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Thomas Gray (26 December 1716 – 30 July 1771) was an English poet, letter-writer, classical scholar, and professor at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He is widely known for his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, published in 1751. Although a wide range of biographers and critics have long assumed that Thomas Gray's attraction to friends such as Horace Walpole and Richard West and his later infatuation with other young mn were erotically charged, there is no keyhole testimony to "prove" that Gray partecipated in any transgressive sexual activity. When Charles Victor de Bonstetten, whom Gray loved with an almost reckless passion in the 1760s, described Gray many years after Gray's death, he spoke of a man with a peculiar "sensibilité".
Gray was an extremely self-critical writer who published only 13 poems in his lifetime, despite being extremely popular. He was even offered the position of Poet Laureate in 1757, though he declined.
Thomas Gray was born in Cornhill, London. His father, Philip Gray, was a scrivener and his mother, Dorothy Antrobus, was a milliner. He was the fifth of twelve children, and the only one to survive infancy. He lived with his mother after she left his abusive and mentally unwell father. 
Gray's mother paid for him to go to Eton College, where his uncles Robert and William Antrobus worked. Robert became Gray's first teacher and helped inspire in Gray a love for botany and observational science. Gray's other uncle, William, became his tutor. He recalled his schooldays as a time of great happiness, as is evident in his "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College". Gray was a delicate and scholarly boy who spent his time reading and avoiding athletics. He lived in his uncle’s household rather than at college. He made three close friends at Eton: Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole; Thomas Ashton; and Richard West, son of another Richard West who was briefly Lord Chancellor of Ireland. The four prided themselves on their sense of style, sense of humour, and appreciation of beauty. They were called the "quadruple alliance".
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In 1734, Gray went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He found the curriculum dull. He wrote letters to friends listing all the things he disliked: the masters ("mad with Pride") and the Fellows ("sleepy, drunken, dull, illiterate Things"). 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-directed programme of literary study, becoming one of the most learned men of his time. 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.
In the last years of his life, in his early 50s, Gray became much attached to a young man, Norton Nicholls, whose interests he did all he could to advance. Nicholls introduced Gray a charming young Swiss, Charles Victor de Bonstetten, who provided the poet with the brief emotional experience of his life, a last, belated flare-up in the flame of which he expired. Bonstetten was a young aristocrat of liberal sentiments, more French than Swiss, open to whatever influence came his way. He came to England in 1769, and had a distinguished and long career. He was to live till 86. After his visit to England, he made the tour of Italy before entering public life - and later became governor of the Italian district of Switzerland. Bonstetten wrote Gray a number of letters, all of which have disappeared. Only one phrase from them has come floating down to us. Bonstetten had invited Gray to come to Switzerland: the poet's heart stopped at the words, "Death which can stiffen our arms before ever they have embraced". Gray did not altogether give up hope. He contemplated making the journey out to him next year: but next year he was dead.
Gray died on 30 July 1771 in Cambridge, and was buried beside his mother in the churchyard of St. Giles' church in Stoke Poges, the setting for his famous Elegy. His grave can still be seen there.
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