Appendix 24: Gray’s Elegy and FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat

Prefatory Note: In what follows, Northup = C.S. Northup, A Bibliography of Thomas Gray (Yale, 1917).and Corr = The Correspondence of Thomas Gray edited by Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley (Oxford University Press, 1935) – in 3 volumes with pages numbered consecutively (eg Corr.1.371 = p.371 in vol.1.) As elsewhere on this site, verse references to The Rubaiyat are to the first edition, unless otherwise stated, and references like I.15 refer to volume 1 of the Terhunes edition of FitzGerald’s Letters. As in other sections of this archive, the illustrations can be browsed here.

Dr Johnson, in his Life of Gray (1781), said that the Elegy “ abounds with images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo.” Much the same has been said many times of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat – thus, for example, Ambrose George Potter, in the Introduction to A Bibliography of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1929), said of FitzGerald and Omar, that they have “the touch of common humanity which makes ages kin” and that they said “what all men feel in their hearts.” Of course, the two works approach the same issues of human mortality from very different directions – the one from the English countryside, the other from exotic Persia – but that is precisely what makes their comparison interesting.

Anthony Briggs, in his essay “The Similar Lives and Different Destinies of Thomas Gray, Edward FitzGerald and A. E. Housman” (1), looks at some interesting parallels – and differences – between the lives and works of the three poets. Of course, since all lives can be characterised by a relatively small number of parameters – parents, siblings, friends, lovers, sexuality, education, career etc – some parallels are almost bound to occur in the lives of any two people, and so they are not necessarily significant of anything beyond the power of chance, though some may of course arise from such things as a common interplay of nature and nurture. Nevertheless, the parallels – taken together with the differences – do make an interesting subject for study provided we do not try to read too much into them. Here we concentrate just on Gray and FitzGerald.

Thomas Gray was born in London in 1716, the fifth of twelve children, all apart from him dying in infancy. In contrast, FitzGerald was the sixth of eight children, all of whom survived infancy – two brothers (both older than him) and five sisters (three older and two younger than him – his oldest sister dying at eighteen.)(I.15) Briggs errs when he compares the mothers of Gray and FitzGerald – it was Gray’s father, not his mother, who was the dysfunctional parent. By all accounts, Gray’s father was an ill–tempered, aggressive man who was a persistent wife–beater. Gray’s mother, in contrast, doted on him, and, unlike FitzGerald and his mother, the two are buried together in the same tomb (2a). In fact, it was Gray’s mother who, with the help of her brothers and sisters, paid for Thomas to go to Eton in 1725, in part to get him away from his father and a dreadful home life. It was at Eton that he met three like–minded, poetically inclined, and studious fellow pupils who were to remain life–long friends — Horace Walpole, Richard West and Thomas Ashton. They dubbed themselves the Quadruple Alliance. Gray’s time at Eton was probably one of the happiest of his life — hence his poem “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College”, though it, like many of his poems, was also tinged with a sense of melancholy. Gray, Walpole and Ashton went on to Cambridge, whilst West became somewhat separated from the others when he went on to Oxford. As it was to turn out, Gray was to be associated with Cambridge for the rest of his life, first at Peterhouse, later at Pembroke. The full details need not concern us here, but having gone to Cambridge in 1734, after taking two years out to do the Grand Tour with Walpole (1739–41) he returned there in 1742 as a Fellow Commoner, gaining a degree as a Bachelor of Civil Law in 1743. Not that he had any intention of practising law – that was more a case of what his family wanted him to do – but his legal studies served as a cover for studying what he wanted when he wanted, his lifestyle being funded partly by his family and partly by an inheritance from his father’s sister. Later, in 1768, Gray was awarded an official academic post – as a Professor of Modern History. It was hardly an arduous post, and basically he just continued as he had done as a mere Fellow Commoner – studying what he wanted when he wanted. In Cambridge he lived the quiet life of an academic recluse, interspersed with trips to London (he pretty much lived there from 1759–61), summer visits to Stoke Poges to see his mother and her sisters, and sight–seeing trips round England and Scotland.

It is said of both Gray and FitzGerald that being of a somewhat shy and retiring nature, they did not make friends easily, and could appear aloof or even haughty at first meeting, but that when they did form friendships they tended to be firm and long–lasting. Like Gray, FitzGerald formed close and life–long friendships at school — in his case, King Edward VI Grammar School, Bury St. Edmunds. These were with James Spedding, John Mitchell Kemble, William Bodham Donne and William Airy, all of whom went on to Cambridge. (Though Tennyson was at Cambridge at the same time, FitzGerald’s famous friendship with him developed only in post–Cambridge days.) FitzGerald, of course, though he went on to live a somewhat reclusive life of study interspersed with travels hither and thither, did not continue on at Cambridge or hold any academic post. Even so, there is a not very flattering parallel to be drawn: both (particularly FitzGerald) had enough money to shelter them from the real world, which at that time was very harsh for most people. The saving grace, though, is that both realised it.

Both Gray and FitzGerald were profoundly affected by the early deaths of friends. In Gray’s case, it was Richard West’s early death from consumption in 1742, at the age of only 26 – hence his “Sonnet on the Death of Mr Richard West”, and, perhaps, the beginnings of his “Elegy.”(3a) In FitzGerald’s case, it was the early death, as the result of a riding accident, of the 43 years old William Kenworthy Browne, that had a profound effect on him. But though there are superficial similarities in these events, there are greater differences. West was much the same age as Gray, and of the same academically inclined nature as him. (3b) Browne, however, was seven years younger than FitzGerald, and not in the least academically inclined. (4) There was a parallel in Gray’s life to FitzGerald’s relationship with the younger Browne, and this was his relationship with Charles–Victor de Bonstetten, a young Swiss man aged 24 who had come to England to study. This relationship began, in 1769, effectively with the then 53 years old Gray as master, and Bonstatten his student. But Gray developed a fascination for and deep emotional attraction to the handsome young man which (as in the case of FitzGerald’s relationship with Browne) has given rise to speculation of latent homosexuality (5). Unlike Browne, though, Bonstatten did not die young – he outlived Gray and lived to a ripe old age – he died in 1832, aged 87. Unlike Browne, too, Bonstatten was academically inclined.

