Thomas Gray

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Thomas Gray
Portrait by John Giles Eccardt, 1747–1748
Born(1716-12-26)26 December 1716
Cornhill, London, England
Died30 July 1771(1771-07-30) (aged 54)
Cambridge, England
OccupationPoet, historian
Alma mater Peterhouse, Cambridge
Plaque marking Thomas Gray's birthplace at 39 Cornhill, London Plaque marking Thomas Gray's birthplace at 39 Cornhill, London.JPG
Plaque marking Thomas Gray's birthplace at 39 Cornhill, London

Thomas Gray (26 December 1716 – 30 July 1771) was an English poet, letter-writer, classical scholar, and professor at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He is widely known for his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751. [1]


Gray was an extremely self-critical writer who published only 13 poems in his lifetime, despite being very popular. He was even offered the position of Poet Laureate in 1757, though he declined. His writing is largely considered to be pre-Romantic.

Early life and education

Thomas Gray was born in Cornhill, London. His father, Philip Gray, was a scrivener and his mother, Dorothy Antrobus, was a milliner. [2] He was the fifth of twelve children, and the only one to survive infancy. [3] He lived with his mother after she left his abusive and mentally unwell father. [4]

Gray's mother paid for him to go to Eton College, where his uncles Robert and William Antrobus worked. Robert became Gray's first teacher and helped inspire in Gray a love for botany and observational science. Gray's other uncle, William, became his tutor. [5] He recalled his schooldays as a time of great happiness, as is evident in his "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College". Gray was a delicate and scholarly boy who spent his time reading and avoiding athletics. He lived in his uncle's household rather than at college. He made three close friends at Eton: Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole; Thomas Ashton; and Richard West, son of another Richard West who was briefly Lord Chancellor of Ireland. The four prided themselves on their sense of style, sense of humour, and appreciation of beauty. They were called the "quadruple alliance". [6]

In 1734, Gray went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge. [7] He found the curriculum dull. He wrote letters to friends listing all the things he disliked: the masters ("mad with Pride") and the Fellows ("sleepy, drunken, dull, illiterate Things"). Intended by his family for the law, he spent most of his time as an undergraduate reading classical and modern literature, and playing Vivaldi and Scarlatti on the harpsichord for relaxation.

In 1738, he accompanied his old school-friend Walpole on his Grand Tour of Europe, possibly at Walpole's expense. The two fell out and parted in Tuscany because Walpole wanted to attend fashionable parties and Gray wanted to visit all the antiquities. They were reconciled a few years later. It was Walpole who later helped publish Gray's poetry. When Gray sent his most famous poem, "Elegy," to Walpole, Walpole sent off the poem as a manuscript and it appeared in different magazines. Gray then published the poem himself and received the credit he was due. [2]

Writing and academia

Gray began seriously writing poems in 1742, mainly after the death of his close friend Richard West, which inspired "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West". He moved to Cambridge and began a self-directed programme of literary study, becoming one of the most learned men of his time. [8] He became a Fellow first of Peterhouse, and later of Pembroke College, Cambridge. According to Britannica, Gray moved to Pembroke after the students at Peterhouse played a prank on him. [9]

Gray spent most of his life as a scholar in Cambridge, and only later in his life did he begin traveling again. Although he was one of the least productive poets (his collected works published during his lifetime amount to fewer than 1,000 lines), 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. Gray was so self-critical and fearful of failure that he published only thirteen poems during his lifetime. He once wrote that he feared his collected works would be "mistaken for the works of a flea." Walpole said that "He never wrote anything easily but things of Humour." [10] Gray came to be known as one of the "Graveyard poets" of the late 18th century, along with Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, and Christopher Smart. Gray perhaps knew these men, sharing ideas about death, mortality, and the finality and sublimity of death.

