Thomas Gray (1716-1771) poet and letter writer was born in London to a wealthy and well-connected family. He attended the best schools , first Eton then Cambridge. It was at Eton where he met students who remained his friends for life. They claimed their identity as the “quadruple alliance”. They were Horace Walpole (1719-1797), the son of Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, Richard West (1716-1742), whose father was at one time Lord Chancellor of Ireland, and Thomas Ashton (171501775). They gave themselves nicknames taken from mythology. Gray was Orozmades, Master of the noble Science of Defense, Walpole was Celadon, West was Favonius and sometimes Zephyrus, and Ashton was Almanzor. Gray’s poem to the four titled: Lines Spoken by the Ghost of John Dennis at the Devil’s Tavern (located on Fleet Street, demolished in 1787, the plaque can be seen on the original site, 1 Fleet St., London)
Gray left Cambridge with no degree to roam about the Continent with Horace Walpole, a common practice then and now for students with money to take a break from studies. When his father died he left the family with only a small portion of the original wealth. Gray joined his mother, who was now living in the village of Stoke Poges, in southern Buckinghamshire. It was during this period that Gray wrote his most famous and long-endearing poems and published anonymously: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. In this neo-classical ode he abandoned the heroic couplet in favor of the quatrain. Samuel Johnson recognized it as a “new scheme of poetry” which he described as “local poetry”. But even remarkable is the use of vowels, which Lowell believed was the clue to its exquisiteness: “ten syllables with nine different vowel sounds”.
“The curfew tolls the knell of parting day.”
Of less beauty was Ode to (on the) Spring, interesting for two reasons: first, it is not Pindaric but consists of six similar stanzas of ten lines, the ten lines are divided into groups of four and six. Second, it is uncharacteristically the theme of Spring being mostly melancholic more akin to Winter:
After a year he returned to Cambridge and took a degree in Bachelor of Civil Law, anticipating the need to work for a living. Most of the time he spent reading in the university library. He was more scholar than poet, interested in everything and anything that crossed his reading path. More a writer of prose than a poet. Temple wrote that Gray “was the most learned man in Europe; he was equally acquainted with the elegant and profound parts of science…he knew every branch of history, both natural and civil; and was a great antiquarian. Edmund Gosse was equally impressed “his knowledge of Greek literature, and especially of Greek poetry, was as deep as it was subtle;…He was equally keen in all that suited his own peculiar habits of mind in the authors of modern Europe; and when he was already advanced in life he mastered Icelandic.” Saintsbury wrote that Gray “made himself one of the best Greek scholars at Cambridge, and cultivated his taste in music, painting, literature, gardening, and architecture. He was interested in metaphysics, criticism, morals, and politics, and his correspondence includes a wide survey of European history and culture. There was not probably a man in Europe till Gray who had any wide reading at once in classical literature and in the medieval and modern literatures of different countries.”
While at Cambridge Gray wrote a series of soaring Pindaric odes under The Progress of Poesy. Lowell remarked that it “overflies all other English lyrics like an eagle. A view not shared by other critics, especially Wordsworth, who remarked about his Ode to West that “its only part of value, the language differs in no respect from that of prose”. To publish his work he was helped by his old school mate and good friend Horace (Horatio) Walpole who had a private press on his villa and printed the work for him. At one time Gray began a philosophical poem, The Alliance of Education and Government. It was to show that education and government “must necessarily concur to produce great and useful men” but it was never finished. In a letter to Temple Gray gave reason for the abandonment a paper by Montesquieu L‘esprit des lois which he felt expressed his own ideas. The Spirit of Laws influenced almost every constitution in the world including the American] Gray wrote very few poems but of those he did write they are “pure, perspicuous, and (above all) musical”.
