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Thomas Gray Manuscripts : Thomas Gray and Jacob Bryant, ‘Tripos verses’

Gray, Thomas (1716-1771), Bryant, Jacob (bap. 1717-1804)

Thomas Gray Manuscripts

<p style='text-align: justify;'><p>On 24 March 1736, Old Style (at the time, Britain celebrated New Year on 25 March), or 1737, New Style (most of Europe celebrated New Year on 1 January, with Britain following suit in 1752), Spencer Penrice attended the second of Cambridge University’s two annual Tripos days: ‘The 2 moderators spoke witty speeches, & verses were thrown about.’ The Cambridge Digital Library here makes available two of the papers that were distributed that day. Both sheets bear traces of having been folded into eight, perhaps indicating that they were folded to be ‘thrown’.</p><p>The ‘verses’ were known as Tripos verses; as J. J. Hall shows in his illuminating history of this tradition, it had its origin in the sixteenth century, and changed substantially over time before it died out in 1894. In the eighteenth century, the custom was for one of the Moderators to invite two undergraduates to write a Latin poem in response to a proposition for every Tripos day: the first (‘In comitiis prioribus’) was held the day after Ash Wednesday, and the second (‘In comitiis posterioribus’) on the Thursday after the fourth Sunday in Lent. The undergraduates’ compositions were printed on a single sheet of paper – one column for each poem – for distribution. On 24 March 1736/37, the topics were light-hearted: ‘Luna est habitabilis’ (‘The moon is habitable’) and ‘Planetæ sunt habitabiles’ (‘The planets are habitable’). The anonymous verses had been written by Thomas Gray, who would go on to become the most celebrated English poet of the mid-eighteenth century, and Jacob Bryant (baptised 1717-1804), whose erudition led to a number of esoteric publications in his later life, which brought considerable notoriety. Gray’s modern editors were unaware that a copy of his Tripos verses as they originally appeared was extant, and therefore they had to rely on a later reprinting of the work in <i>Musæ Etonenses</i> (1755) – a gathering of Latin poems written by Etonians, also including Bryant’s ‘Planetæ sunt habitabiles’ – which changed the name of Gray’s poem to ‘Luna habitabilis’ and introduced a number of errors, besides replacing entire lines of Bryant’s poem.</p><p>Late in December 1736, Gray informed his friend Horace Walpole (1717-1797) that ‘the Moderatour has asked me to make the Tripos-Verses this year’. Paget Toynbee and Leonard Whibley, the editors of Gray’s correspondence, identify the Moderators for the Tripos that year as Roger Barker of Clare and James Brown of Pembroke. Given that the latter became one of Gray’s closest friends, and that Pembroke and Gray’s college at the time (Peterhouse) are directly opposite one another, Toynbee and Whibley propose that Brown was the Moderator with responsibility for choosing undergraduates to write for the second Tripos day of that year, and that this was the beginning of their acquaintance.</p><p>The two propositions were very similar. This was unusual: both topics had appeared in the previous few decades, but never together. Appropriately, and perhaps not coincidentally, the two authors knew each other. In a letter, Bryant recalled that at Eton he and Gray were ‘well acquainted’, and praised Gray’s Latin compositions, while Norton Nicholls wrote that ‘I never heard Mr Gray mention [Bryant] but with respect, regretting only that he had turned his great learning into a wrong channel’. It is possible, then, that these two friends discussed their Tripos verses while composing them, and part of the value of seeing Gray’s poem in its original context is that one can read for the interplay between his and Bryant’s work. Certainly, letters to Walpole from Walpole’s cousin Henry Seymour Conway (1719-1795) and Walpole and Gray’s close friend from Eton, Richard West (1716-1742), show contemporaries reading these Tripos verses alongside and against one another, evaluating the tone of each and comparing and contrasting passages. The pleasures of comparison and critical evaluation were key aspects of early-eighteenth-century British neo-Latin culture, and by offering compositions on parallel topics, the Tripos verses of Bryant and Gray catered to this appetite.</p><p>In ‘Luna est habitabilis’, a Muse explains to the speaker that by looking through a telescope, one can see that the moon has an Earth-like landscape and that terrestrial and lunar inhabitants share the same occupations and passions. Moreover, just as we look at them, so they look at us. The poem concludes by satirically predicting that England will colonise the moon.</p><p>‘Planetæ sunt habitabiles’ describes the potential inhabitants of the moon, and the landscape of the moon, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter. It then turns to the living conditions on Saturn, Mercury, and the Sun. Finally, the speaker admonishes humans for their anthropo- and geocentric vanity, and celebrates the scientific advances that have enabled us to explore the heavens.</p><p>This digital edition presents two copies of the Tripos verses for 24 March 1736/37. This allows Gray’s second-published poem, ‘Luna est habitabilis’, to be seen by modern readers in its original form for the first time. It also makes available the original version of Bryant’s ‘Planetæ sunt habitabiles’. Together they add to our understanding of the role of Tripos verses in the comparative and competitive cultures of eighteenth-century neo-Latin composition and the University of Cambridge. They were published in March 2023, with editorial and bibliographical metadata by Ephraim Levinson, and images courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Pembroke College, Cambridge.</p><p>Ephraim Levinson<br /> University of Cambridge<br /><a href='/collections/thomasgray'></a><br /><br /></p><p><b>How to cite:</b> Thomas Gray and Jacob Bryant, 'Tripos verses (D.28.21.1-2)', ed. Ephraim Levinson, in <i>Thomas Gray Manuscripts</i>, ed. Ruth Abbott, assoc. ed. Ephraim Levinson, <a href='/collections/thomasgray'></a></p></p>

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