Thomas Gray

Adam Rounce

in British and Irish Literature

ISBN: 9780199846719
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:
Thomas Gray

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Thomas Gray (b. 1716–d. 1771) is one of the most significant English poets from the time of Alexander Pope’s death to the emergence of Blake and Wordsworth at the end of the 18th century. Gray’s life was relatively uneventful: his time at Eton introduced him to important friends, including Horace Walpole, with whom Gray would go on the Grand Tour, and Richard West, whose early death in 1742 caused Gray much lasting grief. Gray went to Cambridge as a student and stayed, as a fellow-commoner, for most of his life, living quietly and reading voluminously. His first important poems (including the “Eton College Ode”) were written and published in the 1740s; in 1751 Gray published Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, one of the most famous and widely read of all English poems. After the publication in 1757 of his two Pindaric Odes, “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard,” which were both praised for their sublime power and mocked for pretension and deliberate obscurity, Gray wrote little poetry. Apart from the publication of his Collected Poems in 1768, Gray’s later years are also notable for what has been seen (along with his friendship with Richard West) as the most intimate relationship of his life, with the young Swiss noblemen Charles-Victor Bonstetten, whom Gray saw from 1769 to 1770. The high praise given to Gray in his lifetime was reflected in the outraged response to Samuel Johnson’s criticism of the poet’s character and works (the Elegy aside) in the Lives of the Poets (1781). Gray’s friend and executor, the poet William Mason, put together a posthumous edition and biography (1775) that showed the richness of Gray’s letters (even in mutilated form), and Victorian scholars such as John Mitford and Edmund Gosse carried on such work in popular reprints and essays. Yet Gray’s reputation was somewhat eclipsed by the emergence of the Romantic poets: the Elegy has always held a central place in English poetry, but much of Gray’s other work was overlooked or denigrated as being in some ways “pre-Romantic,” or as merely anticipating later, more successful writers. This trend was rebuffed in the 20th century, when a rich body of scholarly editions (especially Starr 1966 and Lonsdale 1969, cited under Editions) and criticism examined all of Gray’s works with consistent if never prolific attention.

Article.  5442 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (British and Irish)

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