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Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray (1716-1771). Portrait by John Giles Eccardt (1720-1779), 1747-1748. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thomas Gray
Born 26 December 1715
Cornhill, London, England
Died 30 July 1771 (aged 55)
Cambridge, England
Occupation poet, historian

Thomas Gray (26 December 1716 - 30 July 1771) was an English poet, classical scholar, and professor at the University of Cambridge.

LifeEdit

Youth and educationEdit

Gray, the son of Dorothy (Antrobus) and Philip Gray (born 27 July 1676) , ‘money scrivener,’ was born in his father's house in Cornhill, London. His mother belonged to a Buckinghamshire family, but at the time of her marriage kept a milliner's shop in the city with an elder sister, Mary. Another sister, Anna, was married to a retired attorney, Jonathan Rogers; she had two brothers, Robert and William. She had borne 12 children, all of whom, except Thomas (the 5th) died in infancy. His life was saved on one occasion by his mother's bleeding him with her own hand.[1]

Philip Gray was a brutal husband. A paper written by Mrs. Gray in 1735, to be submitted to a lawyer, states that Gray had "kicked, punched," and abused his wife, with no excuse but an insane jealousy. The shop had been continued by the two sisters, in accordance with an pre-nuptial agreement, and Mrs. Gray had found her own clothes and supported her son at school and college. Gray now threatened to close the shop. No legal remedy could be suggested, and Mrs. Gray continued to live with her husband.[1]

Thomas was sent to his uncle Robert Antrobus at Burnham. About 1727 he was sent to Eton College as a pupil of his uncle William. Here he formed a "Quadruple Alliance" with Horace Walpole, Richard West, and Thomas Ashton. This friendship was cemented by common intellectual tastes. Walpole, West, and Gray were all delicate lads, who probably preferred books to sport. Less intimate friends were Jacob Bryant and Richard Stonehewer (died 1809), who maintained friendly relations with Gray till the last.[1]

On 4 July 1734 Gray was entered as a pensioner at Peterhouse, Cambridge, and admitted 9 October in the same year. Walpole entered King's College, Cambridge, in March 1735; while West was sent to Christ Church, Oxford. (Ashton, who entered Trinity College, Cambridge in 1733, was less intimate than the others with Gray.) Walpole and Gray kept up a correspondence with West, communicating poems, and occasionally writing in French and Latin. All three contributed to a volume of Hymeneals on the marriage of Frederick, prince of Wales, in 1736. Gray also wrote at college a Latin poem, "Luna Habitabilis," published in the Musæ Etonenses, ii. 107.[1]

The regular studies of the place were entirely uncongenial to Gray. He cared nothing for mathematics, and little for the philosophy, such as it was, though he apparently dipped into Locke. His uncle Rogers, whom he visited at Burnham in 1737, despised him for reading instead of hunting, and preferring walking to riding. The "walking" meant strolls in Burnham Beeches, where he managed to discover "mountains and precipices." His opinion of Cambridge is indicated by the fragmentary Hymn to Ignorance, composed on his return. He left the university without a degree in September 1738, and passed some months at his father's, probably intending to study law.[1]

Grand TourEdit

Walpole, who had already been appointed to some sinecure office, invited Gray to accompany him on the grand tour. They crossed the Channel from Dover 29 March 1739, spent 2 months in Paris, then went to Rheims, where they stayed for three months, and in September proceeded to Lyons. At the end of the month they made an excursion to Geneva, and visited the "Grande Chartreuse," when both travellers were duly affected by the romantic scenery. In the beginning of November they crossed and shuddered at Mont Cenis, Walpole's lapdog being carried off by a wolf on the road. After a short stay at Turin they visited Genoa and Bologna, and reached Florence in December.[1]

In April they started for Rome, and after a short excursion to Naples returned to Florence 14 July 1740. Here they lived chiefly with Mann, the English minister, afterwards Walpole's well-known correspondent. Gray apparently found it dull, and was detained by Walpole's convenience. They left Florence 24 April, intending to go to Venice.[1]

At Reggio a quarrel took place, the precise circumstances of which are unknown. One story, preserved by Isaac Reed, and first published by Mitford (Gray, Works, ii. 174), is that Walpole suspected Gray of abusing him, and opened one of his letters to England. Walpole's own account, given to William Masom, is a candid confession that his own supercilious treatment of a companion socially inferior and singularly proud, shy and sensitive, was the cause of the difference. Walpole had made a will on starting, leaving whatever he possessed to Gray (Walpole, Letters, v. 443); but the tie between the fellow-travellers has become irksome to more congenial companions.[1]

Gray went to Venice alone, and returned through Verona, Milan, Turin, and Lyons, which he reached on 25 Aug. On his way he again visited the "Grande Chartreuse," and wrote his famous Latin ode. Gray was at London in the beginning of September. He had been a careful sightseer, made notes in picture-galleries, visited churches, and brushed up his classical associations. He observed, and afterwards advised, the judicious custom of always recording his impressions on the spot.[1]

Return to CambridgeEdit

Gray's father died on 6 November 1741. Several letters addressed to him by his son during the foreign tour show no signs of domestic alienation. Mrs. Gray retired with her sister, Mary Antrobus, to live with the 3rd sister, Mrs. Rogers, whose husband died on 31 October 1742. The 3 sisters now took a house together at West End, Stoke Poges.[1]

Gray had found West in declining health. They renewed their literary friendship, and Gray submitted to his friend the fragment of a tragedy, Agrippina. West's criticism appears to have put a stop to it. On 1 June 1742 West died, to the great sorrow of his friend, whose constitutional melancholy was deepened by his friendlessness and want of prospects. He thought himself, it is said, too poor to follow the legal profession. Unwilling to hurt his mother's feelings by openly abandoning it, he went to Cambridge to take a degree in civil law, and settled in rooms at Peterhouse as a fellow-commoner in October 1742. He earned an LL.B. in the winter of 1743.[1]

He preferred the study of Greek literature to that of either civil or common law, and during 6 years went through a severe course of study, making careful notes upon all the principal Greek authors. He never became a fellow of any college. He always disliked the society of Cambridge and ridiculed the system of education. The place was recommended to him by its libraries, by the cheapness of living, and, perhaps, by an indolence which made any change in the plan of his life intolerable.[1]

