Thomas Gray

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 16:215-23.

THOMAS GRAY, an eminent English poet, was the fifth child of Mr. Philip Gray, a citizen and money-scrivener of London, and a man of such brutal manners, that his wife (whose maiden name was Dorothy Autrobus) was obliged in 1735 to apply to an eminent civilian for his advice as to a separation. Thomas was born in Cornhill, Dec. 20, 1716, and was the only one of many children who survived. The rest died in their infancy, from suffocation, produced by a fulness of blood; and he owed his life to a memorable instance of the love and courage of his mother, who removed the paroxysm which attacked him, by opening a vein with her own hand; an instance of affection which he long remembered with filial reverence. Indeed it was to her exertions when her home was rendered unhappy by the cruelty of her husband, that our poet was indebted for his education, and consequently for the happiness of his life. We may readily, therefore, believe what Mason has told us, that "Gray seldom mentioned his mother without a sigh."

He was educated at Eton, under the protection of Mr. Antrobus, his maternal uncle, who was at that time assistant to Dr. George, and also a fellow of Peter-house, Cambridge, where Gray was admitted as a pensioner in 1734, in his nineteenth year. At Eton his friendship with Horace Walpole (the late earl of Orford), and more particularly with Richard West, commenced. In the latter, who was a son of the Irish lord chancellor West, he met with one whose proficiency in literature was considerable for his age, whose mind was amiable and ingenuous, whose disposition was similar to his own, but whose loss he had to deplore, after a strict friendship of eight years. When Gray removed to Peter-house, West went to Christ church, Oxford, and Walpole to King's-college, Cambridge. It is difficult to trace the line of study which Gray pursued at college. His correspondence at that time treats chiefly of his poetry, and other private pursuits; and he seems to have withdrawn himself entirely from the severity of mathematical studies, while his inquiries centered in classical literature, in the acquisition of modern languages, in hi story and other branches of polite literature. During his residence at college from 1734 to 1738, his poetical productions were some Latin verses entitled ''Luna habitabilis,'' inserted in the "Musae Etonenses;'' a poem "On the marriage of the prince of Wales;" and a "Sapphic Ode to West," both in Latin; also a Latin version of the "Care selve beate" of the Pastor Fido, and fragments of translations in English from Statius and Tasso.

In 1738 Mr. Gray removed from Peter-house to London, intending to apply himself to the study of the law in the Inner temple, where his friend Mr. West had begun the same pursuit some months before, but on an invitation which Mr. Walpole gave him to be his companion in his travels, this intention was laid aside for the present, and never after put in execution. From his letters to Mr. West, he seems to have been a very diligent traveller, his attention being directed to every work of art that was curious and instructive. Architecture both of Gothic and Grecian origin, painting and music, were all studied by him, with the manners and customs of the inhabitants. Their tour was the accustomed one through France and Italy. In April 1740 they were at Reggio, where an unfortunate difference took place between them, and they parted. Much has been said of this famous quarrel, but the real cause has never been sufficiently explained. Walpole, however, affected to take the blame on himself, and probably spoke truth; and it is certain that the parties were afterwards reconciled, as to outward respect, which no man knew better than Walpole how to pay in such proportions as suited his convenience, and in such warm and animated language as could not fail to be successful where he was not known. Cole, however, says, that when matters were made up between Gray and Walpole, the latter asked Gray to Strawberry-hill, and when he came, he without any ceremony told Walpole, 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. Cole's narratives are sometimes to be received with caution, and although Gray's late excellent editor and biographer thinks this worthy of credit, and not inconsistent with the independence of Gray's character, yet if he did address Walpole in such language, it is difficult to conceive that there could have ever been any intercourse between them afterwards, which we are certain was the case.

