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date: 04 October 2023

Gray, Thomasfree


Gray, Thomasfree

  • John D. Baird

Thomas Gray (1716–1771)

by John Giles Eccardt, 1747–8

Gray, Thomas (1716–1771), poet and literary scholar, was born on 26 December 1716, the son of Philip Gray (1676–1741), scrivener, and Dorothy Antrobus (1685–1753), in his father's house in Cornhill (later numbered 41), close to the Royal Exchange in the City of London. Philip Gray, described in his obituary notice as 'an Exchange Broker of Reputation and Fortune' (Daily News), took to speculative building in his later years. His wife, the daughter of a prosperous scrivener whose sons had entered the learned professions, was co-proprietor with her sister Mary of a millinery business. Philip Gray made a pre-nuptial agreement with Dorothy that Mary should continue to conduct the business, all the profits from Dorothy's share in it being paid to Dorothy for her personal use. After the marriage took place, about 1709, Mary ran the business, with some assistance from Dorothy, in a shop on the ground floor of Philip Gray's house in Cornhill. In that house Thomas was born, the fifth of twelve children, and the only one to survive infancy. That he lived was owing to the courage of his mother, who, finding him in a fit, opened a vein with her scissors and relieved the paroxysm.

Early life and education

In 1725 Gray was sent to Eton College, where two of his mother's brothers, Robert (1679–1730) and William (1688–1742), were then assistant masters. His mother supported him with her income from her sister's business, and it seems likely that it was her project to save her son from the counting-house and ensure his future in a socially respectable profession. Before his death in 1730 Robert initiated his nephew into the study of botany, which was to be a lifelong interest. Gray did not, as his uncle had hoped, become a physician. Instead he found himself beginning to 'take pleasure in reading Virgil for his own amusement, & not in school-hours, or as a task' (Correspondence, 3.1290). He began to acquire a reputation as a writer of Latin verse; many years later his Eton contemporary, the scholar Jacob Bryant, could recall a line and a half from one of his school exercises.

At Eton Gray was one of four friends, self-styled the ‘quadruple alliance’. The others were Thomas Ashton (1716–1775), the son of a schoolmaster; Horace Walpole (1717–1797), youngest son of Sir Robert Walpole, then prime minister; and Richard West (1716–1742), only son of Richard West (d. 1726), sometime lord chancellor of Ireland. They gave each other nicknames of a literary sort: Ashton was Almanzor from John Dryden's Conquest of Granada; Walpole was Celadon from D'Urfé's Astrée; West was Favonius or Zephyrus from Latin names for west winds; and Gray was Orosmades from Nathaniel Lee's The Rival Queens. The origins of these names indicate their shared interest in the theatre and French literature. Gray, who once admitted to imagining a paradise in which he could 'read eternal new romances of Marivaux and Crebillon' (Correspondence, 1.192), was likewise an enthusiastic theatregoer whenever he was in London.

In 1734 the four friends left Eton, West proceeding to Oxford, the others to Cambridge. Gray, who had been entered at Peterhouse, where his uncle Robert had been a fellow, was admitted on 4 July and took up residence on 9 October; a week later he was awarded the Cosin scholarship, which required him 'to wear a Square Cap, to make 6 [Latin] verses upon the Epistle or Gospel every Sunday morning, to chant very loud in Chappel, to wear a clean Surplice, &c: &c:' (Correspondence, 1.4). College records suggest that Gray lived frugally in his first year. Supported only by his scholarships and the earnings of the millinery business, he had no choice. He was supposed to be preparing for a career as a barrister, and on 22 November 1735 was admitted to the Inner Temple. It may have been the cost of supporting her son at Cambridge that brought long-standing differences between Dorothy and Philip Gray to a head, impelling her early in 1736 to seek legal advice on the possibility of separating from her husband, who was threatening to force Mary Antrobus and her shop out of the ground floor of his house. Philip Gray's refusal to contribute to the cost of his son's education, his irrational jealousy of his sister-in-law, and his brutal physical abuse of his wife, won her the sympathy of her adviser, John Audley of Doctors' Commons, but provided insufficient evidence of cruelty to support a plea for judicial separation. Mrs Gray was advised to try to compose matters. Perhaps because of her démarche, the domestic crisis seems to have passed; the shop continued in operation at its accustomed location, and Dorothy Gray remained in her husband's house. A few days after Dr Audley had issued his learned opinion, her son Thomas inherited the estate of his father's sister, Sarah Gray, who died on 12 February 1736. His possession of a small independent income relieved some of the financial pressures. He returned to Cambridge, to do nothing, as he claimed; but nothing included translating part of Statius's Thebaid into English, and taking lessons in Italian. He also contributed a poem in Latin to a collection by members of the university congratulating the prince of Wales on his marriage that spring.

