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Thomas Gray

(1716—1771) poet and literary scholar

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educated at Eton, with Horace Walpole, and at Peterhouse, Cambridge. He accompanied Walpole on a tour of France and Italy in 1739–41, but they quarrelled and returned home separately. In 1742 Gray moved to Cambridge, where he was to live, apart from travels and visits, for the rest of his life. In 1741–2 he began to write English rather than Latin poetry, producing a fragment of a Racinian tragedy, Agrippina, and his first odes, including Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1747), the first of his works to appear in print. In June 1742 his other Etonian friend Richard West died, just after Gray had sent him his ‘Ode on the Spring’ (1748); Gray paid tribute in ‘Sonnet on the Death of West’ (1775). In 1745 he was reconciled with Walpole, to whom he showed his ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat’ (1748) and his highly successful Elegy Written in a Country Church‐Yard (1751).

In 1754 Gray finished his Pindaric ode on The Progress of Poesy, and in 1757 a second Pindaric ode, The Bard, both remarkably ambitious and intense, and marking a clear shift from neo‐classical lucidity towards the obscure and the sublime; both were published by Walpole in 1757, the first works printed by the Strawberry Hill Press. On the death of Cibber (1757) he was offered the laureateship, which he declined. He was deeply interested in new discoveries of Old Norse and Welsh poetry (including Macpherson's) and produced various imitations, including ‘The Fatal Sisters’ and ‘The Descent of Odin’ (1768). One of the best of his later poems is the satiric ‘On Lord Holland's Seat near Margate, Kent’ (1769). His Journal (1775) is an account of his visit to the Lakes, and his letters (3 vols, 1935, ed. P. Toynbee and L. Whibley) are an interesting mixture of erudition, affectionate informality, and enthusiasm for nature and literature.

Subjects: Literature

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