Gray was born in London on 26 December 1716, the only child of his parents - a milliner and a scrivener - to survive infancy. In 1725, he was admitted to Eton College, where two brothers of his mother worked as assistant masters - indeed he lived with one of his uncles rather than at the college. While at Eton, Gray developed a literary bent, and he became good friends with Horace Walpole, Richard West and Thomas Ashton. He entered Peterhouse, Cambridge, in 1734, but, bored with academic life, set out, in 1734, on a Grand Tour with Walpole. However, the friends eventually fell out, and Gray returned to London in 1741, where his father died soon after.
Gray renewed his friendship with West, and resumed work on a tragedy, Agrippina, begun in Paris, as well as other poetical works, When West died, aged only 25, Gray’s sadness inspired an emotional outpouring of poems such as Ode to Adversity and Sonnet on the Death of Richard West. In 1742, he moved back to Cambridge to complete his studies. By the time he achieved a degree in civil law, he had no need to earn an income by practising. He remained at Cambridge, indulging his passion for the classics, studying Greek history and literature in particular, becoming a Fellow, first of Peterhouse, and later of Pembroke College.
In 1745, Gray was reconciled with Walpole, and this helped reinvigorate Gray’s interest in writing, partly because of his friend’s encouragement but also thanks to his publishing activities. Around 1750, Gray completed his most famous poem, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, begun nearly a decade earlier in a church graveyard. Despite being published anonymously, Elegy was a literary sensation and Gray’s authorship was soon uncovered. In 1757, Gray was offered, but refused, the post of Poet Laureate. During the 1760s, he took to travelling to different parts of Britain, and in 1768, he was made professor of history and modern languages. He died in 1771. Further information is available from the Thomas Gray Archive, Wikipedia, Luminarium, and The Poetry Foundation.
Gray was not a diarist. However, during one of his tours in the 1860s, to the Lake District, he kept diary-like notes which he then copied in letters to his friend Dr. Thomas Wharton (who, but for sickness would have accompanied him on the tour). The letters were first published posthumously with some of his poems in 1775 as The Poems of Mr. Gray to which are prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings by W. A. Mason (freely available at Internet Archive or the Thomas Gray Archive). The journal was several times reprinted, and from 1780 was included as an appendix to Thomas West’s popular A Guide to the Lakes. The letters/journal can also be found in The Works of Thomas Gray - Volume IV (Pickering, 1836). However, in 2001, Liverpool University Press published the diary/letters for the first time alone, and in a modern edition called Thomas Gray’s Journal of His Visit to the Lake District in 1769, with a life, commentary and historical background. More information about, and some examples from, the journal can be found at Norton Anthology of English Literature and Lancaster University’s Mapping the Lakes website.
The following extract is taken from an 1820 edition of The Poems and Letters of Thomas Gray: With Memoirs of His Life and Writings by William Mason (available at Internet Archive).
3 October 1769
‘A heavenly day; rose at seven and walked out under the conduct of my landlord to Borrowdale; the grass was covered with a hoarfrost, which soon melted and exhaled in a thin bluish smoke; crossed the meadows, obliquely catching a diversity of views among the hills over the lake and islands, and changing prospect at every ten paces. Left Cockshut (which we formerly mounted) and Castle-hill, a loftier and more rugged hill behind me, and drew near the foot of Wallacrag, whose bare and rocky brow cut perpendicularly down about four hundred feet (as I guess, though the people called it much more) awfully overlooks the way. Our path here tends to the left, and the ground gently rising and covered with a glade of scattering trees and bushes on the very margin of the water, opens both ways the most delicious view that my eyes ever beheld; opposite are the thick woods of Lord Egremont and Newland-valley, with green and smiling fields embosomed in the dark cliffs; to the left the jaws of Bonrowdale, with that turbulent chaos of mountain behind mountain, rolled in confusion; beneath you, and stretching far away to the right, the shining purity of the lake reflecting rocks, woods, fields, and inverted tops of hills, just ruffled by the breeze, enough to shew it is alive, with the white buildings of Keswick, Crosthwaite Church, and Skiddaw for a back ground at a distance. Behind you the magnificent heights of Walla-crag: here the glass played its part divinely, the place is called Carf-close-reeds; and I chose to set down these barbarous names, that any body may inquire on the place, and easily find the particular station that I mean. This scene continues to Barrowgate; and a little farther, passing a brook called Barrow-beck, we entered Borrowdale: the crags named Lawdoor-banks begin now to impend terribly over your way, and more terribly when you hear that three years since an immense mass of rock tumbled at once from the brow and barred all access to the dale (for this is the only road) till they could work their way through it. Luckily no one was passing at the time of this fall; but down the side of the mountain, and far into the lake, lie dispersed the huge fragments of this ruin in all shapes and in all directions: something farther we turned aside into a coppice, ascending a little in front of Lawdoor water-fall; the height appeared to be about two hundred feet, the quantity of water not great, though (these three days excepted) it had rained daily in the hills for near two months before; but then the stream was nobly broken, leaping from rock to rock, and foaming with fury. On one side a towering crag dial spired up to equal, if not overtop the neighbouring cliffs (this lay all in shade and darkness): on the other hand a rounder broader projecting hill shagged with wood, and illuminated by the sun, which glanced sideways on the upper part of the cataract. The force of the water wearing a deep channel in the ground, hurries away to join the lake. We descended again and passed the stream over a rude bridge. Soon after we came under Gowdar-crag, a hill more formidable to the eye, and to the apprehension, than that of Lawdoor; the rocks at top deep-cloven perpendicularly, by the rains, hanging loose and nodding forwards, seem just starting from their base in shivers. The whole way down and the road on both sides is strewed with piles of the fragments strangely thrown across each other, and of a dreadful bulk: the place reminds me of those passes in the Alps, where the guides tell you to move on with speed, and say nothing, least the agitation of air should loosen the snows above, and bring down a mass that would overwhelm a caravan. I took their counsel here and hastened on in silence.