Cambridge was Gray's headquarters for the rest of his life. The university was very barren of distinguished men. He felt the loss of Conyers Middleton (died 28 July 1750), whose house, he says, was "the only easy place he could find to converse in." He took a contemptuous interest in the petty intrigues of the master and fellows of Pembroke College, where were most of his friends; but he had few acquaintances, though he knew something of William Cole, also a friend of Walpole, and a few residents, such as Keene, master of Peterhouse from 1748 to 1756, and James Browne, master of Pembroke from 1770 to 1784.[1]

Among his Cambridge contemporaries was anatomist Thomas Wharton, who was a resident and fellow of Pembroke till his marriage in 1747. He afterwards lived in London, and in 1758 settled in his paternal house at Old Park, Durham. A later friend, William Mason, was at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he attracted Gray's notice by some early poems, and partly through Gray's influence was elected a fellow of Pembroke in 1749. He became a warm admirer and a humble disciple and imitator. About 1754 he obtained the living of Aston in Yorkshire. Gray occasionally visited Wharton and Mason at their homes, and maintained a steady correspondence with both.[1]

In the summer Gray generally spent some time with his mother at Stoke Poges. His aunt, Mary Antrobus, died there on 6 November 1749. His mother died on 11 March 1753, aged 62.[1] He was most tenderly attached to her, and placed upon her tomb an inscription to the "careful tender mother of many children, one of whom alone had the misfortune to survive her."[2]

His friendship with Horace Walpole had been renewed in 1744, at first with more courtesy than cordiality, although they afterwards corresponded upon very friendly terms. Gray was often at Strawberry Hill, and became acquainted with some of Walpole's friends, though impeded by his shyness in society. Walpole admired Gray's poetry and did much to urge the timid author to publish.[2]

Literary careerEdit

Gray's first publication was the "Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College," written in 1742, which, at Walpole's desire, was published anonymously by Robert Dodsley in the summer of 1747. It made no impression. In the following year he began his poem on the "Alliance of Education and Government," but was deterred from pursuing it by the appearance of Montesquieu's Esprit des Lois, containing some of his best thoughts.[2]

In 1748 appeared the first 3 volumes of Dodsley's collection, the 2nd of which contained Gray's Eton ode, the "Ode to Spring," and the poem "On the Death of a Favourite Cat" (sent to Walpole in a letter dated 1 March 1747).[2]

The "Elegy in a Country Churchyard" had been begun in 1742 (Works, i. xx), and was probably taken up again in the winter of 1749, upon the death of his aunt Mary (see Gosse, p. 66). It was certainly concluded at Stoke Poges, whence it was sent to Walpole in a letter dated 12 June 1750. Walpole admired it greatly, and showed it to various friends, among others to Lady Cobham (widow of Sir Richard Temple, afterwards Viscount Cobham), who lived at Stoke Manor House. She persuaded Miss Speed, her niece, and a Mrs. Schaub, who was staying with her, to pay a visit to Gray at his mother's house. Not finding him at home they left a note, and the visit led to an acquaintance and to Gray's poem of the "Long Story" (written in August 1750, Gosse, p. 103).[2]

In February 1751 the publisher of the Magazine of Magazines wrote to Gray that he was about to publish the "Elegy." Gray instantly wrote to Walpole to get the poem published by Dodsley, and it appeared accordingly on 16 February 1751. It went through 4 editions in 2 months, and 11 in a short time, besides being constantly pirated. Gray left all the profits to Dodsley, declining on principle to accept payment for his poems.[2]

At this time Richard Bentley (1708–1782) was on very intimate terms with Walpole. He made drawings or illustrations of Gray's poems, by which Gray himself was delighted. In March 1753 appeared Designs by Mr. R. Bentley for six poems by Mr. T. Gray. The poems included those already published, "Spring," on Walpole's cat, the Eton ode, the "Elegy," and, for the first time, the ‘Long Story’ and the "Hymn to Adversity." A portrait of Gray is introduced in the frontispiece and in the design for the "Long Story," where are also Miss Speed and Lady Schaub. Gray withdrew the "Long Story" from later editions of his works.[2]

By the end of 1754 Gray was beginning his Pindaric Odes. On 26 December 1754 he sent the "Progress of Poesy" to Dr. Wharton. "The Bard" was partly written in the first three months of 1755, and finished in May 1757, when Gray was stimulated by some concerts given at Cambridge by John Parry, the blind harper. Walpole was setting up his printing-press at Strawberry Hill, and begged Gray to let him begin with the two odes. They were accordingly printed and were published by Dodsley in August 1757, Dodsley paying 40 guineas to Gray, the only sum he ever made by writing. The book contained only the "Progress of Poesy" and the "Bard."[2]

The odes were warmly praised and much discussed. Goldsmith reviewed them in the Monthly Review, and Warburton and Garrick were enthusiastic. Gray was rather vexed, however, by the general complaints of their obscurity, although he took very good-naturedly the parody published in 1760 by Colman and Lloyd, called "Two Odes addressed to Obscurity and Oblivion." Obscurity was not yet a virtue, and is not very perceptible in Gray's "Bard." According to Mason, Gray meant his bard to declare that poets should never be wanting to denounce vice in spite of tyrants. He laid the poem aside for a year because he could not find facts to confirm his theory. Ultimately the bard had to content himself with the somewhat irrelevant consolation that Elizabeth's great-grandfather was to be a Welshman. The poem is thus so far incoherent, but the "obscurity" meant rather that some fine gentlemen could not understand the historical allusions and confounded Edward I with Cromwell and Elizabeth with the witch of Endor.[2]

Gray was now in possession of the small fortune left by his father, which was sufficient for his wants. His health, however, was weakening. After a visit in 1755 to his and Walpole's friend, Chute, in Hampshire, he was taken ill and remained for many weeks laid up at Stoke.[2]

