Thomas Gray (1716–1771)
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Dictionary of National Biography (1885–1900)
GRAY, THOMAS (1716–1771), poet, son of Philip Gray, ‘money scrivener,’ born 27 July 1676, by his wife Dorothy Antrobus, was born in his father's house in Cornhill, London, 26 Dec. 1716. The mother belonged to a Buckinghamshire family, but at the time of her marriage kept a milliner's shop in the city with an elder sister, Mary. Another sister, Anna, was married to a retired attorney, Jonathan Rogers, who lived in Burnham parish. She had two brothers, Robert and William. Robert, who was at Peterhouse, Cambridge (B.A. 1702, M.A. 1705), and elected a fellow of his college in 1704, lived at Burnham, Buckinghamshire, and vacated his fellowship, probably by death, in January 1730; William was at King's College, Cambridge (B.A. 1713, M.A. 1717), a master at Eton, and afterwards rector of Everton, Northamptonshire, where he died in 1742 (Harwood, Alumni, ii. 290). Philip Gray was a brutal husband. A curious paper, written by Mrs. Gray in 1735, to be submitted to a lawyer, was discovered by Haslewood, and published by Mitford. She states that Gray had ‘kicked, punched,’ and abused his wife, with no excuse but an insane jealousy. The shop had been continued by the two sisters, in accordance with an ante-nuptial agreement, and Mrs. Gray had found her own clothes and supported her son at school and college. Gray now threatened to close the shop. No legal remedy could be suggested, and Mrs. Gray continued to live with her husband. She had borne twelve children, all of whom, except Thomas, the fifth, died in infancy. His life was saved on one occasion by his mother's bleeding him with her own hand. He was sent to his uncle Robert Antrobus at Burnham. About 1727 he was sent to Eton as an oppidan and a pupil of his uncle William. Here he formed a ‘quadruple alliance’ with Horace Walpole (born 24 Sept. 1717), Richard West, and Thomas Ashton [q. v.] This intimacy was cemented by common intellectual tastes. Walpole, West, and Gray were all delicate lads, who probably preferred books to sport. Less intimate friends were Jacob Bryant [q. v.] and Richard Stonehewer, who maintained friendly relations with Gray till the last, and died in 1809, ‘auditor of the excise.’ On 4 July 1734 Gray was entered as a pensioner at Peterhouse, and admitted 9 Oct. in the same year. Walpole entered King's College in March 1735; while West was sent to Christ Church, Oxford. Ashton, who entered Trinity College in 1733, was less intimate than the others with Gray. Walpole and Gray kept up a correspondence with West, communicating poems, and occasionally writing in French and Latin. All three contributed to a volume of ‘Hymeneals’ on the marriage of Frederick, prince of Wales, in 1736. Gray also wrote at college a Latin poem, ‘Luna Habitabilis,’ published in the ‘Musæ Etonenses,’ ii. 107. The regular studies of the place were entirely uncongenial to Gray. He cared nothing for mathematics, and little for the philosophy, such as it was, though he apparently dipped into Locke. He was probably despised as a fop by the ordinary student of the time. His uncle Rogers, whom he visited at Burnham in 1737, despised him for reading instead of hunting, and preferring walking to riding. The ‘walking’ meant strolls in Burnham Beeches, where he managed to discover ‘mountains and precipices.’ His opinion of Cambridge is indicated by the fragmentary ‘Hymn to Ignorance,’ composed on his return. He left the university without a degree in September 1738, and passed some months at his father's, probably intending to study law. Walpole, who had already been appointed to some sinecure office, invited Gray to accompany him on the grand tour. They crossed from Dover 29 March 1739, spent two months in Paris, then went to Rheims, where they stayed for three months, and in September proceeded to Lyons. At the end of the month they made an excursion to Geneva, and visited the ‘Grande Chartreuse,’ when both travellers were duly affected by the romantic scenery, which it was then thought proper to compare to Salvator Rosa. In the beginning of November they crossed and shuddered at Mont Cenis, Walpole's lapdog being carried off by a wolf on the road. After a short stay at Turin they visited Genoa and Bologna, and reached Florence in December. In April they started for Rome, and after a short excursion to Naples returned to Florence 14 July 1740. Here they lived chiefly with Mann, the English minister, afterwards Walpole's well-known correspondent. Gray