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Thomas Gray

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English Literature

You've probably used or at least heard of the phrase “ignorance is bliss” at some point in your life. But do you know where it comes from? English poet Thomas Gray (1716–1771) was one of the most influential poets of the eighteenth century, and many of the phrases he used in his poetry – including “ignorance is bliss” from his poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (1742) – are ones we still use today.

Gray is largely seen as the precursor to the Romantic poets for his gothic and introspective writing style. His “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751) is considered to be one of the finest elegies in English literature. However, very few people actually know about Gray because he was very self-critical and only published 13 poems in his lifetime.

Content warning: Contains themes of domestic violence.

Thomas Gray Biography

Thomas Gray was born in 1716 in London to a wealthy but troubled family. His father was a scrivener (a scribe/notary) and his mother was a co-proprietor of a millinery business, selling fine hats with her sister. Gray was the fifth of their twelve children, but he was the only one to survive past childhood.

His mother and father’s marriage was volatile, as his father was mentally ill and violent. After the two married, his father, Philip Gray, allowed his wife and her sister to continue running the millinery business out of the basement of his home. However, he threatened to evict them when he was angry. He was jealous of his wife’s sister and physically abusive to his wife.

When he was eight years old, Thomas Gray was sent to Eton College, where two of his mother’s brothers worked. His mother paid for his education with the profits from her millinery business, but his father refused to share the financial costs. At school, Gray’s uncle, Robert Antrobus, was his first teacher. Antrobus instilled a lifelong love of botany in the young Gray, but instead of continuing to become a physician as his uncle had hoped, Gray fell deeply in love with literature.

At Eton College, Gray became incredibly close with three of his peers: Horace Walpole, the son of the then-prime minister Robert Walpole; Richard West, the only son of a politician who was briefly Lord Chancellor of Ireland; and Thomas Ashton, the son of a schoolmaster. The group of boys called themselves the “quadruple alliance” and prided themselves on their humor, wit, and appreciation of beauty.

After Eton, Gray continued his education at Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he was expected to study law. His father still refused to contribute to his education, escalating the tension between his parents. In 1736, Gray decided not to pursue a BA degree, and in 1738, Gray left Cambridge without a degree. Instead, he and Walpole toured the continent, exploring France, Switzerland, and Italy together from 1739 to 1741.

The continental tour went well until 1741 when Gray and Walpole got into an argument on their way to Venice and split, each proceeding to Venice separately. Years later, the two reconciled, and Walpole helped Gray publish his poetry, but the two were never as close again.

Many scholars and historians believe Gray was homosexual and that Walpole was his first true love. Gray and Walpole’s close circle of friends were known to have had desires for members of the same sex, but none of them were explicitly identified as sodomites (the term at the time, referring to the biblical city of Sodom, which was destroyed for its wickedness). Some biographers have speculated that Walpole and Gray’s separation during the continental tour was due to a lover’s quarrel.

Later in his life, Gray’s letters to young Swiss writer and aristocrat Charles Victor de Bonstetten were explicitly romantic and amorous, giving further evidence to the claim that Gray was gay.

Being gay in eighteenth-century England was a crime punishable by death. In 1861, the punishment became life imprisonment, and after 1885, it was reduced to two years’ incarceration. Many scholars believe Grays work is muted and subdued in comparison to other writers at the time due to fears over the consequences of homosexuality.

West and Gray had long shared a commitment to prepare for a career in law together. After Wests death in 1742, Gray no longer felt that obligation, so he began to focus on his literary studies. He moved back to Cambridge and started a self-directed program studying literature. It was during this time at Cambridge that Gray wrote much of his most famous poetry. He wrote “Ode on the Spring” (1748), “Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West” (1775), “Ode to Adversity” (1753), and “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” (1747) during this time. He also began work on his most famous poem, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” in 1742, which was partly inspired by West’s death.

Thomas Gray, After West's death, Gray abandoned his study of the law and began to focus his attention on studying and writing poetry, StudySmarterAfter Wests death, Gray abandoned his study of the law and began to focus his attention on studying and writing poetry, Pixabay

Gray began publishing poems in 1747 with “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” and in 1748 with “Ode on the Spring,” but he didn't receive any recognition until “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was published in 1751. “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” proved to be an instant success, and the positive reviews were overwhelming. Despite his newfound celebrity, Gray stayed at Peterhouse, Cambridge, until 1756. When students played a prank on him, Gray left for Pembroke College in an outrage.

He published two odes in 1757, “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard,” but they were both criticized for being obscure. Disappointed and incredibly self-critical, Gray stopped writing lyrics and studying the history of English poetry altogether. Instead, he buried himself in the study of medieval buildings and Scandinavian antiquity. In 1757, Gray was offered the laureateship but refused it. He wrote relatively little for the rest of his life.

