Thomas Gray (1716 - 1771)

Life and Works

Thomas Gray was born in London in 1716. His parents had twelve children and all except Thomas died at an early age. When he was eight years old, he entered Eton College, where he made several close friends: the short-lived Richard West, who also wrote poetry and on whose death Gray composed a sonnet dismissed by Wordsworth as artificious; Thomas Ashton, who would become an influential preacher and divine; and Horace Walpole, the son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole and the author of the novel The Castle of Otranto, one of the seminal texts of the Gothic genrethe dark imagery of Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” resembles that of Gothic fiction. With Walpole, Gray travelled to France and Italy. The four friends were famialiarly named “the Quadruple Alliance”. Gray would identify his years at Eton with his paradise lost in “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”.

Horace Walpole, one of Gray’s lifelong friends

After completing his education at Eton, Gray became a Law student at Peterhouse, the oldest college of the University of Cambridge. After years of isolated writing and reading, he became a professor and taught history. He attempted dramatic verse and started thorough research aimed at writing a history of English poetry, which he did not finish. His knowledge of English literature was wide and he had the qualities of a literary historian. He was also well versed in Latin (the influence of the Pindaric ode is clearly observable), Celtic and Norse poetry.


Peterhouse College, Cambridge

The art of Gray and some of his contemporaries marks a transition from the poetry of satire and witof which Alexander Pope was the greatest exponentto a new poetry less dependent on the immediate social reality. Although Gray evidently looked up to classical models, his poetry deviates from the prescriptive emphasis of Neoclassicism or the Augustan Age to introduce an openly subjective component that prefigures the poetic theory and practice of the Romantics. Not surprisingly, Gray has been labelled, together with his contemporary William Collins, “Pre-Romantic”.
Literary critics as distant in time as Samuel Johnson or T. S. Eliot have drawn attention to Gray’s limitations as a poet, while prasing his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”arguably his only poem to stand the test of time. It was composed in 1747-8, some fourty years before the publication of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), considered to mark the beginning of English Romanticism. In Gray’s “Elegy” we find themes that have concerned poets from times immemorial: the vanity of life, the certainty of mortality, the discrepancy between merit and fame, the communication of the living with the dead. On the other hand, there are traits that clearly foreshadow the Romantic spirit: a melancholy tone, a subjective point of view and an introspective lyrical speaker, Gothic imagery, the mirror-like identification between the lyrical speaker’s mood and the gloomy landscape. These definig traits of “Elegy” could apply to poems composed by the so-called “Graveyard Poets”, which include Gray himself, Edward Young and Robert Blair.
Gray has also been admired for the style of his letters, in which he sometimes included and glossed over poetic compositions of his own or evoked his visits to the north of England and Scotland. His descriptions of impressive scenessuch as the Lake Districtillustrate the notions of the sublime and the picturesque, and also anticipate the Romantic veneration of Nature.
Thomas Gray died in 1771 and was buried in the graveyard at Stoke Poges (Buckinghamshire), where he had frequently stood by his mother’s grave and probably found the inspiration to write his most celebrated poem.

Memorial plaque for Thomas Gray at Stoke Poges Churchyard