In the face of charges of latent homosexuality in both Gray and FitzGerald, there is another rather curious parallel in their lives – at one stage both formed strong bonds with women friends which might have led to marriage: Gray with Henrietta Jane Speed (later to marry a French nobleman); FitzGerald with Elizabeth Charlesworth (later to marry Edward Byles Cowell).(6a) Of course, FitzGerald did marry Lucy Barton, a disastrous and short–lived marriage for which there is certainly no parallel in Gray’s life!

It is a curious fact that both Gray and FitzGerald were destined to become famous effectively for only one of their works, the early editions of which did not bear the author’s name. The title pages of the third edition of the Elegy and the first edition of the Rubaiyat are shown in Fig.1 & Fig.2 respectively – note the symbols of Death in the black bands across the former! (The central symbol is an hour–glass.) Related to this self–imposed anonymity is the curious fact that neither Gray nor FitzGerald actively sought literary fame, and indeed it has been said of both that they shunned it; still less did either seek monetary reward for their labours. Both were modest about their achievements; and both were rather bemused by literary recognition when it came. Gray never thought that his Elegy would cause a stir. In a letter to Thomas Wharton dated December 18th 1750, Gray said that his poem was really only ever intended to be read by a few friends, and that such “superlative Things” were being said about it that he was quite embarrassed to repeat them (Corr.1.335.) Likewise, FitzGerald was bemused when his Rubaiyat stirred up what he called “a little Craze” in America (letter to Bernard Quaritch dated August 24th 1872 – III.371.) “I believe it is the strong–minded American Ladies who have chiefly taken it up,” he wrote in a letter to Mrs Tennyson in December 1872, but added, “they will soon have something wickeder to digest, I dare say.” (III.389) When, in May 1883, just over a month before his death, he sent his executor William Aldis Wright a box containing all his manuscripts and papers, he wrote in a covering letter: “I do not suppose it likely that any of my works should be reprinted after my death.” (IV.578.) One wonders what FitzGerald would have made of the “Omar Cult” which developed some twenty years after his death!

It is not known precisely when Gray began the Elegy. He possibly made a start on it at the death of his close friend Richard West, mentioned above. All that is known for certain is that it was finished in 1750; that he sent a copy of it to Walpole, without, at that stage, having any plans to publish it; that Walpole circulated copies among his friends, who in turn circulated further copies among their friends (6b); that one such copy ended up in the hands of a rather second–rate publication called The Magazine of Magazines, who announced their intention to publish it; and that to forestall that event, Gray enlisted Walpole’s help to publish it first in a quarto pamphlet form (7). That was in 1751. In contrast to Gray publishing his Elegy in book form to prevent it being published first in The Magazine of Magazines, FitzGerald sent a sample of his verses to Fraser’s Magazine, but having them ignored, went ahead and published them himself. And in contrast with FitzGerald’s identity remaining generally unknown for some years, Gray’s was known within days, thanks to the Elegy appearing in The Magazine of Magazines directly in the wake of the book version.

But to get back to parallels, the Elegy and the Rubaiyat are both made up of quatrains each line of which consists of ten syllables (8) (though the rhyming patterns are different – Gray’s Elegy is abab; The Rubaiyat is aaba) and the opening verses of both are singularly evocative, though FitzGerald rather spoiled his opening verse after his first edition. Not only this, but both works were to lead to a multitude of illustrated, decorated, and illuminated editions (9); both were to give rise to translations into many languages (10) and to lead to editions in which the verses were translated into several languages in parallel (11), though The Rubaiyat much more than the Elegy; and both were to invite parodies (12) – it is perhaps unfortunate that the word “elegy” is so like the word “allergy” and “Gray” like “Grey”! (13) Again, though both the Elegy and The Rubaiyat were to be set to music (14), only Omar Khayyam ever became the subject of novels and movies (15). Finally, though both the Elegy and the Rubaiyat have been used in commercial advertising, the latter has been used much more – perhaps not surprisingly given the exoticism of Omar. Fig.3 is a use of the Elegy as a promotional booklet for H.R. Boyer’s Millinery House, Reading, Pennsylvania. (It is undated, but c.1890. Fig.3a is the front cover; Fig.3b the back cover. A similar promotional booklet featured Longfellow’s Village Blacksmith, incidentally.] Fig.4 is an advertising leaflet for the Courvoisiers range of Omar Khayyam beauty products (c.1912) and Fig.5 is an advertisement for Eagle Shirts from The Saturday Evening Post (Oct 2nd1920.)

Not that too much stress should be laid on such parallels. Illustrations sell books, and an immense number of poets have been illustrated as a result – possibly Tennyson more than any. Plus any hugely popular work invites both translation and parody – even Tennyson’s In Memoriam has been parodied, and more than once! (16) As for uses in advertising, here in the 21st century nothing should surprise us. The Mona Lisa has been used to advertise Colgate toothpaste, Chanel Boutique of Paris, and travel by Air India, for example, whilst many people reading this will still think of Hovis bread whenever they hear Dvorak’s New World symphony.

Again, though both Gray and FitzGerald were well versed in Latin and Greek, Gray never translated his Elegy into Latin himself, whereas FitzGerald did translate some of his Rubaiyat into Latin. Again, though Gray’s Elegy remained pretty much unchanged in all editions from its first appearance in 1751 (17), FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat appeared in four different editions, all republished numerous times after their first appearances in 1859, 1868, 1872 and 1879 respectively. Yet again, the Elegy brought Gray great fame within his lifetime (it was reprinted five times in 1751 alone), and though The Rubaiyat involved a now legendary discovery by the Pre–Raphaelites in 1861, FitzGerald’s fame was largely posthumous. Finally, though Gray was to have a impressive (though many regard it as hideous!) monument erected in his honour in Stoke Poges in 1799, a monument bearing verses from his Elegy and lines from his “Ode on the Distant Prospect of Eton College” (Fig.6), FitzGerald earned only a couple of easily missed plaques in Woodbridge, and a street there named after him. In addition, whilst Gray was to have his memorial monument in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey erected as early as 1778 (Fig.7), FitzGerald has still not achieved this distinction, nor seems ever likely to, given the impious nature of The Rubaiyat.

