Pembroke College : Thomas Gray’s Commonplace Book, Volume III

Gray, Thomas (1716-1771)

Pembroke College

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p>Thomas Gray (1716-1771) was a poet and scholar. He spent much of his life in the University of Cambridge, first at Peterhouse then at Pembroke College, although he also spent significant periods living in London and travelling the British Isles, and he accompanied his friend Horace Walpole (1717-1797) on a Grand Tour of Europe between 1739 and 1741. Throughout the 250 years that have passed since Gray’s death, he has primarily been celebrated as a poet, especially for his <i>Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard</i> (1751). While he lived, however, he was equally renowned for his scholarship: his friend William Johnson Temple speculated that he was ‘the most learned man in Europe’. Although he did not publish any of his research, he had a significant influence on intellectual as well as literary life in the mid-eighteenth century, and like many scholars of the period he shared his learning as well as his verse through correspondence and manuscript circulation among coterie networks. Gray was a polymath, and his research traversed British, European, and global fields of knowledge, ancient and modern, including literature, history, geography, philosophy, law, religion, politics, music, visual art, natural history, and architecture, often in the course of what felt to him like single, unified enquiries. His characteristic method was to make preliminary notes in smaller notebooks and in the margins of his books, then digest and present his work more formally in the Commonplace Book that is presented here. It is the most important repository of his multi-faceted scholarly activity, and also of his poetry, much of which is copied here in unique versions. </p><p>Gray’s Commonplace Book has been held by Pembroke College since 1809, when it was bequeathed by his friend Richard Stonhewer. It is in three large volumes, but it is usually described as a single document – a Commonplace Book rather than three commonplace books – because Gray continued his pagination from one volume to the next, made cross-references between volumes, and included references to all volumes in his index at the start of Volume I. It is indebted to John Locke’s influential system for organising a commonplace book, which Gray summarised in his early entry ‘Adversaria’ (Volume I, fol. 6v). Locke’s system meant that the compiler of a commonplace book did not have to use established ‘heads’ or write them into the volume in advance and then fit entries into preallocated spaces. Instead, compilers could devise their own headings, make entries sequentially, and add each heading’s page number to a finding aid: an alphabetic table organised by initial letter and subsequent vowel that enabled information retrieval. The page number for Gray’s entry ‘Adversaria’, for example, would be added to the section for ‘A’ (initial letter) under the sub-division for ‘e’ (subsequent vowel); this is exactly where Gray entered it in the tabular index that he drew up according to Locke’s guidelines at the start of Volume I (fols 4v-5r). He also usually followed Locke in using Latin headings for his entries, beginning entries at the top of a leaf’s verso and allowing each entry at least one full opening (i.e. a double page spread), and cross-referencing entries with the abbreviation ‘V’ when adding further material under the same heading to later openings. </p><p>Like almost all compilers of commonplace books, however, Gray also broke these rules, and he broke them with increasing frequency across his three volumes. He sometimes used multiple headings on a single page, and occasionally missed headings out or did not Latinise them. Several of his cross-references link entries that do not share headings but have more subjective connections. He left many cross-references blank and made mistakes in others. Some were written on or lead to otherwise blank pages, indicating that he did not always use the space that he anticipated an entry would need. His most significant departure from Locke was to add an index of a different kind at the end of Volume I (fols 227r-229r). This is an alphabetised, descriptive list of contents in English that was evidently written after the volume was full, and it suggests that he may not have found Locke’s tabular index sufficiently helpful, perhaps because it contains numbers rather than words and therefore taxes the memory of its user. Gray would first have had to remember that he had used the heading ‘Adversaria’ in order to find its page number in the tabular index section for ‘A’ under the sub-division for ‘e’, for example; in contrast, the corresponding entry in his descriptive index – ‘Common-Place. M<sup>r</sup> Locke’s method’ – is more self-explanatory. </p><p>The entries in Gray’s Commonplace Book are impressively various in discipline, genre, language, and form. Many are written in continuous English prose and read like essays, and some have been extracted and edited as such following the example of Thomas James Matthias, who presented extracts in his 1814 edition of Gray’s <i>Works</i>. Gray also used his Commonplace Book to copy out original poems and verse translations written by himself and his friends in English, Latin, and Greek. He usually gave each poem a subtitle under