Information on Thomas Gray poems, works. Early poems, The Odes and Later Poems and the letters.
Early Poems: In 1742, the year of Richard West’s death, Gray wrote several important poems. Formal and controlled in style, they achieve the energy of conflict. In Ode on the Spring, the speaker, watching carefree springtime insects, reflects that he is himself but “a solitary fly,” who, like the beautiful insects, will survive only briefly. In Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College he expresses nostalgia for the schoolboy years when “ignorance is bliss.” In Sonnet on the Death of Richard West he mourns his dead friend while knowing that much of the universe is happy. Finally, in Hymn to Adversity, he sees suffering as real as happiness, and in the fragmentary Hymn to Ignorance, that ignorance must yield to wisdom. A highly artificial “poetic diction” in these poems is combined with a simple, natural sort of language: linguistic tension reflects psychic conflict.
A note of direct simplicity dominates the Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, completed in 1750. Like the poems that preceded it, the Elegy is a statement of conflict—between the values of education and cultivation and those of rural simplicity. The lyric poignance that Gray achieved here derives from the universality of this irreconcilable struggle. The poem’s concluding “Epitaph” suggests the possibility of combining the values of both realms.
The Odes and Later Poems: In The Bard and The Progress of Poesy, Gray’s odes of 1757, the personal note of his earlier work seems to have disappeared. Learning dominates his discussions of poetry as art and as a moral force, and the reader is reminded that Gray was regarded as the most scholarly man in Europe by some of his contemporaries. Closer in form to authentic Greek models than any of their English predecessors, the odes are truly “Pindaric.”
The Bard relates the history of England and Wales from the prophetic viewpoint of the last Welsh bard, who finally kills himself after having provided a visionary account of poetry’s political power. Even larger in scope, The Progress of Poesy tells of poetry’s force in various eras and places, concluding with a poignant suggestion of the difficulty of writing good verse in modern times. Dense with literary allusion, condensed to the point of obscurity, and rich in rhetorical artifice, these poems are important statements of belief in the emotional and, consequently, moral power of poetry. They are intellectually controlled and highly wrought, yet they vibrate with conviction.
In 1761, stimulated by research in the newly opened British Museum, Gray wrote some translations and imitations of Old Norse poems that mark the early stage of a developing widespread interest in the nonclassical past. The passion that Gray found in his models he rendered convincingly, creating in The Fatal Sisters and The Descent of Odin a sense of the reality of mysterious forces. His Welsh odes, also written in 1761, evoke the vitality of a battle-oriented culture and release Gray’s own creative energy. In comparison, the Ode for Music (1769), his last poetic work, seems conventional and lifeless. Gray wrote best in the styles that encouraged him to use his emotional resources, employing the conventions of rhetoric, form, translation, or imitation to make passion respectable by giving it discipline.
The Letters: Gray’s letters are rich in judgment and in observation. In his correspondence he expresses himself vividly, displaying wide aesthetic responsiveness—to literature, painting, architecture, furniture, landscape—and revealing a disciplined critical sensibility as well as a winning personality. He renders details and suggests their meaning; he also generalizes with remarkable acumen, from his own experience and that of his correspondents. The letters display the humor that emerges only rarely (though always effectively) in his poems, the penetrating wit that informs Gray’s few satiric pieces, and the obsessive concern with linguistic accuracy that helps to shape the lyrics. In his letters Gray is more open than in his poetry; they reveal a person of strong intellect and a devoted friend.
Critical Evaluation: Gray’s writing, in poetry and prose, manifests a remarkable combination of the discipline one associates with the Augustan period and the emotional intensity of the early romantics. A battle between intellect and emotion is often apparent in his work. Gray’s poetic vitality depends in part on the fact that he never achieved an effective fusion of poetry and intellect but rather exposed the struggle, implicit in the attempt. But beneath the formality and artifice of his odes, the directness of the famous Elegy, and the dramatic intensity of the translations lie strong feelings.