Thomas Gray

(1717–1771)

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.

The English poet Thomas Gray (1716–71), most famous for his ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, was dubbed ‘Miss Gray’ when he went to Peterhouse College, Cambridge, because of his mincing manners. He abandoned his degree course when an inheritance left him independent, but nevertheless acquired a reputation for his knowledge about English medievalism, especially Druidic history so popular from the 1750s. His school friend Horace Walpole – creator of Strawberry Hill and popularizer of the ‘gothick’ style – was the first great love of his life, and many of Walpole’s letters to him illustrate a ‘sentimental sodomy’ characteristic of the many bachelors in Walpole’s circle. He and Walpole travelled together for two years, and Walpole became his literary patron, but they had a falling out in 1745 which has never been quite understood.

Gray’s second great love was the unfortunate Henry Tuthill, also a friend from school, who became a Fellow of Peterhouse in 1749, but who was dismissed in 1757 because of a homosexual scandal, and who eventually drowned himself as a result of his disgrace. Some of Gray’s correspondence from this period has been selectively destroyed, but what survives (including letters where Tuthill’s name can still be seen behind the erasures of Gray’s first editor and biographer William Mason) suggests that he and his friend Thomas Wharton conspired to suppress public knowledge of these events and particularly Gray’s involvement in the affair, which has never been adequately researched due to scholarly homophobia. The episode cast a permanent pall of melancholy upon Gray’s character.

But several years before his death, in December 1769, his confidante Rev Norton Nicholls introduced him to the young Swiss aristocrat Charles Victor de Bonstetten (1745–1832), who had come to London to improve his English. By the end of the month Bonstetten returned with Gray to Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, where he lived close to Gray’s lodgings and ate every day in Gray’s rooms. Gray wrote to Nicholls in January 1770: ‘I never saw such a boy: our breed is not made on this model.’ But Bonstetten had to return to Switzerland at the end of three months, and there was a painful parting.

Bonstetten was a young Apollo, charming, volatile and romantic, and created for the frail and aging poet-historian an Indian summer. Gray wrote to Nicholls in March 1770 several days before taking his friend to the boat in Dover: ‘He gives me too much pleasure, and at least an equal share of inquietude. You do not understand him so well as I do, but I leave my meaning imperfect, till we meet. I have never met with so extraordinary a Person. God bless him!’ Bonstetten invited Gray to come to Switzerland the summer of the following year (1771), and plans were made for the holiday, but Gray was too unwell to travel, and he died in July. The two men had corresponded regularly for more than a year, although hardly any of Bonstetten’s letters have survived. (Bonstetten went on to become the beloved of the historian Johannes von Müller.)

Charles Victor de Bonstetten to Norton Nicholls

Cambridge the 6. Jan. 1770

Hence vain deluding Joys [Milton’s Il Penseroso] is our motto hier, written on every feature, and ourly spoken by every solitary Chapel bel; So that decently you cant expect no other but a very grave letter. I realy beg you pardon to wrap up my thoughts in so smart a dress as an in quarto sheet. I know they should apear in a folo leave, but the Ideas themselves shall look so solemn as to belie their dress. – Tho’ I wear not yet the black gown, and am only an inferior Priest in the temple of Meditation, yet my countenance is already consecrated. I never walk but with even steps and musing gate, and looks comercing with the skyes; and unfold my wrinkles only when I see mr. Gray, or think of you. Then nothwithstanding all your learnings and knowledge, I feel in such occasions that I have a heart, which you know is as some others a quite prophane thing to carry under a black gown.

I am in a hurry from morning till evening. At 8 o Clock I am roused by a young square Cap, with whom I follow Satan through Chaos and night. He explaind me in Greek and latin, the sweet relutant amorous Delays [Paradise Lost] of our Grandmother Eve. We finish our travels in a copious breakfeast of muffins and tea. . . .

Thomas Gray to Charles Victor de Bonstetten

Cambridge
April 12, 1770

Never did I feel, my dear Bonstetten, to what a tedious length the few short moments of our life may be extended by impatience and expectation, till you had left me: nor ever knew before with so strong a conviction how much this frail body sympathizes with the inquietude of the mind. I am grown old in the compass of less than three weeks, like the Sultan in the Turkish Tales, that did plunge his head into a vessel of water and take it out again (as the standers-by affirm’d) at the command of a Dervish, and found he had pass’d many years in captivity and begot a large family of children. The strength and spirits that now enable me to write to you, are only owing to your last letter, a temporary gleam of sunshine. Heaven knows, when it may shine again! I did not conceive till now (I own) what it was to lose you, nor felt the solitude and insipidity of my own condition, before I possess’d the happiness of your friendship.

I must cite another Greek writer [Plato, Republic] to you, because it is very much to my purpose. He is describing the character of a Genius truly inclined to Philosophy. It includes (he says) qualifications rarely united in one single mind, quickness of apprehension and a retentive memory; vivacity and application, gentleness and magnanimity: to these he adds an invincible love of truth, and consequently of probity and justice. Such a soul (continues he) will be little inclined to sensual pleasures, and consequently temperate; a stranger to illiberality and avarice being accustom’d to the most extensive views of things and sublimest contemplations . . . But these very endowments so necessary to a soul form’d for philosophy are often the ruin of it (especially when join’d to the external advantages of wealth, nobility, strength and beauty) that is, if it light on a bad soil; and want its proper nurture, which nothing but an excellent education can bestow. . . . and remember, that extraordinary vices and extraordinary virtues are alike the produce of a vigorous Mind: little souls are alike incapable of the one or the other.

If you have ever met with the portrait sketch’d out by Plato, you will know it again: for my part (to my sorrow) I have had that happiness: I see the principal features, and I foresee the dangers with a trembling anxiety. But enough of this, I return to your letter: it proves at least, that in the midst of your new gaieties, I still hold some place in your memory, and (what pleases me above all) it has an air of undissembled sincerity. Go on, my best and amiable Friend, to shew me your heart simply and without the shadow of disguise, and leave me to weep over it (as I now do) no matter whether from joy or sorrow.

19 April 1770

Alas! how do I every moment feel the truth of what I have somewhere read: Ce n’est pas le voir que de s’en souvenir [remembering him is not the same as seeing him], and yet that remembrance is the only satisfaction I have left. My life now is but a perpetual conversation with your shadow. – The known sound of your voice still rings in my ears. – There, on the corner of the fender you are standing, or tinkling on the Pianoforte, or stretch’d at length on the sofa. – Do you reflect, my dearest Friend, that it is a week or eight days, before I can receive a letter from you and as much more before you can have my answer, that all that time (with more than Herculean toil) I am employ’d in pushing the tedious hours along, and wishing to annihilate them; the more I strive, the heavier they move and the longer they grow. I can not bear this place, where I have spent many tedious years within less than a month, since you left me. I am going for a few days to see poor Nicholls invited by a letter, wherein he mentions you in such terms, as add to my regard for him, and express my own sentiments better than I can do myself. ‘I am concern’d (says he [letter not extant]) that I can not pass my life with him, I never met with any one that pleased and suited me so well: the miracle to me is, how he comes to be so little spoil’d, and the miracle of miracles will be, if he continues so in the midst of every danger and seduction, and without any advantages, but from his own excellent nature and understanding. I own, I am very anxious for him on this account, and perhaps your inquietude may have proceeded from the same cause. I hope, I am to hear, when he has pass’d that cursed sea, or will he forget me thus in insulam relegatum? If he should, it is out of my power to retaliate.’

Sure you have wrote to him, my dear Bonstetten, or sure you will! He has moved me with these gentle and sensible expressions of his kindness for you. Are you untouch’d by them?

You do me the credit (and false or true, it goes to my heart) of ascribing to me your love for many virtues of the highest rank. Would to heaven it were so; but they are indeed the fruits of your own noble and generous understanding, that has hitherto struggled against the stream of custom, passion, and ill company, even when you were but a Child, and will you now give way to that stream, when your strength is increased? Shall the Jargon of French Sophists, the allurements of painted women comme il faut, or the vulgar caresses of prostitute beauty, the property of all, that can afford to purchase it, induce you to give up a mind and body by Nature distinguish’d from all others to folly, idleness, disease, and vain remorse? Have a care, my ever-amiable Friend, of loving, what you do not approve, and know me for your most faithful and most humble Despote.

9 May 1770

I am return’d, my dear B., from the little journey I had made into Suffolk [to see Nicholls] without answering the end proposed. The thought, that you might have been with me there, has embitter’d all my hours. Your letter has made me happy; as happy as so gloomy, so solitary a Being as I am is capable of being. I know and have too often felt the disadvantages I lay myself under, how much I hurt the little interest I have in you, by this air of sadness so contrary to your nature and present enjoyments: but sure you will forgive, tho’ you can not sympathize with me. It is impossible with me to dissemble with you. Such as I am, I expose my heart to your view, nor wish to conceal a single thought from your penetrating eyes. – All that you say to me, especially on the subject of Switzerland, is infinitely acceptable. It feels too pleasing ever to be fulfill’d, and as often as I read over your truly kind letter, written long since from London, I stop at these words: La mort qui peut glacer nos bras avant qu’ils soient entrelacés.


Web Resources

Review of George Haggerty's Men in Love, which has an essay on Gray's 'Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard' as an expression of longing for his dead lover Richard West.

The Thomas Gray Archive, very good biographical sketch, with many links; illustrations

Biography of Gray's friend Horace Walpole


CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following form of citation:
Rictor Norton, "Thomas Gray", Gay History and Literature, 22 July 2002, updated 19 June 2008 <http://rictornorton.co.uk/gray.htm>.

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