Thomas Gray: 300 today!
The 26th December 2016 marks 300 years since the birth of the poet Thomas Gray. Best known for his work An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, he published less than a 1,000 lines of poetry during his lifetime.
Although Gray is regarded as one of the great Pembroke Poets, along with Edmund Spenser, Christopher Smart and Ted Hughes, he began as an undergraduate and Fellow Commoner at Peterhouse, only moving to Pembroke in 1756 after an unfortunate prank was played on him by some Peterhouse students.
Gray was born in Cornhill, London, to Philip Gray, a scrivener, and his wife Dorothy (Antrobus), a milliner. One of 12 children, none of his brothers or sisters survived childhood. His mother sent him to Eton, where her brothers Robert and William Antrobus taught. While there he discovered a passion for Latin poetry, particularly Virgil, and started composing poems predominantly in Latin.
Gray followed in Robert’s footsteps, going up to Cambridge and matriculating at Peterhouse in 1734. His family had hoped that he would prepare for a career as a barrister, and he was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn in 1735, but Gray decided not to take his BA, instead focusing on composing Latin verse..
Gray left Cambridge in 1738and in 1739 embarked upon a Grand Tour with a friend from Eton, Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. Coming back early England in 1741 after falling out with Walpole, Gray returned to Peterhouse and was admitted as a Fellow Commoner in 1742.
That same year, while staying with his mother and aunts in Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire he began work on some of his most famous poems, including an Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College and An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. The ‘Elegy’ was not finished until 1750 and was published with the help of Horace Walpole in 1751.
Although based in Peterhouse, Gray was more friendly with a number of Pembroke Fellows including Thomas Wharton (1739) and James Brown (1735). He seemed to take great interest in the College’s internal politics and even helped his friend William Brown get elected to a Fellowship in 1747. In Peterhouse he increasingly came into conflict with Fellows and in particular the Master, Charles Keene, who in turn accused Gray of having atheistic tendencies.
In March 1756 a group of students attempted to embarrass Gray by rousing him with a false alarm of fire. Gray held a lifelong fear of fire and suffocation, and had had a bar fitted outside his window to accommodate a rope ladder. When complaining to the College authorities brought him no satisfaction, he moved across Trumpington Street to become a Fellow Commoner at Pembroke.
He found Pembroke Senior Parlour much more congenial and spent the rest of his life at the College, other than for trips to Stoke Poges, London and travels to some of the wilder countryside of England and Scotland. In 1767 he was admitted as a full Fellow of Pembroke, having been chosen as the Regius Chair of Modern History and Foreign Languages.
Gray was a contemporary of Christopher Smart, who had been admitted as a Fellow of Pembroke in 1745. They do not appear to have been close and Gray disapproved of Smart’s often erratic behaviour.
Gray died in Pembroke on 30 July 1771, at the age of 54. He was buried next to his mother in the churchyard of Stoke Poges church.
Gray had been reluctant to publish much of his work while alive. In 1757 Gray was offered the position of Poet Laureate, which he turned down. However, in 1775, his friend and literary executor William Mason decided to print a number of unpublished poems as well as passages from selected letters in The Poems of Mr. Gray, to which are Prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings.
In 1778 Mason, had a monument erected to Gray in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.
Pembroke has three volumes of his commonplace books and two notebooks as well as a selection of his printed works.
Peterhouse and Pembroke have come together to mark the tercentenary of Thomas Gray’s birth with a joint exhibition, which will be held in Peterhouse in January 2017.