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THERE are few, perhaps, that have read and admired the Elegy in a Country Churchyard, who have not realized the Author's pathetic prediction, that the sympathy he displayed for the fortunes of the indigent and ignoble, would excite in survivors an inquiring interest after his own. This interest was indeed evinced in the eagerness with which the Letters of the Poet were read after his death, and is still shown in their undiminished popularity. The causes of this continued favour might afford matter for curious and useful inquiry in the present day, when it is the fashion for poets to anticipate all posthumous memorial, by a strain of attractive egotism, in which genius is constantly set forth as a licence for lighter faults, and a palliation for the worst. Such a taste as this can certainly be little gratified in perusing, long after his death, the Me
moirs of a retired and virtuous Poet, and of an unambitious scholar. Still, however, there are found those who delight to contemplate genius exempt from that petulant jealousy which too often accompanies it, and erudition neither obtrusive nor presumptuous; and if these are to be found any where, it is in the character of Gray.
Of the ancestry of our Poet little is known, except that he had a right, acknowledged by the Earl Gray, to bear the arms of that noble house. His grandfather, as Mr. Mason informs us, was a considerable merchant in the city of London, and his father, Mr. Philip Gray, also followed business; although, by the effects of an indolent and sullen temper, he rather diminished than increased his paternal fortune. His trade was that of a moneyscrivener, and it has been observed as remarkable, that Milton's father was of the same profession. A character so unpromising as Mr. Philip Gray's met with a complete contrast in that of his wife, whose original name was Dorothy Antrobus. She was the mother of twelve children, but of these only Thomas, who was the fifth, survived the period of infancy. He was born in Cornhill, on the 26th of December, 1716, and at a very early age was narrowly rescued from the fatal disorder which had carried off his brothers and sisters : this was suffocation, arising from fulness of blood, and the subject of the present memoir would certainly have fallen a victim to it, had not his mother, with her own hand, opened a vein, and relieved him from the most violent paroxysm. This act of maternal presence of mind may be considered as characteristic of that parent, whom, in after life, Mr. Gray never mentioned without a sigh, and whom he has so pathetically commemorated in the epitaph he placed over her remains.
Through the ignorance and unfeeling temper of Mr. Philip Gray, his son would have been left perfectly without education, had not Mrs. Gray procured him admission at Eton by means of her brother, Mr. Antrobus, at that time one of the assistant masters, and a fellow of St. Peter's College, Cambridge. To the care of this uncle, and to the hard-earned fruits of his mother's unassisted industry, was the future poet indebted for that instruction, which gave at once scope and energy to the powers of his exalted mind. His early proficiency has been pronounced very great, by an authority which is indisputable—that of the learned Mr. Bryant, who ranked next to him at school; and it is certain, that out of the term of school hours his time was not wasted. It was in reading Virgil as the pastime of his boyhood, that he describes his earliest fondness for poetry to have originated, and his friend West has aptly and beautifully repre
sented their common employments in these unfettered moments, as leading
Through many a flowery path and shelly grot,
Where learning lulled them in his private maze.” It was at Eton that Gray formed his first intimacy with Horace Walpole; and the coterie composed of these two, Asheton and West, was called the quadruple alliance. Nor was this union dissolved when Gray removed to Peter-house, Walpole to King's College, and Mr. West to Christ Church Oxford. It is from the period of this change, which took place in the year 1734, that Mr. Gray's published correspondence with Mr. West commences; and the best picture of his juvenile days is to be found in this intercourse with the friend whom he had chosen, as most congenial to himself in feelings and pursuits.
That ingenious young man was the son of the Right Honourable Richard West, Chancellor of Ireland ; and his grandfather, by the mother's side, was the famous Bishop Burnet. Like his friend, he carried with him to the University the reputation of a scholar, and at that time, Mr. Mason says, his genius was reckoned the most brilliant of the two. This judgment that writer conceives to be ill-founded, “ for though,” he adds, “ Mr. West's part in that correspondence will undoubtedly show that he possessed 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.'”
Upon first going up to College, after allowing themselves to indulge almost exclusively in the delights of classical literature, both these young men appear to have found much that was contrary to their tastes in the studies and general society of the Universities, and perhaps there is nothing very extraordinary in the circumstance, even though those seats of learning had been better constituted than they certainly were, at that time. Both Oxford and Cambridge have indeed shown themselves anxious, since the period alluded to, to improve their several systems, and the former especially, as she had, perhaps, deeper errors to eradicate, has undergone a more complete reformation. Still, however, it is found that the dignity of profound learning is to youthful spirits monotonous and unprepossessing, and minds of a quick and lively temperare offended with that just arrangement, by which laborious industry is enabled, equally with brilliant genius, to meet its reward. The disposition of Gray, naturally retired and melancholy, was little likely to relish a dissipated society, tinged, as it must have been, with the excesses of the time, nor could he feel much