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.
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...
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