Their ends, too, were quite different: Gray died, probably of kidney disease, in 1771, aged 54. FitzGerald died, probably of heart failure, in 1883, aged 74. As indicated earlier, Gray was buried with his mother; FitzGerald well away from his!

Though there Omarian elements in Gray’s Elegy – “the paths of glory lead but to the grave”, for example (see notes on verse 16) – The Rubaiyat and the Elegy are really very different works, despite the common theme of human mortality. The Elegy is in no way Epicurean in FitzGerald’s sense – there is none of the “Better be merry with the fruitful Grape &c” of his v.39, for example; and though the Rubaiyat is despairing in some places (eg “this sorry Scheme of Things” in v.73) and grieving in others (eg “Lo! some we loved, the loveliest and the best &c” in v.21), it is not Melancholic in the literary sense of Gray’s Elegy. FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat has a sort of devil–may–care attitude about it; Gray’s Elegy is, if you will pardon the pun, in deadly earnest. Gray belongs firmly with the so–called “Graveyard Poets”, which FitzGerald’s Omar could never have done.

The term “Graveyard Poets” merits some explanation (18). In the 17th but mainly in the 18th centuries a curious fashion developed for the poetic contemplation of the transience of human life and the simple fact that all of us – rich and poor, powerful and weak, educated and uneducated – alike face the same fate: the Grave! An early example was Thomas Parnell’s Night-piece on Death, first published in 1722 (and, by a curious irony, posthumously!) (19), but the classic examples of the genre were Robert Blair’s The Grave, first published in 1743 (Appendix 12b), and Edward Young’s Night Thoughts, first published in the period 1742 to 1746 (Appendix 12c). Both went through many editions, and were popular well into the 19th and even into the early 20th centuries. But there were many others. “Evening Reflections written in Westminster Abbey” by G.W. (which was actually written in the style of Gray’s Elegy) and “Night Thoughts among the Tombs” by the Reverend Mr Moore, are two examples (20). The cheerily titled “Death: a Poem” by Bishop Beilby Porteus (written in 1759) is another (21).

The basic theme of the Elegy is that the exalted dead entombed in the likes of Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral, magnificent places of worship with their “long–drawn aisle and fretted vault” (l.39), are ultimately of no more consequence than the rustic dead in a country churchyard: the “storied urn or animated bust” (l.41) of the former are compared with the “uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture” (l.79) of the latter. As FitzOmar put it, all “Alike to no such aureate Earth are turn’d / As, buried once, Men want dug up again.” (v.15) In the face of Death, all are equal (cf Appendix 12a), including the Poet (presumed to be Gray himself) who rather obscurely appears in the third person in ll.93ff, and with whose Epitaph the Elegy closes.

But not only are all equal in death, all might have been equal in life, given the chance. In a country churchyard lie “hands that the rod of empire might have swayed, / Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre” (l.47-8), but these people never had the opportunity to achieve their full potential simply on account of an accident of birth – a theme not to be found in Omar, of course. That Gray believed in the benefits of education for all is clear both from the Elegy and from his uncompleted poem, with its full cumbersome title, “The Necessary Alliance between a good Form of Government and a Mode of Education, in order to produce the Happiness of Mankind” (Reeves p.22-3.) “Full many a flower is born to blush unseen / And waste its sweetness on the desert air” (l.55-6) as Gray puts it, perhaps inviting a distant parallel with FitzGerald’s Rose in v.13: “Lo, laughing,” she says, “into the World I blow:/ At once the silken Tassel of my Purse / Tear, and its Treasure on the Garden throw.”

Gray was very conscious of the inequalities doled out by Fate (see Notes on verse 14.) He himself went to Eton, but in his “Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College” he talked of “The ministers of human fate, / And black Misfortune’s baleful train” (l.56-7.) In his “Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes” (the cat was Walpole’s) he tells us how “Malignant Fate sat by and smiled” (l.28) as the accident happened. And in “Ode on the Spring” he refers to “the hand of rough Mischance” (l.38). This last comes in an interesting Omarian context. After describing a swarm of insects hovering in the sunshine, he writes (ll.31ff):

To Contemplation’s sober eye
Such is the race of man:
And they that creep, and they that fly,
Shall end where they began.
Alike the busy and the gay
But flitter through life�s little day,
In fortune’s varying colours dressed:
Brushed by the hand of rough Mischance,
Or chilled by age, their airy dance
They leave in dust to rest.

This, of course, is one of many similar analogies of the human condition, akin to Omar’s “Millions of Bubbles” analogy (2nd ed, v.47 – see Chapter 11 of the main essay, the section on Millais.) Likewise the chess piece and polo ball analogies of verses 74 & 75 of the 2nd edition.

But getting back to the Elegy, now, also aligned to The Rubaiyat are Gray’s lines, “Can storied urn or animated bust / Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath ?” (l.41-2) which invite comparison with Omar’s lines “the Flower that once has blown forever dies” (v.26) and “once dead you never shall return” (v.34). As regards a life after death, Gray holds out a “trembling hope” that the dead will continue on in the bosom of God (l.127–8) — a belief more clearly expressed in his “Epitaph on Mrs Mason” (22):

Tell them, though ‘tis an awful thing to die,
(’Twas e’en to thee) yet the dread path once trod,
Heaven lifts its everlasting portals high,
And bids the pure in heart behold their God.

Omar, of course, was considerably more sceptical. Though he mentions “the Prophet’s Paradise to come” (2nd ed, v.13), he is doubtful of its promised pleasures (2nd ed, v.65). He complains of “the Veil through which I could not see” (2nd ed, v.35) and adds, “Strange is it not ?” that, of all those who have died before us, “not one returns to tell us of the Road / Which to discover we must travel too.” (2nd ed, v.67.)

