Thomas Gray Biography | Poet
THOMAS GRAY (1716-1771), English poet, the fifth and sole surviving child of Philip and Dorothy Gray, was born in London on the 26th of December 1716. His mother’s maiden name was Antrobus, and in partnership with her sister Mary she kept a millinery shop in Cornhill. This and the house connected with it were the property of Philip Gray, a money-scrivener, who married Dorothy in 1706 and lived with her in the house, the sisters renting the shop from him and supporting themselves by its profits. Philip Gray had impaired the fortune which he inherited from his father, a wealthy London merchant; yet he was sufficiently well-to-do, and at the close of his life was building a house upon some property of his own at Wanstead. But he was selfish and brutal, and in 1735 his wife took some abortive 393steps to obtain a separation from him. At this date she had given birth to twelve children, of whom Thomas was the only survivor. He owed his life as well as his education to this “careful, tender mother,” as he calls her. The child was suffocating when she opened one of his veins with her own hand. He went at her expense to Eton in 1727, and was confided to the care of her brother, William Antrobus, one of the assistant-masters, during some part at least of his school-life.
At Eton Gray’s closest friends were Horace Walpole, Richard West (son of the lord chancellor of Ireland and grandson of the famous Bishop Burnet), and Thomas Ashton, afterwards fellow of Eton. This little coterie was dubbed “the Quadruple Alliance”; its members were studious and literary, and took little part in the amusements of their fellows. In 1734 Gray matriculated at Peterhouse, Cambridge, of which his uncle, Robert Antrobus, had been a fellow. At Cambridge he had once more the companionship of Walpole and Ashton who were at King’s, but West went to Christchurch, Oxford. Gray made at this time the firmest and most constant friendship of his life with Thomas Wharton (not the poet Warton) of Pembroke College. He was maintained by his mother, and his straitened means were eked out by certain small exhibitions from his college. His conspicuous abilities and known devotion to study perhaps atoned in the eyes of the authorities for his indifference to the regular routine of study; for mathematics in particular he had an aversion which was the one exception to his almost limitless curiosity in other directions. During his first Cambridge period he learnt Italian “like any dragon,” and made translations from Guarini, Dante and Tasso, some of which have been preserved. In September 1738 he is in the agony of leaving college, nor can we trace his movements with any certainty for a while, though it may be conjectured that he spent much time with Horace Walpole, and made in his company some fashionable acquaintances in London. On the 29th of March 1739, he started with Walpole for a long continental tour, for the expenses of which it is probable that his father, for once, came in some measure to his assistance. In Paris, Gray visited the great with his friend, studied the picture-galleries, went to tragedies, comedies, operas and cultivated there that taste for the French classical dramatists, especially Racine, whom he afterwards tried to imitate in the fragmentary “Agrippina.” It is characteristic of him that he travels through France with Caesar constantly in his hands, ever noting and transcribing. In the same way, in crossing the Alps and in Piedmont, he has “Livy in the chaise with him and Silius Italicus too.” In Italy he made a long sojourn, principally at Florence, where Walpole’s lifelong correspondent, Horace Mann, was British envoy, and received and treated the travellers most hospitably. But Rome and Naples are also described in Gray’s letters, sometimes vividly, always amusingly, and in his notes are almost catalogued. Herculaneum, an object of intense interest to the young poet and antiquary, had been discovered the year before. At length in April 1741 Gray and Walpole set out northwards for Reggio. Here they quarrelled. Gray, “never a boy,” was a student, and at times retiring; Walpole, in his way a student too, was at this time a very social being, somewhat too frivolous, and, what was worse, too patronizing. He good-humouredly said at a later date, “Gray loves to find fault,” and this fault-finding was expressed, no doubt with exaggeration, in a letter to Ashton, who violated Gray’s confidence. The rupture followed, and with two friends, John Chute of the Vyne, Hampshire, and the young Francis Whithed, Gray went to Venice to see the doge wed the Adriatic on Ascension Day. Thence he returned home attended only by a laquais de voyage, visiting once more the Grande Chartreuse where he left in the album of the brotherhood those beautiful alcaics, O Tu severa Religio loci, which reveal his characteristic melancholy (enhanced by solitude and estrangement) and that sense of the glory as distinct from the horror of mountain scenery to which perhaps he was the first of Englishmen to give adequate expression. On the 18th of September 1741 we find him in London, astonishing the street boys with his deep ruffles, large bag-wig and long sword, and “mortified” under the hands of the English barber. On the 6th of November his father died; Philip Gray had, it is evident, been less savage and niggardly at last to those who were dependent upon him, and his death left his wife and son some measure of assured peace and comfort.
