Thomas Gray : A Life

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  • Format: Trade Book
  • Copyright: 2000-10-11
  • Publisher: Yale University Press

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This major biography of Thomas Gray (1716-1771), the first in nearly half a century, expands our knowledge of the life of the English poet and our understanding of his personality and influential body of works. Robert L. Mack incorporates recent - and often radically revisionary - scholarship on Gray, drawing on developments in eighteenth-century studies and gender studies as well as on extensive original archival research into the life of the poet and his family.

Author Biography

Robert L. Mack is Lecturer in English at the University of Exeter.


Chapter One


London and Cornhill


I. A Childhood in Troynovant

By the morning of Monday, 3 September 1666 -- a day that promised to be fair and very warm but still considerably windy -- the Great Fire of London had begun to engulf the City in earnest. Since almost two o'clock the previous morning the blaze had steadily burnt its way from Pudding Lane, in the east, toward the warehouses that lined Upper Thames street; it soon encompassed the whole of Cannon street, to the northeast, and stretched as far south as the well-known waterside tavern of Three Cranes in the Vintry on the Thames itself. The fire threatened now, with the help of a constant and seemingly treacherous `Belgian Wind' blowing from the southeast, to double back upon itself and consume the very heart of the capital. Students as far away as Eton had already been alerted to the City's plight by the heavy snow of ashes and blackened papers, lifted toward Windsor by the prevailing winds, that had begun falling noiselessly in the school's courtyards. Further afield, those who had yet to receive any official news regarding the extent of the fire curiously observed the rays of the sun to be tinged red by the blaze. Visible even from beyond the Chilterns, a bleak and ominous cloud had begun to hover over the lower Thames Valley. The heavy smoke slowly stretched to the north and to the west, into both Buckinghamshire and Berkshire. `A black darkness', as William Taswell would later recall of the seeming apocalypse, `seemed to cover the entire hemisphere'.

    Closer to home, the unprecedented extent of the London fire was fast becoming matter for serious alarm. By Monday morning King Charles had already decided personally to take command of the situation. There seemed little, however, that the Crown's hastily appointed authorities could actually do in their efforts to halt the blaze. The physically arduous task of pulling down (and blowing up) houses and other structures, the calling in of militia from the Home counties, the establishment of fire posts -- all of these otherwise practically minded procedures required resources in the way of time and equipment not readily available to the King's makeshift army of servants and volunteers. As the fire moved with pyrotechnic confidence into the power of its second and third days, its self-fueled destruction began to advance at a truly furious pace. To the north of the already devastated Cannon Street, the fate of the increasingly vital centre of London's commercial life -- the roughly triangular area bounded to the north by Threadneedle Street, to the south by Lombard Street, and through the tip of which the broad expanse of Cornhill emptied into the Poultry near St. Mary Woolchurch -- seemed ever more certain. The south-easterly wind continued to blow as the fire crept to the north and the west throughout that Monday morning. The venerable fruit, herb, and vegetable markets on Gracechurch Street were quickly consumed by the flames; the proud exteriors of the numerous Companies' Halls in Thames Street and Clock Lane were summarily leveled; countless churches and ancient Inns were similarly dispatched in a mere matter of hours. Presenting to fleeing residents a spectacle close to Biblical in its aspect of dread certainty, the City's plague of fire began to blow so strongly and with such a destructive heat that there seemed to be no alternative but simply to stand by in awe as the inferno carried all before it.

    And so, ever greedy for more, the fire licked and leapt and howled its way in the direction of the City's choicest spoils. By early afternoon, the large, timber-framed homes and the shops of the wealthy merchants in Lombard Street, and with them the normally crowded businesses and offices in Cornhill, had also begun crashing to the ground. The organic simplicity of the City's street-plan -- the medieval logic of which had been borne of the particular needs and matched to the precise conveniences of London's practically advantageous situation as an active river port -- seemed suddenly and with Sinon-like treachery to have invited a catastrophe of total destruction. The myriad alleys that had since the City's earliest recorded history snaked their way between Lombard Street and Cornhill -- close and sinuous passageways crammed with shops and taverns, arterial paths likely to curl with surprising suddenness into the tortured cul-de-sacs which played host to the first of the City's coffee houses -- worked only to facilitate the now deafening fire. The narrow streets began now to draw the searing wind and flames up their sheltered conduits toward the most potent symbol of the nation's commercial wealth and prowess, Sir Thomas Gresham's grand 1568 Royal Exchange.