Gray’s religious beliefs are not dissimilar to FitzGerald’s, though he was perhaps a more orthodox Christian than FitzGerald, possibly for not having been so exposed to the march of Science. In a letter to Richard West, written in Turin in 1739 (Nov.16th N.S.), whilst on the Grand Tour, he described how, “in our little journey up to the Grande Chartreuse” he had seen “certain scenes that would awe an atheist into belief, without the help of other argument.” (Corr.1.128.) Again, though he admired the genius of Voltaire, “he hated him, as he hated Hume, because, as he said, he thought him an enemy to religion.” (23) Gray regarded irreligion as “taking away the best consolation of man without substituting any thing of equal value in its place.” (24a) In a letter to Walpole dated 17th March 1771, Gray wrote: “Atheism is a vile dish, tho’ all the cooks of France combine to make new sauces to it.” (Corr. 3.1175) (24b)

As regards the matter of an Afterlife, in a letter to his mother on the occasion of the death of her sister, Mary Antrobus, in 1749, he dwelt upon her release from suffering, adding that, “if we reflect upon what she felt in this life, we may look upon this as an instance of His goodness both to her, and to those that loved her.” He went on, “However you may deplore your own loss, yet think that she is at last easy and happy; and has now more occasion to pity us than we her.” (Letter dated Nov. 7th, 1749 — Corr.1.324–5.) And yet, in addition to the “trembling hope” of the promised Christian afterlife in the Elegy, whilst he believed in “a God”, he had no great inclination towards the Church, as he tells us in the “Sketch of his Own Character” — a self–portrait which, alas, FitzGerald never left us:

Too poor for a bribe and too proud to importune,
He had not the method of making a fortune:
Could love and could hate, so was thought somewhat odd;
No very great wit, he believed in a God.
A post or a pension he did not desire,
But left church and state to Charles Townshend and Squire.

FitzGerald, of course, was also thought “somewhat odd”, earning himself the nickname of “Dotty” amongst the children of Woodbridge!

I cannot resist closing with one final curious parallel between Gray and FitzGerald: the difficulty of finding the churches in whose graveyards they are buried! When I visited FitzGerald’s grave at Boulge in September 2011, it was only after knocking on a door and asking directions that I managed to find a hand–made sign saying “To the Church.” As for Gray’s grave at Stoke Poges, it has been said that it is as if the locals deliberately wanted to confuse people by locating the church a good mile south of the centre of the village. When I visited it in November 2015, the church was not well–known enough to avoid the bus driver dropping me off at the wrong church, and, as at Boulge, I was eventually reduced to knocking on a door to ask directions. “You see that thing there,” the lady said, with little reverence, pointing across a field behind her house, “that’s Gray’s monument and the church is just behind that.”


Note 1. Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: Popularity and Neglect edited by Adrian Poole, Christine van Ruymbeke, William H. Martin and Sandra Mason (2011), p.73–92.

Note 2a. Gray and his mother, together with her sister, Mary Antrobus, are buried together at the Church of St. Giles, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire (generally thought to be the country churchyard of the Elegy – but see note 2b below.) (Fig.8.) FitzGerald, in death as in life, chose to be buried outside the family mausoleum at the Church of St. Michael & All Angels, Boulge, Suffolk. (Fig.9) FitzGerald’s grave is the horizontal slab decorated with an elaborate cross; the family mausoleum is the building in the background.

Note 2b. Stoke Poges is undoubtedly the main contender, with a wonderfully romanticised account of the genesis of the Elegy there being given in F. McDermott’s book, specially compiled for the Penn–Gray Society, William Penn, Thomas Gray and an Account of the Historical Associations of Stoke Poges (1930), p.12–3. So firm is this belief that, to take just a couple of examples, at least one edition of the Elegy bears a title–page vignette of Stoke Poges Church (Fig.15a) and when The Heritage Press of New York commissioned Agnes Miller Parker to illustrate their edition of Elegy written in a Country Churchyard (1951), they sent her to Stoke Poges to do it. There are four other contenders for the honour, though: Upton, near Slough; Grantchester and Madingley, both near Cambridge; and Thanington, near Canterbury. Others regard the churchyard of the Elegy as simply generic. See Francis Griffin Stokes, An Elegy written in a Country Churchyard by Thomas Gray (1929), Appendix B.

Note 3a. It is generally thought that the friend referred to in the last line of the second verse of the Epitaph is West. In addition, a quatrain in one of West’s own poems, “Monody on the Death of Queen Caroline” (Canto V, lines 5–8), reads thus:

Ah me! What boots us all our boasted power,
Our golden treasure, and our purpled state ?
They cannot ward th’inevitable hour,
Nor stay the fearful violence of Fate.

As R.W. Ketton–Cremer points out, in his Thomas Gray: a Biography (1955), p.98, the metre, format and mood of this could well have been a contributory impulse of the Elegy. (For West’s verse, and other precursors of the format of the Elegy, see also Edmund W. Gosse, Gray (1882), p.98–9.)

Note 3b. West being of Gray’s own age, this friendship bears comparison with the friendship between Tennyson & Hallam. Gray’s “Sonnet on the Death of Mr Richard West” was paralleled, though much more elaborately, by Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Gray also wrote a poem in Latin lamenting the death of West — see Ketton–Cremer p.58.

Note 4. After Browne’s death, FitzGerald entered into a relationship with another much younger (and married) man, Joseph ‘Posh’ Fletcher, who was 20 years his junior. ‘Posh’, like Browne, did not share FitzGerald’s academic interests.

