Thomas Gray: Biography & Poems

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  • 0:00 Thomas Gray's Early Life
  • 2:30 Thomas Gray's Rise to Fame
  • 4:58 A Poet Tied to Sensibility
  • 6:07 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kara Wilson

Kara Wilson is a 6th-12th grade English and Drama teacher. She has a B.A. in Literature and an M.Ed, both of which she earned from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Thomas Gray was an 18th-century scholar and poet most famous for his poem 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.' Unfortunately, he died leaving much of his work unfinished. Discover more about Gray's life and works in this lesson.

Thomas Gray's Early Life

Thomas Gray was an English poet who lived from 1716-1771 and is best known for poems like Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. That poem, along with many others written by Gray, is an English lyric poem, or an emotional, song-like poem.

Thomas Gray was the only surviving child out of twelve. His father was a scrivener or clerk, but he was abusive to his wife. Gray's mother ran a millinery business. Gray attended Eton College, where he befriended other boys who preferred poetry to sports. This quieter lifestyle fit Gray, and he kept it as an adult, enjoying time to study and keeping up with only a few friends.

In 1734, Gray began attending Peterhouse College at Cambridge University. However, when he left in 1738, he had not earned a degree. The following year, he embarked on a European adventure, traveling through France, Switzerland and Italy with one of his childhood friends. Much of the trip was paid for by his friend, and in 1741, they had a falling out. Gray returned to England. In 1745, the two estranged friends finally settled their dispute.

In 1742, a childhood friend who Gray met at Eton College died of tuberculosis at the age of 24 and it deeply affected him. But Gray continued to write poetry, most notably Ode on the Spring, Hymn to Adversity and Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. These poems were expressive and sometimes melancholy. In the autumn of 1742, Gray returned to Peterhouse College and in 1743, Gray earned a Bachelor of Civil Law degree, though he never practiced law. He stayed at Cambridge to study Greek. He was never satisfied with his writing, often rewriting poems multiple times and rarely feeling happy with the results. Consequently, he left much of his work unfinished.

In 1747, Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College was published, and the following year, Ode on the Spring was also published, but neither poem received much attention.

Thomas Gray's Rise to Fame

In 1751, Gray finally received recognition when Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard was published. It immediately received a great deal of attention. The poem is an elegy, which is a thoughtful lyric poem mourning the loss of a beloved person or public figure. The poem honors generations of humble and unknown villagers buried in a church cemetery. The concept of recognizing such common people was quite original. The theme, or main message of the poem, is that the lives of both the rich and the poor lead to the same place: the grave. Though others had touched on this idea, Gray not only conveyed this, but he also suggested that the death of all men and of the poet himself should be mourned. Therefore, the poem's universal appeal attracted attention from a variety of people.

Although Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard made Thomas Gray famous, his lifestyle did not change much. He stayed at Peterhouse until 1756 and then moved to Pembroke College. He wrote The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, two odes, which are lyric poems expressing a strong feeling of love or respect for someone or something. Both were published in 1757. Unfortunately, they were greatly criticized, and Gray was so disappointed that he almost stopped writing. That same year, Gray was offered recognition as a Nobel laureate, but he turned it down.

In 1759, the British Library opened, though it was then known as the British Museum, and he moved to London to study there. He later worked as a modern history professor at Cambridge in 1768, though he never gave any public lectures.

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