    By the time the Exchange was threatened, even the most blindly optimistic of Londoners must have been overwhelmed by the scale of events. Almost every surviving eye-witness account of the Great Fire is marked by its author's dramatically humbled apprehension of the sublime immensity of the scene being witnessed. Much to their horror, the foot-soldiers and local parishioners who had persisted in their attempts to halt the spread of the blaze by pulling down the old wooden halls and houses that stood in its path must soon have realized that their efforts had in actual fact helped only to further the conflagration. The tremendous mounds of rubble left by their preventive demolitions had effectively resulted in the creation of actual bridges of flammable material in the streets; the same litter left behind by these well-intentioned fire-fighters formed piles of ready tinder -- heaps of debris by means of which the fire could conveniently stretch and leap across even the widest of the City's major avenues, and so carry its destruction further to the north.

    For days following the fire, the scent of the many spices that had been imported by the East India Company and which had been stored in the large underground crypts of the Royal Exchange (not even the building's basement vault survived the blaze) continued to pour their sacrificial fragrance into the darkened air. The smoldering stores, as Samuel Crouch would later write, seemed `to burn incense to the incensed Powers'. The incense imposed an odd and at times overpoweringly exotic perfume on what was already an eerie and unfamiliar scene. The diarist and naval administrator Samuel Pepys, attempting to walk along Cornhill and then down the expanse that had formerly been Lombard Street two days after their destruction (his feet still, as he observed, `ready to burn walking through the town among the hot coles [sic]'), noted the once-opulent district to be `all in dust', and commented sorrowfully that the formerly glorious Exchange building had itself been reduced to a `sad sight'. By the morning of Thursday, 6 September, when the winds finally shifted decisively to the south (thus urging the fire back upon those areas which it had already consumed, and so eventually leaving it to spend itself out) no less than one third of the City lay in ruins. `You can compare London (were it not for the rubbish)', wrote one observer sadly, `to nothing more than an open field'. Having so predictably consumed Cornhill and the Exchange by mid-afternoon Monday, the blaze had swiftly moved on to demolish with equal thoroughness such landmarks as the Guildhall, Newgate, and old St. Paul's, extending its wrath as far north as Cripplegate, and measuring its ruin from Fetter Lane, in the west, to the Tower, in the east. A total of over 400 acres -- within which had stood some 13,200 houses -- had been transformed within less than a week into a scene of chaotic, urban wreckage. The City's homeless refugees -- roughly 100,000 of them -- gathered forlornly in the makeshift camps which had been established by authorities just to the north of the old City walls. Contemporary observers estimated the total cost of the damage to stand above a staggering £7,000,000.

* * *

    For all the devastation occasioned by the fire, however, there seemed no question but that London would rebuild itself. Within only a few weeks of the destruction, the same City tradesmen who had initially sought temporary accommodation at Gresham House in Bishopsgate (one of the few ancient structures spared by the fire) had begun again to set up shop within the still-smoking ruins of the Exchange. The makeshift pavement on which they now carried on their business had hastily but efficiently been assembled from among the stones carted down from the demolished Guildhall. Builders mixed their bricks from the earth and from the very ashes of the ruins. The ready imagery of the regenerate Phoenix (an image of rebirth which already, thanks largely to the careful iconography of Tudor propaganda, resonated as a potent political symbol among the English) came very quickly to be associated not only with the comparable `rebirth' of the City of London as a whole, but also and with more specific reference to the equally miraculous rejuvenation of the most important of the many public structures and institutions leveled by the fire. St. Paul's, the Guildhall, the Customs House, the Royal Exchange: all of these inexpressibly important social and political nexuses were to be rebuilt on a scale even grander than before. The ` Arabian Bird' of the metropolis, as a least one poet described the City in its rejuvenation, was destined not merely to rise unscathed from the ashes of its own destruction, but `to live again in a more vigorous birth'.