In 1762, the Regius chair of Modern History at Cambridge, a sinecure which carried a salary of £400, fell vacant after the death of Shallet Turner, and Gray's friends lobbied the government unsuccessfully to secure the position for him. In the event, Gray lost out to Lawrence Brockett, but he secured the position in 1768 after Brockett's death. [11]


"Elegy" masterpiece

It is believed that Gray began writing his masterpiece, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard , in the graveyard of St. Giles parish church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, in 1742. After several years of leaving it unfinished, he completed it in 1750 [20] (see elegy for the form). The poem was a literary sensation when published by Robert Dodsley in February 1751 (see 1751 in poetry). Its reflective, calm, and stoic tone was greatly admired, and it was pirated, imitated, quoted, and translated into Latin and Greek. It is still one of the most popular and frequently quoted poems in the English language. [21] In 1759, during the Seven Years War, before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, British General James Wolfe is said to have recited it to one of his officers, adding, "I would prefer being the author of that Poem to the glory of beating the French to-morrow." [22]

Monument, in Stoke Poges, inscribed with Gray's Elegy Gray's Monument.JPG
Monument, in Stoke Poges, inscribed with Gray's Elegy

The Elegy was recognised immediately for its beauty and skill. It contains many phrases which have entered the common English lexicon, either on their own or as quoted in other works. These include:

William Blake's illustration for Thomas Gray William Blake - The Poems of Thomas Gray, Design 105, "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." - Google Art Project.jpg
William Blake's illustration for Thomas Gray

"Elegy" contemplates such themes as death and afterlife. These themes foreshadowed the upcoming Gothic movement. It is suggested that perhaps Gray found inspiration for his poem by visiting the gravesite of his aunt, Mary Antrobus. The aunt was buried at the graveyard by the St. Giles' churchyard, which he and his mother would visit. This is the same gravesite where Gray himself was later buried. [23]

Gray also wrote light verse, including Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes , a mock elegy concerning Horace Walpole's cat. After setting the scene with the couplet "What female heart can gold despise? What cat's averse to fish?", the poem moves to its multiple proverbial conclusion: "a fav'rite has no friend", "[k]now one false step is ne'er retrieved" and "nor all that glisters, gold". (Walpole later displayed the fatal china vase (the tub) on a pedestal at his house in Strawberry Hill.)

Gray's surviving letters also show his sharp observation and playful sense of humour. He is well known for his phrase, "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." The phrase, from Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College , is possibly one of the most misconstrued phrases in English literature.[ citation needed ] Gray is not promoting ignorance, but is reflecting with nostalgia on a time when he was allowed to be ignorant, his youth (1742). It has been asserted that the Ode also abounds with images which find "a mirror in every mind". [24] This was stated by Samuel Johnson who said of the poem, "I rejoice to concur with the common reader ... The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo". [2] Indeed, Gray's poem follows the style of the mid-century literary endeavor to write of "universal feelings." [25] Samuel Johnson also said of Gray that he spoke in "two languages". He spoke in the language of "public" and "private" and according to Johnson, he should have spoken more in his private language as he did in his "Elegy" poem. [26]


The Hours by Maria Cosway, an illustration to Gray's poem Ode on the Spring, referring to the lines "Lo! where the rosy-bosomed Hours, Fair Venus' train, appear" The hours zoom in 4.jpg
The Hours by Maria Cosway, an illustration to Gray's poem Ode on the Spring, referring to the lines "Lo! where the rosy-bosomed Hours, Fair Venus' train, appear"

Gray considered his two Pindaric odes, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard , as his best works. Pindaric odes are to be written with fire and passion, unlike the calmer and more reflective Horatian odes such as Ode on a distant Prospect of Eton College. The Bard tells of a wild Welsh poet cursing the Norman king Edward I after his conquest of Wales and prophesying in detail the downfall of the House of Plantagenet. It is melodramatic, and ends with the bard hurling himself to his death from the top of a mountain.

