Thomas Gray Biography His Life, Mind and Art

Thomas Gray Biography His Life, Mind and Art

His Life, Mind and Art :[Thomas Gray Biography]


Thomas Gray, a born poet, fell upon an age of prose, who ‘never spoke out in poetry’, was born in Cornhill on December 26, 1716. His father Philip Gray was a prosperous scrivener, but rather temperamental and easily excitable. Thomas had a frail (776) health from his childhood that was much troubled at times by his father’s harsh treatment of his mother.

Thomas was sent to Eton at the age of nine in 1725. He had there a very congenial time in reading and in the companionship of some promising boys, including Horace Walpole, with whom his friendship was long and (except a brief spel) lasting. His school-days at Eton were happy, indeed, and left a deep impression on his mind and temper. Infact, Eton, with its environmental (foto) charms and quiet beauty and ancient tradition, remained with him throughout his life. His Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College bears an apt testimony to this.

As a student, Thomas Gray was serious and studious. He was of a scholarly temperament and scrupulously read the classics. In his student days, he started writing Latin verses with a considerable success. He became, as a result, a scholar at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he had gone from Eton.

But strangely enough, brilliant and scholarly Gray left his University, without taking a degree, in 1738, and set out early in 1739, on a prolonged tour with Walpole. That was a grand time for him, visiting different lands-France, Italy, Venice, and crossing the Alphs, and so on. After that tour, Gray returned to England in 1741.

During his foreign tours, Gray, however, remained studious and acquired a good deal of knowledge in classical and modern art. On his return to England, he started living at his old college of Peterhouse. He decided to study law, of course, with a not very serious intention to take up eventually the legal profession.

Thereafter started a remarkable spell of creative activities for Gray. Along with his serious reading of law, he began to cultivate his poetic craft. The countryside of Buckingham shire inspired him to write his first remarkable poem Ode on Spring. That was followed by a succession of poems-Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, Hymn to Adversity and Sonnet on the Death of Richard West.

Of course, those poems were occasioned by the death of his intimate friend, Richard West. He gave vent to his profound sorrow and sense of isolation in these poems, caused by that death.

But the poet in Gray was not at rest. His ambitious philosophical poem De Principis Cogitandi, that he had begën at Florence during his foreign tour, was finished, rich with the intensity of feeling and the spontaneity of expression. That was, however, the end of his Latin writing. In 1751 appeared his celebrated Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, with an instantaneous success. Gray became a name of fame in English poetry.

Gray’s poetic triumph continued with the publication of his two Pindaric Odes-The Progress of Poesy and The Bard. Those were his ambitious poetic projects definitely, but proved a bit intricate, and could not have the popular reception of his Elegy. Yet, his reputation as a poet remained laudable (spoilettata), and he was offered the office of the poet-laureate (116781-fa), which, however, he humbly declined. His fine humorous poem, On the Death of a Favourite Cat, already written, did have much popularity.

Gray’s career as a poet almost ceased after he was made the Professor of History at Cambridge in 1768. He wrote only a few poems thereafter. He expressed his gratitude to the Duke of Grafton in Ode on the Installation of the Duke of Grafton. His three poetic translations from Welsh and Icelandic originals-The Descent of Odin, The Fatal Sisters and The Triumph of Owen—were the products of the later period of his scholarship.

Two events in Gray’s quiet life need be mentioned here. First, is his friendship with Henrietta Jane Speed. That was also a happy chapter of his life, and he wrote a gay and humorous poem-A Long Story on that. Second, is the shift of his residence from Peterhouse, where he had been living long quietly, to Pembroke Hall, just across the street. Gray passed the remainder of his life there in his acccustomed way of reading, cultivating his little circle of friends, taking short tours and writing admirable letters.

Gray’s health was never sound, and had been declining for some years. After a sudden illness, he died in his residence at Pembroke, on July 30, 1771, at the age of fifty-five. He was buried in the churchyard of Stokepoges. That was the life story of a poet who did not try to glow but has remained glorious in literature.

Thomas Gray’s mind-story was as sound and quiet as his life-story. He was a scholar-a scrupulous scholar-, but a silent one. He was, perhaps, the most wellread English man of his time. He read seriously the classics, and had profound knowledge in Greek and Latin literature. He was a serious student of history, and knew every branch, natural as well as civil, of the same. He was well acquainted with the celebrated historians of England, France and Italy. He was also conversant (e) with science, as it was known then, not superficially (oratoa), but rather thoroughly.


In fact, the man in Gray was a scholar out and out, with a scholarly temperament. He studied deeply and seriously and wanted to know distinctly and completely. His scholarly temperament, again, made his temper reserve and meditative. He did not love the crowd of companionship, but had only a very few selected friends with whom he preferred to nurture friendship. Naturally, a secluded (977), rather than life was always preferable to him. He lived mostly all by himself –reading and thinking and writing. The contemplative bent of his mind was also made him rather pensive. Life was more a matter of sorrow and gloom to him than of joy and warmth. Like his own village-poet of the Elegy, he was a prey to melancholyhim for her own.”


