1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

John Aikin, in Select Works of the British Poets (1820) 652.



THOMAS GRAY, a distinguished poet, was the son of a money-scrivener in London, where he was born in 1716. He received his education at Eton-school, whence he was sent to the university of Cambridge, and entered as a pensioner at St. Peter's College. He left Cambridge in 1738, and occupied a set of chambers in the Inner Temple, for the purpose of studying the law. From this intention he was diverted by an invitation to accompany Mr. Horace Walpole, son of the celebrated statesman, with whom he had made a connection at Eton, in a tour through Europe. Some disagreement, of which Mr. Walpole generously took the blame, caused them to separate in Italy; and Gray returned to England in September, 1741, two months before his father's death. Gray, who now depended chiefly upon his mother and aunt; left the law, and returned to his retirement at Cambridge. In the next year he had the misfortune to lose his dear friend West, also an Eton scholar, and son to the Chancellor of Ireland, which left a vacancy in his affections, that seems never to have been supplied. From this time his residence was chiefly at Cambridge, to which he was probably attached by an insatiable love of books, which he was unable to gratify from his own stores. Some years passed in this favourite indulgence, in which his exquisite learning and poetic talents were only known to a few friends; and it was not till 1747, that his Ode on a distant Prospect of Eton College made its appearance before the public. It was in 1751 that his celebrated Elegy written in a Country Church-yard, chiefly composed some years before, and even now sent into the world without the author's name, made its way to the press. Few poems were ever so popular: it soon ran through eleven editions; was translated into Latin verse, and has ever since borne the marks of being one of the most favourite productions of the British Muse.

In the manners of Gray there was a degree of effeminacy and fastidiousness which exposed him to the character of a fribble; and a few riotous young men of fortune in his college thought proper to make him a subject for their boisterous tricks. He made remonstrances to the heads of the society upon this usage, which being treated, as he thought, without due attention, he removed in 1756 to Pembroke-hall. In the next year, the office of poet-laureat, vacant by the death of Cibber, was offered to Gray, but declined by him. In the same year he published two odes, On the Progress of Poesy and The Bard, which were not so popular as the Elegy had been, chiefly, perhaps, because they were less understood. The uniform life passed by this eminent person admits of few details, but the transaction respecting the professorship of modern history at Cambridge, a place worth four hundred pounds a year, is worthy of some notice. When the situation became vacant in Lord Bute's administration it was modestly asked for by Gray, but had already been bespoken by another. On a second vacancy in 1768, the Duke of Grafton being now in power it was, "unsolicited and unsuspected," conferred upon him; in return for which he wrote his Ode for Music, for the installation of that nobleman chancellor of the university. This professorship though founded in 1724, had hitherto remained perfect sinecure; but Gray prepared himself a execute the duties of his office. Such, however, were the baneful effects of habitual indolence, that with a mind replete with ancient and modern knowledge, he found himself unable to proceed farther than to draw a plan for his inauguration speech. But his health was now declining; an irregular hereditary gout made more frequent attacks than formerly; and at length, while he was dining in the College-hall, he was seized with a complaint in the stomach, which carried him off on July 30. 1771, in the fifty-fifth year of his age. His remains were deposited, with those of his mother and aunt, in the church-yard of Stoke-Pogis, Buckinghamshire.

It is exclusively as a poet that we record the name of Gray; and it will, perhaps, be thought that we borrow too large a share from a single small volume; yet this should be considered as indicative of the high rank which he has attained, compared with the number of his compositions. With respect to his character as a man of learning, since his acquisitions were entirely for his own use, and produced no fruits for the public, it has no claim to particular notice. For though he has been called by one of his admirers "perhaps the most learned man in Europe," never was learning more thrown away. A few pieces of Latin poetry are all that he has to produce.