Thomas Gray was born in Cornhill (London) on December 26, 1716. Of twelve children born to Philip and Dorothy Gray, only Thomas survived childhood. The family was fairly prosperous; Philip was a scrivener and exchange broker, and Dorothy operated a millinery. Dorothy was a loving parent, but Philip was an ill-tempered wife-beater who was responsible for making young Thomas’s childhood less than happy. It may well have been to remove the child from his father’s influence that Dorothy arranged for her eight-year-old son to go off to school at Eton, where her brothers were masters. At Eton, Gray met Richard West and Horace Walpole, who became his closest friends, but with the exception of the happiness resulting from these friendships, the studious and solitary Gray found little pleasure in the company of the rowdy young men of Eton. In 1734, Gray and Walpole left Eton for Cambridge University. The death of his aunt, Sarah Gray, provided an income sufficient for his modest needs. Gray left Cambridge in 1738 with the intention of studying law at the Inner Temple. In 1739, however, his friend Walpole was ready to put the finishing touch on his own education by taking the traditional Grand Tour of Europe. Walpole’s father, the famous prime minister Sir Robert Walpole, believed that his son might benefit from the company of a good, sober companion and offered to pay all of Gray’s expenses to take the Tour with Horace. For two years, Gray and Walpole traveled through France, Italy, and Switzerland. Gray was fascinated by the culture of Europe and vividly recorded his experiences and feelings in letters that are considered among the finest written in English. While touring Italy in May, 1741, Gray and Walpole quarreled. The reason for the disagreement is not clear—years later, after Gray’s death, Walpole assumed the blame—but Gray returned to London alone and was not reconciled with his friend until 1745. In 1742, he settled again at Cambridge and, except for a brief residence in London (1759-1761), stayed there for the rest of his life.
On June 1, 1742, West died; Gray never forgot the loss of his dearest friend. This same time marks a period of increased literary productivity as Gray turned from Latin to English as his poetic medium. He had long been a writer of Latin poetry but now began to work with classical forms, such as the ode, in English. Gray’s first major poems, “Ode on the Spring,” “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” and “Hymn to Adversity,” were composed in 1742, but the Eton ode was not published until 1747; the Spring ode and “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” appeared in an anthology in 1748. In the meantime, Gray was awarded a bachelor of civil law degree in 1743 and settled into the life of a Cambridge scholar. His appetite for study was insatiable. His notebooks attest to his extensive knowledge of natural history as well as art, philosophy, and languages. The famous “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was published on February 15, 1751. It was immediately popular, and Gray’s printer had to produce five editions that year to meet the demand. In December, 1757, four months after the publication of the Odes, by Mr. Gray, he rejected an offer to be poet laureate; it was an office that politics and poor poetry had caused to fall into low repute. The next decade was spent quietly at Cambridge, with frequent trips to London, Scotland, and Wales. In 1768, Gray was made Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. His final years were plagued by attacks of gout, and he endured considerable pain until his death on July 30, 1771. He was buried beside his mother in the village of Stoke Poges.
In judging the poetic output of Thomas Gray, two schools of thought have gradually developed. One holds that he is the most distinguished of the minor poets; the other, that he is assuredly the least prolific of the major ones. Whichever view finally prevails, it is certainly true that...
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