Thomas Gray 1716â€“1771
Thomas Gray is generally considered the second most important poet of the eighteenth century (following the dominant figure ofAlexander Pope) and the most disappointing. It was generally assumed by friends and readers that he was the most talented poet of his generation, but the relatively small and even reluctantly published body of his works has left generations of scholars puzzling over the reasons for his limited production and meditating on the general reclusiveness and timidity that characterized his life.Â Samuel JohnsonÂ was the first of many critics to put forward the view that Gray spoke in two languages, one public and the other private, and that the ...view middle of the document...
From 1725 to 1734 Thomas Gray attended Eton, where he met Richard West and Horace Walpole, son of the powerful Whig minister, Sir Robert Walpole.Â
In 1734 Gray entered Peterhouse College, Cambridge University. Four years later he left Cambridge without a degree, intending to read law at the Inner Temple in London. Instead, he and Horace Walpole sailed from Dover on 29 March 1739 for a Continental tour. The two quarreled at Reggio, Italy, in May 1741; Gray continued the tour alone, returning to London in September. In November 1741 Gray's father died; Gray's extant letters contain no mention of this event.Â
Except for his mother, West was the person most dear to Gray; and his death from consumption on 1 June 1742 was a grievous loss to the poet. West died in the year of Gray's greatest productivity, though not all of the work of that year was inspired either by West's death or by Gray's anticipation of it.Â
West's death did inspire the well-known (largely because of Wordsworth's use of it) "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West," yet it is the shortest and least significant work of the year. The "Ode on the Spring" (1748) owes something to an ode West sent Gray on 5 May, andÂ An Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton CollegeÂ (1747) may owe something to West's "Ode to Mary Magdelene." The "Hymn to Adversity" (1753) and the unfinished "Hymn to Ignorance" (1768) complete the work of the year, which, together with 1741, may comprise Gray's most critical emotional period.Â
Gray's poetry is concerned with the rejection of sexual desire. The figure of the poet in his poems is often a lonely, alienated, and marginal one, and various muses or surrogate-mother figures are invokedâ€”in a manner somewhat anticipatory ofÂ John Keats's employment of similar figuresâ€”for aid or guidance. The typical "plot" of the four longer poems of 1742 has to do with engaging some figure of desire to repudiate it, as in the "Ode on the Spring," or, as in the Eton College ode, to lament lost innocence. Sometimes, as in the "Hymn to Adversity," a harsh and repressive figure is conjured to rebuke excessive desire and to aid in the formation of a modest and humane fellowship, the transposed and social form of sexual desire. In the "Hymn to Ignorance" a goddess clearly modeled on Pope's Dulness inÂ The DunciadÂ (1728) is used to rebuke the "I" who longs for the maternal and demonic presence. In different but related ways these four poems enact the poet's quest for his tutelary spirit, for the muse who will preside over the making of poetic and personal identity.Â
Almost everyone who reads poetry is familiar with the opening of the poem: "The curfew tolls the knell of parting day, / The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea, / The plowman homeward plods his weary way, / And leaves the world to darkness and to me." It echoes lines fromÂ John MiltonÂ andÂ William ShakespeareÂ (and is echoed later by James Beattie and Wordsworth); it reflects a melancholic evening mood...