THOMAS GRAY (1716-1771), was born in Cornhill, London. He belonged to the well-off middle class – his father was a scribe and his mother owned a shop of hats and bonnets – allowing him to attend Eton for his studies where he came in contact with many aristocrats of the time and was very close to Horace Walpole, for instance, son of Britain’s prime minister and with whom he went on the Grand Tour through France and Italy for three years, as was customary at the time for young men of the upper classes. Upon returning to England he settled in Cambridge, spending his life as a scholar for which he was highly considered throughout all of Europe. In 1768 he was appointed Regis Professor of Modern History at Cambridge.
LITERARY THEMES AND WRITING STYLE
Gray is considered as a transitional poet because he introduced in his poetry some of the new themes that were to characterise the Early Romantic Age. Two of the most relevant are: the simple country life and humble village people. Thus, he clearly rejected the typical contents of Classic poetry, but at the same time he combined these new trends with a writing style that underlined his belief that everyday language was not appropriate for poetry. He is the author of the Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, (1751), which soon became very popular; but he also wrote other poems collected in Odes (1757), The Bard and The Progress of Poesy (1757) inspired by Celtic and Icelandic mythology along with English literary history.
MOST RENOWNED WORK
Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, (1751) is still today one of the most important English literary works because it introduces the new themes, above mentioned, and a new role assigned to the poet who is now inspired by the contemplation and observation of humble country life and the simplicity of nature.
His elegy is a pretext to ponder on universal themes as for instance man’s destiny, equality, worldly ambition and humility. Gray uses the elegy, but at the same time breaks away from its traditional conventions, as a matter of fact, even though he wrote it after the death of his best friend, Richard West, his name is never mentioned; there is no procession of mourners, list of flowers or grief refrain.
The poem is written in heroic quatrains of ten-syllable lines, each stanza, of ten-syllable lines, although complete, is also a section of the whole. He uses assonances, alliterations and onomatopoeias to carefully build up the images through which the poet expresses thoughts and feelings by creating just the right atmosphere of meditation.
The poem begins with the poet lost in contemplation of a churchyard at twilight, this melancholic atmosphere leads him to meditate about the village’s ancestors and how its primitive historical traces reflected goodness instead of doing harm for the sake of ambition. He ends the poem by imagining his own death and by writing his own epitaph while musing on the comfort that the tomb, as a symbol, provides the living binding them to those who no longer are in a lasting emotional connection.
Many critics have traced to this poem, the Italian great poet, Ugo Foscolo’s inspiration for his carme Dei Sepolcri.
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© L. R. Capuana