He was the son of a money scrivener, by Mary Antrobus, a milliner in Cornhill, and sister to two Antrobus's who were ushers of Eton School. He was born in 1716, and educated at Eton College, chiefly under the direction of one of his uncles, who took prodigious pains with him, which answered exceedingly. He particularly instructed him in the virtues of simples. He had a great genius for music and poetry. From Eton he went to Peter House at Cambridge, and in 1739 accompanied Mr. H. W. in travelling to France and Italy. He returned in 1741, and returned to Cambridge again. His letters are the best I ever saw, and had more novelty and wit. One of his first pieces of poetry was an answer in English verse to an epistle from H. W. At Naples he wrote a fragment, describing an earthquake, and the origin of Monte Nuovo, in the style of Virgil; at Rome an Alcaic ode, in imitation of Horace, to R. West, Esq. Alter his return he wrote the inimitable ode, On a Distant Prospect of Eton College; another moral ode; and that beautiful one on a cat of Mr. Walpole's drowned in a tub of gold fishes. These three last have been published in Dodsley's Miscellanies. He began a poem on the reformation of learning, but soon dropped it, on finding his plan too much resembling the Dunciad. It had this admirable line in it:
And gospel-light first flashed from Bullen's eyes.
He began, too, a philosophical poem in Latin, and an English tragedy of Agrippina, and some other odes, one of which, a very beautiful one, entitled, "Stanzas written in a Country Churchyard," he finished in 1750. He was a very slow, but very correct writer. Being at Stoke in the summer of 1750, he wrote a kind of tale, addressed to Lady Schaub and Miss Speed, who had made him a visit at Lady Cobham's. The Elegy written in the Churchyard was published by Dodsley Feb. 16, 1751, with a short advertisement by Mr. H. W., and immediately went through four editions. He had some thoughts of taking his Doctor's degree, but would not, for fear of being confounded with Dr. Grey, who published the foolish edition of Hudibras.
In March, 1753, was published a fine edition of his poems, with frontispieces, head and tail pieces, and initial letters, engraved by Grignion and Muller, after drawings of Richard Bentley, Esq. He lost his mother a little before this, and at the same time finished an extreme fine poem, in imitation of Pindar, On the Power of Musical Poetry, which he began two or three years before. In the winter of 1755, George Hervey, Earl of Bristol, who was soon afterwards sent Envoy to Turin, was designed for Minister to Lisbon: he offered to carry Mr. Gray as his secretary, but he declined it. In August, 1757, was published two odes of Mr. Gray; one, On the Power and Progress of Poesy, the other, On the Destruction of the Welsh Bards by Edward I. They were printed at the new press at Strawberry Hill, being the first production of that printing-house. In October, 1761, he made words for an old tune of Geminiani, at the request of Mrs. Speed. It begins,
Thyrsis, when we parted, swore.
Two stanzas ... the thought from the French.