British and Irish Literature Thomas Gray
Adam Rounce
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 20 September 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0027


Thomas Gray (b. 1716–d. 1771) is one of the most significant English poets from the time of Alexander Pope’s death to the emergence of Blake and Wordsworth at the end of the 18th century. Gray’s life was relatively uneventful: his time at Eton introduced him to important friends, including Horace Walpole, with whom Gray would go on the Grand Tour, and Richard West, whose early death in 1742 caused Gray much lasting grief. Gray went to Cambridge as a student and stayed, as a fellow-commoner, for most of his life, living quietly and reading voluminously. His first important poems (including the “Eton College Ode”) were written and published in the 1740s; in 1751 Gray published Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, one of the most famous and widely read of all English poems. After the publication in 1757 of his two Pindaric Odes, “The Progress of Poesy” and “The Bard,” which were both praised for their sublime power and mocked for pretension and deliberate obscurity, Gray wrote little poetry. Apart from the publication of his Collected Poems in 1768, Gray’s later years are also notable for what has been seen (along with his friendship with Richard West) as the most intimate relationship of his life, with the young Swiss noblemen Charles-Victor Bonstetten, whom Gray saw from 1769 to 1770. The high praise given to Gray in his lifetime was reflected in the outraged response to Samuel Johnson’s criticism of the poet’s character and works (the Elegy aside) in the Lives of the Poets (1781). Gray’s friend and executor, the poet William Mason, put together a posthumous edition and biography (1775) that showed the richness of Gray’s letters (even in mutilated form), and Victorian scholars such as John Mitford and Edmund Gosse carried on such work in popular reprints and essays. Yet Gray’s reputation was somewhat eclipsed by the emergence of the Romantic poets: the Elegy has always held a central place in English poetry, but much of Gray’s other work was overlooked or denigrated as being in some ways “pre-Romantic,” or as merely anticipating later, more successful writers. This trend was rebuffed in the 20th century, when a rich body of scholarly editions (especially Starr 1966 and Lonsdale 1969, cited under Editions) and criticism examined all of Gray’s works with consistent if never prolific attention.

General Overviews

Of these works the most basic book-length introduction is Golden 1988; Lonsdale 1973 and Spacks 1967 offer surveys of the poet and his work using traditional critical approaches. By the 1990s, the materialist and theoretical focus of Kaul 1992 and the modern psychological portrait (Gleckner 1997) are in many ways a challenge to the terms of such older criticism, even if its style continues in the close readings of McCarthy 1997.

  • Gleckner, Robert F. Gray Agonistes: Thomas Gray and Masculine Friendship. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

    A psychological study on a double anxiety: the shade of Milton, and Gray’s repeated attempts to move beyond this gigantic poetic example; and Gray’s sexuality, his love for Richard West, and his inability to express his true feelings in life or art. The readings repeatedly find encoded, cryptic meanings and allusions that link these dual narratives.

  • Golden, Morris. Thomas Gray. New York: Twayne, 1988.

    In some ways dated, this remains a good introduction and praises Gray’s “craftsmanship,” which compensates for his “lack of deeply passional involvement” in his poetry. Originally published in 1964.

  • Kaul, Suvir. Thomas Gray and Literary Authority: A Study in Ideology and Poetics. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.

    A theoretical and materialist approach toward Gray’s poetry that proceeds, for the most part, by examining the contradictions and ideological positions underpinning his position as author and his attempt to claim poetic authority, in the light of the “vocational crisis” of the literary marketplace, the “cultural alienation” signaled in the Elegy and elsewhere, and his ambivalence toward his public role.

  • Lonsdale, Roger. “The Poetry of Thomas Gray: Versions of the Self.” Proceedings of the British Academy 59 (1973): 105–123.

    A discussion of Gray’s thwarted self-expression, refuting Empson’s well-known charge of calm, and finding instead a “dimly understood sense of a private predicament” (including an inability to fully make emotional connections, e.g., with Bonstetten) that was the “real spring of his creativity.”

  • McCarthy, B. Eugene. Thomas Gray: The Progress of a Poet. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1997.

    Pays special attention to composition and poetics, and tries to give a balanced sense of the whole of Gray’s career through his writings. Useful for particular passages of sustained analysis.

  • Spacks, Patricia M. The Poetry of Vision: Five Eighteenth-Century Poets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1967.

    In an essay (pp. 90–118) that introduced Gray to many undergraduates, this finds a concealing, distancing diction in the early poetry, and a generally defensive use of language and rhetoric in the poet’s role.

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