Note 5. For Gray, see James Reeves, The Complete English Poems of Thomas Gray (1973): “There can be little doubt that he was homosexual, and both his faith and the law forbade him to be open about this.” (p.21) For FitzGerald, see Chapter 14 of the main essay. Briggs likewise characterises both Gray and FitzGerald as “(probably latent) homosexuals living in ages when that tendency was socially unmentionable.” (p.77) In the postscript of a letter to Norton Nicholls dated 6th January 1770, Gray wrote of Bonstetten, “I never saw such a boy: our breed is not made on this model.” (Corr. 3.1112.) Likewise, FitzGerald, in a letter to Bernard Barton written in the spring of 1839, wrote of W. K. Browne that “his like is not to be seen” (I.225), and in a letter to Frederick Spalding, written in May 1867, he described Posh Fletcher as looking “as good an Image of the Mould that Man was originally cast in, as you may chance to see in the Temple of The Maker in these Days.” (III.27) Other descriptions of Browne and Posh by FitzGerald can be found in note 67 of the Main Essay.

Note 6a. For Gray, see, Ketton–Cremer p.103–7, p.172–5; for FitzGerald, see Chapter 14 of the main essay.

Note 6b. It seems to have been one of Walpole’s circulated copies of the Elegy which resulted in Gray meeting Miss Speed when on a visit to see his aunts at Stoke Poges, she being, by one of those strange coincidences of Fate, being resident there at that time (Ketton–Cremer p.102ff.)

Note 7. For details see Ketton–Cremer p.107f; Gosse p.103–4.

Note 8. Heroic Quatrains framed in iambic pentameters, to use the correct terminology. The iambic pentameter is frequently found in Shakespeare, as in those very familiar lines, “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks ?” and “Now is the winter of our discontent.”

Note 9. The earliest example was Designs by Mr R. Bentley for Six Poems by Mr T. Gray, published by R. Dodsley in 1753. [Northup #178.] See Fig.10 — 10a) shows the Frontispiece; 10b) the Headpiece and Initial Letter; 10c) the Tailpiece; and 10d) Bentley’s explanations of his plates. Gray himself chose the title of the book – so impressed was he with Bentley’s work that, in a letter to Dodsley dated 12th February 1753, he actually said he regarded his verses as “only subordinate, & explanatory to the Drawings”! (Corr. 1.371.) He even composed some “Stanzas to Mr. Bentley” to express his gratitude and admiration! [See Ketton–Cremer p.111–4.] [Browse illustrations.] It would have been interesting to have had FitzGerald’s reactions to some of the many illustrated editions of his Rubaiyat, but alas none were published during his lifetime. However, in contrast to Gray’s enthusiastic response to Bentley’s illustrations of his work we do have FitzGerald’s less than enthusiastic response to two proposed illustrations of his work.

In January 1868 FitzGerald had the idea of having an illustration of the Magic Lantern in v.73 of the upcoming second edition of The Rubaiyat to be used as a “Vignette Title.” He hoped it would be done by “an old Woodbridge artist (now in London)” whom the Terhunes tentatively identify as G.J. Rowe. FitzGerald didn’t like it, though, and consequently it was never used. (III.78–9) Then, in 1871, the artist Edwin Edwards, a friend of FitzGerald’s, designed an illustration for the same verse, by now v. 68 of the upcoming third edition of The Rubaiyat (Fig.11), neatly showing “this Sun–illumin’d Lantern held / in Midnight by the Master of the Show.” FitzGerald didn’t like this either, though, and didn’t use it. In fact, it remained unused in any published edition of The Rubaiyat until Thomas B. Mosher included it as an insert in five copies of his limited edition in 1902 (Potter #289.) [Though the illustration remained unused by FitzGerald, some 20 to 25 copies of it were actually struck off by Edwards’ wife, Mosher having apparently acquired five of them. See G.S. Layard, “An Omar Khayyam Curiosity”, in The Bookman, April 1902, p.13–15. Layard’s article was later reproduced, slightly edited and with an addition about Mosher’s edition at the end, as chapter 9 of his book Suppressed Plates (1907). Layard quotes the brief mention of the plate in W.F. Prideaux, Notes for a Bibliography of Edward FitzGerald (1901), p.35–6.] {For the sake of completeness, we should perhaps add that FitzGerald’s fourth edition of 1879, which featured Jami’s Salaman and Absal as well as Omar’s Rubaiyat, had a frontispiece (Fig.12), and one which might well have applied to verse 70 of that edition (“The Ball no question makes of Ayes and Noes, / But Here or There as strikes the Player goes &c.”) But in letters to Bernard Quaritch written in January 1879, FitzGerald specifically referred to it as “the frontispiece to Salaman” (IV.175 & 176), as he had used it in the first edition of his translation of that poem in 1856 (IV.176 n.1). In actual fact, though, he borrowed the illustration from Sir William Ouseley’s Travels in Various Countries of the East, more particularly Persia (1819), vol.1, plate XXII, the plate being taken by Ouseley from a work of Hafiz. FitzGerald’s caption beneath Fig.12 is similar to Ouseley’s translation from Hafiz – see Ouseley vol.1, Appendix 6, p.352–3.}

But to return to Gray, in 1797, John Flaxman commissioned William Blake to do 116 watercolour illustrations of Gray’s poems, including the Elegy, as a gift for his wife Ann. Though Blake clearly had in mind their publication in book form to accompany the poems, this was not actually done until the 20th century (too late for Northup), the paintings having been lost for many years until rediscovered, uncatalogued, in the library of Hamilton Palace when it was about to be demolished. (Figs.13a & 13b) [For details see Irene Taylor, Blake’s Illustrations to the Poems of Gray (1971), p.3–4. Various facsimile editions of Blake’s illustrations have been published: William Blake’s designs for Gray’s Poems, with an introduction by H.J.C. Grierson (Oxford University Press, 1922) was the first, this being a limited edition of 650 copies; William Blake’s Watercolour Designs for the Poems of Thomas Gray with an introduction and commentary by Geoffrey Keynes (3 vols, Trianon Press, London, 1972), this being a limited edition of 518 copies; and Poems of Thomas Gray, with Watercolour Illustrations by William Blake (2 vols, The Folio Society, London, 2013), this being a limited edition of 1000 copies which incorporates the text of Irene Taylor’s major study mentioned above.]

