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literature

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Gray, Thomas (1716-1771)  

Thomas Gray, the best-loved English poet of the eighteenth century, wrote several poems that express the love he felt for other men.

Gray was born to a distinctly middle-class family of shop owners, the only surviving child of twelve. His mother was a sweet-tempered woman, who ran a millinery business with her sister; and his father was a violently jealous man who beat his wife and abused her with vile language.

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He was a lonely bookish boy, and until two of his uncles, who were masters at Eton, arranged for his matriculation there, he had no friends his own age. At Eton, where he went in 1725, he eventually made a few close friends who shared his interest in literature and writing. Chief among these were Horace Walpole, Richard West, and Thomas Ashton.

All these boys had literary aspirations, and they dubbed themselves the Quadruple Alliance. Together they read Virgil, wrote poetry, and avoided the athletic field. Their mutual friendships became deeply romantic as the years progressed, and Gray grew to feel love for both the flamboyant and worldly Walpole and the shy and poetic West.

When the latter died in 1742, Gray wrote one of his most touching sonnets, and later in life, after a break that has never been adequately explained, Walpole encouraged him in his work and himself published Gray's most famous poem, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."

Gray went on to Cambridge after Eton, and it was there that he returned as a fellow some years after his undergraduate tenure. The quiet life of a teacher and scholar followed. Indeed, if he had not written a few of the most enduring poems in the language, his life would be of little interest.

What becomes clear as one looks at Gray's experience, however, was that he for the most part suppressed his deeply emotional attachment to members of his own sex, and only in later life did he actually express the love he felt for another man.

This man was Charles-Victor de Bonstettin, who came to Cambridge from Switzerland to study with the famous poet when Gray was in his early fifties. Gray fell for the young man in a devastating way and professed his love openly. Bonstettin was embarrassed by Gray's exuberance and declined his attentions. Soon, he returned to Switzerland to leave Gray only with the memory of sitting with him during the long Cambridge evenings.

Of course, we cannot be sure that Gray did not consummate his love for Bonstettin, or that there were not others with whom he had sexual adventures. It seems to me, however, that the only place he realized the power of his emotional attachments fully was in his poetry.

Gray's "Sonnet on the Death of Richard West" (1742), his "Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College" (1742), and his "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" (1751) are memorials to the love he felt for other young men: In the first, he mourns the loss of a friend; in the second, he imagines the world of boys at school and warns them of ill to come; and in the third, he imagines his own almost friendless end.

In the "Elegy," in fact, Gray talks about his own death in intimate terms, looks at his own corpse as it is carried to its grave, and even contemplates the grave itself. The poem ends with his own epitaph, in which he sees himself as a simple melancholy man, whose one wish was for a friend who could share that melancholy with him; he lies in hope of paternal forgiveness, and in fear of the hidden truths of his own soul.

These few lines are a part of our heritage, to be sure:

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth
A Youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.
Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,
And Melancholy marked him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,
Heav'n did a recompence as largely send:
He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear,
he gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,
Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,
(There they alike in trembling hope repose,)
The bosom of his Father and his God.

George E. Haggerty

     

 
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    Bibliography
   

Bentman, Raymond. "Thomas Gray and the Poetry of Hapless Love." Journal of the History of Sexuality 3 (1992): 203-222.

Haggerty, George E. "O lachrymarum fons: Tears, Poetry, and Desire in Gray." Eighteenth-Century Studies 30 (1996): 81-95.

_____."'The Voice of Nature' in Gray's Elegy." Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England: Literary Representations in Historical Context. Claude J. Summers. ed. New York: Haworth Press, 1992. 199-214.

Hagstrum, Jean. "Gray's Sensibility." Fearful Joy: Papers from the Thomas Gray Bicentenary Conference at Carleton University. J. Downey and B. Jones, eds. Montreal: McGill-Queens University, 1974. 6-19.

Rousseau, G. S. "The Pursuit of Homosexuality in the Eighteenth Century: 'Utterly Confused Category' and/or Rich Respository." Eighteenth-Century Life 9 (1985): 132-168.

Trumbach, Randolph. "London's Sodomites: Homosexual Behavior and Western Culture in the 18th Century." Journal of Social History 11 (1977): 1-33.

Watson-Smyth, Peter. "On Gray's Elegy." The Spectator (July 31, 1971): 171-174.

 

    Citation Information
         
    Author: Haggerty, George E.  
    Entry Title: Gray, Thomas  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
 
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 8, 2002  
    Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/gray_t.html  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
 
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  
 

 

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