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Thomas Gray: Far From the Madding Crowd

With the new film adaptation of “Far from the Madding Crowd”, Thomas Hardy’s novel gets a new look and a new audience, but where did this Victorian author get his inspiration, and what does this have to do with Jane Austen?

First page of Dodsley's illustrated edition of Gray's Elegy with illustration by Richard Bentley
First page of Dodsley’s illustrated edition of Gray’s Elegy with illustration by Richard Bentley

Thomas Gray (26 December 1716 – 30 July 1771) was an English poet, letter-writer, classical scholar and professor at Cambridge University. He is widely known for his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751. This poem includes the line that inspired Hardy, “Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife, Their sober wishes never learned to stray;” Hardy, however, was far from the first to be impressed by the work, and many imitations of this poem both serious and parody were published during Jane’s lifetime alone. Jane Austen’s brother James, was often considered the “author” of the family and while at Oxford penned several (unpublished) poems “in the style of” Thomas Gray.

What was it about this poet that appealed to so many and gave rise to “probably still today the best-known and best-loved poem in English.”*

Portrait by John Giles Eccardt, 1747–1748
Portrait by John Giles Eccardt, 1747–1748

Thomas Gray was born in Cornhill, London. His father, Philip Gray, was a scrivener and his mother, Dorothy Antrobus, was a milliner He was the fifth of 12 children, and the only child of Philip and Dorothy Gray to survive infancy. He lived with his mother after she left his abusive and mentally unwell father. Gray’s mother once saved his life by opening one of his veins with her hands.

Gray’s mother paid for him to go to Eton College where two of his uncles worked: Robert and William Antrobus. Robert became Gray’s first teacher and helped inspire in Gray a love for botany and observational science. Gray’s other uncle, William, became his tutor. He recalled his schooldays as a time of great happiness, as is evident in his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. Gray was a delicate and scholarly boy who spent his time reading and avoiding athletics. He lived in his uncle’s household rather than at college. He made three close friends at Eton: Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole; Thomas Ashton, and Richard West, son of another Richard West who was briefly Lord Chancellor of Ireland. The four prided themselves on their sense of style, sense of humour, and appreciation of beauty. They were called the “quadruple alliance.”

In 1734 Gray went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He found the curriculum dull. He wrote letters to friends listing all the things he disliked: the masters (“mad with Pride”) and the Fellows (“sleepy, drunken, dull, illiterate Things.”) Intended by his family for the law, he spent most of his time as an undergraduate reading classical and modern literature, and playing Vivaldi and Scarlatti on the harpsichord for relaxation.

In 1738 he accompanied his old school-friend Walpole on his Grand Tour of Europe, possibly at Walpole’s expense. The two fell out and parted in Tuscany, because Walpole wanted to attend fashionable parties and Gray wanted to visit all the antiquities. They were reconciled a few years later. It was Walpole who later helped publish Gray’s poetry. When Gray sent his most famous poem, “Elegy,” to Walpole, Walpole sent off the poem as a manuscript and it appeared in different magazines. Gray then published the poem himself and received the credit he was due.

Gray began seriously writing poems in 1742, mainly after his close friend Richard West died. He moved to Cambridge and began a self-imposed programme of literary study, becoming one of the most learned men of his time, though he claimed to be lazy by inclination. Gray was a brilliant bookworm, a quiet, abstracted, dreaming scholar, often afraid of the shadows of his own fame. He became a Fellow first of Peterhouse, and later of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Gray moved to Pembroke after the students at Peterhouse played a prank on him.

Gray spent most of his life as a scholar in Cambridge, and only later in his life did he begin traveling again. Although he was one of the least productive poets (his collected works published during his lifetime amount to fewer than 1,000 lines), he is regarded as the foremost English-language poet of the mid-18th century. In 1757, he was offered the post of Poet Laureate, which he refused. Gray was so self-critical and fearful of failure that he published only thirteen poems during his lifetime. He once wrote that he feared his collected works would be “mistaken for the works of a flea”. Walpole said that “He never wrote anything easily but things of Humour.” Gray came to be known as one of the “Graveyard poets” of the late 18th century, along with Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, and Christopher Smart. Gray perhaps knew these men, sharing ideas about death, mortality, and the finality and sublimity of death.

