Friday 12 July 2019

'Sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo'

Johnson's life of Thomas Gray (which I was looking at today) is decidedly cool in tone; there was a natural, and mutual, antipathy between the two men. However, in his estimate of the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, Johnson is generous and, I think, sound, in particular and in general.
'In the character of his Elegy,' writes Johnson, 'I rejoice to concur with the common reader; for by the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudices, after all the refinements of subtilty and the dogmatism of learning, must be finally decided all claim to poetical honours. The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning "Yet even these bones" are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he that reads them here persuades himself that he has always felt them. Had Gray written often thus it had been vain to blame, and useless to praise him.'
  Quite so. These are the stanzas...

Yet ev'n these bones from insult to protect, 
         Some frail memorial still erected nigh, 
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck'd, 
         Implores the passing tribute of a sigh. 

Their name, their years, spelt by th' unletter'd muse, 
         The place of fame and elegy supply: 
And many a holy text around she strews, 
         That teach the rustic moralist to die. 

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey, 
         This pleasing anxious being e'er resign'd, 
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day, 
         Nor cast one longing, ling'ring look behind? 

On some fond breast the parting soul relies, 
         Some pious drops the closing eye requires; 
Ev'n from the tomb the voice of Nature cries, 
         Ev'n in our ashes live their wonted fires. 

And Johnson is surely right to conclude that 'the common sense of readers uncorrupted with literary prejudice' is the ultimate arbiter of 'poetical honours'. Which makes you wonder how many poets of the twentieth century had such appeal, convincing the reader that his lines reflect the things the reader has always him(her)self felt – Kipling of course, and later Betjeman, none of the modernists except maybe sometimes Eliot... maybe sometimes Auden and Yeats, even Larkin once in a while? But the century produced nothing with such strong and enduring appeal as Gray's Elegy. Or did it?

No comments:

Post a Comment