1902 Encyclopedia > Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray
English poet
(1716-71)




THOMAS GRAY (1716-1771), the author of the celebrated Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, was born in Cornhill, London, December 26, 1716. His father, Philip Gray, an exchange broker and scrivener, was a wealthy and nominally respectable citizen; but he treated his family with brutal severity and neglect, and the poet was altogether indebted for the advantages of a learned education to the affectionate care and industry of his mother, whose maiden name was Antrobus, and who, in conjunction with a maiden sister, kept a millinery shop. A brother of Mrs Gray was assistant to the master of Eton, and was also a fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Under his protection the poet was educated at Eton, and thence went to Peterhouse, Cambridge, attending college from 1734 to September 1738. At Eton he had as contemporaries Richard West, son of the lord chancellor of Ireland, and Horace Walpole, son of the triumphant Whig minister, Sir Robert Walpole. West died early in his 26th year, but his genius and virtues and his sorrows will for ever live in the correspondence of his friend. In the spring of 1739 Gray was invited by Horace Walpole to accompany him as travelling companion in a tour through France and Italy. They made the usual tour, and Gray wrote remarks on all he saw in Florence, Rome, Naples, &c. His observations on arts and antiquities, and his sketches of foreign manners, evince his admirable taste, learning, and discrimination. Since Milton, no such accomplished English traveller had visited those classic shores. In their journey through Dauphine, Gray's attention was strongly arrested by the wild and picturesque site of the Grande Chartreuse, surrounded by its dense forest of beech aud fir, its enormous precipices, cliffs, and cascades. He visited it a second time on his return, and in the album of the mountain convent he wrote his famous Alcaic Ode. At Reggio the travellers quarrelled and parted. Walpole took the whole blame on himself. He was fond of pleasure and amusements, "intoxicated by vanity, indulgence, and the insolence of his situation as a prime minister's son,"—his own confession,—while Gray was studious, of a serious disposition, and independent spirit. The immediate cause of the rupture is said to have been Walpole's clandestinely opening, reading, and resealing a letter addressed to Gray, in which he expected to find a confirmation of his suspicions that Gray had been writing unfavourably of him to some friends in England. A partial reconciliation was effected about three years afterwards by the intervention of a lady, and Walpole redeemed his youthful error by a lifelong sincere admiration and respect for his friend. From Reggio Gray proceeded to Venice, and thence travelled homewards, attended by a laquais de voyage. He arrived in England in September 1741, having been absent about two years and a half. His father died in November, and it was found that the poet's fortune would not enable him to prosecute the study of the law. He therefore retired to Cambridge, and fixed his residence at the university. There he continued for the remainder of his life, with the exception of about two years spent in London, when the treasures of the British Museum were thrown open. At Cambridge he had the range of noble libraries. His happiness consisted in study, and he perused with critical attention the Greek and Roman poets, philosophers, historians, and orators. Plato and the Anthologia he read and annotated with great care, as if for publication. He compiled tables of Greek chronology, added notes to Linnaeus and other naturalists, wrote geographical disquisitions on Strabo, and, besides being familiar with French and Italian literature, was a zealous archaeological student, and profoundly versed in architecture, botany, painting, and music. In all departments of human learning, excepting mathematics, he was a master. But it follows that one so studious, so critical, and so fastidious could not be a voluminous writer. A few poems include all the original compositions of Gray— the quintessence, as it were, of thirty years of ceaseless study and contemplation, irradiated by bright and fitful gleams of inspiration. In 1742 Gray composed his Ode to Spring, his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, and his Ode to Adversity,—productions which most readers of poetry can repeat from memory. He commenced a didactic poem, On the Alliance of Education and Government, but wrote only about a hundred lines. Every reader must regret that this philosophical poem is but a fragment. It is in the style and measure of Dryden, of whom Gray was an ardent admirer and close student.