In 1762, the Regius chair of Modern History at Cambridge, a sinecure which carried a salary of £400, fell vacant after the death of Shallet Turner, and Gray’s friends lobbied the government unsuccessfully to secure the position for him. In the event, Gray lost out to Lawrence Brockett, but he secured the position in 1768 after Brockett’s death.

It is believed that Gray began writing his masterpiece, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, in the graveyard of St Giles parish church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, in 1742. After several years of leaving it unfinished, he completed it in 1750. The poem was a literary sensation when published by Robert Dodsley in February 1751 . Its reflective, calm and stoic tone was greatly admired, and it was pirated, imitated, quoted and translated into Latin and Greek; it is still one of the most popular and most frequently quoted poems in the English language. In 1759 during the Seven Years War, before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, British General James Wolfe is said to have recited it to his officers, adding: “Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec tomorrow”.

The Elegy was recognised immediately for its beauty and skill. It contains many phrases which have entered the common English lexicon, either on their own or as quoted in other works. These include:

  • Full many a flower is born to blush unseen”
  • “The Paths of Glory”
  • “Celestial fire”
  • “Some mute inglorious Milton”
  • “Far from the Madding Crowd”
  • “The unlettered muse”
  • “Kindred spirit”

“Elegy” contemplates such themes as death and afterlife. These themes foreshadowed the upcoming Gothic movement. It is suggested that perhaps Gray found inspiration for his poem by visiting the gravesite of his aunt, Mary Antrobus. The aunt was buried at the graveyard by the St. Giles’ churchyard, which he and his mother would visit. This is the same gravesite where Gray himself was later buried.

Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, Illustrations by William Blake
Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, Illustrations by William Blake

Gray also wrote light verse, including Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, a mock elegy concerning Horace Walpole’s cat. After setting the scene with the couplet “What female heart can gold despise? What cat’s averse to fish?”, the poem moves to its multiple proverbial conclusion: “a fav’rite has no friend”, “[k]now one false step is ne’er retrieved” and “nor all that glisters, gold”. (Walpole later displayed the fatal china vase (the tub) on a pedestal at his house in Strawberry Hill.)

Gray’s surviving letters also show his sharp observation and playful sense of humour. He is well known for his phrase, “where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” The phrase, from Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, is possibly one of the most misconstrued phrases in English literature. Gray is not promoting ignorance, but is reflecting with nostalgia on a time when he was allowed to be ignorant, his youth (1742). It has been asserted that the Ode also abounds with images which find “a mirror in every mind”. This was stated by Samuel Johnson who said of the poem, “I rejoice to concur with the common reader … The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo” Indeed, Gray’s poem follows the style of the mid-century literary endeavor to write of “universal feelings.” Samuel Johnson also said of Gray that he spoke in “two languages”. He spoke in the language of “public” and “private” and according to Johnson, he should have spoken more in his private language as he did in his “Elegy” poem.

Gray considered his two Pindaric odes, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, as his best works. Pindaric odes are to be written with fire and passion, unlike the calmer and more reflective Horatian odes such as Ode on a distant Prospect of Eton College. The Bard tells of a wild Welsh poet cursing the Norman king Edward I after his conquest of Wales and prophesying in detail the downfall of the House of Plantagenet. It is melodramatic, and ends with the bard hurling himself to his death from the top of a mountain.

The Hours by Maria Cosway, an illustration to Gray's poem Ode on the Spring, referring to the lines "Lo! where the rosy-bosomed Hours, Fair Venus' train, appear"
The Hours by Maria Cosway, an illustration to Gray’s poem Ode on the Spring, referring to the lines “Lo! where the rosy-bosomed Hours, Fair Venus’ train, appear”

When his duties allowed, Gray travelled widely throughout Britain to places such as Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and Scotland in search of picturesque landscapes and ancient monuments. These elements were not generally valued in the early 18th century, when the popular taste ran to classical styles in architecture and literature, and most people liked their scenery tame and well-tended. Some have seen Gray’s writings on this topic, and the Gothic details that appear in his Elegy and The Bard as the first foreshadowing of the Romantic movement that dominated the early 19th century, when William Wordsworth and the other Lake poets taught people to value the picturesque, the sublime, and the Gothic. Gray combined traditional forms and poetic diction with new topics and modes of expression, and may be considered as a classically focused precursor of the romantic revival.

