Thomas Gray Gray, Thomas - Essay


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

"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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (poetry) 1747

"Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes" (poetry) 1748; published in A Collection of Poems, by Several Hands

"Ode [on the Spring]" (poetry) 1748; published in A Collection of Poems, by Several Hands

An Elegy Wrote in a Country Church Yard (poetry) 1751; also published as Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, 1834

Designs by Mr. R. Bentley for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray (poetry) 1753

*Odes (poetry) 1757

Ode Performed in the Senate-House at Cambridge July 1, 1769, at the...

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William Lyon Phelps (essay date 1895)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Romantic Movement Exemplified in Gray," in The Beginnings of the Romantic Movement: A Study of Eighteenth-Century Literature, Gordian Press, 1968, pp. 155-70.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1895, Phelps traces the transition in Gray's works from Neoclassicism to Romanticism.]

A chronological study of Gray's poetry and of the imagination and love of nature displayed in his prose remains, is not only deeply interesting in itself, but is highly important to the history of Romanticism. In him, the greatest literary man of the time, we find the best example of the steady growth of the Romantic movement. But before proceeding to the discussion...

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Stopford A. Brooke (essay date 1920)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Collins and Gray," in Naturalism in English Poetry, E. P. Dutton & Company, 1920, pp. 42-65.

[In the following excerpt, Brooke compares Gray's poetry with that of William Collins and delineates Gray's chief creative influences, assessing the impact of his works on the transition in English poetry from Neoclassicism to Romanticism.]

… [William Collins and Thomas Gray are] connected with the school of Dryden and Pope by a certain artificial or conventional note in their diction, by a certain want of frank Naturalism; so that, even in their beautiful work, a note of commonplace is heard, a prosaic note. This is less in Collins than in Gray, but, in its...

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A. E. Dyson (essay date 1957)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "The Ambivalence of Gray's Elegy," in Essays in Criticism, Vol. VII, No. 3, July, 1957, pp. 257-61.

[In the following essay, Dyson discusses Gray's conflicting attitudes toward rustic life as reflected in the "Elegy. "]

The prevailing impression we have on considering Gray's 'Elegy' in retrospect is of its distinctive 'atmosphere', contemplative and Horatian. There is the stoic reflection on the transcience of earthly glory that we associate with this tradition, the same apparent preference for a Sabine Farm, 'far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife'. The gentle melancholy of the mood, as well as the syntax of stanzas 24 and 25, points to Gray himself as...

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Geoffrey Tillotson (essay date 1961)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Gray's Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes," in Augustan Studies, The Athlone Press, 1961, pp. 216-23.

[In the following essay, Tillotson explains some of the literary allusions in Gray's "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat," at the same time remarking on Samuel Johnson's criticism of the poem.]

Gray's ["Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes"] is one of those poems that make allusions to other poems, and that expect the reader to catch them. We all know how the Rape of the Lock depends for the tone of its narrative and meaning on contrasts with the great epics, and the same is true in...

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Morris Golden (essay date 1964)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Classical or Romantic?," in >Thomas Gray, Grosset & Dunlap, 1964, pp. 127-46.

[In the following essay, which forms the concluding chapter of Golden's full-length study of Gray, Golden briefly outlines some of the characteristics of Neoclassical and Romantic literature and then discusses Gray's poetry and his place in English literary history in relation to both traditions.]

This study has been primarily concerned with Gray and with the nature and quality of his poems rather than with his and their place in English literature. Among many other things, poetry is a response to intellectual, particularly to literary, climates in effect at a given time and...

(The entire section is 7334 words.)

Patricia Meyer Spacks (essay date 1965)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Statement and Artifice in Thomas Gray," in Studies in English Literature: 1500-1900, Vol. V, No. 3, Summer, 1965, pp. 519-32.

[In the following essay, Spacks analyzes the language of "Ode on the Spring," "Sonnet on the Death of Mr. West," and "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,"focusing on Gray's use of alternating rhetorical patterns.]