In October 1736, beginning a new academic year after a summer holiday spent with his mother's sister Anne and her husband Jonathan Rogers at Burnham, Buckinghamshire, and in London, Gray decided not to take the BA degree, which was not required if he were to read law at the Inner Temple. His ability in Latin verse was recognized by the invitation to compose the 'Tripos-verses' for public circulation in March 1737 ('Luna habitabilis'). By the spring of 1737 he had progressed sufficiently in his Italian studies to read Dante and Petrarch, and render a few stanzas of Tasso into English couplets.

Gray left Cambridge in September 1738. He and West, both under family pressure to become barristers, planned to reside in the Temple together to pursue their legal studies, alleviating by companionship a prospect attractive to neither. Gray in fact spent the autumn and winter at his father's house in London, while West remained at his mother's house in Epsom. Early in 1739 Walpole, about to embark on a tour of Europe, suggested that Gray should accompany him. Seeing Europe in the company of the prime minister's son was not only an attractive prospect in itself, but an unimpeachable excuse for deferring a career at the bar for several more years. Gray accepted the invitation, and on 18 March 1739 the two friends took passage from Dover for Calais.

The continental tour, 1739–1741

Walpole and Gray stayed for two months in Paris. They visited churches, attended operas and plays, and made two visits to Versailles. On 1 June Gray and Walpole travelled to Rheims, where they intended to improve their command of French. After a dull three months they journeyed to Dijon and Lyons, whence they made a short visit to Geneva, calling at the monastery of the Grande Chartreuse on the way. They set out for Italy on 31 October. Crossing the Alps as winter came on was a difficult and dangerous journey; a wolf carried off Walpole's pet spaniel in broad daylight, and the travellers had to be carried over the pass in chairs on poles. Gray read Livy's account of Hannibal's crossing the Alps, and Silius Italicus's poetical rendition of the same. Passing through Turin, Genoa, Piacenza, Parma, Reggio, and Modena to Bologna, they reached Florence on 16 December. Here they passed the winter, introduced to Florentine society and art collections by the British resident, Horace Mann. In March 1740, following the death of Pope Clement XII, Gray and Walpole went to Rome, hoping to observe a papal election. The papal conclave was slow-moving, and the friends made a tour to the south. While in Naples they explored the recent excavations at Herculaneum: 'As you walk you see parts of an amphitheatre, many houses adorned with marble columns, and incrusted with the same; the front of a temple, several arched vaults of rooms painted in fresco' (Correspondence, 1.164). They returned to Florence on 8 July, staying with Mann in an apartment overlooking the Arno. As the prospect of a general European war loomed larger, the two travellers settled down to a second winter in Florence, adding to their circle John Chute (1701–1776), and his cousin Francis Whithed (1719–1751). Gray embarked on a philosophical poem in Latin hexameters entitled 'De principiis cogitandi', dedicating it to West. Gray's self-deprecating characterizations of this project, as 'an absurdity' or 'Master Tommy Lucretius' (ibid., 1.183, 225), should not obscure its importance for his later poetry. Gray understood the challenge which Lockean epistemology presented to traditional poetics, and undertook 'De principiis' to reconcile philosophy and creativity. He could abandon it after completing only the first book because he had achieved all he needed to sustain his future artistic development.

Gray and Walpole finally departed from Florence on 24 April 1741, heading for Venice (the first important stop on a return route through Austria, Germany, and the Low Countries). On the way, at Reggio on about 3 May, they quarrelled. However the angry words came about (there is reason to think that Ashton had relayed to Walpole some expressions of Gray's), the wealthy son of the prime minister outraged the sensitive pride of the impecunious scrivener's son. Travelling separately, both proceeded to Venice. War with France did not break out that year, and Gray, after three uncomfortable weeks in which he and Walpole stayed in the same house, made his way home through northern Italy, crossing the Alps by way of the Grande Chartreuse. Memories of his earlier visit inspired the ode in Latin alcaics, 'O tu, severi religio loci', which he inscribed in the monastery album (21 August). Ten days later he was back in England.