Gray’s connection to the Romantic poets is vexed. In the prefaces to the 1800 and 1802 editions of Wordsworth’s and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth singled out Gray’s, “Sonnet on the Death of Richard West,” to exemplify what he found most objectionable in poetry, declaring it was

“Gray, who was at the head of those who, by their reasonings, have attempted to widen the space of separation betwixt prose and metrical composition, and was more than any other man curiously elaborate in the structure of his own poetic diction.”

Gray wrote in a letter to West, that “the language of the age is never the language of poetry.”

"Gray's Monument" by UKgeofan at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gray%27s_Monument.JPG#/media/File:Gray%27s_Monument.JPG
“Gray’s Monument” by UKgeofan at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

Gray died on 30 July 1771 in Cambridge, and was buried beside his mother in the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the setting for his famous Elegy. His grave can still be seen there.

 From Wikipedia.com

*Griffin, Dustin (2002), Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge University Press

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Isaac Watts: Author of Joy to the World

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

The words are by English hymn writer Isaac Watts, based on Psalm 98 in the Bible. The song was first published in 1719 in Watts’ collection; The Psalms of David: Imitated in the language of the New Testament, and applied to the Christian state and worship. Watts wrote the words of “Joy to the World” as a hymn glorifying Christ’s triumphant return at the end of the age, rather than a song celebrating His first coming. Only the second half of Watts’ lyrics are still used today.

The music was adapted and arranged to Watts’ lyrics by Lowell Mason in 1839 from an older melody which was then believed to have originated from Handel, not least because the theme of the refrain (And heaven and nature sing…) appears in the orchestra opening and accompaniment of the recitative Comfort ye from Handel’s Messiah, and the first four notes match the beginning of the choruses Lift up your heads and Glory to God from the same oratorio. However, Handel did not compose the entire tune.The name “Antioch” is generally used for the tune.

Isaac WattsIsaac Watts (17 July 1674 – 25 November 1748) was an English hymnwriter, theologian and logician. A prolific and popular hymnwriter, he was recognised as the “Father of English Hymnody”, credited with some 750 hymns. Many of his hymns remain in use today, and have been translated into many languages.

Born in Southampton, England, in 1674, Watts was brought up in the home of a committed religious Nonconformist — his father, also Isaac Watts, had been incarcerated twice for his controversial views. At King Edward VI School (where one of the houses is now named “Watts” in his honour), Watts learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew.

From an early age, Watts displayed a propensity for rhyme. Once, he had to explain how he came to have his eyes open during prayers:

A little mouse for want of stairs
ran up a rope to say its prayers.

Receiving corporal punishment for this, he cried:

O father, father, pity take
And I will no more verses make.

Watts, unable to go to either Oxford or Cambridge on account of his non-conformity, went to the Dissenting Academy at Stoke Newington in 1690, and much of his life centred around that village, which is now part of Inner London.

His education led him to the pastorate of a large independent chapel in London, where he found himself in the position of helping trainee preachers, despite his poor health. Taking work as a private tutor, Watts lived with the Nonconformist Hartopp family at Fleetwood House, on Church Street in Stoke Newington, and later in the household of their immediate neighbours Sir Thomas Abney and Lady Mary. Isaac Watts held religious opinions that were more non-denominational or ecumenical than was at that time common for a Nonconformist; he had a greater interest in promoting education and scholarship than preaching for any particular ministry.

On the death of Sir Thomas Abney, Watts moved permanently with his widow and her remaining unmarried daughter, Elizabeth, to Abney House in Stoke Newington, a property that Mary had inherited from her brother. He lived there from 1748 to his death. The grounds at Abney Park led down to an island heronry in the Hackney Brook, where he sought inspiration for the many books and hymns he wrote.

