Churchyard Bard – Frank McNally on the lasting fame of Thomas Gray, who died 250 years ago on this day

An Irishman’s Diary

Even during his own lifetime, which ended 250 years ago today, Thomas Gray was something of a one-hit-wonder. He published only 13 poems, 12 of which are now largely forgotten. And when his last two were criticised for being obscure, he gave up writing altogether.

But he had already secured fame by then, thanks to Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750), which combined classical verse with the more revolutionary idea of celebrating the humble, obscure villagers who lay under the tombstones of Stoke Poges cemetery, the work’s presumed setting in Buckinghamshire.

The poem was an instant, enormous success on publication and seems to have achieved literary immortality too. Even those who have never read “Gray’s Elegy”, as it has become known for short, will be familiar with some of its more famous phrases.

"Far from the Madding Crowd", for example, became the title of a Thomas Hardy novel and film. "Kindred spirit", "the unlettered muse", and "some mute inglorious Milton" became clichés (of the better class). Most people must also at least have heard, if not quoted, the line: "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen, and waste its sweetness on the desert air."

But countless former schoolchildren will still, at the drop of a hat, be able to recite the poem’s full opening verse: “The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,/The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,/The plowman homeward plods his weary way,/And leaves the world to darkness and to me.”

Hats, dropped or otherwise, played an important role in Gray's life. Born in 1716, the fifth of 12 children but the only one to survive infancy, he was raised mainly by his mother, a milliner, who rescued them both from a violently insane father. Her hats paid for Gray to go to Eton, which inspired what is probably his second-best-known poem: Ode to a Distant Prospect of Eton College.

That too includes a much quoted line, its last, used in many a political editorial ever since: "[W]here ignorance is bliss,/'Tis folly to be wise." But despite that hint of cynicism, Gray had his happiest years at Eton, where he was one of a quartet of friends (including Horace Walpole, son of a British prime minister) united by a dislike of "rowdy sports and the Hogarthian manners of the period".

He was later less enamoured of Cambridge University, bored with the curriculum and considering his fellow fellows "sleepy, drunken, dull, illiterate things". The era's Hogarthian manners didn't help, including as they did a joke that was played on him there once, at Peterhouse College.

It was well known that he had a dread of fire, dating back to a disastrous conflagration of 1748, which had destroyed his London home along with many others. In consequence, he kept a “ladder of ropes” in his rooms and a device fitted to his bedroom window to allow quick escape in an emergency.

One morning, the college’s rowdy-sport types – up early for a day’s hunting – thought it would be funny to shout “Fire!” beneath his lodgings and to horsewhip him when he descended in panic. Beyond appearing at his window in a nightcap, he didn’t fall for the ruse. But even so, the experience was enough to make him change colleges, moving to Pembroke where he went on to be a professor.

Mainly because of the Elegy, Gray came to be included among the “Graveyard Poets”, an 18th-century phenomenon comprising writers known for their mediations on mortality or, as one commentator summarised their subject matter, “skulls and coffins, epitaphs and worms”.

The school was accidentally founded by an Irish clergyman, Thomas Parnell (an ancestor of Charles Stewart) whose "A Night-Piece on Death" (published 1721) is considered the original of the genre, and a probable inspiration for Gray.

But the latter also wrote comic verse on occasion. Indeed, according to his friend Walpole, that was the only kind of poetry that came easily to him. And Walpole was an inadvertent contributor to it, being also the owner of the unfortunate animal commemorated in an “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes.”

That poem is not nearly as famous as the Elegy. And yet it too is still frequently quoted, or more often misquoted, thanks to its parting advice to cats and other creatures who may be lured into danger by flashy promises: “From hence, ye beauties, undeceived/Know, one false step is ne’er retrieved/And be with caution bold./Not all that tempts your wandering eyes/And heedless hearts, is lawful prize;/Nor all that glisters, gold.”