Gray returned by himself to England in 1741, in which year his father died. With a small fortune, which her husband's imprudence had impaired, Mrs. Gray and a maiden sister retired to the house of Mrs. Rogers, another sister, at Stoke, near Windsor; and Gray, thinking his fortune not sufficient to enable him to prosecute the study of the law, and yet unwilling to hurt the feelings of his mother, by appearing entirely to forsake his profession, pretended to change the line of study, and went to Cambridge to take his degree in civil law, but had certainly no thoughts of that as a profession. He went accordingly to Cambridge, in the winter 1742, where he took his degree of bachelor of civil law, and employed himself in a perusal of the Greek authors with such assiduity, that in the space of about six years there were hardly any writers of note in that language, whom he had not only read but digested; remarking, by the mode of common-place, their contents, their difficult and corrupt passages, and all this with the accuracy of a critic, added to the diligence of a student. In his first year also he translated some parts of Propertius, and selected for his Italian studies the poetry of Petrarch. He wrote a heroic epistle in Latin, in imitation of the manner of Ovid; and a Greek epigram which he communicated to West; to whom, also, in the summer, when he retired to his family at Stoke, he sent his "Ode to Spring," which was written there, but which did not. arrive in Hertfordshire till after the death of his beloved. friend, who expired June 1, 1742, aged twenty-six. lit the autumn of this same year, Gray composed the ode on "A distant prospect of Eton College," and the "Hymn to Adversity," and began the "Elegy in a Country Church Yard." An affectionate sonnet in English, and an apostrophe which opens the fourth book of his poem "De principiis cogitandi" (his last composition in Latin verse) bear strong marks of the sorrow left on his mind from the death of West; and of the real affection with which he honoured the memory of his worth and of his talents.

In 1744 the difference between Walpole and Gray was adjusted by the interference of a lady who wished well to both parties. The lapse of years had probably softened their mutual resentment in a sufficient degree to admit again of correspondence on amicable terms. About this time Gray became acquainted with Mr. Mason, then a scholar of St. John's college, whose poetical talents be had noticed, and some of whose poems he revised at the request of a friend. His bequests to Mr. Mason show that this intimacy was improved into the strictest friendship and confidence. He maintained also a correspondence with another friend, Dr. Wharton of Durham, and seems to have been on familiar terms with the celebrated Dr. Midclleton, whose loss he afterwards laments. "I find a friend," he says, "so uncommon a thing, that I cannot help regretting even an old acquaintance, which is an indifferent likeness of it."

In 1747, Gray appeared first as an author, by the publication of the "Ode to Eton College," folio, of which, according to Dr. Warton, little notice was taken. Walpole now wished him to print his own poems with those of his deceased friend West, but this he declined, thinking the materials not sufficient; but he complied with another wish of Walpole, in commemorating in an ode the death of his favourite cat. Soon after this he sent to Dr. Wharton a part of his poem "On the alliance of education and government," which he never pursued much further. It was indeed Gray's misfortune seldom to execute his plans. In 1749 he finished his "Elegy," which we have seen he began seven years before, and which being now handed about in manuscript, was read with great applause, and when printed, was, as it continues to be, the most popular of all his works. Mason justly attributes this to the affecting and pensive cast of the subject. That it has not ceased to be admired even by scholars appears from the many translations which it has undergone, into Latin, by Messieurs Anstey, Roberts, and Lloyd, and into Greek by Dr. Cooke, Dr. Norbury, Dr Coote, and Messieurs Tew and Weston. This elegy was soon after added to a well-known edition of his poems printed in 4to, with designs by Mr. Bentley. In March 1753 he lost his mother, whom he had so long and so affectionately loved, and placed over her remains an inscription which strongly marks his filial piety and sorrow.

In 1754 and 1755 he appears to have written "An ode to Vicissitude," that ''On the progress of Poetry," the "Bard," and probably some of those fragments with which he seems to have amused himself without much design of completion. About this period he complains of listlessness and depression of spirits, which prevented his application to poetry; and from this time we may trace the course of that hereditary disease in his Constitution which embittered in a considerable degree the remainder of his days; and whose fatal strength not even the temperance and regularity of a whole life could subdue. In 1756 he left Peterhouse, where he had resided above twenty years, on account of some incivilities which he met with, which Mason thus mentions. Two or three young men of fortune, who lived on the same staircase, had for some time intentionally disturbed him with their riots, and carried their ill-behaviour so far as frequently to awaken him at midnight. After having borne with their insults longer than might reasonably have been expected even from a man of less warmth of temper, Gray complained to the governing part of the society, and not thinking that his remonstrance was sufficiently attended to, quitted the college. He now removed to Pembroke-hall, which he describes "as an aera in a life so barren of events as his."

