Yet even simple people, adds Gray a bit patronizingly, want to be remembered and their gravestones have some simple epitaphs written “by th’ unletter’d muse”, asking the visitor for a sigh, because everyone, leaving this world, casts a mournful look behind, wishing to be remembered just by one soul. In a rather complicated turn of phrase, the poet now addresses himself and imagines how he is going to be remembered by a hoary-headed shepherd, should somebody inquire about him: he used to come here and lie under the old beech, gazing wistfully at the brook. One morning he didn’t appear in his usual spot, neither did he appear the next day, and the following day they saw his funeral procession. Come and read his epitaph, because you can read, says the shepherd (implying that he himself can’t). The three last stanzas are Gray’s epitaph, carved later on his tomb: he describes himself as “a youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown” (he completed this poem in his late thirties, so he could be stretching the term “youth” a bit), learned by melancholy, commiserating with the unhappy (although the line “he gave to Mis’ry all he had, a tear” sounds like a nice pretext to get out of actually helping the poor financially) and happy because Heaven gave him a friend, which was all he wished for. No need to write about his virtues or faults, because they all now repose with God.
Now, this is the one poem by Gray that became really well-known, and several of its lines became familiar quotations. It was so popular that even Dr Johnson, who generally did not hold too high an opinion about Gray’s poetry, liked this poem. It is believed to be inspired by a visit to a churchyard in Stoke Poges, which village Gray regularly visited, because his mother lived there, and where he himself was buried under a rather big tombstone.
The poem begins in the evening, with the atmospheric description of the scenes which usually take place in the countryside at that time of the day: cattle and people heading home, the fading light and fading sounds of the evening landscapes, except for a (very gothic) owl complaining to the moon about the passers-by invading its loneliness.
The poet turns his attention to the “rude forefathers of the hamlet” buried in the churchyard. Why only forefathers and not mothers? There are actually reasons why Gray is only interested in men, and he does portray them explicitly as men, so there’s no chance he uses “forefathers” more generically. He starts with the usual “they will never be alive again” and then depicts their lives as they used to be, but nevermore: they will never return from their fields to their wives and children. Their present state is contrasted with the vigour with which they used to plow their fields and cut down trees. But one should not look down upon them just because they were unknown and their lives are in “the short and simple annals of the poor”. The high-born and rich people have nothing to boast about, because “the paths of glory lead but to the grave”; all the big monuments cannot resurrect those once rich and powerful.
And the people who are buried here could have been potentially great as well, it’s just that they were unlucky to be born poor. Maybe in this churchyard lies potential John Hampden, who resisted not the King but only a “little tyrant of his fields”. King Charles was imprisoned in Stoke Poges after his capture, so I guess that’s why Gray’s thought goes specifically to the 17th c. – the other great men these simple farmers could have been are Milton (“some mute inglorious Milton here may rest”) or Cromwell, but “guiltless of his country’s blood”. The virtues of these men could never be so great that they won fame and applause, but the reverse of it is that they never had a chance to commit as great crimes. They lived quiet lives, “far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife”.
So Gray focuses on men, because in their case the gap between what one could achieve if he was born in a rich family was much more striking. And also because, honestly, he’s not paying that much attention. Sure, women up to the time of his writing this poem had had a much higher bar to clear to become something else than a wife, mistress or mother; the only area where a significant number of women won fame was the stage. If you were a woman, you had to win at the birth lottery to be born in a rich family as well as to be super-smart to achieve anything. But still, had Gray not been so male-oriented, he would have been able to notice that in this churchyard lies many a potential Queen Elizabeth, who was born poor and died in childbirth.
William Blake illustrated this poem beautifully as well:
The poem was written at the request of Horace Walpole in memory of his cat Selima, who drowned in a Chinese cistern. The cat was a she, named Selima, and in the poem she is presented in rather feminine terms, as William Blake’s rather charming illustrations emphasize. The poem begins with Selima looking, Narcissus-like, at her reflection in the cistern and purring applause. but then she notices two angelic shapes of two golden fishes. She dips first her whisker, and then her paw. She can’t resist their allure because she is a cat, and thus attracted to fish, but also female, and thus attracted to gold. “Presumptuous maid” finally stretches to far and slips into the water, while “Maligant Fate” looks on sneeringly. She emerges eight times, miaowing for help (because every cat has nine lives), but nobody hears and nobody comes to rescue: “A Favourite has no friend”. The poem ends with a moral to women to be careful, because one false step cannot be undone and “not all that glisters [is[ gold.”
