A Long Story

by Thomas Gray (1716-1771)

In Britain’s Isle, no matter where,
    An ancient pile of buildings stands:
The Huntingdons and Hattons there
    Employ’d the power of Fairy hands

To raise the ceiling’s fretted height,
    Each pannel in achievements cloathing,
Rich windows that exclude the light,
    And passages, that lead to nothing.

Full oft within the spacious walls,
    When he had fifty winters o’er him,
My grave Lord-Keeper1 led the Brawls;
    The Seal, and Maces, danc’d before him.

His bushy beard, and shoe-strings green,
    His high-crown’d hat, and satin-doublet,
Mov’d the stout heart of England’s Queen,
    Tho’ Pope and Spaniard could not trouble it.

What, in the very first beginning!
    Shame of the versifying tribe!
Your Hist’ry whither are you spinning?
    Can you do nothing but describe?

A House there is, (and that’s enough)
    From whence one fatal morning issues
A brace of Warriors, not in buff,
    But rustling in their silks and tissues.

The first came cap-a-pee from France
    Her conqu’ring destiny fulfilling,
Whom meaner beauties eye askance,
    And vainly ape her art of killing.

The other Amazon kind heaven
    Had armed with spirit, wit, and satire:
But COBHAM had the polish given
    And tip’d her arrows with good-nature.

To celebrate her eyes, her air -
    Coarse panegyricks would but teaze her.
Melissa is her Nom de Guerre.
    Alas, who would not wish to please her!

With bonnet blue and capucine,
    And aprons long they hid their armour,
And veil’d their weapons bright and keen
    In pity to the country-farmer.

Fame, in the shape of Mr. Purt,
    (By this time all the parish know it)
Had told, that thereabouts there lurk’d
    A wicked Imp they call a Poet,

Who prowl’d the country far and near,
    Bewitch’d the children of the peasants,
Dried up the cows, and lam’d the deer,
    And suck’d the eggs and kill’d the pheasants.

My Lady heard their joint petition,
    Swore by her coronet and ermine,
She’d issue out her high commission
    To rid the manour of such vermin.

The Heroines undertook the task,
    Thro’ lanes unknown, o’er stiles they ventur’d,
Rap’d at the door nor stay’d to ask,
    But bounce into the parlour enter’d.

The trembling family they daunt,
    They flirt, they sing, they laugh, they tattle,
Rummage his Mother, pinch his Aunt,
    And up stairs in a whirlwind rattle.

Each hole and cupboard they explore,
    Each creek and cranny of his chamber,
Run hurry-skurry round the floor,
    And o’er the bed and tester clamber,

Into the Drawers and China pry,
    Papers and books, a huge Imbroglio!
Under a tea-cup he might lie,
    Or creased, like dogs-ears, in a folio.

On the first marching of the troops
    The Muses, hopeless of his pardon,
Convey’d him underneath their hoops
    To a small closet in the garden.

So Rumour says. (Who will, believe.)
    But that they left the door a-jarr,
Where, safe and laughing in his sleeve,
    He heard the distant din of war.

Short was his joy. He little knew
    The power of Magick was no fable.
Out of the window, whisk, they flew,
    But left a spell upon the table.

The words too eager to unriddle,
    The poet felt a strange disorder:
Transparent birdlime form’d the middle,
    And chains invisible the border.

So cunning was the Apparatus,
    The powerful pothooks did so move him,
That, will he, nill he, to the Great-house
    He went, as if the Devil drove him.

Yet on his way (no sign of grace,
    For folks in fear are apt to pray)
To Phoebus he prefer’d his case,
    And begged his aid that dreadful day.

The Godhead would have back’d his quarrel,
    But, with a blush on recollection,
Own’d that his quiver and his laurel
    ’Gainst four such eyes were no protection.

