Juliet Barker

Poet who Remains as Elusive as Ever

Thomas Gray: a Life


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Despite the fact that he wrote one of the best-loved poems in the English language, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-yard’, Thomas Gray himself has always been an enigma. His life was almost perversely lacking in excitement or interest. Born in 1716 in London of mercantile parents, he was educated at Eton and Cambridge, and then accompanied his schoolfriend, Horace Walpole, on a two-year Grand Tour of Europe until they quarrelled and parted in 1741. After a couple of half-hearted attempts to read for the law, he settled into a premature old age as the resident amateur scholar of his old Cambridge college, Peterhouse. An undergraduate prank led him to transfer across the street to Pembroke College, where, even though he had never taken a degree, he ended his days as Professor of Modern History, dying in 1771. His poetic reputation then, as now, was founded on the ‘Elegy’: he completed a mere handful of other poems, all deeply indebted to his scholarly classical interests, but their verbal obscurity defeated even his academic contemporaries and deprives them of any genuine resonance today. In the circumstances, Samuel Johnson’s typically stringent judgement, pronounced three and a half years after Gray’s death, seems eminently justified: ‘he was dull in company, dull in his closet, dull everywhere. He was dull in a new way, and that made people think he was great.’

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