CharacterEdit

Temple says that Gray was perhaps "the most learned man in Europe." Mason says that he was a competent student in all branches of human knowledge except mathematics, and in some a consummate master. He had a very extensive knowledge of the classical writers, reading them less as a critic than as a student of thought and manners. He made elaborate notes upon Plato, upon Strabo, a selection from the ‘Anthologia Græca,’ with critical notes and translations; and at Christmas 1746 compiled elaborate chronological tables which suggested Clinton's ‘Fasti.’ About 1745 he helped Ross in a controversy about the epistles of Cicero, begun by Middleton and Muckland.[3]

Gray was also a careful student of modern literature. He was familiar with the great Italian writers, and had even learnt Icelandic (see Gosse, pp. 160–3). He was a painstaking antiquary, gave notes to Pennant for his ‘History of London,’ and surprised Cole by his knowledge of heraldry and genealogy. He had learnt botany from his uncle Antrobus, made experiments on the growth of flowers, was learned in entomology, and studied the first appearance of birds like White of Selborne. A copy of his Linnæus,’ in 5 volumes, with copious notes and water-colour drawings by Gray, was exhibited at Pembroke on the memorial meeting in 1885.[3]

He was a good musician, played on the harpsichord, and was especially fond of Pergolesi and Palestrina. He was a connoisseur in painting, contributed to Walpole's Anecdotes, and made a list of early painters published in Malone's edition of Reynolds's works. Architecture was a favourite study. He contributed notes to James Bentham for his History of Ely (1771), which gave rise to the report that he was the author of the treatise then published. They were first printed in the Gentleman's Magazine, April 1784, to disprove this rumour.[3]

Gray had formed a plan for a history of English poetry, to be executed in conjunction with Mason, to whom Warburton had communicated a scheme drawn up by Pope. Gray made some preparations, and a careful study of the metres of early English poetry. He tired, however, and gave his plan to Thomas Warton, who was already engaged on a similar scheme.[3]

Edmund Gosse has pointed out with great force his appreciation of Gothic architecture, of mountain scenery, and of old Gaelic and Scandinavian poetry. His unproductiveness left the propagation of such tastes to men much inferior in intellect, but less timid in utterance, such as Walpole and the Wartons.[3]

Walpole said (Walpoliana, i. 95) that Gray was "a deist, but a violent enemy of atheists." If his opinions were heterodox, he kept them generally to himself, was clearly a conservative by temperament, and hated or feared the innovators of the time.[3]

Later yearsEdit

In January 1756 he ordered a rope-ladder from London. He was always morbidly afraid of fire and more than once in some risk. His house in Cornhill had been burnt in 1748, causing him some embarrassment, and his state of health increased his nervousness. Some noisy young gentlemen at Peterhouse placed a tub of water under his windows and raised an alarm of fire. Gray descended his ladder and found himself in the tub. The authorities at Peterhouse treated the perpetrators of this ingenious practical joke more leniently than Gray desired. He thereupon moved to Pembroke, where he occupied rooms "at the western end of the Hitcham building."[4]

In September 1758 his aunt, Mrs. Rogers, with whom his paternal aunt, Mrs. Olliffe, had resided since his mother's death, died, leaving Gray and Mrs. Olliffe executors. Stoke Poges now ceased to be in any sense a home. In the beginning of 1759 the British Museum first opened. Gray settled in London in Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, to study in the reading-room. He did not return to Cambridge except for flying visits until the summer of 1761.[4]

After his return to Cambridge Gray became attached to Norton Nicholls, an undergraduate at Trinity Hall. Nicholls afterwards became rector of Lound and Bradwell, Suffolk. He was an accomplished youth, and attracted Gray's attention by his knowledge of Dante. During Gray's later years Nicholls was among his best friends, and left some valuable reminiscences of Gray, and an interesting correspondence with him.[4]

Gray resided henceforward at Cambridge, taking occasional summer tours. In July 1764 he underwent a surgical operation, and in August was able to visit Glasgow and make a tour in the Scottish lowlands. In October he travelled in the south of England. In 1765 he made a tour in Scotland, visiting Killiecrankie and Blair Athol. He stayed for some time at Glamis, where Beattie came to pay him homage, and was very kindly received. He declined the degree of doctor of laws from Aberdeen, on the ground that he had not taken it at Cambridge.[4]

In 1769 he paid a visit to the Lakes. His journal was fully published by Mason, and contains remarkable descriptions of the scenery, then beginning to be visited by painters and men of taste, but not yet generally appreciated. In other summers he visited Hampshire and Wiltshire (1764), Kent (1766), and Worcestershire and Gloucestershire (1770).[4]

His enthusiasm had been roused by the fragments of Gaelic poetry published by James Macpherson in 1760. He did his best to believe in their authenticity (Works, iii. 264) and found himself in rather uncongenial alliance with Hume, whose scepticism was for once quenched by his patriotism. Gray's interest probably led him to his imitations from the Norse (Walpole's Letters, iii. 399, written in 1761) and Welsh. The Specimens of Welsh Poetry, published by Evans in 1764, suggested the later fragments. Gray states also (ib.) that he intended these imitations to be introduced in his projected History of English Poetry.[4]

In 1767 Dodsley proposed to republish his poems in a cheap form. Foulis, a Glasgow publisher, made a similar proposal through Beattie at the same time. Dodsley's edition appeared in July 1768, and Foulis's in the following September. Both contained the same poems, including the "Fatal Sisters," the "Descent of Odin," and the "Triumphs of Owen," then first published. Gray took no money, but accepted a present of books from Foulis.[4]

In 1762 Gray had applied to Lord Bute for the professorship of history and modern languages at Cambridge, founded by George I in 1724, and now vacant by the death of Hallett Turner. An unpublished letter to Mr. Chute (communicated by Mr. Gosse) refers to this application. Laurence Brockett, however, was appointed in November. Brockett was killed 24 July 1768 by a fall from his horse, when returning drunk from a dinner with Lord Sandwich at Hinchinbroke. Gray was immediately appointed to the vacant post by the Duke of Grafton, his warrant being signed 28 July.[4] His salary was 371l., out of which he had to provide a French and an Italian teacher. The Italian was Agostino Isola, grandfather of Emma Isola, adopted by Charles and Mary Lamb. Gray behaved liberally to them; but the habits of the time made lecturing unnecessary. Gray's appointment was suggested by his old college friend Stonehewer, who was at this time secretary to the Duke of Grafton.[3]

