sixth Letter of the fourth Section, and usually held it in less estimation than I think it deserves, declaring himself to be only charmed with the bolder features of unadorned nature.
There is no character without some speck, some imperfection; and I think the delicacy, or rather effeminacy,* and a visible fastidiousness, br contempt and disdain of his inferiors in science. He also had in some degree that weakness which disgusted Voltaire so much in Mr. Congreve : though he seemed to value others, chiefly according to the progress they had made in knowledge;I yet he could not bear to be considered himself merely as a man of letters; and though without birth, or fortune, or station, his desire was to be looked upon as a private independent gentleman, who read for his amusement. Perhaps it may be said, What signifies so much knowledge, when it produced so little? Is it worth taking so much pains to leave no memorial, but a few poems? But let it be considered, that Mr. Gray was to others, at least innocently employed; to himself, certainly beneficially. His time passed agreeably; he was every day making some new acquisition in science; his mind was enlarged, his heart softened, his virtue strengthened; the world and mankind were shewn to him without a mask; and he was taught to consider every thing as trifling, and unworthy of the attention of a wise man, except the pursuit of knowledge, and the practice of virtue, in that state wherein God hath placed us.”
* This is rightly put : it was rather an affectation in delicacy and effeminacy than the things themselves; and he chose to put on this appearance chiefly before persons whom he did not wish to please.
+ I have often thought that Mr. Congreve might very well be vindicated on this head. It seldom happens that the vanity of authorship continues to the end of a man's days, it usually soon leaves him where it found him; and if he has not something better to build his self-approbation upon than that of being a popular writer, he generally finds himself ill at ease, if respected only on that account. Mr. Congreve was much advanced in years when the young French poet paid him this visit; and, though a man of the world, he might now feel that indifference to literary fame which Mr. Gray, who always led a more retired and philosophic life, certainly felt much earlier. Both of them therefore might reasonably, at times, express some disgust, if their quiet was intruded upon by persons who thought they flattered them by such intrusion.
# It was not on account of their knowledge that he valued mankind. He contemned indeed all pretenders to literature, but he did not select his friends from the literary class, merely because they were literate. To be his friend it was always either necessary that a man should have something better than an improved understanding, or at least that Mr. Gray should believe he had.
FROM MR. GRAY TO MR. WALPOLE.
Cambridge, Feb. 3, 1746. You are so good to inquire after my
usual time of coming to town: it is at a season when even you, the perpetual friend of London, will, I fear, hardly be in it—the middle of June : and I commonly return thither in September; a month when I may more probably find you at home.
Our defeat to be sure is a rueful affair for the honour of the troops; but the Duke is gone it seems with the rapidity of a cannon-bullet to undefeat us again. The common people in town at least know how to be afraid ; but we are such uncommon people here as to have no more sense of danger, than if the battle had been fought when and where the battle of Cannæ was. The perception of these calamities, and of their consequences, that we are supposed to get from books, is so faintly impressed, that we talk of war, famine, and pestilence with no more apprehension than of a broken head, or of a coach overturned between York and Edinburgh. I heard three people, sensible middle-aged men (when the Scotch were said to be at Stamford, and actually were at Derby), talking of hiring a chaise to go to Caxton (a place in the high road) to see the Pretender and the highlanders as they passed.
* The following series of letters, as it forms an interesting part of Mr. Gray's correspondence, could not, with propriety, be omitted in the present edition; and, it being deemed prudent to interfere, as little as possible, with Mr. Mason's arrangements, no method appeared more judicious than that of bringing them before the reader in the shape of an Appendix.—The letters themselves, with the notes affixed, have been taken from the quarto edition of Mr. Walpole's Works.
I can say no more for Mr. Pope (for what you keep in reserve may be worse than all the rest). It is natural to wish the finest writer, one of them, we ever had, should be an honest man. It is for the interest even of that virtue, whose friend he professed himself, and whose beauties he sung, that he should not be found a dirty animal. But, however, this is Mr. Warburton's business, not mine, who may scribble his pen to the stumps, and all in vain, if these facts are so. It is not from what he told me about himself that I thought well of him, but from a humanity and goodness of heart, aye, and greatness of mind, that runs through his private correspondence, not less apparent than are a thousand little vanities and weaknesses mixed with those good qualities; for nobody ever took him for a philosopher.
If you know any thing of Mr. Mann's state of health and happiness, or the motions of Mr. Chute homewards, it will be a particular favour to inform me of them, as I have not heard this half year from them.
I am sincerely yours.