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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
Thomas Gray (1716–1771)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by George Parsons Lathrop (1851–1898)
THE FAME of Thomas Gray is unique among English poets, in that, although worldwide and luminous, it springs from a single poem, a flawless masterpiece,—the ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard.’ This is the one production by which he is known to the great mass of readers and will continue to be known to coming generations; yet in his own time his other poems were important factors, in establishing the high repute accorded to him then and still maintained in the esteem of critics. Nevertheless, living to be nearly fifty-five and giving himself exclusively to letters, the whole of the work that he left behind him amounted only to some fourteen hundred lines.  1
  His value to literature and to posterity, therefore, is to be measured not by the quantity of his literary contributions or by any special variety in their scope, but by a certain wholesome and independent influence which he exerted upon the language of poetry, and by a rare quality of intense yet seemingly calm and almost repressed genius, which no one among his commentators has been able to define clearly. The most comprehensive thing ever written about him—wise, just, witty, yet sympathetic and penetrating—is the essay by James Russell Lowell in his final volume of criticism.
          “It is the rarest thing,” says Lowell, “to find genius and dilettantism united in the same person (as for a time they were in Goethe): for genius implies always a certain fanaticism of temperament, which, if sometimes it seem fitful, is yet capable of intense energy on occasion; while the main characteristic of the dilettante is that sort of impartiality which springs from inertia of mind, admirable for observation, incapable of turning it to practical account. Yet we have, I think, an example of this rare combination of qualities in Gray; and it accounts both for the kind of excellence to which he attained, and for the way in which he disappointed expectation…. He is especially interesting as an artist in words and phrases, a literary type far less common among writers of English than it is in France or Italy, where perhaps the traditions of Latin culture were never wholly lost…. When so many have written so much, we shall the more readily pardon the man who has written too little or just enough.”
  He was born in London, December 26th, 1716, the son of a money scrivener who had dissipated most of his inherited property, but was skilled in music, and perhaps transmitted to the son that musical element which gives beauty and strength to his poetry. Gray’s mother was a woman of character, who with his aunt set up an India warehouse and supported herself; also sending the young man to St. Peter’s College, Cambridge, after his studies at Eton. Leaving college without a degree, he traveled on the Continent of Europe with Horace Walpole in 1739; then returned to Cambridge and passed the remainder of his life in the university, as a bachelor of civil law nominally,—not practicing, but devoting himself to study and to excursions through rural England. He had a profound and passionate love for nature, a kind of religious exaltation in the contemplation of it and in mountain worship, which was at variance with the prevailing eighteenth-century literary mood and prefigured the feeling of Wordsworth. His mother having retired to Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, he often made visits there; and the church-yard of his deathless ‘Elegy’ is generally believed to be that of the parish church at Stoke Poges. It was here that he was laid to rest in the same tomb with his mother and his aunt, after his death, July 24th, 1771.  3
  The ‘Elegy’ was finished in 1749. He had begun writing it seven years before. This has sometimes been alluded to as an instance in point of Horace’s advice, that a poem should be matured for seven years. The length of time given to the ‘Elegy,’ however, may be accounted for partly by Gray’s dilatory habits of writing, and partly by the parallel of Tennyson’s long delay in perfecting the utterance of his meditations on the death of his friend Hallam through ‘In Memoriam.’ Gray’s dearest friend, Richard West, died in 1742; and it was apparently under the stress of that sorrow that he began the ‘Elegy,’ which was completed only in 1749. Two years later it was published. It won the popular heart immediately, and passed through four editions in the first twelvemonth.  4
  Of Gray’s other poems, those which have left the deepest impression are his ‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College,’ ‘The Progress of Poesy,’ and ‘The Bard.’ The last two are somewhat Pindaric in style, but also suggest the influence of the Italian canzone. In the Eton College ode, his first published piece, occurs the phrase since grown proverbial, “Where ignorance is bliss, ’tis folly to be wise.” It is a curious fact that while most readers know Gray only as the author of the ‘Elegy,’ every one is familiar with certain lines coined by him, but unaware of their source. For instance, in ‘The Progress of Poesy,’ he speaks of
  “The unconquerable mind, and freedom’s holy flame.”
It is in the same place that he describes Milton as “blasted with excess of light,” and in alluding to Dryden, evolves the image of
  “Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.”
His, too, in ‘The Bard,’ is the now well-known line—
  “Youth on the prow, and Pleasure at the helm.”
Many of his finest expressions are in part derived from classic or other poets; but he showed undeniable genius in his adaptation, transformation, or new creation from these suggestive passages.
  Gray was small and delicate in person, handsome and refined, fond of fashionable dress, and preferred to be known as a “gentleman” rather than a poet. He was very reticent, somewhat melancholy, and an invalid; a man also of vast erudition, being learned not only in literature but in botany, zoölogy, antiquities, architecture, art, history, and philosophy as well. He enjoyed the distinction of refusing the post of poet laureate, after the death of Cibber. On the other hand, he coveted the place of professor of modern literature and languages at Cambridge University, to which he was appointed in 1769; but he never performed any of the duties of his professorship beyond that of drawing the salary.  6
  He brought forth nothing in the special kinds of knowledge which he had acquired in such large measure; and the actual ideas conveyed in his poetry were not original, but savored rather of the commonplace. Lowell says of the ‘Elegy’ that it won its popularity “not through any originality of thought, but far more through originality of sound.” There must, however, be some deeper reason than this for the grasp which it has upon the minds and hearts of all classes. Two elements of power and popularity it certainly possessed in the highest degree. One is the singular simplicity of its language (a result of consummate art), which makes it understandable by everybody. The other is the depth and the sincerity of the emotion with which it imbues thoughts, sentiments, and reflections that are common to the whole of mankind. The very unproductiveness of Gray’s mind in other directions probably helped this one product. The quintessence of all his learning, his perceptive faculty, and his meditations was infused into the life-blood of this immortal poem.  7

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