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CHILDHOOD AND EARLY COLLEGE LIFE.
THOMAS GRAY was born at his father's house in Cornhill, on the 26th of December, 1716. Of his ancestry nothing is known. Late in life, when he was a famous poet, Baron Gray of Gray in Forfarshire claimed him as a relation, but with characteristic serenity he put the suggestion from him. "I know no pretence," he said to Beattie, "that I have to the honour Lord Gray is pleased to do me ; but if his Lordship chooses to own me, it certainly is not my business to deny it." The only proof of his connexion with this ancient family is that he possessed a bloodstone seal, which had belonged to his father, engraved with Lord Gray's arms, gules a Lion rampant, within a bordure engrailed argent. These have been accepted at Pembroke College as the poet's arms, but as a matter of fact we may say that he sprang on both sides from the lower-middle classes. His paternal grandfather had been a successful merchant, and died leaving Philip, apparently his only son, a fortune of 10,000. Through various vicissitudes this money passed, at length almost
reaching the poet's hands in no very much diminished quantity, for Philip Gray seems to have been as clever in business as he was extravagant. He was born July 27, 1676. Towards his thirtieth year he married Miss Dorothy Antrobus, a Buckinghamshire lady, about twenty years of age, who, with her sister Mary, a young woman three years her senior, kept a milliner's shop in the city. They belonged, however, to a genteel family, for the remaining sister, Anna, was the wife of a prosperous country lawyer, Mr. Jonathan Rogers, and the two brothers, Robert and Thomas Antrobus, were fellows of Cambridge colleges, and afterwards tutors at Eton. These five persons take a prominent place in the subsequent life of the poet, whereas he never mentions any
of the Grays. His father had certainly one sister, Mrs. Oliffe, a woman of violent temper, who married a gentleman of Norfolk, and was well out of the way till after the death of Gray's mother, when she began to haunt him, and only died two or three months before he did. She seems to have resembled Philip Gray in character, for the poet, always singularly respectful and loyal to his other elderly relations, calls her “the Spawn of Cerberus upon the Dragon of Wantley."
Dorothy Gray was unfortunate in her married life ; her husband was violent, jealous, and probably mad. Of her twelve children, Thomas was the only one whom she reared, but Mason is doubtless wrong in saying that the eleven who died were all suffocated by infantile convulsions. Mrs. Gray speaks in her “case” of the expense of providing “all manner of apparel for her children.” Thomas, however, certainly would have died as an infant, but that his mother, finding him in a fit, opened a vein with her scissors, by that
means relieving the determination of blood to the brain. His father neglected him, and he was brought up by his mother and his aunt Mary. He also mentions with touching affection, in speaking of the death of a Mrs. Bonfoy in 1763, that "she taught me to pray." Home life at Cornhill was rendered miserable by the cruelties of the father, and it seems that the boy's uncle, Robert Antrobus, took him away to his own house at Burnham, in Bucks. This gentleman was a fellow of Peterhouse, as his younger brother Thomas was of King's College, Cambridge. With Robert the boy studied botany, and became learned, according to Horace Walpole, in the virtues of herbs and simples. Unfortunately this uncle died on January 23, 1729, at the age of fifty; there still
; exists a copy of Waller's Poems, in which Gray has written his own name, with this date ; perhaps it was an heirloom of his uncle.
In one of Philip Gray's fits of extravagance he seems to have had a full-length of his son painted, about this time, by the fashionable portrait-painter of the day, Jonathan Richardson the elder. This picture is now in the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. The head is good in colour and modelling; a broad pale brow, sharp nose and chin, large eyes, and a pert expression give a lively idea of the precocious and not very healthy young gentleman of thirteen. He is dressed in a blue satin coat, lined with pale shot silk, and crosses his stockinged legs so as to display dapper slippers of russet leather. His father, however, absolutely refused to educate him, and he was sent to Eton, about 1727, under the auspices of his uncles, and at the expense of his mother. On the 26th of April of the same year, a smart child of ten with the airs of a little dancing-master, a child who
was son of a prime minister, and had kissed the king's hand, entered the same school ; and some intellectual impulse brought them together directly in a friendship that was to last, with a short interval, until the death of one of them more than forty years afterwards.
It is not certain that Horace Walpole at once adopted that attitude of frivolous worship which he preserved towards Gray in later life. He was a brilliant little social meteor at Eton, and Gray was probably attracted first to him. Yet it was characteristic of the poet throughout life that he had always to be sought, and even at Eton his talents may have attracted Walpole’s notice. At all events, they became fast friends, and fostered in one another intellectual pretensions of an alarming nature. Both were oppidans and not collegers, and therefore it is difficult to trace them minutely at Eton. But we know that they “never made an expedition against bargemen, or won a match at cricket,” for this Walpole confesses ; but they wandered through the playing fields at Eton tending a visionary flock, and “sighing out some pastoral name to the echo of the cascade under the bridge” which spans Chalvey Brook. An avenue of lime among the elms is still named the “ Poet's Walk," and is connected by tradition with Gray. They were a pair of weakly little boys, and in these days of brisk athletic training would hardly be allowed to exist. Another amiable and gentle boy, still more ailing than themselves, was early drawn to them by sympathy: this was Richard West, a few months younger than Gray and older than Walpole, a son of the Richard West who was made Lord Chancellor of Ireland when he was only thirty-five, and who then immediately died ; his mother's father, dead before young
1 Richard's birth, had been the famous Bishop Gilbert Bur
net. A fourth friend was Thomas Ashton, who soon slips out of our history, but who survived until 1775.
These four boys formed a “ quadruple alliance” of the warmest friendship. West seemed the genius among them; he was a nervous and precocious lad, who made verses in his sleep, cultivated not only a public Latin Muse, but also a private English one, and dazzled his companions by the ease and fluency of his pen. His poetical remains, to which we shall presently return, since they are intimately connected with the development of Gray's genius, are of sufficient merit to permit us to believe that had he lived he might have achieved a reputation among the minor poets of his age. Neither Shenstone nor Beattie had written anything so considerable when they reached the age at which West died. His character was extremely winning, and in his correspondence with Gray, as far as it has been preserved, we find him at first the more serious and the more affectionate friend. But the symptoms of his illness, which seem to have closely resembled those of Keats, destroyed the superficial sweetness of his nature, and towards the end we find Gray the more sober and the more manly of the two.
Besides the inner circle of Walpole, West, and Ashton, there was an outer ring of Eton friends, whose names have been preserved in connexion with Gray's. Among these was George Montagu, grand-nephew of the great Earl of Halifax; Stonehewer, a very firm and loyal friend, with whom Gray's intimacy deepened to the end of his life ; Clarke, afterwards a fashionable physician at Epsom; and Jacob Bryant, the antiquary, whose place in class was next to Gray's through one term. With these he doubtless shared those delights of swimming, birds'-nesting, hoops and trap-ball, which he has described,