Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray poet
   Thomas Gray, 1716-71, English poet, was born in London. In 1727 he was sent to Eton, where he formed a close friendship with Horace Walpole, son of the prime minister, and with Richard West, son of the chancellor of Ireland. At Cambridge, where he matriculated in 1734, he became even more closely acquainted with Walpole and in 1739 the two students began a long tour of the Continent, one of the few significant events in Gray's quiet life. Dur­ing this trip he was greatly impressed by French and Italian classicism and at the same time began to exhibit the strain of romantic melancholy, which, combined with classic austerity of form and diction, was to characterize his greatest verse. At Reggio, in 1741, the friends quarreled and separated, and Gray went on alone to visit Venice and the Grande Chartreuse before returning to London.

   In 1744 he took a degree in civil Law, but lingered on at Peterhouse, Cambridge, as a kind of perennial undergraduate, diligently studying Greek literature and beginning various literary projects, few of which were completed. He became reconciled with Walpole in 1745 and sent him some of his minor poems, including an ode on the death of Walpole's cat. These, with Gray's earlier poems, an "Ode on Spring" and "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," were published in Dodsley's Miscellany (1748). The stately Elegy Written in a Country Church Tard (1751), probably motivated by the death of his aunt, Mary Antrobus, in 1749, is supposed to be descriptive of the graveyard at Stoke Poges. The Elegy was published anonymously, but its authorship was soon revealed and Gray became famous throughout England. His odes, The Bard and The Progress of Poesy, published at Walpole's Strawberry Hill Press, were even more important as manifestations of a full-fledged English romanticism. These epoch-making "Pindaric odes," The Fatal Sisters and Descent of Odin (1768), complete the canon of Gray's poetry; in the history of English literature no one who published so little holds so high a place. In 1756 the unruly Peterhouse students be­gan to take advantage of Gray's sensitive nature by playing practical jokes on him. He soon became angry and moved to Pembroke College. In 1768 he was named professor of history and modern languages at Cambridge. During his later years he traveled, renewed old friendships with Walpole, Wharton, and Nichols, and cultivated a modest epicureanism. He died at Pembroke following an acute attack of gout, and was buried at Stoke Poges.

   There are numerous editions of Gray's letters, which are considered among the most charming in English epistolary literature.