Tuesday, January 14, 2020

'The Only Fault of It is Insipidity'

“Mine, you are to know, is a white Melancholy, or rather Leucocholy for the most part; which though it seldom laughs or dances, nor ever amounts to what one calls Joy or Pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of a state.” 

I know Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” the way I know King Lear and Rasselas but I haven’t ventured much deeper into his life and work. I was probably warned off by Johnson’s verdict as reported by Boswell: “Sir, he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull every where. He was dull in a new way, and that made many people think him GREAT. He was a mechanical poet.”

I picked up R.W. Ketton-Cremer’s monograph Thomas Gray (Duckworth, 1935) hoping to reevaluate Gray. My impression is unchanged and I think Gray will largely remain a one-poem poet for this reader. Ketton-Cremer paraphrases the passage quoted at the top without naming the source. Leucocholy is new to me and I wondered what it meant. I traced it to the letter Gray wrote to his friend Richard West on May 27, 1742. The OED defines it simply as melancholy and gives Gray’s usage as its sole citation: “Apparently an isolated use.” In modern parlance, depression. The prefix leuc- is from the Greek for "white," as in leucocytes (white blood cells). The Dictionary lists forty-five combining forms, mostly scientific or medical. Gray was accomplished enough in Greek and Latin to write poems in those languages, so his neologism amounts to a learned play on words which he has already defined: “white Melancholy.” He continues in his letter to West:

“The only fault of it is insipidity; which is apt now and then to give a sort of Ennui, which makes one form certain little wishes that signify nothing. But there is another sort, black indeed, which I have now and then felt, that has somewhat in it like Tertullian’s rule of faith, Credo quia impossibile est; for it believes, nay, is sure of every thing that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and, on the other hand, excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and every thing that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us! for none but he and sunshiny weather can do it.”

West died of consumption four days after Gray wrote his letter, prompting his friend to write the sonnet “On the Death of Richard West.”

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