- Born: December 26, 1716, London, England
- Died: July 30, 1771 (aged 54), Cambridge, England
- Notable Works: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Thomas Gray (26 December 1716 – 30 July 1771) was an English poet, classical scholar and professor at Pembroke College, Cambridge, best known for his poem Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751.
While Gray is regarded as the foremost English-language poet of the mid-18th century, he was very self-critical and published only thirteen poems during his lifetime and refused the post of Poet Laureate in 1757.
He lived most of his life in Cambridge, and enjoyed travelling around Britain. He died in 1771 aged 54, after a short illness.
Thomas Gray – Early Life
Thomas Gray was born on December 26, 1716 in Cornhill, London. He was the fifth of 12 children of Philip and Dorothy Antrobus Gray, and the only one to survive infancy. His father, a scrivener, was violent and mentally unwell, causing his mother, who was a milliner, to leave him. Gray lived with his mother after his parents separated.
From 1725 to 1734, Gray attended Eton College, which his mother paid for him to go to. His uncles Robert and William Antrobus worked there, and Robert became Gray’s first teacher and helped inspire Gray in botany and observational science. Gray’s other uncle, William, became his tutor. Here, he also met Richard West and Horace Walpole, son of the powerful Whig minister, Sir Robert Walpole.
Gray enjoyed his time at Eton, as can be seen in his poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”. He lived in his uncle’s household rather than at college, and was a hardworking student.
In 1734, Gray entered Peterhouse College, Cambridge University, but he found the curriculum dull and spent most of his time as an undergraduate reading classical and modern literature, and playing Vivaldi and Scarlatti on the harpsichord for relaxation.
Gray left Cambridge four years later without a degree, intending to read law at the Inner Temple in London. However, on March 29, 1739, he and Horace Walpole sailed from Dover for a Continental tour. They quarrelled in Italy — Walpole wanted to attend fashionable parties and Gray wanted to visit all the antiquities — and Gray continued the tour alone, returning to London in September.
The two reconciled a few years later and it was Walpole who later helped publish Gray’s poetry.
Poetry and Style
Gray was one of the least productive poets, and his collected works published during his lifetime amount to fewer than 1,000 lines. He was so self-critical and fearful of failure that he published only thirteen poems during his lifetime. However, he is regarded as the foremost English-language poet of the mid-18th century. In 1757, he was offered the post of Poet Laureate, which he refused, and once wrote that he feared his collected works would be “mistaken for the works of a flea”.
Except for his mother, fellow poet Richard West was the person most dear to Gray. His death on June 1, 1742 from consumption was partly what inspired Gray to seriously begin writing poems, although he still wrote only sporadically. Gray’s “Ode on the Spring” was written while West was still alive and is to some extent a response to the ode he sent Gray.
After his death, Gray dedicated a poem to West, entitled “Sonnet on the Death of Richard West”. During this time, he also moved to Cambridge and began a self-directed programme of literary study.
Gray’s poetry often combines traditional forms and poetic diction with new topics and modes of expression. A lot of his poetry is concerned with the rejection of sexual desire. The figure of the poet in his poems is often a lonely, alienated, and marginal one, and various muses or surrogate-mother figures are invoked for aid or guidance. He considered his two Pindaric odes, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, as his best works, which are not as calm and are more reflective than his other works.
Gray was largely influenced by his travel throughout Britain, particularly in the Lake District where he would search for picturesque landscapes and ancient monuments. He also uses Gothic details in his writing, which were, in part, foreshadowing of the Romantic movement that dominated the early 19th century, when William Wordsworth and the other Lake poets taught people to value the picturesque, the sublime, and the Gothic.
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard
Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is arguably Gray’s most celebrated piece of writing. It is thought that he started writing this piece in 1742 following the death of West, but did not finish it until 1750.
Gray originally sent this poem to Horace Walpole, who popularised the poem among London literary circles. It was then published by Robert Dodsley in February 1751 to give Gray credit, preventing a magazine publisher from printing an unlicensed copy of the poem. On publication, it was very well received.
The poem argues that the remembrance can be good and bad, and the narrator finds comfort in pondering the lives of the obscure rustics buried in the churchyard. The two versions of the poem, Stanzas and Elegy, approach death differently; the first contains a stoic response to death, but the final version contains an epitaph which serves to repress the narrator’s fear of dying.
The poem is an elegy in name but not in form and has a style more similar to that of contemporary odes. It is reflective, calm, and stoic in tone and is one of the most popular and frequently quoted poems in the English language. Many of the themes in Elegy foreshadowed the upcoming Gothic movement and it has been suggested Gray found inspiration for his poem by visiting the graveyard of St Giles’ parish church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, the grave-site of his aunt, Mary Antrobus, where he was also later buried.
Gray also wrote light verse, such as Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, which was a mock elegy concerning Horace Walpole’s cat.
Academia and Travel
Having moved to Cambridge following the death of West, Gray became a Fellow first of Peterhouse, and later of Pembroke College, Cambridge.
Gray’s mother died on March 11, 1753. On March 5, 1756 he moved from Peterhouse College across the street to Pembroke College, reportedly as a consequence of a prank played on him by some students who, knowing of his fear of fire, raised a false alarm.
When the poet laureate, Colley Cibber, died in 1757, Gray was offered the position, but he declined it. In July 1759 he moved to London to study at the British Museum, which had been opened to the public in January.
In December 1761, he returned to Cambridge where he remained for the rest of his life, apart from some travelling he did. He particularly enjoyed travelling around to places such as Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Scotland and, most notably, the Lake District.
In 1762, the Regius chair of Modern History at Cambridge, a sinecure which carried a salary of £400, became vacant after the death of Shallet Turner. Gray’s friends tired unsuccessfully to secure the position for him and he lost out to Lawrence Brockett. However, he secured the position in 1768 after Brockett’s death. He never lectured or published on the subject.
In his later year, the most significant personal event was a brief, intense friendship with a young Swiss student, Karl Victor von Bonstetten. The friendship was apparently complicated by physical desire on Gray’s part, though no sexual relation is believed to have occurred between them.
Gray died on 30 July 1771 in Cambridge, following a week of illness. He was buried alongside his mother in the churchyard of St Giles’ church in Stoke Poges. It is often thought this was the setting for his famous Elegy.
Despite publishing very few poems in his lifetime, Gray is considered to be one of the most important English literature poets of the eighteenth century.
Thanks to his studious nature and education, his thorough knowledge of Classical Latin literature, as well as his considerable knowledge of older Anglo-Saxon traditions, Gray’s poems have elegance in terms of form, while steering clear of the more common tendencies of many other Classicially-inspired poets.
His poem Elegy on a Country Churchyard is universally seen as the highest achievement of eighteenth-century Classicism, as well as a major precursor and inspiration to the style of Romanticism and Gothic writing.
The poem is one of the most frequently quoted poems in the English language, with phrases such as “Kindred spirit” and “Far from the Madding Crowd” still used today.
- Ode on the Spring (written in 1742)
- On the Death of Richard West (written in 1742)
- Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes (written in 1747)
- Ode to a Distant Prospect of Eton College (written in 1747 and published anonymously)
- Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (written between 1745 and 1750)
- The Progress of Poesy: A Pindaric Ode (written between 1751 and 1754)
- The Bard: A Pindaric Ode (written between 1755 and 1757)
- The Fatal Sisters: An Ode (written in 1761)
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