A Long Story
by Thomas Gray (1716-1771)
Gray’s own notes:
1. Hatton, prefer’d by Queen Elizabeth for his graceful Person and fine
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!- 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,is a deliberate echo of the ending of Chevy Chase,
God save our king, and bless this landThe 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,- then into a pair of romping girls out of control in the poet’s bedroom,
Run hurry-skurry round the floor,and finally into witches,
Out of the window, whisk, they flew,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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