Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1686

The publication of “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” in February, 1751, was largely responsible for Thomas Gray’s becoming known to his contemporaries as the greatest living English poet; and yet his fame rested on a mere handful of poems, composed slowly, revised over a period of years, and published with the greatest reluctance by the author, chiefly at the instigation of his friend and effective literary adviser, Horace Walpole. Indeed, despite his literary renown Gray lived as a near recluse at Peterhouse and Pembroke Colleges, Cambridge, from the age of twenty-six to his death at fifty-five in 1771. It is said that the undergraduates at the University flocked to catch a glimpse of him on the rare occasions of his public appearances.

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Given his habits of withdrawal and seclusion, it is fortunate that we have such an enduring record of the life and character of the poet as his collected letters provide. They are for the most part personal and unself-conscious, addressed to friends of long standing—in no sense public documents, but revealing a detailed picture of his personality, his interests, and the facts of his life.

A striking characteristic of the letters as a whole is the quiet testimony they give to the erudition of this gentle man. The eminent scholar William Temple attributed to Gray an extensive knowledge of natural and civil history, antiquities, criticism, metaphysics, morals, politics, the arts, architecture, gardening, and voyages. This learnedness is nowhere obtrusive in the letters, but permeates and enriches a reading of them. Because he spent most of his life in what we would call “pure” research, Gray’s scholarship was as natural and familiar to him as the conditions of the weather, and both topics receive equally loving and casual treatment in his writing.

Though he never took an active part in political matters, Gray was well-informed about contemporary events, and he had an active and gossipy interest in them. He shows a lively humor and charming wit in minding his neighbors’ business, whether describing the coronation of a king, discussing the selection of a pope, predicting the results of an election, or teasing a friend about the friend’s wedding; and he is likely to cap any contemporary allusion with an apt line from Latin or Greek literature.

This love of classical studies and antiquity was an essential part of his personality, and along with it went a deep interest in the antiquities of Britain. Gray became greatly excited when MacPherson produced the alleged Old Erse epic of Ossian; in letters to several people he discusses this work, puzzles over its genuineness, and rejoices in its Gothic wildness and primitive mystery. His poems, “The Bard” and “The Descent of Odin” are products of that same interest in British antiquities.

Literary criticism appears informally through the letters, for Gray was also well-informed about the intellectual trends of his time. He was familiar with, and comments familiarly upon, the lives and works of such figures as Voltaire, Rousseau, Swift, Dryden, Hume, and Shaftesbury. Opinions upon the theater and opera of the eighteenth century are also to be found in the letters. But of formal criticism he produced little. Gray has been accused of a learned dilettantism, and it is true that his serious researches were consumed in numerous never-published fragments and notes for erudite but obscure studies in the classics.

Descriptions of scenery and landscapes appear frequently in his correspondence, particularly in the series of letters he sent to England while on a European tour with Walpole, 1739-1741. They visited France, Switzerland, and Italy, where Gray was impressed by the fashionable society of the cities, the poverty he saw on the land, and particularly by the wild and majestic prospects afforded by travels in the mountains. We see in Gray’s letters an early example of the fascination with the “picturesque” and the “sublime” of the wildest aspects of nature that was to become so important later to Romantic writers.

That same tour occasioned a quarrel between Walpole and Gray that estranged the pair for several years; the only break in a life-long friendship. It is suggested that Gray’s relative poverty and dependent position, along with Walpole’s perhaps unconscious autocratic temperament and more cosmopolitan interests, were responsible for the disagreement.

Certainly Gray in general preferred solitude to society. His seclusion and aloofness made many people think him prim, proud, and over-fastidious, but it is more probable that his withdrawal was a defense against situations in which he could not be at ease, and involvement in society alien to his tastes. He lived celibate and throughout her life was devoted to his mother, who suffered the early deaths of eleven of her twelve children and the brutality of an eccentric, alcoholic husband. These early experiences left Gray a hypersensitive and timid man, yet he had a capacity and need for at least a few deep and lasting friendships.

