BORN: 1716, London, England
DIED: 1771, Cambridge, England
GENRE: Poetry, nonfiction
‘‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’’ (1747)
‘‘Ode on the Spring’’ (1748)
‘‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’’ (1751)
Essays and Criticism (1911)
Thomas Gray is generally regarded as a transitional figure in eighteenth-century poetry, providing a bridge between the poetic sensibility of his own generation and the Romantic revolution of the future. He combines in a unique way a classic perfection of form typical of the Augustan era with subject matter and attitudes that are clearly Romantic and that anticipate still later developments. Gray’s special gift for precise and memorable language was the result of rigid discipline in long years of studying Greek and Roman literature. Steeped as he was in the past, in his ideas and emotions Gray looked to the future.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
A ‘‘Proper’’ Education to Escape the Horrors of Home Life Thomas Gray was born on December 26, 1716, in London, England. Although his family was fairly prosperous, Gray’s father was a morose and violent man who at times abused his wife unmercifully. There is uncertainty as to whether Gray’s parents separated, but it is well documented that it was arranged for Gray to attend Eton College when he was eight years old so that he could be properly educated. A studious and solitary boy, Gray formed intimate friendships with only three other students: Thomas Ashton, Horace Walpole, and Richard West. They proclaimed themselves the ‘‘Quadruple Alliance’’ and were given to precocious conversation on life and literature.
West and Walpole figured significantly in Gray’s literary development and later in his poetic career, which blossomed during Gray’s four years at Cambridge University. While at Cambridge, Gray attracted attention as an accomplished writer of Latin verse, though he left in 1738 without taking a degree. Shortly thereafter, Gray joined Walpole on an extended tour of Europe, but in 1741 they quarreled violently, the cause of their differences still a matter of speculation, and the two parted company until their reconciliation in 1745. In November 1741, Gray’s father died; Gray’s extant letters contain no mention of this event.
The Loss of a Dear Friend Except for his mother, Richard West was the person most dear to Gray, and his death from tuberculosis (a common, deadly disease in Europe throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) on June 1, 1742, was a grievous loss to the young poet. West died in the year of Gray’s greatest productivity, though not all of the work of that year was inspired either by West’s death or by Gray’s anticipation of it.
Gray’s ‘‘Ode on the Spring’’ was written while West was still alive and is to some extent a response to the ode he had sent Gray on May 5, 1742. Gray’s ‘‘Ode on the Spring’’ was sent to West at just about the time of his death and was returned unopened. The ode takes the implicit form of elegy, displacing spring from the context of renewal to that of death, and is consistent with a May 27, 1742, letter to West in which Gray explains that he is the frequent victim of ‘‘a white Melancholy’’.
From Bard to Professor Gray’s mother died on March 11, 1753, shortly after Gray had begun his famous Pindaric Odes, which were published by his friend Horace Walpole in a slim volume in 1757 and were received by a less than appreciative public. When the poet laureate, Colley Cibber, died, also in 1757, Gray was offered the position, but he declined it on the basis that it had become a meaningless post. From this point on, Gray wrote little more poetry, and, in July 1759, he moved to London to study at the British Museum, which had been opened to the public in January. In December 1761, he returned to Cambridge; except for frequent trips to London, other parts of England, Scotland, and Wales, he remained in Cambridge for the rest of his life.
This was the period of the Seven Years War (1756–1763) between France, England, and nearly all the other major colonial powers of the time. Although he did not respond directly to these world events in his poetry, Gray’s ‘‘The Bard’’ may perhaps be understood as an obliquely patriotic commentary, focusing as it does on the final English conquest of Wales.
In July 1768, Gray was made professor of modern history at Cambridge, though he never actually lectured or published on the subject, focusing his scholarly efforts rather on antiquity and natural history. Meanwhile, modern history was taking place in the colonies, as the British East India Company conquered more and more of India in the name of the Crown, and the settlers in America grew increasingly restless under British rule. The most significant event of Gray’s last years, however, was personal: it was his brief, intense friendship with a young Swiss student, Karl Victor von Bonstetten. The friendship was apparently complicated by physical desire on Gray’s part, though many scholars concur that the two had no actual sexual relations. In July 1771, Gray became ill while dining at Pembroke College in Cambridge; a week later, on July 30, he died.
LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES
Gray’s famous contemporaries include:
James Wolfe (1727–1759): Respected by his men, noted for his generalship, Wolfe achieved lasting fame after his victory over the French outside Quebec secured Canada for Britain in the French and Indian War. He recited Gray’s ‘‘Elegy’’ to his men the day before the assault on Quebec.
John Dyer (1699–1757): A Welsh pastoral poet best known for writing ‘‘Grongar Hill’’ and ‘‘The Fleece.’’
Samuel Johnson (1709–1784): A British essayist, biographer, lexicographer, and critic, Johnson is the most-quoted English writer after Shakespeare. He is best known for his aphorisms, prose style, and great wit.
Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790): One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Franklin was also a noted scientist, writer, diplomat, and inventor. Around the time of Gray’s writing, Franklin was conducting his famous experiments with electricity.
Georg Friedrich Handel (1685–1759): A Prussian composer of astonishing vigor, through his Messiah and other works, Handel was an important influence on such later artists as Mozart and Beethoven.
COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE
One of the keys to the success of Gray’s ‘‘Elegy’’ lies in the universal themes it touches upon: death and the passage of time, as seen in the quiet splendor of overgrown ruins. Here are some other works that share these themes:
‘‘Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13th, 1798’’ (1798), a poem by William Wordsworth. This melancholy meditation on the passage of time, both over the poet’s own life and across the centuries, echoes the pensive nature of Gray’s ‘‘Elegy.’’