In July 1757 he took his "Odes" to London for publication, but they were first printed at the Strawberry-hill press. It seems agreed that they did not succeed with the public, although they have since deservedly entitled him to rank among the greatest of our lyric poets. In the same year, on the death of Cibber, the office of poet-laureat was offered to him by the duke of Devonshire, then lord chamberlain, which he politely declined. In 1758 he composed for his own amusement the little book which lie calls "A Catalogue of the Antiquities, Houses, &c. in England and Wales,'' which after his death was printed for private distribution by Mr. Mason, and in 1787 for sale. About this time the study of architecture seems to have employed much of his time, and some very acute observations by him on this subject appeared afterwards in Bentham's "History of Ely," a work which was in a great measure the fruit of ''voluntary contributions." In January 1759, the British Museum was opened to the publick and Gray went to London to read and transcribe the manuscripts of the Harleian and Cottonian collections. A folio volume of his transcripts was in Mr. Mason's hands, out of which one paper alone, the speech of sir Thomas Wyat, was published in the second number of lord Ortord's "Miscellaneous Antiquities." In 1762 the professorship of modern history at Cambridge. a place worth £400 a year, became vacant, and Gray, by the advice of his friends, applied to lord Bute for it, which was however given to Mr. Brocket, the tutor of sir James Lowther.

In the summer of 1765 he took a journey into Scotland, to improve his health, which was then weak and uncertain, and to gratify his curiosity with the natural beauties and antiquities of that wild and romantic country. He went through Edinburgh and Perth to Glames-castle, the seat of lord Strathmore, where he resided some time, and afterwards went to the north, where he formed an acquaintance with Dr. Beattie, "whom," says Dr. Johnson, "he found a poet, a philosopher, and a good man," but at that time little known beyond the circle of his friends at Aberdeen. Gray's account of this journey, says Dr. Johnson, "so far as it extends, is curious and elegant; for as his comprehension was ample, 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 1766 and 1767 he passed in journies in England, and had intended a second tour to Scotland, but returned to London without accomplishing his design. At Dr. Beattie's desire, a new edition of his poems was printed by the Foulis's of Glasgow, then the most elegant printers in the island; and at the same time Dodsley was also printing them in London. In both these editions, the "Long Story" was omitted, as the plates from Bentley's designs which illustrated it were worn out, but some pieces of Welch and Norwegian poetry, written in a bold and original manner, were inserted in its place; of which the "Descent of Odin" is undoubtedly the most valuable, though in many places it is obscure. This his late biographer attributes to his having translated only that part of it which he found in the Latin version of Bartholinus.