London was Gray’s headquarters for more than a year, with occasional visits to Stoke Poges, to which his mother and Mary Antrobus had retired from business to live with their sister, Mrs Rogers. At Stoke he heard of the death of West, to whom he had sent the “Ode on Spring,” which was returned to him unopened. It was an unexpected blow, shocking in all its circumstances, especially if we believe the story that his friend’s frail life was brought to a close by the discovery that the mother whom he tenderly loved had been an unfaithful wife, and, as some say, poisoned her husband. About this tragedy Gray preserved a mournful silence, broken only by the pathetic sonnet, and some Latin lines, in which he laments his loss. The year 1742, was, for him, fruitful in poetic effort, of which, however, much was incomplete. The “Agrippina,” the De principiis Cogitandi, the splenetic “Hymn to Ignorance” in which he contemplates his return to the university, remain fragments; but besides the two poems already mentioned, the “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” and the “Hymn to Adversity,” perhaps the most faultless of his poems, were written before the close of the summer. After hesitating between Trinity Hall and Peterhouse, he returned to the latter, probably as a fellow-commoner. He had hitherto neglected to read for a degree; he proceeded to that of LL.B. in 1744. In 1745 a reconciliation with Walpole, long desired probably on both sides, was effected through the kind offices of Chute’s sister. In 1746 he spent his time between Cambridge, Stoke and London; was much with Walpole; graphically describes the trial of the Scottish rebel lords, and studied Greek with avidity; but “the muse,” which by this time perhaps had stimulated him to begin the “Elegy,” “has gone, and left him in much worse company.” In town he finds his friends Chute and Whithed returned to England, and “flaunts about” in public places with them. The year 1747 produced only the ode on Walpole’s cat, and we gather that he is mainly engaged in reading with a very critical eye, and interesting himself more in the troubles of Pembroke College, in which he almost seems to live, than in the affairs of Peterhouse. In this year also be made the acquaintance of Mason, his future biographer. In 1748 he first came before the public, but anonymously, in Dodsley’s Miscellany, in which appeared the Eton ode, the ode on spring, and that on the cat. In the same year he sent to Wharton the beginning of the didactic poem, “The Alliance of Education and Government,” which remains a fragment. His aunt, Mary Antrobus, died in 1749.
There is little to break the monotony of his days till 1750, when from Stoke he sent Walpole “a thing to which he had at last put an end.” The “thing” was the “Elegy.” It was shown about in manuscript by his admiring friend; it was impudently pirated, and Gray had it printed by Dodsley in self-defence. Even thus it had “a pinch or two in its cradle,” of which it long bore the marks. The publication led to the one incident in Gray’s life which has a touch of romance. At Stokehouse had come to live the widowed Lady Cobham, who learnt that the author of the “Elegy” was her neighbour. At her instance, Lady Schaub, her visitor, and Miss Speed, her prot�g�e, paid him a call; the poet was out, and his quiet mother and aunts were somewhat flustered at the apparition of these women of fashion, whose acquaintance Gray had already made in town. Hence the humorous “Long Story.” A platonic affection sprang up between Gray and Miss Speed; rumour, upon the death of Lady Cobham, said that they were to be married, but the lady escaped this mild destiny to become the Baroness de la Peyri�re, afterwards Countess Viry, and a dangerous politicalintriguante.