Thomas Gray spent probably the happiest years of his life at Eton, where he made lifelong friends, including Horace Walpole (who, some claim, was also his lover). It’s therefore not surprising that he wrote a poem inspired by the view of his old school, but the poem is not very successful in my opinion, hovering between misery and unintended ridiculousness. It starts with the apostrophes to the spires of Eton and Windsor (located opposite Eton) and the landscape around them, which evokes so many happy memories for the poet. The unintended ridiculousness starts when the poet invokes Father Thames, asking him to tell him which boys now pursue the same pastimes as he and his friends did. Gray’s Latinate diction was probably admired in his lifetime, but for a modern reader like me, asking “who foremost now delight to cleave/with pliant arm thy glassy wave” instead of “who likes to swim?” seems a bit of an overkill. The lives of children are depicted in this somewhat idealized way, where all sorrows are small and soon forgotten. Then Gray shifts gear, calling children “little victims” who play “regardless of their doom” and writes a long list of various bad things, all of them capitalized, which are going to happen to the boys when they grow up: Misfortune, Fear, Shame etc. ending with “the painful family of Death”, or various physical torments accompanying it and Death itself. The poem ends with the conclusion that it’s just as well the boys don’t know yet what is going to happen to them, because “ignorance is bliss”.
James Thomson, apart from being the author of “Rule, Britannia!” was also the author of many other poems, including probably his most important work The Seasons, on which he kept on working for almost until the end of his not very long life, constantly revising and expanding it in new editions. I thought I would have to get through it with my teeth clenched (everybody loves a nature description in blank verse), but once I got going, it actually became easier, although I’m not sure I could read the +5000 lines of the original text. The excerpt starts with the description of the sun going down, shining dimly through the fog. Then the full moon rises, reflecting the rays of the sun, with “her spotted disk” marked with mountains and craters, which one can see through a telescope. The whole air is filled with its pale radiance. But when the moon wanes, sometimes one can see aurora borealis, which Thomson calls mistakenly “a blaze of meteors”. The simple people interpret it as armies fighting and see it as a bad omen of general disasters, but “the man of philosophy” tries to find out about its causes, yet unknown in Thomson’s times. The night falls down and the lost wanderer cannot see anything, unless it’s a wildfire (will o’the wisp), which can lead a traveller to drown in a bog, both him and his horse, while his wife and children are waiting for him in vain. (In the days of widespread melioration and electric streetlights, it’s difficult to be in such conditions outside dark-sky preserves.) But there are other, more benevolent fires “gleaming on the horse’s mane” (St Elmo’s fires), which can show him the way. (I didn’t quite believe the NAEL editors that St Elmo’s fires can appear on a horse, too, but apparently it’s true.) The sun rises, dispelling the fog and melting hoarfrost. What I found most interesting in this poem is the mingling of the scientific and the poetic discourse, with the scientific discourse still predominating, which makes this poem very different from nature descriptions which were going to appear later in Romantic poetry.
The captain is so eager to come into money that he wants to go to the bedside of the dead man right now. He talks about the grand funeral that he is going to give this man in gratitude for his generosity. They find a set of trunks in the dead men’s room, nesting within one another, so there is a lot of opening. They are overjoyed when they open the smallest one and find a lot of papers there, thinking they are banknotes. But as it turns out, the deceased left only $1.50, not even enough to pay for his coffin. It is like one of these really rubbish “joke gifts”. Rather uncharitably (although I can’t say I would be charitable in their shoes), they just leave the inn, leaving “the deceased to do as well as he could do for himself, as we had taken so good care of him when alive, for nothing”.
