Thomas Gray, 1716-1771
Gray, Thomas (1716–1771). — Poet, was born in London, the son of a scrivener, who, though described as “a respectable citizen,” was of so cruel and violent a temper that his wife had to separate from him. To his mother and her sister, who carried on a business, Gray was indebted for his liberal education at Eton (where he became a friend of Horace Walpole), and Cambridge After completing his University course he accompanied Walpole to France and Italy, where he spent over two years, when a difference arising Gray returned to England, and went back to Cambridge to take his degree in law without, however, any intention of practising. He remained at Cambridge for the rest of his life, passing his time in the study of the classics, natural science, and antiquities, and in visits to his friends, of whom Walpole was again one.
It was in 1747 that his first poem, the Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, appeared, and it was followed between 1750 and 1757 by his Pindaric Odes, including The Progress of Poesy, and The Bard, which were, however, somewhat coldly received. Nevertheless he had, on the death of Colley Cibber, the offer of the laureateship, which he declined; but in 1768 he accepted the Professorship of Modern History in his University, worth £400 a year. Having been drawn to the study of Icelandic and Celtic poetry he produced The Fatal Sisters, and The Descent of Odin, in which are apparent the first streaks of the dawn of the Romantic Revival.
Gray’s poems occupy little space, but what he wrote he brought to the highest perfection of which he was capable, and although there is a tendency on the part of some modern critics to depreciate him, it is probable that his place will always remain high among all but the first order of poets. Probably no poem has had a wider acceptance among all classes of readers than his Elegy in a Country Churchyard. In addition to his fame as a poet, he enjoys that of one of the greatest of English letter-writers, and of a really great scholar. He died at Cambridge after a short illness following upon a gradually declining state of health.
Life by Gosse (Men of Letters Series, 1882).