    Everything about the new City was to be bigger and better than it had been prior the fire; every aspect of its irrepressible inner life was to be allowed to reveal itself in a manner and a style more impressive and more vital than ever before. John Evelyn, Robert Hooke, Valentine Knight, and Christopher Wren were just a few of the individuals who submitted elaborate plans for the rebuilding of London. Most such plans suggested that the re-envisioned capital be constructed on a tremendous and imposing new continental model (the young and comparatively inexperienced Wren managed to submit the first of his own schemes for the rebuilding even while the ashes were still hot, and less than a week before the fire had begun in all areas to burn itself out). According to such schemes, broad boulevards and highways -- their easy transits varied and interrupted by elegant, open parades and by such social spaces as piazzas, fountains, and riverfront squares -- were to replace the older City's tangled jumble of narrow streets and noisome alleyways. The dimensions of the cramped medieval community that had grown only haphazardly and by fits and starts in the centuries before the fire were to be dispensed with entirely. The unsanitary disorder of the old urban environment would be replaced instead by a clean, streamlined, and elegantly organized City. This new London was to be worthy of the tenacity of its own citizens. Even more emphatically, it was to be a London the potent grandeur of which was calculated to be a manifestation of its own deepening awareness that it stood poised, in the decades to come, to secure its own unique place in history among the few truly great capitals of the modern world.

    Such visionary plans for the `mighty handsome' new City, not surprisingly, found favour in the eyes of the King. Yet the enormous cost of such comprehensive plans, involving as they did the need for the government to purchase large tracts of private land and entailing myriad difficulties in the way of sorting out inheritance rights or compensation and reimbursements, rendered such designs utterly impracticable to a government already impoverished by the Dutch War of 1652-54, and one which, even as the architectural plans were being drawn up, was to be crippled even further by another on-going conflict with Holland (a war that would not be brought to its close for yet another year). Other difficulties were likewise soon acknowledged. In the case of some City properties, the very title deeds and leases that would have specified the exact siting and extent of individual properties were documents which had themselves been lost or destroyed in the fire. Officials encountered considerable difficulties in their attempts simply to decide precisely which properties belonged to which owners and tenants. In the immediate aftermath of the fire, honesty seemed in many cases to be in short supply. Surveyors who had carefully measured and staked out their land claims in the daylight hours might very well return the next morning to find that their own painstaking markings indicating areas and frontages had been altered overnight, having typically been shifted by other property owners looking dishonestly to claim more acreage than that to which they were legitimately entitled.

    The City planners were compelled finally to face the facts. The grand utopian schemes were soon pushed to one side, and more immediate and practical concerns just as quickly took their place. While some few basic changes and improvements could be effected in the City (such as widening certain principal streets and avenues, providing public areas with better paving, and building with brick rather than wood), much about the urban environment would necessarily need to remain the same. In time, even the tortuous street patterns of the old London -- retaining almost every twist and turning of their arcane and labyrinthine complexity -- began inevitably to reassert themselves. Indeed, the `new' City must have been regarded by many of those who had known London in its previous incarnation actually to constitute a kind of strange and geographically precise imitation of -- a perverse and stubbornly material allusion to -- its own former self. The same streets, the same alleys, the same shops, the same residents and merchants, the same public institutions: all these elements began to reappear in a London superficially familiar and knowable, yet at the same time transmuted and transformed. The landmarks of London reappeared in a city strange yet at the same time oddly familiar; a landscape intimately known, yet often and quite literally uncanny. The experience must for many Londoners have been similar to that of once again meeting a dear old friend who, in the course of time, rather than growing frail with care and age, appears not only to have recovered the spring of their youth, but seems also (and even more mysteriously) somehow to have gained the hard-earned wisdom of experience. Or perhaps, more simply, it was a meeting that engendered a feeling akin to the sensation of encountering an old soul in a youthful body -- of recognizing the habits and traits of the parent in the impulses and inclinations of the growing child.

