Making the Past: The Concepts of Literary History and Literary Tradition in the Works of Thomas Gray
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This study explores Thomas Gray’s concepts of literary history, tradition, and the past. It proffers critical examinations of Gray’s literary and historical thoughts, illustrating the extent of the complexity of the mid‐century cultural and intellectual climate in which Gray and his contemporaries were writing. It shows the aesthetic, cultural, and political dimensions of canonicity in the course of examining the ideological motivation behind Gray’s literary history. Though much of Gray’s poetry is private and written for a narrow literary circle, his literary history seems engaged with issues of public concerns. Gray’s literary history must not be understood as a mere objective scholarly study, but as an ideological narrative invented to promote specific national and cultural agendas. Though Gray’s plan for his History of English Poetry was inspired directly by Pope’s scheme of writing a history of English poetry, Gray’s historiography represents a challenge to Pope’s most fundamental “neo‐classical” premises of canonicity in that it aligns English literary poetry back to the literary tradition of ancient Britain and resituates the English literary canon in an entirely different theoretical framework. Gray reworked Pope’s historical scheme to suits the need of the political and intellectual agendas of his own time: the national need for a distinctive cultural identity, which was promoted by and led to the emergence of a more national and less partisan atmosphere. Gray’s comprehensive project of literary history charts the birth and development of what he views as an English “high‐cultural” tradition, whose origins he attributes to the classical and Celtic antiquity. In Gray’s view, this tradition reaches its peak with the rise of Elizabethan literary culture; a culture which was later challenged by the “French” model which dominated British literary culture from the Restoration to Gray’s time. Gray’s literary history is to be examined in this study in relation to the concept of canonformation. Gray’s historiographical study of literary culture of ancient Britain, his historicization of Chaucerian and medieval texts, his celebration of Elizabethan literary culture, and his polemical attack on “neo‐classical” literary ideals intend to relocate the process of canon‐formation within a “pure” source of national literary heritage, something which provides cultural momentum for the emergence of a historiography and an aesthetics promoting Gray’s idea of the continuity of tradition. As is the case in his poetry, the concept of cultural continuity is also central to Gray’s literary history, and permeates through his periodization, historicism, criticism, and his concept of the transformation of tradition.
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