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LIFE AND WRITINGS
THE lives of men of letters seldom abound with incidents; and perhaps no life ever afforded fewer than that which I have undertaken to write. But I am far from mentioning this by way of previous apology, as is the trite custom of biographers. The respect which I owe to my deceased friend, to the public, and (let me add) to myself, prompts me to waive so impertinent a ceremonial. A reader of sense and taste never expects to find in the memoirs of a philosopher, or poet, the same species of entertainment, or information, which he would receive from those of a statesman or general: he expects, however, to be either informed or entertained; nor would he be disappointed, did the writer take care to dwell principally on such topics as characterize the man, and distinguish that peculiar part which he acted in the varied drama of society. But this rule, selfevidently right as it may seem, is seldom observed. It was said, with almost as much truth as wit, of one of these writers, that, when he composed the Life of Lord Verulam, he forgot that he was a philosopher; and, therefore, it was to be feared, should he finish that of the Duke of Marlborough, he would forget that he was a general. I shall avoid a like fault. I will promise
His parents were reputable citizens of London. His grandfather a considerable merchant: but his father, Mr. Philip Gray, though he also followed business, was of an indolent and reserved temper; and therefore rather diminished than increased his paternal fortune. He had many children, of whom Thomas, the subject of these Memoirs, was the fifth born. All of them, except him, died in their infancy; and I have been told that he narrowly escaped suffocation (owing to too great a fulness of blood which destroyed the rest) and would certainly have been cut off as early, had not his mother, with a courage remarkable for one of her sex, and withal so very tender a parent, ventured to open a vein with her own hand, which instantly removed the paroxysm.
He was born in Cornhill, December the 26th, 1716; was educated at Eton school, under the care of Mr. Antrobus, his mother's brother, who was at that time one of the assistant masters, and also a fellow of St. Peter's College, Cambridge; to which place Mr. Gray removed, and was there admitted a pensioner in the year 1734. While at school, he contracted a friendship with Mr. Horace Walpole and Mr. Richard West: the former of these appears, at present, with too much distinction in the literary as well as fashionable world,
to make it necessary I should enlarge upon this subject; but as the latter died before he could exert his uncommon abilities, it seems requisite to premise somewhat concerning him; especially as almost every anecdote which I have to produce, concerning the juvenile part of Mr. Gray's life, is included in his correspondence with this gentleman: a correspondence which continued, with very little interruption, for the space of about eight years, from the time of their leaving school to the death of the accomplished youth in question.
His father was Lord Chancellor of Ireland. His grandfather, by the mother, the famous Bishop Burnet. He removed from Eton to Oxford, about the same time that Mr. Gray left that place for Cambridge. Each of them carried with him the reputation of an excellent classic scholar, though I have been told that, at the time, Mr. West's genius was reckoned the more brilliant of the two: a judgment which, I conceive, was not well founded; for though Mr. West's part of that correspondence, which I shall speedily give the reader,* will undoubtedly shew that he possest very extraordinary talents, yet, on Mr. Gray's side, there seems superadded to these, such a manly precision of taste,
I am well aware that I am here going to do a thing which the cautious and courtly Dr. Sprat (were he now alive) would highly censure. He had, it seems, a large collection of his friend Mr. Cowley's letters, "a way of writi in which he peculiarly excelled, as in these he always exprest the native tenderness and innocent gaiety of his heart: yet the Doctor was of opinion, that nothing of this nature should be published, and that the letters that pass between particular friends (if they are written as they ought to be) can scarce ever be fit to see the light." What! not when they express the native tenderness and innocent gaiety of a heart like Mr. Cowley's? No, by no means, "for in such letters the souls of men appear undrest, and in that negligent habit they may be fit to be seen by one or two in a chamber, but not to go abroad in the street.' See Life of Cowley, page 38, Hurd's Edition.
Such readers as believe it incumbent on every well-bred soul never to appear but in full dress, will think that Dr. Sprat has reason on his side; but I suspect that the generality will, notwithstanding, wish he had been less scrupulously delicate, and lament that the letters in question are not now extant. Of one thing I am fully confident, that, had this been the case, the judicious Dr. Hurd would have found his critical labour much lessened, when, in pure charity to this amiable writer, he lately employed himself in separating,
His pleasing moral from his pointed wit.