Eton College Library is marking the 250th anniversary of Thomas Gray’s death (30 July 1771) with the launch of the special online exhibition Eton’s Bard: Thomas Gray and his Elegy in June 2021, with a physical exhibition to follow in the autumn.
Divided into four main sections, this online exhibition traces the life of this influential English writer from young Etonian to respected poet through the verses that he published, the books that he annotated and the remarkable draft manuscripts in the College Library collection.
The star item is Eton’s copy of Gray’s original manuscript of his most famous work, the ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, a poem which had a profound effect on English and European poetry. Gray worked on the poem for at least four years, and College Library’s autograph draft preserves a pivotal moment in its evolution when he replaced the final four stanzas with the ten stanzas of its final and well-loved form.
The exhibition showcases items from the library’s Thomas Gray collection to tell the story of how his love of poetry began as a student of the classics at Eton, and how the widespread success of the Elegy was partly due to the unscrupulous printers who brought out unauthorised and pirated edition. In his later work he turned to more medieval and mythological themes in which the figure of the bard, a poet-prophet separated from the establishment and speaking historic and prophetic truths, proved especially influential on the Romantic writers and poets of a later generation.
Like the solitary bard, the delicate and introspective Gray loved indulging in picturesque settings and keeping written accounts of his travels and encounters. His appreciation of nature was scientific as well as aesthetic. In a copy of a printed Naturalist’s Journal Gray recorded the wind, the weather, plants and animal species and added his own observations in Latin and English.
The online exhibition was launched on the occasion of the opening of an art display held on 21-25 June 2021 in Stoke Poges Church where the poet is buried, with contributions from the Eton College Collections, Gray’s two colleges in Cambridge and other institutions and private lenders. Alongside an enriching and educational tour of paintings, prints and drawings, including responses to portraits of the poet by local schoolchildren, visitors were able to immerse themselves in Gray’s world and whisper his verses while walking through the same churchyard where tradition has it that the poet wrote his famous Elegy.
By Laura Carnelos, Library Curator