Few poets have written less, or obtained a higher degree of deserved celebrity than Gray. "The British Pindar," as he has been called, was the son of a respectable citizen, and was born in Cornhill, Dec. 26, 1716. At Eton school he received his classical education, and afterwards removed to St. Peter's college, Cambridge, of which university he became one of the brightest ornaments.
The Ode to Spring was his first avowed poetical composition; and this was followed by the Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, and Hymn to Adversity, which all appeared by the time he was twenty-four years of age.
Intending to follow the profession of the law, Gray entered himself of the Inner Temple; but receiving an invitation from his university friend, Mr. Horace Walpole, afterwards Earl of Orford, to accompany him on his travels, he relinquished the study of the law, and set out on his grand tour. An unfortunate disagreement, however, between the two travellers speedily arising, our poet returned to London, and shortly after his father dying, his patrimony was found too small to allow him to think of resuming his design of being called to the bar. Returning therefore to Cambridge, he took a degree, and made that university his residence for the remainder of his life, except during occasional visits to London, and excursions to different parts of the kingdom. The immortal Elegy written in a Country Church-yard, was published in 1750, and this completely established his reputation. The Bard, and The Progress of Poesy, appeared seven years after; and about the same time, he was offered, but refused, the office of poet-laureat.
Gray seems to have been remarkably disinterested, and though his fortune was small, his spirit of independence would not allow him to sink the conscious dignity of genius by the meanness of solicitation. In 1768 he obtained, however, without any application on his own part, the professorship of Modern History in his Alma Mater, an appointment worth £400 a year, and fully adequate to his moderate and frugal habits. But he did not long enjoy his good fortune. His health began to break, his spirits to flag, and the gout put a period to his existence.
His poems and letters, with memoirs of his life and writings, were published some years after by his friend and executor, Mr. Mason. From the narrative of this gentleman, who possessed kindred genius, it may be collected, that Gray was more anxious to improve and amuse himself, than to court profit or fame by the application of his great power to any practical purpose. He was well bred, charitable, and humane, and passed his learned leisure among books rather than men. Yet he was warmly attached to his friends, and by them reciprocally beloved.
The poems of Gray are the universal favourites of all ages and conditions, in particular, his Elegy is repeated by youth and age, by the learned and unlearned, by the wise and the simple. It possesses a fascination which cannot be resisted; the sentiments it expresses are reechoed from every heart.
Mr. Gray died July 31, 1771, in the 55th year of his age. A few months after this lamented event, Mr. Mason began the third book of the English Garden, and was literally building a rustic alcove in his own garden sacred to his friend. The following lines allude to this circumstance:
In this fav'rite haunt
I place the urn, the bust, the sculptur'd lyre,
And fix this votive tablet, fair inscrib'd
With numbers worthy thee — for they are thine!
Under the urn, on a tablet, was this stanza, taken from the first edition of the Elegy written in a Country Church-yard:
Here scatter'd oft, the loveliest of the year,
By hands unseen, are showers of violets found,
The redbreast loves to build and warble here,
And little footsteps lightly print the ground.