apparently found it dull, and was detained by Walpole's convenience. They left Florence 24 April, intending to go to Venice. At Reggio a quarrel took place, the precise circumstances of which are unknown. One story, preserved by Isaac Reed, and first published by Mitford (Gray, Works, ii. 174), is that Walpole suspected Gray of abusing him, and opened one of his letters to England. Walpole's own account, given to Mason, is a candid confession that his own supercilious treatment of a companion socially inferior and singularly proud, shy and sensitive, was the cause of the difference. Walpole had made a will on starting, leaving whatever he possessed to Gray (Walpole, Letters, v. 443); but the tie between the fellow-travellers has become irksome to more congenial companions. Gray went to Venice alone, and returned through Verona, Milan, Turin, and Lyons, which he reached on 25 Aug. On his way he again visited the ‘Grande Chartreuse,’ and wrote his famous Latin ode. Johnson (Piozzi, Anecdotes, p. 168) also wished to leave some Latin verses at the ‘Grande Chartreuse.’ Gray was at London in the beginning of September. He had been a careful sightseer, made notes in picture-galleries, visited churches, and brushed up his classical associations. He observed, and afterwards advised, the judicious custom of always recording his impressions on the spot.
Gray's father died on 6 Nov. 1741. Several letters addressed to him by his son during the foreign tour show no signs of domestic alienation. Mrs. Gray retired with her sister, Mary Antrobus, to live with the third sister, Mrs. Rogers, whose husband died on 31 Oct. 1742. The three sisters now took a house together at West End, Stoke Poges. Gray had found West in declining health. They renewed their literary intercourse, and Gray submitted to his friend the fragment of a tragedy, ‘Agrippina.’ West's criticism appears to have put a stop to it. On 1 June 1742 West died, to the great sorrow of his friend, whose constitutional melancholy was deepened by his friendlessness and want of prospects. He thought himself, it is said, too poor to follow the legal profession. Unwilling to hurt his mother's feelings by openly abandoning it, he went to Cambridge to take a degree in civil law, and settled in rooms at Peterhouse as a fellow-commoner in October 1742. He never became a fellow of any college. He proceeded LL.B. in the winter of 1743. He preferred the study of Greek literature to that of either civil or common law, and during six years went through a severe course of study, making careful notes upon all the principal Greek authors. He always disliked the society of Cambridge and ridiculed the system of education. The place was recommended to him by its libraries, by the cheapness of living, and, perhaps, by an indolence which made any change in the plan of his life intolerable.
Cambridge was Gray's headquarters for the rest of his life. The university was very barren of distinguished men. He felt the loss of Conyers Middleton (d. 28 July 1750), whose house, he says, was ‘the only easy place he could find to converse in.’ He took a contemptuous interest in the petty intrigues of the master and fellows of Pembroke, where were most of his friends; but he had few acquaintances, though he knew something of William Cole, also a friend of Walpole, and a few residents, such as Keene, master of Peterhouse from 1748 to 1756, and James Browne, master of Pembroke from 1770 to 1784. Among his Cambridge contemporaries was Thomas Wharton (B.A. 1737, M.D. 1741; see also Munk, Roll, ii. 197), who was a resident and fellow of Pembroke till his marriage in 1747. He afterwards lived in London, and in 1758 settled in his paternal house at Old Park, Durham, where he died, aged 78, 15 Dec. 1794 (Gray, Works, iv. 143). A later friend, William Mason (b. 1725), was at St. John's College, Cambridge, where he attracted Gray's notice by some early poems, and partly through Gray's influence was elected a fellow of Pembroke in 1749. He became a warm admirer and a humble disciple and imitator. About 1754 he obtained the living of Aston in Yorkshire. Gray occasionally visited Wharton and Mason at their homes, and maintained a steady correspondence with both. In the summer he generally spent some time with his mother at Stoke Poges. His aunt, Mary Antrobus, died there on 6 Nov. 1749. His mother died on 11 March 1753, aged 62. He was most tenderly attached to her, and placed upon her tomb an inscription to the ‘careful tender mother of many children, one of whom alone had the misfortune to survive her.’