Two deaths, and return to Cambridge, 1741–1742

Continental travel had deferred Gray's reading for the bar for more than two years. In his absence West had gone to reside in the Temple in the autumn of 1739 and left it in the following June, claiming that he could read law books just as well somewhere else. Now deeply distressed by his widowed mother's relationship with his father's former secretary, and suffering from the consumption that was to kill him, West can hardly have done much to whet Gray's long-blunted purpose. Then Gray's father died, on 6 November 1741. Philip Gray had invested in properties around London, and had recently built a country house in Essex at considerable expense. His family inherited assets which were not immediately realizable; his son slowly disposed of the properties over time, retaining at his death only the house in Cornhill. Gray spent the winter in London, enjoying West's company until his friend's weakening health forced him to retire to a relative's country house. Gray was beginning a blank verse tragedy, 'Agrippina', modelled on Racine's Britannicus, for the English stage; only the opening scene and a fragment of the second were written. During the spring of 1742 Gray and West continued to share their literary interests by letter, discussing Tacitus as eagerly as Henry Fielding's recently published Joseph Andrews. West addressed a poem on the spring to Gray, and Gray responded with his first English poem of consequence, the 'Ode on the Spring'. West never saw it; he died on 1 June 1742, and Gray's letter containing the poem was returned unopened. The first anguish of the grief that inspired his poetry for a decade Gray expressed in Latin, in verses fittingly appended to 'De principiis'.

Gray's uncle and aunt Rogers were now living in the Buckinghamshire village of Stoke Poges, not far from Windsor, and here Gray spent part of the summer of 1742. From their house he could look across the Thames towards Eton, and in August he composed the 'Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College', the distance being both physical and temporal, as he contrasts carefree youth with suffering maturity. In the same month he wrote his sonnet on the death of West and the 'Ode to Adversity'. West's death, coming as it did when the death of Philip Gray had imposed responsibility for his mother and aunt on Gray's shoulders, brought home to the 25-year-old poet the fragility of human life and its moral requirements; 'Teach me to love and to forgive', he asks at the end of the 'Ode to Adversity', 'What others are to feel, and know myself a man.'

While West lived, Gray was committed to a shared preparation for a career in the common law courts. His friend's death freed him from this obligation, and in the summer of 1742 he decided that practice as a proctor in the more rarefied atmosphere of Doctors' Commons would suit him better. To study for the requisite qualification of a doctorate in civil law, he returned to Cambridge in the autumn of 1742. The opinion, frequently repeated in his letters of the 1730s, that the university was a dull, lazy, and boorish institution, found expression at this time in the fragment of a 'Hymn to Ignorance', plainly influenced by the recent publication of Alexander Pope's New Dunciad. But Cambridge had two powerful attractions; there he could live as a gentleman on a limited income, and indulge his passion for learning. To Cambridge he went, and there, with one extended absence, he made his home for the rest of his life.

Reconciliation with Walpole and the Elegy, 1742–1751

Trinity Hall was the Cambridge college pre-eminent for the study of civil law, and Gray, in a letter to John Chute, names it as his destination. In the event he returned to Peterhouse, this time as a fellow-commoner; that is, he lived as a fellow without the responsibilities of a fellow. Late in 1742 his mother and her sister Mary gave up the millinery business, let the house in Cornhill, and retired to Stoke Poges to live with their sister Anne, whose husband, Jonathan Rogers, had died in October. That they were able to do this suggests that a year after Philip Gray's death his troubled affairs had been brought under control, and that his properties were producing enough income to support his heirs. For the remainder of his mother's life Gray spent the summers at Stoke.

Though resident in Peterhouse, Gray looked across Trumpington Street to Pembroke College for company. A number of friends from his undergraduate days were in residence there in 1742, including his contemporary Thomas Wharton, a fellow since 1739, and the somewhat older James Brown, a fellow active in college business. Gray borrowed from the Pembroke library, and interested himself in Pembroke politics, sympathizing with the fellows in their periodic tussles with the elderly master, Roger Long. By the time Gray had fulfilled the requirements for the bachelor of laws degree (16 December 1743), financial and parental pressures to qualify himself for the legal profession had abated. No longer constrained to prepare himself to earn an income, Gray ceased to attend law lectures, abandoned thoughts of the doctorate, and devoted himself entirely to his intellectual interests. In the mid-1740s these included classical antiquities and Greek philosophy, both contributing to a chronology of ancient Greece; travel literature, ancient and modern; and scientific, especially medical, writings of the later seventeenth century. He continued to read, as he had since his schooldays, the Greek and Latin poets. His method was to read through authorities systematically, gathering notable passages, and arranging them under topics; details relevant to dating were entered in the appropriate places in the chronology. As a scholar Gray was primarily a collector. He read critically, ever alert to confusion or contradiction on the part of his authors; he summarized their views and commented on them; but he did not publish, having 'a certain degree of pride, which led him … to despise the idea of being an author professed' (Mason, 335). The scrivener's son would not toil for money or fame: 'though without birth or fortune, or station, his desire was to be looked upon as a private independent gentleman, who read for his amusement' (Temple).

