Thomas Gray was born in Cornhill, London, the son of an exchange broker and a milliner. He was the fifth of 12 children and the only child of Philip and Dorothy Gray to survive infancy. He lived with his mother after she left his abusive father. He was educated at Eton College where his uncle was one of the masters. He recalled his schooldays as a time of great happiness, as is evident in his Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. Gray was a delicate and naturally scholarly boy who spent his time reading great literature and avoiding athletics. It was probably fortunate for the young and sensitive Gray that he was able to live in his uncle’s household rather than at college. He made three close friends at Eton: Horace Walpole, son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, Thomas Ashton, and Richard West. The four of them prided themselves on their sense of style, their sense of humour, and their appreciation of beauty. Gray died on 30 July 1771 in Cambridge and was buried beside his mother in the churchyard of Stoke Poges, the setting for his famous Elegy. His grave can still be seen there. There is a plaque in Cornhill, marking his birthplace. It is believed that Gray wrote his masterpiece, the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, in the graveyard of the church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, in 1750. The poem was a literary sensation when published by Robert Dodsley in February 1751 (see 1751 in poetry) and has made a lasting contribution to English literature. Its reflective, calm and stoic tone was greatly admired, and it was pirated, imitated, quoted and translated into Latin and Greek. It is still one of the most popular and most frequently quoted poems in the English language. In 1759 during the Seven Years War, before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, British General James Wolfe is said to have recited it to his officers, adding: "Gentlemen, I would rather have written that poem than take Quebec tomorrow". The poem's famous depiction of an "ivy-mantled tow'r" could be a reference to the early-medieval St. Laurence's Church in Upton, Slough. Monument inscribed with the Elegy in Stoke Poges
The Elegy was recognised immediately for its beauty and skill. It contains many outstanding phrases which have entered the common English lexicon, either on their own or as quoted in other works. A few of these include:
"ELEGY WRITTEN IN
A COUNTRY CHURCH-YARD"
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
Now fades the glimmering landscape on the sight,
And all the air a solemn stillness holds,
Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,
And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds:
Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tower
The moping owl does to the moon complain
Of such as, wandering near her secret bower,
Molest her ancient solitary reign.
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree's shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude Forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock's shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire's return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share,
Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield,
Their furrow oft the stubborn glebe has broke;
How jocund did they drive their team afield!
How bow'd the woods beneath their sturdy stroke!
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that...