Gray, Thomas (1716–1771)
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Thomas Gray was born in London and educated at Eton and Cambridge. His best-known work-“Elegy in a Country Churchyard”—has been popular since its publication in 1751. Gray was uncomfortable with the fame that the poem brought him; he spent most of his life in retirement in Cambridge, and in 1757 he refused the poet laureateship. The “Elegy” features a misunderstood poet who dies after seeming to be “crossed in hopeless love.” Early commentators read the “Elegy” in the light of Gray’s relationship with his school friend Richard West, whose death in 1742 seriously affected the poet; contemporary gay critics have argued that the poem investigates the boundaries between male friendship and homoerotic desire. A similar theme is present in Gray’s “Sonnet on the Death of Mr Richard West” and in his Latin elegy for West, “De Principiis Cogitandi” (The Principles of Thought). Gray’s English poetry contains frequent references to Latin and Greek homoerotic texts, and his letters and unpublished manuscripts display a similar interest in Greek and Latin homosexuality. He wrote commentaries on many of Plato’s Dialogues, and his letters use classical poetry to express his emotional dependence on male friends. These letters display a wit that is often lacking in Gray’s poetry. Besides Richard West, his most important friendships were with Horace Walpole and Charles-Victor de Bonstetten, a Swiss nobleman. Gray’s works-particu-larly his letters-are an important link between the ethical classicism of the early eighteenth century and the more emotionally inflected Hellenism of the Romantic period. Vincent Quinn


Gray, Thomas. The Correspondence of Thomas Gray . Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, eds. 3 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935. Rev. H.W. Starr, 1971.