In 1768 he was offered a professorship at Cambridge engineered by another highly placed friend. the Duke of Grafton, who shortly thereafter became Chancellorship of the University. To commemorate the occasion Gray wrote The Installation Ode. In this work Gray deviated from traditional structure and near the middle of the work introduced what is referred to as a “quartet” of questions and answers. Gray became interested in the literature of the early Celts and Norsemen and wrote translations. Called “unclassical”, the product was of interest to university scholars. (Amos Cottle tried to follow Gray but only managed a mediocre translation of the Edda). Other than these little-read translations Gray was largely unproductive. Even during his last appointment as Professor of Modern History and Modern Languages, it is said “he never gave a lecture.”
Gray produced very little in his time some reports indicate that contributing factors were his fastidious taste. Prone to polish and repolish verses, excising lines but also there was the reticent nature, perhaps shyness and an unwillingness to share enter into his inner self.
Our first characteristic is: harmonious in nature, goodness in living, and sympathy for the low-born.
Comments from critics, colleagues and himself.
“Gray’s Journal of the Lakes breathes of another world – the scenery of the Lake region, isolated, austere, and magnificent was well calculated to inspire a poetry of little contemporary appeal but of deep and enduring power.” Frederick Pierce
“Gray was the first discovered of the beauties of nature in England, and has marked out the course of every picturesque journey that can be made of it.” James Mackintose
“Perhaps no one poem is a higher, a more successful expression of the type of poetry under discussion than Gray’s Elegy. We would rank it with the productions of the critical school, not because of the date of the composition, but because it owes so much of its excellence to the exactness and easy elegance of its form…it confers unfailing pleasure, by its naturalness of sentiment, its simplicity and aptness of expression.”
“…the substance of the Elegy…notice a sympathy for the peasant…Gray finds pathos in the uneventful lives of ignorant men.” Edward Reed
“The poem (Elegy) is about the pathos one feels in considering the unfulfilled promise or potentialities of the poor.”
“The romantic quality which the poems show is manifest in the poet’s sympathy with low-born and natural life, simple emotions, and homely scenes.” Gayley et al
“Gray receives and refuses an offer of the laureateship in 1757.” …Gray, shunned publicity and wisely declined knowing that it [Laureateship] had become a farcical post.”
“He may be said to have been one of those very few personages in the annals of literature, especially in the ppoetical class, who are devoid of self-interest…and also, among mankind in general, one of those very few economists who possess that talent, untinctured with the slightest stain of avarice…he gave away such sums of private charity as would have done redit to an ampler purse.” William Mason on Thomas Gray
“Finally, among the qualities that made Gray a critic was his sympathy. He saw another man’s point of view and gave due weight to the inherited tendencies and prejudices which determined it. This is evident not so much from specific utterances as from the general tone of his writing and conversation. It was sympathy which led him to devote so much attention to the productions of Mason [novelist]. It was this same quality…brought him the devoted friendship of his little circle of intimates – Wharton, Chute, Sonehewer, Brown, and Walpole.” Gosse
Our second characteristic is melancholy; pessimism.
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“We are all idle and thoughtless things and have no sense, no use in the world any longer than that sad impression lasts; the deeper it is engraved the better.”
“Low spirits are my true and faithful companions.” Gray
“He writes always with a crow-quill, speaks slowly and sententiously, and shuns the crew of dissonant college revelors who call him “a prig”, and seek to annoy him. Long mornings of study and nights feverish from ill health, are spent in those chambers, he is often listless and in low spirits;...” E. Gosse
“The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Gray in the didactic Elegy
“A stronger reason than ill health has not been too often dwelt on: namely, his inertia or indolence. Not being obliged to write, he could not bring himself to do what required an effort. The consciousness of this defect was probably a chief cause of that despondency, or depression of spirits, of which he speaks many times…a lack of ambition doubtless combined with other circumstances to render Gray indifferent to fame.” Wm. Temple
Our third characteristic was letter-writing; humor and wit.
This Pindaric Ode recollects a prophecy made by a Welsh poet [bard] to the invading King Edward I of England, with the words “weave the warp and weave the woof”.