Non ragioniam di lor, ma guarda, e passa!
The hills here are clothed all up their steep sides with oak, ash, birch, holly, &c. some of it has been cut forty years ago, some within these eight years; yet all is sprung again, green, flourishing, and tall, for its age, in a place where no soil appears but the staring rock, and where a man could scarce stand upright: here we met a civil young farmer overseeing his reapers (for it is now oat harvest) who conducted us to a neat white house in the village of Grange, which is built on a rising ground in the midst of a valley; round it the mountains form an awful amphitheatre, and through it obliquely runs the Derwent clear as glass, and shewing under its bridge every trout that passes. Beside the village rises a round eminence of rock covered entirely with old trees, and over that more proudly towers Castle-crag, invested also with wood on its sides, and bearing on its naked top some traces of a fort said to be Roman. By the side of this hill, which almost blocks up the way, the valley turns to the left, and contracts its dimensions till there is hardly any road but the rocky bed of the river. The wood of the mountains increases, and their summits grow loftier to the eye, and of more fantastic forms; among them appear Eagle’s-cliff, Dove’s-nest, Whitedale-pike, &c. celebrated names in the annals of Keswick. The dale opens about four miles higher till you come to Sea-whaite (where lies the way mounting the hills to the right that leads to the Wadd-mines); all farther access is here barred to prying mortals, only there is a little path winding over the fells, and for some weeks in the year passable to the dalesmen; but the mountains know well that these innocent people will not reveal the mysteries of their ancient kingdom, “the reign of Chaos and Old Night:” only I learned that this dreadful road, dividing again, leads one branch to Ravenglas, and the other to Hawkshead.
For me I, went no farther than the farmer’s (better than four miles from Keswick) at Grange; his mother and he brought us butter that Siserah would have jumped at, though not in a lordly dish, bowls of milk, thin oaten-cakes, and ale; and we had carried a cold tongue thither with us. Our farmer was himself the man, that last year plundered the eagle’s eyrie; all the dale are up in arms on such an occasion, for they lose abundance of lambs yearly, not to mention hares, partridges, grouse, &c. He was let down from the cliff in ropes to the shelf of the rock on which the nest was built, the people above shouting and hollowing to fright the old birds, which flew screaming round, but did not dare to attack him. He brought off the eaglet (for there is rarely more than one) and an addle egg. The nest was roundish, and more than a yard over, made of twigs twisted together. Seldom a year passes but they take the brood or eggs, and sometimes they shoot one, sometimes the other, parent; but the surviver has always found a mate (probably in Ireland) and they breed near the old place. By his description I learn, that this species is the Erne the vulture Albicilla of Linneeus, in his last edition, (but in your’s Falco Albicilla) so consult him and Pennant about it.
We returned leisurely home the way we came; but saw a new landscape; the features indeed were the same in part, but many new ones were disclosed by the mid-day sun, and the tints were entirely changed: take notice this was the best, or perhaps the only day for going up Skiddaw, but I thought it better employed; it was perfectly serene, and hot as midsummer.
In the evening I walked alone down to the lake by the side of Crow-park after sunset, and saw the solemn colouring of night draw on, the last gleam of sunshine fading away on the hill-tops, the deep serene of the waters, and the long shadows of the mountains thrown across them, till they nearly touched the hithermost shore. At a distance were heard the murmurs of many waterfalls, not audible in the day-time; I wished for the moon, but she was dark to me and silent.
Hid in her vacant interlunar cave.’