A significant and well–known illustrated edition was Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray, published by John van Voorst in London in 1834. Its illustrations consisted of engravings based on paintings by G. Barret, Copley Fielding, J. Constable, G. Cattermole, T Stothard, P. Dewint, W. Boxall, S.A. Hart, Thomas Landseer, Frank Howard, W.Westall, A.W. Callcott, J.H. Nixon, A. Cooper, W. Mulready, J.W. Wright, Charles Landseer, J.J. Chalon, H. Howard, R. Westall, Thales Fielding, C.R. Stanley, & W. Collins. [Northup #591] (Figs.14a, 14b & 14c) A second edition of this appeared in 1839. A rather nice reprint of van Voorst’s edition(s), but with the engravings coloured, was published in America in 1850 by George S. Appleton of Philadelphia & D. Appleton of New York. [under Northup #599] [Browse illustrations.]

A good later example was Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard published for Joseph Cundall by Sampson Low & Son, London in 1855, illustrated by Birket Foster, George Thomas and “A Lady.” [Northup #616] (Figs.15a, 15b, 15c & 15d)

On account of the evocative opening verses of the Elegy, many 19th century illustrated editions of the poem often became little more than a backward glance to an idealised and sentimental picture of a rural England fast disappearing in the forward march of the industrial revolution. Noteworthy in this respect is An Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray (Sampson Low, Son & Marston, London 1869) with illustrations from drawings by R. Barnes, R.P. Leitch, E.M. Wimperis & others.[Northup #631] — see Figs.16a & 16b. The former illustrates the line “Oft did the harvest to their sickle yield”; the latter the line “Along the cool sequestered vale of life.” Later in the century came the sugar–coated Gray’s Elegy, published by Ernest Nister, London and E.P. Dutton & Co., New York, in about 1896.(Figs.17a & 17b) [Not in Northup. The book itself is undated, and the quoted date is from a gift inscription in the front of my own copy.]

The foregoing is merely a selection of interesting or significant illustrated editions published in the 19th century, and there are many others that could be cited, the list continuing on into the 20th century. Thus, early in the 20th century appeared An Elegy in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray (Hurst & Blackett, London, 1902) which contained some interesting illustrations in colour by an unnamed artist [Northup #710] (Figs.18a & 18b.).Rather later came Gray’s Elegy (Adam & Charles Black, London 1914), illustrated by G.F. Nicholls [Northup #734a]. The illustrations tend to be rather rustic, like Figs.16 & 17 above. Fig.19 is a good example from it. [Browse illustrations.]

Interesting, too, is one of the illustrations by Clarke Hutton (Fig.20a) which appeared in Elegy written in a Country Churchyard and other Poems by Thomas Gray (John Lane the Bodley Head, London 1928.) [This was #12 in the Helicon Series – a reprint of Herbert Cole’s illustrated Rubaiyat was #8 in the same series, and was also published in 1928.] Though it illustrates the line “the paths of glory lead but to the grave,” the buried skeleton beneath the feet of the passing gentry in Hutton’s illustration could, coincidentally, also carry the same message as FitzGerald’s v.19 if we rewrite the last two lines about the “tender Green” as, “Ah. tread upon it lightly! for who knows / From what once lovely Lip it springs unseen.” [Compare the illustration of this verse by Gilbert James in Fig.20b.]

A notable later edition is Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, by Thomas Gray, published by The Medici Society, London, in 1931. Decorated by Frank Adams, its illustrations again tend to the rustic, and the most interesting elements are often found in the decorative headings of the illustrations, as in Fig.21, in which the heading uses symbols relating to “the boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,” whilst the main illustration demonstrates that “the paths of glory lead but to the grave” (as well as calling to mind the famous graveyard scene in Hamlet Act 5, Scene 1!) A final example is Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, published by The Golden Cockerel Press, London, in 1946 (illustrated by Gwenda Morgan — Fig.22.)

Two interesting “illuminated” examples of Gray’s Elegy can be found in the editions done by Owen Jones (Longman & Co., London, 1846)(Northup #600) (Fig.23) and Lady Maria Willoughby (Day & Son, London, 1866)(Northup #629) (Fig.24).

Note 10. According to Northup, the Elegy was first translated into French in 1765 (p.100), German in 1771 (p.107), and Italian and Portuguese in 1772 (p.111; p.120.) A Welsh version followed in 1798 (p.122), Russian in 1802 (p.121), Hebrew in 1817 (p.110), Spanish in about 1823 (p.121), Hungarian in 1827 (p.111) and Japanese by 1882 (p.115). There were also translations into Latin (p.115f) and Greek (p.109f.) For an excellent study, see James D. Garrison, A Dangerous Liberty: translating Gray’s Elegy (University of Delaware Press, 2009), which contains a facsimile of the van Voorst polyglot edition of 1839 (see note 11 below.) It would be interesting to see a similar study of translations of FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat into other languages (i.e. as opposed to translations by others from the original Persian into other languages, and which parallel FitzGerald's) but, so far as I know, this has not been done.

Note 11. For example, Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, with Versions in the Greek, Latin, German, Italian and French Languages, published by John van Voorst, London 1839, illustrated with the same engravings used in the 1834 edition of the Elegy, but without the translations, cited in note 9 above (Northup #594.) The compiler – J.M. – had hoped to include translations into Spanish and Portuguese “which are said to exist”, but “although diligent search has been made, it was without success.” So far as I am aware, no other polyglot edition of Gray’s Elegy was ever published. In contrast, polyglot editions of The Rubaiyat are numerous, starting with Nathan Haskell Dole’s multi–variorum edition in 1898, but with most of the later ones emanating from Iran in the second half of the twentieth century and on into the present century. For a listing of these, see Coumans #880–921: the most extreme example is Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in 30 Languages, prepared and arranged by Mohsen Ramezani (Teheran, 1987) (= Coumans #901.)

