Gray, Thomas, 1716–71, English poet. He was educated at Eton and Peterhouse, Cambridge. In 1739 he began a grand tour of the Continent with Horace Walpole. They quarreled in Italy, and Gray returned to England in 1741. He continued his studies at Cambridge, and he remained there for most of his life, living in seclusion, studying Greek, and writing. In 1768 he was made professor of history and modern languages, but he did no real teaching. Although he was reconciled with Walpole, and formed other close relationships in his lifetime, his shy and sensitive disposition was ill adapted to the robust century in which he lived. He was offered the laureateship in 1757 but refused it. His first important poems, written in 1742, include “To Spring,” “On a Distant Prospect of Eton College,” and a sonnet on the death of his close friend Richard West. After years of revision he finished his great “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751), a meditative poem presenting thoughts conjured up by the sight of a rural graveyard; it is perhaps the most quoted poem in English. In 1757, Walpole published Gray's Pindaric odes, “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard.” Gray's verse illustrates the evolution of English poetry in the 18th cent.—from the classicism of the 1742 poems to the romantic tendencies of “The Fatal Sisters” and “The Descent of Odin” (1768). He did not write a large amount of poetry. Much of his verse is tinged with melancholy, and even more of it reflects his extensive learning. His letters, which contain much humor, are among the finest in the English language.
See his collected works, ed. by E. Gosse (4 vol., rev. ed. 1902–6; repr. 1968); his correspondence, ed. by P. Toynbee and L. Whibley (1935, repr. 1971); selected letters, ed. by J. W. Krutch (1952); biographies by R. W. Ketton-Cremer (1955), M. Golden (1964), W. P. Jones (1937, repr. 1965); study by A. L. Sells (1980); A. T. McKenzie, Thomas Gray: A Reference Guide (1982).
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