Ozymandias (1818), a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley. This poem examines with the ruined monument of a once mighty ruler, now long dead and mostly forgotten.
Sunset Boulevard (1950), a film directed by Billy Wilder. This classic American film presents a dark vision of a person who refuses to yield to the passage of time. An aging silent movie actress inhabits a ruined mansion living amid mementos of her former glory. A down-on-his- luck screenwriter becomes her companion.
Works in Literary Context
Gray remains an important poet in the context of a less than striking era for poetry during the latter half of the eighteenth century. In this sense he is one of a group, including William Collins, James Macpherson, Thomas Chatterton, William Cowper, Christopher Smart, and Joseph and Thomas Warton, who largely failed to provide English poetry with a distinctive period identity, and whose achievements were shortly to be overshadowed by the emergence in the 1780s and 1790s of William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and the quickly succeeding second generation of Romantic writers.
Sexual Desire and Castration Gray’s poetry is frequently concerned with the rejection of sexual desire. The figure of the poet in his poems is often a lonely, alienated, and marginal one, and various muses or surrogate-mother figures are invoked—in a manner somewhat anticipatory of John Keats’s employment of similar figures—for aid or guidance.
One of Gray’s typical ‘‘plots’’ has to do with engaging some figure of desire in order to reject it, as in the ‘‘Ode on the Spring,’’ or, as in the ‘‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,’’ to lament lost innocence. Sometimes, as in the ‘‘Hymn to Adversity,’’ a harsh and repressive figure is conjured to reject excessive desire and to aid in the formation of a modest friendship, the socially acceptable substitute of sexual desire. In the ‘‘Hymn to Ignorance,’’ a goddess is used to rebuke the ‘‘I’’ who longs for her maternal and demonic presence.
Such figures indicate a radical sexual distress. Though one might argue that the reduction of humanity to insect life in the ‘‘Ode on the Spring’’ is a significant form of sexual loss, in the ‘‘Hymn to Adversity,’’ Gray has arrived at the first clear symbolism of castration. The threat of castration is transposed into an acceptance of it. That is, the threatening figure of Adversity is pacified but requires a surrender of sexual identity.
Reverberations Greater than Their Source The longer ode on ‘‘The Progress of Poesy’’ finds Gray tracing the evolution of the power of verbal harmony from Greece to Rome to England, with eloquent passages on William Shakespeare, John Milton, and John Dryden. It was from this progress that Gray would draw his chief influences.
Although his poetic canon is small—throughout his lifetime he wrote around one thousand lines of verse— Gray was a major transitional figure between the sensibility and classical perfection of the Augustans and the emotional reverberation of the Romantics. While the influence of the Augustans is manifested in Gray’s concentration on complicated metrical schemes and intellectual ideals, he is appropriately seen as a precursor to the Romantic movement because of his sensitive and empathetic portrayal of the common man. Nowhere is this more evident than in his ‘‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’’ (1751), Gray’s most famous work and one of the most beloved poems in English literature. While Gray wrote a number of odes, among them ‘‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’’ (1747) and ‘‘Ode on the Spring’’ (1748), it is the diction of the ‘‘Elegy’’ that has infused modern language more than any other piece of English literature that contains so few consecutive lines. Alfred, Lord Tennyson recapitulates the Elegy’s universal appeal by declaring that it contains ‘‘divine truisms that make us weep.’’
A Style Bound to Be Remembered The same combination of classic form and emotional attitudes is observable in Gray’s fine odes. The ‘‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’’ evokes a nostalgic picture of the carefree life of college boys and grim forebodings of their adult futures. The poem may suffer somewhat for modern readers from excessively ‘‘poetic’’ diction and rather wooden abstractions, but it is redeemed (though to a lesser extent than the ‘‘Elegy’’) by some unforgettable phrasing. Lines such as the following, on schoolboys escaping on adventurous rambles, ‘‘They hear a voice in every wind, / And snatch a fearful joy,’’ or the famous closing thought, ‘‘where ignorance is bliss, / Tis folly to be wise,’’ distill the special magic of Gray’s style at its best.
Works in Critical Context
‘‘Gray wrote at the very beginning of a certain literary epoch of which we, perhaps, stand at the very end,’’ wrote famed literary critic G. K. Chesterton in 1932. ‘‘He represented that softening of the Classic which slowly turned into the Romantic.’’
In his Souvenirs (1832), Gray’s young Swiss friend Bonstetten reflected on the older man: ‘‘I think the key to the mystery is that Gray never loved; the result was a poverty of heart contrasting with his ardent and profound imagination, which, instead of comprising the happiness of his life, was only its torment.’’
Responses to the ‘‘Elegy’’ From the time of his first publication to the present day, Gray’s poetry has had as many admirers as detractors. Although scholars continue to praise the ‘‘Elegy’’ as a brilliant piece of verse, they also puzzle over the inconsistencies in theme and approach that marbled the rest of Gray’s poetic output. Yet critics have been almost unanimous in agreeing that in the ‘‘Elegy’’ Gray broke new ground in concepts and attitudes by tapping into the pulse of the common man with great insight and passion.
A recent commentator, Linda Zionkowski, writes in Men’s Work: Gender, Class, and the Professionalization of Poetry, 1660–1784, ‘‘Gray’s portrayal of the isolated speaker seems to voice, and indeed validate, his own feeling of detachment from an understanding public; the ‘Elegy’ mystifies and personifies this alienation, transforming it from a result of commodified print to a feature of the sensitive poet’s temperament.’’ That is, not only was Gray breaking new ground, but he was trying to do so in a way that would challenge the reduction of his poetry to just another thing to be bought and sold, a commodity.