Thomas Gray, an English poet, born in Cornhill, London, Dec. 26, 1716, died July 30, 1771. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, where his expenses were borne by his mother, his father refusing to maintain him. At Eton Gray formed an intimacy with Richard West, a son of the lord chancellor of Ireland, and also with Horace Walpole, with whom in 1739-'41 he travelled in France and Italy. He spent 11 months at Florence, and there began his Latin poem I)e Principiis Cogitandi. He returned in 1741, and became bachelor of the civil law at Cambridge, though he never offered to practise, but continued to live at his university. He corresponded frequently with West, and communicated to him a portion of a tragedy called "Agrippina," in which Nero and his mother and Seneca were to be prominent characters, but which West induced him to abandon. He was easily affected by discouraging criticism, and had nearly laid aside his " Progress of Poesy " because Mason said he did not think it would take with the public. Having become estranged from Walpole, and West having died in 1742, Gray was much depressed.
At this time he wrote his " Ode to Adversity " and the ode " On a Distant Prospect of Eton College." About the same time he was engaged on his Latin poem Be Principiis, in which he designed to teach Locke's metaphysics in hexameters. From 1742 he remained at Cambridge, always dissatisfied with the place, and never professing contentment. In 1748 he began a poem, which he never completed, "On Government and Education." It has some line lines, in spite of the unpoetical subject. Gray, although of refined tastes and manners, shrank from society, living chiefly among scholars. He encouraged Mason, then a young poet, revised his verses, and helped him to an election as fellow of Pembroke hall. Mason became his constant associate, and was afterward his biographer. In 1749 Gray finished the " Elegy written in a Country Churchyard," said to have been begun seven years before, in the churchyard of Stoke-Pogis, Buckinghamshire, in which town his mother was living. It originally appeared in 1752, and achieved an immediate popularity, lour editions being called for within a year. Several of his pieces were printed in 1753 with designs by Mr. Bentley, and, being too few to make a book of the usual size, were printed only on one side of the leaf. The poems and the plates together sold well.
In 1756 he removed to Pembroke hall. His odes, " The Progress of Poesy " and " The Bard," appeared in 1757, and were received with much ridicule. Few professed to understand them, but the public finally learned to admire. His poems were parodied in two odes which not long after appeared on "Obscurity" and "Oblivion." Between the years 1759 and 1762 he occupied lodgings in Southampton row, near the British museum, then just opened, and made extracts from the Harleian and other collections which filled a considerable folio volume. On the death of Cibber the laureateship was offered to him, which he declined. He was appointed in 1768 professor of modern history at Cambridge. His health now rapidly declined. In the autumn of 1770 he was able to travel in Wales; he saw Westmoreland and Cumberland, and wrote in correspondence a delightful narrative of his travels. He died of gout in the stomach, and was buried at Stoke-Pogis. Gray was small, delicate, of handsome features, and studiously refined. His manners were nice to effeminacy, his dress carefully adjusted to the fashions of the day. He speaks of himself as a person of great pride and reserve; but he was capable of strong and tender emotion.
He could often be satirical, and among his intimate friends his conversation was singularly entertaining and instructive, but he spoke little in company. To his great attainments all his friends bear testimony, but he left no public proof of them. He was a botanist, a zoologist, an architect, and an antiquary. He had read all the Greek classics, and planned an edition of Strabo. He was familiar with history, was learned in art, had studied the schools of philosophy, and wrote better Latin verse than any of his contemporaries. His "Elegy "is the culmination of his genius, almost every line having fixed itself upon the popular mind. Among the best of the numerous editions of Gray's poems are those by W. Mason, with his letters and a memoir (4 vols. 8vo, York, 1778); and by the Rev. John Mitford, with notes and a memoir (London, 1814), several times republished. An edition of his complete works, with Mason's memoir, was issued by T. J. Mathias (2 vols. 4to, London, 1814). Mr. Mitford also published in 1853 Gray's correspondence with Mason, showing that the poet's letters were mutilated by Mason in his edition.