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THOMAS GRAY was one in a family of eleven. He was born in Cornhill, London, December 26, 1716. His father was an exchange-broker, and of a peculiarly fierce and obstinate temper; but his mother, who died in her seventieth year, seems to have had little in common with her headstrong husband, and through his entire life she continued to be enshrined among the most tender sympathies in the heart of Thomas, the most illustrious of her sons. At an early age the future poet was sent to Eton, but there he evidenced few auguries of his future eminence. He was of a timid retiring nature, which rendered him unpopular with his classfellows, full of the boisterous romping incident to schoolboys. In 1734 he was sent to Cambridge. But university life proved to him extremely dull and distasteful. He left Cambridge in 1738, and returned to his father's house in Cornhill. Next year we find him on the continent in the capacity of tutor to the son of Sir Robert Walpole. Here, for the first time, he seems to have enjoyed life with any degree of zest and rapture, as evidenced by letters to his mother and literary friends. In September 1741, the poet again returned to England. His father had died during his absence, and his aged mother was husbanding her remaining property, in comparative poverty and neglect, in the house of a widowed sister at Stoke, near Windsor. In 1742 he returned to Cambridge, and took the degree of Bachelor in Civil Law, thus having “got half-way up to the top of jurisprudence.” But to the summit of “ doctor” he never attained. In the spring of 1753 his mother was laid in the grave-one of the few ties which bound the soul of the poet to the world was wrenched away.
Gray was not free from the eccentricities which are generally accredited to be incident to the character of poet. We may mention, as an instance of this, that, about three years after the death of his mother, he attained to a ludicrous notoriety at Cambridge, on account of his constant apprehensions of fire. He commissioned his friend, the poet Warton, to obtain for hiin a rope-ladder, thirty feet long, with strong hooks to be attached to iron fastenings in the sill of the window. Moreover, it was to be constructed so as to be “easy to unroll, and not likely to entangle.” Warton executed the commission. The news of Gray's rope-ladder soon spread over Cambridge, and some of the wilder spirits of the university gave the author of the “Bard” enough of fire-alarms, for the purpose of enjoying a joke over seeing him springing out of bed, and putting his ropeladder to the test.
Depression of spirits was the great bane of the poet's life. In a letter written in 1757, he says, with affecting melancholy, “As to myself, I cannot boast at present either of my spirits, my situation, my employments, or fertility. The days and nights pass, and I am never the nearer to anything but that one to which we are all tending.” On the death of Cibber, in 1757, the laureateship was offered to Gray; but bis morose despondency was such that he declined the honour. In 1768 he accepted of the Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge, obtained for him through the influence of his friend the Duke of Grafton. Depression of spirits, want of resolution, and evidences of premature physical
decay, rendered his professor's chair the source of no happiness to himself, and of comparatively little benefit to the university. “It was, indeed, only autumn time, and frost and snow might not be expected until a distant winter ; but some of the griefs of age already oppressed him. The sleepless night, the dull pain in the morning, the weight upon the chest, and other symptoms of disease, foretold the beginning of the end. For six years he had been unable to read with one eye, while the other was bewildered by floating spots. He was not to suffer a long sickness. The dart struck him in the College Hall, during dinner, July 24, 1771." And on the 31st of the same month the grand but melancholy spirit of Gray had gone to the “bosom of his Father and his God.” By the side of his venerated mother, his ashes were laid to their long rest in the churchyard of Stoke.
Next to Milton, Gray has been pronounced the most learned poet that England has ever produced, although his knowledge of mathematics was of a limited order. The extreme cultivation of his taste and judgment have perhaps somewhat depreciated the vigorous native force of the poetic character. But his “ Elegy” and the “Bard” are productions for all time to admire.
Besides “Elegy written in a Country Churchyard" and the “Bard,” the chief works of Gray are, “Ode to Eton College," “ The Progress of Poesy," and Translations from various Languages.
ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY
[“The churchyard of Stoke inspired the poem. The ivied tower, the rugged elms, the dark yew tree, and the mouldering turf, still freshen and apply the moral of the verse. A calm evening of summer in that green sleeping-place is the best commentary on the text. Then the swallow dives and twitters; the sheep-bell tinkles down the lanes, fragrant with wild violets; and across the boughs the gleam of cattle breaks and vanishes. Tall fir-trees, wreathed with ivy, make a verdurous wall about the church. There Gray loved to linger.” The curfew of the first line has been identified with the great bell of St Mary's, and other churchyards besides that of Stoke have of course laid claim to having suggested the Elegy. There is an ivy-mantled tower at Upton, and Granchester and Madingly, two delightful villages in the vicinity of Cambridge, each boasts of possessing the country churchyard of the celebrated Elegy. The original cast of the poem contained three stanzas, which were subsequently elided by the poet himself at the dictation of his keenly-fastidious taste. The stanzas are as follows:
“ Hark how the sacred calm that breathes around
Bids every fierce tumultuous passion cease,
A grateful earnest of eternal peace.
“Him have we seen, the greenwood side along,
While o'er the heath we hied, our labour done,
With wistful eyes pursue the setting sun.
“ There scatter'd oft, the earliest of the year,
By hands unseen are showers of violets found;
And little footsteps lightly print the ground.”]
The curfew 1 tolls the knell 2 of parting day,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me. 1 French, couvre-feu, cover-fire. The custom of ringing the curfew. bell every night at eight o'clock, was introduced into England by William the Conqueror. Its ostensible purpose was the suppression of treason and sedition ; but it was also a security against the accidental breaking out of fire in the wooden residences of the age.
% Welsh cnil. A.S. cnyllan, to ring.