The friendship with Horace Walpole had been renewed in 1744, at first with more courtesy than cordiality, although they afterwards corresponded upon very friendly terms. Gray was often at Strawberry Hill, and made acquaintance with some of Walpole's friends, though impeded by his shyness in society. Walpole admired Gray's poetry and did much to urge the timid author to publicity. His first publication was the ‘Ode on a distant prospect of Eton College,’ written in 1742, which, at Walpole's desire, was published anonymously by Dodsley in the summer of 1747. It made no impression. In the following year he began his poem on the ‘Alliance of Education and Government,’ but was deterred from pursuing it by the appearance of Montesquieu's ‘Esprit des Lois,’ containing some of his best thoughts. In 1748 appeared the first three volumes of Dodsley's collection, the second of which contained Gray's Eton ode, the ‘Ode to Spring,’ and the poem ‘On the Death of a Favourite Cat’ (sent to Walpole in a letter dated 1 March 1747). The ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ had been begun in 1742 (Works, i. xx), and was probably taken up again in the winter of 1749, upon the death of his aunt Mary (see Gosse, p. 66). It was certainly concluded at Stoke Poges, whence it was sent to Walpole in a letter dated 12 June 1750. Walpole admired it greatly, and showed it to various friends, among others to Lady Cobham (widow of Sir Richard Temple, afterwards Viscount Cobham), who lived at Stoke Manor House. She persuaded Miss Speed, her niece, and a Mrs. Schaub, who was staying with her, to pay a visit to Gray at his mother's house. Not finding him at home they left a note, and the visit led to an acquaintance and to Gray's poem of the ‘Long Story’ (written in August 1750, Gosse, p. 103). In February 1751 the publisher of the ‘Magazine of Magazines’ wrote to Gray that he was about to publish the ‘Elegy.’ Gray instantly wrote to Walpole to get the poem published by Dodsley, and it appeared accordingly on 16 Feb. 1751. It went through four editions in two months, and eleven in a short time, besides being constantly pirated (see Notes and Queries, 5th ser. vii. 142, 252, 439, 469, viii. 212 for the first appearance. Many parodies are noticed in Notes and Queries, 3rd ser. vols. i. and ii.) Gray left all the profits to Dodsley, declining on principle to accept payment for his poems. At this time Richard Bentley (1708–1782) [q. v.] was on very intimate terms with Walpole. He made drawings or illustrations of Gray's poems, by which Gray himself was delighted. In March 1753 appeared ‘designs by Mr. R. Bentley for six poems by Mr. T. Gray.’ The poems included those already published, ‘Spring,’ on Walpole's cat, the Eton ode, the ‘Elegy,’ and, for the first time, the ‘Long Story’ and the ‘Hymn to Adversity.’ A portrait of Gray is introduced in the frontispiece and in the design for the ‘Long Story,’ where are also Miss Speed and Lady Schaub. Gray withdrew the ‘Long Story’ from later editions of his works.
By the end of 1754 Gray was beginning his ‘Pindaric Odes.’ On 26 Dec. 1754 he sent the ‘Progress of Poesy’ to Dr. Wharton. Walpole was setting up his printing-press at Strawberry Hill, and begged Gray to let him begin with the two odes. They were accordingly printed and were published by Dodsley in August 1757, Dodsley paying forty guineas to Gray, the only sum he ever made by writing. The book contained only the ‘Progress of Poesy’ and the ‘Bard.’ The ‘Bard’ was partly written in the first three months of 1755, and finished in May 1757, when Gray was stimulated by some concerts given at Cambridge by John Parry, the blind harper. The odes were warmly praised and much discussed. Goldsmith reviewed them in the ‘Monthly Review,’ and Warburton and Garrick were enthusiastic. Gray was rather vexed, however, by the general complaints of their obscurity, although he took very good-naturedly the parody published in 1760 by Colman and Lloyd, called ‘Two Odes addressed to Obscurity and Oblivion.’ ‘Obscurity’ was not yet a virtue, and is not very perceptible in Gray's ‘Bard.’ According to Mason, Gray meant his bard to declare that poets should never be wanting to denounce vice in spite of tyrants. He laid the poem aside for a year because he could not find facts to confirm his theory. Ultimately the bard had to content himself with the somewhat irrelevant consolation that Elizabeth's great-grandfather was to be a Welshman. The poem is thus so far incoherent, but the ‘obscurity’ meant rather that some fine gentlemen could not understand the historical allusions and confounded Edward I with Cromwell and Elizabeth with the witch of Endor.