“Everything resounds with the wood-lark and robins and the voice of the sparrow is heard in the land. Remember me to all that remember there is such a person.” Letter to Wharton
“They put me in mind of a Greek sophist that got immortal honour by discoursing so feelingly on the miseries of his condition, that fifty of his audience went home and hanged themselves; yet he lived himself many years after in very good plight.”
“The people I behold all around me, it seems, know all…and yet I do not know one of them who inspires me with any ambition of being like him. Surely it was of this place, now Cambridge, but formerly known by the name of Babylon,that the prophet spoke when he said, “The wild beasts of the desert shall dwell there, and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures, and owls shall build ther and satyrs shall dance there.” You see, here is a pretty collection of desolate animals, which is verified in this town to a tittle.” Letter to Richard West
“for metaphysics? Alas! I cannot see in the dark; nature has not furnished me with the optics of a cat. Must I pore upon mathematics? Alas! I cannot see in too much light; I am no eagle. It is very possible that two and two make four, but I would not give four farthings to demonstrate this ever so clearly; and if these be the profits of life, give me the amusements of it.” Letter
“It is a foolish thing that without money one cannot either live as one poleases, or where and with whom on pleases. Swift somewhere says, that money is liberty; and I fear jmoney is friendship too and society, and almost every external blessing. It is a great, though an ill-natured, comfort, to see most of those who have it in plenty, without pleasure, without liberty, and without friends.” Letter
Comments from critics, colleagues, and himself.
“If he had written nothing else [Elegy] he still have had a distinguished place among the treat English letter-writers…exhibit the easy grace, highly cultivasted intelligence and unforced wit which are gray’s special virtues in this kind of composition.” Gibbs
“His humor was always one of his most lovable qualities.” Drinkwater
“Moreover it may be said that Gray possessed a well developed sense of humor. A person thus gifted is likely to see life in its true proportions. Gray‘s own humor is usually, though not always, of the genial, kindly sort which leaves no sting.” Gosse Works
Our fourth characteristic is word painting, metaphora and veiled allusion.
“It is six miles to the top; the road runs winding up it, commonly not six feet broad; on one hand is the rock, with woods of pine-trees hanging overhead.” Letter to his Mother
“The breezy call of incense-breathing morn. Elegy
“Where through the long-drawn aisle and freeted vault
“Thoughts that breathe and words that burn.” Progress of Poesy
“The high and mighty Prince Roger,surnamed the Long, Lord of the great Zodiac, the glass Uranium and the chariot that goes without horses” “
“Within the ramparts near the Porte de Mars lies buried under the mound a Triumphal Arch, a narrow passage leads into it; It is composed of three arches pretty near of a height, aorn’d with Reliefs representing Romulus and Remus with the Wolf; Jupiter and Leda; the Seasons, …with a border of armour thrown in heaps; and victories [statues of the goddess] at the corners, writing on shelds; 6 Corinthian round Pilasters, fluted, appear withouside the rampart, and two are wanting…”
“Unquestionably they (odes) are difficult poems, and were still more difficult without the aid of the footnotes which Gray refused to provide in the original edition The majority of his contemporaries remained perplexed.” Reed
“The public complained of their obscurity.” Reed
“One very great man had read them seven nor eight times and has not above thirty questions to ask” Gray
“…a lady of quality who is a great reader never suspected that ‘Natures Darlng’ by ‘lucid Avon’ referred to Shakespeare or that a more detailed account of a poet who saw the secrets of the abyss and the glories of heaven was a description of Milton.” Gray
“The historical allusions can hardly be considered recondite.” Reed
“The Letters of Gray offer some of the best in the English language… describe natural scenery with a minuteness quite new in English literature.” Kellogg
“It shocks us when he speaks of his aged aunt as “an old Harridan, who is the Spawn of Cerberus and the Dragon of Wantley.” Letter to Tovey
We close with this sketch of himself:
Note: Townshend was the exchequer. The Townshend Acts taxed glass, paper, and tea on the American colonies which were considered prime causes of the American Revolution.)
In 1778 a monument to Gray was erected in Westminster Abbey by William Mason (whom Gray had given the nickname Scroddles) with the following inscription: