A surprise of considerable distinction is to be found two miles north of Slough.
It’s down a woodland path, arranged so that the approach seems somewhat theatrical, adjoining the churchyard of St Giles’s, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire.
Suddenly you come upon it: a huge, neoclassical, fluted stone sarcophagus, rearing its beauty high into the sky. Its corners fly forth with acroteria, atop a 22-foot-high rectangular plinth faced with yellow Bath stone.
Four inset panels in dazzlingly contrasting white Portland stone are inscribed with graceful classical lettering honouring the poet Thomas Gray (1716-71). Considered by many to be the greatest lyricist of the mid-18th century, he was a forerunner of the romantic poets.
His most celebrated work, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, was reputedly based on the graveyard here at St Giles’s, which survives to this day – albeit rather too tidied up for comfort with standard roses.
The poem was to be a sensation from the start; imitated, pirated and liberally quoted, as well as translated into both Latin and Greek. In 1759, during the Seven Years’ War, before the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the British General James Wolfe is said to have recited it to one of his officers, ending with the words, ‘I would prefer being the author of that poem to the glory of beating the French tomorrow.’
Three of Gray’s works blaze forth on the monument, as well as his epitaph, written by John Penn – who also proposed the monument – from the famed local family. His grandfather founded Pennsylvania and he himself was a friend of the poet, as well as being a distinguished scholar in his own right.
He commissioned the Gray memorial to stand as an eye-catcher – and, my goodness, how it does catch the eye – from Stoke Park, his neoclassical mansion nearby. It was designed by Robert Nasmith, assistant to the renowned architect Robert Adam in 1789. Seven bays wide and plastered shining white, it was to be enlarged by Penn’s friend the similarly famed architect James Wyatt between 1793 and 1798. He added a commanding dome and four pavilions, screened by colonnades of innovative-for-their-day-on-domestic-architecture Greek Doric columns.
Stoke Park later became Britain’s first country club, in 1908 – and, in 1964, it found fame in Goldfinger, as the golf course where Auric Goldfinger cheated and yet still lost to James Bond.
This was all set in motion after Penn’s return from America in 1789, when he also commissioned various other architectural eye-catchers to be designed by Wyatt. They were set down amidst swathes of landscaping by Humphry Repton, the last great English landscape designer.
This came after the American Revolution when Penn reaped the enormous rewards garnered by his grandfather, John Penn. Thanks to an annuity from the Pennsylvania Assembly and another from the British Parliament – both in compensation for the loss of his American lands – he was to settle in affluent splendour in Buckinghamshire.
Hence the glory of the great house, along with the extravagance of the sarcophagus, which, by the way, was based on Nero’s tomb!
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd wind slowly o’er the lea,
The plowman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.
So, most beautifully, begins Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, which moves on to the lyrically gloomy verse:
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The poem was recognised as a masterpiece, with many of its phrases entering the common English lexicon. ‘Far from the madding crowd’ was used by Thomas Hardy. ‘Celestial fire’ was another of Gray’s terms in the Elegy, as was ‘kindred spirit’. And the sentences ‘Ignorance is bliss and 'Tis folly to be wise’ were written by Gray in Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.
He was considered to be one of the ‘Graveyard Poets’ a group characterised by their gloomy meditations on mortality. They were often seen as the precursors of the Gothic genre.
Gray himself had a modest view of his poetry, once writing that his collected works would merely be ‘mistaken for the works of a flea’! When offered the position of Poet Laureate in 1757, he declined the honour.
As well as finding fame as a poet, he was a classical scholar and a Cambridge professor. He was of modest beginnings – his father was a scrivener and his mother a milliner. The fifth of 12 children, he was the only one to survive infancy. A delicate, shy and scholarly boy, he was educated at Eton – living with his uncles, who both taught him there – leading to Ode on a Distant Prospect of Eton College.
There he befriended Horace Walpole, son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, who would later say of his poet friend, ‘He never wrote anything easily but things of humour.’ Certainly his mock elegy, Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes, is a delightful triumph:
Her conscious tail her joy declar’d;
The fair round face the snowy beard,
The velvet of her paws,
The coat, that with the tortoise vies,
Her ears of jet, and emerald eyes,
She saw; and purr’d applause.
Walpole later kept and treasured the china ‘tub’ in which the goldfish lived, in his famed and full-of-treasures house at Strawberry Hill.
Although he reached the heights of renown as a poet, he wrote only the astonishingly few 13 poems, amounting to fewer than 1,000 lines in all.
He was buried in the churchyard he had made internationally famous. He was commemorated by a stone plaque.
What with John Penn, Thomas Gray and James Wyatt, as well as Humphry Repton, it was a distinguished group who were involved with the creation of this enclave of beauty at Stoke Poges.