The man of whom Adam Smith wrote, "[he] joins to the sublimity of Milton the elegance and harmony of Pope, and … nothing is wanting to render him, perhaps, the first poet in the English language, but to have written a little more," has been dismissed by Dr. Leavis, relegated by Donald Davie to the limbo reserved for...

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Stephen D. Cox (essay date 1980)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Contexts of Significance: Thomas Gray," in "The Stranger within Thee": Concepts of the Self in Late-Eighteenth-Century Literature, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1980, pp. 82-98.

[In the following chronological study of Gray's poetry, Cox considers the progression of Gray's ideas concerning humankind's limitations and the significance of the individual self.]

The "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" expresses what Thomas Gray wished to believe—that the individual self is significant even when it lacks any visible signs of significance, such as power, wealth, or social recognition. Yet it was very difficult for Gray to find grounds for affirming the self....

(The entire section is 6943 words.)

Wallace Jackson (essay date 1987)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Thomas Gray and the Dedicatory Muse," in ELH, Vol. 54, No. 2, Summer, 1987, pp. 277-98.

[In the following essay, Jackson provides a detailed examination of Gray's treatment of the themes of desire and authority in his poetry.]

I will be occupied here with one abiding question: what kingdom of the imagination does Thomas Gray wish to build? I do not think I can quite explain why he is the most disappointing poet of the English eighteenth century—disappointing, that is, in terms of what was expected of him—but I do hope to explore the nature of a failed enterprise that of its kind is unrivaled within the century. I attribute this failure to no cultural...

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Henry Weinfeld (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Gray's Elegy and the Dissolution of the Pastoral," in The Poet without a Name: Gray's "Elegy" and the Problem of History, Southern Illinois University Press, 1991, pp. 150-63.

[In the following essay on the "Elegy," Weinfeld defines Gray's place within the history of the pastoral genre.]

Like all poems that are central to their time, and hence to the historical matrix, the "Elegy" is embedded in a tradition (or series of traditions) that it simultaneously subverts. In chapter 3 we saw this to be the case with respect to the heroic, elegiac, and pastoral traditions (although these overlapping categories should not be construed as being more than heuristic...

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Marshall Brown (essay date 1991)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Gray's Churchyard Space," in Preromanticism, Stanford University Press, 1991, pp. 42-8.

[In the following excerpt, Brown illustrates how Gray generalizes from the particular in the "Elegy" to create a sense of universal experience.]

… Space has always been recognized as a problem in Gray's "Elegy." The speculation concerning the location of Gray's churchyard is as idle as that concerning Goldsmith's Aurora, yet also as natural. For it reflects the tension that runs through the poem between particular place and universal space. In the early stanzas the repeated possessives drive toward local dominions, and so indeed do the definite articles.6 At...

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Andrew Dillon (essay date 1992)

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

SOURCE: "Depression and Release," in North Dakota Quarterly, Vol. 60, No. 4, Fall, 1992, pp. 128-34.

[In the following essay on the "Elegy," Dillon comments on Gray's identification with the deceased farmers of the poem.]

The "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" can be read as a journey of recognition conceived in dusk and worked out—not in a miasma of depression—but in the light of a symbolic self-destruction. The poem contains a drama of identification with the buried farmers of the village of Stoke Poges; however, this identification yields the poet a brief delivery from his rather narrow life. Moreover, the development of the poem has a quasi-heroic quality,...

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Further Reading

(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))


Ketton-Cremer, R. W. Thomas Gray: A Biography. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1955, 310 p.

A detailed and insightful biography, replete with apt quotations from Gray's correspondence and several portraits of Gray and his contemporaries.

Mason, W[illiam]. "Memoirs & c." In The Works of Thomas Gray, 3d ed., by Thomas Gray, pp. 127ff. London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807.

Highly favorable impressions of Gray's life and work by the poet's editor and longtime friend.

Mitford, John. "The Life of Thomas Gray." In The...

(The entire section is 1541 words.)