One of the great odists and elegist of English literature of all time, Thomas Gray was born in London. His father was a self-centered man with a churlish temper. The young Gray was sent first to Eton, and then to Cambridge. At Eton, he befriended Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister and Richard West, grandson of Bishop Burnet. They, along with Thomas Ashton, came to be known as ‘the quadruple alliance’. Of them, West, who had a scholastic and poetic bent of mind, died early in 1742. This aggrieved Gray immensely. Anyway, the quadruple alliance was ruptured eight years before West’s death when West went to Oxford and Gray to Cambridge. But their correspondences are of interest to a student of English literature because much of Gray’s poetry was a product of that. Apart from literature, Gray was keenly interested in scientific studies and was also drawn to foreign literature, especially French.
In 1739, Gray embarked on a European tour with Horace Walpole. In Paris, Gray, probably under the influence of Racine’s Britannicus, composed Agrippina which is a blank-verse tragedy. It is an imitative effort of which only two hundred lines survive. Gray left the beautiful alcaic ode O tu Severi Riligio loci in his father’s album.
In 1741, Gray’s father passed away and that put constraints on family resources. After this, Gray, along with his mother, shifted to Stoke Poges, a place where Gray composed poems like Ode to Spring, Sonnet on the Death of Richard West, Hymn to Adversity, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College and a galling. After West’s death in 1742, Gray added a section called Liber Quartus (redolent of Milton’s Epitaphium Damonis) to De Principis Cogitandi (a Latin version of Locke’s Essay) which Gray started composing for West in Florence.
Returning to Cambridge, Gray lived on a meager income. In those days of penury, he facetiously composed for Horace Walpole, the cat referring to Walpole’s deceased pet. Gray’s, chef d’æuvre, however, is his Elegy, which he sent in the manuscript form first to Walpole who circulated it among his friends. As a result, some of its portions were published in some magazines without Gray’s prior consent. An alarmed Gray asked Walpole to send the manuscript to Dodsley for immediate publication. In Elegy, Gray emerged as a champion elegist, infusing new cadence and music into elegiac quatrains familiarised by D’Avenant’s Gondibert and Dryden’s Annus Mirabilis. In 1752, Gray wrote Stanzas to Richard Bentley, which survives only in fragments.
The Ode which made Gray a premier odist in English literature, and an undoubted precursor to the great Romantic Odists like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley or Keats is The Progress of Poesy. Gray wrote the ode in 1754, but it was not published until 1759. Eventually, Walpole got it published along with Gray’s The Bard. In these two odes, Gray adapts the form of Pindaric Ode into English poetry. Besides, The Bard carries the imprint of Gray’s northern studies which are also evident in The Fatal Sisters and The Descent of Odin. In 1769, Gray composed Installation Ode to celebrate the occasion of the Duke of Grafton’s election as the Chancellor of Cambridge University.
Gray’s poetic output was not enormous. In fact, his prose writings far exceed his verses in volume. Still, his poetry has survived in its own right not only in academic circles but among general readers of poetry. Even Dr. Johnson who did not nourish a high opinion about Gray’s poetry in general acclaimed the greatness of his Elegy. George Sampson makes a scerning comment on Grav: “The most remarkable and least remarked act about Gray’s few poems is their strong idiosyncrasy. They are not only the best of their kind, but they have no rivals.”