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THOMAS GRAY, the son of Mr. Philip Gray, a scrivener of London, was born in Cornhill, November 26, 1716. His grammatical education he received at Eton under the care of Mr. Antrobus, his mother's brother, then assistant to Dr. George ; and when he left school, in 1734, entered a pensioner at Peterhouse in Cambridge.
The transition from the school to the college is, to most young scholars, the tiine from which they date their years of manhood, liberty, and happiness; but Gray seems to have been very little delighted with academical qualifications; he liked at Cambridge neither the mode of life nor the fashion of study, and lived sullenly on to the time when his attendance on lectures was no longer required. As he intended to profess the common law, he took no degree.
When he had been at Cambridge about five years, Mr. Horace Walpole, whose friendship he had gained at Eton, invited him to travel with him as his
companion. They wandered through France into Italy; and Grays letters contain a very pleasing account of many parts of their journey. But unequal friendships are easily dissolved ; at Florence they quarrelled, and parted ; and Mr. Walpole is now content to have it told that it
was by his fault. If we look, however, without prejudice, on the world, we shall find that men, whose consciousness of their own merit sets them above the compliances of servility, are apt enough in their association with superiors to watch their own dignity with troublesome and punctilious jealousy, and in the fervour of independence to exact that attention which they refuse to pay. Part they did, whatever was the quarrel ; and the rest of their travels was doubtless more unpleasant to them both. Gray continued his journey in a manner suitable to his own little fortune, with only an occasional servant.
He returned to England in September, 1741, and in about two months afterwards buried his father, who had, by an injudicious waste of money upon a new house, so much lessened his fortune, that Gray thought himself too poor to study the law. He therefore retired to Cambridge, where he after became bachelor of civil law, and where without liking the place or its inhabitants, or professing to like them, he passed, except a short residence at London, the rest of his life.
About this time he was deprived of Mr. West, the son of a chancellor of Ireland, a friend on whom he appears to have set a high value, and who deserved his esteem by the powers which he shews in his letters, and in the Ode to May, which Mr. Mason has prcserved, as well as by the sincerity with which, when Gray sent him part of Agrippina, a tragedy that he had just begun, he gave an opinion which probably intercepted the progress of the work, and which the judgment of every reader will confirm. It was certainly no loss to the English stage that Agrippina was never finished.
In this year (1742) Gray seems to have applied himself seriously to poetry; for in this year were produced
the Ode to Spring his Prospect of Eton, and his Ode to Adversity ; he began likewise a Latin poem, De Principiis Cogitandi.
It may be collected from the narrative of Mr. Mason, that his first ambition was to have excelled in Latin poetry ; perhaps it were reasonable to wish that he had prosecuted his design; for, though there is at present some embarrassment in his phrase, and some harshness in his lyric numbers, his copiousness of language is such as very few possess; and his lines, even when imperfect, discover a writer whom practice would have made skilful.
He now lived on at Peterhouse, very little solicitous what others did or thought, and cultivated his mind and enlarged his views without any other purpose than of improving and amusing himself; when Mr. Mason, being elected fellow of Pembroke hall, brought him a companion who was afterwards to be bis editor, and whose fondness and fidelity has kindled in him a zeal of admiration which cannot be reasonably expected from the neutrality of a stranger, and the coldness of a critic,
In his retirement he wrote (1747) an ode on the Death of Mr. Walpole's Cat; and the year
afterward attempted a poem, of more importance, on Government and Education, of which the fragments which remain have many excellent lines.
His next production (1750) was his far-famed Elegy in the Church-yard, which, finding its way into a Magazine, first, I believe, made him known to the public.
An invitation from lady Cobham about this time gave occasion to an old composition called A Long Story which adds little to Gray's character.
Several of his pieces were published (1753) with designs by Mr. Bentley; and, that they might in some
form or other make a book, only one side of each leaf was printed. I believe the poems and the plates recommended each other so well, that the whole impression was soon bought. This year he lost his mother.
Some time afterwards (1756) some young men of the college, whose chambers were near his, diverted themselves with disturbing him by frequent and troublesome poises, and, as is said, by pranks yet more offensive and contemptuous. This insolence, having endured it a while, he represented to the governors of the society, among whom perhaps he liad no friends; and finding his complaint little regarded, removed himself to Pembroke hall.
In 1757 he published The Progress of Poetry, and The Bard, two compositions at which the readers of poetry were at first content to gaze in mute amazement. Some that tried them confessed their inability to understand them, though Warburton said that they were understood as well as the works of Milton and shakspeare, which it is the fashion to admire. Garrick wrote a few lines in their praise. Some hardy champions undertook to rescue them frorn neglect; and in a short time many were content to be shewn beauties which they could not see.
Gray's reputation was now so high, that, after the death of Cibber, he had the honour of refusing the laurel, which was then bestowed on Mr. Whitehead.
His curiosity, not long after, drew him away from Cambridge to a lodging near the museum, where he resided near three years, reading and transcribing; and, so far as can be discovered, very little affected by two odes on “ Oblivion" and "Obscurity," in which his lyric. performances were ridiculed with much contempt and much ingenuity.
When the professor of modern history at Cambridge died, he was, as he says, “ cockered and spirited up," till he asked it of lord Bute, who sent him a civil refusal ; and the place was given to Mr. Brocket, the tutor of sir James Lowther.
His constitution was weak, and, believing that his health was promoted by exercise and change of place, he undertook (1765) a journey into Scotland, of which his account, so far as it extends, is very curious and elegant : for, as his comprehension was ample, his curiosity extended to all the works of art, all the appearances of nature, and all the monuments of past events. He naturally contracted a friendship with Dr. Beattie, whom he found a poet, a philosopher, and a good man. The Mareschal college at Aberdeen offered him the degree of doctor of laws, which having omitted to take it at Cambridge, he thought it decent to refuse.
What he had formerly solicited in vain was at last given him without solicitation. The professorship of history became again vacant, and he received (1768) an offer of it from the duke of Grafton. He accepted, and retained it to his death ; always designing lectures, but never appearing reading them ; uneasy at his neglect of duty, and appeasing his uneasiness with designs of reformation, and with a resolution which he believed himself to have made of resigning the office, if he found himself unable to discharge it.
Ill health made another journey necessary, and he visited (1769) Westmoreland and Cumberland. He that reads his epistolary narration wishes, that to travel, and to tell his travels, had been more of his employment; but it is by studying at home that we must obtain the ability of travelling with intelligence and improvement.