The Court was sate, the Culprit there,
    Forth from their gloomy mansions creeping
The Lady Janes and Joans repair,
    And from the gallery stand peeping:

Such as in silence of the night
    Come (sweep) along some winding entry
(Styack2 has often seen the sight)
    Or at the chappel-door stand sentry;

In peaked hoods and mantles tarnish’d,
    Sour visages, enough to scare ye,
High dames of honour once, that garnish’d
    The drawing-room of fierce Queen Mary.

The Peeress comes. The Audience stare,
    And doff their hats with due submission:
She curtsies, as she takes her chair,
    To all the people of condition.

The bard with many an artful fib,
    Had in imagination fenc’d him,
Disproved the arguments of Squib,3
    And all that Groom4 could urge against him.

But soon his rhetorick forsook him,
    When he the solemn hall had seen;
A sudden fit of ague shook him,
    He stood as mute as poor Macleane.5

Yet something he was heard to mutter,
    ‘‘How in the park beneath an old-tree
(Without design to hurt the butter,
    Or any malice to the poultry,)

‘‘He once or twice had pen’d a sonnet;
    Yet hop’d that he might save his bacon:
Numbers would give their oaths upon it,
    He ne’er was for a conj’rer taken.’’

The ghostly Prudes with hagged face
    Already had condemn’d the sinner.
My Lady rose, and with a grace -
    She smiled, and bid him come to dinner.

‘‘Jesu-Maria! Madam Bridget,
    Why, what can the Viscountess mean?’’
(Cried the square Hoods in woeful fidget)
    ‘‘The times are altered quite and clean!

‘‘Decorum’s turned to mere civility;
    Her air and all her manners show it.
Commend me to her affability!
    Speak to a Commoner and Poet!’’

[Here 500 Stanzas are lost.]

And so God save our noble King,
    And guard us from long-winded Lubbers,
That to eternity would sing,
    And keep my Lady from her Rubbers.

Gray’s own notes:

1. Hatton, prefer’d by Queen Elizabeth for his graceful Person and fine Dancing.
2. The House-Keeper.
3. Groom of the Chambers.
4. The Steward.
5. A famous Highwayman hang’d the week before.

(The Works of Thomas Gray in Prose and Verse, edited by Edmund Gosse, 4 vols. London, Macmillan and Co., 1912. Vol 1, p 81.)

* * *

How long should a poem be? Gray himself never wrote, or at least never completed, any really large-scale poem, and was conscious of being a writer of short, intense lyrics. In this he was modern: the epics of the classical world, the mediaeval verse romances, the stories of Chaucer, the rambling popular ballads, and the huge narratives of the Renaissance are types of poetry not written any more, but they are what poetry used to be, and in Gray’s Long Story, which is of course really a very short story, all of these forms are duly acknowledged.

So there is an epic touch, when the Muses spirit the poet away from his Amazonian assault like those guardian deities in Homer who remove their favourite heroes from the battlefield. The protests against the poem, which cause the poet to change tack,

What, in the very first beginning!
Shame of the versifying tribe!
- are like the protests of the Canterbury Pilgrims against Chaucer, which cause him to abandon completely his Tale of Sir Thopas. The two Amazons, setting out on their quest in full armour, are mediaeval knights errant, but also remind us of Tasso’s Clorinda. (Gray translated a passage of the Gerusalemme Liberata into English heroic couplets.) The stanza form of four lines with alternate rhymes reminds us of an anonymous ballad. The very last stanza, with its health to the King,
And so God save our noble King,
   And guard us from long-winded Lubbers,
That to eternity would sing,
   And keep my Lady from her Rubbers.
is a deliberate echo of the ending of Chevy Chase,
God save our king, and bless this land
    With plenty, joy, and peace,
And grant henceforth that foul debate
    Twixt noble men may cease.
The ancient pile, from which the events of the poem issue, is itself the symbol of an over-long story. A panel in achievements clothing is an architectural feature, painted or plastered with stories of its owners’ histories. The excess of stained glass in the rich windows keep the light out rather than letting it through, as if the stories they tell confuse rather than enlighten the viewer. The passages, leading to nothing, are passages in a book that lead the reader nowhere as well as the warren of corridors in a huge old house. A too long description of this house is therefore the too long telling of the story that any house can tell.