In January 1768 Gray had a narrow escape from a fire which destroyed part of Pembroke. In April 1769 he had to show his gratitude to Grafton, who had been elected chancellor of the university, by composing the installation ode. It was set to music by J. Randall, the professor of music at the university, and performed 1 July 1769.[3]

Gray lived in great retirement at Cambridge; he did not dine in the college hall, and sightseers had to watch for his appearance at the Rainbow coffee-house, where he went to order books from the circulating library. His ill-health and nervous shyness made him a bad companion in general society, though he could expand among his intimates.[3]

His last acquisition was Charles Victor de Bonstetten, an enthusiastic young Swiss, who had met Norton Nicholls at Bath at the end of 1769, and was by him introduced to Gray. Gray was fascinated by Bonstetten, directed his studies for several weeks, saw him daily, and received his confidences, though declining to reciprocate them. Bonstetten left England at the end of March 1770. Gray accompanied him to London, pointed out the "great Bear"’ Samuel Johnson in the street, and saw him into the Dover coach.[3]

He promised to pay Bonstetten a visit in Switzerland. Nicholls proposed to go there with Gray in 1771, but Gray was no longer equal to the exertion, and sent off Nicholls in June with an injunction not to visit Voltaire. Gray was then in London, but soon returned to Cambridge, feeling very ill. He had an attack of gout in the stomach, and his condition soon became alarming. He was affectionately attended by his friend, James Brown, the master of Pembroke, and his friend Stonehewer came from London to take leave of him.[3]

He died 30 July 1771, his last words being addressed to his cousin Mary Antrobus: "Molly, I shall die." He was buried at Stoke Poges on 6 Aug., in the same vault with his mother.[3]

Gray divided his property, amounting to about £3,500, among his cousins by his father's and mother's side, having apparently no nearer relatives; leaving also £500 apiece to Wharton and Stonehewer, and £50 to an old servant. He left his papers to Mason, Mason and Browne being his residuary legatees.[3]

WritingEdit

PoemsEdit

The extent of Gray's studies shows the versatility and keenness of his intellectual tastes. The smallness of his actual achievements is sufficiently explained by his ill-health, his extreme fastidiousness, his want of energy and personal ambition, and the depressing influences of the small circle of dons in which he lived. The unfortunate 18th century has been blamed for his barrenness; but probably he would have found any century uncongenial.[3]

He succeeded only in publishing a few poems which have more solid bullion in proportion to the alloy than almost any in the language, which are admired by critics, while the one in which he has condescended to utter himself with least reserve and the greatest simplicity, has been pronounced by the vox populi to be the most perfect in the language.[3]

The most learned of all our poets, he was naturally an eclectic. He almost worshipped John Dryden, and loved Racine as heartily as Shakespeare. He valued polish and symmetry as highly as the school of Pope, and shared their taste for didactic reflection and for pompous personification. Yet he also shared the tastes which found expression in the romanticism of the following period.[3]

Gray's Latin poems, except the college exercises, were not prepared for publication by himself. The most important was the ‘De Principiis Captandi,’ written at Florence in the winter of 1740–1. They were admired even by Johnson, though not faultless in their latinity, especially the noble ode at the Grande Chartreuse.[3]

The publication of the poems in Gray's lifetime has been noticed above. Collected editions of the poems, with Mason's ‘Memoir,’ appeared in 1775, 1776, 1778, &c.; an edition with notes by Gilbert Wakefield in 1786; works by T. J. Mathias (in which some of the Pembroke MSS. were first used) in 1814; ‘English and Latin Poems,’ by John Mitford, in 1814, who also edited the works in the Aldine edition (1835–43), and the Eton edition (1845). The completest edition is that in four vols. by Mr. Edmund Gosse in 1882.can still be seen there.[3]

LettersEdit

His letters are all but the best in the best age of letter-writing. They are fascinating not only for the tender and affectionate nature shown through a mask of reserve, but for gleams of the genuine humour which Walpole pronounced to be his most natural vein. It appears with rather startling coarseness in some of his Cambridge lampoons. One of these, A Satire upon the Heads, or never a barrel the better herring, was printed by Gosse in 1884, from a manuscript in the possession of Lord Houghton.[3]

Critical introductionEdit

by Matthew Arnold

James Brown, Master of Pembroke Hall at Cambridge, Gray’s friend and executor, in a letter written a fortnight after Gray’s death to another of his friends, Dr. Wharton of Old Park, Durham, has the following passage:—

Everything is now dark and melancholy in Mr. Gray’s room, not a trace of him remains there; it looks as if it had been for some time uninhabited, and the room bespoke for another inhabitant. The thoughts I have of him will last, and will be useful to me the few years I can expect to live. He never spoke out, but I believe from some little expressions I now remember to have dropped from him, that for some time past he thought himself nearer his end than those about him apprehended.

He never spoke out. In these four words is contained the whole history of Gray, both as a man and as a poet. The words fell naturally, and as it were by chance, from their writer’s pen; but let us dwell upon them, and press into their meaning, for in following it we shall come to understand Gray.

He was in his fifty-fifth year when he died, and he lived in ease and leisure, yet a few pages hold all his poetry; he never spoke out in poetry. Still, the reputation which he has achieved by his few pages is extremely high. True, Johnson speaks of him with coldness and disparagement. Gray disliked Johnson, and refused to make his acquaintance; one might fancy that Johnson wrote with some irritation from this cause. But Johnson was not by nature fitted to do justice to Gray and to his poetry; this by itself is a sufficient explanation of the deficiencies of his criticism of Gray. We may add a further explanation of them which is supplied by Mr. Cole’s papers. ‘When Johnson was publishing his 'Life of Gray'," says Mr. Cole, "I gave him several anecdotes, but he was very anxious as soon as possible to get to the end of his labours." Johnson was not naturally in sympathy with Gray, whose life he had to write, and when he wrote it he was in a hurry besides. He did Gray injustice, but even Johnson’s authority failed to make injustice, in this case, prevail. Lord Macaulay calls the "Life of Gray" the worst of Johnson’s Lives, and it had found many censurers before Macaulay. Gray’s poetical reputation grew and flourished in spite of it. The poet Mason, his first biographer, in his epitaph equalled him with Pindar. Britain has known, says Mason,

… ‘a Homer’s fire in Milton’s strains,
A Pindar’s rapture in the lyre of Gray.’