In November 1745 Gray and Walpole were reconciled. Walpole wrote offering a meeting, and Gray went up to London, to be kissed on both cheeks; after a dinner (the occasion of a reconciliation with Ashton also) and a breakfast together, Gray parted from Walpole 'far better satisfied, than I had been hitherto' (Correspondence, 1.227). Ashton was no longer a person of significance in Gray's eyes, but with Walpole he maintained a lifelong friendship, of particular importance in that it was the means of bringing his poetry into print. A year after the reconciliation Gray was showing Walpole the poems he had written in 1742. Stimulated by his friend's appreciative interest, he began to write poetry again. Walpole later recalled seeing the opening lines of the Elegy about this time. The 'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat', a graciously indirect compliment to Walpole by way of moralizing a domestic accident, was composed in February 1747; in the same month Walpole was proposing to publish a memorial collection of West's poems. This project came to nothing, but Walpole did arrange the anonymous publication of Gray's Eton College ode (folio; price 6d.) by Robert Dodsley on 30 May 1747. Seven months later (15 January 1748), this poem, with 'Ode on the Spring' and 'Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat', appeared in the first edition of Dodsley's three-volume Collection of Poems. Again, Gray's name was not given.

Dodsley's Collection included an ode by a recent acquaintance of Gray's: William Mason, a young graduate of St John's College with literary ambitions, whose nomination in 1747 to a fellowship at Pembroke Gray was instrumental in arranging. Mason thus joined two other candidates for fellowships whom the fellows of Pembroke were determined to see elected. The equally determined master resisted them until March 1749. Another younger man who became a friend in the mid-1740s was Richard Stonhewer of Peterhouse. A better poet than Mason, Christopher Smart, fellow of Pembroke since 1745, was already succumbing to the wine and extravagance that terminated his once promising career at the university. Gray and others tried to help him, but without much success.

On 25 March 1748 a fire started in a wig maker's house in Exchange Alley off Cornhill and burned for ten hours, destroying or seriously damaging buildings between Cornhill and Lombard Street, including the Grays' house in Cornhill. The house was insured for £500, but cost £650 to rebuild. After a 3 per cent reduction for reasons unknown, the Grays received £485 from the insurers; Gray, taking advantage of a rising stock market, was able to augment this to £525; his aunt Mrs Rogers added £100, but even so he had to raise the possibility of borrowing from his friend Wharton to reach the total—an interesting demonstration of the narrow financial margins of his life at this point.

While he wrestled with these business affairs Gray returned to the challenge of a philosophical poem, this time in English pentameter couplets. 'The Alliance of Education and Government' reached only 107 lines before being abandoned in the spring of 1749, when a reading of Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois convinced Gray that the French writer had anticipated him. The poem would have drawn on Gray's study of civic virtue in Plato's Republic and the orations of Isocrates. Echoes of these themes can be found in the Elegy, the final text of which Gray sent to Walpole from Stoke on 12 June 1750, as recently completed. Walpole, recognizing in the Elegy a poem of no common quality, encouraged the making and circulation of copies, which rapidly penetrated good society. Early in September 1750 two ladies called on Gray on a flimsy pretext; their real purpose was to provoke a return visit to the manor house of Stoke Poges so that the lady of the manor, Lady Cobham, might meet the author of the poem she had so much admired. Gray paid the visit, and soon found himself on friendly terms with Lady Cobham and the two ladies. One of them, Lady Cobham's niece Henrietta Speed (1728–1783), who lived with her aunt, turned out to be a lively companion. A decade later, when Gray and Miss Speed had attended Lady Cobham during her final illness, and Miss Speed had inherited a fortune from her aunt, Gray joked about a rumour that he would marry her. (She married the son of the Sardinian minister at London in 1761.) More immediately, her high spirits inspired Gray to write a comic ballad, 'A Long Story', commemorating the opening of their acquaintance; it began to circulate in manuscript through the ranks of fashionable society.

The Elegy did not remain exclusively with the fashionable, however, and on 10 February 1751 Gray received a letter intimating that the editors of the monthly Magazine of Magazines had received a copy of his poem entitled 'Reflections in a Country-Churchyard' which they intended to print. Gray wrote to Walpole, asking him to have Dodsley immediately print the poem from the manuscript in Walpole's possession, with the new title 'Elegy, Wrote in a Country Church-Yard' and a note claiming that the poem, author still unnamed, came into the bookseller's hands by accident. Walpole complied, and the Elegy was published in a quarto pamphlet on 15 February 1751. Gray's efforts to maintain his anonymity were defeated by the advertisements of the shameless Magazine of Magazines. The poem was an instant success, Dodsley's quarto going through five editions by the end of the year. It was printed in five magazines within three months, and soon became the most admired and imitated poem of the century.

