Ward's Book of Days.

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What happened on this day in history.


On this day in history in 1716, was born Thomas Gray.  

Gray was a poet, famous for his Elegy in a County Churchyard and his lyric poetry, which became the foundation of the Romantic Movement.

Thomas Gray was born on 26th December 1716, at London, [41 Cornhill, London, EC3V 3ND. Blue plaque]. He was one of 12 siblings, but the only one to survive, and the son of a drunken and abusive father, who left the family home soon after young Gray was born. Gray was brought up by his mother who ran a hat shop to support and educate him.

In 1725, Gray was sent to Eton, where he formed a clique with those boys who had a preference for poetry and classics, rather than the rowdy sports popular amongst many scholars. His comrades included Horace Walpole, poet and the son of the first prime minister. In 1734 he went up to Peterhouse, Cambridge, where he wrote Latin verse of some distinction.

In 1739, Gray and Walpole travelled on a grand tour of France, Switzerland, and Italy. Gray was fascinated by the   antiquities of Rome and Florence, and decided that he would pursue the study of history at Cambridge. In 1742 Gray took up a lectureship at Cambridge and used his spare time to write the occasional English verse. When one of his former school friends died, he wrote Sonnet on the Death of Mr. Richard West, and later published Ode on the Spring and "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College. These works illustrate his ability to formularise aphorisms in salient, quotable lines, such as ‘Where ignorance is bliss, 'Tis folly to be wise’. Unfortunately, these verses were not well received by the public, a sad fact which deterred him from writing more.

It was not until 1751, that Gray published his most famous work An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard, a poem that was immediately recognized as outstanding. The verse celebrates the lives of the ‘rude forefathers of the hamlet’, with the theme that the fates of rich and poor alike, ‘lead but to the grave’. The lines indicate that it is not only the country folk who he commemorates but also himself, who he subtly brings into the verse, and indeed all mankind, who will come to the grave, and be in a ‘narrow cell for ever laid’.

In 1757, Gray was offered the post of Poet Laureate, which he rejected. In 1768, he was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. He wrote occasional verses, including The Progress of Poesy and The Bard, but was more interested in his studies of Celtic and Scandinavian antiquities.

In all, Gray produced less than 1,000 lines of verse, but nevertheless is regarded as the predominant poetic individual of the 18th century, and he became the precursor of the Romantic movement. His work contains many exceptional phrases which have since entered the English vocabulary including, ‘Far from the madding crowd’, later taken up by Thomas Hardy, ‘The paths of glory’, ‘Celestial fire’ and ‘Kindred spirit’.

Gray died on 30th July 1771, at Cambridge and was buried in the country churchyard, celebrated in his Elegy. [St Giles Church, Church  Lane, Stoke Poges, Slough, Bucks, SL2 4NZ]

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