Gray died in 1771 in Cambridge at the age of 55. He was buried next to his mother in the churchyard of St Giles’ Church at Stoke Poges, which many scholars think is the setting of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.”

Thomas Gray’s Writing Style

Thomas Gray’s writing style is diverse, even though his poems are few. Despite his immense popularity, Gray only published 13 poems in his lifetime, equating to less than 1000 lines of poetry. But the poetry he did publish was varied, highly accomplished, and deeply influential.

Gray is famous for writing Pindaric odes, Horatian odes, and, of course, an elegy.

Pindaric odes are fiery, passionate poems, historically written to honor the triumph of a ruler or athlete.

Gray considered his Pindaric odes, “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard,” to be his best works.

Horatian odes, on the other hand, are light and personal. Gray‘s “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” is reflective and personal but lacks the fire of his Pindaric odes.

Gray is often considered a precursor to the Romantic movement for his Gothic descriptions in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” and “The Bard.” He also sought inspiration from the picturesque setting in the Lake District, as did the Lake Poets of the Romantic movement, such as William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey.

However, Wordsworth himself claimed that Gray‘s “Sonnet on the Death of Richard West” (1775) was the prime example of what was objectionable in English poetry and that Gray spoke in the wrong language. The extent of Gray’s influence on the Romantic movement is debated by scholars, but his impact on eighteenth-century English poetry is undeniable.

Thomas Gray’s Poems and Summaries

Here are two of Thomas Gray’s most influential poems.

“Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” (1751)

Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was the poem that launched Gray into literary acclaim. Gray started writing the poem in 1742 after his closest friend’s death, but it wasn't published until 1751. This elegy is noteworthy because it praises the lives of common, ordinary people instead of famous historical figures.

The setting of Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is a rural graveyard at sunset. The speaker walks among the graves and considers the lives of the ordinary people buried there. He notes that there is no distinction between common and "great" people in death and that the elaborate tombs of the rich won’t bring their inhabitants back to life.

He goes on to wonder what kind of life the ordinary people buried in the churchyard could have lived if they were born into privilege and wealth. The poem ends with the speaker contemplating his own mortality and the epitaph he wants on his grave. The themes of the poem include life and death, privilege, and commemoration of the dead.

Although scholars believe Gray started writing Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard after West’s death in 1742, he allegedly shelved the poem for years out of fear of his own failure. After his aunt’s death in 1749 and Walpole’s near-death experience a few weeks later, Gray started seriously considering his own mortality and expounding on his original ideas from 1742.

Gray moved to Stoke Poges near St Giles’ Parish Church in early June of 1750 and finished the long-awaited “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” nine days later. Many scholars think St. Giles’ Church is the setting of the poem, as it is in the country, has a cemetery, and was predominately a church for the ordinary. Gray, his aunt, and his mother are buried there.

Thomas Gray, The speaker ponders life and death at a cemetery at sunset, StudySmaterThe speaker ponders life and death at a cemetery at sunset, Pexels

“The Bard” (1757)

“The Bard” is a fictional account between a Welsh bard and Edward I as the latter conquered Wales. Historically, the conquest of Wales by Edward I occurred from 1277 to 1283. Edward I had Welsh bards put to death in order to maintain control of the narrative and prevent them from telling their history on the conquest.

In the poem, Gray imagines an encounter between the last bard of Wales and Edward I as his army marched victoriously through the Snowdonian mountains. The bard curses the king and prophesies his ultimate defeat. In one act of defiance, the bard throws himself into the river Conway and drowns. The poem deals with themes of oppression, freedom, and power.

Thomas Gray Famous Quotes and Phrases

Where ignorance is bliss,

’Tis folly to be wise.

This quote is taken from the last stanza of “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.” It is the first recorded use of the phrase “ignorance is bliss,” which is now widely used throughout the English language. “Ignorance is bliss” means that if you don’t know about something, then there is no reason to worry about it. Generally, knowledge is seen as a good thing necessary to get through life. But with knowledge also comes pain, fear, and responsibilities. Here, Gray asserts that life is easier if you are ignorant and more painful if you’re wise.

The Paths of Glory

This phrase comes from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” The line reads, “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.” Gray argues that even those who live big, important, luxurious lives still end up dying in the same way ordinary people do. Glory leads nowhere in death. This phrase is the title of the 1957 American anti-war film Paths of Glory.

Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

This quote is also taken from “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” It reflects on the lives of ordinary people who live and die unnoticed by most of the world. Just like flowers that bloom in the desert where no one sees them, most people live intimate lives full of talent, heroism, and passion that the majority of the world will never see. But just because most people go unnoticed and unpraised throughout history doesnt make their lives or their good deeds any less valuable than those who are famous and receive all the recognition.