They arrive rather crest-fallen in Montserrat, but when Equiano sells his goods, he now has forty-seven pounds, more than enough to pay for his freedom. He asks the captain, who was his good friend, to advise him when he should approach his master, and the captain advises him it should be when the captain will be breakfasting with his master. It seems like a good piece of advice, because Equiano’s master seems to be a bit taken aback when Equiano tells him he has the required money and says he didn’t think he would earn that much money so fast. But the captain confirms he did it al through hard work and saving money; it’s a good deal, since King got his interest for all the time when Equiano worked for him for free, and now he’s going to get his principal back. and King, perhaps ashamed of reneging on his promise in front of a witness, tells Equiano to go to the Registrar and ask him to prepare his manumission certificate. Equiano cries with joy and runs to the office, quoting to himself on his way various verses from the Bible (about Peter being miraculously released from the prison and the like). The registrar congratulates him and gives him a 50% discount on the fee for the document. I’m not quite sure whether one guinea (1.05 £) he names is the fee before or after the discount, but either way, one guinea was about $190 in today’s money, so it’s not just a nominal price and therefore quite a nice gesture. Equiano quotes his manumission document in full (issued with his slave name Gustavus Vassa) to show, as he says, “the absolute power and dominion one man claims over his fellow”. Everybody is very happy for him, including other slaves, especially the old ones, whom he always respected. Hell, even I am happy for him.
In between the excerpts Equiano was sold to Robert King, a Quaker merchant living in Montserrat. I thought the Quakers were against slavery in general (in 1761 they issued “a strong minute” against slave trade, this excerpt takes place in 1766), but maybe King didn’t get the memo in Monserrat. But he treats Equiano kindly, teaches him a lot of things regarding running a business, and eventually lets him trade on his own and promises to let him buy his freedom back for the original buying price of 40 pounds, no interest. The excerpt opens with Equiano boarding his master’s new ship, which is larger than the old one, because he can take more goods with him for sale. He already sold a few barrels of salted park with the markup of 300% (wow, I guess salted pork was a desirable commodity) and now invested his money in the goods he could sell in Philadelphia. They set off to Philadelphia, and Equiano is on the way entertained by the sight of whales, which he saw for the first time. In Philadelphia, as he was going to church on a Sunday, he saw the door of a Quaker meeting-house and decided to go in out of curiosity. He sees a woman talking (as Quakers do, during their meetings, when they feel moved by the Holy Spirit), but he can’t understand what she’s saying. When she stops talking, he asks his neighbours where he is, they explain it to him that he is in the Quaker meeting-house, but they don’t want to explain to him what the woman said, so he left. I am surprised he was so surprised by this sight, living with a Quaker master, but maybe King was the only Quaker in Montserrat. The next church he passes is very crowded, with people standing outside and even climbing ladders to look through the windows. He asks what’s going on and he learns that it’s George Whitefield preaching, on one of the founders of Methodism. Equiano manages to squeeze into the church and sees a man preaching so energetically that he sweats as much as Equiano ever did while slaving on a Montserrat beach. He thinks it’s small wonder that this church is much better attended than other ones. (In his later life Equiano would convert to Methodism. The Helpful Footnote informs us that in 1766 Whitefield was already back in England, but Equiano might have seen him one year earlier in Georgia, so maybe he conflated by mistake or on purpose the two occasions).
Equiano thinks that after his return he will be able to buy his freedom, because he has almost all of the required money, but when they get back to Montserrat, his master sends them immediately to St Eustatia and from there to Georgia, the second leg with a cargo of slaves. In Savannah a strange story happens to them. A rich silversmith, who some years before travelled on their ship to Savannah, now wants to go back with them. He also seems to like the captain and promises to give him a great deal of money. But before they can leave, he falls ill and is getting worse. Having no family, he promises to make the captain his sole heir. The captain and Equiano visit him every day and the captain promises to give Equiano ten pounds, if he comes into money. Equiano has now enough money to buy his freedom, but expecting this bonus, he spends eight pounds on a nice suit of clothes to celebrate his freedom. One night, after they return from their visit at the bedside and go to sleep, the captain gets a message that the silversmith is dead. He wakes up Equiano and asks him to accompany him. Equiano is very sleepy and asks whether it can’t wait until the next morning.