The immense vogue of Pope and of his style of versification had at first prevented the frank reception of Gray by the readers of poetry. The "Elegy" pleased; it could not but please: but Gray’s poetry, on the whole, astonished his contemporaries at first more than it pleased them; it was so unfamiliar, so unlike the sort of poetry in vogue. It made its way, however, after his death, with the public as well as with the few; and Gray’s second biographer, Mitford, remarks that "the works which were either neglected or ridiculed by their contemporaries have now raised Gray and Collins to the rank of our two greatest lyric poets." Their reputation was established, at any rate, and stood extremely high, even if they were not popularly read. Johnson’s disparagement of Gray was called "petulant" and severely blamed. Beattie, at the end of the eighteenth century, writing to Sir William Forbes, says: "Of all the English poets of this age Mr. Gray is most admired, and I think with justice." Cowper writes: "I have been reading Gray’s works, and think him the only poet since Shakespeare entitled to the character of sublime. Perhaps you will remember that I once had a different opinion of him. I was prejudiced." Adam Smith says: "Gray 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." And, to come nearer to our own times, Sir James Mackintosh speaks of Gray thus: "Of all English poets he was the most finished artist. He attained the highest degree of splendour of which poetical style seemed to be capable."

In a poet of such magnitude, how shall we explain his scantiness of production? Shall we explain it by saying that to make of Gray a poet of this magnitude is absurd; that his genius and resources were small and that his production, therefore, was small also, but that the popularity of a single piece, the "Elegy",— a popularity due in great measure to the subject,— created for Gray a reputation to which he has really no right? He himself was not deceived by the favour shown to the "Elegy". "Gray told me with a good deal of acrimony," writes Dr. Gregory, "that the 'Elegy' owed its popularity entirely to the subject, and that the public would have received it as well if it had been written in prose." This is too much to say; the "Elegy" is a beautiful poem, and in admiring it the public showed a true feeling for poetry. But it is true that the "Elegy" owed much of its success to its subject, and that it has received a too unmeasured and unbounded praise.

Gray himself, however, maintained that the "Elegy" was not his best work in poetry, and he was right. High as is the praise due to the "Elegy", it is yet true that in other productions of Gray he exhibits poetical qualities even higher than those exhibited in the "Elegy". He deserves, therefore, his extremely high reputation as a poet, although his critics and the public may not always have praised him with perfect judgment. We are brought back, then, to the question: How, in a poet so really considerable, are we to explain his scantiness of production?

Scanty Gray’s production, indeed, is; so scanty that to supplement our knowledge of it by a knowledge of the man is in this case of peculiar interest and service. Gray’s letters and the records of him by his friends have happily made it possible for us thus to know him, and to appreciate his high qualities of mind and soul. Let us see these in the man first, and then observe how they appear in his poetry; and why they cannot enter into it more freely and inspire it with more strength, render it more abundant.

We will begin with his acquirements. "Mr. Gray was," writes his friend Temple, "perhaps the most learned man in Europe. He knew every branch of history both natural and civil; had read all the original historians of England, France, and Italy; and was a great antiquarian. Criticism, metaphysics, morals, politics, made a principal part of his study. Voyages and travels of all sorts were his favourite amusements; and he had a fine taste in painting, prints, architecture and gardening." The notes in his interleaved copy of Linnæus remained to show the extent and accuracy of his knowledge in the natural sciences, particularly in botany, zoology, and entomology. Entomologists testified that his account of English insects was more perfect than any that had then appeared. His notes and papers, of which some have been published, others remain still in manuscript, give evidence, besides, of his knowledge of literature ancient and modern, geography and topography, painting, architecture and antiquities, and of his curious researches in heraldry. He was an excellent musician. Sir James Mackintosh reminds us, moreover, that to all the other accomplishments and merits of Gray we are to add this: "that he was the first discoverer of the beauties of nature in England, and has marked out the course of every picturesque journey that can be made in it."....

Gray was a poet; let us hear him on a poet, on Shakespeare. We must place ourselves in the full midst of the eighteenth century and of its criticism; Gray’s friend, West, had praised Racine for using in his dramas "the language of the times and that of the purest sort"; and he had added: "I will not decide what style is fit for our English stage, but I should rather choose one that bordered upon Cato, than upon Shakespeare." Gray replies:—

As to matter of style, I have this to say: The language of the age is never the language of poetry; except among the French, whose verse, where the thought does not support it, differs in nothing from prose. Our poetry, on the contrary, has a language peculiar to itself, to which almost every one that has written has added something. In truth, Shakespeare’s language is one of his principal beauties; and he has no less advantage over your Addisons and Rowes in this, than in those other great excellences you mention. Every word in him is a picture. Pray put me the following lines into the tongue of our modern dramatics:—
“But I, that am not shaped for sportive tricks,
Nor made to court an amorous looking-glass”—
and what follows. To me they appear untranslateable; and if this be the case, our language is greatly degenerated.

It is impossible for a poet to lay down the rules of his own art with more insight, soundness, and certainty. Yet at that moment in England there was perhaps not one other man, besides Gray, capable of writing the passage just quoted.