Watts died in Stoke Newington in 1748, and was buried in Bunhill Fields, having left an extensive legacy of hymns, treatises, educational works and essays. His work was influential amongst Nonconformist independents and early religious revivalists, such as Philip Doddridge, who dedicated his best known work to Watts. On his death, Isaac Watts’ papers were given to Yale University in then-colonial Connecticut.

Sacred music scholar Stephen Marini (2003) describes the ways in which Watts contributed to English hymnody. Notably, Watts led the way in the inclusion in worship of “original songs of Christian experience”; that is, new poetry. The older tradition limited itself to the poetry of the Bible, notably the Psalms. This stemmed from the teachings of the 16th century Reformation leader John Calvin, who initiated the practice of creating verse translations of the Psalms in the vernacular for congregational singing. Watts’ introduction of extra-Biblical poetry opened up a new era of Protestant hymnody as other poets followed in his path.

Watts also introduced a new way of rendering the Psalms in verse for church services. The Psalms were originally written in Biblical Hebrew within the religion of Judaism. Later, they were adopted into Christianity as part of the Old Testament. Watts proposed that the metrical translations of the Psalms as sung by Protestant Christians should give them a specifically Christian perspective:

“While he granted that David [to whom authorship of many of the Psalms is traditionally ascribed] was unquestionably a chosen instrument of God, Watts claimed that his religious understanding could not have fully apprehended the truths later revealed through Jesus Christ. The Psalms should therefore be “renovated” as if David had been a Christian, or as Watts put it in the title of his 1719 metrical psalter, they should be “imitated in the language of the New Testament.”

Marini discerns two particular trends in Watts’ verses, which he calls “emotional subjectivity” and “doctrinal objectivity”. By the former he means that “Watts’ voice broke down the distance between poet and singer and invested the text with personal spirituality.” As an example of this he cites “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross”. By “doctrinal objectivity” Marini means that Watts verse achieved an “axiomatic quality” that “presented Christian doctrinal content with the explicit confidence that befits affirmations of faith.” As examples Marini cites the hymns “Joy to the World” as well as “From All That Dwell Below the Skies”:

From all that dwell below the skies
Let the Creator’s praise arise;
Let the Redeemer’s name be sung
Through every land, by every tongue.

Significant cultural or contemporary impacts

  • One of his best known poems was an exhortation “Against Idleness and Mischief” in Divine Songs for Children, a poem which was famously parodied by Lewis Carroll in his book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, in the poem “How Doth the Little Crocodile”, which is now better known than the original. In the 1850 novel David Copperfield by Charles Dickens, school master Dr. Strong quotes from Watts’ “Against Idleness and Mischief”: “Satan finds some mischief still, for idle hands to do.”
  • In the 1884 comic opera called Princess Ida, there is a punning reference to Watts in Act I. At Princess Ida’s women’s university no males of any kind are allowed, and the Princess’s father, King Gama, relates that “She’ll scarcely suffer Dr. Watts’ ‘hymns'”.
  • Isaac Watts is commemorated in the Church of England, the Calendar of Saints of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America on 25 November and in the Episcopal Church (USA) on 26 November.

Other works

Besides being a famous hymn-writer, Isaac Watts was also a renowned theologian and logician, writing many books and essays on these subjects.

Watts was the author of a text book on logic which was particularly popular; its full title was, Logic, or The Right Use of Reason in the Enquiry After Truth With a Variety of Rules to Guard Against Error in the Affairs of Religion and Human Life, as well as in the Sciences. This was first published in 1724, and its popularity ensured that it went through twenty editions.

Watts’ logic text book was written for beginners of logic, and the book is arranged methodically. He divided the content of his elementary treatment of logic into four parts: perception, judgement, reasoning, and method, which he treated in this order. Each of these parts is divided into chapters, and some of these chapters are divided into sections. The content of the chapters and sections is then subdivided by using some combination of the following devices: divisions, distributions, notes, observations, directions, rules, illustrations, and remarks. Thus, every contentum of the book comes under one or more of these headings, and this methodical arrangement serves to make the exposition clear.