Growing literary reputation and the Odes, 1751–1757

The secret of Gray's authorship now revealed, Walpole planned a new publication: a collection of Gray's published poems with illustrations by his friend Richard Bentley. In October 1751 Gray sent to Walpole the unpublished 'Ode to Adversity' of 1742 for inclusion. Bentley took some time to complete the extensive pictorial component of the volume. Gray insisted that the title give primacy to Bentley, and was appalled to discover at the last moment that Walpole intended to include a frontispiece portrait of the poet, based on a portrait painted by Giles Eccardt in 1747 for Walpole's house, Strawberry Hill. His protest was heeded, and the splendid folio Designs by Mr. Bentley, for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray was issued by Dodsley on 29 March 1753. Gray's thoughts were otherwise occupied. Two weeks earlier, on 11 March, his mother had died. She was buried at Stoke Poges in the grave of her sister and former business partner Mary, who had died in 1749. Her grieving son placed a sorrowful inscription on the tomb.

As a poet Gray had always written with his predecessors in mind; he told Norton Nicholls that he 'never sat down to compose poetry without reading Spencer for a considerable time previously' (Correspondence, 3.1290). In 1752 he began a systematic study of the history of English poetry from the earliest times, encouraged by a copy of Pope's outline for such a history, which Mason had obtained from William Warburton, Pope's literary executor. Mason was eager that he and Gray should prepare such a history for publication, and Gray seems at first to have agreed, spending much of the next five years in studying early English, Welsh, and Scandinavian poetry to ascertain the history of rhyme. At the same time he pursued a different kind of historical argument in the first of his Pindaric odes, 'The Progress of Poesy', begun probably in 1751 and completed in 1754, which traces the spirit of liberty and poetry from ancient Greece to medieval Italy to modern England. As he studied the origins of rhyme, Gray was led to the study of Welsh poetry. This research enriched the composition of the companion ode, 'The Bard'; it was begun in 1755, laid aside in 1756, and completed in May 1757, when a visit to Cambridge by the blind Welsh harper John Parry 'set all this learned body a'dancing' (ibid., 2.502). No longer seeking anonymity, Gray sold the copyright in the odes to Dodsley for 40 guineas, reserving the right to reprint them in one collected edition of his poems. Walpole then intervened to secure the printing of the edition of 2000 copies at his newly installed press at Strawberry Hill. After inevitable delays, Odes, by Mr. Gray, Printed at Strawberry Hill, appeared on 8 August 1757. Some readers were enthusiastic, but many had difficulty with unfamiliar historical references and literary allusions. Gray was disappointed. Yet it can hardly have been true that 'all people of condition are agreed not to admire, nor even to understand' (ibid., 2.519) for in December the lord chamberlain, unsolicited, offered him the poet laureateship, apparently with assurances that the traditional new year's and birthday odes would not be required. Gray refused; to succeed Colley Cibber was a distinction he could very well forgo.

Migration to Pembroke College and other changes, 1756–1762

Gray had a lifelong dread of fire, and had installed outside his bedroom window at Peterhouse a bar, still in place, to accommodate a rope ladder. Early in March 1756 some undergraduates, probably not for the first time, gave a false alarm of fire with the intention of embarrassing the poet. The master of Peterhouse refusing to treat the matter with sufficient seriousness, Gray moved to Pembroke College, where he was admitted as a fellow-commoner on 6 March 1756. This episode, Gray wrote, 'may be look'd upon as a sort of Æra in a life so barren of events as mine' (Correspondence, 2.458), but in various ways the late 1750s were a period of transition in Gray's intellectual and personal life. After the publication of the odes in 1757 he wrote no more lyric poetry, and about this time ceased studying classical literature, ancient and oriental history, and geography. The history of English poetry was laid aside in favour of the study of medieval buildings in England, with particular attention to the Gothic architecture of the cathedrals, and, concomitantly, to English history and the archival sources on which it should be based. The death of his mother's sister Anne (Mrs Jonathan Rogers) in September 1758 broke his family connection with Stoke Poges, although he continued to spend time each summer with Lady Cobham and her circle until 1760, the year of Lady Cobham's death. From this time he could afford to keep a manservant.

