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... [continues]
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