In Watts’ Logic there are some notable departures from what one would expect to find in a text book of logic from Watts’ time, and there are also some notable innovations. Detectable throughout the work is the influence of British empiricism, and in particular, the influence of philosopher and empiricist John Locke. For, Locke was a contemporary of Watts, and in the Logic there are several references to Locke and his Essay Concerning Human Understanding,  in which Locke espoused his empiricist views. Another departure from most other authors of logic is that Watts was careful to distinguish between judgements and propositions. According to Watts, judgement is “to compare… ideas together, and to join them by affirmation, or disjoin then by negation, according as we find them to agree or disagree”. However, he continues by saying, “when mere ideas are joined in the mind without words, it is rather called a judgement; but when clothed with words it is called a proposition”. Watts’ Logic follows the scholastic tradition and divides propositions into universal affirmative, universal negative, particular affirmative, and particular negative. In the third part, Watts discusses reasoning and argumentation, with particular emphasis on the theory of syllogism, which was a centrally important part of the classical logic which Watts’ was treating in his work. According to Watts, and in keeping with the common practice of logicians of his day, Watts defined logic as an art (see liberal arts), as opposed to a science. Throughout the Logic Watts revealed his high conception of logic by stressing the practical side of logic, rather than just the speculative side. According to Watts, as a practical art, logic can be really useful in any of our inquiries, whether they are inquiries in the arts, or inquiries in the sciences, or inquiries of an ethical kind. It is Watts’ emphasis on logic as a practical art which distinguishes his book from others. For, by stressing that there is a practical and non-formal part of logic, Watts was able to give rules and directions for any kind of inquiry, including the inquiries of science and the inquiries of philosophy. These rules of inquiry were given in addition to the formal content of classical logic that one would expect to find in a text book on logic from that time. Thus, Watts’ conception of logic as being divided into its practical part and its speculative part, and therefore containing more than just formal logic, marks a departure from the conception of logic of most other authors. Instead, Watts’ conception of logic is much more akin to that of the later, nineteenth century logician, C.S. Peirce.

Isaac Watts’ Logic became the standard text on logic at Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard and Yale; being used at Oxford University for well over 100 years. C.S. Peirce, the great nineteenth century logician, wrote favourably of Watts’ Logic. When preparing his own text book on Logic entitled A Critick of Arguments: How to Reason (also known as the Grand Logic), Peirce wrote, ‘I shall suppose the reader to be acquainted with what is contained in Dr Watts’ Logick, a book… far superior to the treatises now used in colleges, being the production of a man distinguished for good sense.’ The Logic was followed in 1741 by a supplement, The Improvement of the Mind, which itself went through numerous editions and later inspired Michael Faraday.

Memorials

The earliest surviving built memorial to Isaac Watts is at Westminster Abbey; this was completed shortly after his death. His much-visited chest tomb, in its photogenic setting at Bunhill Fields, dates from 1808, replacing the original that had been paid for and erected by Lady Mary Abney and the Hartopp family. In addition a stone bust of Watts can be seen in the non-conformist library Dr Williams’s Library in central London. The earliest public statue stands at Abney Park, where he lived and died before it became a cemetery and arboretum; a later, rather similar statue, was funded by public subscription for a new Victorian public park in the city of his birth, Southampton. In the mid nineteenth century a Congregational Hall, the Dr Watts Memorial Hall, was also built in Southampton, though after World War II it was lost to redevelopment. Now standing on this site is the Isaac Watts Memorial United Reformed Church.

One of the earliest built memorials may also now be lost: a bust to Watts that was commissioned on his death for the London chapel with which he was associated. The chapel was demolished in the late eighteenth century; remaining parts of the memorial were rescued at the last minute by a wealthy landowner for installation in his chapel near Liverpool. It is unclear whether it still survives.

The stone statue in front of the Abney Park Chapel at Dr Watts’ Walk, Abney Park Cemetery, was erected in 1845 by public subscription. It was designed by the leading British sculptor, Edward Hodges Baily RA FRS. A scheme for a commemorative statue on this spot had first been promoted in the late 1830s by George Collison, who in 1840 published an engraving as the frontispiece of his book about cemetery design in Europe and America; and at Abney Park Cemetery in particular. This first cenotaph proposal was never commissioned, and Baily’s later design was adopted in 1845.


Excerpted from wikipedia.com.