(Written 26 Dec 2010)

Dear All,

There is a pretty good biography on Gray at http://www.thomasgray.org/materials/bio.shtml which I read recently when I came across a reference to Gray in Bazun’s, From Dawn to Decadence. Gray was one of the lucky few who had private means sufficient to spend almost all of his life hanging around Peterhouse at Cambridge.

Of interest is that Gray worked on the Elergy over a couple of years – completing it c. 1750 – and that at a time when the influence of Christianity was in sharp decline in England while the “Worship of Nature’ became all the rage.

More importantly, Gray wrote at a time when the concept of “kindness” first makes its presence felt in the European consciousness. It is a time that sets the intellectual and emotional stage for the work of people like William Wilberforce, Elizabeth Fry and Charles Dickens; which was to tug at the heartstrings in a way that could bring about social reform. Kenneth Clark, in Civilisation (John Murray, 1975, pg. 329) makes the point that, prior to the late 18C., if you were to ask anyone what mattered in life, the answer would have been qualities like ‘obedience’, ‘chastity’, ‘disdain of baseness and injustice’ and ‘to live in the whole and the beautiful’. But never “kindness”; which is the answer one in five people in Europe would give today. Clark goes on to say, “We under-estimate the humanitarian acheivements of the nineteenth century. We forget the horrors that were taken for granted in early Victorian England.”

Incidentally, in my youth, I loved to quote the last lines from Gray’s, Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes:

Not all that tempts your wandering eyes,
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize,
Nor all that glisters gold.

I had since found that the idea has been used by many writers including Shakespeare, who has it in The Merchant of Venice (Act II – Scene VII). As you may recall, the Prince of Morocco wishes to marry Portia but in order to do so, he has to choose from one of three caskets; one of gold, one of silver and one of lead – each of which has a note in it. The idea being that the guy who chooses the right casket gets the girl. Morocco (described by Shakespeare as a tawney Moor all in white) has chosen the golden casket and as he opens it he says:

“Oh hell! What have we here? A carrion death within whose empty eye there is a written scroll! I’ll read the writing.

All that glisters is not gold;
Often have you heard that told:
Many a man his life hath sold
But my outside to behold:
Gilded tombs do worms enfold.
Had you been as wise as bold,
Young in limbs, in judgement old
Your answer had not been inscroll’d
Fare you well, your suit is cold.
Cold indeed and labour lost.
Then, farewell heat, and welcome frost.

Portia adieu! I have too grieved a heart to take a tedious leave; thus losers part.”