In 1734, Gray went to Cambridge. At first he stayed in Pembroke College, moving to Peterhouse, but he found the curriculum dull. He wrote letters to his friends listing all the things he disliked: the masters ("mad with Pride") and the Fellows ("sleepy, drunken, dull, illiterate Things.") Supposedly he was intended for the law, but in fact he spent his time as an undergraduate reading classical and modern literature and playing Vivaldi and Scarlatti on the harpsichord for relaxation. In 1738 he accompanied his old school-friend Walpole on his Grand Tour, probably at Walpole's expense. They fell out and parted in Tuscany because Walpole wanted to attend fashionable parties and Gray wanted to visit all the antiquities. However, they were reconciled a few years later.
Gray spent most of his life as a scholar in Cambridge, and only later in his life did he begin travelling again. Although he was one of the least productive poets (his collected works published during his lifetime amount to less than 1,000 lines), he is regarded as the predominant poetic figure of the mid-18th century. In 1757, he was offered the post of Poet Laureate, which he refused. In 1768, he succeeded Lawrence Brockett as Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge, a sinecure.
Gray was so self critical and fearful of failure that he only published 13 poems during his lifetime, and once wrote that he feared his collected works would be "mistaken for the works of a flea." Walpole said that "He never wrote anything easily but things of Humour."
The Elegy was recognised immediately for its beauty and skill, and the Churchyard Poets are so named because they wrote in the shadow of Gray's great poem. It contains many outstanding phrases which have entered the common English lexicon, either on their own or as referenced in other works. A few of these include:
Gray also wrote light verse, such as Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes, a mock elegy concerning Horace Walpole's cat. After setting the scene with the couplet "What female heart can gold despise? What cat's averse to fish?", the poem moves to its multiple proverbial conclusion: "a fav'rite has no friend", "[k]now one false step is ne'er retrieved" and ""nor all that glisters, gold". (Walpole later displayed the fatal china vase on a pedestal at his house in Strawberry Hill.) Gray’s surviving letters also show his sharp observation and playful sense of humour.
He is also well known for his statement that "where ignorance is bliss, 'tis folly to be wise," from his 1742 Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.
Gray himself considered his two Pindaric odes, The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, his best works. Pindaric odes are written with great fire and passion, unlike the calmer and more reflective Horatian odes such as Ode on a distant Prospect of Eton College. The Bard tells of a wild Welsh poet cursing Edward I after the conquest of Wales and prophesying in detail the downfall of the House of Plantagenet. It is very melodramatic, and ends with the bard hurling himself to his death from the top of a mountain.
When his duties allowed, Gray travelled widely throughout Britain to places like Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Scotland in search of picturesque scenery and ancient monuments. These things were not generally valued in the early eighteenth century, when the popular taste ran to classical styles in architecture and literature and people liked their scenery tame and well-tended. Some people have seen Gray’s writings on this topic, and the Gothic details that appear in his Elegy and The Bard as the first foreshadowing of the Romantic movement that dominated the early nineteenth century, when William Wordsworth and the other Lake poets had taught people to value the picturesque, the sublime, and the Gothic. Gray combined traditional forms and poetic diction with new topics and modes of expression and may be considered as a classically focussed precursor of the romantic revival.
Interestingly, however, Gray's connection to the Romantic poets is vexed. In the prefaces to the 1800 and 1802 editions of Wordsworths' and Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth singled out Gray's "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West" to exemplify what he found most objectionable in poetry, declaring it was "Gray, who was at the head of those who, by their reasonings, have attempted to widen the space of separation betwixt prose and metrical composition, and was more than any other man curiously elaborate in the structure of his own poetic diction. Indeed, it was Gray who had written, in a letter to West, that "the language of the age is never the language of poetry.
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