In July 1759 Gray took up residence in London, in lodgings formerly occupied by his friend Wharton in Southampton Row. For the next two years his principal occupation was historical research in the manuscript holdings of the recently opened British Museum, some of it by way of assisting Walpole in his historical projects. In November 1761, having read enough at the museum, Gray returned to his rooms at Pembroke. In February 1762 an undergraduate, Norton Nicholls, caught his attention by quoting Dante; the friendship thus begun was one of the warmest of Gray's later years.

Since the death of his mother Gray had been in the habit of travelling in England during the summer: to Durham in 1753, the midlands in 1754, Hampshire in 1755. In the six succeeding years his tours were less extensive, being mostly around Cambridge or in the home counties. In 1762 he travelled to Yorkshire at the beginning of July; after a short stay with Mason in York, he spent four months at Old Park with Wharton and his young family. Returning to London on 18 November, he discovered that Shallet Turner, regius professor of modern history at Cambridge, had died five days earlier. Encouraged by friends, Gray applied to Lord Bute, the prime minister, who responded with a civil denial. Gray's eye had been on this professorship for some time; a false report of Turner's death in 1747 had elicited his opinion that he was as well qualified for the position as anyone at Cambridge. Sounded out by a colleague in 1759, when Turner appeared likely to die, he had replied that he would not apply, not choosing to be refused. Now he had applied and been refused, the chair going to Lawrence Brockett, fellow of Trinity College, who had been tutor to Bute's nephew.

Natural history and tours, 1763–1768

Gray's interest in English history was fading. The acquisition of a copy of the tenth edition of Linnaeus's Systema naturae in 1759 signalled the rekindling of his youthful interest in natural history. He began to collect specimens of insects and plants, and to record observations on weather, the progress of the seasons, and anything which might differentiate English flora and fauna from the Swedish on which Linnaeus had based his work.

In 1764 Gray's outrage at the willingness of preferment-hungry Cambridge divines to support the candidacy of a notorious libertine, the earl of Sandwich, for high steward of the university was expressed in 'The Candidate', perhaps the most successful of his satirical poems. In the summer of 1765 he returned to Yorkshire to stay with Mason and Wharton; then in mid-August he set off for Glamis Castle in Perthshire as the guest of the ninth earl of Strathmore, who had been enrolled at Pembroke a decade earlier. There he met James Beattie of the Marischal College, Aberdeen, who came especially to meet him. Gray went on a tour into the highlands, after which he wrote: 'in short since I saw the Alps, I have seen nothing sublime till now' (Correspondence, 2.894). This journey marks a shift in Gray's interests when travelling, from antiquities to natural scenery. The letters recording his observations, published by Mason in 1775, made him an influential pioneer of scenic tourism in Britain. In the summer of 1766 Gray travelled to Kent; in 1767, to Yorkshire to see Mason and Wharton, making tours into Derbyshire and the Lake District.

The original plates for the 1753 edition having become worn after two reprintings, Dodsley in 1767 proposed to have Bentley's illustrations re-engraved in a smaller format. Gray made it clear that he would prefer his poems to appear without illustrations, and without 'A Long Story', which had been included only to explain Bentley's designs. In its place Gray supplied two translations from Old Norse, 'The Fatal Sisters' and 'The Descent of Odin', and one from Welsh, 'The Triumphs of Owen', all probably dating from 1761, when his enthusiasm for James Macpherson's Ossianic productions temporarily revived his interest in the prehistory of English poetry. He also provided notes explaining some of the obscurities of the 1757 odes. About the same time Beattie proposed a collected edition, to be printed by the Foulis brothers of Glasgow. With Dodsley's approval, Gray consented, and on 1 February 1768 sent to Beattie the same instructions and the same new material that he had supplied to Dodsley. The London edition appeared on 12 March 1768, the Glasgow edition on 4 May. While visiting Kent in June, Gray wrote the satirical lines 'On Lord Holland's Seat near Margate', deftly adapting some lines by the peer himself.

Professor of modern history, 1768–1771

On 24 July 1768 Brockett fell off his horse and died, and the chair of modern history once again became vacant. Three days later the prime minister, the duke of Grafton, acting on the advice of his secretary, Gray's friend Stonhewer, wrote to Gray, offering him the appointment. Gray accepted immediately, and kissed hands at court on 28 July. The duties of the chair, worth £400 a year, were to deliver public lectures on modern history and to pay the salaries of instructors in French and Italian. Gray drafted an outline of an inaugural lecture, but never delivered it. His predecessors had, like most professors in eighteenth-century Cambridge, refrained from lecturing; Gray followed suit, but his conscience was troubled by this dereliction. He prepared plans for lecturing to selected undergraduates, but these were not acted upon, at least in part because of Gray's declining health. The only public function he undertook was to compose an 'Ode for Music' for the installation, on 1 July 1769, of the duke of Grafton as chancellor of Cambridge University.