Gray was now in possession of the small fortune left by his father, which was sufficient for his wants. His health, however, was weakening. After a visit in 1755 to his and Walpole's friend, Chute, in Hampshire, he was taken ill and remained for many weeks laid up at Stoke. In January 1756 he ordered a rope-ladder from London. He was always morbidly afraid of fire and more than once in some risk. His house in Cornhill had been burnt in 1748, causing him some embarrassment, and his state of health increased his nervousness. Some noisy young gentlemen at Peterhouse placed a tub of water under his windows and raised an alarm of fire. Gray descended his ladder and found himself in the tub. (Archibald Campbell (fl. 1767) [q. v.] tells this story in his Sale of Authors, 1767, p. 22.) The authorities at Peterhouse treated the perpetrators of this ingenious practical joke more leniently than Gray desired. He thereupon moved to Pembroke, where he occupied rooms ‘at the western end of the Hitcham building.’
In December 1757 Lord John Cavendish, an admirer of the ‘Odes,’ induced his brother, the Duke of Devonshire, who was lord chamberlain, to offer the laureateship, vacated by Cibber's death, to Gray. Gray, however, at once declined it, though the obligation to write birthday odes was to be omitted. In September 1758 his aunt, Mrs. Rogers, with whom his paternal aunt, Mrs. Olliffe, had resided since his mother's death, died, leaving Gray and Mrs. Olliffe executors. Stoke Poges now ceased to be in any sense a home. In the beginning of 1759 the British Museum first opened. Gray settled in London in Southampton Row, Bloomsbury, to study in the reading-room. He did not return to Cambridge except for flying visits until the summer of 1761. His friend Lady Cobham died in April 1760, leaving 20l. for a mourning-ring to Gray and 30,000l. to Miss Speed. Some vague rumours, which, however, Gray mentions with indifference, pointed to a match between the poet and the heiress. They were together at Park Place, Henley (Conway's house), in the summer, where Gray's spirits were worn by the company of ‘a pack of women.’ According to Lady Ailesbury, his only words at one party were: ‘Yes, my lady, I believe so’ (Walpole, Letters, iii. 324). Miss Speed in January 1761 married the Baron de la Peyrière, son of the Sardinian minister, and went to live with her husband on the family estate of Viry in Savoy, on the Lake of Geneva. This sole suggestion of a romance in Gray's life is of the most shadowy kind.
After his return to Cambridge Gray became attached to Norton Nicholls, an undergraduate at Trinity Hall. Nicholls afterwards became rector of Lound and Bradwell, Suffolk, and died in his house at Blundeston, near Lowestoft, 22 Nov. 1809, in his sixty-eighth year. He was an accomplished youth, and attracted Gray's attention by his knowledge of Dante. During Gray's later years Nicholls was among his best friends, and left some valuable reminiscences of Gray, and an interesting correspondence with him. Gray resided henceforward at Cambridge, taking occasional summer tours. In July 1764 he underwent a surgical operation, and in August was able to visit Glasgow and make a tour in the Scottish lowlands. In October he travelled in the south of England. In 1765 he made a tour in Scotland, visiting Killiecrankie and Blair Athol. He stayed for some time at Glamis, where Beattie came to pay him homage, and was very kindly received. He declined the degree of doctor of laws from Aberdeen, on the ground that he had not taken it at Cambridge. In 1769 he paid a visit to the Lakes. His journal was fully published by Mason, and contains remarkable descriptions of the scenery, then beginning to be visited by painters and men of taste, but not yet generally appreciated. In other summers he visited Hampshire and Wiltshire (1764), Kent (1766), and Worcestershire and Gloucestershire (1770).
