He was born in Cornhill, England on November 26, 1716. His father was a money scrivener, his mother a milliner. His mother had twelve children, the only one of which to reach adulthood was Thomas. He attended Eton under the care of his uncle, Robert Antrobus, where he made two life long friends, Richard West and Horace Walpole. He went on to Cambridge in 1734 for his college education, which he apparently hated. According to his friends, he was proud, fastidious, shy, of small stature, with a manner slightly effeminate, which he purposely exaggerated towards people he did not like. After five years at Cambridge, Mr. Horace Walpole invited him to travel with him, which he did, as a companion. They traveled through France and into Italy, and in Florence quarreled and parted company.
He came back to England in 1741 and his father died two months later. Gray had planned to study law, but his father had spent a good deal of his fortune on a new house, so he felt he could no longer afford to do so. He soon moved to Cambridge and became a "Bachelor of Civil Law", living at Peter-house and Pembroke; later on he was hired as Professor of History and Modern Languages. He didn't do any teaching and was physically frail, and subject to bouts of depression. He did read and study extensively in the classics, notably Greek, Old Norse, botany, Italian, architecture, painting and music and became the most learned of the English poets except for Milton.
He was offered the Poet Laureate upon Colley Cibber's death and refused, and it went to William Whitehead in 1757. In June of 1771 he started feeling slightly peaked, and in July became suddenly ill and died within a week.
The Elegy in a Country Churchyard has been the most popular poem in the English language for 200 years. It was the epitome of a popular sentimentality which had been growing for a century or more. This sentimentality, cultivated by Puritanism, had given way to a huge growth of fairly plebeian mortuary verse. This is known as "the graveyard school," whose best sample would be Blair's The Grave. Elegy sees common country people from distance, feels deliciously sorry for them while brooding on their obscure life and death.
Ode on the Spring 1742
Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College 1742
Sonnet on the Death of Richard West 1742
Ode to Adversity 1742
De Principiss Cogitandi 1742
Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes 1747
The Alliance of Education and Government 1748
Elegy in the Churchyard 1750
A Long Story
The Progress of Poetry 1757
The Bard: A Pindaric Ode 1757
Epitaph on a Child 1758
The Fatal Sisters: An Ode 1761
The Descent of Odin 1761
The Triumphs of Owen 1761
Epitaph on Sir W. Wiliams 1761
The Candidate 1764
On Lord Holland's Seat Near Margate, Kent 1768
Ode for Music 1769