Thomas Gray: A Life

A nearly seven-hundred page biography of Thomas Gray may seem a bit large for a modest eighteenth-century life, and Robert L. Mack’s life does run to the lengthy, leisurely side. The best parts, and there are many, are the narratives of events, such as the tour on the continent with Horace Walpole, or sketches of Gray’s friendships at Cambridge, factual, well-paced, interesting. Here we read of a quite good-natured Gray. We see evidences of his early sense of humor, though some will see him as more humorous and more given to parody, his wide capacity for friendship, frequent witty and incisive letters, to his mother in particular, and readiness later to travel about his beloved England. Less satisfying are fillers imagining young Thomas’s “pale face and … timid eyes,” a fairly stock picture based on his presumed aversion to sport, or a strange scene of the boy full of “fear of being spoken to sharply for handling and perhaps soiling” (82-3) cloth in his mother’s shop. In fleshing out Gray’s personality, in particular his developing years with his family, Mack does not so much offer new information about these years as a fresh perspective and analysis: Thomas growing up in the city environs of the Cornhill area, after London’s fires and rebuilding, and the consequences of his difficult family life, the only survivor of twelve children, with a disagreeable father, until he reached the haven of Eton College where his uncle was advisor and protector. We could say that the biography chiefly reveals the personality of the poet Thomas Gray.

It is good to read of Gray as not one dimensional: he is not absorbed with melancholy, not a tragically failed scholar or poet, not riven with homosexual guilt. We are led in the introduction to expect emphasis on the homoerotic–“the bonds of male desire, as we shall see, were to form the motivating sub-text of almost all Gray’s own poetry” (38)–it being a fashionable topic, but after clearly and articulately establishing his position ( 32-41), Mack brings up homosexuality seldom, even with the quite explicit “Sonnet” to West or with the “Elegy” in particular, seeming to prefer we read George Haggerty and Robert Gleckner on the topic than explore it further himself (411). He explicates the “Eton Ode” by way of its parodies which he believes highlight the homosexual currents; this may be fair enough, but he oddly omits Richard Bentley’s illustrations of a poem like “A Long Story” which redouble the sexual innuendo of Gray’s own lines. In short, Mack is a little uneven in his dealing with homoerotic subtexts.

Discussion of the earliest poetry is well presented and these works solidly placed in Gray’s career. Reasonable treatment to given each of the poems, the “Sonnet” perhaps slighted, but any reader will derive a solid grasp of each of the poems. A good deal of attention is paid, of course, to the canonical “Elegy,” as is its due. I would quibble only with his discussion of the dating when he claims: “Only if textual scholars can tell us approximately when Gray wrote the poem, can we feel confident in answering … why he wrote it and … for whom” (394). But Alastair MacDonald wrote a convincing argument in his edition of the Eton MS and first edition (1976) for dating by means of handwriting. Such should at least be considered, for dating the drafts of the “Elegy,” albeit difficult to fix, does indeed matter.

In keeping with his emphasis on the life, Mack does not always give a full formal reading of all the poems, but as in the case of the odes, for example, offers an appreciation based on understanding. This alone is refreshing, it having become a critical fashion to dismiss the odes as pompous, and Mack is never dismissive. He discusses the ode form and declares “The Progress of Poesy” to have “a well-deserved place among the truly remarkable poetic achievements of the age” (464). His criticism is a pleasure to read since it is well informed and judicious. The wonderful ode “The Bard” is equally well served.

For all my characterizing the balance of this life of Gray as overall presenting a full image of the man, scholar, and poet, I believe the balance would have been enhanced through greater attention to Gray’s politics and religion, difficult as these may be to establish. Further, Gray’s interest in music, theater, architecture, gardening, natural history, are only quickly mentioned, yet they were things he took seriously and filled his notebooks with evidences of his dedication. He copied or had copied ten volumes of music manuscripts, he visited the theater as often as he could, several of his notebooks record daily tables of wind and weather, temperature, flowers. His friend and biographer William Mason thought his love of music was “his chief and almost only amusement” after flowers; in his commonplace books Gray was also attracted to, which means he was a student of, architecture and monuments.

Through the course of book this length, errors creep in, but Mack’s prose could have been pared and proofed to catch typos and errors in English (“tale pieces to compliment,” 432) and Latin (“floriut,” 397). The plates are well chosen, copious, and valuable.