His enthusiasm had been roused by the fragments of Gaelic poetry published by Macpherson in 1760. He did his best to believe in their authenticity (Works, iii. 264) and found himself in rather uncongenial alliance with Hume, whose scepticism was for once quenched by his patriotism. Gray's interest probably led him to his imitations from the Norse (Walpole's Letters, iii. 399, written in 1761) and Welsh. The ‘Specimens of Welsh Poetry,’ published by Evans in 1764, suggested the later fragments. He states also (ib.) that he intended these imitations to be introduced in his projected ‘History of English Poetry.’ In 1767 Dodsley proposed to republish his poems in a cheap form. Foulis, a Glasgow publisher, made a similar proposal through Beattie at the same time. Dodsley's edition appeared in July 1768, and Foulis's in the following September. Both contained the same poems, including the ‘Fatal Sisters,’ the ‘Descent of Odin,’ and the ‘Triumphs of Owen,’ then first published. Gray took no money, but accepted a present of books from Foulis.
In 1762 Gray had applied to Lord Bute for the professorship of history and modern languages at Cambridge, founded by George I in 1724, and now vacant by the death of Hallett Turner. An unpublished letter to Mr. Chute (communicated by Mr. Gosse) refers to this application. Laurence Brockett, however, was appointed in November. Brockett was killed 24 July 1768 by a fall from his horse, when returning drunk from a dinner with Lord Sandwich at Hinchinbroke. Gray was immediately appointed to the vacant post by the Duke of Grafton, his warrant being signed 28 July. His salary was 371l., out of which he had to provide a French and an Italian teacher. The Italian was Agostino Isola, grandfather of Emma Isola, adopted by Charles and Mary Lamb. Gray behaved liberally to them; but the habits of the time made lecturing unnecessary. Gray's appointment was suggested by his old college friend Stonehewer, who was at this time secretary to the Duke of Grafton.
In January 1768 Gray had a narrow escape from a fire which destroyed part of Pembroke. In April 1769 he had to show his gratitude to Grafton, who had been elected chancellor of the university, by composing the installation ode. It was set to music by J. Randall, the professor of music at the university, and performed 1 July 1769.
Gray lived in great retirement at Cambridge; he did not dine in the college hall, and sightseers had to watch for his appearance at the Rainbow coffee-house, where he went to order books from the circulating library. His ill-health and nervous shyness made him a bad companion in general society, though he could expand among his intimates. His last acquisition was Charles Victor de Bonstetten, an enthusiastic young Swiss, who had met Norton Nicholls at Bath at the end of 1769, and was by him introduced to Gray. Gray was fascinated by Bonstetten, directed his studies for several weeks, saw him daily, and received his confidences, though declining to reciprocate them. Bonstetten left England at the end of March 1770. Gray accompanied him to London, pointed out the ‘great Bear’ Johnson in the street, and saw him into the Dover coach. He promised to pay Bonstetten a visit in Switzerland (for Bonstetten see Ste.-Beuve, Causeries du Lundi, xiv. 417–79, reviewing a study by M. Aimé Steinlen). Nicholls proposed to go there with Gray in 1771, but Gray was no longer equal to the exertion, and sent off Nicholls in June with an injunction not to visit Voltaire. Gray was then in London, but soon returned to Cambridge, feeling very ill. He had an attack of gout in the stomach, and his condition soon became alarming. He was affectionately attended by his friend, James Brown, the master of Pembroke, and his friend Stonehewer came from London to take leave of him. He died 30 July 1771, his last words being addressed to his cousin Mary Antrobus, ‘Molly, I shall die.’ He was buried at Stoke Poges on 6 Aug., in the same vault with his mother.
His aunt, Mrs. Olliffe, had died early in the same year, leaving what she had to Gray. Gray divided his property, amounting to about 3,500l., besides his house in Cornhill, rented at 65l. a year, among his cousins by his father's and mother's side, having apparently no nearer relatives; leaving also 500l. apiece to Wharton and Stonehewer, and 50l. to an old servant. He left his papers to Mason, Mason and Browne being his residuary legatees.