    Still, if there was necessarily a great deal that was old about this rebuilt London, contemporary writers were determined to find much to celebrate that was new. Each public monument, each of the new parish churches (to be constructed under the supervision of Wren, who eventually acted as a chief architect of the project) was accorded due praise in the form of numerous poetic tributes. Wren's plans for the glorious new cathedral of St. Paul's -- the `Mother-Bird' or `Phoenix Paulina' that nested at the centre of his project -- were singled out for particular attention. Other works were written specifically with reference to the rebuilding of the Royal Exchange and to `the future advancement of Trade' to be conducted therein. Poems such as Henry Duke's 1688 `London's Nonsuch', systematically set about describing each of the shops that were eventually to be granted a space within the rebuilt structure. Hosiers, milliners, linen and lace shops, coatsellers, `Silkmen', goldsmiths, button sellers, mercers, mourning shops, `bauble' shops, glassmakers, booksellers, watchmakers, stationers, scriveners: all were to assume their rightful places among the elegant walks and arcades of the City's new and efficiently centralized hub of commerce.

    The structure of the new Exchange, it was soon decided, was to be designed and built by Edward Jernam. The builders began clearing the ground in February, 1667, and the first stone was laid in October of that same year. In obvious imitation of its predecessor, Jernam's Exchange fronted onto Cornhill, the broad and spacious thoroughfare that had since the earliest years of the City's history served as a bustling and dynamic centre of commercial activity. Sloping down one of the twin hills of London -- facing Ludgate Hill to the west across the valley of the Walbrook, and thought by some to have been named, as the antiquarian John Stow recorded in 1598, after `a corn market time out of mind there holden' -- the street bears one of the oldest recorded names in the City's history. As early as Chaucer's day, Cornhill had already long established itself as the principal highway leading from the great meat and fish market of Cheap toward Aldgate and to the furthest, eastern extremities of the City. The Tun -- a stout, round building of stone first constructed as a reservoir in 1282 -- was by the fourteenth century being used as a prison and holding pen for the area's `night-walkers'. Even as early as the late 1300s, Cornhill boasted everything from blacksmiths' shops and poulterers' stalls to the venues of more prosperous tradesmen -- retailers who looked to provide the City's increasingly wealthy citizens with a wide variety of luxury goods. London stood at the centre of the country's trade routes, and Cornhill, in turn, stood at the concentrated centre of London. By the mid-seventeenth century the highway was as busy and as prosperous a thoroughfare as one could hope to find any place in the ever-growing metropolis. `Here if anywhere', the Revd. Samuell Rolle had written in his proud description of Cornhill and the Royal Exchange in the years immediately before the Great Fire, `might a man have seen the glory of the world in a moment'. The old water-standard which had long marked the interstices of Cornhill, Gracechurch Street, Bishopsgate, and Leadenhall Street had ceased to be of any practical use decades before, but the support was still generally regarded as the marker of London's `ground zero' -- the utterly central point at which distances to and from the City were traditionally reckoned and measured.

