Gray at Eton: a classical education
Thomas Gray’s love of poetry began while reading, studying and composing Latin verses at Eton.
Born in 1716, Gray was sent to be educated at Eton College in 1725 as an introverted and delicate boy of nine, encouraged by his beloved mother and helped by his uncles Robert and William Antrobus, who were both Assistant Masters at the school.
Eton had been founded as a grammar school, and the curriculum was based mainly on the grammatical study of Latin, translations from and into Latin and the repetition of verses by heart. Like the other boys, Gray learned his first Latin words from ‘Lily’s Grammar’, the standard textbook used in grammar schools since 1540, and later studied Cicero and other classics. In the higher forms he began translating English verses into Latin.
But a poet was emerging from the schoolboy.
Sudden fame: Gray’s Elegy in print
[I] am obliged to desire you would make Dodsley print it immediately (which may be done in less than a Week’s time) from your copy but without my name, in what form is most convenient for him, but in his best paper & character. He must correct the press himself, & print it without any interval between stanza’s […]; & the title must be, Elegy, wrote in a Country Church-yard. If he would add a line or two to say it came into his hands by accident, I should like it better.Letter from Thomas Gray to Horace Walpole, 11/12 February 1751.
On 12 June 1750, Gray enclosed in a letter to his school friend Horace Walpole a copy of a newly finished poem. Encouraged by Walpole, Gray circulated a few manuscript copies of the Elegy among their coterie, but without his name. Although his closest friends knew he was the author of the poem, Gray was actively trying to conceal his identity.
Before long, the verses ended up in the hands of some unscrupulous London printers, who to Gray’s dismay printed the poem without his authorisation. With support from Walpole, Gray immediately arranged for the London printer and poet Robert Dodsley to rush out an authorised but anonymous edition.
Gray’s manuscripts: The Elegy and The Ode
‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ had a profound effect on English poetry. Eton’s manuscript, Gray’s autograph draft, reveals uniquely the process of its composition.
‘Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College’ was written in the wake of the end of the Quadruple Alliance. In 1741 Gray became estranged for a time from Horace Walpole; a year later, Richard West died. The 25-year-old Gray found that his blissful years at Eton were already a distant prospect indeed. Gray spent the summer of 1742 with his aunt and uncle at Stoke Poges. From there he could look over the Thames to Eton College, three miles away.
Gray and Romanticism
Neoclassicism extolled order and rationality, Enlightenment ideals that chimed with the art and thought of the classical period. In contrast, it was believed that the touchstones of the “Dark Ages” were imagination, feeling and the wild world. Yet even in the mid-18th century a reaction was brewing which would make introspection and sensibility central to mainstream art once again. Though the Romantic movement in poetry would gather force at the end of the century, some of its most recognisable tropes can be found in the works of earlier poets, including Thomas Gray.
Some of the Romantics of the end of Gray’s century dismissed him as part of the poetic establishment. William Wordsworth was critical of Gray the neoclassicist, laying part of the blame at Eton’s door. Overshadowed by the new generation of Romantic poets, Gray’s role as a predecessor was overlooked.
It is ironic that one of Gray’s legacies to the Romantics was to revive the figure of the bard, a poet-prophet for the age. Into the 19th century the Romantics continued to cry out for that poet, some of them throwing their own hats into the ring. Perhaps, had he been born a little later or lived a little longer, that bard might have been Gray.