In the school days at Eton, he became one of a “Quadrupe Alliance” of quiet boys, along with Walpole, Thomas Ashton, and Richard West. West’s early death was profoundly upsetting to Gray, but the remaining three maintained their friendship and correspondence throughout their lives. The other most important of Gray’s friendships were with James Brown, Master of Pembroke College, Cambridge; William Mason, a minor poet and playwright who later became Gray’s literary executor; and the physician Thomas Wharton, Gray’s closest friend and most faithful correspondent. Gray’s letters to Wharton are among the most affectionate and charming of all his pieces. It was to Wharton, too, that Gray sent a journal that he kept during the latter years of his life, recording the weather, his activities, his rambles in the countryside, even a recipe for dressing perch, for the benefit of Mrs. Wharton. Also worth mention are the letters addressed to Norton Nicholls, a young clergyman, in whose friendship we see Gray’s kindness and sympathy for young people. The letters to Nicholls are entertaining and playful but have a delicate dignity that never patronizes.

In spite of these warm friendships, Gray was often despondent and melancholy. He writes to Richard West of two kinds of melancholy, white and black—one being a mild ennui and dejection, the other a deep despair—and says he suffers frequently from both. Gray was constantly examining the state of his own psyche and worrying about his relationships with other people. He would fall into deep depressions because he felt his life to be useless, realized he was doing nothing. At the same time he was temperamentally incapable of taking a more aggressive role in the world from which he retreated. Never robust, he worried a great deal about his health, and his letters often contain detailed accounts of his physical and mental states. A general fussiness over small things perhaps accounts for these tendencies toward mild hypochondria and self-doubt, as well as for his interest in the niceties of furniture, decorating, and gardening. He occupied himself with these details to avoid coming to grips with larger problems.

This is not to say that he was petulant and pompous. The ebullient spirits of his youthful letters gave way in maturity to a quiet, ironic, and sometimes sarcastic humor, whose wit was as often directed against himself as against others. It is common to find in his letters, after a slightly rhapsodical passage of serious description or philosophy, a short ironic comment about his fine rhetoric and sentiment. He had a lively sense of the ridiculous and was not loath to puncture his own dignity where it was becoming too solemn.

Gray’s letters are particularly valuable for the insight they provide into the man’s attitude toward poetry, in both theory and craftsmanship. His extreme reluctance to publish his poems and the modesty with which he regarded their appearance are clear in his correspondence upon the subject. The famous “Elegy” was finally brought out in 1751 by the publisher Dodsley, to prevent an unauthorized version from appearing in a magazine; a letter from Gray to Walpole at this time tells how unhappy he is to be forced to publish his poem. Two years later, when Dodsley was preparing a volume of six of Gray’s poems at Walpole’s instigation, Gray was horrified to learn that a portrait of himself was to appear as a frontispiece, and he positively forbade its reproduction; he also insisted that the title be DESIGNS BY MR. R. BENTLEY FOR SIX POEMS BY MR. T. GRAY, rather than, POEMS BY MR. T. GRAY, WITH DESIGNS. . . .

Gray seemed to fear both public ridicule of his scant production and also uncritical public acclaim, for his deep distrust of mass opinion on such matters amounted virtually to misanthropy. The competitiveness and demand for attention implied in publication went against the grain of his solitary temper; in fact, when he was offered the Laureateship of England at the death of Colley Cibber in 1757, he refused it, comparing the office in a letter to William Mason to that of Rat-Catcher to the King. He accepted, however, the post of Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1768, an office which required no duties, and which he held until his death three years later.

Gray took poetry seriously, however, and he discusses its nature in various letters. He thought that the lyric was the best medium for emotional communication, which for him was poetry’s primary reason for being. To this end, he felt poetry should have as a prime subject the beauties of nature, and leave intellectual speculation to philosophy. But while he refused the strict rules imposed on eighteenth century poetry in general, he still wanted a grave decorum and moderation to characterize the art.

In all, Gray was simultaneously torn between the desire to accomplish something in the world by leaving a name to posterity through his poetry, and an extreme distaste for the publicity that necessarily would accompany such fame. The struggle within his mind escapes into his letters, and through them we obtain an intimate and fascinating portrait of the character of this extraordinary man.

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