Thomas Gray 1716–71

  • Ian McGowan
Part of the St. Martin’s Anthologies of English Literature book series (AEL)


Gray was the son of a London scrivener. At Eton, he first met Horace Walpole (see below) with whom he travelled on the continent in 1739–41. Most of his adult life, apart from travels, was spent at Cambridge, where he moved in 1756 from Peterhouse to Pembroke. A bachelor and a quiet scholar, he declined the Poet Laureateship, but became Professor of Modern History (never lecturing). In contrast to professional writers, he published little of his slender output. His learning is seen in his attempts to recapture the sublime energy and drama of the Greek lyric poet, Pindar (fifth century BC), in the abruptness of the odes; elsewhere he shows the influence of the ‘new’ poetic material he found in Old Norse and Welsh, in contrast to the ‘Augustan’ tradition; but the common humanity of the Elegy has always had the widest appeal. Gray believed that ‘the language of the age is never the language of poetry’; his styles are sophisticated and allusive. His interest in the picturesque led him on the new tourist route to Scotland and the Lake District. His letters are among the less formal and most attractive of the century. Johnson’s criticism (see above) was highly controversial.


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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Nature America Inc. 1989

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  • Ian McGowan

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