Thomas Gray is the most accomplished craftsman of the transition period, and there is steady progress in his work from the sometimes colourless and often conventional odes of his youth to the striking felicities of the famous Elegy, and the brilliant manipulation of later Pindaric poems. His special contribution to poetry lies in the fastidious accuracy of his natural descriptions.
Here’s a list of the best Thomas Gray poems:
1. An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard
An Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard is Gray’s most popular poem and for long the most popular poem in the English language. The simple and slow-moving stanza form is here handled with great skill. The poem pens effectively by gradually emptying the landscape of both sights and sounds as dusk descends, and the elegiac, meditative tone is sustained throughout a variety of turns in the thought.
2. Hymn to Adversity
Hymn to Adversity is written in the praise of adversity which has been personified and regarded as one of the daughters of the supreme god Jove (Jupiter). The poem is moral and didactic and is intended to instruct the reader and to urge him to change his pattern of life if he is leading a sinful life.
3. Ode on the Death of Favourite Cat
Ode on the Death of Favourite Cat is based on an actual incident that occurred in the house of a friend of Gray’s. It is a deliberate application of highly formal diction to commonplace incident, in the tradition of mock-heroic and burlesque use of formal styles in the 18th century.
4. The Progress of Poesy
The Progress of Poesy is one of Gray’s most ambitious odes, highly wrought, deliberately ‘grand’ and with a sustained rhetorical excitement. The ideas in it were already commonplaces, but the attempt at grandeur was Gray’s own. The mood and tone vary with each stanza; there is deliberate rising and falling, the language sometimes mounts to ecstatic heights that tremble on the verge of the ludicrous and is sometimes content with rather a pedestrian periphrasis.
5. The Bard
The Bard is even more rhetorical in style than The Progress of Poesy. Most of the poem represents the bitter prophecy addressed by a Welsh bard to Edward I when Edward’s conquering army entered Wales, and Gray attempts to sustain the high note of heroic denunciation. The poem certainly, has rhetorical splendour, but Gray has not been able to avoid a suggestion of strained histrionics.
6. Ode on the Spring
Ode on the Spring has something poetical, both in the language and thought, but the language is too luxuriant and the thoughts have nothing new. It is characterised by several romantic qualities though also bears the eighteenth-century stamp in the form of personification and a lot of moralising.
7. On the Death of Mr. Richard West
The poem of Gray’s that Words worth objected to was his sonnet On the Death of Richard West; but in fact, the artificiality of diction to which Wordsworth took exception is part of the carefully wrought texture of a happily stylized poem. The sonnet was not a form used to any degree by neo-classic poets, and in employing it Gray was again helping to restore to English poetry one of its lost resources. But the conventions on which the poem is built are wholly neo-classic. The treatment of grief is highly conventional and the Latinized diction adds a further note of stylization. Yet it is the conventionality and the stylization that make the poem.
8. Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College
Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College is in the form of a Horatian ode, in regular, lyric stanzas. The poet does not celebrate the greatness of his old school or express the nostalgia generally expected from an alumnus. Instead, as he watches the boys at play, he anticipates the misfortune and tragedies they are sure to meet in later life.
9. The Fatal Sisters
The Fatal Sisters, adapted from a Latin version of a Norse poem, is not a Pindaric but written in simple four-line stanzas with alternating rhyme and trochaic beat (seven syllables to a line). It has a melodramatic air in spite of its ballad suggestions. Samuel Johnson objected to what he described as ‘glittering accumulations of ungraceful ornaments” and to images magnified by affectation. And, indeed, we are rather too conscious of Gray’s straining after-effect. It is significant that both Johnson and Wordsworth lashed Gray for the artificiality of his diction.
10. The Descent of Odin
The Descent of Odin is the second of Gray’s Norse odes is based on the poem known as Baldrs draumar (Balder’s Dreams). The poem contained many of the themes that would become familiar in Norse-inflected poetry during the Romantic era: the descent to the underworld, the waking of the dead, the use of magic incantations etc.