Context: "The Sonnet on the Death of Richard West" was published posthumously by Gray's executor, William Mason. Richard West (1715–1742), son of the Lord Chancellor of Ireland, was a fellow student with Gray at Eton in 1725. He was also at Cambridge at the same time as Gray, but in a different college. The young man died in June, 1742, and Gray, who was just beginning his life as a poet, was moved to compose a sonnet, the first important one in English since the time of Milton. He also wrote an "Ode to Eton," published anonymously, in 1747. The idea expressed in the conclusion of the sonnet has many predecessors. Solon (638?–559 B.C.) is supposed to have uttered it when told that weeping would not help, following the death of his son. It is quoted about the Emperor Augustus (63 B.C.–A.D.14). Colley Cibber (1671–1757), the British actor-playright, used it in Richard the Third (Act II, sc.ii) and Fitzgeoffrey rephrased it in his Life and Death of Sir Francis Drake. In his famous Preface to the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1800), Wordsworth used many of the lines of this sonnet to illustrate what he considered the artificial and false diction of eighteenth century poetry. Gray's sonnet, having described the loneliness of morning in the first eight lines, continues in the sestet.
Yet Morning smiles the busy race to cheer,
And new-born pleasure brings to happier men;
The fields to all their wonted tribute bear;
To warm their little loves the birds complain;
I fruitless mourn to him that cannot hear,
And weep the more because I weep in vain.