Portraits of Gray are (1) a full-length in oil by Jonathan Richardson at the age of thirteen, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge; (2) a half-length by J. G. Eckhardt, painted for Walpole in 1747. An engraving of this was intended to be prefixed to Gray's poems in 1753, but the plate was destroyed in deference to his vehement objection. It is engraved in Walpole's ‘Letters’ (Cunningham), vol. iv.; (3) a posthumous drawing by Benjamin Wilson, from his own and Mason's recollections, now in Pembroke, from Stonehewer's bequest. It was engraved for the ‘Life’ (4to) by Mason. Walpole (Correspondence, vi. 67, 207) says that it is very like but painful; (4) a drawing by Mason himself, now at Pembroke, was etched by W. Doughty for the 8vo edition of the life. From it were taken two portraits by Sharpe of Cambridge and Henshaw, a pupil of Bartolozzi. This was also the original of the medallion by Bacon upon the monument in Westminster Abbey, erected at Mason's expense in 1778. A bust by Behnes in the upper school at Eton is founded on the Eckhardt portrait. Walpole says that he was ‘a little man, of a very ungainly appearance’ (Walpoliana, i. 95).
In 1776 Brown and Mason gave 50l. apiece to start a building fund in honour of Gray. It accumulated to a large sum, and the college was in great part rebuilt between 1870 and 1879 by Mr. Waterhouse. In 1870 a stained glass window, designed by Mr. Madox Brown, and executed by Mr. William Morris, was presented to the college hall by Mr. A. H. Hunt. In 1885 a subscription was promoted by Lord Houghton and Mr. E. Gosse, and a bust by Mr. Hamo Thornycroft, A.R.A., was placed in the hall, and unveiled on 20 May, when addresses were delivered by Mr. Lowell, Sir F. Leighton, Lord Houghton, and others.
A character of Gray, written by W. J. Temple, friend of Gray in his later years and also an intimate friend of James Boswell, appeared in the ‘London Magazine’ (March 1772), of which Boswell was part proprietor. Temple says that Gray was perhaps ‘the most learned man in Europe.’ Mason says that he was a competent student in all branches of human knowledge except mathematics, and in some a consummate master. He had a very extensive knowledge of the classical writers, reading them less as a critic than as a student of thought and manners. He made elaborate notes upon Plato, upon Strabo, a selection from the ‘Anthologia Græca,’ with critical notes and translations; and at Christmas 1746 compiled elaborate chronological tables which suggested Clinton's ‘Fasti.’ About 1745 he helped Ross in a controversy about the epistles of Cicero, begun by Middleton and Muckland. Gray's Latin poems, except the college exercises, were not prepared for publication by himself. The most important was the ‘De Principiis Captandi,’ written at Florence in the winter of 1740–1. They were admired even by Johnson, though not faultless in their latinity, especially the noble ode at the Grande Chartreuse. Gray was also a careful student of modern literature. He was familiar with the great Italian writers, and had even learnt Icelandic (see Gosse, pp. 160–3). He was a painstaking antiquary, gave notes to Pennant for his ‘History of London,’ and surprised Cole by his knowledge of heraldry and genealogy. He had learnt botany from his uncle Antrobus, made experiments on the growth of flowers, was learned in entomology, and studied the first appearance of birds like White of Selborne. A copy of his ‘Linnæus,’ in five volumes, with copious notes and water-colour drawings by Gray, belonging to Mr. Ruskin, was exhibited at Pembroke on the memorial meeting in 1885. This brought 42l. at the sale of Gray's library, 27 Nov. 1845. (For an account of the books sold see Gent. Mag. 1846, i. 29, 33.) He was a good musician, played on the harpsichord, and was especially fond of Pergolesi and Palestrina. He was a connoisseur in painting, contributed to Walpole's ‘Anecdotes,’ and made a list of early painters published in Malone's edition of Reynolds's works. Architecture was a favourite study. He contributed notes to James Bentham [q. v.] for his ‘History of Ely’ (1771), which gave rise to the report that he was the author of the treatise then published. They were first printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine,’ April 1784, to disprove this rumour.