Note 12. Several parodies and imitations appeared in Gray’s lifetime (Northup p.123–127), the earliest being An Evening Contemplation in a College, Being a Parody on the Elegy in a Country Church–Yard by Another Gentleman of Cambridge [John Duncombe], published in 1753 (Northup #868.) Two other examples of parodies published in Gray’s lifetime are An Elegy on the Death of the Guardian Outwitted, an Opera by Dr Thomas Augustine Arne, published in 1765 (Northup #886) and An Elegy wrote under a Gallows, printed for the Author [Hugh Downman] in 1770 (Northup #893.) In contrast, the earliest parody of FitzGerald appeared some three years after his death – that by Rudyard Kipling, first published in his Departmental Ditties in 1886 (Potter #1107).

But getting back to Gray, after his death in 1771 the steady flow of parodies continued. Elegy written in a College Library by Sir John Henry Moore was first published in 1777 (Northup #939). A little later came A Parody on Gray’s Elegy written in a Country Churchyard, the Author leaving College by Henry Headley, published in 1786 (Northup #913), and, in quirkier vein, Elegy on a Pair of Breeches, thrown upon a Dunghill by a Miser by Thomas Brand, published in 1818 (Northup #954, though this seems to be a reprint of an 1807 original published in The Monthly Mirror) and Elegy in a London Theatre – not by Gray published in 1843 (Northup #972.)

In the nineteenth century, not surprisingly, the Elegy became a favourite with parodists in the likes of Punch. Thus in the issue of September 15th 1849 (p.111) appeared “An Elegy written in a London Churchyard” by a Tradesman in the Vicinity. Its theme was the spread of disease caused by the overcrowded and unhygienic London cemeteries of the time, and its opening verse ran:

The sexton tolls the knell till parting day,
The latest funeral train has paid its fee,
The mourners homeward take their dreary way,
And leave the scene to Typhus and to me.

And verses 8 and 9 ran thus:

No doubt, in this revolting place are laid,
Hearts lately pregnant with infectious fire;
Hands, by whose grasp contagion was conveyed,
As sure as electricity by wire.

Full many a gas of direst power unclean,
The dark o’erpeopled graves of London bear,
Full many a poison, born to kill unseen,
And spread its rankness in the neighbouring air.

Rather different was the visual parody, “An Elegy in a Country Back–Yard”, which depicted a woman hanging out to dry, “the short and simple fl(annels) of the poor.” (Fig.25) [Issue of August 8th 1900, p.100.]

For a large selection of parodies of Gray’s Elegy (and of many of Gray’s other poems), see Walter Hamilton, Parodies of the Works of English and American Authors (6 vols, London, 1884–9), vol.5, p.1–47 & p.317–320. See also note 13 below.

Needless to say, Punch also parodied The Rubaiyat in its pages. Thus, for example, in the issue of February 19th 1898 (p.76), appeared “Airs Resumptive – the Rubaiyat of R_s_b_ry,” the reference being to the fifth Earl of Rosebery. The parody as a whole is, at this distance in time, rather obscure in its many of its political references, though the bit relating to the Vaccination Bill of 1898 is straightforward enough. The issue was one of compulsory vaccination and possible exemption from it on the grounds of being a “conscientious objector” (an epithet that was to be put to very different use in the First World War, of course!) Verses 8 and 9 read:

A little Villa somewhere Naples way,
A Flask of Capri blanc, and You to play
Beside me, Harcourt, ’neath the Olive’s Shade, –
And Life were all an endless Roundelay!

There, wreathed with clustering Vine, and Ivy dim
On Virgil’s Tomb our Posies we will trim:
What does he care for Vaccination Bills ?
Augustus never vaccinated him.

By way of further explanation, in 1897 Lord Rosebery had bought a villa in Naples, which still seems to be known as the Villa Rosebery, though it is now one of the official residences of the President of the Italian Republic; Virgil was the favoured poet of the Emperor Augustus, and his tomb is traditionally located in Naples; Harcourt was Sir William Harcourt, a supporter of vaccination subject to conscientious objection. He had succeeded Lord Rosebery as the leader of the Liberal Party in October 1896, and remained in that position until his resignation in December 1898.

An earlier, more puzzling, example, better illustrated than explained is shown in Fig.26. It appeared in the issue of August 17th 1895 (p.73.)

Yet another, bearing the title “Iconoclasm” – a dig at A.H.Millar’s theory that Omar Khayyam the poet never existed – appeared in the issue of July 4th 1900 (p.8). It is quoted in full in Appendix 23.

It is interesting that Walter Hamilton’s collection of parodies contains none of FitzGerald, Hamilton’s book having been published some years before most parodies of The Rubaiyat had appeared, though Kipling’s had appeared in his Departmental Ditties in 1886.

Note 13. I had it in mind that the Monty Python team had massacred Gray’s “Elegy / Allergy in a Country Churchyard”, somewhat as they did Keats’s “Ode to a Nightingale / Nightwatchman” in their “Famous First Drafts”, but my memory must be at fault, as I have been unable to find it. But even if they did, the Pythons had a precursor in Ogden Nash’s poem of that title, published in his book Good Intentions (1942). With a characteristic disregard for metre, be it Gray’s or anyone else’s, his first verse read:

Once there was a man named Mr Weaver,
And he had a lot of hay but he didn’t have any hay fever,
So he ran an advertisement which he wanted to charge, but for which he was compelled to pay,
And he advertised that he would like to meet up with somebody who had a lot of hay fever but didn’t have any hay.

A few years after Ogden Nash came Leslie J. Hime’s Allergy in a Country Churchyard (1951) whose cover is shown in Fig.27. Though this is a book of prose and poems, it does not, alas, contain a poetic parody of Gray’s Elegy, and the cover is the only nod towards Gray, aside perhaps from the line “The belated schoolboy homeward wends his way” in his poem “Night Music” (p.30).

As for Gray and Grey, in Punch for September 10th 1881 (p.114) appeared “A Passage from Lord Grey’s Elegy” thus:

Rads toll the knell of England’s passing day:
The low dull herd will land her ‘up a tree.’
Why will they not send GLADSTONE’S gang away,
And leave the world to Whigdom and to Me ?

