[The following is a transcription of an article published in The Nation. The author was Reference Librarian at the Library. ]
Harry Clemons. [Algarotti’s Vita di Orazio and Gray.] in The Nation, Aug. 22, 1912, xcv. 167-8
NEWS FOR BIBLIOPHILES.
In the Horace Collection, recently presented to the Library of Princeton University by R. W. Patterson of Pittsburgh, is a book which bears interesting traces of ownership by the poet Gray. It is a copy of the “Vita di Orazio” published in Venice in 1760, which, according to an autograph note on the title page, was given to Gray by the author, Count Francesco Algarotti, in February, 1763. That the scholar poet read the little volume with critical thoroughness is evinced by nearly a hundred marginal comments in his delicate chirography. These notes shed no new light, perhaps, on the recluse of Stoke Poges and Cambridge; but as evidences of his quiet habit of scholarly acquisition and of his nice sense for language many of them seem worthy of quotation.
At least an epistolary acquaintance existed between Gray and Count Algarotti, and it is on record that each publicly expressed a considerable degree of admiration for the work of the other. (Gray’s Works, ed. by Gosse, London, 1884, Vol. Ill, pp. 147, 155, 159, 298.) The Italian litterateur, who was within a year of his death when the “Vita dl Orazio” was presented to Gray, had at this time become well known among literary and court circles in Europe. Lord Byron, writing from Venice to the publisher, Murray, in 1818 (Byron’s “Letters and Journals,” ed. by Prothero, London, 1909, Vol. IV, p. 223) mentions a collection of manuscript letters addressed to Algarotti by Lord Hervey, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Gray, Mason, Garrick, Lord Chatham, David Hume, and others. Voltaire had affectionately dubbed Algarotti “Le cher cygne de Padove,” and he had become a favorite with King Augustus III of Poland and with Frederick the Great. The former had appointed him a Councillor, and Frederick not only made him a Count of Prussia and a Court Chamberlain, but after Algarotti’s death erected to his memory the tombstone which stands on the south side of the Campo Santo at Pisa. It was while coursing through the career of Frederick that Carlyle’s impatient pen fell afoul of this “young Venetian gentleman of elegance, in dusky skin. In very white linen and frills, with his fervid black eyes”— and paused for the few strokes of characterization (Carlyle’s “Frederick the Great,” book x, chap. 7; book xi, chap. 3), which have probably succeeded better in making the learned Italian dilettante and his “Poesies” and “Classical Scholarships” rememberable to English readers than all the voluminous commendations of polite admirers. It is of interest that the virile criticisms of Carlyle are not without support from these private comments in the book which belonged to Gray.
Of these marginal notes In the “Vita di Orazio,” some were evidently intended merely as a sort of irregular brief analysis of the contents. For example:
· Political cause of 3d Ode of 3d Book of Horace.
· False taste in language in Horace’s time.
· Examples from Italian of word-coining.
· Character of Horace’s works.
· Horace’s Irony against himself.
There are other notes which, as might be expected, exhibit Gray’s own somewhat pedantic knowledge of literature and history. His familiarity with Horace is indicated by several case in which he skillfully detected quotations from the Latin poet which Algarotti had assimilated into his own Italian. The range Is wider than Horace: references to Cicero. Ovid, Homer, Dante, Racine, Leo the Tenth, Vitruvius, Sperone Speroni, and as many others, were carefully noted in the margin. On one page Gray discovered that an expression used by Algarotti was “the motto of the Cruscan Accademy at Florence.” Other comments are:
· This Influence of civil causes in forming the characters of Catullus’, Ovid’s and Horace’s Muse is Just and ingenius.
· this remark of Ariosto’s want of knowledge with the polite world is just.
· Character of Plautus just.
· a just valuation of the work of the Augustan age.
To another passage, which discusses the popularity of the theatre over undramatic poetry, he added:
· natural enough as the greatest part of an audience even in the polite ages is illiterate and more prone to feed their eyes than their ears.
And in connection with Algarotti’s estimate of Horace himself Gray queried:
· how far may these sententious passages of our Poet tend to give us a real notion of his true character? Should they not be parallel’d with the character given of him by other authors.
But a large proportion of these private annotations are criticisms of style. In a letter written to Count Algarotti a few months after he received this book (September 9, 1763), Gray apologized for his use of English by saying: “Forgive me if I make my acknowledgments in my native tongue, as I see it is perfectly familiar to you, and I (though not unacquainted with the writings of Italy) should from disuse speak its language with an ill grace, and with still more constraint to one who possesses it in all its strength and purity.” (Gray’s Works, ed. by Gosse, London, 1884; Vol. Ill, page 155; Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Vol. IV, Oct. 1818, p. 38.) Yet these marginal comments reveal no hesitation on Gray’s part to express the most specific criticisms of Algarotti’s Italian. Curiously enough, many of the notes are addressed directly, at Algarotti, as if Gray were a college instructor blue-pencilling a theme. He was some four years younger than the Italian. But as the fruit of above twenty years of writing, the author of the “Elegy” had up to this time permitted only eight of his poems to be printed; and to whatever cause this frugality was due, it is evident that his own severe apprenticeship had given him the confidence of a master in language.
Not all this criticism is adverse. We find such comments as “elegant expression,” “excellent use of the word here,” “this is a happy term and used by you very apropos.” With these, however, are not only such brief strictures as “too affected a term,” “Why not the common term?” “energetlck but affected term,” “I do not like this expression,” “a little affected obscurity here,” but also a series of fuller criticisms which sufficiently indicate Gray’s conclusions concerning the style of the Italian writer:
· Avoid affectation in the use of certain uncommon terms.
· avoid prosing Horace’s scraps too often.
· beware of affecting certain singularities and uncommon forms of diction.
· a friend of mine says you have ingenuity but that your works want to be translated into Italian.
· beware of borrowing the more trite images from the fine arts w[hi]ch custom is unbecoming your refined genius.
· In transposition of words beware of uncommon peculiarities.
· why this continued affectation of il instead of lo the common expression.
· never generalize, but in the espousal of sentiments or doctrines above the vulgar.
avoid affecting the quotations of our English Poets: w[hi]ch are sometimes too frequent in your Essays.
· I do not at all approve of these sentimental quotations.—except those from Horace’s own text.
· beware of too much Italianizing certain Latin terms of Horace.
· I cannot help observing some affectation in your metaphorical expressions, something too recherchée.
· I think you are too figurative in your common stile.
· do not play so much with your Pen.
All this, as I have said, offers no discovery concerning Thomas Gray; but It unquestionably affords us a familiar glimpse behind the “oak” of the scholar’s study.
[Coda: After Princeton, the author served as university librarian at the University of Virginia from 1927 to 1950.