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The lives of men of letters seldom abound with incidents; and perhaps no life ever afforded fewer than that which I have undertaken to write. But I am far from mentioning this by way of previous apology, as is the trite custom of biographers. The respect which I owe to my deceased friend, to the public, and (let me add) to myself, prompts me to wave so impertinent a ceremonial.
A reader of sense and taste never expects to find in the memoirs of a Philosopher, or Poet, the same species of entertainment, or information, which he would receive from those of a Statesman or General: He expects, however, to be either informed or entertained: Nor would he be disappointed, did the writer take care to dwell principally on such topics as characterize the man, and distinguish that peculiar part, which he acted in the varied Drama of Society.
But this rule, self-evidently right as it may seem, is seldom observed. It was said, with almost as much truth as wit, of one of these writers, that, when he composed the life of Lord Verulam, he forgot that he was a Philosopher; and therefore, it was to be feared, should he finish that of the Duke of Marlborough, he would forget that he was a General. I shall avoid a like fault. I will promise my reader that he shall, in the following pages, seldom behold Mr. Gray in any other light than that of a Scholar and a Poet: And though I am more solicitous to shew that he was a virtuous, a friendly, and an amiable man, than either; yet this solicitude becomes unnecessary from the very papers which he has bequeathed me, and which I here arrange for the purpose: Since in these the qualities of his head and heart so constantly appear together, and the fertility of his fancy so intimately unites with the sympathetic tenderness of his soul, that were it in my intention, I should find it impossible to disjoin them.
His parents were reputable citizens of London. His grandfather a considerable merchant: but his father, Mr. Philip Gray, though he also followed business, was of an indolent and reserved temper; and therefore rather diminished than increased his paternal fortune. He had many children, of whom Thomas, the subject of these memoirs, was the fifth born. All of them, except him, died in their infancy; and I have been told that he narrowly escaped suffocation, (owing to too great a fullness of blood which destroyed the rest) and would certainly have been cut off as early, had not his mother, with a courage remarkable for one of her sex, and withal so very tender a parent, ventured to open a vein with her own hand, which instantly removed the paroxysm.
He was born in Cornhill, December the 26th, 1716; was educated at Eton school, under the care of Mr. Antrobus, his mother's brother, who was at that time one of the assistant masters, and also a Fellow of St. Peter's College, Cambridge, to which place Mr. Gray removed, and was there admitted a pensioner in the year 1734. While at school, he contracted a friendship with Mr. Horace Walpole and Mr. Richard West: The former of these appears, at present, with too much distinction in the literary, as well as fashionable world, to make it necessary I should enlarge upon his subject: But as the latter died before he could exert his uncommon abilities, it seems requisite to premise somewhat concerning him; especially as almost every anecdote which I have to produce, concerning the juvenile part of Mr. Gray's life, is included in his correspondence with this gentleman. A correspondence which con.
tinúed, with very little interruption, for the space of about eight years, from the time of their leaving school to the death of the accomplished youth in question.
His father was Lord Chancellor of Ireland. His grandfather, by the mother, the famous Bishop Burnet. He removed from Eton to Oxford, about the same time that Mr. Gray left that place for Cambridge. Each of them carried with him the reputation of an excellent classic scholar; though I have been told that, at the time, Mr. West's genius was reckoned the more brilliant of the two: A judgment which, I conceive, was not well founded; for though Mr. West's part of that correspondence, which I shall speedily give the reader *, will undoubtedly shew that he possest very extraordinary talents, yet, on Mr. Gray's side, there seems superadded to these, such a manly precision of taste, and maturity of judgment, as would induce one to believe Mr. Walpole's phrase not very hyperbolical, who has often asserted to me that “Gray never was a Boy.”
* I am well aware that I am here going to do a thing which the cautious and courtly Dr. Sprat, (were he now alive) would highly
He had, it seems, a large collection of his friend Mr. Cowley's letters, a way of writing in which he peculiarly ex“celled, as in these he always expressed the native tenderness and “ innocent gaiety of his heart; yet the Doctor was of opinion that
nothing of this nature should be published, and that the letters “ that pass between particular friends (if they are written as they
ought to be) can scarce ever be fit to see the light.” What! not when they express the native tenderness and innocent gaiety of a heart like Mr. Cowley's? No, by no means, “ for in such letters “ the souls of men appear undressed, and in that negligent habit they may be fit to be seen by one or two in a chamber, but not
abroad in the street." See Life of Cowley, page 38, Hurd's Edition,
In April, 1738, Mr. West left Christ Church for the Inner Temple, and Mr. Gray removed from PeterHouse to Town the latter end of that year; intending also to apply himself to the study of the Law in the same society: For which purpose his father had already either hired or bought him a set of chambers. But on an invitation which Mr. Walpole gave him to be his companion in his travels, this intention was laid aside for the present, and never after put in execution.
According to the plan which I have formed for arranging these papers, a part of the letters which I have
Such readers as believe it incumbent on every well-bred soul never to appear but in full dress, will think that Dr. Sprat has reason on his side; but I suspect that the generality will, notwithstanding, wish he had been less scrupulously delicate, and lament that the letters in question are not now extant. Of one thing I am fully confident, that, had this been the case, the judicious Dr. Hurd would have found his critical labour much lessened, when, in pure charity to this amiable writer, he lately employed himself in separating
His pleasing moral from his pointed wit.