In 1753 all Gray’s completed poems, except the sonnet on the death of West, were published by Dodsley in a handsome volume illustrated by Richard Bentley, the son of the celebrated master of Trinity. To these designs we owe the verses to the artist 394which were posthumously published from a MS. torn at the end. In the same year Gray’s mother died and was buried in the churchyard at Stoke Poges, the scene of the “Elegy,” in the same grave with Mary Antrobus. A visit to his friend Dr Wharton at Durham later in the year revives his earlier impressions of that bolder scenery which is henceforth to be in the main the framework of his muse. Already in 1752 he had almost completed “The Progress of Poesy,” in which, and in “The Bard,” the imagery is largely furnished forth by mountain and torrent. The latter poem long held fire; Gray was stimulated to finish it by hearing the blind Welsh harper Parry at Cambridge. Both odes were the first-fruits of the press which Walpole had set up at Strawberry Hill, and were printed together there in 1757. They are genuinely Pindaric, that is, with corresponding strophes, antistrophes and epodes. As the Greek motto prefixed to them implies, they were vocal to the intelligent only; and these at first were few. But the odes, if they did not attain the popularity of the “Elegy,” marked an epoch in the history of English poetry, and the influence of “The Bard” may be traced even in that great but very fruitful imposture, the pseudo-Ossian of Macpherson. Gray yields to the impulse of the Romantic movement; he has long been an admirer of ballad poetry; before he wrote “The Bard” he had begun to study Scandinavian literature, and the two “Norse Odes,” written in 1761, were in style and metrical form strangely anticipative of Coleridge and Scott. Meanwhile his Cambridge life had been vexed by the freaks of the fellow-commoners of Peterhouse, a peculiarly riotous set. He had suffered great inconvenience for a time by the burning of his property in Cornhill, and so nervous was he on the subject of fire that he had provided himself with a rope-ladder by which he might descend from his college window. Under this window a hunting-party of these rude lads raised in the early morning the cry of fire; the poet’s night-capped head appeared and was at once withdrawn. This, or little more than this, was the simple fact out of which arose the legend still current at Cambridge. The servile authorities of Peterhouse treated Gray’s complaints with scant respect, and he migrated to Pembroke College. “I left my lodgings,” he said, “because the rooms were noisy, and the people of the house dirty.”
In 1758 died Mrs Rogers, and Gray describes himself as employed at Stoke in “dividing nothing” between himself and the surviving aunt, Mrs Oliffe, whom he calls “the spawn of Cerberus and the Dragon of Wantley.” In 1759 he availed himself of the MS. treasures of the British Museum, then for the first time open to the public, made a very long sojourn in town, and in 1761 witnessed the coronation of George III., of which to his friend Brown of Pembroke he wrote a very vivacious account. In his last years he revealed a craving for a life less sedentary than heretofore. He visited various picturesque districts of Great Britain, exploring great houses and ruined abbeys; he was the pioneer of the modern tourist, noting and describing in the spirit now of the poet, now of the art-critic, now of the antiquary. In 1762 he travelled in Yorkshire and Derbyshire; in 1764 in the Lowlands of Scotland, and thence went to Southampton and its neighbourhood. In 1765 he revisits Scotland; he is the guest of Lord Strathmore at Glamis; and revels in “those monstrous creatures of God,” the Highland mountains. His most notable achievement in this direction was his journey among the English lakes, of which he wrote an interesting account to Wharton; and even in 1770, the year before his death, he visited with his young friend Norton Nicholls “five of the most beautiful counties of the kingdom,” and descended the Wye for 40 m. In all these quests he displays a physical energy which surprises and even perplexes us. His true academic status was worthily secured in 1768, when the duke of Grafton offered him the professorship of modern history which in 1762 he had vainly endeavoured to obtain from Bute. He wrote in 1769 the “Installation Ode” upon the appointment of Grafton as chancellor of the university. It was almost the only instance in which he successfully executed a task, not, in the strictest sense, self-imposed; the great founders of the university are tactfully memorized and pass before us in a kind of heraldic splendour. He bore with indifference the taunts to which, from Junius and others, he was exposed for this tribute to his patron. He was contemplating a journey to Switzerland to visit his youthful friend de Bonstetten when, in the summer of 1771, he was conscious of a great decline in his physical powers. He was seized with a sudden illness when dining in his college hall, and died of gout in the stomach on the 30th of July 1771. His last moments were attended by his cousin Mary Antrobus, postmistress through his influence at Cambridge and daughter of his Eton tutor; and he was laid beside his beloved mother in the churchyard of Stoke Poges.