Seriousness, character, was the foundation of things with him; where this was lacking he was always severe, whatever might be offered to him in its stead. Voltaire’s literary genius charmed him, but the faults of Voltaire’s nature he felt so strongly that when his young friend Nicholls was going abroad in 1771, just before Gray’s death, he said to him: ‘I have one thing to beg of you which you must not refuse.’ Nicholls answered: ‘You know you have only to command; what is it?’ ‘Do not go to see Voltaire,’ said Gray; and then added: ‘No one knows the mischief that man will do.’ Nicholls promised compliance with Gray’s injunction, ‘but what,’ he asked, ‘could a visit from me signify?’ ‘Every tribute to such a man signifies,’ Gray answered. He admired Dryden, admired him, even, too much; had too much felt his influence as a poet. He told Beattie ‘that if there was any excellence in his own numbers, he had learned it wholly from that great poet’; and writing to Beattie afterwards he recurs to Dryden, whom Beattie, he thought, did not honour enough as a poet: ‘Remember Dryden,’ he writes, ‘and be blind to all his faults.’ Yes, his faults as a poet; but on the man Dryden, nevertheless, his sentence is stern. Speaking of the Poet-Laureateship, ‘Dryden,’ he writes to Mason, ‘was as disgraceful to the office from his character, as the poorest scribbler could have been from his verses.’ Even where crying blemishes were absent, the want of weight and depth of character in a man deprived him, in Gray’s judgment, of serious significance. He says of Hume: ‘Is not that naïveté and good-humour, which his admirers celebrate in him, owing to this, that he has continued all his days an infant, but one that has unhappily been taught to read and write?’ 19

And with all this strenuous seriousness, a pathetic sentiment, and an element, likewise, of sportive and charming humour. At Keswick, by the lakeside on an autumn evening, he has the accent of the Rêveries, or of Obermann, or Wordsworth:—

In the evening walked down alone to the lake by the side of Crow Park after sunset and saw the solemn colouring of light draw on, the last gleam of sunshine fading away on the hill-tops, the deep serene of the waters, and the long shadows of the mountains thrown across them, till they nearly touched the hithermost shore. At distance heard the murmur of many water-falls, not audible in the day-time. Wished for the Moon, but she was dark to me and silent, hid in her vacant interlunar cave.

Of his humour and sportiveness his delightful letters are full; his humour appears in his poetry too, and is by no means to be passed over there. Horace Walpole said that ‘Gray never wrote anything easily but things of humour; humour was his natural and original turn.

Knowledge, penetration, seriousness, sentiment, humour, Gray had them all; he had the equipment and endowment for the office of poet. But very soon in his life appear traces of something obstructing, something disabling; of spirits failing, and health not sound; and the evil increases with years. He writes to West in 1737:—

Low spirits are my true and faithful companions; they get up with me, go to bed with me, make journeys and returns as I do; nay and pay visits and will even affect to be jocose and force a feeble laugh with me; but most commonly we sit alone together, and are the prettiest insipid company in the world.

The tone is playful, Gray was not yet twenty-one. "Mine," he tells West four or five years later, "mine, you are to know, is a white Melancholy, or rather Leucocholy, for the most part; which, though it seldom laughs or dances, nor ever amounts to what one calls joy or pleasure, yet is a good easy sort of a state." But, he adds in this same letter:—

But there is another sort, black indeed, which I have now and then felt, that has something in it like Tertullian’s rule of faith, Credo quia impossibile est; for it believes, nay, is sure of everything that is unlikely, so it be but frightful; and on the other hand excludes and shuts its eyes to the most possible hopes, and everything that is pleasurable; from this the Lord deliver us! for none but he and sunshiny weather can do it.

Six or seven years pass, and we find him writing to Wharton from Cambridge thus:—

The spirit of laziness (the spirit of this place) begins to possess even me, that have so long declaimed against it. Yet has it not so prevailed, but that I feel that discontent with myself, that ennui, that ever accompanies it in its beginnings. Time will settle my conscience, time will reconcile my languid companion to me; we shall smoke, we shall tipple, we shall doze together, we shall have our little jokes, like other people, and our long stories. Brandy will finish what port began; and, a month after the time, you will see in some corner of a London Evening Post, “Yesterday died the Rev. Mr. John Gray, Senior-Fellow of Clare Hall, a facetious companion, and well-respected by all who knew him.”

The humorous advertisement ends, in the original letter, with a Hogarthian touch which I must not quote. Is it Leucocholy or is it Melancholy which predominates here? at any rate, this entry in his diary, six years later, is black enough:—

Insomnia crebra, atque expergiscenti surdus quidam doloris sensus; frequens etiam in regione sterni oppressio, et cardialgia gravis, fere sempiterna.’

And in 1757 he writes to Hurd:—

To be employed is to be happy. This principle of mine (and I am convinced of its truth) has, as usual, no influence on my practice. I am alone, and ennuyé to the last degree, yet do nothing. Indeed I have one excuse; my health (which you have so kindly enquired after) is not extraordinary. It is no great malady, but several little ones, that seem brewing no good to me.’

From thence to the end his languor and depression, though still often relieved by occupation and travel, keep fatally gaining on him. At last the depression became constant, became mechanical. "Travel I must," he writes to Dr. Wharton, "or cease to exist. Till this year I hardly knew what mechanical low spirits were; but now I even tremble at an east wind." Two months afterwards, he died.

What wonder, that with this troublous cloud, throughout the whole term of his manhood, brooding over him and weighing him down, Gray, finely endowed though he was, richly stored with knowledge though he was, yet produced so little, found no full and sufficient utterance, ‘never,’ as the Master of Pembroke Hall said, ‘spoke out.’ He knew well enough, himself, how it was with him.

"My verve is at best, you know" (he writes to Mason), "of so delicate a constitution, and has such weak nerves, as not to stir out of its chamber above three days in a year." And to Horace Walpole he says: "As to what you say to me civilly, that I ought to write more, I will be candid, and avow to you, that till fourscore and upward, whenever the humour takes me, I will write; because I like it, and because I like myself better when I do so. If I do not write much, it is because I cannot." How simply said, and how truly also! Fain would a man like Gray speak out if he could, he "likes himself better" when he speaks out; if he does not speak out, "it is because I cannot."