the general heading ‘Carmina’ – his headings can be distinguished from his subheadings and subtitles because he almost always marked headings out with a closing parenthesis – ‘Carmina)’ – but he skipped the ‘Carmina’ heading in Volume II and grouped some poems that had originally been sent as letters under the heading ‘Epistolæ’ in Volume I. His subtitles often differ from the more familiar titles under which his poems were published: ‘Noon-Tide, An Ode’ (Volume I, fols 143r and 144v), for example, is more commonly known as ‘Ode on the Spring’. Gray generally attributed verse that he did not write himself using his friends’ school nicknames, such as ‘Favonius’ for Richard West. Although the essays and poems are the most widely known of the Commonplace Book’s contents, however, the great majority of its entries could not be categorised as either. Gray also used it to transcribe quotations, assemble chronologies, sketch maps, summarise books, compile lists, draw up tables, record vocabulary from a staggering range of languages, and compose genealogies in the form of annotated family trees. For ‘Genealogia’ entries in particular, although also in others, he used red ink alongside his customary brown to highlight special features and turned the volume through 90 degrees to work across a whole opening. He also frequently used the space provided by a whole opening to add annotations, entering continuous prose on a verso keyed to notes directly opposite on a recto. </p><p>Entries in the Commonplace Book that are not in Gray’s characteristically neat hand were added after his death. The most substantial such entries were made by his friend and executor William Mason (1724-1797), who added notes to Gray’s ‘Carmina’ entries recording the poems’ posthumous publication, and used the pages following Gray’s final entry (a Russian alphabet) to copy out material from other surviving manuscripts (Volume III, fols 84v-92r). There are also frequent curatorial additions in pencil, which usually seek to correct gaps and mistakes in Gray’s pagination. His mistakes were so extensive and consequential, however, that correction efforts often had to be abandoned. </p><p>Gray paginated his Commonplace Book rather than foliating it (i.e. he assigned numbers to each side of a leaf rather than to each leaf) and the volumes have not been subsequently foliated either. Because his pagination was erratic, however, and because he abandoned it altogether shortly after beginning Volume III, foliation is essential in order to allow reliable referencing. A complete foliation has therefore been undertaken for this digital edition and it is recorded in the contents after each image number, although the Digital Library system uses the word ‘page’ to display this metadata: ‘image 461, fol. 226r’ therefore displays as ‘(image 461, page 226r)’, for example. Also recorded in the contents are Gray’s heading for each page or for the entry of which it is part, Gray’s subtitles in ‘Carmina’ and ‘Epistolæ’ entries, Gray’s page number where given, Gray’s cross-reference where given, and the watermark for each leaf. Within the contents, headings and subtitles in quotation marks are Gray’s own, and they retain his idiosyncratic use of the long ‘s’ (‘ſ’) and ligatured ‘æ’ and ‘œ’. Where Gray used a recto to add annotations to continuous prose on a facing verso, as in the ‘Itinerarium’ entry that begins Volume I, fols 176v-177r, the notes are described in the contents in the form ‘‘Itinerarium’ notes’. Gray’s pagination errors mean that caution is required when looking up page numbers referred to by later scholars or in his own cross-references, especially since he sometimes used the same page number twice (he wrote ‘340’ on Volume I fol. 175v and fol. 176r, for example). On all such occasions letters have been added in square brackets to distinguish them (i.e. ‘p. 340[a]’ and ‘p. 340[b]). All three volumes were repaired and rebound in 1972, and the modern binding is tight, so small amounts of text are sometimes lost in the gutter. This is a particular problem for entries where Gray worked at 90 degrees across an opening, as in the ‘Genealogia’ entries, and it can be helpful to download both images so that the whole opening can be viewed at once. </p><p>Gray began using his Commonplace Book in the mid-1730s, and he stopped around 1760 when he was living in London and pursuing research in the newly opened British Museum Reading Room. He adopted different note-taking methods such as complete manuscript transcription while working there, and experimented with different methods again as he pursued natural history during the final decade of his life under the influence of Carl Linnaeus (1707-1768). But although the Commonplace Book therefore cannot be taken to represent the whole of Gray’s scholarly career, it offers an unparalleled view into its richness and range. Dazzlingly multidisciplinary, imposingly multilingual, and immoderate or even prodigal in the quantity, quality, and scope of the research to which it testifies, it provides a window onto Gray’s interest in the organisation and classification of knowledge as well as his work in and across a staggering variety of fields. It is published in this digital edition to mark the 250<sup>th</sup> anniversary of his death on 30<sup>th</sup> July 1771. </p><p>Ruth Abbott</p></p>


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