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 classic. In recognition of his prominent achievement, Gray was elected Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge in 1768, an office he held until his death, although he never once lectured. A melancholy, private man known for his erudition and wide range of interests, Gray was markedly cheered during the last years of his life through his friendship with a visiting Swiss student, Karl Viktor von Bonstetten, who figures significantly in the poet's correspondence.
"Gray wrote at the very beginning of a certain literary epoch of which we, perhaps, stand at the very end," wrote G. K. Chesterton in 1932. "He represented that softening of the Classic which slowly turned it into the Romantic." From the start of his career, Gray's poetry displayed elements of the intuitive, the emotional, and the naturally metaphysical that departed from the established tenets of adherence to order, reason, and revealed wisdom characteristic of English Neoclassical literature. In addition, Gray introduced a disquieting element that later influenced the poetry of Romantics Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Percy Bysshe Shelley: the idea of terror as an adjunct of the sublime. While the subjects and themes of Gray's poetry anticipate the concerns of Romanticism, the formality of his language and his use of intricate and precise metrical patterns link him with the Neoclassical tradition. In fact, Gray's own remark to West that "the language of the age is never the language of poetry" helped to fuel a critical debate in the nineteenth century concerning Gray's originality and his sources of inspiration. Today, however, Gray is consistently viewed as an important transitional poet, not only for his innovations in subject matter but also for infusing new life into traditional forms through his exaltation of the imagination as the source of creativity. Aside from his influence on the development of English Romanticism, Gray is primarily remembered for the "Elegy," a work widely considered an exquisite meditation on mortality. As the "Elegy" opens, the poem's speaker reflects in the quiet darkness of the churchyard on the contrast between the lives of the rural poor and the lives of the wealthy and the ruling classes. The narrator goes on to consider his own repressed potential and the limited opportunities of the poor to achieve greatness. "For those who do not know the poem," wrote T. S. Eliot, "I will say briefly that it is, naturally, a meditation on mortality. The poet remarks that the graves are those of humble peasants who were once living and are now dead. In death we are all equal, and it does not matter whether we have an impressive monument or a plain stone. This leads to conjecture that one or two of the obscure people buried here may have had gifts which would have brought them to fame and power had circumstances favoured such success." When Gray made revisions to the "Elegy," he replaced the four concluding stanzas of the original version, which is known as the Eton MS, with fourteen new stanzas, which include Gray's thoughts on the nature and meaning of epitaphs.
The success of the "Elegy" focused critical attention on Gray for the rest of his career, leading to reappraisals of his earlier poetry and close scrutiny of his subsequent works. Of the early poems, the "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," a tribute by Gray to the setting of the happiest years of his life, became popular during Gray's lifetime and has since often been anthologized. Another popular early poem, "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat," humorously describes, in mock-tragic style, the fate of Walpole's cat, Selima, as she attempted one day to catch her master's goldfish. Among the poems Gray published after the "Elegy," "The Bard" and the "The Progress of Poesy" have been the subject of much critical discussion. Published together as Odes in 1757, "The Bard" and "The Progress of Poesy" reflect Gray's studies in Celtic mythology and English literary history.
From the mid-eighteenth century to the present day, Gray's poetry has had many admirers and defenders, and a number of distinguished detractors as well. Scholars continue to puzzle over the antipathy held toward Gray by the first major hostile critic of his work, Samuel Johnson, who considered the "Elegy" Gray's only success. While no convincing answer has been put forward to explain Johnson's attitude, it has been noted that the two men, for some reason, simply disliked each other. Johnson's ascerbic Life (1781) of Gray stirred up a storm of critical debate on the merits of Gray's poetry that continued into the nineteenth century. In 1800 William Wordsworth attacked the poet in his "Preface" to Lyrical Ballads. Focusing on Gray's early "Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West," Wordsworth derided Gray as a poet who "attempted to widen the space of separation betwixt prose and metrical composition, and was more than any other man curiously elaborate in the structure of his own poetic diction." A few years later, Wordsworth added: "Gray failed as a poet, not because he took too much pains, and so extinguished his animation, but because he had very little of that fiery quality to begin with, and his pains were of the wrong sort. He wrote English verses as his brother Eton schoolboys wrote Latin, filching a phrase now from one author and now from another." By the mid-nineteenth century, these issues were the subject of much critical discussion, with Coleridge, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and Thomas Carlyle among those who typically described Gray's poetry as frigid, artificial, and overly elaborate. There have been no such major critical controversies during the twentieth century, but interest in Gray's work has continued unabated. The focus of modern critical attention has been the "Elegy," although scholars have recently begun examining Gray's correspondence for evidence of his emotional and physical attraction to other men, arguing that Gray's homosexuality strongly influenced his poetic achievement. Among the most frequently discussed aspects of the "Elegy" are its structure, narrative voice, and themes, including alienation, death, and the contrast between the poor and the great. Scholars have also assessed the relative merits of the two versions of the "Elegy" and examined the poem in relation to Gray's social sympathies and his so-called "private" and "public" voices.