1882 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Thomas Gray

Epes Sargent, in Harper's Cyclopaedia of British and American Poetry (1882) 182.



The son of a London scrivener in noisy Cornhill, Gray (1716-1771) was unfortunate in his paternal relations. His father was of a harsh, despotic disposition; and Mrs. Gray was obliged to separate from him, and open a millinery shop for her maintenance. To the love of this good mother, who lived to witness the eminence of her son, Thomas owed his superior education. Her brother being a master at Eton, the lad went there to school, and found among his classmates young Horace Walpole, with whom he became intimate, and afterward travelled on the Continent. At Cambridge Gray seems to have found college-life irksome. He hated mathematics and metaphysics. He passed his time principally in the study of languages and history, leaving in 1738 without taking a degree. He fixed his residence at Cambridge. Severe as a student, he was indolent as an author. His charming letters, and his splendid but scanty poetry, leave the world to regret his lack of productive industry. He was a man of ardent affections, of sincere piety, and practical benevolence; but his sequestered student-life, and an affectation of the character of a gentleman who studied from choice, gave a tinge of effeminacy and pedantry to his manners that incurred the ridicule of the wilder spirits of Cambridge.

The scenery of the Grande Chartreuse in Dauphine awakened all his enthusiasm. He wrote of it: "Not a precipice, not a torrent, not a cliff, but is pregnant with religion and poetry. There are certain scenes that would awe an atheist into belief, without the help of other argument. One need not have a very fantastic imagination to see spirits there at noonday."

Charles Dickens remarked of Gray that no poet ever gained a place among the immortals with so small a volume under his arm. Gray's first public appearance as a poet was in 1747, when his Ode to Eton College (written in 1742) was published by Dodsley. In 1751 his Elegy written in a Country Church-yard was printed, and immediately attained a popularity which has gone on increasing up to the present time. The Pindaric Odes appeared in 1757, but met with little success. Gray was offered the appointment of poet-laureate, vacant by the death of Colley Cibber, but declined it, and accepted the lucrative situation of Professor of Modern History, which brought him in about 400 per annum. He died of gout in the stomach, in the fifty-fifth year of his age.