His Elegy ivrittenin a Country Churchyard was completed and published in 1751. In the form of a sixpenny brochure it circulated rapidly, four editions being exhausted the first year, and within the same period it also appeared in three magazines—the Magazine of Magazines for February, the London Magazine for March, and the Grand Magazine of Magazines for April. This popularity surprised the poet. He said sarcastically that it was owing entirely to the subject, and that the public would have received it as well if it had been written in prose. The solemn and affecting nature of the poem, applicable to all ranks and classes, no doubt aided its sale; it required high poetic sensibility and a cultivated taste to appreciate the rapid transitions, the figurative language, and lyrical magnificence of the odes; but the elegy went home to all hearts ; while its musical harmony, originality, and pathetic train of sentiment and feeling render it one of the most perfect of English poems. No vicissitudes of taste or fashion have affected its popularity. When the original manuscript of the poem was offered for sale in 1854, it brought the almost incredible sum of £131. The two great odes of Gray, the Progress of Poetry and The Bard, were published in 1757, and were but coldly received. His name, however, stood high, and, on the death of Cibber the same year, he was offered the Laureateship, which he wisely declined. He was ambitious, however, of obtaining the more congenial and dignified appointment of professor of modern history in the university of Cambridge, which fell vacant in 1762, and, by the advice of his friends, he made application to Lord Bute, but was unsuccessful. Lord Bute had designed it for the tutor of his son-in-law, Sir _ James Lowther. No one had heard of the tutor, but the Bute influence was all-prevailing. In 1765 Gray took a journey into Scotland, penetrating as far north as Dunkeld and the Pass of Killiecrankie; and his account of his tour, in letters to his friends, is replete with interest and with touches of his peculiar humour and graphic description. One other poem proceeded from his pen. In 1768 the professorship of modern history was again vacant, and the duke of Grafton bestowed it upon Gray. A sum of £400 per annum was thus added to his income; but his health was precarious—he had lost it, he said, just when he began to be easy in his circumstances. The nomination of the duke of Grafton to the office of chancellor of the university enabled Gray to acknowledge the favour conferred on himself. He thought it better that gratitude should sing than expectation, and he honoured his grace's installation with an ode. Such occasional productions are seldom happy; but Gray preserved his poetic dignity and select beauty of expression. He made the founders of Cambridge, as Mr Hallam has remarked, " pass before our eyes like shadows over a magic glass." When the ceremony of the installation was over, the poet-professor went on a tour to the lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, and few of the beauties of the lake-country, since so famous, escaped his observation. This was to be his last excursion. While at dinner one day in the college-hall he was seized with an attack of gout in his stomach, which resisted all the powers of medicine, and proved fatal in less than a week. He died on the 30th of July 1771, and was buried, according to his own desire, beside the remains of his mother at Stoke Pogis, near Slough in Buckinghamshire, in a beautiful sequestered village churchyard that is supposed to have furnished the scene of his elegy.

The literary habits and personal peculiarities of Gray are familiar to us from the numerous representations and allusions of his friends. It is easy to fancy the recluse poet sitting in his college-chambers in the old quadrangle of Pembroke Hall. His windows are ornamented with mignonette and choice flowers in China vases, but outside may be discerned some iron-work intended to be service-able as a fire-escape, for he has a horror of fire. His furniture is neat and select; his books, rather for use than show, are disposed around him. He has a harpsichord in the room. In a corner of one of the apartments is a trunk containing his deceased mother's dresses, carefully folded up and preserved. His fastidiousness, bordering upon effeminacy, is visible in his gait and manner,—in his handsome features and small well-dressed person, especially when he walks abroad and sinks the author and hard student in "the gentleman who sometimes writes for his amusement." He writes always with a crow quill, speaks slowly and sententiously, and shuns the crew of dissonant college revellers who call him " a prig," and seek to annoy him. Long mornings of study, and nights feverish from ill-health, are spent in those chambers ; he is often listless and in low spirits; yet his natural temper is not desponding, and he delights in employment. He has always something to learn or to communicate, some sally of humour or quiet stroke of satire for his friends and correspondents, some note on natural history to enter in his journal, some passage of Plato to unfold and illustrate, some golden thought of classic inspiration to inlay on his page, some bold image to tone down, some verse to retouch and harmonize. His life is on the whole innocent and happy, and a feeling of thankfulness to the Great Giver is breathed over all.

Various editions of the collected works of Gray have been published. The first, including memoirs of his life and his correspondence, edited by his friend, the Rev. W. Mason, appeared in 1775. It has been often reprinted, ana forms the groundwork of the editions by Mathias (1814) and Mitford (1816). Mr Mitford, in 1843, published Gray's correspondence with the Rev. Norton Nicholls, and in 1854 his correspondence with Mason, from which Mason had made only a partial selection in his memoirs of Gray. A second edition of the correspondence with additional notes was published in 1855. (E. CA.)






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