The Long Story is both a short poem, that might have been longer, but, in view of the statement that 500 stanzas are lost, a long poem, that mercifully has been made shorter. Throughout, there is the hint that the story was not worth the telling, and that even if told, will soon bore.

The idea of poetic length is important because the poem is about the poet being pursued for his poetic celebrity, a celebrity that was, as Gray well knew, based on a small number of small poems.


Gray’s editor, Gosse, in his life of Gray (1882), explains the real story that lies behind the Long Story. Lady Cobham, of the Manor House, Stoke Poges, had been informed by a Rev Robert Purt that a neighbour of hers was Mr Thomas Gray, the well-known poet. So in 1751 Lady Cobham sent her niece, Miss Harriet Speed, and a certain Lady Schaub, to Gray’s house to effect an introduction. Gray was not at home and they left a note. He returned their call, which led to a friendship with Lady Cobham that lasted until her death, and with her niece that lasted at least until she married. Gosse provides us with enough candid information about Gray for it to be possible to construct some interesting theories about his sexuality, but of course as a Victorian writer he never makes any such deductions himself. Rather he tries to throw us off the scent. (For example, Gray’s ‘effeminacy’, noted by a number of his contemporaries, Gosse tells us we have to understand to mean ‘fastidiousness’.) Suffice it say that women, as portrayed in the poem, are very threatening indeed.

In the third stanza, Lord Keeper Hatton, an earlier owner of the manor, is a parody of the poet himself. An aging man in a ludicrous costume, he is made to dance for a queen whom the Spanish Armada could not frighten. (A brawl was an ancient dance.) He is part gigolo, part fool. The warlike Queen Elizabeth is followed by the warlike brace of warriors, who go in pursuit of the poet.

They are not in buff. This may mean they are not in military leathers, or may mean they are not naked. If the former, their hidden armour is the metal they wear under their clothes. If the latter, their physical charms. Both need to be hidden from the farmer, who might be frightened by one, embarrassed by the other. Number one (Lady Schaub) comes, like the word cap-a-pee (cap-à-pied), from France. She is head to foot in armour, like Hamlet’s father’s ghost. Number two (Harriet Speed) is somewhat less ferocious of aspect. Even so her good nature is used as the metal heads of her arrows, or perhaps the poison with which the tips of the arrows are smeared. Issuing like St George to kill the dragon, we find a poet more like Robin Goodfellow than a monster ravaging the countryside.

So at least he had been represented by Mr Purt, and by Fame - together they make up a joint petition - to My Lady (Lady Cobham), although the news was already stale,

(By this time all the parish know it)
According to Gosse, Mr Purt was most offended by his treatment in the poem.

But we now witness the transformation of the two knights-errant into overwhelming society ladies,

They flirt, they sing, they laugh, they tattle,
Rummage his Mother, pinch his Aunt,
- then into a pair of romping girls out of control in the poet’s bedroom,
Run hurry-skurry round the floor,
And o’er the bed and tester clamber,
and finally into witches,
Out of the window, whisk, they flew,
But left a spell upon the table.
The poet, meanwhile, cowers in an outhouse.


Drawn to the Manor by the women’s magic, the poet finds himself on trial. Queen Mary displaces Queen Elizabeth, and we move 200 years back from Gray’s 18th century to the atmosphere of a treason trial or heresy trial of the bloody Tudor period. More exactly, it is a witchcraft trial with sexes reversed. The poet, stumbling through his defence, stands before a tribunal of The Lady and her high dames of honour, while the lesser Janes and Joans crowd out the public gallery. But instead of a burning, the poet is offered a dinner invitation, much to horror of the other ladies present, who, with antique oaths, bemoan civility replacing that due decorum which preserves the distinctions of rank.

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