Skip to main content

THE BARD OF THOMAS GRAY ITS COMPOSITION AND ITS USE BY PAINTERS (PLATES XIV. 4-II) THE following article has as its subject the poem written by Thomas Gray in 1755, The Bard,1 and the direction of the discussion will be towards the composition of the poem and what it tells us about Gray's conception of the 'sister arts' and, also, the interest which this poem aroused among artists, seen from the illustrations and depictions done with The Bard as subject. The poem highlights the importance of primitivist attitudes to poetry in the 1750's, the movement known as 'the sublime', and the early romantic tendencies which Gray manifested at the period when neo- classic values were still dominant in literary art. The poem was left unfinished in 1755, but was rapidly brought to a close in 1757, and published in the same year. The poem is important for its Welsh setting and theme. James Thomson, in The Seasons, had included mountain landscapes of North Wales, even of Snowdonia in particular,2 but these were pure landscape and strongly geographic in character. Gray's poem took a more ambitious subject; for, in his Bard, he attempted to create a British History theme set in a truly British landscape. This choice of theme was made in direct analogy with the tendency of the Italian artists of the Renaissance who chose classical Roman subjects for their History paintings.3 Gray's idea was to build up the greatness of England's past in her true 'classic' civilization, that of the ancient Britons, and to show how its representative, the Welsh Bard, stood as the champion of liberty and independence; on the other hand, the wild and romantic scenery of Snowdon was featured in contrast to the romantic classicism of the Roman Campagna. In addition, the beauty of the ruins of ancient Rome, so constantly featured by Claude, Poussin, and the other seventeenth century land- scape artists of the school of Rome, was to be matched by the scenes of the 'ruins of the world', as Thomas Burnet had described mountains in his Sacred Theory of the Earth* This work Gray had vividly in his mind when he described the scenes of desolation he had encountered in crossing the Alps in 1739, an experience he never forgot, as his Journal of a Tour through the Lakes, 5 of 1768, testifies. In the 1750's Gray turned to the study of the history and early literature of the British Isles, and he began accumulating legends and facts concerning the Cambri, Saxones, and Gothi, as he termed these tribes. From his study of Welsh history Gray learned of the now