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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

VI. Gray

§ 1. Gray’s family and life

THOMAS GRAY, a poet whose influence upon subsequent literature was largely in excess of the volume of his published works, was born in Cornhill, 26 December, 1716. His father, Philip Gray, was an exchange broker, but seems to have combined with this other and more hazardous pursuits. He was a selfish, despotic, ill-tempered man, passionate even to the verge of lunacy. He owned the house in which the poet was born, and, about the year 1706, let it, and the shop connected with it, to two sisters, Mary and Dorothy Antrobus, milliners. At the same date, approximately, he married Dorothy and came to live with her and Mary. Thomas Gray was the fifth and only surviving child of this marriage; the rest, to the number of seven, died in infancy; and his own life was saved by the prompt courage of his mother, who opened one of his veins with her own hand.

Dorothy Gray had two brothers, Robert and William Antrobus. Robert was a fellow of Peterhouse, and had a considerable reputation at Cambridge. He was Gray’s first teacher, not only in classical knowledge, but, also, in the study of natural history, especially botany, and imbued his nephew with a life-long passion for scientific observation of the minutest kind in almost every department of vegetable and animal life. Robert Antrobus was sometime assistant master at Eton, but had probably resigned before Gray entered the school in 1727. The poet’s tutor there was William, Robert’s younger brother.

During the earlier part of his stay at Eton, Gray, probably, was housed with his uncle Robert, then residing in retirement either in the town or in the college precincts. As an oppidan, the delicate boy had not to endure the hardships of the colleger, and the horrors of Long Chamber. His chief friend there, in the first instance, was Horace, son of Sir Robert Walpole, the prime minister, of whose wife his cousin Dorothy was a humble intimate. Another of his Eton contemporaries was Richard West, son of the lord chancellor of Ireland, and grandson of bishop Burnet. At Eton, West was accounted the most brilliant of the little coterie formed by the three and Ashton, afterwards fellow of King’s and of Eton, and called the quadruple alliance. A scholar, with a thin vein of poetry, West was absent-minded, with a tendency to melancholy, to some extent resembling Gray’s own, and he died prematurely in 1742.

The year 1734 brought a dislocation of the alliance. Gray went for a time to Pembroke college, Cambridge, pending his admission to Peterhouse in July. In March, 1735, West went to Christ Church, Oxford, whence he wrote to Gray, 14 November, 1735:

  • Consider me very seriously here in a strange country inhabited by things that call themselves doctors and masters of arts; a country flowing with syllogisms and ale, where Horace and Virgil are equally unknown.
  • But, as a matter of fact, all these young Etonians exhibit a petulance for which youth is the only excuse; and Gray himself writes, “It is very possible that two and two make four, but I would not give four farthings to demonstrate this ever so clearly.” Then follows the splenetic outburst:
  • Surely it was of this place, now Cambridge, but formerly known as Babylon, that the prophet spoke when he said “the wild beasts of the desert shall dwell there, and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures, and owls shall build there, and satyrs shall dance there; their forts and towers shall be a den for ever, a joy of wild asses; there shall the great owl make her nest, and lay and hatch and gather under her shadow; it shall be a court of dragons; the screech owl also shall nest there, and find for herself a place of rest.”
  • But he was saved from the temptation to dilettantism, which beset his friends, by the scientific bias which his uncle Robert had given him, and which would have found quick recognition and encouragement in the Cambridge of another day. Late in life, he regretted his early neglect of mathematics, and dreamt even then of pursuing it, while he lamented that it was generally laid aside at Cambridge so soon as it had served to get men a degree.