Bonstetten, that mercurial Swiss who died in 1832 at the age of eighty-seven, having been younger and livelier from his sixtieth year to his eightieth than at any other time in his life, paid a visit in his early days to Cambridge, and saw much of Gray, to whom he attached himself with devotion. Gray, on his part, was charmed with his young friend; "I never saw such a boy," he writes; "our breed is not made on this model." Long afterwards, Bonstetten published his reminiscences of Gray. "I used to tell Gray," he says, "about my life and my native country, but his life was a sealed book to me; he never would talk of himself, never would allow me to speak to him of his poetry. If I quoted lines of his to him, he kept silence like an obstinate child. I said to him sometimes: 'Will you have the goodness to give me an answer?' But not a word issued from his lips." He never spoke out. Bonstetten thinks that Gray’s life was poisoned by an unsatisfied sensibility, was withered by his having never loved; by his days being passed in the dismal cloisters of Cambridge, in the company of a set of monastic bookworms, ‘whose existence no honest woman ever came to cheer.’ Sainte-Beuve, who was much attracted and interested by Gray, doubts whether Bonstetten’s explanation of him is admissible; the secret of Gray’s melancholy he finds rather in the sterility of his poetic talent, ‘so distinguished, so rare, but so stinted;’ in the poet’s despair at his own unproductiveness.

But to explain Gray, we must do more than allege his sterility, as we must look further than to his reclusion at Cambridge. What caused his sterility? Was it his ill-health, his hereditary gout? Certainly we will pay all respect to the powers of hereditary gout for afflicting us poor mortals. But Goethe, after pointing out that Schiller, who was so productive, was ‘almost constantly ill,’ adds the true remark that it is incredible how much the spirit can do, in these cases, to keep up the body. Pope’s animation and activity through all the course of what he pathetically calls ‘that long disease, my life,’ is an example presenting itself signally, in Gray’s own country and time, to confirm what Goethe here says. What gave the power to Gray’s reclusion and ill-health to induce his sterility?

The reason, the indubitable reason as I cannot but think it, I have already given elsewhere. Gray, a born poet, fell upon an age of prose. He fell upon an age whose task was such as to call forth in general men’s powers of understanding, wit and cleverness, rather than their deepest powers of mind and soul. As regards literary production, the task of the eighteenth century in England was not the poetic interpretation of the world, its task was to create a plain, clear, straightforward, efficient prose. Poetry obeyed the bent of mind requisite for the due fulfilment of this task of the century. It was intellectual, argumentative, ingenious; not seeing things in their truth and beauty, not interpretative. Gray, with the qualities of mind and soul of a genuine poet, was isolated in his century. Maintaining and fortifying them by lofty studies, he yet could not fully educe and enjoy them; the want of a genial atmosphere, the failure of sympathy in his contemporaries, were too great.

Born in the same year with Milton, Gray would have been another man; born in the same year with Burns, he would have been another man. A man born in 1608 could profit by the larger and more poetic scope of the English spirit in the Elizabethan age; a man born in 1759 could profit by that European renewing of men’s minds of which the great historical manifestation is the French Revolution. Gray’s alert and brilliant young friend, Bonstetten, who would explain the void in the life of Gray by his having never loved, Bonstetten himself loved, married, and had children. Yet at the age of fifty he was bidding fair to grow old, dismal and torpid like the rest of us, when he was roused and made young again for some thirty years, says M. Sainte-Beuve, by the events of 1789. If Gray, like Burns, had been just thirty years old when the French Revolution broke out, he would have shown, probably, productiveness and animation in plenty. Coming when he did and endowed as he was, he was a man born out of date, a man whose full spiritual flowering was impossible. The same thing is to be said of his great contemporary, Butler, the author of the Analogy. In the sphere of religion, which touches that of poetry, Butler was impelled by the endowment of his nature to strive for a profound and adequate conception of religious things, which was not pursued by his contemporaries, and which at that time, and in that atmosphere of mind, was not fully attainable. Hence, in Butler too, a dissatisfaction, a weariness, as in Gray; ‘great labour and weariness, great disappointment, pain and even vexation of mind.’ A sort of spiritual east wind was at that time blowing; neither Butler nor Gray could flower. They never spoke out.

Gray’s poetry was not only stinted in quantity by reason of the age wherein he lived, it suffered somewhat in quality also. We have seen under what obligation to Dryden Gray professed himself to be; "if there was any excellence in his numbers, he had learned it wholly from that great poet." It was not for nothing that he came when Dryden had lately "embellished," as Johnson says, English poetry; had "found it brick and left it marble." It was not for nothing that he came just when "the English ear," to quote Johnson again, "had been accustomed to the mellifluence of Pope’s numbers, and the diction of poetry had grown more splendid." Of the intellectualities, ingenuities, personifications, of the movement and diction of Dryden and Pope, Gray caught something, caught too much.

We have little of Gray’s poetry, and that little is not free from the faults of his age. Therefore it was important to go for aid, as we did, to Gray’s life and letters, to see his mind and soul there, and to corroborate from thence that high estimate of his quality which his poetry, indeed, calls forth, but does not establish so amply and irresistibly as one could desire.

For a just criticism it does, however, clearly establish it. The difference between genuine poetry and the poetry of Dryden, Pope, and all their school, is briefly this; their poetry is conceived and composed in their wits, genuine poetry is conceived and composed in the soul. The difference between the two kinds of poetry is immense. They differ profoundly in their modes of language, they differ profoundly in their modes of evolution. The poetic language of our eighteenth century in general is the language of men composing without their eye on the object, as Wordsworth excellently said of Dryden; language merely recalling the object, as the common language of prose does, and then dressing it out with a certain smartness and brilliancy for the fancy and understanding. This is called "splendid diction." The evolution of the poetry of our eighteenth century is likewise intellectual; it proceeds by ratiocination, antithesis, ingenious turns and conceits. This poetry is often eloquent, and always, in the hands of such masters as Dryden and Pope, clever; but it does not take us much below the surface of things, it does not give us the emotion of seeing things in their truth and beauty. The language of genuine poetry, on the other hand, is the language of one composing with his eye on the object; its evolution is that of a thing which has been plunged in the poet’s soul until it comes forth naturally and necessarily. This sort of evolution is infinitely simpler than the other, and infinitely more satisfying; the same thing is true of the genuine poetic language likewise. But they are both of them, also, infinitely harder of attainment; they come only from those who, as Emerson says, "live from a great depth of being."

