Thomas Gray

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Thomas Gray

Born: December 26, 1716
Cornhill, London, England
Died: July 30, 1771
Cambridge, England
Occupation: Poet, historian

Thomas Gray (December 26, 1716 – July 30, 1771), was an English poet, classical scholar and professor of Cambridge University. He was born in Cornhill, London and lived with his mother after she left his abusive father. He was educated at Eton College and became a Fellow first of Peterhouse, and later of Pembroke College, Cambridge. While a student, he met Horace Walpole whom he accompanied on his Grand Tour.

Gray spent most of his life as a scholar in Cambridge, and only later in his life did he begin travelling again. Although he was one of the least productive poets (his collected works published during his lifetime amount to less than 1,000 lines), he is regarded as the predominant poetic figure of the mid-18th century. In 1757, he was offered the post of Poet Laureate, which he refused. In 1768, he succeeded Lawrence Brockett as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, a sinecure.

Gray's Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (written 1750 , published Feb 1751 by Dodsley), believed to have been written in the churchyard of Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, has become a lasting contribution to English literary heritage. It is still one of the most popular and most frequently quoted poems in the English language. Before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, British General James Wolfe is said to have recited it to his officers, adding: "Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec tomorrow". The poem's famous depiction of an "ivy-mantled tow'r" could be a reference to the early-mediaeval St Laurence's Church in Upton, Slough.

Gray combined traditional forms and poetic diction with new topics and modes of expression and may be considered as a classically focussed precursor of the romantic revival.

Tomb of Thomas Gray in Stoke Poges Churchyard
Tomb of Thomas Gray in Stoke Poges Churchyard

The Elegy was recognised immediately for its beauty and skill, and the Churchyard Poets are so named because they wrote in the shadow of Gray's great poem. It contains many outstanding phrases which have entered the common English lexicon, either on their own or as referenced in other works. A few of these include:

  • "Far from the madding crowd"
  • "The paths of glory"
  • "Celestial fire"
  • "The unlettered muse"
  • "Kindred spirit"

Gray also wrote light verse, such as Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, concerning Horace Walpole's cat, which had recently died trying to fish goldfish out of a bowl. After setting the scene with the couplet "What female heart can gold despise? What cat's averse to fish?", the poem moves to its multiple proverbial conclusion: "a fav'rite has no friend", "[k]now one false step is ne'er retrieved" and ""nor all that glisters, gold".

He is also well known for his statement that "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise," from his 1742 Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.

In 1757 he was offered and refused the post of Poet Laureate.

There is a plaque in Cornhill, marking the place where he was born.

  • Luminarium: Thomas Gray Life, extensive works, essays, study resources
  • Works by Thomas Gray at Project Gutenberg

  • Persondata
    NAME Gray, Thomas
    SHORT DESCRIPTION English poet, historian
    DATE OF BIRTH December 26, 1716
    PLACE OF BIRTH Cornhill, London, England
    DATE OF DEATH July 30, 1771
    PLACE OF DEATH Cambridge, England
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