When his duties allowed, Gray travelled widely throughout Britain to places such as Yorkshire, Derbyshire, Scotland and most notably the Lake District (see his Journal of a Visit to the Lake District in 1769) in search of picturesque landscapes and ancient monuments. These elements were not generally valued in the early 18th century, when the popular taste ran to classical styles in architecture and literature, and most people liked their scenery tame and well-tended. The Gothic details that appear in his Elegy and The Bard are a part of the first 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. [27] Gray combined traditional forms and poetic diction with new topics and modes of expression, and may be considered as a classically focused precursor of the romantic revival.[ citation needed ]

Gray's connection to the Romantic poets is vexed. In the prefaces to the 1800 and 1802 editions of Wordsworth's and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads , Wordsworth singled out Gray's "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West" to exemplify what he found most objectionable in poetry, declaring it was

"Gray, who was at the head of those who, by their reasonings, have attempted to widen the space of separation betwixt prose and metrical composition, and was more than any other man curiously elaborate in the structure of his own poetic diction." [28]

Gray wrote in a letter to West, that "the language of the age is never the language of poetry." [28]


Plaque adjacent to the tomb of Thomas Gray in Stoke Poges Churchyard Graygrave.jpg
Plaque adjacent to the tomb of Thomas Gray in Stoke Poges Churchyard

Gray died on 30 July 1771 in Cambridge, and was buried beside his mother in the churchyard of St. Giles' church in Stoke Poges, the setting for his famous Elegy. [29] His grave can still be seen there.


Related Research Articles

An ode is a type of lyrical stanza. It is an elaborately structured poem praising or glorifying an event or individual, describing nature intellectually as well as emotionally. A classic ode is structured in three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Different forms such as the homostrophic ode and the irregular ode also enter.

In English literature, an elegy is a poem of serious reflection, usually a lament for the dead. However, "for all of its pervasiveness ... the ‘elegy’ remains remarkably ill-defined: sometimes used as a catch-all to denominate texts of a somber or pessimistic tone, sometimes as a marker for textual monumentalizing, and sometimes strictly as a sign of a lament for the dead".

Abraham Cowley 17th-century English writer

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In Latin literature, Augustan poetry is the poetry that flourished during the reign of Caesar Augustus as Emperor of Rome, most notably including the works of Virgil, Horace, and Ovid. In English literature, Augustan poetry is a branch of Augustan literature, and refers to the poetry of the 18th century, specifically the first half of the century. The term comes most originally from a term that George I had used for himself. He saw himself as an Augustus. Therefore, the British poets picked up that term as a way of referring to their own endeavors, for it fit in another respect: 18th-century English poetry was political, satirical, and marked by the central philosophical problem of whether the individual or society took precedence as the subject of verse.

The adjective elegiac has two possible meanings. First, it can refer to something of, relating to, or involving, an elegy or something that expresses similar mournfulness or sorrow. Second, it can refer more specifically to poetry composed in the form of elegiac couplets.

The "Graveyard Poets", also termed "Churchyard Poets", were a number of pre-Romantic English poets of the 18th century characterised by their gloomy meditations on mortality, "skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms" elicited by the presence of the graveyard. Moving beyond the elegy lamenting a single death, their purpose was rarely sensationalist. As the century progressed, "graveyard" poetry increasingly expressed a feeling for the "sublime" and uncanny, and an antiquarian interest in ancient English poetic forms and folk poetry. The "graveyard poets" are often recognized as precursors of the Gothic literary genre, as well as the Romantic movement.

<i>Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard</i> poem by Thomas Gray

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a poem by Thomas Gray, completed in 1750 and first published in 1751. The poem's origins are unknown, but it was partly inspired by Gray's thoughts following the death of the poet Richard West in 1742. Originally titled Stanzas Wrote in a Country Church-Yard, the poem was completed when Gray was living near St Giles' parish church at Stoke Poges. It was sent to his friend Horace Walpole, who popularised the poem among London literary circles. Gray was eventually forced to publish the work on 15 February 1751 in order to preempt a magazine publisher from printing an unlicensed copy of the poem.

— Closing lines of After Blenheim by Robert Southey

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

— Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, published this year

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

1747 in poetry Overview of the events of 1747 in poetry

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

Nationality words link to articles with information on the nation's poetry or literature.

