Archive Spotlight, ‘A Book and a Bard: Romantic Poetry and the Commonplace Book of Thomas Gray’

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This year on the BARS blog we are reviving the ‘Archive Spotlight’ series. We present new and exciting posts from BARS members and blog readers on their studies at various archives. Please get in touch if you want to contribute – the posts can be an account of the archive itself, or some things you’ve studied there that relate to the Romantic Period. Katherine Fender (University of Oxford) starts us off with a post on her time at Pembroke College Library, University of Cambridge. 


A Book and a Bard: Romantic Poetry and the Commonplace Book of Thomas Gray



John Martin, “The Bard”, (c. 1817) (c) Laing Art Gallery


The manuscript to which my doctoral research is most deeply indebted is one over which I had pored even before the first word of my thesis had been written. Similarly, the text itself predates what we generally consider to be the “Romantic period” in literature – though my thesis was firmly rooted in all things Romantic: in the poetry and aesthetic theory of the period. Why then, you may ask, is this pre-Romantic text of any significance to a Romanticism blog?

The answer is that my thesis simply could never, and would never, have come about at all without my having had the opportunity to read and to research Thomas Gray’s Commonplace Book. The Commonplace “Book” is, more accurately, to be described as several books: three volumes, composed from 1736 onward, which offer notes, essays and drafts on a number of different topics, including but not limited to Gray’s poetic interests and early poetry drafts.

I first encountered Gray’s Commonplace Book during my MPhil. at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge, in 2012. At the time, I was starting to think about not only the significance of Welsh landscape and what I termed the “Welsh Sublime” in English Romantic poetry (the topic of my MPhil. dissertation), but also the significance of a particular Welsh figure: that of the ancient Welsh bard, who was thrust to the forefront of the eighteenth-century literary stage by Gray’s “The Bard: A Pindaric Ode”.

Gray’s ode was composed between 1754 and 1757, and was published in 1757: the same year that Edmund Burke’s A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful appeared in print. I was especially keen to consider the intersection between the language and images of the bardic and those of the sublime in this period.

The more I thought about, read about, and researched the figure of Gray’s ancient Welsh bard, the more I came to realise that, though enigmatic – and presented as the last of the Welsh poets in Gray’s text – the bard was certainly not elusive in eighteenth-century and Romantic literature. Indeed, as the eighteenth century progressed, the figure of the ancient Welsh bard became evermore popular in not only the literature, but also in the art and music of the period. But why?

So it was that I set out to trace the wanderings of Gray’s Welsh bard through Romantic verse. I knew, though, that in order to do so, I would firstly need to return to my original resource: Gray’s Commonplace Book. It has been described as the “single most important repository of Gray’s autograph verse and prose”[1], and – especially where Gray’s engagement with the bardic tradition is concerned – this is with good reason.

All three volumes of Gray’s Commonplace Book make reference to bards in offering both historical and poetic accounts of them. They were, as such, invaluable resources – especially in the context of “four nations” Romanticism research. In the first volume of Gray’s Commonplace Book, he introduces the reader to bards in the context of druidism. Within the category of druidism, Gray discerns three main sub-groups – druids themselves, defined as “religious men” and a “holy Race”, as well as bards and vates:


Strabo…mentions two other Orders of Men in great reverence (beside the Druids) the Bardic, & the Vates. the first were their Poets who sung the deeds of their Heroes to the Lyre, mention’d likewise by Deodorus, Marcellinus, Festus Pompeius, Posidonius ap: Athenoeum, Lucan &c.: the others, whom Marcellinus calls Eubages, studied & taught Metaphysicks, Natural Philosophy, & the Sublime Sciences. Caesar seems to have included them all under the name of Druids.[2]


The bards, the poets, are heralded as specifically Welsh in the second volume of Gray’s Commonplace Book, which also contains a seventeen-page section called “Cambri” wherein Welsh verse forms are explored in great detail. As Mack outlines,


Gray’s interest in the origins of rhyme in English poetry…had led him deeper and deeper into the study of Welsh poetry and language. Throughout the early and mid-1750s, he became increasingly convinced that the measures of English poetry ‘not improbably might have been borrowed from the Britons, as I am apt to believe, the rise of Rhyme itself was’.[3]


Rhyme and metre emerge as key concerns in Gray’s “Cambri” pages, which is unsurprising given the intrinsic link between (cultural) memory and verse that define the bardic tradition, and that Gray so reveres. Despite Gray’s obvious fascination with Welsh prosody, though, its role in his verse has not received the attention that it deserves hitherto. Although a study by critic Edward D. Snyder afforded attention to Gray’s use of Welsh sound patterning, his research dates from the 1920s; there has been little critical work conducted on the subject since.


Not only did my studies of Gray’s Commonplace Book expose a relatively neglected area of Gray scholarship, but they also made me think more carefully about what Romantic poets considered the role of a poet to be more generally. Why might they, as poets themselves, revere Gray’s rendition of a bard’s role? How does Gray’s bardic language and imagery inflect their own verse and writings?

Many Romantic poets including Blake, Wordsworth and Hemans adopted the figure of Gray’s bard as a symbol: as a poetic precursor; as prophet; as a figure to be imitated, emulated and even ventriloquised if possible. Gray highlights the power and transcendence of the bardic voice, positioning the ancient bard as not only a solitary individual worthy of pathos – the last of his kind – but, also, as a stoic hero, as a figure to be revered: he who gives voice to communities, past, present and future. I contend that the ancient bard as depicted by Gray is, as such, an appealing prototype for politically-engaged and affectively-driven Romantic poets.

There is not enough room here to do justice to Gray’s Commonplace Book: beautifully-written, meticulously ordered, wonderfully preserved. On a personal as well as an academic level, I am hugely indebted to the Commonplace Book. Without it, my doctoral thesis would not exist.


Many thanks to Mrs Pat Aske at the Pembroke College Library, University of Cambridge, for granting me access to Gray’s Commonplace Book, and for her generosity in sharing her time, knowledge and expertise with me over the past few years.


Katherine Fender (DPhil.)
Stipendiary Lecturer in English
St Peter’s College,
University of Oxford

[1] Margaret M. Smith, Index of English Literary Manuscripts, Volume III, 1700-1800, Part 2, (London: Mansell, 1989), p. 73.

[2] Thomas Gray, Thomas Gray’s Commonplace Book, Vol. I, p. 310. Accessed at Pembroke College Library, University of Cambridge, on 14/08/15.

[3] Robert L. Mack, Thomas Gray: A Life, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2000), p. 470.