Thomas Gray (1716—1771)

Classic Writings on Poetry - William Harmon 2003

Thomas Gray (1716—1771)

Like John Milton, Thomas Gray was the son of a scrivener (someone involved in the legal and financial care of documents and investments). Gray was born in London and educated at Eton and Cambridge. Although he had a law degree, he never practiced, choosing instead to devote his life to the study of literature and antiquities. Toward the end of his life he was awarded the Professorship of Modern History at Cambridge.

Gray was a wonderfully versatile poet, and, though he may not rank among the topmost superstars, his “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is probably better known than poems by more celebrated figures. Gray was a bridge, or at least a bridge-builder, between the neoclassical values of the Augustan age and the romantic values of the late eighteenth century, and also between the interest of scholarly learning and the fascination of great popularity. Archeological discoveries and careful scholarship throughout the eighteenth century contributed to a spirit of primitivism, especially as regards language and art. Gray, learned in the classical languages and also conversant with Old Celtic and Old Germanic texts, which were being rediscovered, could see the English poetry of his own age as part of a community of texts shared in space and as part of a continuum of endeavor extending from the earliest ages of the species. For Gray’s contemporaries, the earliest times were understood as probably no longer ago than 6,000 years before, but the sentiment for the primitive shaped thinking about religion, philosophy, history, and the arts. “The Progress of Poesy,” looking back at the legends and poems of ancient Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews, as well as Europeans of the middle ages, prepared the way for Robert Burns, William Blake, and their tribe of successors and imitators.




Awake, Æolian lyre, awake,2

And give to rapture all thy trembling strings.

From Helicon’s harmonious springs3

A thousand rills their mazy progress take:

The laughing flowers, that round them blow,

Drink life and fragrance as they flow.

Now the rich stream of music winds along

Deep, majestic, smooth, and strong,

Thro’ verdant vales, and Ceres’ golden reign:4

Now rolling down the steep amain,

Headlong, impetuous, see it pour:

The rocks and nodding groves rebellow to the roar.


Oh! Sovereign of the willing soul,

Parent of sweet and solemn-breathing airs,

Enchanting shell! the sullen Cares

And frantic Passions hear thy soft control.

On Thracia’s hills the Lord of War,5

Has curb’d the fury of his car,

And dropp’d his thirsty lance at thy command.

Perching on the sceptred hand

Of Jove, thy magic lulls the feather’d king

With ruffled plumes and flagging wing:

Quench’d in dark clouds of slumber lie

The terror of his beak, and light’nings of his eye.


Thee the voice, the dance, obey,

Temper’d to thy warbled lay.

O’er Idalia’s velvet-green6

The rosy-crowned Loves are seen

On Cytherea’s day7

With antic Sports and blue-ey’d Pleasures,

Frisking light in frolic measures;

Now pursuing, now retreating,

Now in circling troops they meet:

To brisk notes in cadence beating

Glance their many-twinkling feet.

Slow melting strains their Queen’s approach declare:

Where’er she turns the Graces homage pay.8

With arms sublime, that float upon the air,

In gliding state she wins her easy way:

O’er her warm cheek and rising bosom move

The bloom of young Desire and purple light of Love.


Man’s feeble race what ills await,

Labour, and Penury, the racks of Pain,

Disease, and Sorrow’s weeping train,

And Death, sad refuge from the storms of Fate!

The fond complaint, my song, disprove,

And justify the laws of Jove.

Say, has he giv’n in vain the heav’nly Muse?

Night, and all her sickly dews,

Her spectres wan, and birds of boding cry,

He gives to range the dreary sky:

Till down the eastern cliffs afar

Hyperion’s march they spy, and glitt’ring shafts of war.9


In climes beyond the solar road,

Where shaggy forms o’er ice-built mountains roam,

The Muse has broke the twilight-gloom

To cheer the shiv’ring native’s dull abode.

And oft, beneath the od’rous shade

Of Chile’s boundless forests laid,

She deigns to hear the savage youth repeat

In loose numbers wildly sweet

Their feather-cinctur’d chiefs, and dusky loves.