Owing to his shyness and reserve he had few intimate friends, but to these his loss was irreparable; for to them he revealed himself either in boyish levity and banter, or wise and sympathetic counsel and tender and yet manly consolation; to them he imparted his quiet but keen observation of passing events or the stores of his extensive reading in literature ancient, medieval or modern; and with Proteus-like variety he writes at one time as a speculative philosopher, at another as a critic in art or music, at another as a meteorologist and nature-lover. His friendship with the young, after his migration to Pembroke College, is a noteworthy trait in his character. With Lord Strathmore and the Lyons and with William Palgrave he conversed as an elder brother, and Norton Nicholls of Trinity Hall lost in him a second father, who had taught him to think and feel. The brilliant young foreigner, de Bonstetten, looked back after a long and chequered career with remembrance still vivid to the days in which the poet so soon to die taught him to read Shakespeare and Milton in the monastic gloom of Cambridge. With the elderly “Levites” of the place he was less in sympathy; they dreaded his sarcastic vein; they were conscious that he laughed at them, and in the polemics of the university he was somewhat of a free lance, fighting for his own hand. Lampoons of his were privately circulated with effect, and that he could be the fiercest of satirists the “Cambridge Courtship” on the candidature of Lord Sandwich for the office of high steward, and the verses on Lord Holland’s mimic ruins at Westgate, sufficiently prove. The faculty which he displayed in humour and satire was denied to his more serious muse; there all was the fruit of long delay; of that higher inspiration he had a thin but very precious vein, and the sublimity which he undoubtedly attained was reached by an effort of which captious and even sympathetic criticism can discover the traces. In his own time he was regarded as an innovator, for like Collins he revived the poetic diction of the past, and the adverse judgments of Johnson and others upon his work are in fact a defence of the current literary traditions. Few men have published so little to so much effect; few have attained to fame with so little ambition. His favourite maxim was “to be employed is to be happy,” but he was always employed in the first instance for the satisfaction of his own soul, and to this end and no other he made himself one of the best Greek scholars at Cambridge in the interval between Bentley and Porson. His genius was receptive rather than creative, and it is to be regretted that he lacked energy to achieve that history of English poetry which he once projected, and for which he possessed far more knowledge and insight than the poet Thomas Warton, to whom he resigned the task. He had a fine taste in music, painting and architecture; and his correspondence includes a wide survey of such European literature as was accessible to him, with criticisms, sometimes indeed a little limited and insular, yet of a singularly fresh and modern cast. In person he was below the middle height, but well-made, and his face, in which the primness of his features was redeemed by his flashing eyes, was the index of his character. There was a touch of affectation in his demeanour, and he was sometimes reticent and secretive even to his best friends. He was a refined Epicurean in his habits, and a deist rather than a Christian in his religious beliefs; but his friend, Mrs Bonfoy, had “taught him to pray” and he was keenly alive to the dangers of a flippant scepticism. In a beautiful alcaic stanza he pronounces the man supremely happy who in the depths of the heart is conscious 395of the “fount of tears,” and his characteristic melancholy, except in the few hours when it was indeed black, was not a pitiable state; rather, it was one secret of the charm both of the man and of the poet.
A very complete bibliography of Gray will be found in Dr. Bradshaw’s edition of the poems in the Aldine series. Dodsley published ten of the poems, exclusive of the “Long Story,” in 1768. Mason’s Life of Gray (1778) included the poems and some hitherto unpublished fragments, with a selection from his letters, much garbled. Mathias in 1814 reprinted Mason’s edition and added much from Gray’s MS. commentaries together with some more of his translations. The most exhaustive edition of Gray’s writings was achieved by the Rev. John Mitford, who first did justice to the correspondence with Wharton and Norton Nicholls (5 vols., Pickering, 1836-1843; correspondence of Gray and Mason, Bentley, 1853); see also the edition of the works by Edmund Gosse (4 vols., 1884); the Life by the same in Eng. Men of Letters (2nd ed., 1889); some further relics are given inGray and His Friends by D. C. Tovey (Cambridge, 1890); and a new edition of the letters copiously annotated by D. C. Tovey is in the Standard Library (1900-1907). Nicholl’s Illustrations, vol. vi. p. 805, quoted by Professor Kittredge in the Nation, Sept. 12th, 1900, gives the true story of Gray’s migration to Pembroke College. Matthew Arnold’s essay on Gray in Ward’s English Poets is one of the minor classics of literary criticism.
(D. C. To.)
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