III. THE PROGRESS OF SENTIMENTALISM
During the 1750’s sentimental poetry did not fulfill the expectations which the outburst of 1744 had seemed to promise. It sank to lower levels, and its productions are noteworthy only as signs of the times and presages of the future. Richard Jago wrote some bald verses intended to foster opposition to hunting, and love for the lower animals,—according to the sentimental view really the “little brothers” of Man. John Dalton’s crude Descriptive Poem apostrophized what was regarded as the “savage grandeur” of the Lake country; it is interesting only because it mentions Keswick, Borrowdale, Lodore, and Skiddaw, half a century later to become sacred ground. The practical dilemma of the sentimentalist,—drawn toward solitude by his worship of Nature, and toward society by his love for Man,—was described by Whitehead in The Enthusiast, the humanitarian impulse being finally given the preference. Though the last of these pieces is not contemptible in style, none of these writers had sufficient ardor to compel attention; and if sentimentalism had not been steadily disseminated through other literary forms, especially the novel, it might well have been regarded as a lost cause.
The great poet of this decade was Gray, whose Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, by many held the noblest English lyric, appeared in 1751. His classical ideal of style, according to which poetry should have, in his words, “extreme conciseness of expression,” yet be “pure, perspicuous, and musical,” was realized both in the Elegy and in the otherwise very different Pindaric Odes. The ethical and religious implications of the Elegy, its piety, its sense of the frailties as well as the merits of mankind, are conservative. Nor is there in the Pindaric Odes any violation of classical principles. Gray never deviates into a pantheistic faith, a belief in human perfection, a conception of poetry as instinctive imagination unrestrained, or any other essential tenet of sentimentalism. Yet the influence of the new spirit upon him may be discerned. It modified his choice of subjects, and slightly colored their interpretation, without causing him to abandon the classical attitude. The Elegy treats with reverence what the Augustans had neglected,—the tragic dignity of obscure lives; The Progress of Poesy emphasizes qualities (emotion and sublimity) which the Essay on Criticism had not stressed; and The Bard presents a wildly picturesque figure of ancient days. Gray felt that classicism might quicken its spirit and widen its interests without surrendering its principles, that a classical poem might be a popular poem; and the admiration of posterity supports his belief.