The English poet Thomas Gray (1716-1771) expressed deep and universal human feelings in forms derived from Greek and Roman literature. Although his output was small, he introduced new subject matter for poetry.
Thomas Gray was born on Dec. 26, 1716, of middle-class parents. He was the only one of 12 children to survive infancy. In 1727 Thomas became a pupil at Eton, where he met several bookish friends, who included Richard West (his death, in 1742, was to reinforce the melancholy that Gray often felt and expressed in his poems) and Horace Walpole, son of England's first modern-style prime minister and later an important man of letters.
Gray attended Cambridge University from 1734 to 1738 and after leaving the university without a degree undertook the grand tour of Europe with Walpole from 1739 to 1741. During this tour the two friends quarreled, but the quarrel was made up in 1745, and Walpole was to be a significant influence in the promulgation of Gray's poems in later years. In 1742 Gray returned to Cambridge and took a law degree the next year, although he was in fact much more interested in Greek literature than in law. For the most part, the rest of Gray's life, except for an occasional sojourn in London or trip to picturesque rural spots, was centered in Cambridge, where he was a man of letters and a scholar.
Gray's poetry, almost all of which he wrote in the years after he returned to Cambridge, is proof that personal reserve in poetry and careful imitation of ancient modes do not rule out depth of feeling. (He was one of the great English letter writers; in his letters his emotions appear more unreservedly.) The charge of artificiality brought against him later by men as different in their poetic principles as Samuel Johnson and William Wordsworth is true, but there is room in poetry for artifice, and while spontaneity has its merits so also does the Virgilian craftsmanship that Gray generally practiced.
The "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (1747) certainly inflates its subject when it describes schoolboy swimmers as those who "delight to cleave/With pliant art [the Thames's] glassy wave," but it concludes with a memorably classic sentiment that deserves its lapidary expression: "where ignorance is bliss,/'Tis folly to be wise." Even so playful a poem as the "Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes" (1748) concludes with the chiseled wisdom, "Not all that tempts your wand'ring eyes …is lawful prize;/Nor all that glisters, gold."
In his greatest poem (and one of the most popular in English), the "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751), Gray achieves a perfect fusion of the dignity of his subject and the habitual elevatedness of his poetics. His style and his melancholy attitude toward life are perfectly adapted to the expression of the somber, time-honored verities of human experience. In the two famous Pindaric odes "The Progress of Poetry" and "The Bard" (published with Walpole's help in 1757) Gray seems to anticipate the rhapsodies of the romantic poets. Some readers in Gray's time found the odes obscure, but they are not so by modern standards. Much of Gray's energy in his later years was devoted to the study of old English and Norse poetry, a preoccupation that reveals itself in his odes.
Gray declined the poet laureateship in 1757. After a somewhat hypochondriacal middle age he died on July 30, 1771.
Further Reading on Thomas Gray
The standard biography of Gray is Robert W. Ketton-Cremer, Thomas Gray (1955; rev. ed. 1958). For critical comment on the "Elegy" see Cleanth Brooks's essay in his The Well-Wrought Urn: Studies in the Structure of Poetry (1947) and the essays by Frank Brady, Bertrand Bronson, and Ian Jack in Frederick W. Hilles and Harold Bloom, eds., From Sensibility to Romanticism (1965). Broader studies of Gray include Patricia Spacks, The Insistence of Horror: Aspects of the Supernatural in Eighteenth-Century Poetry (1962), and Arthur Johnston, Thomas Gray and "The Bard" (1966).
Additional Biography Sources
Hudson, William Henry, Gray & his poetry, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.
Roberts, S. C. (Sydney Castle), Thomas Gray of Pembroke, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1978.
Thomas Gray, his life and works, London; Boston: G. Allen & Unwin, 1980.