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AMONG the most finished and classical compositions in English poetry, we must certainly rank the Poems of THOMAS GRAY. Few as they are, the mere triflings of a man of letters, who prided himself less on being a scholar, than on sustaining the easy, desultory character of a gentleman, they have sufficed to place his fame above all danger from either the petulance of criticism, or the caprices of taste. What Dr. Johnson admitted with regard to the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, may, without any restriction, be applied to his works: the merit of their author is now so generally appreciated, the public suffrages concurring with the competent decision of criticism, that it has become "vain to blame," if not "useless to praise him."
The Elegy is, perhaps, the most popular poem in the language. It is the favourite recitation of every school boy; and he who has once committed it to memory, is not willing ever to forget it. Hackneyed
as it is, and, what is still worse for the effect of a poem, imitated and parodied as it has been times without number, it still retains its original power to call up those pleasing and pensive associations which the charm of the sentiment, and the perfect grace of the versification, are adapted to excite. While his other productions slowly gained the public attention, the Elegy, when it first found its way into some of the periodical publications, was read and copied with avidity; and upon its being subsequently printed, speedily ran through eleven editions. It was translated into Latin verse by three different classical scholars, and five have translated it into Greek. Gray himself expressed surprise at the rapidity of the sale, and indignant at the neglect with which, what he deemed superior productions, his Odes, had been received, attributed the popularity of the Elegy entirely to its subject, saying, “that the public would have received it as well had it been written in prose." In this he deceived himself. The Elegy is not the most perfect of his poems, nor does it display the most original genius. It unquestionably owed much of the interest it immediately excited, to its being accommodated, in its turn of thought and moral, to the capacity of childhood, and to the universal instinct of human nature. But then, it is in imparting this permanent charm to common place sentiments, and in rescuing back to poetry, subjects which have become unaffecting from their mere triteness and familiarity, that the power of real genius is sometimes
most unequivocally exhibited.
In his Elegy, Gray has, in this respect, achieved what no second writer has been able to succeed in doing; and his merit cannot be shewn more strikingly by any circumstance than by the vast distance at which he has been able to place all his imitators.
But in fact, though the Elegy is less elaborated than several of his poems, there are other causes to which it owes its deserved popularity. This, more than any other of his works, was probably written under the influence of strong feeling, and of the vivid impressions of the beautiful in the scenery of nature. The date of its composition, although it was not finished till some years after, is the period at which his mind was overspread with melancholy, in consequence of the loss of his amiable and accomplished friend, West. The scenes amid which it was composed, were well adapted to sooth and cherish that contemplative sadness which, when the wounds of grief are healing, it is a luxury to indulge. In the secluded and romantic church-yard where his remains are, in fulfilment of his own request, deposited, there still stands a majestic yewtree, which would seem to claim, on the ground of high probability, to be viewed as the very one described by the poet. A monument consisting of a large stone sarcophagus on a lofty base, erected to his memory in Stoke Park, contiguous to the spot, bears record that he is buried amid the scenes which