Thomas Gray - Key takeaways

  • Thomas Gray was an English poet famous for his elegy, Pindaric odes, and Horatian odes.
  • He was born in 1716 in Cornhill, London, and received his education at Eton College and Cambridge.
  • He only published 13 poems in his lifetime because he was deeply self-critical and afraid of failure.
  • His Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard is considered one of the finest elegies in English literature.
  • Grays themes focused largely on life and death, sexuality, the past, anonymity, and oppression.

Thomas Gray

Thomas Gray was born in London. 

Thomas Gray is important for his influential, accomplished poetry. He is known for writing Pindaric odes, Horatian odes, and an elegy. His “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is widely considered as one of the best elegies in English literature. 

Thomas Gray is a graveyard poet because of his contemplation of death, especially in “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard.” He is also largely thought of as a precursor to the Romantic movement. 

Gray’s purpose in writing “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was to memorialize the ordinary and show that their life had meaning, even if they never accomplished anything significant.

'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' is his most famous poem. 

Final Thomas Gray Quiz

Question

Who was Thomas Gray?

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Answer

Thomas Gray was an English poet who is famous for his elegy, 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' as well as his odes. He was alive from 1716-1771. 

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What was Gray's childhood like? 

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Gray's parents had a troubled marriage. He was the only one to survive past infancy out of their 12 children. His mother paid for him to attend Eton College at the age of 8, using money from her millinery business. 

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What kind of education did Gray receive at Eton College? 

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His first teacher was his uncle, who instilled in him a lifelong love of botany. Gray also feel in love with classical literature and spent much of his free time reading instead of playing sports. 

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What influential people did Gray meet at Eton College? 

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Gray met three of his closest friends at Eton. They were: Horace Walpole, the son of the then-prime minister Robert Walpole; Richard West, the only son of a politician who was briefly Lord Chancellor of Ireland; and Thomas Ashton, the son of a schoolmaster. The group of boys called themselves the "quadruple alliance." 

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Where did Gray go after Eton? 

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Gray went to  Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he was expected to study law. He left Cambridge in 1738 without obtaining a degree. 

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What did Gray do after his first time at Cambridge? 

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Gray and Walpole went on a continental tour together for 2 years. The trip was curtailed when the two got in an argument and each went home separately. 

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When did Gray start writing poetry seriously? 

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After his closest friend West died in 1742, Gray stopped studying for law school and start writing poetry. He returned to Cambridge for a literary program and began publishing poems in 1747.

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When did Gray finally get recognized for his poetry? 

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Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' was published in 1751, and it was a huge success. It made Gray a popular poet in his own time and has cemented his legacy as a deeply influential 18th century poet. 

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What was Gray's writing style? 

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Grays writing style was diverse, covering everything from odes to elegies. He is known as the precursor to the Romantic poets. 

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Where did the saying "ignorance is bliss" come from?

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Answer

It originated in Gray's 'Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.' The last two lines read, "where ignorance is bliss,

       'Tis folly to be wise." 

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What is 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'?

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'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' is English poet Thomas Gray's most popular poem, and it is now considered one of the finest elegies in the English language. 

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Who wrote 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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English poet Thomas Gray wrote the poem. He started it in 1742 following the death of his closest friend and finished it in 1750 after moving to Stoke Poges. 

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What was the inspiration behind 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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Most scholars think Gray started writing 'Elegy' after his friend Richard West died in 1742. Gray was also inspired by his aunt's death and his close friend, Walpole,'s near death experience. The poem allowed him to reflect on the deaths of his loved ones and his own mortality. 

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What is the setting of 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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It is a rural cemetery at sunset. Many scholars believe St. Giles Church at Stoke Poges is the actual setting, but that has been debated. It is where Gray, his mother, and his aunt are buried. 

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What is 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' about? 

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'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' reflects on the death of common people. The speaker considers their lives and how they would have been different if they were born into more favorable circumstances. Then he reflects on the wealthy's elaborate graves, which do nothing to bring them back to life. He says death comes for everyone. 

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What does the speaker in 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' say about famous and exceptional people? 

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He says that even paths of glory lead to the grave. No amount of money, fame, or status can save a person from death. And wasting money on elaborate tombs won't bring them back to life. 

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What does the speaker say about poor people? 

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He says that their position in life is dependent entirely upon their circumstances and status at birth. He wonders if any of them could have been famous poets or politicians if they were given the chance. But lack of education and need for labor kept them in their lowly positions. 

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How does the speaker want to be remembered after his own death? 

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He wants to be remembered as someone who loved and respected nature. Owing to nature's cyclical relationship with life, he finds peace in existing in harmony with the natural world. 

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What allusions does the speaker make in 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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He says that the villagers could have been famous like Milton, Hampden, or Cromwell if they were given the opportunities. All three men came from well know families, and all played an important part in the English Civil War. Milton was also a famous poet. 

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What are the themes in 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard'? 

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The Universality of Death 

Social Class and Human Value

Nature as a Cyclical Reflection of Life

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