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Born in London, 1716; educated at Eton and Cambridge with Horace Walpole. From boyhood his health was delicate and he was subject to periods of gloom and depression. Something more than two years (1739-1741) spent in France and Italy brightened his mental tone and quickened his artistic sensibilities. His Ode to Spring (written in 1742), breaking away from the conventional eighteenth century forms the heroic couplet and the rimed octo-syllabic — marks the beginning of the return to freer lyrical movements. For many years he resided at Cambridge; his opinion of life at his alma mater may be gathered from the opening of his Hymn to Ignorance :
Hail, horrors, hail! ye ever gloomy bowers
Perhaps to escape these horrors he plunged into a severe and prolonged course of study which made him one of the most learned men and most accomplished critics in Europe. To the development of this critical faculty may be partly attributed the small amount of Gray's verse - for the critical and the creative faculties seem mutually destructive. His studies in Norse poetry opened up a field that is being vigorously worked to-day, while of the Elegy, did not Wolfe say, on the eve of Quebec, ‘I would prefer being the author of that poem to the glory of beating the French to-morrow'? In 1757 Gray had the good sense to decline the laureateship. In 1768 he was appointed to the sinecure Professorship of Modern Literature and Modern Languages at Cambridge, and never delivered any lectures. Three years later he died.
LIFE AND TIMES. — Gray is best studied in Gosse's 4-vol. edition (London, 1884), which gives the Poems, Journals, Essays, Letters, and Notes on Aristophanes and Plato. The Journal in the Lakes (in Vol. I.) is especially valuable as showing that Gray exploited the Lake Country before Wordsworth was born. The only good Life of Gray is also by Gosse (E. M. L.).
CRITICISM. — Matthew Arnold: Essays in Criticism, Second Series; Thomas Gray. Attributes Gray's scantiness of production to the fact that he lived in an age unfavorable to 'genuine poetry'— that is, poetry conceived and composed in the soul' as distinguished from poetry composed in the 'wits' (!).
Lowell : Latest Literary Essays and Addresses : Gray. Takes a much wider range than Arnold's Essay and is not tied to a theory. Classes Gray with Dryden as a 'well of English undefiled. Written in Lowell's best manner.
ELEGY WRITTEN IN A COUNTRY CHURCHYARD.
which was seven years a-making, was published in 1751 — within two years of The Vanity of Human Wishes. Johnson, a severe and unsympathetic critic of Gray, confesses that “The “Churchyard,” abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.' This is undoubtedly the chief cause of the wide-spread popularity of this poem; a secondary cause is the exquisite felicity of the diction. Perhaps the two may be summed up in Pope's line:
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well expressed.
While it would be easy to point to exemplars for many of Gray's famous lines, the fact remains that the thought lives, not in other men's phrases, but in his. In this lies his triumph as an artist.
The curfew. See note on Il Penseroso, 74-84. The second stanza owes something, perhaps, to the third stanza of Collins' Ode To Evening :
Now air is hushed, save where the weak-eyed bat
Or where the beetle winds
The moping owl. Compare Tennyson's two songs, The Owl. reign realm.
13-20. Notice the love of Nature, which we saw in Thomson, reappearing here. From this time on, we shall find it becoming more and more prominent in English verse.
21-24. Compare the third stanza of Burns' Cotter's Saturday Night.
25-56. storied urn; an urn on which a story is carved. imated life-like. provoke call forth, arouse.
57-60. Hampden. John Hampden, a wealthy country gentleman, refused to pay the illegal ship-money tax levied by Charles I. He was the first cousin of Oliver Cromwell, and, so far as we can judge, a man of scarcely less ability than the Protector himself.
He was wounded in a skirmish at Chalgrove Field in June, 1643, and died within a few days. His death was a national calamity. Since the publication of Carlyle's Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches (1845) no intelligent person has ventured to uphold the view of Cromwell approved by Gray.
61-92. madding raging, distracted. Comparemadded,’ Vanity of Human Wishes, line 30. uncouth. See note on L'Allegro, 5. rimes. See note on Lycidas II. elegy. The eighteenth century was much given to elegy and epitaph writing - as the disfigured walls of Westminster Abbey testify. to dumb Forgetfulness seems best taken as indirect object with resigned. In lines 89-92, some critics find a regular climax in thought. Do you agree with this interpretation, or do you find it far-fetched? Johnson finely said of lines 77-92 ::- Had Gray written often thus, it had been vain to blame and useless to praise him.'
93-128. chance =perchance. Contemplation; compare Il Penseroso, 51-54.
wan may mean either ‘pale' or • sad. In Old English it generally means dark' or 'gloomy.' forlorn. The prefix in this word is merely intensive; in ‘forbid' it is negative. · Lorn' is from the Old English • leósan,' to lose; compare the German ‘ verloren.' for thou canst read. Reading was not a common accomplishment in eighteenth century England, nor is it as common in the United States to-day as it is in Prussia and Saxony. lay is generally associated with the idea of music and seems an inappropriate word for an Epitaph. In Gray's manuscript, after line 116, came the following:
There scattered oft, the earliest of the year,
By hands unseen, are showers of violets found;
And little footsteps lightly print the ground. This beautiful stanza — enough to make the fortune of an ordinary poet, as Lowell says — Gray relentlessly cut out, because he thought it too long a parenthesis in this place. Had other poets shown a tithe of this artistic'conscientiousness, how many tons of verse would the world have been happily spared !