    The Cornhill that emerged following the destruction of the fire, like so many of London's other rebuilt `landmarks', was deliberately designed to be even more impressive than the near-medieval street that had crumbled so swiftly into the ashes of history. Many Georgians would eventually and as the new era took shape forsake the City (and the supposedly bourgeois obsessions of the native `Cit') for the increasingly fashionable neighborhoods of the West End. As the historian Simon Jenkins has written: `The wealthy and the well-born had now endured two disorders [the plague and the fire] in as many years, and during reconstruction they inevitably had to find somewhere else to live'. `For poorer people', Jenkins added, `the new buildings may have been handsome constructions, blessed at least with some sort of drainage, but they were far more expensive than the old tenements had been'. Indeed, throughout the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries residential dwellings in the area along Cornhill and in the streets around the Exchange were still among the most expensive in the City. Directly across from Jernam's towering new structure, and along the familiar passages and by-ways of Pope's Head Alley, Exchange Alley, Birchin Lane, George Yard, and St. Michael's Alley that once again angled their way between Cornhill and Lombard Street, there soon arose a proud new series of shops and storefronts. Such structures -- within the scope of their own, admittedly more modest ambitions -- constituted a tribute to the renewed and strengthened commercial vigor of the City no less powerful than the building of the Royal Exchange itself. Early eighteenth-century engravings of the area show the expanse of Cornhill to have been a broad, cobble-stoned street, bounded on either side by clean and (by contemporary standards) comparatively wide pavements for the movement of pedestrians. Tradesmen's signs hung from the second storey of many buildings, but the graded and orderly range of their intrusion into the streetscape would have created little if any sense of clutter or confusion. The newly instituted construction regulations forbade the use of timber framing, or of building materials such as rubble or thatch; safety laws required that the new structures be made of fire-resistant brick, stone, slate, and tile. Similar regulations dictated that along principal streets such as Cornhill, all structures be a uniform four storeys high. No longer, in other words, were buildings with jettied fronts allowed to `oversail' the street, thrusting their roofs haphazardly into the air above the roadway. The ominous effect of having the visibly heavy second and third storeys of structures hovering above the heads of passing pedestrians -- their outer walls seeming to lean across the street in an aggressive effort to touch their counterparts on the opposite side of the highway -- was generally eliminated, and replaced instead by a greater sense of order, openness, and uniformity. The vista presented along the lengthy perspective of the street was a prospect of clear and unbroken lines. The overall impression of Cornhill from contemporary prints is one of an admirably well-maintained and well-frequented neighborhood thoroughfare, crisp and assured even in the simple and intrinsic strength of its confident verticality.

    On Cornhill itself, in what the Gentleman's Magazine would later in the eighteenth century describe as `a stately row of buildings' distinguished by the prosperous regularity of their flush facades, sash windows, and pleasant entryways, book-sellers, milliners, drapiers, haberdashers and hosiers set up shop. Along the area's side streets, bakers, barbers, button makers, and shoe-makers, as well as numerous coffee houses and ale houses, soon opened their doors for business. The unofficial designation following the fire of Cornhill (along with the Poultry and Lombard Street) as a `High Street', and the demolition of the unwholesome `Stocks' or ramshackle meat market at the junction of Cornhill and the Poultry, also and for the first time created what some historians of the period have described as `a regular "City" quarter'; as Jenkins notes of the area: `it began [now] to acquire many of its present-day characteristics as a central business district'. `The City in modern parlance -- a financial centre', as Roy Porter likewise asserts, `... emerged after the Restoration'. Moreover, even in the earliest years of the eighteenth century the first of the era's `Improvement Acts' had begun to make living conditions in the most crowded urban areas generally more hygienic (much as the era's many `Reformation Societies', which were to flourish a little later in the period, from about 1690 to the late 1730s, would seek in a similar manner to `improve' manners and morality). The interiors of the retail shops may still by any modern standard have been cramped and poorly lit, but their plenteous goods and proud exteriors proclaimed a renewed and unmistakable faith in the area as the City's central marketplace. By day, the streets echoed not only with the constant hammering and pounding of new building and construction, and of the distinctive `cries' of the London peddlers -- the lively shouts, too, of butchers, fishmongers, poulterers, and fowlers -- but carried on their urban breezes the whispered deals and bargains of the exchange merchants who once again made Cornhill their professional home. By night, lamps and tapers could be glimpsed shining in the windows of the neighborhood's ale houses and coffee houses -- establishments often couched at odd angles in Cornhill's internal courtyards, or in the damp and darkness of its alleyways -- and the boisterous noise of the taverns' occupants would echo through the narrow passages to the broader streets beyond. Various establishments in the quarter catered to various clientele. The Swan and Rummer Coffee House in Finch Lane was a popular venue for Masonic Lodge meetings. Merchants in the service of the East India Company, whose headquarters lay just to the east, in Leadenhall Street could most often be found gathering in the Jerusalem Coffee House. Seamen tended rather to patronize the Fleece, while the George and Vulture in nearby George Yard specialized in catering to large dinners and suppers. John's Coffee House, in Swithin's Alley by the Royal Exchange, was well-known in the early decades of the eighteenth century as a popular haunt among `projectors' looking to attract new investors. The Golden Fleece Tavern hosted meetings of insurers and of the employees of the Hudson Bay Company. Other merchants were likely to be found clustering, even on Sundays, on the southern side of the Exchange, or at Batson's Coffee House, a lively and popular establishment which also attracted medical men. Lloyd's Coffee House, later in the century to develop into the commercial institution still known today as `Lloyd's of London', was soon a feature of the neighborhood, having been founded in about 1691 on the south side of Lombard Street. Thomas Garraway, the entrepreneur who opened his own coffee house in Exchange Alley in 1669, was the first man in England to sell and retail tea, a beverage which he originally promoted and marketed as `the cure for all disorders'. The Jamaica Coffee House in St. Michael's Alley took its name from its connections with those businessmen interested in the highly profitable trade with the Crown's West Indian plantations; the city streets were touched by the exoticism of indigo, sugar, and cacao, to say nothing of being tainted by the colonies' enormously lucrative slave trade, the darkness of which could extend even into this very heart of London. An advertisement posted in the Daily Journal for 8 August, 1728 alerted local readers: `Ran away from her master at Blackheath, a negro woman, aged about 25 years, pretty fat (went by the name of Caelia) ... and has several years to serve.... Whoever secures her and gives notice at the bar of the Jamaica Coffee House so that she be brought to justice shall have two guineas reward, but whoever entertains her shall be prosecuted with the utmost rigor'.