Gray’s production was scanty, and scanty, as we have seen, it could not but be. Even what he produced is not always pure in diction, true in evolution. Still, with whatever drawbacks, he is alone or almost alone (for Collins has something of the like merit) in his age. Gray said himself that "the style he aimed at was extreme conciseness of expression, yet pure, perspicuous, and musical." Compared, not with the work of the great masters of the golden ages of poetry, but with the poetry of his own contemporaries in general, Gray’s may be said to have reached, in style, the excellence at which he aimed; while the evolution, also, of such a piece as his Progress of Poesy, must be accounted not less noble and sound than its style.[5]

RecognitionEdit

In December 1757 Lord John Cavendish, an admirer of the "Odes," induced his brother, the Duke of Devonshire, who was lord chamberlain, to offer the laureateship, vacated by Cibber's death, to Gray. Gray, however, at once declined it, though the obligation to write birthday odes was to be omitted.[4]

A character sketch of Gray, written by W.J. Temple, friend of Gray in his later years and also an intimate friend of James Boswell, appeared in the London Magazine (March 1772), of which Boswell was part proprietor.[3]

A memorial to Gray was erected in 1778 in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey, by poet William Mason.[6]

In 1776 Brown and Mason gave £50 apiece to start a building fund in honour of Gray. It accumulated to a large sum, and the college was in great part rebuilt between 1870 and 1879 by Mr. Waterhouse.[3] In 1870 a stained glass window, designed by Mr. Madox Brown, and executed by Mr. William Morris, was presented to the college hall by Mr. A.H. Hunt. In 1885 a subscription was promoted by Lord Houghton and Mr. E. Gosse, and a bust by Mr. Hamo Thornycroft, A.R.A., was placed in the hall, and unveiled on 20 May, when addresses were delivered by Mr. Lowell, Sir F. Leighton, Lord Houghton, and others.[3]

Portraits of Gray are (1) a full-length in oil by Jonathan Richardson at the age of 13, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge; (2) a half-length by J. G. Eckhardt, painted for Walpole in 1747. An engraving of this was intended to be prefixed to Gray's poems in 1753, but the plate was destroyed in deference to his vehement objection. It is engraved in Walpole's ‘Letters’ (Cunningham), vol. iv.; (3) a posthumous drawing by Benjamin Wilson, from his own and Mason's recollections, now in Pembroke, from Stonehewer's bequest. It was engraved for the ‘Life’ (4to) by Mason. Walpole (Correspondence, vi. 67, 207) says that it is very like but painful; (4) a drawing by Mason himself, now at Pembroke, was etched by W. Doughty for the 8vo edition of the life. From it were taken two portraits by Sharpe of Cambridge and Henshaw, a pupil of Bartolozzi. This was also the original of the medallion by Bacon upon the monument in Westminster Abbey, erected at Mason's expense in 1778. A bust by Behnes in the upper school at Eton is founded on the Eckhardt portrait. Walpole says that he was ‘a little man, of a very ungainly appearance’ (Walpoliana, i. 95).[3]

Four of Gray's poems ("Elegy written in a Country Churchyard," "The Curse upon Edward," "The Progress of Poesy," and "On a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes") were included in the Oxford Book of English Verse.[7]

PublicationsEdit

PoetryEdit

Non-fictionEdit

Collected editionsEdit

  • Works of Thomas Gray. London: William Pickering, 1833. Volume I
  • The Works of Thomas Gray: In prose and verse (edited by Edmund Gosse). (4 volumes), London: Macmillan, 1884. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III, Volume IV
  • Gray's English Poems: Original, and translated from the Norse and Welsh (edited by D.C. Tovey). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1898.
  • The Complete Poems: English, Latin and Greek (edited by Herbert W. Starr & J.R. Hendrickson). Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1966.

AnthologizedEdit

  • A Collection of Poems by Several Hands: Volume 2 (edited by Robert Dodsley; includes Gray's "Ode on the Spring," "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat," and "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College"). London: R. Dodsley, 1748.

LettersEdit

  • The Letters of Thomas Gray: Including the correspondence of Gray and Mason (edited by Duncan C. Tovey). (3 volumes), London: George Bell. Volume I, 1900; Volume II, 2904; Volume III, 1912.[9]
  • Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Thomas Gray, Richard West and Thomas Ashton (edited by W.S. Lewis, George L. Lam, & Charles H. Bennett). New Haven: Yale University Press (Yale Edition of Horace Walpole's Correspondence, vols. 13-14), 1948.[9]
  • The Correspondence of Thomas Gray (edited by Paget Toynbee & Leonard Whibley). (3 volumes), Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1935
    • revised (with additions & editing by Herbert W. Starr). Oxford. UK: Clarendon Press, 1971.


Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy the Poetry Foundation.[11]

Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College Thomas Gray Audiobook Short Poetry04:29

Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College Thomas Gray Audiobook Short Poetry

Poems by Thomas GrayEdit

  1. The Bard
  2. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

See alsoEdit

ReferencesEdit

  • PD-icon.svg Stephen, Leslie (1890) "Gray, Thomas (1716-1771)" in Stephen, Leslie; Lee, Sidney Dictionary of National Biography 23 London: Smith, Elder, pp. 22- . Wikisource, Web, Jan 8, 2016.

NotesEdit

  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 Stephen, 22.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 2.5 2.6 2.7 2.8 2.9 Stephen, 24.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 3.17 3.18 3.19 3.20 3.21 3.22 Stephen, 26.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 4.7 4.8 Stephen, 25.
  5. from Matthew Arnold, "Critical Introduction: Thomas Gray (1716–1771)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, June 30, 2016.
  6. Thomas Gray, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 11, 2016.
  7. Alphabetical list of authors: Daniel, Samuel to Hyde, Douglas. Arthur Quiller-Couch, editor, Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919). Bartleby.com, Web, May 18, 2012.
  8. The Poetical Works of Thomas Gray, Thomas Parnell, William Collins, Matthew Green, and Thomas Warton (1853), Internet Archive, Web, Sep. 24, 2012.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 Search results = au:Thomas Gray, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Feb. 24, 2016.
  10. Select Poems of Thomas Gray, Project Gutenberg, Web, Sep. 25, 2012.
  11. Thomas Gray 1716-1771, Poetry Foundation, Web, Sep. 24, 2012.

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