THOMAS GRAY, the only son of a money scrivener, was born on Cornhill, London, on the 26th of December, 1716. He received his education at Eton, and Peter-house, Cambridge, where he wrote some Latin poems, which obtained him an early reputation, and were inserted in the Musae Etonenses. In 1738, he removed to London with the intention of studying for the bar, but having previously formed an acquaintance with Horace Walpole, he accepted an invitation to accompany him abroad, where they quarrelled, and returned home separately. It is probable that Gray received an insult not to be forgiven, for we learn from Cole, in his Athenae Cantabrigienses, that when matters were made up between them. and our author accepted Walpole's invitation to Strawberry Hill, he told his host that he came to wait on him as civility required, but by no means would he ever be there on the terms of his former friendship, which he had totally cancelled. During Gray's residence on the continent, he not only formed an acquaintance with the native language and customs, but made some progress in the study of architecture, painting, and music.
On the death of his father, Gray, who was left but a small property, retired to Cambridge, and took his degree in civil law, but, at the same time, renounced all thoughts of going to the bar. Literary pursuits now occupied him closely for some years, in the course of which he read almost every English author of note, besides Propertius, Ovid, Petrarch and others, from some of whose works he made translations. So tardy, however, was he in the production of his own compositions, that although his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College was finished in 1742, it did not appear until 1747; and it was only in consequence of the printing of a surreptitious copy, that, in 1751, he published his Elegy written in a Country Church-yard. No poem ever produced so great a sensation; although published anonymously, it quickly ran through eleven editions; it was translated into nearly all the modern languages, as well as into Latin, by Anstey, Roberts, and Lloyd; and into Greek, by Doctors Cooke, Norbury, and Coote; and numerous other elegant and able classics. In the two following years he appears to have written an ode on the Progress of Poetry, and his celebrated ode of The Bard, together with some fragments; but he complains, about this period, nevertheless, of being prevented from applying himself closely to poetry, from listlessness and a depression of spirits.
In 1756, he, in consequence of the annoyance of some collegians, whose apartments adjoined his own, removed to Pembroke Hall, in the same university, an event which he describes "as an era in a life so barren of events as his." This remove, however, has been explained, by other of his cotemporaries, to have originated in his great dread of fire; and for his better chance of escape, in case of accident, he is said to have practised a descent from his front window into the court below, by means of a rope. This coming to the ears of some mischievous students, they frequently annoyed him by giving an alarm of fire in the night; and on one occasion, a butt of water having been placed below to receive him, he unconsciously immersed himself therein.
In 1757, he published the odes before-mentioned, and in the same year he declined the office of laureate, which was offered him on the death of Cibber. In 1759, he removed to London, and resided for three years in the neighbourhood of the British Museum, which he attended for the purpose of transcribing the Harleian and Cottonian manucripts. Being disappointed in obtaining the Cambridge professorship of modern history, which he had solicited from Lord Bute, and finding his health require change of air, he, in 1765, took a journey into Scotland, where he was introduced to the most eminent men of literature of that country. His account of this journey, "so far as it extends," says Dr. Johnson, "is curious and elegant; for as his comprehension was singular, his curiosity extended to all the works of art, all the appearances of nature, and all the monuments of past events." Part of the summer of the years 1766 and 1767 he passed in journeying through England. In 1768, the death of Mr. Brocket again leaving the Cambridge professorship of modern history vacant, he was appointed to the chair by the Duke of Grafton; and in the following year he wrote his famous Installation Ode: a production, says Dyer, in his History of Cambridge, in which he speaks of the duke in the language of gratitude; but, with great poetical management, steers clear of the language of sycophancy. Soon after he had accepted the office, he grew melancholy and dejected, and had some thoughts of resigning his professorship, from a disinclination to perform the duties, although he was only bound to read one lecture per term. It was his intention, however, to have made the office less of a sinecure than his predecessors, but his ill health and inactive habits did not suffer him to do more than to sketch a plan for his inauguration speech, shortly after which he died, on the 30th of July, 1771.
Gray was small of stature, and finical in his appearance and gait; he paid a foppish attention to dress; and, although he had humour and a quick sense of the ridiculous, was so fastidiously delicate, that the least tendency to coarseness, or vulgar or unrefined manners, was sure to disturb his equanimity. This, Mason attributes to "an affectation in delicacy and effeminacy," rather "than to the things themselves;" adding, that Gray "chose to put on this appearance before persons whom he did not wish to please." Whatever were his peculiarities, no one has disputed his amiable disposition, and exemplary mode of life. He was temperate, sincere, of strict morality, and so independent, that he carried his fear of receiving favours to a blameable extent. Notwithstanding his high reputation, he exhibited no sign of vanity, and bore the attacks of critics with the most easy negligence.
It has been truly observed of Gray, that no modern poet has left so many examples of what he designed, or so little executed; for what he did not at once complete, he seldom had sufficient regard for to return to. The little, however, which he has left behind him, has secured him lasting popularity as a lyric poet; and if a judgment may be formed from his fragment of An Essay on the Alliance of Education and Government, he had equal capacities for excellence in the didactic style. As a writer of Latin verse he has been equalled by few; and his letters, which are to be found in the account of his life, by his friend Mason, have been universally admired. In allusion to that portion of them describing his travels, Dr. Johnson says, "he that reads his epistolary narrative wishes, that to travel, and to tell his travels, had been more of the employment of Gray." In his poetical compositions he is lofty, energetic, and harmonious; and, to quote the opinion of the celebrated scholar and traveller, Clarke, "his writings, both in style and diction, were a century before the age in which he wrote."
Beattie says of him "Setting aside his merit as a poet, which, however, in my opinion, is greater than any of his contemporaries can boast, in this or in any other nation, I found him possessed of the most exact taste, the soundest judgment, and the most extensive learning."