Decasyllabic quatrain is a poetic form in which each stanza consists of four lines of ten syllables each, usually with a rhyme scheme of AABB or ABAB. Examples of the decasyllabic quatrain in heroic couplets appear in some of the earliest texts in the English language, as Geoffrey Chaucer created the heroic couplet and used it in The Canterbury Tales. The alternating form came to prominence in late 16th-Century English poetry and became fashionable in the 17th Century when it appeared in heroic poems by William Davenant and John Dryden. In the 18th Century famous poets such as Thomas Gray continued to use the form in works such as "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard". Shakespearean Sonnets, comprising 3 quatrains of iambic pentameter followed by a final couplet, as well as later poems in blank verse have displayed the various uses of the decasyllabic quatrain throughout the history of English Poetry.

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<i>The Bard</i> (poem) 1757 poem by Thomas Gray

The Bard. A Pindaric Ode (1757) is a poem by Thomas Gray, set at the time of Edward I's conquest of Wales. Inspired partly by his researches into medieval history and literature, partly by his discovery of Welsh harp music, it was itself a potent influence on future generations of poets and painters, seen by many as the first creative work of the Celtic Revival and as lying at the root of the Romantic movement in Britain.

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  1. "Thomas Gray | English poet". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  2. 1 2 3 Joseph Black (ed.). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature (Second ed.). Broadview Press. pp. 1516–1517.
  3. John D. Baird, ‘Gray, Thomas (1716–1771)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) Accessed 21 Feb 2012
  4. A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller (ed.). "Gray's Family and Life". The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (Volume 10 ed.). Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  5. A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller (ed.). "Gray's family and life". The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (Volume 10 ed.). Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  6. A. W. Ward & A. R. Waller (ed.). The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (Volume 10 ed.). Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  7. "Thomas Gray (GRY734T2)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.
  8. Gilfillan, George, dissertation in The Poetical Works of Johnson, Parnell, Gray and Smollett 1855, kindle ebook ASIN   B004TQHGGE
  9. "Britannica Article" . Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  10. Walpole, Letters, vi. 206
  11. Edmund William Gosse, Gray (London: Macmillan, 1902), p. 133 at
  12. "Analysis of Ode on Spring by Thomas Gray". Poem Analysis. 29 December 2016. Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  13. "Thomas Gray Archive : Texts : Poems : Sonnet [on the Death of Mr Richard West]". Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  14. "Thomas Gray Archive : Texts : Poems : Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes". Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  15. "Thomas Gray Archive : Texts : Poems : Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College". Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  16. "Thomas Gray Archive : Texts : Poems : Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard". Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  17. "Thomas Gray: The Progress of Poesy. A Pindaric Ode". Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  18. "The Bard". Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  19. "Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive / Works / The Fatal Sisters: An Ode. (Thomas Gray)". Retrieved 12 December 2019.
  20. Letter, dated 12 June 1750, in which Gray sent the completed poem to Horace Walpole. Thomas Gray website
  21. Elegy written in a country church-yard: with versions in the Greek, Latin, German, Italian, and French languages, Nabu Press (repr. 2010.)
  22. Gosse, Edmund (2011) [1882]. Gray. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 145. ISBN   9781108034517 . Retrieved 24 December 2016.
  23. Miller, John J. "Meditation on Mortality". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 15 April 2014.
  24. Gilfillan, George, dissertation in The Poetical Works of Johnson, Parnell, Gray and Smollet 1855, kindle ebook 1855 ASIN   B004TQHGGE
  25. Joseph Black (ed.). The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Broadview Press. pp. 1516–1517.
  26. "Biography: Thomas Gray". Poetry Foundation.
  27. Kalter, Barrett (2003). "DIY Gothic: Thomas Gray and the Medieval Revival". ELH. 70 (4): 989–1019. doi:10.1353/elh.2004.0006. ISSN   0013-8304. JSTOR   30029910.
  28. 1 2 Abrams, M. H.; et al. (1979). The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 2 (Fourth ed.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company. p. 167. ISBN   0-393-95039-5.
  29. Wilson, Scott. Resting Places: The Burial Sites of More Than 14,000 Famous Persons, 3d ed.: 2 (Kindle Location 18533). McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers. Kindle Edition.
  30. Monument to Thomas Gray, Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Further reading

  1. Mack, Robert L. (2000). Thomas Gray: A Life . Yale University Press. ISBN   978-0-300-08499-3.