Thomas Gray Archive Back

The Thomas Gray Archive began life at the Göttingen State and University Library in 2000, and moved to the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford in 2002, where it continues to flourish. It calls itself ‘a collaborative digital archive and research project’, if anything a modest description of an impressively wide-ranging resource, with far-sighted ambitions.

The user is greeted with a homepage featuring reassuring images of well-used leather-bound copies of Gray’s poems, and engravings of the famous country churchyard, and favourite cat. Those simply seeking to peruse their favourite anthology pieces will not be disappointed: the interface is clean and intuitive, and the user has the option of reading the poems in plain text, or of consulting high-quality scans of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century editions. Browsing Richard Bentley’s charming engravings from the 1753 edition is a much more pleasurable experience in the Gray Archive than in its more workaday alternative, Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. The scanned copies are meticulously linked to their originals with shelf-marks, a feature that signals the serious scholarship underpinning the Gray Archive.

The long-term objective of the project is to ‘both transcribe and provide digital images of all Gray materials, including published works, manuscripts, letters, notebooks, and marginalia’. In its marshalling of published works, the Gray Archive has already been a resounding success. The poems and prose are fully searchable, as are the concordance, glossary, bibliography, and chronology. The ‘Digital Library’ contains scans of prior editions of Gray’s works: a formidable 38 printed versions of the ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ are immediately viewable. The Gray Archive’s editors have chosen to modernize and re-punctuate their base texts, but by providing access to almost a century’s worth of previous editions, they have ensured that their readers cannot help but remain alert to the rich textual histories of the poems and prose. There are still some gaps: the site’s biography of Gray acknowledges the vital role poetic miscellanies played in distributing Gray’s poetry to ‘an unusually wide and comprehensive audience’, but no miscellanies are included in the ‘Digital Library’ as yet.

The texts of each poem include textual and explanatory notes, which the user can choose to view on a line-by-line basis. In some places there are as many as twelve notes per line, derived from a plethora of sources. There is also the option—much trumpeted by the Gray Archive’s blurb—for the user to submit notes and queries (which are moderated by the editorial team). There is great potential for a truly ‘collaborative’ edition. Other crowdsourcing projects have been immensely successful: UCL’s ‘Transcribe Bentham’ is just one example. No doubt the Gray Archive’s crowdsourcing venture will be equally fruitful, though at present few user-submitted notes are in evidence. The facility will certainly make an exciting classroom tool: the pre-existing notes supply plenty of discussion points, and students could be encouraged to submit their own interpretations and queries.

The manuscript finding aid is another invaluable tool for Gray scholars and enthusiasts. One of the Gray Archive’s goals is to produce freely accessible digital surrogates of all publicly owned Gray manuscripts. These will be transcribed and encoded in TEI/XML to make them fully searchable. Some objects of great interest have already been digitized, including several transcriptions and translations of Gray’s poems, providing a whole new insight into his reception and circulation, the likes of which would previously have been available only to those engaged in extensive archival work. Items like John Phillipps’s transcript of ‘Jemmy Twitcher’ in his notebook, and an anonymous copy of the ‘Hymn to Adversity’ in a volume of notes on grammar, reveal as much about commonplace books and eighteenth-century scribal culture as they do about Gray.

The Gray Archive is chiefly a scholarly venture, but it also hosts a wealth of entertaining material. The ‘Digital Library’ contains recordings of readings of Gray’s poetry by Sir Michael Redgrave and Michael Burrell, and the ‘Gallery’ contains scores of images of St Giles Church at Stoke Poges (home of the country church yard) through the ages. Some of the Gray Archive’s secondary texts are particularly diverting. I came across John Duncombe’s 1776 Parody on Gray’s Elegy, which relocates the scene from the yard of St Giles Church to a ‘cobweb-mantled room’ in an Oxford college, 

Where sleeps a student in profound repose,
Oppress’d with ale; wide echoes through the gloom,
The droning music of his vocal nose.

The contents of the Gray Archive are continually increasing, and, as the Gray tercentenary approaches in 2016, so is its relevance. As more manuscripts and correspondence are uploaded, the project is quickly becoming an indispensable resource and an exemplary use of digital technologies in the humanities. ‘[N]obody understands me, & I am perfectly satisfied’, Gray wrote in 1757; the Gray Archive may be in danger of depriving Gray of his satisfaction, though its crowdsourcing capability surely means debate will remain lively.