Thomas Gray, the son of a broker, was born in London in 1716. He studied in Eton and then went to Cambridge where he spent most of his life as a scholar and recluse. His first poem dates from 1741. The Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, begun about 1745, appeared in 1750 and made him famous. Among the Odes of 1759 were The Progress of Poesy and The Bard. Gray’s historical and classical learning is reflected in The Fatal Sisters and The Descent of Odin. In 1768 he was appointed Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. He died in 1771.
Gray’s historical significance lies primarily in the fact that he was a transitional poet, belonging by birth and training to the neoclassical age of Pope and Johnson and anticipating, through his poetry, the Pomantic era. The influence of Milton and Dryden led Gray to impose an order and discipline upon his verse and imbued it with a distinctive stateliness. At the same time, his peculiar sensibility brought a subtly evocative and melancholy strain into poetry that was to reach its full flowering in the work of Shelley and Keats. Gray was actually responsive to the imaginative appeal of past ages, another Romantic characteristic. For these reasons he has often been called a precursor of the Romantic. A scrupulous rather than a prolific artist, Gray’s work is highly finished and maintains a consistently high level of style.