Gray, Thomas

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Gray, Thomas (1716-71): English, Poet.

Thomas Gray, best known as the author of “Elegy Written in Country Churchyard” (1750), was the most popular poet of mid-eighteenth-century England, being offered (and refusing) the laureateship in 1757. Educated at Eton College and Cambridge University, Gray traveled in Europe with fellow Etonian and lifelong friend Horace Walpole in 1739-41. He returned to Cambridge University and resided there for the rest of his life, being appointed Professor of History and Modern Languages in 1768.

Gray started his career as a poet in 1742, perhaps impelled by sadness and sense of isolation following a quarrel with Walpole (later made up) and the early death of another close friend from Eton, Richard West. Both Gray’s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” and his “Sonnet on the Death of Richard West” point to the fleetingness of mortal happiness and are couched in a style that is elegantly learned yet personally intimate. This melancholy tone and poetic style are perfected in the “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard,” which appeals both to common humanity and to uncommon sensibility. Johnson, Samuel, in his life of Gray, observes that the “Churchyard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo. The four stanzas beginning ‘Yet even these bones’ are to me original: I have never seen the notions in any other place; yet he who reads them here, persuades himself that he has always felt them.”

More learned and less intimate are Gray’s two major Pindaric odes. “The Progress of Poesy” (1754) describes the origins and emotional qualities of poetry and traces its “progress” (journey) from the Greece of Homer and Pindar to the Rome of Horace and Virgil and (finally) to the England of Shakespeare and Milton. “The Bard” (which opens with the famous line “Ruin seize thee, ruthless King!”) also celebrates the power of poetry, in this case the power of a Welsh bard’s curse on Edward I and his progeny for the subjugation of Wales and the slaughter of its poets. Gray also became interested in Celtic and Icelandic poetry and imitated it in his lays, “The Fatal Sisters” and “The Descent of Odin” (1761).

Gray is also famous for his correspondence, which was published after his death and reflects Gray’s humor, affection, and wide-ranging intellectual interests.

Further Reading:

Robert L. Mack, Thomas Gray: A Life, 2000.

Treadwell Ruml

California State University