Adnax Publications

< Thomas Gray >

  (1716 - 1771)

Short Biography

Portrait of Thomas Gray by Benjamin Wilson

Thomas Gray was born at 41 Cornhill, London where his mother ran a small milliner’s shop. He was the fifth and only surviving child of twelve. His father, Philip, was a money scrivener in the City of London, described by his wife in their separation papers as ‘a scoundrel and a brute’. 

In 1725 (9) his mother, at her own expense, sent him to Eton, where her brothers were assistant masters, and where Thomas befriended the young Horace Walpole, Richard West and Thomas Ashton, who together formed the ‘quadruple alliance’, and with whom Gray had lasting, possibly homosexual, relationships. He entered Peterhouse College in Cambridge in 1734 (18), where he was dubbed ‘Miss Gray’. He read widely in Greek, Latin, French and Italian, and developed interests in architecture, mediaeval literature and natural history. He left Cambridge without a degree. The receipt of a legacy from his paternal aunt meant that he had no urgent need to find employment. 

The Grand Tour
In 1738 (22) Walpole invited him on a grand tour of the Continent, and on 29 March 1739 (23) they set out, spending time in France before crossing the Alps in November. In Italy they stayed mainly in Florence, but visited also Rome, Naples and Herculaneum. They set off for Venice in 1741 (25), but quarrelled, and Gray continued on alone, staying in Venice for a few weeks before making his way home. 

Father dies, first poetry
His father died in November 1741 (25), and for the next few years Gray spent most of his time in London and Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, where his mother had retired with her sisters in 1742 (26). At this point began a period of poetic creativity with Ode on Spring and, on the death of his friend Richard West, Ode to a Distant Prospect of Eton College, Ode on Adversity and Sonnet on the Death of Richard West.  

In 1742 (26) he took up residence at Peterhouse, ostensibly to read law, but his main interest was always in the history and literature of Ancient Greece. 

Renews friendship with Walpole and publishes first poetry
His friendship with Walpole was renewed in 1745 (29), and he became a frequent visitor to Strawberry Hill. Walpole admired his poetry, and persuaded him to publish. In 1747 (31) Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College appeared, followed by Ode on Spring and Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes in 1748 (32). His Elegy on a Country Churchyard, on which he had probably been working intermittently from 1742 (26), was published in February 1751 (35), and was an instant and resounding success, running to four editions in two months. Gray consistently declined to receive any profit by his work. 

Continues studies, refuse Laureateship, publishes further poetry
He continued to study at Peterhouse, and by 1752 (36) had begun writing his Pindaric Odes. He declined to become Poet Laureate in 1757. Later that year two of his odes, The Bard and The Progress of Poesy, were printed on Walpole’s press, newly installed at Strawberry Hill. They were criticised as obscure, and from this point he virtually ceased to write imaginative poetry, concentrating instead on private study. 

He moved to London in 1759 (43), becoming a daily visitor to the reading room of the new British Museum, where he had access to rare manuscripts, and where he made translations of Icelandic, Norse and Welsh poetry. He also produced a certain amount of satirical verse, most of which was destroyed after his death. 

Cambridge, Norton Nicholls and tours of England and Scotland
He returned to Cambridge in 1761 (45), where he developed an attachment for Norton Nicholls, an undergraduate at Trinity College, whose knowledge of Dante had impressed him. He made extensive tours in England and Scotland, and, after a visit to the Lake District in 1767 (51), his Journey among the English Lakes, based on notes taken at the time, was published in 1775 (59). 

Final publication
In 1768 (52) his poems were republished in a less expensive format, and his poems The Fatal Sisters, The Descent of Odin and The Triumphs of Owen were included for the first time. 

Appointed Professor of History and Modern Languages
He was appointed Professor of History and Modern Languages at Cambridge in 1768. 

Victor de Bonstetten
In early 1770 (54) he developed a passionate attachment to a visiting Swiss nobleman, Charles Victor de Bonstetten, introduced to him by Norton Nichols. He saw the young man daily, supervising his course of study for several weeks and accompanying him to London on his departure from England. 

In 1771 (55) he proposed to visit Bonstetten in Switzerland during the summer, but was struck by a sudden illness, and died after a few days. He was buried in St Giles churchyard in Stoke Poges next to his mother. A memorial was erected for him in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

Links to poetry:

Elegy written in a Country Churchyard  go to

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