In the first line, “Rads” = Radicals, of course. The theme here is the ongoing dispute between Gladstone and Lord Grey (the 3rd Earl Grey) over the conflicting interests of landlords and their tenant farmers in Ireland, supposedly addressed in the Second Irish Land Act of 1881. (See, for example, J.L. Hammond, Gladstone and the Irish Nation (1938), ch.13, particularly p.224. To get a better feel of what inspired Punch, though, one should turn not to the history books, but to the contemporary reports of parliamentary proceedings in The Times, complete with the hear hears, the loud cheers and laughter from the benches, See, for example, the “Parliament out of Session” section in the issue of Jan. 23rd 1882, p.7, col.3.)

A similarly punning political theme in visual form occurs on one of “Punch’s Prize Medals”, to be found in the issue of January 28th 1882 (p.41.) The pun on Derby porcelain presumably relates to the Earl of Derby (the 15th Earl), with the additional pun on a display cabinet relating to the cabinet of the government. (Fig.28)

Note 14. For example, by W. Tindal in 1785 (Northup #531); by Thomas Billington in 1790 (Northup #541); by Alfred Cellier in 1883 (Northup #654); and by George E. Quinton in 1885 (Northup #666.) All of these are all but forgotten, and, as far as I know, no–one has thought of setting Gray’s Elegy to music in the past seventy five years at least. (The latest I can find is a setting by E.J. Stapleton, published by W. Paxton & Co., London, 1937.) Musical interpretations of Omar range from Liza Lehmann’s “In a Persian Garden”, for four soloists and piano (1896) and Granville Bantock’s “Omar Khayyam” for three soloists, choir and symphony orchestra (1906) to Victor Young’s film score for the 1957 film “Omar Khayyam” (see note 15 below) and Alan Hovhanness’s, “The Rubaiyat – a Musical Setting” for narrator and orchestra (1975).

Note 15. For examples of the novels, see Appendix 17c. Not mentioned there is another novel based on the life of Omar – and very loosely based at that! – Manuel Komroff’s The Life, The Loves, The Adventures of Omar Khayyam (Signet Books, New York, 1957). This was written to accompany the Paramount Pictures film of the same title (though the title came generally to be abbreviated to just “Omar Khayyam”), which was released in 1957. It starred Cornel Wilde and Debra Paget. Thomas Gray never had to suffer this! (Fig.29)

Note 16. For the benefit of the curious, see Hamilton’s Parodies, vol.1.

Note 17. An additional verse popped into the 3rd edition of 1751 (Northup #494), but then popped out again — see also Ketton–Cremer p.110. There exists, also, an unpublished earlier version of the Elegy, for details of which see Ketton–Cremer p.99–100 and McDermott p.17–18.

Note 18. For full background details, see Amy Louise Reed, The Background of Gray’s Elegy: a Study in the Taste for Melancholy Poetry 1700-1751 (Columbia University Press, 1924.) This excellent study was reprinted by Russell & Russell, New York, in 1962 and is also currently available both online and as a print–on–demand book. For another study, with a useful check–list of Graveyard Poems, not all of which are in Reed’s book, see James Orton Huff, The Graveyard School of Poets (Thesis, University of Illinois, 1912.) This too is available online and as a print–on–demand book.

Note 19. Parnell was an Anglo–Irish clergyman and poet whose poem A Night Piece on Death was first published in the book Poems on Several Occasions written by Dr Thomas Parnell, late Archdeacon of Clogher, collected and edited by Alexander Pope, in 1722, some four years after Parnell’s death. (Pope was a friend of Parnell’s.) A Night Piece on Death has been called the precursor of Gray’s Elegy, as indeed it is, with its image of a moonlit graveyard, and its comparison of the graves of the rich and the poor. But with its image of the dead rising up from their graves, “All slow, and wan, and wrap’d with Shrouds”, urging the poet to “Think, Mortal, what it is to dye”, and with the voice of Death putting in an appearance to tell us that, “Death’s but a Path that must be trod, / If Man wou’d ever pass to God”, the poem is rather different to the Elegy and more akin to the Melancholic poetry of the 17th century and elements of the even older “Dance of Death” theme (on which see the note at the end of Appendix 14a.) Poems on Several Occasions went through at least nine editions in the course of the eighteenth century, and various editions of, or containing, Parnell’s works appeared throughout the nineteenth century.

Note 20. These are most readily found in a small, slim volume published as no.1 in the “Roach’s Beauties of the Poets” series in London in 1794 with the somewhat cumbersome title, Evening Reflections written in Westminster Abbey; Night Thoughts among the Tombs, by the Revd. Mr. Moore, The Grave, by R. Blair, & Gray’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard. [Northup #550] (Fig.30)

Note 21. This is most readily found in another volume with a cumbersome title, Life of Blair, The Grave; Gray’s Elegy; Porteus on Death; Life of Doctor Dodd; Prison Thoughts (Scott, Webster & Geary, London, no date, but c.1827.) [Similar to Northup #587] (Fig.31)

Note 22. William Mason, himself a poet, though a mediocre one, was to be Gray’s equivalent of FitzGerald’s William Aldis Wright. He published The Poems of Mr Gray, to which are prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings in 1775, with expanded editions of it appearing in later years (see Northup p.2–5.) In March 1767, after being married for only eighteen months, Mason’s wife, Mary, died of consumption in Bristol. Mason erected a monument to her in Bristol Cathedral and wrote the epitaph for it with, as Ketton–Cremer puts it (p.218), “his usual insipidity of expression.” The last four lines of it were particularly weak and were replaced by the four lines of Gray’s quoted here, lines which, as Ketton–Cremer adds, “might without incongruity have found a place in the Elegy.” Gray’s authorship was apparently kept secret for many years, until it was revealed by Norton Nicholls, a long–time friend of Gray’s (see Gosse p.177–8.)

Note 23. Gosse, p.202–3.

Note 24 a & b. Ketton-Cremer p.193.


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