Thomas Gray 1716–1771
English poet and essayist.
The following entry contains critical essays focusing on Gray's relationship to Preromanticism.
Gray is widely considered the most important English poet of the mid-eighteenth century. Evidencing in his poetry a studied, disciplined aestheticism, he was a major figure in the transition from the Neoclassical to the Romantic style in English letters. Although his poetic canon is small, it reveals a wide-ranging, sensitive, and scholarly mind, and confirms Gray's image as a craftsman obsessed with attaining a perfect blend of content and form. The author of such poems as "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" and "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes," among others, Gray is primarily remembered for his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard," one of the best known and most beloved poems in English literature. Perhaps the most famous and widely quoted appraisal of this poem, which is renowned as a sensitive, thoughtful soliloquy on death and the significance of being, was made by Gray's contemporary Samuel Johnson, who wrote, "'The Churchyard' abounds with images which find a mirrour in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." Gray is also esteemed for his prose, particularly his letters, which are said to rival those of his friend Horace Walpole in scope, elegance, and perspicuous observation of human life and the natural world.
Born in London, Gray was the son of a milliner and her husband, a respected scrivener but a man of such abusive and, alternately, neglectful, moods that the couple separated when their son was quite young. Gray's mother raised the boy herself, making enough money at her trade to support the two of them and to send Gray to Eton in 1725. A shy, sensitive boy, Gray enjoyed the close company of only three other students: Thomas Ashton, Richard West, and Walpole, who, with Gray, styled themselves "the Quadruple Alliance" and were given to long walks together and precocious conversation about life and literature. West and Walpole later figured significantly in the development
of Gray's poetic career, which commenced during the four years Gray spent at Cambridge, to which he was admitted in 1734 and where he attracted notice as an accomplished writer of Latin verse. Leaving Cambridge without taking a degree, he joined Walpole shortly thereafter on an extended tour of Europe from 1739 to 1741, when the two quarreled and parted company.
Returning to England, Gray joined his mother at a house she had recently taken in rustic Stoke Poges, Bucking-hamshire, and it was here that he wrote his earliest poems. In 1742, a key year in his life, he composed his first major poem, "Ode on the Spring," sending it to West—unknowingly—on the day of the latter's unexpected death at age twenty-six. Although West's death shocked and saddened Gray, it also apparently spurred him to poetic creativity; he immediately wrote his "Sonnet on the Death of Mr. West," "Ode to Adversity," and "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College." Moved by contemplations of West's death and the peaceful setting of the parish church at Stoke Poges, Gray thereafter began composing the "Elegy ," completing two separate versions by 1750. He submitted the revised version for comment to his by-now-reconciled friend, Walpole, who published it in 1751. In the meantime, Gray had recommenced his studies at Cambridge, attaining a law degree in 1743. He lived at Cambridge for the rest of his life, leaving only for periods of study at the newly opened British Museum in London and for journeys to the Lake District and Scotland, travels movingly recorded in his commonplace book and letters. While Gray's early poems created little stir upon their publication in the 1740s, the "Elegy" brought him immediate critical and popular acclaim. The poem was widely reprinted and quoted, attaining during Gray's own lifetime the stature of a minor...
(The entire section is 56,217 words.)