Thomas Gray was an English poet, classical scholar and professor at Cambridge University. He was a dominant poetic figure in the mid-eighteenth century and precursor of the Romantic Movement in English poetry.

Gray was born in Cornhill, London into a prosperous but unhappy home. He was the sole survivor of twelve. Some of Gray’s notable poems are ‘Ode on the Spring’, ‘Sonnet on the Death of Mr Richard West’, ‘Hymn to Adversity’ and ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’. His poems are remarkable for their ease and felicity of expression, wistful melancholy and the ability to phrase truisms in memorable lines such as, ‘where ignorance is bliss’ and ‘it is folly to be wise’.

thomas gray
Thomas Gray (1716 -1771)

Thomas Gray’s use of the elegy in his famous Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751) is exemplary of historically and affectively minded poetry in the eighteenth century, and understands the relation between personal experiences and larger ideological forces—which Raymond Williams, for one,  would classify as “history”—to include the everyday consequences of rank and status divisions in modernity.

Thomas Gray’s ‘Elegy’ and the Politics of Memorialization by Jonathan C. Williams

Gray started writing Latin verse of considerable merit at Cambridge, which he entered in 1734 and left in 1738 without a degree. He set out with Horace Walpole on a grand tour of Europe in 1739. Gray finally settled in Cambridge in 1742. The death of Richard West, his closest friend, affected him profoundly. His self –imposed programme of literary study made him one of the most learned men of his time. However, it was not until the publication of ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, in 1751, that  Gray was recognized as a poet. Its success was overwhelming. The poem’s universal appeal made him a celebrity. He also wrote two Pindaric odes, ‘The Progress of Poesy’ and ‘The Bard’, in 1751. These two poems were criticized for being too obscure and Gray virtually ceased to write. He was offered the post of Poet Laureate in 1751 which he declined.

Gray was a kind of person who cared little for fame and adulation. It was believed that Gray may have begun writing ‘Elegy Written in A Country Churchyard’ sometime in 1742 shortly after the death of his close friend Richard West. He completed the poem in 1750 it was first published in1751 in London. Several revised or altered versions of the poem appeared later. ‘Elegy Written in A Country Churchyard’ is a typical elegy, but not very much so, because most elegies are centered on the death of a person or persons. An elegy is by nature somber in tone, however, unlike a typical elegy this particular elegy does not focus on the death of one single person neither does Gray talk about the death of someone rich or famous or someone close to him. An elegy is typically lyrical rather than narrative. Its primary purpose is to express feelings and insights about its subject rather than to tell a story. An elegy expresses feelings of loss and sorrow while also praising the dead and commenting on the meaning of the dead person’s life on earth.

Unlike other poems of the elegiac tradition, ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ does not mourn an individual. It talks about a profound despair regarding the human condition. Though the poem contains thematic elements of the elegiac genre, it does not emphasize loss as much as other elegies do and its natural setting is not a primary component of its theme. Milton’s Lycidas is said to have served as the inspiration for Gray’s choice of the genre and style. Gray’s poem is more natural in tone and style and lacks many of the ornamental features of Milton’s poem.

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