In 1768, the professorship of modern history again became vacant by the accidental death of Mr. Brocket, and the duke of Grafton, then in power, bestowed it upon Mr. Gray without the smallest solicitation, although the contrary was at that time reported; and in the following year, when his noble patron was installed as chancellor of the university, Gray wrote the Ode that was set to music on that occasion. When this ceremony was past, he went on a tour to the lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, of which he has given an account in his correspondence. ''He that reads his epistolary narrative,'' says Dr. Johnson, "wishes, that to travel, and to tell his travels, had been more of his employment but it is by staying at home that we must obtain the ability of travelling with intelligence and improvement." In April 1770, he complains much of a depression of spirits, talks of an intended tour into Wales in the summer, and of meeting his friend Dr. Wharton at Mr. Mason's. In July, however, he was still at Cambridge, and wrote to Dr. Beattie, complaining of illness and pain in his head; and in this letter, he sent him some criticisms on the first hook of the "Minstrel," which have since been published. His tour took place in the autumn, but he does not appear to have written any journal of it. In May 1771 he wrote to Dr. Wharton, just sketching the outlines of his tour in Wales and some of the adjacent counties. This is the last letter that remains in Mr. Mason's collection. He there complains of an incurable cough, of spirits habitually low, and of the uneasiness which the thought of the duties of his professorship gave him, which, Mr. Mason says, he had now a determined resolution to resign. He had held this office nearly three years, and had not begun to execute the duties of it, which consist of two parts, one, the teaching of modern languages; the other, the leading of lectures on Modern History. The former he was allowed to execute by deputies, but the latter he was to commence in person, by reading a public lecture in the schools, once at least in every term. He was at liberty to chuse his language, and chose the Latin, which Mr. Mason thought somewhat injudicious; and although we do not find that he proceeded farther than to draw up a part of his introductory lecture, he projected a plan of very great extent, of much greater indeed than from his inactivity, whether the effect of illness or indolence, he would probably have been able to execute. His death, however, prevented the trial. A few days after writing the letter just mentioned, he removed to London, where his health more and more declined. His physician, Dr. Gisborne, advised freer air, and he went to Kensington. There he in some degree revived, and returned to Cambridge, intending to go from that place to Old Park, near Durham, the residence of his friend Dr. Wharton. On the 24th of July, however, while at dinner in the college-hall, he was seized with an attack of the gout in his stomach, of which he died in the evening of the 30th, 1771, in the fifty-fifth year of his age, sensible almost to the last; aware of his danger, and expressing no visible concern at the thought of his approaching death. He was interred by the side of his mother, in the church-yard of Stoke.

In his private character many virtues were united; benevolence, temperance, integrity, and oeconomy, patience under the contempt of hypercriticism, and a friendly and affectionate disposition. He had also some failings, among which are enumerated a want of personal courage, a reservedness and caprice of temper, arid a foppish attention to dress. This, was somewhat singular in one who to his other qualities, added a great portion of humour, and had a quick sense of the ridiculous. His sensibility was even morbid, and very often fastidious and troublesome to his friends. He seemed frequently overwhelmed by the ordinary intercourse and ordinary affairs of life. Coarse manners, and vulgar or unrefined sentiments, overset him. Mason's excuse for all this will not perhaps be thought the excuse of a friend; he attributes it rather to "an affectation in delicacy and effeminacy, than the things themselves," and says that Gray "chose to put on this appearance before persons whom he did not wish to please."

Gray appears to have written in a desultory manner; his efforts were such as he could accomplish probably at one time, and he had not in many instances affection enough for his subject to return to it. Hence no poet of modern times has left so many specimens or samples, so much planned, and so little executed. Activity and labour it appears he could never endure, unless in storing his mind with various knowledge for his own curiosity and satisfaction. Hence, although he read much and read critically, and amassed a vast fund of general learning, his reputation in this respect has hitherto stood upon the evidence of those who know him most intimately. He was above fifty years of age before he became sensible of the necessity of concentrating his knowledge in one pursuit, and as he had never accustomed himself so to regulate his acquisitions as to render them useful to others, he apparently sunk under the task which his professorship imposed; and it is much to the credit of his independent spirit, that when he found it impossible to execute the duties, he determined to resign the emoluments of his place.

As a poet, it may be sufficient here to refer to our authorities, which are in the hands of every reader, with perhaps the exception of an excellent edition of his works, just published, by the rev. John Mitford, which we can recommend with perfect confidence. Dr. Johnson's character of his poetry has excited a controversy, from which it may be truly said that Gray has emerged with additional lustre, yet if mere popularity were to determine the question, that critic has in some instances spoken the sentiments of the majority, as well as his own. It were, however, to be wished for his own sake, that in his general colouring of Gray's life and works, he had attended more to what he calls "the common-sense of readers, uncorrupted with literary prejudices." Had this been the case, while some of his strictures might have been allowed, he would have been a powerful ally of those whose superior minds know how to feel and how to appreciate the merit of Gray, and who have assigned him one of the highest places among the English poets of the eighteenth century.