The elegy is the most widely known poem in English, even though the direction is a bit artificial. This poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”  is not a personal elegy like other poets like Milton, Arnold, Shelley, etc. used to write. First published in 1751, the poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” was inspired by Gray’s thoughts following the death of his close friend and poet Richard West in 1742.

It is considered to be Gray’s masterpiece and is one of the most quoted poems in the English language. It has been praised for its skillful use of language and universal themes like death and remembrance after death.

Gray quotes ―
The breezy call of incense-breathing Morn,
         The swallow twitt’ring from the straw-built shed,

The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
         No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
― Thomas Gray | Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard

The poem is set in the mid 1700s about a decade before the Industrial Revolution began in England. When Thomas Gray was writing this poem, the world was going through a period of intellectual development that thinkers of the time called the Age of Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was a philosophical movement that grew out of the great advances made by scientists in the17th and 18th centuries. One key example, which ended up having great influence was Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation.

The setting of the poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is a graveyard of a church, evidence indicates that the church is St. Giles’s Churchyard, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire in southern England. Gray himself is buried there. Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”  is noteworthy in that it means the death not of great or famous people but of common men. Gray did not produce a great deal of poetry. The poem “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” however, has earned him a respected and deserved place in literary history. It is often referred to as an exemplary graveyard poem.

Graveyard poetry is a term applied to a minor but significant tradition of18th century poetry on mortality and immortality. These meditative poems were often set in graveyards to address the somber themes of death and mortality with sensitivity and concern. Gray establishes the sense of intimacy both with the audience as well as the working class who is the subject of his poem. He admires the simple, quiet lives of those who are often overlooked.

The poem which was written in late Augustan age also referred to as a neoclassical period or the age of reason. It also happens to be the beginning of the Romantic period. It has characteristics associated with both these literary periods. It has the ordered, balanced phrasing and the rational sentiment characteristic of the neoclassical period. It also has the emotionalism and individualism of the romantic poetry. Most importantly, it idealizes and elevates the common man.

Summary and Analysis

The elegy “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard ”written by Thomas Gray begins with the creation of the evening atmosphere of gloom and melancholy, suitable to an elegy with a subject of human mortality. The poem begins in a churchyard with a narrator who is describing his surroundings in vivid detail. The poet is sitting  alone in the village churchyard. Soon his thoughts naturally turn to reflect on the sorry fate of the  rude forefathers of the hamlet buried in the churchyard never to return to this beautiful world. He is reminded that death comes to all without any distinction. In the first stanza Gray quickly establishes a sense of melancholy as the reader is aware of how isolated the narrator feels, in the stanza:

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.

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day in the poem is announcing the end of the day and the ploughman is heard plodding his weary way homeward. The stanza ends with the narrator admitting that he’s almost grateful for the isolation because it leaves the world to darkness and to him great establishes a sense of intimacy with the reader as well as with the subject by sharing a very personal and usually private emotion. Gray emphasizes his intimate tone by exploring the daily life of those buried in the churchyard. He considers those moments a man can no longer experience. He gives us detailed images of the home and the work of the working classes and these are sharply contrasted with the personification of traits usually associated with the upper classes that are found in the following stanzas:

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
         Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
         The short and simple annals of the poor.

Ambition and Grandeur are warned not to disregard the short and simple annals of the poor. The narrator dismisses both wealth and power with death as a great leveler. He claims that the paths of glory lead, but to the grave. The narrative wonders what talents and possibilities the lives of these rustic folk may have helped. Then he compares their lives of these dead persons with some of England’s most influential and well-known figures. Great elaborates on the thing John Hampden was a leader who died in battle during the English Civil War of that period. John Milton as we all know was a famous English poet. Oliver Cromwell was one of England’s most powerful and significant leaders praised complimenting the dead by considering what they could have accomplished if only given the chance. He contrasts the morning with the image of a peaceful landscape. As the poem continues the descriptions begin to move on from sensations to the narrator’s own thoughts. He contrasts and obscure country life with a life that is remembered. He begins to resign himself to his own inevitable fate throughout the central parts of the poem. The poet refers to a graveyard our forefathers and the obscure the speaker reminds the reader that regardless of social position beauty or wealth, all must eventually die. This is invoking the classical idea of memento mori; a Latin phrase that means remember that you must die.

Conclusion and Epitaph

The poem has an epitaph after the conclusion. As the poem ends the poet begins to deal with death in a direct manner. He discusses how people would like to be remembered after their death. There is a shift in the poem as the first narrator is dead and he is replaced by a second narrator who describes the death of the first by the end of the elegy. The speaker urges readers to remember him for his human frailty and not for any of his associations through either political economic or social. The poem concludes with a description of the poet’s grave.

The narrator is meditating over the poet’s grave and he also gives a description of the end of that for its life and epitaph is included after the conclusion of the poem. The epitaph reveals that the poet whose grave is described in this part of the poem is unknown and obscure, however, this poet was separated from the rest because he was not someone who mingled with the common crowds. He was far removed from the common activities of everyday life. Circumstances kept him from becoming something greater.

The true power of the poem is that we recognize its phrases through their power to console us. It laments summons passing away, but in a way that affirms the life that came before it. Gray somehow encompasses the full spectrum of human life. The poem  moons are lost potential and takes our most desperate times in a loving embrace. It depicts affair who died after decades of anonymous labor without the seed of education planted in him. He is not remembered by this world; he continues to be unknown to any future humanity.

All his potential unrealized is buried along with him. Yet Gray says that his life had many joys and far less ill effects upon others. His life is unstained by the blood that tainted the lives of the rich, the powerful and the famous in this world. In the end Gray values the small things of life. He values things like friendship, things that bond us together and in the last act of friendship or love what’s very important is mourning being cried for by someone who cared for us and loved us.

