Gray was born at London, and was educated at the University of Cambridge, which he entered at the age of eighteen. After remaining here five years, he travelled through France and Italy in company with Horace Walpole, but at Florence the two friends having parted, Gray afterwards continued his journey alone. He returned to England in 1741, and became bachelor of civil law in Cambridge, where, except a short residence at London, he passed the remainder of his life.
Poetry was with him only an occasional study, for he believed he could not write but at particular times and in happy moments. He published in 1742 the Ode to Spring, the Prospect of Eton, and the Ode to Adversity. In 1750 he wrote the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, and in 1757 published The Progress of Poetry and The Bard. In 1768 he was made professor of Modern History in Cambridge, but never delivered any lectures, for after some additional study, with alternate travelling to restore his decaying health, he died in 1771, aged 55.
Except a volume of admirable letters and a few pieces of exquisite poetry, Gray, who has been called the most learned man in Europe, has left to posterity no record of his extensive literary acquisitions, his refined taste, and his lofty genius. His odes are remarkable for their sublimity, their mingled majesty, softness and melody of versification, and for the elaborate manner in which they seem to have been wrought and polished. He was accustomed to finish every line before committing it to paper. His elegy is a combination of simple beauties, both in natural description and pathetic sentiment, which deeply affect the heart of every reader. His poetry is all pure in its moral influence, and abounds in the richest personifications, the noblest images, and often in the sweetest thoughts.
"In order to distinguish the positive merits of Gray from the loftier excellence ascribed to him by his editor," (Mr. Mathias, who speaks of him as "second to none,") "it is unnecessary to resort to the criticisms of Dr. Johnson. Some of them may be just, but their general spirit is malignant and exaggerated. When we look to such beautiful passages in Gray's odes, as his Indian poet amidst the forests of Chili, or his prophet bard scattering dismay on the array of Edward and his awe-struck chieftains, on the side of Snowdon — when we regard his elegant taste, not only gathering classical flowers from the Arno and Ilyssus, but revealing glimpses of Barbaric grandeur amidst the darkness of Runic Mythology — when we recollect his 'thoughts that breathe, and words that burn,' his rich personifications, his broad and prominent images, and the crowning charm of his versification, we may safely pronounce that Johnson's critical fulminations have passed over his lyrical character with more noise than destruction." (Campbell.)