Gray was a poet as well as a prose writer. Son of an unbalanced-minded scrivener, he was sent to Eton where he made friends with Horace Walpole. Subsequently, he joined Peterhouse, Cambridge where he got a high reputation for his Latin poetry though he failed to get a degree. Thereafter he turned to studying law. In 1742, the death of Richard West, a close friend from his Eton days, precipitated his poetic activity.
Meanwhile, his relations with Walpole were restored. In 1757, he was offered the laureateship but he refused. In 1769, he traveled through the Lake District. His letters revealed him as a highly learned, but witty and entertaining personality.
His works are :
Gray’s fame rests on a single small volume of poems which can be divided into three periods:
- The First Period: Here we find Gray discarding the strict classical rules and studying nature to find its relationship with human nature. The all-pervading mood of this period is melancholy. The poems of this period are:
(a) Hymn to Adversity (1748)
(b) Ode to Spring (1748)
(c) Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College (1747)
- The Second Period
(a) The Progress of Poesy: The Progress of Poesy is a significant landmark in Gray’s poetic development. It has romantic elements. It consists of three stanzas of 41 lines each. It is written in an elaborately consistent verse form. Every stanza has ‘Strophe’, ‘Anti-strophe’, and ‘Epode’. This is characterized by a perfect artistic structure rarely poem seen in other poets of the Augustan Age.
(b) The Bard: It has enjoyed instant and sustained popularity. It contains three stanzas with three divisions, each having a Strophe, an ‘Anti-strophe’, and ‘Epode’. When the poem begins, the actual voice of the ancient Celtic Bards is heard. The utterance of the last surviving Bard is marked with a note of dignity. He points out that man shall never be wanting to celebrate true virtue and valor in immortal strains. He also exposes the vices of the king and censures him for tyranny and oppression.
(c) Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751): This elegy is regarded as one of the greatest poems of English Literature which made the poet extremely popular after its publication. The poem is smooth and graceful and contains familiar sentiments turned into admirable quotable phrases. It is the most perfect poem of that age which expresses the poet’s deep sympathy for the poor and uncivilized.
- The Third Period:
(a) The Fatal Sisters (1761)
(b) The Descent of Odin (1768)
Despite their inadequacy in several respects, these poems arouse an everlasting interest in Norse mythology.