These multifarious studies are illustrated in the interesting commonplace books, in 3 vols. fol., preserved at Pembroke. Besides his collections on a great variety of subjects, they contain original copies of many of his poems. Some fragments were published by Mathias in his edition of Gray's works. Gray had formed a plan for a history of English poetry, to be executed in conjunction with Mason, to whom Warburton had communicated a scheme drawn up by Pope. Gray made some preparations, and a careful study of the metres of early English poetry. He tired, however, and gave his plan to Warton, who was already engaged on a similar scheme. The extent of Gray's studies shows the versatility and keenness of his intellectual tastes. The smallness of his actual achievements is sufficiently explained by his ill-health, his extreme fastidiousness, his want of energy and personal ambition, and the depressing influences of the small circle of dons in which he lived. The unfortunate eighteenth century has been blamed for his barrenness; but probably he would have found any century uncongenial. The most learned of all our poets, he was naturally an eclectic. He almost worshipped Dryden, and loved Racine as heartily as Shakespeare. He valued polish and symmetry as highly as the school of Pope, and shared their taste for didactic reflection and for pompous personification. Yet he also shared the tastes which found expression in the romanticism of the following period. Mr. Gosse has pointed out with great force his appreciation of Gothic architecture, of mountain scenery, and of old Gaelic and Scandinavian poetry. His unproductiveness left the propagation of such tastes to men much inferior in intellect, but less timid in utterance, such as Walpole and the Wartons. He succeeded only in secreting a few poems which have more solid bullion in proportion to the alloy than almost any in the language, which are admired by critics, while the one in which he has condescended to utter himself with least reserve and the greatest simplicity, has been pronounced by the vox populi to be the most perfect in the language.
His letters are all but the best in the best age of letter-writing. They are fascinating not only for the tender and affectionate nature shown through a mask of reserve, but for gleams of the genuine humour which Walpole pronounced to be his most natural vein. It appears with rather startling coarseness in some of his Cambridge lampoons. One of these, ‘A Satire upon the Heads, or never a barrel the better herring,’ was printed by Mr. Gosse in 1884, from a manuscript in the possession of Lord Houghton. Walpole said (Walpoliana, i. 95) that Gray was ‘a deist, but a violent enemy of atheists.’ If his opinions were heterodox, he kept them generally to himself, was clearly a conservative by temperament, and hated or feared the innovators of the time.
The publication of the poems in Gray's lifetime has been noticed above. Collected editions of the poems, with Mason's ‘Memoir,’ appeared in 1775, 1776, 1778, &c.; an edition with notes by Gilbert Wakefield in 1786; works by T. J. Mathias (in which some of the Pembroke MSS. were first used) in 1814; ‘English and Latin Poems,’ by John Mitford, in 1814, who also edited the works in the Aldine edition (1835–43), and the Eton edition (1845). The completest edition is that in four vols. by Mr. Edmund Gosse in 1882.
[Mason's Life and Letters of Gray (1774), in which the letters were connected on a plan said to have been suggested by Middleton's Cicero, was the first authority. Mason took astonishing liberties in altering and rearranging the letters. Johnson's Life, founded entirely on this, is the poorest in his series. The life by the Rev. John Mitford was first prefixed to the 1814 edition of the poems. Mitford's edition of Gray's works, published by Pickering, 1835–40, gave new letters and the correct text of those printed by Mason. In 1843 a fifth volume was added, containing the reminiscences of Nicholls, Gray's correspondence with Nicholls, and some other documents. In 1853 Mitford published the correspondence of Gray and Mason, with other new letters. Mr. Gosse's Life of Gray, giving the results of a full investigation of these and other materials, preserved at Pembroke, the British Museum, and elsewhere, is by far the best account of his life. See also Walpole's Correspondence; Walpoliana, i. 27, 29, 46, 95; and Bonstetten's Souvenirs, 1832. A part of a previously unpublished diary for 1755–6 of little interest is in Gent. Mag. for 1845, ii. 229–33. The masters of Peterhouse and Pembroke have kindly given information.]
Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p. 141
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line
|23||ii||36||Gray, Thomas (1716-1771): for Browne read Brown|
|26||i||12 f.e.||(repeat previous entry)|
|24||ii||20||for 1758 read 175|
|26||i||9 f.e.||for niece read cousin|
|27||i||10||for Captandi' read Cogitandi'|
Encyclopædia Britannica 11th edition (1911)
GRAY, THOMAS (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 steps 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 life-long 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 he 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 protégée, 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 Peyrière, afterwards Countess Viry, and a dangerous political intriguante.
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 which 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 of 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 in Gray 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.)