Thomas Gray Archive – Three Years Later Back

My own relationship with Thomas Gray has been somewhat varied and captures, perhaps, something of the poet’s own variety: I’m currently studying the famous ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, but during my undergraduate degree I applied a joint animal studies and feminist approach to the ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’ and studied Gray’s Norse poems elsewhere. With such a substantial influence on my own studies, the possibility to review the Thomas Gray Archive was one that I eagerly took up. I must first nod towards my predecessor, Hazel Wilkinson, who in February 2014 reviewed the archive for Criticks. This review is thus a sequel to Hazel’s, which ended by suggesting the Gray Archive was ‘quickly becoming an indispensable resource and an exemplary use of digital technologies in the humanities.’ It is also worth repeating the aims of the archive: to provide a platform for the discussion of Gray’s life and works; to facilitate research in a networked environment; to transcribe and provide digital images of all Gray materials; and the provision of high quality primary and secondary resources for teaching, scholarship and publishing. With 2016 the tercentenary celebration of Gray’s birth, a fresh review of the Gray Archive is certainly timely.

The front page remains the same: images of worn copies of poetry collections, the ‘hoary-headed Swain’ and bathetic cat still greet the reader. What has changed about the archive since 2014? One completed project is the digital publication of Gray’s letters, which was marked as successfully completed in December 2016 after twelve months. Certainly, this is a superb new tool with a stable interface: all you need is the author and receiver of the letter, with letters mentioning specific people, date, place and holding institution further narrowing the results. Given this specific information, it was incredibly easy to find Gray’s letter to Horace Walpole on the 22nd February 1747 in which he begs to know ‘who it is I lament.’ However, the possibility of searching all letters stored on the archive that mention particular poems would make the collection somewhat more accessible. To read Gray’s thoughts on ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ to any of the forty-one recipients listed would currently be something of a trial: assuming Gray wrote the letters with the poem’s publication in 1751, a user would have to go through each recipient individually and read each letter sent that year. This small issue aside, this project is certainly commendable and goes a long way to achieving the aims of the archive: the ready availability of Gray’s letters has no end of uses for the intrepid scholar or student. Another integral project completed late 2014 was the integration of digital analysis for each English poem listed, covering prosody and poetic form, rhythm and poetic foregrounding, tropes and figures, sonic patterns and data visualisation. Perhaps more for students, this astounding project provides a simple and clear metrical analysis of Gray’s poetry and is certainly a welcome addition alongside the digitised poems.

With this focus on the poems in mind, the textual and explanatory notes remain superb. It is ironic that in a letter to Walpole in 1757 Gray wrote ‘I do not love notes, though you see I had resolved to put two or three. They are signs of weakness and obscurity. If a thing cannot be understood without them, it had better be not understood at all.’ The scholarly detail and rigour of each note is impressive, as is the range of material covered. This feature confirms that, as explained on the home page, ‘Gray was also a polymath’ whilst supporting William Mason’s conclusion that ‘[p]erhaps he was the most learned man in Europe.’ Though there is the potential for users to contribute notes, this (sadly) still remains an underused feature of the Gray Archive and one can only hope that as the programme grows and its readership increases, more people will feel confident enough to use it. As Hazel identified previously, the concept has real potential to be an incredibly useful educational and communal scholarly tool.

At this stage the Gray Archive certainly feels a comprehensive guide to Gray’s poetry, and there are no listed current projects. Yet a more detailed focus on the poet’s reception could help develop the website: the imitations, parodies and complementary verses section forms a very small and poorly sign-posted part of the ‘Published Works’ section. Granted the multiple bibliographies for articles, monographs and other media and arts provide a holistic account of academic reception, but a selection of poems presented and annotated in a similar fashion to Gray’s actual poems would help challenge the assumption that the poet was overshadowed by his Romantic successors. Another gap that was identified in Hazel’s review was the absence of miscellanies in the Digital Library. Though still absent, this void has been filled by Abigail Williams’s Digital Miscellanies Index. For the Gray Archive, perhaps also an update list of relevant calls for papers, upcoming conferences or events would encourage more engagement with the infamously quiet poet.

Peterhouse and Pembroke College in Cambridge will be celebrating Gray’s tercentenary with a joint exhibition later in 2017, and the Stoke Poges Society throughout 2016 hosted numerous events from visiting Eton College to placing flowers on Gray’s memorial in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. To celebrate Gray’s tercentenary, the archive underwent some aesthetic rejuvenation. On the whole clear and consistent in its deferent and scholarly approach to Gray’s poetry, the Gray Archive remains a superb and scholarly tool, and I echo Hazel’s previous assertion that it is an indispensable resource. Whilst Gray warns ‘Nor all that glisters gold’, the Gray Archive is certainly a treasure all scholars should utilise and reach for, the threat of drowning easily outweighed by the ‘Tyrian hue’ of textual and explanatory notes and the range of Gray’s writings on offer.