“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” 1751
Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray, 1753
Odes, by Mr. Gray, 1757
Pindaric Odes, 1758
Poems by Mr. Gray, 1768
The Correspondence of Thomas Gray, 1935 (Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, editors)
In judging the poetic output of Thomas Gray, two schools of thought have gradually developed. One holds that he is the most distinguished of the minor poets; the other, that he is assuredly the least prolific of the major ones. Whichever view finally prevails, it is certainly true that Gray was concerned with the quality rather than the quantity of his verse. Essentially a scholar, with scholarly instincts, Gray had a vast knowledge of history, philosophy, politics, languages, and literature; he also had an avid interest in painting, architecture, and gardening. While writing his poetry, he shaped and reshaped his lines with a patience and discipline almost unmatched in the annuals of English literature. To call his best work the ultimate expression of neoclassical art would be only half accurate; it also contains, sometimes half-hidden, the seeds of a momentous change in English poetry.
Born at Cornhill in London in 1716, Gray was the only one of a family of twelve children to survive infancy. His father, like John Milton’s, was a money scrivener; he was also a brutal, neglectful parent and something of a ne’er-do-well. As a result Gray’s parents separated, and Gray’s mother joined her sister in a millinery establishment, which prospered sufficiently to allow Gray to begin attending Eton College at the age of eight. His years at Eton were idyllic. Here he became close friends with Richard West, son of the lord chancellor of Ireland, and with Horace Walpole, the prime minister’s son. Gray was a member of the “Quadruple Alliance,” a group of intellectual students dedicated to classical poetry. A career at Cambridge followed, which, with minor interruptions, continued to the end of his life.
Gray interrupted his studies at Cambridge, which began in 1734, to tour Italy and France from 1739 to 1741 in the company of young Walpole. The trip ended in Reggio, Italy, in a quarrel that temporarily disrupted the friendship. After his return to England Gray postponed his return to Cambridge for two further years, during which he lived with his mother at the village of Stoke Poges. Here, in 1742, he wrote his first important poems, including “Ode to the Spring,” “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” and “Hymn to Adversity.” In June, 1742, Gray was shocked to learn of the death of Richard West. The following October he returned to Cambridge, and about the same time he started writing “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which was published in 1751. At Cambridge, Gray took up residence first at Peterhouse and then at Pembroke College. He received his bachelor of laws (LL.B.) degree in 1743. Two years later, he reconciled with Walpole, who became the one who often persuaded Gray to publish his poems. At Cambridge, Gray lived a quiet, uneventful, and aloof existence. The poet Christopher Smart, a fellow at Pembroke, recalled Gray as a “little, prim, fastidious man, distinguished by a short, shuffling step.”
Gray’s significance as a poet far outreaches the slenderness of his literary output. Discernible in his work is an interest in nature and in the past that is curiously at variance with the rigid tenets of neoclassicism. A dominant theme in Gray’s work is that of his relationship with humankind, an interest that places him with the forerunners of the Romanticism of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Gray’s role as a transitional poet is especially well illustrated by “The Bard” (1757) and by his later odes, “The Fatal Sisters” (1761) and “The Descent of Odin” (1761).
Gray never married. When Colley Cibber died in 1757 Gray was offered the poet laureateship of England, which he refused because the post had acquired a low repute. In 1768 he accepted the position of professor of history and modern languages at Cambridge. He never gave a lecture, however. Indolent and melancholic, he had to force himself to work. He was inspired only at long intervals and then briefly. Gray’s health was always fragile, and he suffered from various psychological and physical ailments, which included an anxiety neurosis and a weak constitution. In later years he was afflicted with painful attacks of gout, a condition that had been responsible for the deaths of both his parents. When he died in Cambridge on July 30, 1771, Gray was buried beside his mother in the churchyard at Stoke Poges.