“And melancholy Yet, Gray was not narrow-minded. He had a broad and liberal outlook, with a mind that was sincere and sympathetic, like his village-poet’s mark’d his soul sincere.”


” Gray was basically good-natured, and had a simple and shy way of life. He least demonstrative and did not involve himself in all that drew audience and attention. His was a plain living of a modest man with high knowledge and thinking. Above all, his poetic sensibility, tender but intense, was always active. The poet in him did not speak out much with glamour and glow. But he spoke with depth and truth and never misssed the joy and charm of good poetry.

Gray belonged to a crucial phase of transition in English poetry-from the poetry of the age of prose to the new poetry of romantic imagination and revelation under the leadership of Blake and Wordsworth. Along with Collins, Cowper and Goldsmith, he was not of the either side. His poetic craft grew under the shadow of the school of Pope. But his poetic maturity touches the essence of the age that was coming. The poetic talent in him could not subscribe totally to the old poetic craft of his time. At the same time, it could not consciously adjust itself to the new one.

In such a situation were cultivated Gray’s poetic temper and creative inspiration. He was a born poet who fell upon an age of prose. That was an age in which the literary task was to strike and steer men’s power of understanding and judgment, wit and intelligence, rather than their mind and soul, feeling and fancy. As a result, the poetry of that age was intellectual, ingenious and argumentative, but not intuitive, interpretative and imaginative. No doubt, it was all opulent with correctness and elegance in technique, but not at all straight with the sense of truth and beauty and the language of common life.

Gray had the spirit and temper, the soul and mind of a genuine (290) poet. Naturally, he could not but feel isolated in his literary age that had called upon him what the poet in him could not entertain. The result of that was the scantiness (501) of his poetic production, as so analytically pointed out by Matthew Arnold. If he had, like Burns and Blake, come some years later, during the French Revolution, he would have, in all probability, shown his poetic potency in plenty. Indeed, the poet in Gray was born out of date, at a time, when his poetic spirit could not naturally flourish. And so, as finely stated by Arnold, ‘Gray never spoke out’.

Gray’s poetic world is not at all silent. The poet in him speaks out, may not be plentifully, yet intensely. to reveal his creativity as a poet, despite the adversity of his situation. To review and relish (Falco Pal) the merit of a true poet like him of an unpoetical age, is definitely a labour worth taking.

Still, Gray’s poetical works are generally taken as belonging to three different periods. His earliest poems, written about 1742, are not many. They include Ode on Spring, Sonnet on the Death of Richard West, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College and Hymn to Adversity. In them is heard the didactic tone of Augustan poetry, although in the poet’s approach to nature, deep reflection, plaintive note and simple diction, they anticipate the romantic influence to come.

The second period contains his most celebrated poems, written between 1756 and 1757. Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard and two Pindaric Odes—The Progress of Poesy and The Bard-belong to this period. These poems show the maturity of his craft as also his leaning to approaching romanticism. In the poet’s closeness to nature, stark humanism, deeply contemplative mood, personal revelation and sense of melancholy, the Elegy is truly a flower of romantic literature. In his presentation of themes, treatment of subjective feelings, interest in the past, imaginative and impulsive expression and poetical technique in the two Pindaric Odes, is perceived the awakening romantic sense of the poetry of the later half of the eighteenth century. These poems place Gray with the pre-cursors of romanticism that was to be dawned on English poetry with the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798.

The third period of his poetical production marks his poetical translations from Welsh and Icelandic originals. These translations, the fruits of his scholarship and labour, are The Fatal Sisters, The Descent of Odin and The Triumph of Owen. Of course, the period includes one popular original poem from Gray-Ode on the Installation of the Duke of Grafton.

Gray’s poetry, belonging to different periods, has diversities and types enough. Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat and A Long Story, belonging to his earlier period, are essentially playful and humorous. They smack, no doubt in a lighter mood, also the moralizing tone of Augustan poetry. His poems, Ode on Spring, Ode on Eton, Hymn to Adversity and Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, written in different times, are reflective and philosophical and steeped in the melancholy characteristic of their author. The Pindaric Odes treat the history of poetry and England. They are majestic in the grandeur of their themes and classical technique. Set in a frame of metre, which follows the strophe and the anti-strophe of Pindar, these poems, in their structure, movement and versification, mark, perhaps, the perfection of Gray’s technique. His later poems—the translations from the remote Celtic and Scandinavian legendsbear out his studious effort to preserve the days long gone by.

As evident, Gray’s poetical production embraces different poetical types-odes, sonnets, elegies, personal poetry, impersonal poetry, and so on. This testifies to the versatile nature of his creative power.


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