Thomas Gray did not write a great deal of poetry, but he was a most prolific writer of letters. In the eighteenth century, the personal letter became so refined as an exercise in wit, description, and intellect that modern critics and literary historians now regard the letter as a minor art form of the period. Among the very greatest eighteenth century letter writers are Gray and his close friend Horace Walpole. The Gray of the letters sounds different from the poet. As he addresses his personal friends on a remarkably broad range of topics, there is a refreshing clarity and ease that his concept of poetry as an expression of ideals excluded from his verse. Especially famous are his descriptions of the Alps, which foreshadow the Romantic appreciation of nature’s wilder aspects, but whatever the subject, the letters reveal that Gray was as much an artist in prose as in poetry.
Thomas Gray is usually viewed as the least significant major writer in an age that included such giants as Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and Samuel Johnson, or as the most significant of such minor figures as James Thompson and William Cowper. That he enjoys such stature is the more amazing when it is remembered that, in his lifetime, he published less than one thousand lines of verse. Gray’s immortality results from the quality of his work or, more accurately, the fine craftsmanship apparent in his every line. Poetry was only one of many subjects that interested Gray; indeed, critics and literary biographers often place him with John Milton and Johnson as one of the most learned poets in English literature. This is not to say that his poetry was not important to Gray. He was sensitive to the critical response to what he allowed to be published, and he brought to his composition all the learning and love for precision characteristic of the scholar. He wrote about things that mattered to him, things that moved him, and like William Wordsworth, he recollected in tranquillity his overflow of powerful feelings before beginning to write. Because some of the things that moved him—Gothic castles, wild mountain vistas, the annals of the poor—were subjects that later moved the poets of the early nineteenth century, he has often been called a “pre-Romantic.” This epithet, however, is less useful than usual when it comes to characterizing Gray, for Gray did not share the Romantic concern with everyday speech, nor was he moved to self-revelation. Gray intruded into his work only inasmuch as he did not hesitate to use his profound scholarship; thus, he spoke with complete intelligibility to a rather select audience. It is the achievement of this careful, intellectual, and most perfect poet that the final products of his craftsmanship manage to transcend the intellect to communicate feelings that move his readers regardless of place or time.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Thomas Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Gray’s elegy is probably the eighteenth century’s single most celebrated poem, and it remains the subject of much critical debate. This study brings together a number of important essays on the elegy, spanning several decades.
Curr, Matthew. The Consolation of Otherness: The Male Love Elegy in Milton, Gray, and Tennyson. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2002. Examines male friendship in Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” John Milton’s “Epitaphium Damonis,” and Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “In Memoriam.”
Downey, James, and Ben Jones, eds. Fearful Joy: Papers from the Thomas Gray Bicentenary Conference at Carleton University. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1974. These essays, presented at Carleton University in 1971 (the two hundredth anniversary of Gray’s death), provide an excellent sourcebook for students of Gray. All aspects of Gray’s life, times, and poetry are addressed. Included is a handsome series of early illustrations of his work, many by the great artist-poet William Blake.
Garrison, James D. A Dangerous Liberty: Translating Gray’s “Elegy.” Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2009. Gray’s most famous poem has been translated into many languages, including Greek, Latin, German, Italian, and French. Garrison looks at the poem in its various translations, thereby shedding light on the original.
Ketton-Cremer, R. W. Thomas Gray: A Biography. 1955. Reprint. London: Longmans, Green, 1966. A solid, well-written biography, very much in the “life and works” tradition. Clearly written and well researched, this remains one of the best accounts of Gray’s life. Contains an impressive set of illustrations.
McCarthy, B. Eugene. Thomas Gray: The Progress of a Poet. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997. Critical interpretation of selected works by Gray. Includes bibliographical references and index.
Mack, Robert L. Thomas Gray: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000. Incorporates recent revisionary scholarship on Gray as well as original archival research on the poet’s family and formative years. Casts new light on Gray’s personality and on the psychological and sexual tensions that defined his compelling poetry.