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> Gray, Thomas (1716-1771), Gray's Elegy
post May 28, 2006, 02:33 AM
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Perhaps as early as 1742, perhaps at a later date, Gray embarked on a long meditative elegy in the tradition of the Retirement Poem. The "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" was composed over a long period of time, it was probably taken up again in the winter of 1749, upon the death of his aunt Mary.

The poem, though immediately informed by the deaths both of West and of his aunt, in time turned into a memento mori meditation on and lament for the inevitable fate of all human beings. Opinions will continue to differ about the progress and the several stages of this poem's composition, but the work of polishing it was very slow and it was certainly concluded at Stoke Poges, and it was sent to Walpole in a letter dated 12 June 1750 (letter id 173). Walpole admired it greatly, and showed it to various friends and acquaintances in MS.

Gray, however, would certainly not have published it even when he did, had he not been forced to do so in self-defence. In February 1751 the publisher of the rather third-rate Magazine of Magazines, who had chanced to obtain a copy, wrote to Gray that he was about to publish the "Elegy". In order to forestall its piratical printing, Gray instantly wrote to Walpole to get the poem printed by Dodsley. It was duly published, anonymously, on 15 February 1751.

Its success was instantaneous and overwhelming. It remains the most celebrated poem of its century, one of the most frequently quoted and still one of the best-known English poems for its eloquent expression of "universal feelings". The poem shows the tension and synthesis between Classicist and Romantic tendencies, and was admired by generations to come.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, a century later, spoke of its "divine truisms that make us weep." It went through four editions in two months, and eleven in a short time, besides being imitated, satirized, translated into many languages, and constantly pirated. The poem enjoyed an unusually wide and comprehensive audience. Gray left all the profits to Dodsley, declining to accept payment for his poems. [And there is more. Go to the extensive page on his life and work. I am making the effort to commit the poem to memory.]

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