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A BRIEF LIFE OF THOMAS GRAY
THOMAS GRAY, best known as the author of the 'Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard,” was born at Cornhill, London, on December 26, 1716. His father, Philip Gray, appears to have been a man of weak character, improvident, and cruel; while his mother, Dorothy Antrobus Gray, was a woman of excellent qualities and lofty ideals.
The story of Gray's life is a short and simple one, for it was a life of secluded studiousness spent in the companionship of books, art, and nature. At ten years of age he entered Eton, where he was placed in the care of a maternal uncle, an assistant master in the school. Here he made the acquaintance of Horace Walpole, Richard West, and Thomas Ashton, who exercised a strong influence upon him, and who later were to do much toward bringing him into literary prominence. He was known to the student body, however, as a shy, frail youth, for he avoided mingling with the boys and took no part in their sports. Jacob Bryant, a classmate, describes him as he appeared at this time: "I remember he made an elegant little figure in his sable dress," he writes, "for he had a very good complexion and fine hair, and appeared to much advantage among the boys who were near him in the school and were rough and rude. Indeed, Mr. Gray and his friend (Walpole) were looked upon as too delicate, upon which
account they had few associates and never engaged in any exercise nor partook of any boyish amusements.”
In 1734 Gray left Eton and entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he was admitted a pensioner. Here, as at the other school, he made but few friends, and was seldom seen in a social circle. His time seems to have been given almost entirely to study. History, classical literature, and modern languages were his favorite subjects, although he did not confine himself to these alone. By way of recreation, he occasionally composed Latin verses, translated from the Italian authors, and wrote letters to a limited number of acquaintances. He left Cambridge in 1738 without taking a degree, it being refused him because of his failure to complete his work in philosophy, a study for which he had a peculiar aversion.
The next year Gray was invited by his friend Walpole to accompany him on a continental tour, an invitation which he promptly accepted. They slowly made their way across France, thence into Italy, stopping at many places of historical interest and visiting the galleries at Paris, Florence, and Rome. But in the summer of 1741 the tour was brought to an abrupt end. The friends quarrelled, apparently over some trivial matter, and separated, Gray returning to England a few months later. It was while on his homeward journey that he composed his famous Latin poem, the “ Alcaic Ode,”: inspired by the magnificent scenery in Dauphiny, France. A few weeks after his return his father died, and he went with his mother to live at StokePoges, near Windsor.
Gray now seems to have considered seriously the study of law and decided to return to Cambridge for that purpose. Before reëntering the university however, he spent the summer of 1742 at Stoke, and during that time wrote his first English poems. The “Ode on the Spring,'
"“Sonnet on the Death of Richard West” (West died on June 1), “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” and “Hymn to Adversity” all belong to this period, besides the opening stanzas of the “ Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard” and the fragment “Agrippina, a
Gray's return to Cambridge was followed in 1743 by his receiving his LL.B. degree. “I ain got,” he wrote, “halfway to the top of jurisprudence." But at this point he evidently decided against law, for instead of continuing its reading, he took up a careful study of the Greek and Latin classics. For six years he gave his attention to this work, during which he practically neglected original composition. Only two poems, the “Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat” (1747) and “ Alliance of Education and Government" (1748), were written within this period. The year 1747 also witnessed the publication of the “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College," the first of his verse to appear in print.
In 1749 Gray's aunt, Mary Antrobus, died." The poet was very fond of her, and her death is thought to have influenced him to resume and complete the "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard," which he had begun seven years before. Its final stanzas were finished early in 1750, and that same year “A Long Story” was produced. The “Elegy” was published the next year.
The year 1753 was an eventful one in Gray's life, as it witnessed the publication of his first volume of verse, under the title Six Poems, and the death of his mother, for whom he mourned the rest of his life, as he was devotedly attached to her. After the latter event he turned again to poetry for comfort, and in 1754 wrote the “Ode to Vicissitude” and “The Progress of Poesy," and began “The Bard.” In 1756 he removed from Peterhouse to Pembroke Hall at Cambridge, that he might not be disturbed in his work, and in 1759 went up to London to study in the British Museum, where he remained two years. Meanwhile, his literary fame led to his being offered the position of Poet-Laureate in 1757 on the death of Cibber, which his dread of publicity forced him to decline. That same year his Pindaric Odes-“The Progress of Poesy” and “ The Bard” were put before the public by Walpole, with whom he had become reconciled.
Gray returned to Cambridge in 1761 and that year produced his Norse Poems, -"The Fatal Sisters” and “The Descent of Odin," which he followed three years later with his Welsh Poems “The Triumph of Owen,” “The Death of Hoel,” “Caradoc," and "Conan." In 1768 a complete edition of his verse, which he had carefully revised, appeared. That same year he was appointed to the chair of Modern History and Language at his Alma Mater. His “Ode for Music," written and published in 1769, marks the close of his poetical activities.
Gray's life was now fast drawing to a close. For several years he had been afflicted with the gout, which was hereditary, and he sought to stay its progress by making yearly excursions through Great
Britain, accounts of which he wrote in a series of delightful letters. In 1771 he planned an excursion to Switzerland, but it was not to be carried out. He was seized on July 24 with an acute attack of gout in the stomach, which proved fatal. He died on the 30th, and was buried beside his mother at Stoke-Poges in the church-yard made famous by his "Elegy."
In the management of his metre, Gray has no superior. His ear was exquisite, and a few harsh lines, and very harsh they are, which are to be found in his poetry, were evidently left because he preferred to sacrifice the melody to the expression. The greatness of his reputation, contrasted with the small extent of the compositions upon which it is built, is the strongest proof of their excellence. Whether the slow and mosaic workmanship of Gray was an indication of genius, has often been questioned, but none except the few who were jealous of his popularity have ever hesitated to admit that his happiest poetry must be classed among the most perfect in the world.
Quarterly Review for December, 1853. Gray, as a poet, may be said to have studied words more carefully than the things they represent. He looked on a lay figure of nature. He had no thronging imaginations which required the vent of verse. He went abroad in search of ideas, and brought them home to amplify and adorn them. If the beauty of a word or a phrase struck him, he worked