Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead

‘Master Tommy Lucretius’: Thomas Gray’s Posthumous Life Writing and Conversing with the Dead in his Poetry to Richard West


  • James Morland Queen Mary University of London



Thomas Gray, Richard West, Lucretius, grief, memorial


This article considers Thomas Gray’s use of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura in his prolific period of writing following Richard West’s death. Gray claims himself as ‘Master Tommy Lucretius’ in reference to his Latin philosophical poem, De Principiis Cogitandi; this self-presentation as a Lucretian poet continues through his English poetry concerning West’s death. Gray’s reference to conversing with the dead in a letter to West suggests that Gray’s poetry concerning West can be considered a form of posthumous life writing in two specific senses: one as a continued memorializing West’s life by Gray, and the other as a concurrent chronicling of Gray’s grief. They reach their culmination when Gray puts his questioning of poetry as a form of memorial into action when using Lucretius’ biography, and its associations with suicide, as a model of the suicidal poetic narrator in his Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard. The Elegy marks an end to Gray’s use of Lucretius and De Rerum Natura to question the living’s responsibility for continuing a posthumous memorial of the dead after West’s death.

Author Biography

James Morland, Queen Mary University of London

James Morland is a postdoctoral research fellow at Queen Mary University of London. He specializes in eighteenth-century literature with a specific interest in poetry and its intersections with philosophy and medicine, including the relationship between materialism and poetic rhythms and poetry as a means of exploring death and grief. At Queen Mary he is a part of the Wellcome-funded ‘Pathologies of Solitude, 18th–21st Century’ project (207863/Z/17/Z), where he is working on a monograph considering solitude in relation to contemplations of life and death in various poetic contexts across the eighteenth century. E-mail:





Life Writing & Death: Dialogues of the Dead