Later that summer Gray travelled to Yorkshire to visit Mason and Wharton, making a fortnight's tour of the Lake District at the beginning of October. In December 1769, while visiting London, he met a young Swiss, Charles Victor de Bonstetten (1745–1832), son of the treasurer of Bern, who was making an extended stay in England to learn English and make the acquaintance of people in good society. Bonstetten had met Norton Nicholls at Bath, and Nicholls gave him a letter of introduction to Gray, who was immediately drawn to this handsome young admirer of his poetry. A few days later Bonstetten eagerly accompanied Gray to Cambridge, where he took lodgings near Pembroke; he may subsequently have occupied rooms in the college. He spent his days and evenings with Gray, who read Milton and Shakespeare with him, introduced him to distinguished members of the university, and arranged for his instruction in Linnaean botany by the curator of the physic garden. Bonstetten, though emotionally volatile, was a young man of genuine intellectual eagerness who, despite his wondering contempt for the monkish society of Cambridge, was happy to be instructed by so eminent a figure as Gray. For his part, Gray made Bonstetten his protégé, moved by his beauty and idealizing him as a young man of unusual talents, remarkably untouched by aristocratic vices or the fashionable infidelity of France. When Bonstetten's father ordered him to return to the continent late in March 1770, Gray was distraught, as his letters to Nicholls clearly show.

In the summer of 1770 Gray, after spending the first two weeks of June with Mason in Yorkshire, devoted July to a tour of south-western England with Nicholls, being particularly impressed by the valley of the Wye from Ross to Chepstow. Also touring in these parts was William Gilpin, whose notes of his journey Gray later read. It was Gray's encouragement which led Gilpin ultimately to publish these observations, the first of a series of books that stimulated late eighteenth-century interest in the picturesque.

Gray's health was giving cause for concern. On 2 July 1770, before setting out on his tour, he made his will. He and Nicholls were planning a journey to Switzerland in the summer of 1771 to visit Bonstetten, but in May of that year Gray, though eager to see Bonstetten again, had to withdraw, citing 'bodily indisposition' (Correspondence, 3.1188). He was suffering from pain and recurrent fevers—symptoms, it is now believed, of progressive failure of the kidneys. A deepening depression was aggravated by irrational guilt over his failure to perform his professorial duties. His early summer visit to London was prolonged when he became too ill to travel. He returned to Pembroke on 22 July, intending to travel on to Yorkshire, but collapsed in hall two days later. The Cambridge physicians could not alleviate the 'Gout in the Stomach' that they diagnosed. Gray began to suffer convulsions and loss of consciousness, and finally lapsed into a coma. He died at 11 p.m. on 30 July 1771 in his rooms at Pembroke. His old friend James Brown, now master of Pembroke, and his cousin Mary Antrobus, the Cambridge postmistress, accompanied his corpse to Stoke Poges where, in accordance with his wishes, he was buried in his mother's grave early in the morning of 6 August. His name was not added to the inscription he had composed for his mother; the famous son was content to be lost in the memorial to his beloved parent.

The privacy which Gray had preserved in life was first invaded after his death by his friend and literary executor William Mason, who in The Poems of Mr. Gray, to which are Prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings (1775) added poems Gray had chosen not to print, and constructed the memoirs from selected letters, linked where necessary with brief passages of narrative. This method was adopted by numerous subsequent biographers, notably James Boswell, who expressly modelled his life of Johnson on Mason's memoirs of Gray. There is some irony here, since Gray's relatively early death qualified him for inclusion in the collection of the 'most eminent English Poets' for which Johnson wrote the much reprinted 'Prefaces biographical and critical'. In his preface to Gray's poems, usually known as the Life of Gray (1781), Johnson, drawing on Mason's Memoirs, censured Gray's life as finical and unproductive, and his poetry as pretentious. Whereas Johnson's hostile treatment of Milton provoked a considerable number of defences and even new biographies of Milton, his assault on Gray aroused some indignation but no substantial printed rebuttal. Twenty years later, in a moment of national emergency, Wordsworth, rejecting Johnson, wrote: 'Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour'. Gray he had invoked on a less heroic occasion, in his preface to Lyrical Ballads (1800), in Johnsonian manner illustrating his strictures on the vicious poetic diction of his predecessors with a strikingly impercipient reading of the sonnet on the death of West. Matthew Arnold's essay (1880) accepts Johnson's conclusion, but justifies it by turning Gray into a historical phenomenon, a 'born poet' who 'fell upon an age of prose'. Arnold's suave assurance that Gray was not to blame for his birth date does not mean that Arnold diverged from Johnson's view that Gray was a failed poet; sterility may be more a dignified diagnosis than costiveness, but both explain an absence.

