Intended by his family for the law, he spent most of his time as an undergraduate reading classical and modern literature, and playing Vivaldi and Scarlatti on the harpsichord for relaxation. In 1738 he accompanied his old school-friend Walpole on his Grand Tour of Europe, possibly at Walpole's expense. The two fell out and parted in Tuscany, because Walpole wanted to attend fashionable parties and Gray wanted to visit all the antiquities. They were reconciled a few years later. It was Walpole who later helped publish Gray's poetry. When Gray sent his most famous poem, "Elegy," to Walpole, Walpole sent off the poem as a manuscript and it appeared in different magazines. Gray then published the poem himself and received the credit he was due.
Gray began seriously writing poems in 1742, mainly after his close friend Richard West died. He moved to Cambridge and began a self-imposed programme of literary study, becoming one of the most learned men of his time, though he claimed to be lazy by inclination. Gray was a brilliant bookworm, a quiet, abstracted, dreaming scholar, often afraid of the shadows of his own fame. He became a Fellow first of Peterhouse, and later of Pembroke College, Cambridge. Gray moved to Pembroke after the students at Peterhouse played a prank on him. Gray spent most of his life as a scholar in Cambridge, and only later in his life did he begin traveling again.
Although he was one of the least productive poets (his collected works published during his lifetime amount to fewer than 1,000 lines), he is regarded as the foremost English-language poet of the mid-18th century. In 1757, he was offered the post of Poet Laureate, which he refused. Gray was so self-critical and fearful of failure that he published only thirteen poems during his lifetime. He once wrote that he feared his collected works would be "mistaken for the works of a flea". Walpole said that "He never wrote anything easily but things of Humour."
Gray came to be known as one of the "Graveyard poets" of the late 18th century, along with Oliver Goldsmith, William Cowper, and Christopher Smart. Gray perhaps knew these men, sharing ideas about death, mortality, and the finality and sublimity of death. In 1762, the Regius chair of Modern History at Cambridge, a sinecure which carried a salary of £400, fell vacant after the death of Shallet Turner, and Gray's friends lobbied the government unsuccessfully to secure the position for him. In the event, Gray lost out to Lawrence Brockett, but he secured the position in 1768 after Brockett's death.
It is believed that Gray began writing his masterpiece, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, in the graveyard of St Giles parish church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, in 1742. After several years of leaving it unfinished, he completed it in 1750. The poem was a literary sensation when published by Robert Dodsley in February 1751 . Its reflective, calm and stoic tone was greatly admired, and it was pirated, imitated, quoted and translated into Latin and Greek; it is still one of the most popular and most frequently quoted poems in the English language. In 1759 during the Seven Years War, 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 Elegy was recognised immediately for its beauty and skill. It contains many phrases which have entered the common English lexicon, either on their own or as quoted in other works. These include:
- "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen"
- "The Paths of Glory"
- "Celestial fire"
- "Some mute inglorious Milton"
- "Far from the Madding Crowd"
- "The unlettered muse"
- "Kindred spirit"
"Elegy" contemplates such themes as death and afterlife. These themes foreshadowed the upcoming Gothic movement. It is suggested that perhaps Gray found inspiration for his poem by visiting the gravesite of his aunt, Mary Antrobus. The aunt was buried at the graveyard by the St. Giles' churchyard, which he and his mother would visit. This is the same gravesite where Gray himself was later buried
Gray also wrote light verse, including Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, a mock elegy concerning Horace Walpole's cat. 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". (Walpole later displayed the fatal china vase (the tub) on a pedestal at his house in Strawberry Hill.) Gray’s surviving letters also show his sharp observation and playful sense of humour. He is well known for his phrase, "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise." The phrase, from Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College, is possibly one of the most misconstrued phrases in English literature.
Gray is not promoting ignorance, but is reflecting with nostalgia on a time when he was allowed to be ignorant, his youth (1742). It has been asserted that the Ode also abounds with images which find "a mirror in every mind". This was stated by Samuel Johnson who said of the poem, "I rejoice to concur with the common reader ... The Church-yard abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo" Indeed, Gray's poem follows the style of the mid-century literary endeavor to write of "universal feelings." Samuel Johnson also said of Gray that he spoke in "two languages". He spoke in the language of "public" and "private" and according to Johnson, he should have spoken more in his private language as he did in his "Elegy" poem. Gray considered his two Pindaric odes, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, as his best works. Pindaric odes are to be written with fire and passion, unlike the calmer and more reflective Horatian odes such as Ode on a distant Prospect of Eton College. The Bard tells of a wild Welsh poet cursing the Norman king Edward I after his conquest of Wales and prophesying in detail the downfall of the House of Plantagenet. It is melodramatic, and ends with the bard hurling himself to his death from the top of a mountain.
When his duties allowed, Gray travelled widely throughout Britain to places such as Yorkshire, Derbyshire, and Scotland in search of picturesque landscapes and ancient monuments. These elements were not generally valued in the early 18th century, when the popular taste ran to classical styles in architecture and literature, and most people liked their scenery tame and well-tended. Some have seen Gray’s writings on this topic, and the Gothic details that appear in his Elegy and The Bard as the first foreshadowing of the Romantic movement that dominated the early 19th century, when William Wordsworth and the other Lake poets taught people to value the picturesque, the sublime, and the Gothic. Gray combined traditional forms and poetic diction with new topics and modes of expression, and may be considered as a classically focused precursor of the romantic revival. Gray's connection to the Romantic poets is vexed. In the prefaces to the 1800 and 1802 editions of Wordsworth's and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth singled out Gray's, "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West," to exemplify what he found most objectionable in poetry, declaring it was
"Gray, who was at the head of those who, by their reasonings, have attempted to widen the space of separation betwixt prose and metrical composition, and was more than any other man curiously elaborate in the structure of his own poetic diction."
Gray wrote in a letter to West, that "the language of the age is never the language of poetry."
Gray died on 30 July 1771 in Cambridge, and was buried beside his mother in the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the setting for his famous Elegy. His grave can still be seen there.
From Wikipedia.com *Griffin, Dustin (2002), Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge University Press