advanced course lesson 9
Gray was once one of the most widely appreciated poets in the English language. However, in recent decades he has fallen out of fashion. But he deserves to be more read than he is now.
London was the birthplace of Thomas Gray. His parents resided at Cornhill very close to St Pauls’ Cathedral. The boy’s father was a scrivener which meant that he wrote legal documents. Many people were illiterate back then. Few could write to a high standard. Thomas’ mother was a hatter.
Tragedy touched the Gray household. Twelve children were born to the couple but Thomas was the only one to survive. Infant mortality was high in the 18th century but to experience the deaths of so many babies took a toll on his parents. Thomas’ father was plagued by infirmity.
Perhaps it was providential that Thomas was born on Boxing Day. As people wassailed their saviour he came out. Thomas was to spend his life ruminating on the numinous and the eternal. His nativity took place in the year of grace some one thousand seven hundreds and sixteen.
Thomas went to Eton. By this time his mother was making more money that his much put upon pater. Thomas did not come from an upper class family unlike most boys at the school. Two of his maternal uncles were masters at the school. One of them, Robert Antrobus, taught Thomas. Mr Antrobus took a lively interest in what was then known as natural philosophy. We would now call it science. Robert Antrobus taught his nephew a great deal about flora.
The curriculum at Eton consisted chiefly of classics. Thomas was quick at his books. He had been taught the rudiments of Greek and Latin at primary school. At Eton he had a bit of Hebrew knocked into him.
Not being one made for sportive pleasure he avoided the rough games which occupied so much of the time of his schoolfellows. They played football, fives and suchlike as well as rowing upon the River Thames which flowed hard by. Instead his was given to daydreaming and voracious meaning. In this wise he felt he could commune with great minds of bygone centuries.
Mr Antrobus had his nephew living in his house. Thomas recalled his time at the school as being a time of exceptional gaiety. Thomas had three close friends at the school. They mockingly dubbed themselves the Quadruple Alliance which was an allusion to a military alliance between four mighty European nations. These four youths had certain points of fellowship. They share an appreciation for the aesthetic, they were mirthful and were erudite.
Honourable Horace Walpole was one of Gray’s boon companions. Horace Walpole was the son of the Prime Minister no less! Despite Gray coming from a much humbler background the Walpole family were fond of him.
At the age of 17 Gray went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge. He found it less agreeable than school. He wrote that the dons were crapulous. Thomas spent his time on literature. He was a keen amateur musician.
Mrs Gray intended her only child for a legal career. But Thomas declined to pursue one. Instead he wanted an academic and a literary career. Another obvious avenue for him to pursue was the church. But he chose not to take holy orders.
In 1738 Gray went off on the Grand Tour. The Grand Tour was a journey around Europe that upper class British youths undertook in the 18th century. They would go to France and Italy. The more venturesome went to Greece and even the Holy Land. Gray traveled with his chum Horace Walpole. The two had a row and parted company. Thomas was keen to visit all the ancient ruins and monuments. Walpole had other ideas. Horace Walpole wanted to socialise and womanise.
After his return from the Grand Tour he never sailed abroad again. He traveled extensively within his native island. He was especially taken with the Lake District. There he liked to think in solitude whilst ‘far from the madding crowd’ as he wrote. He was charmed by the simplicity of the people and saw a young woman who was his ‘unlettered muse.’
In 1742 Gray’s Irish friend Richard West died. This prompted Gray to turn his hand to poesy. He had scarcely composed any poems prior to that. He wrote sonnet as an elegy to his late friend. It marked a period where he become more pensive. As worldly troubles crowded in on him he returned to look at Eton. Then he composed Ode to the Distant Prospect of Eton College. In this poem he recalls his childhood days sporting with his schoolmates. He wishes he could lead such a carefree existence again. As a boy he had no idea what stresses and challenges lay ahead of him. He wrote ‘where ignorance is bliss tis folly to be wise.’
Pembroke College elected Gray as a fellow. He also spent some time at Peterhouse which is another Cambridge college. He spent many years lecturing and supervising undergraduates.
Thomas published only a baker’s dozen poems. His entire poetic oeuvre consisted of under 1 000 lines.
In 1757 Gray was offered to be Poet Laureate. This is the supreme accolade in British poetry. Thomas was so modest that he declined the gong. He was among the Graveyard Poets along with Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper and others. This is because they reflected a lot on mortality and the eternal.
The post of Regius Professor of Modern History was one which Thomas might have been awarded. In the end it went to another.
In 1771 Thomas was called to his reward. He is interred in Stoke Pages Graveyard. His lies near his mother. This was the scene of his most renowned poem: Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.
Gray penned some phrases which have entered common parlance. Among these are ‘kindred spirit ‘ – that is to say one of a like mind to oneself. Thomas was contemptuous of chauvinism and militarism. He wrote ‘paths of glory lead but to the grave’. He was lit with ‘celestial fire’ and wondered if some people buried beneath his feet were ‘some mute inglorious Milton.’
Not all Gray’s poems are on profound topics. His Ode to a Drowned Cat is droll. It is about the pet of his former friend Walpole.
Some of Gray’s poems are Pindaric Odes. He composed one called The Bard. The title persona is a wandering Welsh poet who in the Middle Ages prophecies to Edward I that his line will go extinct. The bard them commits suicide by hurling himself off a cliff.
Gray was a bit misogynistic. ‘What female heart can gold despise?’ he wrote. No woman could match his mother. He never wed.
Thomas was a formative influence on subsequent generators of versifiers. One of his most outspoken and effusive admirers was William Wordsworth. However, Wordsworth deprecated Gray’s poem on West.
Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey has a memorial to Gray.
- In which year was Gray born?
- In which land?
- Which school did he attend?
- Which university did he study at?
- Name a poem by him.
- Quote a line by him.
- When did he die?
- How many poems did he compose?
- What was the Grand Tour? Five sentences.