Her track, where’er the goddess roves,

Glory pursue, and generous Shame,

Th’ unconquerable Mind, and Freedom’s holy flame.


Woods, that wave o’er Delphi’s steep,10

Isles, that crown th’ Ægean deep,

Fields, that cool Ilissus laves,11

Or where Mæander’s amber waves12

In ling’ring lab’rinths creep,

How do your tuneful echoes languish,

Mute, but to the voice of Anguish?

Where each old poetic mountain

Inspiration breath’d around:

Ev’ry shade and hallow’d Fountain

Murmur’d deep a solemn sound:

Till the sad Nine in Greece’s evil hour

Left their Parnassus for the Latian plains.13

Alike they scorn the pomp of tyrant Power,

And coward Vice, that revels in her chains.

When Latium had her lofty spirit lost,

They sought, O Albion! next thy sea-encircled coast.14


Far from the sun and summer-gale,

In thy green lap was Nature’s darling laid,15

What time, where lucid Avon stray’d,

To him the mighty Mother did unveil

Her awful face: the dauntless child

Stretch’d forth his little arms, and smiled.

This pencil take (she said) whose colours clear

Richly paint the vernal year:

Thine too these golden keys, immortal boy!

This can unlock the gates of Joy;

Of Horror that, and thrilling Fears,

Or ope the sacred source of sympathetic tears.


Nor second he, that rode sublime16

Upon the seraph-wings of Ecstasy,

The secrets of th’ Abyss to spy.

He pass’d the flaming bounds of Place and Time:

The living throne, the sapphire-blaze,

Where angels tremble, while they gaze,

He saw; but blasted with excess of light,

Clos’d his eyes in endless night.

Behold, where Dryden’s less presumptuous car,17

Wide o’er the fields of Glory bear

Two coursers of ethereal race,

With necks in thunder cloth’d, and long-resounding pace.


Hark, his hands thy lyre explore!

Bright-eyed Fancy hovering o’er

Scatters from her pictur’d urn

Thoughts that breathe, and words that burn.

But ah! ’tis heard no more—

O lyre divine, what daring spirit

Wakes thee now? tho’ he inherit

Nor the pride, nor ample pinion,

That the Theban Eagle bear,

Sailing with supreme dominion

Thro’ the azure deep of air:

Yet oft before his infant eyes would run

Such forms, as glitter in the Muse’s ray

With orient hues, unborrow’d of the Sun:

Yet shall he mount, and keep his distant way18

Beyond the limits of a vulgar fate,

Beneath the good how far—but far above the great.19

1. A Pindaric ode consists of subdivisions called strophe, antistrophe, and epode; the first two match, the third differs.

2. Awake: Gray’s note refers to Psalm 57: “Awake, my glory: awake, lute and harp.” Aeolian: Aeolis or Aeolia was a region on the coast of Asia Minor; Aeolus was god of the winds, and Aeolian harps, lyres, lutes, and so forth were played by the wind. According to Gray, “Pindar styles his own poetry, with its musical accompaniments, … Aeolian song, Aeolian strings, the breath of the Aeolian lute.”

3. Helicon: a mountain sacred to the Muses. Its springs were Hippocrene and Aganippe.

4. Ceres: a goddess of agriculture, associated with grain (whence “cereal”).

5. Thracia: Thrace, in antiquity a region northeast of Macedonia, an area now comprising parts of Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece; birthplace of Orpheus.

6. Idalia: town sacred to Aphrodite.

7. Cytherea: Aphrodite.

8. Graces: divine sisters (sometimes named Aglaia, Thalia, and Euphrosyne) who attend greater goddesses, in this instance Aphrodite.

9. Hyperion: the sun.

10. Delphi: on Mount Parnassus, site of the Delphic Oracle, associated with Apollo.

11. Illisus: river near Athens.

12. Maeander: meandering river in Asia Minor.

13. Latian: Latin, Roman.

14. Albion: Britain.

15. Nature’s Darling: according to Gray, Shakespeare.

16. He, that rode sublime: Milton.

17. car: chariot.

18. Yet shall he mount: Gray himself.

19. the great: the rich and powerful.