'Gray worked at this poem through some two years and a half; in 1757, with the Ode on the Progress of Poesy, it was ‘ Printed at Strawberry Hill for R. & J. Dodsley, in Pall Mall.' Though many 'Pindaric Odes’ had been published in England before this time, these are the first that give the English reader an idea of the real manner of Pindar. The argument of the Ode is best given in Gray's own words: ‘The army of Edward I., as they march through a deep valley, are suddenly stopped by the appearance of a venerable figure seated on the summit of an inaccessible rock, who, with a voice more than human, reproaches the King with all the misery and desolation which he had brought on his country; foretells the misfortunes of the Norman race, an with prophetic spirit declares that all his cruelty shall never extinguish the noble ardour of poetic genius in this island; and that men shall never be wanting to celebrate true virtue and valour in immortal strains, to expose vice and infamous pleasure, and boldly censure tyranny and oppression. His song ended, he precipitates himself from the mountain and is swallowed up by the river that rolls at its foot.'
Metrically, the poem is divided into three Pericopes or groups of systems (1-48, 49-96, 97–144). Each Pericope is divided into Strophe, Antistrophe and Epode. Thus, in Pericope I., the Strophe is I-14, the Antistrophe is 15-28, the Epode is 29–48. The metrical arrangement of the Antistrophe corresponds with that of the Strophe; that of the Epode is a law unto itself and in Gray's time was considered an unintelligible experiment.
1-14. ruthless King. “This Ode is founded on a tradition current in Wales, that Edward the First, when he completed the conquest of that country, ordered all the Bards that fell into his hands to be put to death.' — Gray.
hauberk. · The hauberk was a texture of steel ringlets, or rings, interwoven, forming a coat of mail, that sat close to the body and adapted itself to every motion.'. Gray. Cambria. Latin name for Wales. Snowdon. The suffix in this word is of Keltic origin and signifies' hill’or “mound.' It appears as a prefix in Dumbarton, Dunstable.
Glo'ster; Mortimer. • They both were Lord Marchers, whose lands lay on the borders of Wales, and probably accompanied the King in this expedition.' – Gray.
15-28. Loose his beard, etc. *This image was taken from a wellknown picture of Raphael, representing the Supreme Being, in the vision of Ezekiel.' – Gray. Hoel; Llewellyn; Welsh bards.
29-48. Cadwallo, Urien, Modred [Merlyn?], are probably as real as King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Plinlimmon; in central Wales. Arvon. The shores of Caernarvonshire opposite the island of Anglesey.' — Gray. See note on Lycidas, 54.
49-62. agonizing King. Edward 11. (the first English Prince of Wales) was murdered at Berkeley Castle in 1327. She-wolf of France; Isabelle, daughter of Philip the Fair, and wife of Edward II., is accused of having contrived the murder of her husband. The scourge of heaven; Edward 111., who began the Hundred Years' War against the French and defeated them in the great battle of Crécy (1346).
63-76. Mighty Victor. The vigorous faculties of Edward III. were seriously impaired some time before his death (1377). He came under the evil influence of an unworthy woman, who is said to have robbed and deserted him on his death-bed. the Sable Warrior; Edward the Black Prince, who died the year before his father. Fair laughs the Morn. “Magnificence of Richard the Second's reign [1377-1399). See Froissart and other contemporary writers.' – Gray.
77-96. Reft of a crown. Richard 11. was deposed by Parliament in favor of his cousin Henry of Bolingbroke, who, it is alleged,
caused him to be starved to death. Shakespeare represents him as assassinated by Sir Pierce of Exton (Richard II. v. 5). Long years of havock; the. wars of the Roses, London's lasting shame; ‘Henry VI., George Duke of Clarence, Edward v., Richard Duke of York, etc., believed to be murthered secretly in the Tower of London. The oldest part of that Structure is vulgarly attributed to Julius Cæsar.' – Gray. his Consort's faith ; ‘Margaret of Anjou, a woman of heroic spirit, who struggled hard to save her Husband and her Crown.' – Gray. She appears in Scott's Anne of Geierstein, in the three parts of Shakespeare's Henry vi. and in his Richard
his Father's fame; Henry v. the meek Usurper; Henry vi. Gray calls him “Usurper' because his grandfather Henry iv. was not the hereditary heir to the crown. But Henry iv. was no usurper, for he was practically elected by Parliament, as was William iii. nearly three hundred years later.
the rose of snow; the device of York. her blushing foe; the red rose of Lancaster. See i Henry vi. ii. 4. In later times the white rose became the Stuart emblem. Compare the opening lines of the Cavaliers' Chorus in the opera of Villiers, ii. 3 :
There's not a flower that blooms a-field
A nation's king hath died for thee,
The bristled Boar was the badge of Richard III., who caused his two little nephews to be murdered in the tower.
97-110. Half of thy heart; Eleanor of Castile, the devoted wife of Edward 1. She died many years before her husband. Arthur. “It was the common belief of the Welsh nation, that King Arthur was still alive in Fairy-Land and should return again to reign over Britain.' - Gray. genuine Kings. Consult an English History for Henry vir.'s claim to the throne (1485).
111-124 a Form divine. Queen Elizabeth. lion-port goes comically with virgin-grace. Gray is stiff at a compliment, compared with the subtle and graceful Shakespeare:
between the cold moon and the earth Cupid all armed. A certain aim he took At a fair vestal throned by the west;