    Obviously, there was a darker side to all this bustle and activity. The great Augustan satirists -- Jonathan Swift, John Gay, and the artist William Hogarth among them -- would all, on occasion, give further voice and testament to the often noisome squalor of the metropolis. The very same ale houses and coffee houses that provided the cheering light of fellowship to the passing pedestrian, might just as easily conceal within their walls the haunts of gamblers, thieves, sharpers, and prostitutes. City-dwellers were faced always with the possibility that danger and the threat of violent crime lurked around every corner. The central thoroughfares may have been broader and cleaner than they had been before the fire, but as the evening darkness descended on the City, the `Hotch-Potch' of `serpentine narrow streets, close, dismal, long Lanes, stinking Allies, dark, gloomy Courts and suffocating Yards' that stretched into the coal-darkened gloom on either side of those main streets could ensnare the unwary in any number of ways. Even by the bright light of day, the City streets held their perils. When Daniel Defoe, writing in the first decades of the eighteenth century, chose to depict his young hero `Colonel' Jack as committing his earliest robberies within the very shadow of the Royal Exchange, he was only drawing on the obvious wealth of possibilities daily presented to any gang of enterprising young thieves or pickpockets by a crowd of busy and preoccupied merchants and shoppers. Defoe knew the area about which he was writing well; he had himself, as a young man, operated a hosier's shop not far from Cornhill in nearby Freeman's Court.

    And yet for all such qualifications -- for better or for worse -- the `phoenix' of London had by the earliest years of the eighteenth century securely resuscitated the pulses and the rhythms that flowed from and within its vital financial heart. London was once again, as Joseph Addison would write, `a kind of Emporium for the that Earth'. From the ashes of the Great Fire, there had risen an astounding testament to the determination and tenacity of the craftsmen and shopkeepers of London. With the Royal Exchange standing as the jewel in the crown of its own, uncompromising preeminence, Cornhill, as Richard Steele was to put it in 1712, was without doubt and without rival, `the centre of the City, and the centre of the world of trade'.


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