Themes

This poem can have more than one theme. “Death” is of course the major theme of this particular poem. Death is projected as the great leveler or the great equalizer even the proud the great and the mighty must one day die and lie beneath the earth like the humble men and women now buried in this country churchyard.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of pow’r,
         And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike th’ inevitable hour.
         The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

I would like to quote here a few lines

Can storied urn or animated bust
         Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
         Or Flatt’ry soothe the dull cold ear of Death?

These lines mean that no grand memorials or no flattering words about the dead can bring them back to life. Most readers find the theme of Missed Opportunities something that they can identify with and understand because of poverty or other handicaps many talented people never received the opportunities they deserve. We have several lines in the poem that elucidate this thing through metaphors.

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
         The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
         And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

We find here that the gem at the bottom of the ocean may represent an undiscovered talent. The flower may stand for a person of great noble qualities that are wasted on the desert air. The German; the flower may also represent anything in life that goes unappreciated.

Virtue is another theme of the poem.  In their rural setting, far away from the madding crowd of the cities we have the simple folk who lead virtuous life you might be able to identify a few other themes in the poem as well.

Rhyme, Form, Meter and Poetic Devices

Critics regard “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” as one of the greatest poems in the English language. It weaves structure, rhyme, image, and message in a brilliant manner. The elegy is written in heroic quatrains a quatrain is a four-line stanza and here we find quatrains written in iambic pentameter and iambic poetic meter which has an order of unstressed and stressed syllables and pentameter is simply a poetic meter which has five feet in it. A foot is nothing but a pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables according to the metrical pattern. So here we have one unstressed followed by a stressed syllable and five such feet in each line. In the very first line there is a fine example of iambic pentameter:

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

Another technique that Gray uses very frequently for poetic effect is inversion. Inversion is a reversal of the normal word order. Here are some examples:

And all the air a solemn stillness holds, Instead of saying (all the air holds the solemn stillness)

Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap, Instead of saying (where the turf heaves)

Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share. Instead of saying (Or climb his knees to share the envied kiss)

With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture deck’d, Instead of saying (deck’d with uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture)

The word order is reversed for poetic effect here.

Gray also uses a very common poetic device called syncope that is the omission of letters within a word. In words like: o’er, glimm’ring, tow’r, twitt’ring, etc.

Several figures of speech are also used in the poem.

Alliteration is a repetition of a consonant sound at the beginning of the words or lines as

Nor cast one longing, ling’ring look behind?

Anaphora is a repetition of a word, phrase or clause at the beginning of word groups occurring one after another.

Metaphors are comparisons, however unlike similes, metaphors do not use words of comparison such as like, as, or than. Here we find one wonderful example where the dead people are compared to flowers.

Metonymy is a use of the word or phrase to suggest a related word or phrase in the line

To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,

Here, the land stands for the people.

Personification is a form of metaphor that compares a thing to a person. We find ambition and grandeur being beautifully personified in this poem. Other words that are personified are knowledge, science, and melancholy. Yet another poetic device used by Gray is a paradox. One of the abiding paradoxes of the poem resides in the idea of satisfactory un-fulfillment. A paradox is where we find contradictory ideas being expressed together as in village-Hampden or mute inglorious Milton or guiltless Cromwell. The paradox is spawned by grace vision of human life as dominated by the only inevitability of life that is death.

Modern critics emphasize the poem’s use of language as a reason for its popularity and importance. Its phrasing is very elegant and memorable. Many phrases find their way into our living language. It’s amazing that almost one third of the lines of Gray’s elegy have found their way into the Oxford book of quotations.

Conclusion

Reading, understanding and making sense of a 128-line elegy is indeed a formidable task, however, let’s quickly conclude our discussion of this poem by trying to highlight the best features of the poem and certain critics’ opinions on this particular elegy.

It’s generally believed that even if the elegy was the only thing Gray wrote his reputation would endure. The poem’s use of sound and tone are truly remarkable. Well-known critic I.A. Richard says that “…the elegy may usefully remind us that boldness and originality are not necessities for great poetry. But the thoughts and feelings, in part because of their significance and their nearness to us, are peculiarly difficult to express without faults…”.

The “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is musical and eloquent. It’s not only a beautiful poem in its own, but it opens a network of cultural pathways and ideas that are deeply relevant even today. In a way it reflects our society. Gray’s poem can be read as one that seeks the universal man within us from the perspective of death. The person next to us might be some mute inglorious Milton and Milton himself might have lived an uneventful life if he had been born in some other circumstances.

In Gray’s own words poetry’s thoughts that breathe and words that burn the elegy illustrates poetry of that kind. Cleanth Brooks thought of Gray’s elegy as ironic, but Samuel Johnson found it sentimental. Like any other work of art a poem is kind of like a mirror it reflects the readers’ own response and therefore both Brooks and Johnson might be right in their assessment because the poem stands as much on its own as it carries the soul of the reader within it.

Gray’s elegy is relaxed and familiar, even conversational in tone. It takes a very hopeful outlook on life and mortality. The narrator in the poem discusses how each person, no matter how unimpressive his life may have appeared will live on in someone’s memory after his death.

The poor may be seen as an exercise in sensibility, the darkness in which the narrator stands is the night of mortality, illuminated only by varieties of feeling. We find a common denominator of sympathy as everything in the poem shows. This was all that binds man to man and as a single principle of unity and hope within life as perceived by the poet. It is this principle of unity, hope and sympathy that the poem stands for.

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