The antidote to these enormously influential interpretations of Gray has proved to be more extensive acquaintance with Gray as he is revealed in his letters. Unhappily, Mason falsified many of the letters he printed, and subsequently destroyed many of the originals, but the great edition of Toynbee and Whibley (1935; 1971) presents more than 600 letters. These show Gray clearly to have been a man of his age, more precisely a gentleman of his age, who numbered among his private accomplishments the occasional composition of poetry, who wished to share with others only those poems which met his own standards of excellence, and who, except for the two Pindaric odes, was reluctant to see any of them appear in print. Among these was one, perhaps the richest in self-revelation, the one which Johnson excepted from his censures, a poem which through many changes of taste has retained its popularity and defined the literary rank of its author. Gray's Elegy is one of the great poems of the English language; to many readers, learned and otherwise, it has stood almost for the idea of poetry itself.


  • Correspondence of Thomas Gray, ed. P. Toynbee and L. Whibley, 3 vols. (1971), with additions and corrections by H. W. Starr
  • R. W. Ketton-Cremer, Thomas Gray: a biography (1955)
  • W. P. Jones, Thomas Gray, scholar: the true tragedy of an eighteenth-century gentleman (1937)
  • The poems of Gray, Collins, and Goldsmith, ed. R. Lonsdale (1969)
  • R. Martin, Chronologie de la vie et de l'œuvre de Thomas Gray (1931)
  • W. Mason, The poems of Mr. Gray, to which are prefixed memoirs of his life and writings by W. Mason, M. A., 2nd edn (1775)
  • Daily News (7 Nov 1741)
  • [W. J. Temple], ‘A sketch of the character of the celebrated Mr. Gray, author of the Elegy in a country church-yard’, London Magazine, 41 (1772), 140
  • Cambridge Chronicle and Journal (1763–71)
  • GM, 1st ser., 41 (1771), 375
  • S. H. Clark, ‘“Pendet homo incertus”: Gray's response to Locke’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 24 (1990–91), 273–92, 484–503
  • R. Lonsdale, ‘Gray and Johnson: the biographical problem’, Fearful joy, ed. J. Downey and B. Jones (1974), 66–84
  • R. L. Mack, Thomas Gray: a life (2000)


  • BL, corresp., notes, and papers, Add. MSS 5821, 5832, 36817–36818, 36359, 37683, 38511
  • Harvard U., Houghton L., notes and papers
  • Hunt. L., letters and literary MSS
  • Pembroke Cam., notebooks and letters
  • Yale U., Farmington, Lewis Walpole Library, letters, notes, and poems
  • York Minster Library, notebooks


  • A. Pond? (J. Richardson?), oils, 1730, FM Cam.
  • J. G. Eccardt, oils, 1747–8, NPG [see illus.]
  • F. Mapletoft, silhouette, 1760, Pembroke Cam.
  • oils, 1771, York Minster library
  • B. Wilson, oils, 1774, Pembroke Cam.
  • J. Bacon senior, medallion on monument, 1778, Westminster Abbey
  • W. Doughty, etching, 1778 (after W. Mason), BM, NPG; repro. in T. Gray, Poems (1778)
  • J. Basire, pencil drawing (after W. Mason, 1771), BM; repro. in T. Gray, Poems (1778)
  • J. Chapman, stipple (after B. Wilson), BM; repro. in T. Gray, Poems (1799)
  • W. Henshaw, etching (after W. Mason), NPG
  • W. Mason, pencil drawing, Pembroke Cam.
  • etchings (after W. Mason), NPG
  • plaster bust, NPG

Wealth at Death

approx. £7000; bequeathed amounts of stock nominally valued at £500 to two relatives on father's side, and to Stonhewer and Wharton; and amounts of nominal value £600 to two Antrobus cousins, who also inherited furniture and personal goods; house at 41 Cornhill to cousin; £50 in stock and his clothing and linen to servant, Stephen Hempsted; books and papers went to William Mason, to be preserved or destroyed at his discretion: will, Correspondence, ed. Toynbee and Whibley, vol. 3, pp. 1283–6, 1277, and n. 4

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